MINDFULNESS reveals a set of simple yet powerful practices that can be incorporated into daily life to help break the cycle of unhappiness, stress, anxiety and mental exhaustion and promote genuine joie de vivre.
Mark Williams is Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford and Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. Nothing creates stress with such brutal efficiency as the feeling of being trapped by illness.
But it’s often far worse than this because such thoughts create tension in the body, aggravating illnesses and injuries. Mindfulness helps you step outside such vicious cycles by teaching you a different way of dealing with stress. Such bone-deep contentment isn’t just pleasant, it also boosts the immune system and restarts the body’s self-repair mechanisms.
In previous weeks I taught you how to reduce pain using the Body Scan and Mindful Movement meditations.
The aim of this meditation is to move your awareness around the body, paying special attention to areas of tension and discomfort, and then to gently breathe ‘into’ them.
Three American psychologists once asked a group of students to watch cartoons and rate how funny they were. As I explain in our book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress and Restoring Wellbeing, meditation is a powerful way of halting such vicious cycles. Last week’s Body Scan meditation began this process but you also need to work with the body on a more physical level too.
It’s only natural to want to fight back against pain and illness in times such as these, but what if this struggle actually made your suffering worse? Imaging studies show that mindfulness soothes the brain patterns underlying pain and, over time, these changes take root and alter the structure of the brain itself, so that patients no longer feel pain with the same intensity.
Hospital pain clinics now prescribe mindfulness meditation to help patients cope with the suffering arising from a wide range of diseases such as cancer (and the side effects of chemotherapy), heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.
A typical meditation involves focusing on different parts of the body and simply observing with the mind’s eye what you find (see box below).
After a while you come to the profound realisation that pain comes in two forms: Primary and Secondary. It turns out, the human mind does not simply feel pain, it also processes the information that it contains. As your mind analyses the pain, it also sifts through memories for occasions when you have suffered similarly in the past. But even worse, such negative spirals can begin wearing tracks in the mind so that you become primed to suffer. It is possible to learn to step aside from suffering and begin to handle pain very differently indeed. On top of these benefits, hundreds of scientific trials have now shown that mindfulness meditation is extremely good at relieving anxiety, stress, depression, exhaustion and irritability.
The programme in the book was developed by my co-author Vidyamala Burch following two serious spinal injuries that left her in continuous pain.
Three years previously Claire had been injured in a car crash and suffered two broken ribs, a fractured wrist and whiplash. Experiences like Claire’s are not confined to injuries such as whiplash, but are common across a range of diseases. Claire and millions of others exist in a world of suffering; a place where even the simplest of tasks can amplify their pain.
Since the 1960s, science has come to accept another model of pain known as the ‘Gate Theory’ developed by Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall.1 They suggest that there are ‘gates’ in the brain and nervous system that, when open, allow you to experience pain. It’s important to understand that although the sensation of pain is created by the mind, your suffering is still real. To go back to Claire, had she been asked to look inside herself a little more closely she would have realised that there was not one single ‘thing’ that she could label as an ‘ache’ or as a ‘pain’.
But there were other feelings too – powerful emotions and disturbing thoughts that would frequently sweep across her mind, often with no apparent rhyme or reason. Claire’s Secondary Suffering had its roots in the five days she spent in hospital after her accident. After the accident and the subsequent months of physiotherapy, a new emotion was added to the list: depression. Neuroscientist Fadel Zeidan and his team at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in America decided to investigate this effect using scanners to map activity in different parts of the brain.8 They did this by exploiting a curious quirk of brain anatomy. Fadel Zeidan and his team reasoned that if mindfulness affected the perception of pain, then this should be visibly reflected in the level of activity in the corresponding regions of the primary somatosensory cortex. These areas all shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals that are coming in from the body.
Mindfulness meditation creates a sense of safety, of space, in which you can begin to tentatively explore the raw sensations of pain and, as such, it is the vehicle through which you can begin to accept these messages.
