Meditation for Chronic Pain Part 1: Body Scan with Focus

Meditation for Chronic Pain Part 1: Body Scan with Focus

September 26, 2017

It would be amazing if one day no one ever needed to read this because everyone was so free of pain that the thought of practicing some kind of pain relief wouldn't even occur to us. In the meantime though, I hope to share some practices that I’ve personally found to be effective in the hope that it will bring some relief, both short and long term, to people experiencing any variety of chronic conditions. I myself have experienced IBS for 10+ years (for which I was prescribed many medications), I've also experienced chronic back pain that I endured for more than 4 years and used to need to see chiropractors, acupuncturists, and masseuses on a weekly basis because the pain was too intense to continue with daily activities. I’ve also had eczema varying from mild to blisteringly severe throughout my life and though some may consider itchiness to be somewhat a mild and lesser pain, I can tell you that having a persistent, stinging and itchy feeling from unknown causes with no end in sight is truly painful and maddening. Though I still experience a good measure of discomfort and pain in my life, today it’s to a lesser degree, hugely in part because of a meditation practice that includes techniques for meditating on pain.

Recently I was able to further refine my practices in chronic pain relief when I learned that the wife of a close friend was going through not only chronic pain, but was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. In order to deal with this she was doing what most people do: visiting any number of doctors and specialists, reading extensively online about her condition, trying many restrictive diets and finding little or no relief. After consulting with several incredible meditation teachers, I was able to visit with her and provide at least a temporary insight and cessation of her suffering even though she had really meditated before. If it is possible to help both her and myself, I hope that these practices will be of help to others as well.

The first and obvious thing about pain is that we usually want to get rid of it. However, first we must welcome the pain into our experience. It is in our wanting to get rid of pain so badly that we enter into a denial, thinking that the pain has nothing to teach us and distancing ourselves from it to the point of wanting to 'kill' the pain either through pain 'killers' or having surgery to remove the pain which belongs to the ‘bad other,’ not to the ‘good me.’ The truth is that the pain must be caused, it must be coming from some type of emotional and physical experience whether that’s the stress of work or the stress of life changes or the simply the stress of being alive in this world. Therefore, our first step should be to get more in touch with our awareness of the pain by using our mind to analyze our own body.

This exercise is best performed while lying down and is great to do before bed or anytime during the day when you have a block of time. I prefer to do it on a yoga mat on a hard smooth floor, with a cushion under my head and a blanket over me, but you can use whatever you have available and is most comfortable for you. You'll want to be in a position where you don't need to move from for at least 20 to 30 minutes, and perhaps an hour or longer. This is essentially Yoga Nidra, an ancient practice of moving into the state between wakefulness and dreaming by using the body as an object of focus. At each moment, you can feel some sense of release and relaxation, deepening as you move your attention through your body.

Begin by taking your position lying down on your back and make yourself as comfortable as possible, adjusting your body with intention, bringing your spine into a comfortable neutral position, with your neck gently relaxed and your arms out at your sides, palm facing up. Your feet should be placed a little more than shoulder width apart, heels on the floor and your feet resting comfortably and naturally. You should be able to lay in such a way that you’re not using any muscle strain whatsoever to hold your position. Gently bring your attention to your breath and take a few moments more to adjust and relax into this pose, giving the back of your head a truly comfortable resting place, your back relaxed, arms relaxed, legs relaxed, perhaps taking a few deeper breaths to start then flowing into an easy and relaxed rhythm.

Now with your eyes closed, you'll use your attention like a flashlight to focus and illuminate specific areas of your body, one at a time, in order to bring awareness to the experience of each area of the body. Meet each point with a spirit of allowing, welcoming, accepting what is there. And with each exhale, deepen further into your experience of the area.

There are many parts to touch but the sequence is pretty simple. You can even try running through it a few times with your eyes open before actually doing it to get accustomed to it. The idea is to move through your body with focused attention.

Start at the beginning and spend a breath or as long as you like on each of the following areas to experience relaxation there:

  • Starting with the head – top center of head, forehead, between eyes, right eye, left eye, between eyes, tip of nose, right nostril, left nostril, tip of nose, lips, jaw, throat.
  • Moving down to the torso right side first – right shoulder, right bicep, right elbow, right forearm, right wrist, right thumb and each finger to the pinky, back up the right wrist, right forearm, right elbow, right bicep, right shoulder, moving over to the left side, left shoulder, left bicep, left elbow, left forearm, left wrist, left thumb and each finger to the pinky, back up the left wrist, left forearm, left elbow, left bicep, left shoulder and then to the center of chest, touching the right side of chest and then the left side of chest, bringing attention back to the center of the chest.

  • Continuing to move down the body to the navel, then similarly as we moved through our arms but with the legs – right hip, right thighs, right knee, right calf, right ankle, right big toe and each toe around to the little toe, back up to the right ankle, right calf, right knee, right thighs, right hip and around to the left side, left hip, left thigh, left knee, left calf, left ankle, left big toe and each toe around to the little toe, back up to the left ankle, left calf, left knee, left thigh, left hip, now to the center of your pelvis.

  • Finally, we'll move back up the navel, center of chest, front of the throat, center of forehead, and to the top of the head.

  • As a final step, bring your awareness to the part of your body that usually bothers you the most, where you experience the most pain or discomfort on a regular basis. In this deep state of relaxation, bring your focused attention to this area of the body and experience what is there without judgement – welcoming, allowing, and with curiosity as though you were experiencing it for the first time. Keep your attention there for as long as it’s comfortable for you, before slowly bringing your attention back to your breathing. At this point you’re welcome to either gently fall asleep, or bring yourself back to the room. If you need to be active after this, you might find it helpful to hug your knees and roll over to your right side for a moment slowly coming up to a seated position, with your head the last to rise.

Good luck and please feel free to share any experiences or questions with us here. I'm looking forward to sharing more practices for chronic pain in the next installment of this series!