These are my experiences of the Mindfulness for Health course I recently completed. This article is not a substitute for attending a course yourself and will only give you a small insight into the course and its effects on my journey. The book that supports this course is available to purchase here. For more information on attending a course in Sheffield, see here.
It’s very likely that if you suffer from chronic pain, you have turned your pain into some sort of evil demon that you try to avoid and that you fear. Week 1 of the Mindfulness for Health course was all about reconnecting and making contact with your own body once again. But why would I want to reconnect with the painful body I am trapped within? Why would I want to listen to the pain screaming and actually acknowledge it? Surely ignoring it and denying it was the right thing to do?
Breathworks teach about two levels of suffering. Firstly, the actual, physical unpleasant sensations you actually feel in your body which are known as primary suffering, then the thoughts, feelings, emotions and memories that are associated with the pain; known as secondary suffering. They believe that we actually feel a combination of both of these and that if you learn to separate the two of them, you can greatly reduce, and sometimes even eliminate your pain.
The concept of primary and secondary suffering really resonates with me. At times, I would be in pain, but the worry about the pain getting worse, or not ever ending, would cause me even more distress. As we discussed this as a group, it was clear other members of the class felt a similar way. It was so valuable listening to each other and realising how similar our experiences were with suffering and how much additional suffering we were all adding.
During this week, we were taught the Body Scan meditation. This meditation aims to reconnect your mind with your own body, by gently moving your awareness around your body region by region to observe what you find. To this day, I find this meditation difficult because I obviously don’t want to go looking for where things hurt in my body. But, it’s a meditation that does raise your awareness towards what you are actually feeling and not what you think you should be feeling; and often that isn’t as bad as you expect it to be.
You are asked to view any pain or suffering with as much kindness and understanding as possible and pay particular attention to the breath. I know when I feel pain, stress or discomfort I tend to hold my breath and we were taught that this can increase tension and stress in the whole body and ultimately fuel secondary suffering. By paying attention to the breath , it will naturally become calmer, deeper and more rhythmic and in turn, this stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which releases hormones that lessens tension and promotes healing.
Initially, I found that the body scan actually made me feel a bit worse, and I really had to stick at it. If you have been in pain for a long time then it can take a while for your body to adapt to the lessening tension and stress. I also found I would be quite sleepy after a body scan, but I was assured this was perfectly normal and in fact a good indication of how beneficial the body scan was for me.
Our homework at the end of the class was twice daily body scan meditations, maintaining a diary of our experiences with daily meditation, pausing to make ourselves aware of the breath regularly and a wonderful habit releaser to spend time in nature.
I found this week to be really useful, and my understanding of the real benefits of mindfulness began to take shape. Something as simple as breathing properly and acknowledging the pain and discomfort I was in, was having an immense effect on not only the sensations I was feeling but also on how I dealt with them. How I could breathe through them with a kind and curious attitude rather than dwelling and catastrophising them. An incredibly powerful discovery.
Read more about my experiences on the Mindfulness for Health course: