Most meditation practices seem to start by centring you in your body. Breathe deeply. Be mindful of your physical presence. Gently relax your muscles. You know the routine. The trouble with pain is that being aware of it is the last thing you want. I’ve yet to experience a pain that I can’t suffer from more by paying it close attention.
Some pains I can soothe with the awesome power of my mind, but the truth is that the awesome power of my mind is fairly limited, and sometimes of no use at all. It’s especially useless if the pain is in my head or face to begin with. It’s also a lost cause if I don’t have the concentration to meditate, and there’s nothing like pain for wrecking my concentration.
(As an aside, this is not a request for pain management advice of any sort, there’s a lot of specific detail missing here, as there often is when people talk about pain. This is not a thinly veiled request for guidance about how to deal with pain. I am dealing with my pain, these are observations arising from what I’ve been doing. Onwards…)
Unfortunately, sleeping calls for a period of just being alone in my head with whatever pain I’m feeling. So, while often the solution to meditation not helping with pain is not to meditate, on the edge of sleep, I really need all the help I can get. A meditation practice that can take me away from the pain and into some other head space can really help.
I visualise the pain itself as being like a big door surrounded by flames. My challenge is to get through the door and into the headspace where I don’t feel the pain. Now, normal meditations encourage us to be calm, to feel gentle, peaceful emotions. I have found that doesn’t help me deal with pain. However, if I set up a visualisation or a pathworking that evokes really strong emotions, I can become sufficiently involved with it to take me out of my bodily awareness. This creates the weird situation that being in pain may be the best time for me to try and work on difficult emotional things. I stay away from things that cause too much fear, because panic is not conducive to sleep.
I can’t say how or if this would work for anyone else, but it might. You need to plan what you’re going to work with and pick things that you personally will find emotive in intense and powerful ways. You can’t use any of the normal settling in techniques because they’re all too body centred. I tend to picture the fiery door, gather my wits and dive headlong into the most intense meditation I can think of. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but when it does work it allows me, eventually, to go to sleep, and that’s quite some blessing.