Mind Over Misery: Mental Techniques for Pain Relief
(Originally published as an eight part series of articles for Imbue Pain Relief Patch)
Of the various approaches I recommend for pain relief, visualization and other mental techniques are the most interesting to me. Our mind has the power to stop the worst pain in the world, yet this mechanism is so poorly understood. While other approaches may act on this or that nerve receptor, or dilate or constrict blood vessels, we really have no idea what’s going on physiologically when the mind stops pain.
I’ll never forget a video on hypnotherapy I watched twenty-odd years ago in a high school psychology course: It documented an experiment on pain in which two volunteers immersed their hands into buckets of ice water. One, a woman, was hypnotized, the other, a man, wasn’t. About once every ten seconds, the moderator asked the two subjects to rate their level of discomfort on a one to ten scale. As the man rather quickly went from the whole way up to ten, each time the woman calmly replied “one.”
Sometimes we feel less pain because we believe the problem is insignificant – whether it is or not. Sometimes we just get distracted – we’re not even intending to make our pain go away – we’re just so engrossed in some conversation or book or video game, that for a while there is no pain. This phenomenon should be reason enough to fund extensive in-depth studies on how to manipulate consciousness to maximize this effect.
But who’s going to pay for it? And, perhaps more importantly, who’s going to implement it? A majority of both patients and doctors want a pill, an easy pill, to take away the pain. Mental approaches to pain relief take some work – work to teach and work to practice. But, as compared to drugs, they’ll never kill anyone, they’re free, and when you learn to diminish your own pain using your mind, you get more out of it than just relief – you feel peaceful and empowered.
Although nobody’s throwing money at research on mind-based pain relief, great strides have been made in this area by adventurers of consciousness – and those unfortunate enough to need to figure out an escape. As for this second group, necessity is the mother of invention, right? My introduction to tai ji chuan (tai chi) came from a small Chinese man who truly believed this. While I thought I was going to show up and learn some cool moves, instead I ended up being put into positions that were grueling to sustain. Then Sifu Fong would say, “Does that hurt?”
“Yes, a lot,” I would invariably reply.
“Good,” he’d smile. “Now. Figure it out.”
And he’d walk away.
This happened week after week, month after month. I experienced a great deal of pain, and I did figure out a lot about how pain occurs and how to make it go away. I’ll try to teach you some of these things in upcoming blog posts, but for now, I’m going to give you the very same assignment: figure it out. I know it doesn’t sound especially helpful. But, I’m throwing you a very big bone here – it is figure-out-able. You can completely stop pain using only your mind.
In part one, I wrote about the power of the mind to control pain, and I asked you to figure it out. Did you figure it out? In case you didn’t, I’ll share with you some of the techniques I’ve figured out or learned from others.
The first is elegant, simple, and profound, and it’s brought to you by the number Two. Many systems of medicine I’ve studied emphasize the value of making simultaneous contact with two points on or in the body. With two treatment points, like the two ends of a battery, the two tines on a power cord, the Yin and the Yang, hot and cold, and so many other dualistic entities, there is the potential to find the neutral, harmonious center between two polarized possibilities.
I first learned about the role of Two in treatment when I was a student of Zen Shiatsu – a system of massage in which the therapist virtually always has both hands on the body. The two hands are often designated as “mother hand” and “son hand,” with the mother hand usually stationed at a relatively central part of the body, and the son hand traveling around, pressing into the flesh. As the practitioner, one’s focus is not so much on the son hand, though this is the hand that seems to be doing more of the work, but on the perpetual connection between the mother and the son. It took me more than a year to get this. Then, all of a sudden, I felt what was happening to the body between my two hands, even though they were a few feet apart. I was working on one of my teachers at the time, and he sat up and said, “You just got it, didn’t you?”
Several systems of acupuncture utilize a two point approach (some more explicitly than others). For instance, in one, painful spots are referred to as “positive points” and treatment involves finding corresponding “negative points” and inserting needles at them in order to neutralize the pain. There are also many ways in which small parts of the body are holographic of the body as a whole – that is, they act as small representations of the entire body. Treating the “throat point” on the ear or the scalp or the hand or the abdomen while focusing on pain in the throat can instantaneously eliminate this pain. While there may only be one needle inserted, the focus of the treatment is on the dynamic between two places.
