Meditation and Pain

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

Ten billion dollars per year are spent in America alone for analgesic drugs and surgical procedures to stop physical pain. A similar amount is spent on tranquilizers in an attempt to numb psychological pain. We are developing into a society which is learning to fear any pain, even the normal physiological pain of childbirth and which will pay any price for escape.

Pain is a complex phenomena involving physical, emotional and mental factors. We can generally divide pain into two areas:

  1. Somatopsychic in which painful stimuli from outside affect our bodies and then our minds.
  2. Psychosomatic in which the mental turmoil of anxieties, depression, desires and ambitions, and the frustration which follows when they are unfulfilled, guilt, and so on, affect the body.

Pain, no matter what type, affects the body in the same way increasing adrenaline release, heart rate, blood pressure and temperature. These reactions are mediated by the brain which coordinates physical sensation, emotions and thoughts. We normally react to pain according to how we are taught. Some cultures teach stoic endurance. Others teach that it is better to vent one's pain in an emotional outburst. If our mind is strong and we do not fear pain, the suffering is less than when the anxiety and fear of hurt compounds the problem. This is obvious. Our response to pain determines how much it will affect us.

Meditative response

Meditation is probably the best method to cope with the mental and emotional components of pain.

This is achieved in various stages. At first we must quieten the mind and relax the tensions, so that we can begin to see just what is going on. We must become aware of the conditioning that has caused us to react to pain and all of life's situations in certain ways. We see that the way we have been taught is not the only way to react and that we have the freedom to laugh or cry in any given situation.

As we progress, gain relaxation and health, meditative discipline teaches us to sense the purpose of pain, to 'wake up' in the spiritual sense. We see that most of our pain is caused by lack of awareness, basic ignorance. Using meditative awareness, we develop greater insight into our own weaknesses and failings as well as into the workings of life. We become more skilful.

Deeper meditative insight teaches us detachment and forbearance, especially as we become adept at withdrawing the mind from the senses. We develop our witness consciousness so that we care less, and are therefore hurt less, if our desires are fulfilled or not. After all, desires are endless. This frees us from our dependence on drugs for every little pain in our lives. We become more willing and more able to stay with our pains, to try to see into them, their cause, and what they are trying to teach us.

Meditation and pain relief

Because meditation is such a powerful aid in managing and dispelling the pains of life, one of the most important areas of yogic research today is focused on the usefulness of meditation in chronic pain relief. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Director of the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program, University of Massachusetts Hospital, conducted research on 51 chronic pain patients, using the mindfulness meditation technique in a 10 week program. These were mainly patients who had not improved with traditional medical care.

Mindfulness meditation is a form which induces witness consciousness, similar to antar mouna. The author states that it appears to cause an 'uncoupling' of the sensory dimension of the pain experience from the emotional and intellectual alarm reaction, also called panic, and reduces the experience of suffering by changing our mental attitude (cognitive reappraisal). What this means is that this form of meditation induces pratyahara (withdrawal of the mind from the senses) and detachment (calming the reactive and panic components of the mind).

After 10 weeks 65% of patients reduced their pain by 33% and overall 50% or more. There were similar decreases in other medical symptoms. The author states, 'Large and significant reductions in mood disturbance and psychiatric symptomatology accompanied these changes and were relatively stable on 'follow-up'. He concludes that this form of meditation can be used as the basis of an effective behavioral program in self-regulation for chronic pain patients.

In another experiment Walter Mills and John Farrow compared 15 advanced meditators with 15 controls who simply relaxed.*2 They applied painful stimuli (cold pressor test) before and after 20 minutes of meditation. Skin resistance and heart rate were measured throughout and verbal reports were made during the test. Although both groups experienced roughly the same intensity of pain, the meditative group was shown to have significantly less distress during both trials.

The authors state that the meditators actually appear to experience less pain and that after meditation they experienced markedly less distress. One can argue that though the pain stimulus is the same for meditators as for non-meditators, the effect of meditation is to change the way the brain handles the stress, with less fear, anxiety, depression and neurotic overlay.

The important thing that emerges from these experiments is that scientists have been approaching pain from the wrong angle, purely from the somatopsychic, physical, sensory side, the nerves and chemicals involved in pain, rather than from the psychosomatic angle. We must also learn to develop the mind, which when calmed by meditation allows us to find solutions to our problems and pain.

James Varnis, of the University of Southern California School of Medicine, applied meditation to three adult haemophiliacs (a serious disease in which bleeding does not stop spontaneously) who suffered chronic arthritic pain associated with their disease.*3 Breath awareness meditation and progressive muscular relaxation produced significant sustained reduction in pain for all subjects. Other researchers have used meditation in therapy with considerable success.

The results of such research on meditation, in terms of its potential effects on society as a whole, our concepts of pain and suffering, and our approach to life's experiences, should make us aware of the necessity of putting theory into practice and thereby reducing unnecessary pain and suffering. The whole doctor-patient therapeutic relationship can benefit from the addition of meditation. However, we should all take note of the advantages of using meditation as a means of resolving the pain in our lives.


*1. Jon Kabat-Zinn, 'An Outpatient Program in Behavioural Medicine for Chronic Pain Patients on the Practice of Mindfulness Meditation', General Hospital Psychiatry, Vol. 4, 33-42, 1982. -20-

*2. Walter Mills & John Farrow, 'The Transcendental Meditation Technique and Acute Experimental Pain', Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol. 43, no. 2, April 1981.

*3. James W. Varni, 'Self-Regulation techniques in the management of chronic arthritic pain in haemophilia.' Behaviour Therapy 1981 (Mar) Vol. 12.