Accepting the sensations of Primary Suffering allows the Secondary Suffering to take care of itself – and to progressively diminish. After three years of struggling, Claire embraced mindfulness – not because she believed that it would work, but because she was desperate. We wrote Mindfulness for Health to help you cope with pain, illness and stress in times such as these.
We know this to be true because we have both experienced terrible injuries and used an ancient form of meditation known as ‘mindfulness’ to ease our suffering. Mindfulness for Health and its accompanying CD reveal a series of simple practices that you can incorporate into daily life to significantly reduce your pain, anguish and stress. Many hospital pain clinics now prescribe mindfulness meditation to help patients cope with the suffering arising from a wide range of diseases such as cancer (and the side effects of chemotherapy), heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. Mindfulness-Based Pain Management uses ancient meditations that were largely unknown in the West until recently.
The mind has tremendous control over the sensations of pain that you consciously feel and how unpleasant they are. The benefits of mindfulness on overall mental and physical health have been demonstrated in a wide range of scientific studies. You’ll also be encouraged to break some of your unconscious habits of thinking and behaving. The programme in our book is best carried out over the recommended eight weeks, although you can do it over a longer period if you wish.
Thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers prove that mindfulness enhances mental and physical wellbeing and reduces chronic pain. How to breathe yourself happier: This week doctors claimed meditation can beat pain and depression. Today, many people are learning how to deal with their stress through the practice of mindfulness meditation.
In the mental health fields, psychologists are using the practice as an integral part of their treatment of various mental disorders, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and addiction. On a more existential level, inner peace transcends our ego, which is where human emotions originate. If we want to attain true inner peace, then we must first understand the nature of suffering, so that we can learn how to overcome it.
These types of situations can make us feel uneasy, or stressed, but we don’t normally associate them with suffering.
It is a natural reaction for us to get attached to things that bring us some form of pleasure or emotional gratification.
The Third Noble Truth tells us that it is possible to be free of suffering if we let go of our attachments, and develop greater awareness, or mindfulness, of the true nature of reality. According to Buddhism, the way to overcome suffering is through the Noble Eightfold Path: 1) Right view, 2) Right thinking, 3) Right speech, 4) Right action, 5) Right livelihood, 6) Right effort, 7) Right concentration, and 8) Right mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation is a secular form of meditation that has it’s roots in the oldest form of meditation the Buddha taught over 2,500 years ago. Mindfulness meditation is a training of the mind that will help us develop mindfulness, so that we can become aware of the true nature of reality, and who we are at the deepest levels. At the core of the mindfulness meditation practice is the development of our skills of observation - concentration and mindfulness.
Writing meditation is a technique I developed to help you reprogram your subconscious for more wholesome attitudes and behaviour. The verses that follow in the exercise, direct the affirmations to other people in our lives, such as those in our household, neighbourhood, city, and so forth. One of the challenges of following the Noble Eightfold Path is that you need to refer to the original scriptures, or read commentary from Buddhist scholars, to find out how to put it into practice. The first five Steps give you the basic principles and techniques of mindfulness meditation. One of the important aspects of the 12 Steps is that they help practitioners stay engaged in their meditation practice. As you can see, the mindfulness meditation practice has various tools for helping you transform your life and realize true inner peace. Eastern spiritual traditions have blessed us with the tools to achieve happiness and inner peace, no matter what our spiritual background may be. Charles A Francis is the cofounder and director of the Mindfulness Meditation Institute, and author of the new book, Mindfulness Meditation Made Simple: Your Guide to Finding True Inner Peace (Paradigm Press). Fine quality flower essences international ranges to help promote vitality and emotional well-being. Improves the way we use ourselves in daily activity; helps prevent aches, pains, tension, fatigue. Encourages health, strength, balance through homeopathy, nutrition, herbs, supplements, kinesiology.