When I was near the end of my acupuncture training, I had to take a course in a healing art called Jin Shin Do. It involved lightly touching acupuncture points to encourage healing. Having learned all sorts of tricks with needles, I remember thinking the course would be a waste of my time. It seemed too subtle to be effective. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I gave and received profound treatments in that class, all of which were based on simply making contact with two points at a time and staying present for the magic that would inevitably occur.
I could go on and on. The philosophical basis of systems that utilize two point approaches can be highly sophisticated and difficult to learn or quite simple and easy to learn. I believe that in some cases sophistication can yield better results, but the simple systems often work just fine. Before I continue, I’d like to say for the sake of accuracy that some of these systems – certain forms of acupuncture, in particular – focus on more than two points. However, each of the points chosen for treatment can be thought of as having a direct relationship with the problematic area. Thus, we could understand them as simply many simultaneous two point treatments.
Here is the simplest approach to a two point treatment on yourself. First identify point number one. This could be the epicenter of your pain, or the sour feeling in your stomach, or the itchy bug bite on your shin. Theoretically, it could also be the grief you have for your lost partner, the anger you harbor for your boss, or the depression that makes everything feel meaningless. Using this technique for problems that seem to have no specific location (e.g., grief, insomnia, anger) can be trickier, but it still works. If you have trouble getting results with such a nebulous issue, try bringing the issue up in your mind and then feeling what comes up in your body. Wherever you feel something most strongly in your body while focusing on the issue, this can be point number one.
Next choose point number two. It should be someplace else. Someplace that doesn’t hurt. Someplace that feels quite alright. It’s usually a place on or in your body, but it could theoretically be someplace outside your body, too, like a place in the world or your mind where there is peace.
Now, hold both the first point and the second point in your mind. I hesitate to tell you to do much after this, since this is often all that needs to happen. You could visualize both these points simultaneously for a moment and then let them go and do something else. And then see what happens.
If nothing happens, or you’re interested in exploring further, here are some more options. You can try one or more of these approaches:
• While holding the two points in your consciousness, imagine them moving toward each other, like two magnets.
• Imagine they are superimposed on one top of the other. They occupy the same space. They become one.
• Imagine one point neutralizes the other.
• Imagine the two points cancel each other out and both dissolve.
• Imagine a connection between the two points, like a bridge or a circuit. Focus on the space between them, this bridge.
• Imagine you are pulling the second point away from the first point, stretching the space between them, and (perhaps) that point one dissolves.
• Imagine that each of the two points has a certain volume (like a sound) or a certain brightness (like a light), and turn up/down the volume or brightness on each so that they become equal.
• Alternatively, imagine you’re turning up the volume/brightness so much on the second point that it eclipses the first point.
• Put a finger on each of the two points and do any of these techniques.
Sometimes it is especially helpful, after connecting the two points, to immediately sing a song (out loud or silently), or in some other way to totally relinquish your focus on the points. Just last night, I had some heartburn and I focused on the center of this pain and simultaneously on Barney, that purple dinosaur. I could not tell you why I thought of Barney. I have no idea why. The important part is that the heartburn went away immediately and did not come back. This is a system that you get better at with practice, and the suggestions I made are just the tip of the iceberg. I know it may sound crazy and unscientific, but give it a try. What have you got to lose?
Last time I explained how to use one point to neutralize another point. Let’s look at what else we can do with this technique. When I use this technique on others and myself, I draw from my extensive knowledge of acupuncture points and meridians (the pathways through which our energy – Qi – flows), and I often find that working within this model yields better results that simply choosing my second point randomly. It’s a complex system, but there are a few very basic ideas you can take from it.
1. Try using as your second point (the treatment point) a spot directly behind or directly in front of the problem point. So, for instance, if you have chest pain, try to locate a point on your back that is directly behind the epicenter of the pain in your chest. Then bridge these two points. The same goes for lower back pain – choose a point on the abdomen that is directly in front of where it hurts the most in your back.
2. Try using as your second point (the treatment point) a point that is longitudinally in line with the problem point. With a few exceptions, the acupuncture meridians run over the body in more or less vertical lines. The bladder meridian, for instance, runs from the inner corner of the eye straight up the forehead, over the skull, down the back of the neck, down the back, the buttocks, and the middle of the back of the thigh, lower leg, and then along the outer edge of the foot. If you have pain at base of the skull about an inch away from the spine, you could chose a second point near the base of the back of your neck, also about an inch away from your spine, so that a vertical line would cross through both points. The meridians also run the long way down our limbs. Touching both points while you hold them both in your mind can help.
