Meditation and Pain

One of the goals of the Feldenkrais Method is to develop greater awareness of your movement patterns. Why? According to Moshe Feldenkrais “if you know what you are doing you can do what you want.” Sounds reasonable enough.

I was reminded of this quote after reading about a line of research which attempts to show exactly how meditation can help with chronic pain. The message seems to be that if you know how to focus your attention, you can focus on what you want – in this case, something besides your pain. Here’s some detail on this research, which is summarized in an awesome full text paper here. (courtesy of Diane Jacobs.)

Inputs, outputs and filtering

First some background. At any particular moment, our brains are bombarded by a massive amount of information from the sensory organs of the body – visual data, auditory data, information about body position, balance, and potential threats to tissues from mechanical, thermal or chemical stimuli. This information goes to the brain for processing, and often results in a subjective perception, such as sight, sound, kinesthetic sense or pain. So the sensory information can be considered an input to the brain and the sensation is an output of the brain. This is an important distinction.

Not all the inputs from the body actually result in a perceptive output. For example, just because your brain receives auditory information, this doesn’t mean you will hear a sound. A good deal of sensory information gets filtered out before becoming an actual sensation, because the information is deemed to be redundant, irrelevant or for whatever reason not worth turning into a perception. The result is that a good deal of the sense data gathered by our bodies never becomes part of the movie in our heads.

This is probably because if we subjectively perceived all the information that was available to us at one time, we would be completely overwhelmed. Like watching four movies at once, we wouldn’t get the message from any of them. So the brain picks and chooses what streams of information to turn into actual perceptions based on what it considers to be useful. This filtering process is sometimes called the cocktail party effect, based on the familiar experience of being able to tune in and out of different conversations at a party based on where your attention goes. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to focus on the good not the bad, the happy not the sad, the pleasure not the pain? Didn’t Bobby McFerrin write a song about that?

Meditation trains the filter

New research suggests that meditation trains the ability to optimally filter sensory information. Specifically, a series of studies described in detail here have shown:

  • When attentional focus is shifted, alpha wave activity in the brain changes. Specifically, greater amplitude alpha waves means more filtering of information. For example, research shows that focusing attention on the left hand is associated with a drop of alpha wave amplitude in the brain map for the left hand.  
  • Persons trained in an eight week mindfulness program display quicker and larger amplitude changes in alpha waves when shifting their attention from the foot to the hand.

So, to use the cocktail party analogy, meditation can help you improve your alpha wave function, which can make it easier for you to stop hearing the boring talker next to you and listen in on a more interesting conversation nearby.

The authors of this research state that skill in filtering is related to “metacognition”:

 … metacognition is an emergent property of mindfulness practice in ST-Mindfulness that is derived from training in subsidiary mechanistic processes including attention and emotion regulation. Drawing on this emergent metacognitive capacity, ST-Mindfulness practitioners learn to monitor their moment-by-moment experience so that they can “step back” from negative, distressing thoughts and feelings in order to view them as “mental events” rather than as unmediated reflections of reality.

Whoa. Sounds deep. And it sounds like the Feldenkrais quote about knowing what you are doing and doing what you want.

Mindfulness helps with … everything

But can shifting your attention from your hand to your foot really make you better at shifting your attention from negative thoughts or physical pains to happy thoughts and good vibrations? I have previously written about how the brain was originally  designed for movement, and therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that practicing movement has transfer to other mental domains. For example, practicing the skill of inhibiting unwanted movement through a “stop task” improves impulse control related to addictions. And here’s a quote from the authors describing some of the impressive research that has been developed showing that meditation has benefits far outside the realm of just getting better at sitting and watching your breath:

Based on multiple randomized clinical trials, there is good evidence for the efficacy of these ST-Mindfulness programs for preventing mood disorders in people at high risk of depression (Teasdale et al., 2000a,b;Ma and Teasdale, 2004Segal et al., 2010Fjorback et al., 2011Piet and Hougaard, 2011), improving mood and quality of life in chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia (Grossman et al., 2007Sephton et al., 2007Schmidt et al., 2011) and low-back pain (Morone et al., 2008a,b), in chronic functional disorders such as IBS (Gaylord et al., 2011) and in challenging medical illnesses, including multiple sclerosis (Grossman et al., 2010) and cancer (Speca et al., 2000). ST-Mindfulness has also been shown to decrease stress in healthy people undergoing difficult life situations (Cohen-Katz et al., 2005), such as caring for a loved-one with Alzheimer’s disease (Epstein-Lubow et al., 2006).

…ST-Mindfulness is reported to reduce self-reported rumination (Ramel, 2004Deyo et al., 2009), which is the negative repetitive, self-related internal cognitions that predominate in major depression (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000). In chronic pain and functional disorders, ST-Mindfulness is reported to reduce patients’ tendency to catastrophize and engage in repetitive negative cognitions such as, the pain is “terrible and I feel it’s never going to get better” (Garland et al., 2012).

Is there a drug that can do all this? Meditation seems like powerful medicine indeed, perhaps second only to general exercise in its health benefits. I find it fascinating that this all purpose mental muscle can be developed by something as simple as focusing attention on bodily sensations.

So don’t just sit there!

Pay attention to just sitting there! You might get better at playing the mental movies you want to watch.

