A taste of the Mindfulness for Health course from Breathworks teacher and pain specialist Tuula.

There is excitement in the room. People chance curious glances at each other. New people around, people you have never seen. Men and women, who have brought suffering and pain with them, here, into this room. We are going to meet eight times over these next months; there is time to get to know each other. This is a Breathworks mindfulness pain management program. Mindfulness and meditation as pain treatment – this is a very new idea for most people here.

We introduce ourselves in pairs, tell our stories of why we are here; how we would like to manage our pain and health conditions better. We tell just what we feel is safe to tell for now. Then, pairs introduce their partners to the group. This is the first mindfulness practice: mindful listening in this moment.

People wish their pain would be more tolerable and wish that they could somehow accept the pain. They would like to learn from others’ experiences and to have a source of support. Some wish to diminish the pain medication and find non-medical treatment for pain. Good goals, that arise in every group.

 Then one man says quietly: “I look for mercy and forgiveness.” 
What do you mean?” I ask. 
My pain has come and brushed away everything in my life, everything has changed, I am not the same person anymore. I seek mercy and forgiveness.”

As weeks pass we talk less and less about pain and suffering. We have learned that no amount of talking and thinking can solve the problem of pain. In the practice we turn towards the pain, the unpleasant sensation, breath by breath. How do we experience the pain, how does it feel to soften around the pain instead of resisting or trying to escape it? This moment, this breath, this sensation. We find that the pain is changing all the time, as everything changes: breath, emotions, thoughts, and sensations move through us like flowing water. We bring a new kindness into the experience. Is that mercy?

Threats, danger, and potential problems; our brain is wired to detect these things as fast as possible, and to hold them in attention, demanding that a solution be found. Now, after experiencing our familiar unpleasant sensations in a new way; a kindly, open way, we begin to turn towards the pleasant. Our evolved instinct is to focus on the unpleasant, and ignore the pleasant.  Now we begin to tune in our brain to that which is beautiful around us; the things that are usually hidden behind our pain and suffering. How lovely it is to find miracles in our garden, or on our way to work, only by opening our senses to receive them. The birds which have been singing to us this whole time. The flowers we have been too busy to see. The first smell of the earth after a long and snowy winter. We surrender to these small and everyday wonders.

In the same way, we learn to  find something pleasant in our own, suffering body. It can be tiny, but very significant: soft skin, warm hands, a light wind on the cheek, a mere absense of pain in some part of the body; anything. It is joyful to notice something good in our body and let it be as it is. No need to change anything.

Weeks pass by. How can we find balance, when the world around us is upside down and the pain is trying to control us by changing its locations and intensity? We learn to observe and to be in our body moment by moment, breath by breath. We learn to let the pleasant and unpleasant sensations come, let them be and let them go without trying to change anything. We let the breath flow naturally and soften to all our experiences. We touch the pain in a gentle way, as we would comfort a fearful child. We meet the pleasant sensations by letting them be as they are, without clinging on to them.

Pain is isolating, and as our group approaches the end of the course, we have a theme of connection to others. We may feel pressure and demands from our surroundings, and some from ourselves. How do we find connection to others without trying to pretend to be happy and healthy? It is helpful to listen to our own body and recognize our resourses. I give myself as I am and I receive help, when needed.

What have we learned? Peer support in the group has become significant. We have shared our experiences, learned from each other and from ourselves. We have created our own humour, black but gentle. A concrete change has begun in how we pace our daily lives. We have learned to listen to our bodies and mind and to take a break before we need a break. Mindfulness meditation has become a part of our life. Natural breathing has become our pain medication. Some have been able to diminish medication and others have accepted that they will still need some. However, we have found many new ways to manage pain aside from the pill bottle.

The main finding is kindliness and compassion towards ourselves. These qualities allow us to accept pain that can’t be changed, and to recognize that there are still many things we can change; still much happiness and well-being to be found. Pain may be part of our life, but we are much more.  If we have had to abandon something, there are always new possibilities, if we let ourselves see them. First, we need to forgive pain.

Tuula Korhonen, Breathworks teacher, anaesthetist and pain specialist

 Find out more about the Breathworks Mindfulness for Health course here.