THE PAIN PARADOX from “Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness”.


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There is one more idea in Buddhism and MBSR that shapes our orientation to mindfulness: the notion that our avoidance of suffering can exacerbate it.

 

Mindfulness experts John Briere and Catherine Scott referred to this as the pain paradox—the observation that our natural tendency to escape, deny, or withdraw from pain only intensifies and prolongs the distress.
What we resist, the saying goes, persists.

 

This paradox was key to Kabat-Zinn’s introduction of MBSR to the medical community.

 

When he originally approached doctors with the idea of having patients meditate, Kabat-Zinn was advocating for a fundamentally different approach to suffering—one that lay at the heart of the Buddhist tradition he’d trained in.


“From the perspective of mindfulness,” he wrote, “nothing needs fixing.


Nothing needs to be forced to stop, or change, or go away.”

 

Perhaps not surprisingly, this idea raised eyebrows.

 

Western medicine was built largely on helping alleviate people’s pain, offering interventions such as medication or surgery.

 

Mindfulness ran completely counter to this paradigm. How could paying closer attention to one’s pain alleviate it?


Yet doctors were also open to the idea. Each of them had patients they couldn’t cure and who were resistant to conventional treatment approaches. Doctors and their patients had little to lose.

 

The first MBSR studies thus began with those who were suffering from chronic pain.

 

Kabat-Zinn wanted to see whether they could mobilize their own internal responses to the suffering they were experiencing. “We invited them, paradoxically,” he said, “to put the welcome mat out for whatever sensations they were experiencing, just to see if they could attend to them moment by moment and ‘befriend’ the actuality of their experience, even briefly.”

 

The results were successful. Patients found that their relationship to pain shifted positively when they practiced mindfulness.

 

At times, their pain even disappeared. Patients also reported discovering that the vexing sensations that lived inside them were transient and shifting.

 

Rather than being constant throughout their day, the pain was shifting over time—a huge realization for those who felt perpetually burdened by their bodies.


Mindfulness was helping people relate to their pain differently.


For some, it was even opening a door to a freedom they had forgotten or had previously not known.
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