Meditating Under Duress — How to Overcome Any Pain and Use Mindfulness to Become a Total Badass
I’ve become a big fan of meditating under duress. I used to be focused on meditation as the pursuit of some perfect spiritual experience. Was I sitting properly? Were my hands in the right position? Was I surrounded by beauty?
That’s all nice. But let me give you some alternative, ugly situations to meditate in.
I’m talking about how meditating your way through a cold shower can turn you into some sort of Navy SEAL style warrior who is impervious to pain.
Let me start with some of the recent science.
The Science of Meditating Through Pain
Pain and the perception of pain are two different things.
In 2010 and 2011, researchers at Wake Forest started releasing studies taken of participants under MRI while practicing mindfulness meditation. Half of the participants were also being subjected to pain (I love science!).
What they found was perception of pain dropped by 40% for people who they had trained to meditate through the experience.
Meditation in this case was your standard mindfulness meditation “in which the pupil is taught to focus on a sense, often his or her breath, while accepting transient thoughts.”
“Meditation teaches patients how to react to the pain. People are less inclined to have the ‘Ouch’ reaction, then they are able to control the emotional reaction to pain.” The meditator learns while sitting on the cushion that pain is fleeting and doesn’t deserve such a strong emotional reaction. — The Atlantic, Treating Chronic Pain With Meditation
What’s especially cool (to me) is that the researchers were able to measure this thanks to the MRI. There was a large reduction in brain activity in the pain processing centers. So, this meditation advice is scientific, not wu wu.
So, clearly, the while the infliction of pain was held constant, the participants, could control the perception of that pain.
Practice With Cold Showers
There’s a simple way to practice this type of meditation under duress that won’t cause you any physical harm. Take a cold shower.
Cold showers have a legion of hard core fans who swear by the health benefits: increased alertness, reduced depression, better hair, faster recovery. I’m skipping over all that and just offering this to you as a way to practice being tough.
Let me give you a meditative way to take a cold shower. This is a variation on the Awareness-Focus Loop that I talked about in Overcoming Procrastination.
The key with focusing on the Awareness and Focus aspects of mindfulness meditation is to bring thoughts and feelings into your pre-frontal cortex where you can deal with them in a matter of fact way.
And in my version of this meditation, the way you convert a sensation from an emotional feeling into a rational concept is by using your language center.
Express the sensation as a fully formed sentence that starts with “I am aware…”
Here’s the start of the meditation:
- Just put your foot under the cold shower.
- Start meditating by deep breathing.
- Instead of focusing on your breath, focus on your foot.
- Notice every sensation your foot is feeling. With each sensation, articulate that sensation as a full sentence. Your first sentence might be, “I am aware that there is cold water on my foot.”
- Some other things you might notice are: “I am aware that my foot is cold” often followed by “I am aware that my foot feels warm” (here’s an article on this experience of temperature desensitization).
That’s the start. You’ve successfully reduced the emotional component of cold water on your foot.
To continue your cold shower, repeat the steps above with more and more of your body in the shower. First your leg, then your belly, then your chest, then your face, then the back of the neck.
By the end of the cold shower you will have experienced all of the negative sensations without any of the negative perceptions. You’ve eliminated the fear and whining that a normal person would associate with a cold shower.
Disassociation vs. Association
The shower exercise is an association exercise. Rather than ignore the pain, you embrace it and put all your focus on it.
Here’s another area of your life where you’ve probably experienced this: exercise.
Do you jog with your headphones on? That’s a disassociation exercise. The music keeps your attention on something other than the pain.
But there’s a secret that serious runners know (and I’ve experienced this). It’s better to keep your focus on the sensations.
In the heat of a race, your quads start burning, you might experience the twinge that precedes a cramp, and your body starts screaming at you to get more oxygen.
This is where the “I am aware” exercise lets you manage the emotional component of that pain and make coldly rational decisions about how to ration your remaining energy.
“I am aware that my left quad is burning but that the muscles are also still working. Therefore I will keep running fast.”
Competitive runners don’t feel less pain than you — they feel much more. It just doesn’t bother them.
Also, and this is important, they aren’t white knuckling their way through the pain in the way that you expect. At the end of a race, competitive runners are actually more calm than you are ten minutes into a twenty minute treadmill session. I’d describe it more as an focus rather than a struggle. For example, here’s the face of the recent Olympic 1500m winner as he crossed the finish line:
Centrowitz, above, is experiencing more oxygen debt and lactic acid build up than any of us have ever imagined. But those things don’t worry him the way they worry most people.
Consider that the next time you’re on the treadmill or exercise bike. What are you actually feeling and is the pain really that bad? I’ll wrap up with a quote from my favorite fictional runner, Quentin Cassidy:
“Cassidy always felt that those who partook of the difficult pleasures of the highly competitive runner only when comfortable, when in a state of high energy, when rested, elated, or untroubled by previous exertions, such dilettantes missed the point.”
The point? The point is to use meditation to prove to yourself how much you are capable of achieving.