3. Try using as your second point (the treatment point) a point that is in the exact same spot on the opposite side of your body (left/right). For instance, if you have a pain at your left temple, the second point would be your right temple. If you have pain at your right thumb, the second point with be your left thumb in the same spot.
4. If the problem is on one of your upper limbs, try using as your second point (the treatment point) an equivalent point on one of your lower limbs. If the problem is on one of your lower limbs, try using as your second point an equivalent point on one of your upper limbs. The upper extremity and the lower extremity are built the same way. They both start with a ball and socket joint where they meet the torso (hip/shoulder), they both have a hinge joint halfway down (knee/elbow), they both have a complex joint with many little bones (ankle/wrist), and then a hand and foot that closely resemble each other. Thus, the hip and shoulder reflect each other, the knee and elbow reflect each other, the wrist and ankle reflect each other, and all the other parts reflect each other. For a problem at the outer aspect of the knee, you could choose a point at the outer aspect of the elbow. For a problem at the inner ankle, you could choose a point at the inner wrist. For a problem on inside surface of the upper arm, about halfway between the armpit and the elbow, you could choose a point on the inside of the thigh, about halfway between the groin and the knee. For a problem on the sole of the foot near the base of the big toe, you could choose a point on the palm of the hand near the base of the thumb. With this particular approach, you may sometimes get a better result by using not just the upper limb for the lower limb and vice versa, but also crossing the midline of the body. That is, for the left arm using the right leg, and for the left leg using the right arm.
5. As your second point (treatment point) visualize something else that emits either sound or light, such as one of those old fashioned bell-topped alarm clocks, or a light bulb, or a crying baby, or whatever else you can easily bring to mind. Then, when you connect your pain to this object, imagine that you are turning down its volume or brightness, so, for instance, the light bulb gets dimmer and dimmer until it’s completely dark. The alarm clock gets quieter and quieter. Imagine that both points are affected the same way.
Give these approaches a try and see if there is one that works best for you. Then practice and practice. You’ll find you get faster and more effective at neutralizing your pain, until you start doing this unconsciously.
Like finding the same threads of truth in different spiritual traditions, it’s been an enlightening and affirming journey for me to discover many of the same concepts shared by different healing traditions. Sat Nam Rasayan, a healing system passed down through the Sikh religion, is yet another example of the practice of broadening focus, or what is referred to as entering the “sacred space,” in order to neutralize imbalances of health.
In one of my most profound healing experieces, I was practicing Sat Nam Rasayan and was instructed by my teacher to allow into my perception every possible sensation. I realized just how much, in focusing our awareness on whatever it is we’re working on or thinking about, we tune out sensations within us and outside of us. These include a wide array of smells, tastes, sounds, and feelings. When we open to the broadest possible field of stimuli, subtle things, like the sound of the furnace, or the wind, or a buzzing fly, or the feeling of our clothes on our skin, all fill in the space, and we feel what a rich tapestry we are part of. And then even more subtle things can become perceptible to us, like the feeling of our heart beating, and our eyes moving, the weight of our hair on our head, the blood moving through our vessels, the food moving through our gastric tract, the activity of innumerable living creatures around us.
In this state of expanded awareness, what happens to the pain? At first, the pain may seem more prominent than the other sensations. It may make it difficult to focus on anything else. But as we continue to broaden our focus, the field of stimuli can sort of homogenize. Have you ever played with a graphic equalizer? Almost all stereos have basic equalizing knobs that allow you to raise or lower the bass (low frequencies) and the treble (high frequencies). A graphic equalizer divides the sound spectrum into many more frequency bands, so we can fine tune and shape the sound to our liking. We have the same potential with our awareness. We can lower the volume of our pain … raise the volume of the feeling of air on our skin … lower the volume of the barking dog next door … raise the volume of a distant bird chirping. Beyond simply altering the momentary perception of our pain, bending our consciousness in this way can actually neutralize the problem. I can’t tell you why this occurs, just that it does.