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They feed off each other in a vicious cycle that leads to ever greater suffering and disability. One thought triggers the next, and the next, in a vicious cycle that can leave you burnt-out and broken. You can stop the spiral from feeding off itself and triggering the cycle of negative thoughts that makes suffering far worse. With practice you come to realise that stress (like pain) is a ‘message’ that tends to melt away of its own accord once it has been ‘delivered’, or felt with full mindful awareness. Even if you have an incurable condition, it will substantially improve your quality of life.
These were taken from our book Mindfulness for Health: A Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress and Restoring Wellbeing. His latest book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress and Restoring Wellbeing is published by Piatkus.
As you breathe out, very gently draw both arms across your chest, cross the arms and give yourself a light hug.
As they open, feel a corresponding opening in the chest, with the shoulder blades gently drawing together. Even after taking the maximum dose of painkillers, the aching soon returns with a vengeance. Pointed and bitter questions can begin nagging at your soul: What will happen if I don’t recover?
What if it was more effective to explore the sensations of pain and illness as they rose and fell in your body? Mindfulness meditation has been shown in clinical trials to reduce chronic pain by 57 percent.
It is also used for back problems, migraine, fibromyalgia, coeliac disease, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome and even multiple sclerosis.
This allows you to see your mind and body in action, to observe painful sensations as they arise, and to let go of struggling with them. Each of these has very different causes – and understanding this gives you far greater control over your suffering. It teases apart all of the different sensations to try to find their underlying causes so that you can avoid further pain or damage to the body. Each thought builds on the last and quickly turns into a vicious cycle that ends up further amplifying your pain.
Brain scans confirm that people who suffer from chronic pain have more brain tissue dedicated to feeling the conscious sensations of pain.
Mindfulness soothes the circuits that amplify Secondary pain and you can see this process happening in a brain scanner. This programme has helped tens of thousands of people worldwide cope with pain, suffering and stress. Her ribs and wrist had healed completely within three months, but the after-effects of her whiplash refused to go away. Conditions such as ‘bad back’, migraine, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia can all cause pain long after the original injuries have healed or without any obvious cause that shows up on scans or tests.
This often leads to anxiety, stress, depression and exhaustion, each of which serves to further enhance suffering in a downward spiral. This attitude was formalised in the seventeenth century by the French philosopher Rene Descartes with his ‘rope-pull’ model of pain: just as pulling a rope in a church steeple rings a bell, Descartes thought that damage to the body is a tug that causes the awareness of pain in the brain. In a sense, the body sends a continuous low-level ‘chatter’ of pain signals to the brain, but it is only when the gates are opened that the signals reach your conscious mind.
Firstly, there are the actual unpleasant sensations felt in the body – this is known as ‘Primary Suffering’. For if you can learn to tease apart the two flavours of suffering, you can greatly reduce – or even eliminate – your pain and distress. Both were ‘bundles’ of different feelings that were constantly changing; becoming either more or less intense.


Claire refused to believe that she was depressed, but it was there none the less, gnawing away at her in the background.
Work at Oxford University,7 for example, shows the significant impact that even mild levels of anxiety can have on pain. Reducing anxiety, stress, depression and exhaustion can lower the perception of pain and even eliminate it completely. Every part of the body is reflected in a specific part of the brain known as the primary somatosensory cortex. Consistent with this function, the more that these areas were activated by meditation, the more that pain was reduced. On average they experienced a 40 per cent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 per cent lessening of pain ‘unpleasantness’.
Acceptance of your pain can actually diminish it – and might even get rid of it completely. And when she began to mindfully explore the sensations of pain, something remarkable and counter-intuitive began to happen.
It will teach you how to reduce your suffering progressively, so that you can begin living life to the full once again. The techniques in this book have been proven to work by doctors and scientists in universities around the world.
They are built on Mindfulness-Based Pain Management (MBPM), which has its roots in the ground-breaking work of Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in America. It is also used for back problems, migraine, fibromyalgia, coeliac disease, and a range of auto-immune diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis, as well as being effective for such long-term conditions as chronic fatigue syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome. A typical meditation involves focusing on the breath as it flows into and out of the body (see box, below).
