I guess it probably does seem like the in thing. I started my journey in 2011, when a wonderful duo Elke Radewald and Dr Rutger de Ridder offered me the opportunity to participate in a pilot programme of MBSR at Whangarei Base Hospital. They were lovely people and it was a fabulous and at times slightly challenging opportunity.
What does MBSR stand for? It means Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and the practice was pioneered and promoted by Jon Kabat Zinn. In medical or clinical realms, the stress reduction is largely linked to dealing with and managing pain. For me, it was a golden opportunity that I will always be eternally grateful for being fortunate to participate in as it did indeed help me to accept and live with chronic pain.
There were about a dozen of us in the pilot and we all had different health problems that involved debilitating chronic pain that was interfering with normal life, at the time I was actually using morphine daily as well as high dose steroids to deal with an unusual presentation of inflammatory arthritis. The actual process involved active meditation and practising meditation on a regular basis and this proved to be very difficult for some of the clients to accept, they had significant pain stories and had often experienced discrimination and been challenged by health professionals about the “reality” of their conditions and they therefore were more keen to express their pain and frustration rather than practice mindfulness meditation. About 8 of us made it through to the end. By the end I was able to ditch the morphine. So for me the act of meditation and mindfulness successfully enabled me to accept and live with the pain I was experiencing.
How did it do that? Firstly I am not a clinician, so my answers here stem from my personal understanding and experiences and not scientific evidence based material. I think that the practice of meditation alters your biophysical responses. In a sense, it resets a balance and creates some form of internal homoeostasis. I think it might be the relaxation and controlled breathing that lowers blood pressure, heart rate and has a marked effect on chemicals released by the brain and their consequent uptake and for whatever reason this enables a resetting of the body’s pain sensory mechanisms. I had a flare of inflammatory arthritis that affected a significant number of joints and the simultaneous pain from this overwhelmed my pain sensory system, the pain was so great. Within the mindfulness training, it was made clear that the goal was to accept and embrace the pain, not an easy thing to learn how to do when all you want is for it to go away. However, it can be done.
By meditating and controlled breathing and accepting the pain I was able to experience one single pain-free breath and recognise it for what it was. One pain-free breath can be increased to two and so on. When one accepts that there are moments that are painful and moments that are pain-free one is able to let them go. Somehow by letting them go you reset the clock.
I still go back to active meditation when I experience periods of pain and still benefit from the training I received.
Did it work for everyone? In short no. People who live with chronic extreme pain are rarely understood in a clinical setting. Clinicians talk about numbers for pain and anyone who has experienced chronic pain would realise that a scale of 1 to 10 does not hold enough dimensions to accurately appropriately describe pain. People experiencing long-term pain, sometimes appear anxious, grumpy, depressed because chronic long term pain is debilitating and frustrating and destructive and yet clinicians often mistake these attitudes and moods as the cause or contributor to the pain rather than the effect. Most people with long term pain want to be able to tell their story, have someone listen and understand their pain and ultimately make it go away. So asking them to mindfully chew a raisin and accept and embrace their pain isn’t usually what they want to do or hear. Plus they want it to work NOW, this moment and the truth is it takes practice. So some people are unable to participate and give it a chance to work and this is no different than with some drugs and medications, which in truth don’t work for everyone either.
Life is based on suffering. I had a great enthusiasm for Buddhism in my younger years, but couldn’t deal with the natural position being set at suffering. I didn’t want to think that life was about suffering. I thought life should be about something more positive and optimistic than that. However, through being sick and at times extremely unwell I learned that suffering often is the base point on the scale and that what enables us to survive the suffering is to find the beauty and joy and pleasure in the single moment that is. This one moment might be the only moment, or the final moment or the most important moment and therefore we need to savour it and recognise it and value it for what it is. I learned to look for these moments and to cherish them and find them in as many places as I could. I think this is active mindfulness, and I think I learned to recognise it from the meditation and practice and the words of Jon Kabat Zinn.
Be present in the moment. I think part of me already recognised this. I remember when the girls were small there were times when they were ill and I was up in the night loving them back to life and I always cherished the moment realising that there would be a day when they were far away and I wouldn’t be able to care for them when they were sick and in need. However, through the practice and teachings of mindfulness, I realised that being present in the moment needed to be the default setting, not something that only happened on occasions. I have practised this and continue to practise this daily. It is about being cognisant of the very moment that you are in and seeing the colours and experiencing it completely without interference from brain buzz, brain drift, worry, white noise of the mind. It is about an ability to focus and concentrate on the exact moment as it is now. It requires conscious practice and conscious awareness.
In 2012 we were involved in a car accident that could have been significantly worse than it was. We were travelling down a country road and a van overtook us at 100km whilst at the same time a car pulled out of a side road on the opposite side of the road, it was a recipe for carnage and I could see it was going to happen. I had an awareness of the vehicle and the children in the car but knew that I had to remain calm and focus on the next few critical seconds and knew that regardless of what appeared to be happening around me I had to slow the car and stay on the road it was our only chance of survival.
The Van hit us full on and carried on going right past the front windscreen and over the fence and into the field where it rolled and ended up on its roof. I managed to stay on the road and slow to a halt, and we remained upright. We were alive and shaken but not hurt, the Van driver was also alive and well but his van was a write-off. I totally believe that it was the ability to completely focus on the moment and remain present that enabled us to stay upright and on the road and ultimately saved our lives.
Namaste. Love to you on your journey.
©Alison Jean Hankinson.