As for the healing experience I alluded to earlier, part of what made it so special is that I was actually working on someone else. I sat next to her, put a hand on her, closed my eyes, and expanded my awareness. I felt and heard and smelled and tasted everything. Including her pain. I had the distinct image of a bird that was confined in a very small cage. I stayed in this conscious space. I allowed all the sensations to equalize, and experienced that this is only possible when there is no judgment whatsoever. No judgment of the pain or the barking dog or the jackhammer or the smell of mildew or anything else in my perceptual field. Then I saw the cage dissolve and bird fly away. A little while later, the woman I was treating opened her eyes, sat up, and told me that something had changed while she was lying there. The pain of her divorce was gone. She was over it.
My mind wishes it had an explanation, because it loves explanations. It loves understanding mechanisms, mathematics, and rules of physics. But my soul doesn’t particularly care. Do some exploration. Tell me what happens.
I love to discover commonalities between different schools of thought on healing. For instance, earlier I explained the concept of focusing simultaneously on two points, which appears in numerous healing systems. Another prevalent concept is that of getting out of the way. This can mean a few different things, but primarily I see it as (1) allowing the healing to occur without being overly manipulative or directive, and (2) setting a healing intention and then immediately releasing it, shifting your focus and letting it go.
As for the first interpretation, I initially encountered this when I learned Reiki in my early 20s. The idea was that the healing force (Reiki) has its own intelligence. It doesn’t need to be told what to do. This notion has since been reiterated in one way or another by many teachers since. Some say we can’t possibly know exactly what the patient needs, so we should keep our own ideas out of the treatment. Others say in order to be the most effective facilitator of healing, we need to be an open conduit. So, in this sense, we need to “get out of the way” by allowing healing energy to move through us completely unrestricted.
As for the second interpretation, this is more like the getting out of the way that happens after you light the fuse of a firecracker. You touch the match to the wick and then your part is done. Now step back. The only difference is that, after you light a firecracker and step back, you’re still focused on the firecracker. There’s only one thing to do – wait for it to explode. Interestingly, in the context of healing, it sometimes appears to work even better to get even more out of the way. Don’t just back away from the firecracker, put your attention on something else altogether.
I am not entirely sure why this works, but it seems that the healing intention remains somehow tethered to us while we hold it in our mind, and perhaps we’re still in the way. Maybe our own ideas about the laws of physics, and of sickness and healing, limit what our intention can do until it lives on its own, unfettered by our mind.
Shifting our attention to anything else seems to cut the cord, and then the healing intention can do whatever it’s meant to do. One way of quickly shifting the attention that was suggested to me is by singing a song. I’ve found this works well. I have a few favorite songs I’ll launch into (mentally or sometimes out loud) after firmly planting a certain healing intention, and in doing so, completely let go of that intention. For whatever reason, this does seem to yield better results much of the time. I encourage you to experiment with this on your own, using the tools I introduced in the previous articles (or any other visualization techniques).
I realize that mind-based techniques for pain relief can be somewhat tricky and elusive to utilize. That’s why I’m introducing you to a whole slew of them, in the hope that at least one will work well for you.
I have written extensively on the role of stagnation in pain – a fundamental concept in Chinese medical philosophy. Because impaired flow of blood, other fluids, and energy is responsible for perpetuating the painful condition, many forms of visualization involving an image of movement through the painful area can be effective. You can imagine blood and/or energy coursing through the painful region, moving down and out the limbs. You can imagine pain, toxins, inflammation, cellular debris, or congested fluids flowing out of the painful area. And you can imagine fresh, revitalizing blood and/or energy simultaneously flowing into the painful area.
You can imagine a river of energy is opening and rushing through the place where you have pain. You can imagine that your breath moves energy through the painful area. You can imagine tiny workers breaking up the stagnation with little tools and making repairs to damaged tissue. You can imagine you’re shining a flood light into the painful area and the light breaks up blockages, works into dark places, healing worn out cells, promoting an influx of fresh blood and life, and flushing out the garbage. The key is to keep imagining that there is free, uninhibited flow through the painful region, rather than stagnation.
Another way of utilizing the concept of movement in visualization is to move the pain itself somewhere else. Try to imagine the pain as a shape in your body and then see this shape moving to another place. You can visualize the pain moving out of its usual residence and into somewhere else, such as your hand or foot or a finger or toe. Another option is to imagine the pain slowly moving out of your body altogether. You could direct it down and out the end of one of your limbs, or see it floating up into the air, or visualize it dropping down into the earth. You could even imagine that you’re sending out into a container or to the moon or the sun or some other external place, and then securing it there. If you send it to the sun (which is good to imagine as you bask in the sun), you could imagine the pain is burning up in the sun’s heat.