It has a ‘volume’ control that governs both the intensity and duration of the sensations of pain.
Your brain begins fine-tuning itself to sense pain more quickly – and with greater intensity – in a futile bid to try to avoid the worst of it.
Once you realise this, deep in your heart, then you can learn to step aside from your suffering and begin to handle pain very differently indeed. It is simply a form of mental training that has been proven in countless scientific trials to help people cope with pain, illness, anxiety, stress, depression, irritability and exhaustion. It simply creates a form of mental clarity that helps you to enjoy life and achieve your goals. You can meditate on more or less anything (we even include a Coffee Meditation in our book). The core mindfulness programme takes eight weeks and there is a chapter dedicated to each step.
These can embed a surprising amount of suffering because much of what we think and feel is locked in place by ongoing ways of approaching the world. Many people find that mindfulness gives them so many benefits that they continue with it for the rest of their lives.
Clinical trials show that mindfulness is at least as effective as the main prescription painkillers while also enhancing the body’s natural healing systems. If your condition allows it, sit erect but relaxed in a straight- backed chair with your feet flat on the floor. Gently close your eyes and focus your awareness on the breath as it flows into and out of your body. After a few minutes, or longer if you prefer, gently open your eyes and take in your surroundings. Epel, Elissa, Daubenmier, Jennifer, Tedlie Moskowitz, Judith, Folkman, Susan & Blackburn, Elizabeth (2009), ‘Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? It is no wonder mindfulness meditation is becoming so popular as a means for transforming lives and cultivating true inner peace. We sometimes use the terms inner peace and true happiness interchangeably, though there is a slight difference.
As we develop mindfulness, we begin to see our connection, and identify with the rest of humanity. Some believe that suffering is the result of attachment, or clinging, and others believe that it is simply ignorance. We often make decisions without having complete information or understanding of the consequences of our actions. This may be easier said than done, but it is possible to make great strides in that direction. Now, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to see that these are good wholesome principles to live by. In recent years, there has been a movement toward extracting the basic techniques from the religion. We do this by training our mind to observe ourselves and the rest of the world more objectively without our views being influenced by our emotions or preconceived ideas. It is based on the loving-kindness meditation practised in various Eastern spiritual traditions.
What this does is subconsciously change our attitudes about other people, which helps us improve our relationships, and heal the wounds from our past.
While it may seem logical that practising right thinking and right speech are good things, who is to say what is right or wrong? Steps 6-9 provide you with tools for enhancing your practice, such as deep listening, mindful speech, and the meditation group. By calming your mind and emotions, you can begin to see the world, and your relationship to it, with much greater clarity. The great thing about mindfulness meditation is that there is no doctrine or belief that you need to accept, so you don’t need to convert from your current spiritual faith.
It seeps into everything you do and helps you meet the worst that life can throw at you with new courage. When this occurs, an extraordinary thing can happen: a profound sense of happiness and peace fills the void. The results were striking: those forced to smile found the cartoons funnier than those compelled to frown. With practice, you can watch as your pain and suffering evaporate like the mist on a spring morning. This may seem like the worst thing imaginable, but the latest medical advances show that it can be more powerful than the most commonly prescribed painkillers. When you do this, something remarkable happens: your suffering begins to melt away of its own accord. Secondary pain is the mind’s reaction to Primary pain but is often far more intense and long lasting. In effect, the mind zooms in on your pain for a closer look as it tries to find a solution to your suffering. Trouble is, if you have suffered from pain or illness for months or years, then the mind will have a rich tapestry of painful memories on which to draw – but very few solutions. And it can be worse than this because such stresses and fears feed back into the body to create even more tension and stress. In short, regular meditators are happier and more contented than average, while being far less likely to suffer from psychological distress.