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17 Responses to Meditation and Pain

  1. Awesome article, Todd! I really like your explanations. The input-output distinction is pretty interesting.

    Btw: I prefer meditation in everyday tasks. Although I started meditating about 4 years ago and I really love it, I still have a resistance to start and keep it going for longer than 5 minutes… So I have made it a ritual to meditate walking to the bus station.

    Anyway, I find your article really convincing and motivating :)

    • HI BG,

      Thanks. Yes I found it motivating too. I need to get back with my meditation practice, I’m slacking! I try to get in my mindfulness with things like walking running or movement work, but I really need to sit more too!

  2. Great article Todd. I have recently picked up my meditation practice again, in addition to doing Tai Chi on occasion. However, this time through I am doing standing meditation. Somewhat stunned at how potent it is to meditate standing up. At least for me.

    I hope you are doing well out there!


    • Thanks Ryan,

      I think that the ATMs and tai chi probably has many of the same benefits as meditation. Standing meditation?! Yikes sounds uncomfortable. Glad it’s working for you though!

      • Hi Todd,

        Standing meditation is something I practice regularly as a part of my “internal” cultivation I guess. You mentioned that it sounds uncomfortable, but there is something very interesting about proper standing practice that happens once you get some skill: things start to relax. Everything starts to be very comfortable, so much so that you don’t actually want to come out of whatever posture you are in. For me at least, a feeling of warmth along with a buzzing/tingling starts to permeate throughout the muscles some time after they decide to release themselves. The structure becomes very soft but extremely stable (i.e. i can resist outside force with minimal effort on my behalf), and this kind of continues into the deeper tissues, and you can really start to notice the energetic properties of the body. At some point, all of the tension (or blockages) will be totally removed, and you will be able to remain in the state relatively indefinitely, something I cannot do but I have seen my coach do. There is no perceived exertion even in difficult single leg with a bent knee postures. Along with all of that, this ability to be very stable even while outside sources are pressing on you is developed. It’s less of a muscular strength thing and more of an ability to redirect the force into the ground. It also assists with developing this “inch power” that martial artists demonstrate sometimes.

        I’d be very interested to see a study done on some skillful practitioners (unfortunately most studies tend to be done on people who are rubbish at it and most skilled people arent interested in studies) to actually find out the science of what is happening.

        If you’re interested in following it up, the practice is called “zhan zhuang” in chinese (literally: Standing [like a] Pole).

        Hope this helps!

  3. Maybe i don’t fully understand the post, but (to me) it seems to imply that meditation helps you filter out pain by focusing on something else. That’s not how meditation works. That’s only concetration (witch is part of meditation).

    The real benefit of meditation is not the ability to focus elsewhere, ignoring a part of what is. It’s geting back the perception of pain at what it is, and not let the mind grow this perception out of proportion.

    It’s not denying pain reality, it’s geting more “real”.

    • Hi Renaud,

      Thanks for the comments. I agree that meditation is not about just denying reality and creating a fantasy world to live in. But an important component of recognizing what is real (as you acknowledge) is filtering out or focusing away from certain mental events – such as ruminations, catastrophising or “growing things out of proportion” that tend to be a problem in people with depression, chronic pain, etc. So focusing away does have value in meditation. Does that make sense?

  4. Thanks Todd, as always, you are on the mark! I love sending your site to all my young guys that can access Feldenkrais better through your lens. Keep them coming.

  5. Great article Todd. This is very encouraging for us in the mindfulness type industry.

    I would love to see some research comparing seated mindfulness vs moving mindfulness. There is already so much sitting in our culture I would rather work with moving if it could even get close to the same benefits.

    • Hi Byron,

      Thanks! Yes I would like to see that as well. Mostly so I could feel good about not just sitting! I suspect that moving mindfulness has many of the same benefits.

  6. Another great post Todd. I have been reading a fair amount about mindfulness research, and am renewing the practice myself, after a long hiatus. I think there are many reasons that mindfulness meditation can help people in pain in addition to the ability to shift attention away from pain. For one, it has been shown to reduce anxiety and improve other aspects of mental and emotional well-being, so I think it also changes the affective dimension of the pain experience. I think it probably reduces the level of perceived threat as well. And it is also good at helping people shift their relationship to the pain experience, so can be beneficial even if it doesn’t necessarily reduce pain.

    By the way, I like Ryan, often do a form of chi gung standing meditation, when done well it doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. I sit enough as it is :)

    • Hi Seth,

      Yep, those are definitely some other ways that meditation can help. I think the idea of pain not being as “bad” even though it “hurts’ just as much is a very interesting one.

  7. For anyone interested in this topic, I highly recommend a book by the novelist Tim Parks, ‘Teach Us To Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing.’ After suffering for many years with mysterious and nearly-debilitating pelvic pain, Parks (sceptically) turned to Vipassana meditation. This eventually provided relief that no treatment could, particularly after a long meditation retreat in which focused on “explor[ing] every inch of your body, observing all the sensations you come across.” He summarizes his experiences here,, but the book itself really is a great read – entertaining and beautifully written, and inspiring.

  8. I agree that Learning to sit is a good read but at the end of it I was left with the feeling that he still didnt get it, but maybe that was the point of the book.Worth reading but not for beginners looking to learn meditation but a great mirror for those really smart people who try to intellectulize everything to death.

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