As a heat source, the sun is literally an instigator of movement, since in thermodynamic terms, heat is really just an expression of molecular movement – atoms and molecules jostling around. For this reason, the sun can be a great healer (as can other heat sources, but the sun itself is special among heaters). You can sit in the sun, inside or outside, and imagine its rays penetrating your body, breaking up the stagnation in the painful area, and sending healing energy deep into your tissues and cells.
As usual, I love to hear of your experiences. Post a comment below if you feel so inclined.
This time let’s look at ways to actively accepting the pain as a means of making it dissipate. The idea is, if all pain is caused by stagnation (a fundamental principle of Chinese Medicine), there is an often an element of resistance to the perpetuation of pain. Our resisting the pain doesn’t actually help it to go away. On the contrary, it’s like clenching around the pain. Our resistance to it strengthens our relationship with it. Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “What you resist persists.” Well, the corollary to that saying would be, A feeling fully felt finally fades.
What if you could have no resistance at all to your pain? You might think, “If I don’t resist it, it will take me over” but instead, when we let go of our resistance to it, it puts us in charge again, instead of being a victim to the pain. It releases a certain dimension of the pain – the pain of the resistance itself. And, it very often facilitates the letting go of the whole shebang.
There are lots of tools to help you let go. With this one, you’ll be actively exploring the qualities of the pain in order to really accept it as fully as possible. Acceptance is the opposite of resistance. If you accept it, you’re not a victim and it’s not running you. You might still prefer not to have it, but the conflict isn’t there anymore.
Close your eyes. Now, see how many of the qualities of the pain you can actively, willingly experience. If you turn your attention inwards, what shape does the pain pattern have? What color is it? How much does it weigh? Does it have a smell? Does it have a taste? If it could say something, what would it say? Does it have a texture? Is there an emotion associated with it? Explore each of these qualities slowly, openly, methodically. As you examine the pattern this way, this facilitates your acceptance of every facet of it. Breathe slowly and deeply, and let go of each of the shapes or qualities as they come up.
It may take you several cycles of focusing on the various qualities of the pain pattern to get it to diminish significantly, but it very often will come way down in intensity. For instance, you can discern the shape, then the color, then the weight, then the shape again, then the color again, then the weight again, in each case pushing yourself to examine and define each of these qualities. They will change and usually fade away over the course of several minutes.
Most of the techniques I have covered so far in this series involve connecting with your pain and then doing something with your mind to neutralize it. This time, we’ll look at ways to use the mind to eliminate pain without actually putting any attention on the pain. Instead of modifying the pain, we’ll draw ourselves to a new, painless reality.
Who would you be if you had no pain? What would you do that you don’t currently do? How would you feel? What would be the expression on your face if you were suddenly liberated from pain? All of these questions are worth pondering in preparation for actually being in a painless state.
Now, instead of visualizing your pain – instead of paying any attention to it whatsoever – try visualizing the happy, pain-free you. See your own smiling face in your mind’s eye. Feel the relief and delight as if the pain is already gone. Imagine yourself dancing through your house, so thrilled to be able to move freely and with only a feeling of exhilaration in your body. Imagine yourself cleaning, cooking, lifting heavy boxes, driving, working, playing sports, hanging out with friends and family, all with a calm, joyful expression on your face.
What could happen from visualizing this way? Even if it doesn’t have a lasting impact on your pain, you still get to dwell in this joyous, liberating image and positively influence your perspective – if only for the time that you’re actively doing this exercise. But quite possibly, especially if you practice this consistently, there will be a gradual shift toward a new reality.
Over the past eight articles, I have introduced some very straightforward ways that the mind can influence our perception of pain, and other ways that are closer to the fringe of science. In the case of this week’s topic, I don’t have any scientific explanation for how visualizing a happy life can bring that life into being. Yet, I feel it’s the ultimate approach to end this series with. Beyond manipulating pain, we can go for an even more ambitious and direct goal: happiness. Visualization alone may not take us there – we should also take action in the direction of this dream – but cultivating the experience of being in it, feeling it, seeing it, smelling it, and tasting it, is a powerful way to rally the forces within and around us to make it real.
Wishing you a peaceful, happy, pain free life,
Dr. Peter Borten
Copyright 2012 by Peter Borten. No reproduction in any form without permission.