The resulting impact drove the lower half of my right leg several inches through the knee and into my thigh. When it happens, simply bring your awareness back to the region of the body from where it wandered. And even when there is a clear physical cause, as with illnesses like arthritis, heart disease or cancer, the pain often comes and goes without any apparent rhyme or reason. Such vicious cycles are driven by newly discovered psychological forces that underlie the perception of pain.
This can be seen as the ‘raw data’ that is sent to the brain from, say, an injury, an ongoing illness or changes to the nervous system itself (this is believed to lie, at least partly, behind such conditions as chronic pain syndrome and phantom limb syndrome).
This is because Secondary Suffering tends to dissolve when you observe it with the mind’s compassionate eye. There was the underlying unpleasant ‘tightness’ of the muscles and tendons in her neck, which were twisting her vertebrae slightly out of alignment and creating the most pronounced of her painful feelings. Scientists at the university’s Department of Clinical Neurology induced low-level anxiety in a group of volunteers before burning the back of their left hand with a hot probe. So if the sole of your left foot is brushed with a feather, an area of the primary somatosensory cortex lights up; if you feel a pain in your lower back, a different part becomes active. The students first had the back of their right calf burned with a piece of hot metal while their brain was scanned with the latest functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanner. Activity in the ‘right calf’ region of the primary somatosensory cortex had diminished to such a degree that it had become undetectable.
One of the reasons that meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was that it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing. Perhaps the most surprising thing was the amount of practice required to achieve this level of pain relief: just four training sessions of twenty minutes each.
We could even show you scans of your own brain as it ‘builds’ the sensations of pain from all of your thoughts, feelings and emotions – but only when you have experienced the power of mindfulness for yourself will you truly believe it. She found that when her neck began to hurt she was also assailed by fear, anger, stress, sorrow, hopelessness, despair and exhaustion. Not only did the pain begin to subside, but she began to experience all of the good things that had been squeezed out of her life too. Even after you’ve taken the maximum dose of painkillers, the aching soon returns with a vengeance. It may not completely eliminate your suffering, but it will ensure that it no longer dominates your life. In fact, mindfulness is so effective that doctors and specialist pain clinics now refer their patients to our Breathworks centre in Manchester and to courses run by our affiliated trainers around the world. The MBPM programme itself was developed by Vidyamala Burch (co-author of Mindfulness for Health book) as a means of coping with the after-effects of two serious accidents. This allows you to see your mind and body in action, to observe painful sensations as they arise and to let go of struggling with them.
This is because your mind does not simply feel pain, it also processes the information that it contains. It’s only called Secondary pain because it is the mind’s reaction to Primary pain and has been heavily processed before you consciously feel it.
When the word is mentioned a whole cascade of stereotypes can spring to mind: Buddhist monks, yoga classes, lentils, brown rice . In fact, many people find that it liberates more time than it consumes because they spend far less time having to cope with chronic pain, illness and stress. You can also do it virtually anywhere – on buses, trains, aircraft or even in the busiest office.
By simply breaking some of your more ingrained habits you will help dissolve away your suffering.
Feel the sensations the air makes as it flows in through your mouth or nose, down your throat and into your lungs.
P., (2013) ‘Psychobiological Correlates of Improved Mental Health in Patients With Musculo- skeletal Pain After a Mindfulness-based Pain Management Program’, Clinical Journal of Pain, 29(3), pp. Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172; Longevity, Regeneration, and Optimal Health Integrating Eastern and Western Perspectives, pp. We try to acquire the things that our society tells us will make us happy, such as a great career, nice home, beautiful family, and good friends. So far, researchers have found that mindfulness meditation can alleviate stress, reduce high blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease, and more. Where inner peace is simply complete contentment, with happiness there is an element of excitement or joy. And we cannot be truly at peace until we learn how to overcome our suffering and become resilient to it. We become attached because they fulfil a need for what we believe is necessary for our happiness. In order to let go of our attachments, we need to change our views about what creates happiness, or more importantly, inner peace. The goal of mindfulness meditation is to achieve freedom from our suffering by becoming aware of, and eliminating, the sources of our suffering. Keep your hands in a comfortable position, either on your thighs or in front of you with fingers interlaced.
However, instead of simply reading, listening to, or reciting the affirmations, you copy them by hand over and over for about 5-10 minutes a day. And the remaining Steps show you how mindful living can help take your personal development to a higher level.
The 12 Steps give you tools to help you stay engaged, such as a goal statement exercise, and the meditation group for ongoing support. This will enable you to make better decisions in your life, so you can bring more peace and harmony, not only into your own life, but also into the lives of those around you. And the practice fits in well with one of the most prominent trends in the West, to achieve inner peace through secular spiritual practices.
He is a speaker and consultant, and has a passion for helping people and organizations realize their full potential through the practice of mindfulness.
You can end up being consumed by future anxieties, stresses and worries as well as physical pain: What will happen if I can’t stop this pain?
But this same processing also offers a way out; it means you can learn to gain control over pain. And as you do so, any anxiety, stress and depression that you may be feeling begins to melt away too. Several scans had shown that her neck had completely healed, but the pain stubbornly remained. Doctors then feel forced to prescribe long-term courses of painkillers, but these can have side effects such as memory loss, lethargy and even addiction.
And crucially, this discovery offers a wholly new approach to the management of pain and illness that has the potential to transform suffering.


The intensity of pain was thought to be directly proportional to the degree of damage to the body, which would mean that if different people had the same injury they would experience the same amount of pain. Overlaid on top of this is ‘Secondary Suffering’, which is made up of all the thoughts, feelings, emotions and memories associated with the pain. But once you understand the underlying mechanisms of pain, you can begin to temper its power and the hold it has over you. There were also twinges of outright pain – which felt like sharp spikes of electricity running through her muscles and down into her arm. As anxiety built, you could see the waves of emotion sweeping through the volunteers’ brains. Mindfulness soothes the mind’s perception of pain – essentially Secondary Suffering – by replacing it with a sense of peace and wholeness.
Neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield charted this brain region and produced a ‘map’ that reflects the human body overlaid on the brain (see illustration below). It is a period of allowing, of letting be, of non-resistance, so that you cease to struggle. So not only did she feel the initial unpleasant sensations in her neck, but she was also swamped with yet more suffering.
It opened the door to a wealth of emotions such as happiness, love, compassion and empathy, as well as sadness. 16, offers an alternative definition from the International Association for the Study of Pain as acute pain (lasting less than one month), sub-acute pain (lasting one to six months) and chronic pain (lasting six months or more).
You’ll discover that it is possible to be at peace, even if illness and pain are unavoidable, and to enjoy a truly fulfilling life.
Although originally designed to reduce physical pain and suffering, it has proven to be an effective stress-reduction technique as well.
In addition to all these uses, clinical trials also show that mindfulness significantly reduces the anxiety, stress, depression, irritability and insomnia that can arise from chronic pain and illness. But this same processing also gives you a way out; it means you can learn to gain control over your pain. Your mind may become filled with thoughts or powerful emotions such as fear, anger, stress or love. 2013, MD, ‘Psycho- biological Correlates of Improved Mental Health in Patients With Musculoskeletal Pain After a Mindfulness-based Pain Management Program’, Clinical Journal of Pain, 29(3), pp.
While these can bring us much joy and fulfilment, they can also bring us a lot of stress, which can compromise our health and peace of mind.
As we develop awareness of our interconnectedness with the rest of the world, loneliness and insecurity begin to disappear. However, when we lose something we’re strongly attached to, we can experience a great deal of suffering. In true love, we are more concerned about the other person’s well-being, over them fulfilling our emotional needs. It is impossible for us to know every aspect of a particular situation, because there are an infinite number of factors related to it. However, instead of counting each one, simply observe the entire breathing process mindfully.
They give practitioners exact step-by-step instructions for developing mindfulness, so they can determine for themselves with a clearer mind what is right or wrong.
The 12 Steps are designed to make the development of mindfulness as simple as possible, so you can realize your goal of true inner peace. MBCT revolves around a straightforward form of mindfulness meditation which takes just a few minutes a day for the full benefits to be revealed. I found mindfulness to be an extremely powerul painkiller and I’m convinced it also accelerated my healing.
If it begins to feel too intense, gently broaden the focus of your awareness so that you hold the discomfort in a wider space. They were OK for stubborn ‘achiness’, but did nothing for the frequent sharp twinges of pain. If no obvious physical cause was found, the patient would be regarded as malingering or making it up. Although the details are still being worked out, it is clear that pain is far more subtle and complex than the traditional idea of damage signals being sent to the brain which are then passively felt. These might include anxiety, stress, worry, depression and feelings of hopelessness and exhaustion. And when you see this vista, something remarkable begins to happen: your suffering gradually begins to subside and evaporate like the mist on a summer’s morning. Far worse, however, were her turbulent emotions: her fears and worries for herself and the future. Such powerful emotions as anxiety, fear, anger, worry and depression can feed into the mind’s perception of pain.
If pain was music, ‘intensity’ would be the volume and ‘unpleasantness’ would be the level of emotion it aroused. Meditation increased activity in regions of the brain related to the processing of emotion and of cognitive control – areas where the sensations of pain are actually interpreted and ‘built’. This holds true not only for messages of pain, but also for thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories and judgements. It was almost as if she was struck with an arrow, and when she reacted to it she was then hit by a second one. Claire realised that life is bittersweet, and when she let go of expecting it to be either wholly wonderful or truly distressing and to hold in an honest heart a delicate mixture of the two, she felt increasingly relaxed and open.
In fact, the core mindfulness meditation techniques have been shown in many clinical trials to be at least as effective as drugs or counselling for relieving anxiety, stress and depression. You learn to gently observe it, rather than be caught up in it, and when you do so, something remarkable happens: it begins to melt away of its own accord. In effect, your mind zooms in on your pain for a closer look as it tries to find a solution to your suffering. It’s almost as if the brain has turned up the volume to maximum and doesn’t know how to turn it down again. It can be as simple as watching the clouds from a park bench or waiting for the kettle to fully boil before making a cup of tea or coffee (rather than rushing to switch it off). If we love them, but are not attached to them, we would be willing to let them go if we believe they would be happier in a different situation. So, very often we make decisions and take action with unintended and unpleasant consequences, and these consequences can lead to much suffering in ourselves and other people.
Mindfulness also helps us become more aware of the consequences of our actions, so that we can behave in ways that create less suffering for ourselves and other people. MBCT has been clinically proven to be at least as effective as drugs for depression and it is recommended by the UK's National Institute of Clinical Excellence - in other words, it works. So you can all too easily become trapped in a vicious downward spiral that leads to ever greater suffering. Her shoulders and neck had cramped up, making her whole upper body look tense and contorted. Pain is a sensation, which means that it is an interpretation made by the brain before it is consciously felt. The pain and distress that you actually feel is a fusion of both Primary and Secondary Suffering.
It was almost as if the volunteers’ minds were turning up the volume on their pain amplifiers ready to ‘hear’ its first ‘notes’, so that they could take action to protect themselves. As expected, when the students’ legs were burned the ‘right calf’ region of their primary somatosensory cortex lit up as the pain swept over them. These brain areas modulate the sensations of pain and give it ‘meaning’ before it is consciously felt.
They experienced a reduction in pain intensity of 70 per cent and its unpleasantness was reduced by 93 per cent. If you mindfully accept (or feel) these messages, they will have done their job and will tend to melt away of their own accord. Now she had to bear the pain of two arrows – that from the second being caused by resistance to the first. Through facing up to and becoming sensitive to her own predicament, she became a happier and more centred person with greater empathy for others.
When it comes to pain, clinical trials show that mindfulness can be as effective as the main prescription painkillers, and some studies have shown it to be as powerful as morphine. The act of realising that your mind has wandered – and encouraging it to return to focus on the breath – is central to the practice of mindfulness.
Whatever happens, simply observe as best you can without reacting to your experience or trying to change anything.
It is important to note that non-attachment doesn’t necessarily mean that people will leave us: it just means we’re not clinging to them mentally and emotionally. When you find that your mind has wandered, immediately bring your attention back to your breath. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve had unwanted habits, the writing meditation will change them in just a few days. More importantly it also works for people who are not depressed but who are struggling to keep up with the constant demands of the modern world. To make this interpretation, the brain fuses together information from the mind as well as the body. Feeling tired and overwhelmed, fragile and broken, stressed and anxious, can all magnify suffering and tip you into a downward spiral. This meant that when the skin of the anxious volunteers was actually burned, they experienced far more pain and suffering than the ‘non-anxious’ volunteers.
What’s more, experienced meditators (those who scored higher on a standard scale of mindfulness) tended to have enhanced activity in these regions and to experience less pain. She discovered that in ignoring and walling off the pain she had also isolated herself from all that is wonderful and precious about life.
Imaging studies show that it soothes the brain patterns underlying pain and, over time, these changes take root and alter the structure of the brain itself so that you no longer feel pain with the same intensity. Each of these has very different causes – and understanding this gives you far greater control over your suffering.
As your mind analyses the pain, it also sifts through your memories for occasions when you have suffered similarly in the past. Concentration meditation will help you develop mental discipline, and keep you grounded in the present moment. In practice, this means that the thoughts and emotions flowing through your mind, both conscious and unconscious, have a dramatic effect on the intensity of your suffering. And while they were often less obvious than the nagging feelings of pain, ultimately they were far more significant because they were central to the way that her mind interpreted and felt the raw feelings of pain. How often has the intensity of your suffering increased when you felt anxious, stressed, exhausted or sad? That is, they tended to devote more brain power in this region to moderating the pain-related information – and to, in effect, turning down its ‘volume’. Overall, said Zeidan, mindfulness produced a greater reduction in pain than standard doses of morphine and other pain-relieving drugs. In fact, in cases of acute, rather than chronic, pain, it might even be the best response because it’s a powerful driving force to take yourself out of danger. But it’s not just the pain that hurts; your mind can start to suffer as you desperately try to find a way of escaping. It's precisely focused to help ordinary people boost their happiness and confidence levels whilst also reducing anxiety, stress and irritability. As the Oxford neuroscientists noted, anxiety primes the ‘behavioural responses that are adaptive to the worst possible outcome’. When it comes to chronic pain and illness, however, it is often precisely the wrong solution because it simply compounds your suffering. Pointed and bitter questions can begin nagging at your soul: What will happen if I don’t recover?
Many people report that their pain declines to such a degree that they barely notice it at all.
Trouble is, if you have suffered from pain or illness for months or years, then the mind will have a rich tapestry of painful memories on which to draw – but very few solutions.
2011, ‘Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modu- lation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation’, Journal of Neuroscience, 31(14), p.
2011, ‘Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation’, Journal of Neuro- science, 31(14), p. In other words, anxiety and other powerful ‘negative’ emotions prepare the body to sense pain quickly and with great intensity. And, of course, it can then seem as if you’re pierced not by two arrows, but by many, many more.
By exploring each of these different sensations, moment by moment, you come to accept that they are like black clouds in the sky: you can watch as the sensations arise, drift past and disappear again. Your mind is like the sky and individual thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations are like different types of cloud.
All this meant that when she could no longer maintain the struggle, she simply crashed and burned.
It can seem as if you’ve always been ill and in pain, that you’ve never found a solution and that you never will. So in a sense, mindfulness teaches you to observe the weather without becoming embroiled in it. So not only did the pain return, but, with all of the things that normally sustained her love of life having evaporated, she was left feeling fragile and broken. So you can end up being consumed by future anxieties, stresses and worries as well as physical pain: What will happen if I can’t stop this pain?




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