It Starts With Mindfulness

Mindfulness, or “noticing” as we call it, is the beginning of our Mindbody approach. As discussed in my previous article, we prefer the term ‘noticing’ because it directly describes what one is doing during the sitting meditation part of our Mindbody pain management sessions. So what is it we are noticing and what does one do with that information for managing pain?

When we sit quietly in meditation, a number of things become apparent. For example the position of the legs, the back, the head, the arms & hands etc. all become objects of observation. We want to notice exactly what each of these body areas is feeling and the exact nature of these sensations. One can think of it as an exploration of the body by moving the attention from one part to the next. This is referred to scanning in the Mindfulness literature. While there is a specific sequence that can be used called the “body scan”, we advocate that people explore and thereby develop their own relationship with body sensations. One of the reasons for this is that each person has a unique situation with respect to pain and therefore the scanning process may need to take this into account.

In our sitting, the main goals are to passively allow the body and mind to become as quiet as they can while noticing the nature of sensations, thoughts, feelings etc. Because we are immersed in constantly changing conditions this practice of noticing can always find new things to notice. Our bodies are changing as we age. Our life circumstances are changing. Relationships come and go. Events happen and stress impacts us.  Repeatedly noticing the things that occur inside us and outside us while remaining still and relaxed can help us reduce stress and thus pain. These effects of meditation practice have been well described.

What happens when we engage our minds in similar ways while we stand and move? This is what our Mindbody program explores. In our standing meditation practice the dynamics of balance, leg muscles, and specific standing postures contribute a whole new set of sensations to the inner quiet cultivated by seated meditation. We then add progressive relaxation and mental imaging exercises to release tension from the muscles and help achieve a mechanically sound posture.

From standing we progress to gentle, slow weight shifting and then practice walking, all the while working on staying relaxed and using imagery to help generate the sensations of correct body mechanics. This addition of the imagination to generate changes in body sensations is an important component in managing pain. It is not easy and it is a skill that requires practice and patience. But it can have the effect of starting to bring one’s experience of sensation under more control.  The more it is exercised, the better the control. The skill of managing one’s experience of sensation and inner response to it may lead less reliance on drugs and other passive treatments.

It must be remembered that the ground work for this kind of skill is mindfulness or noticing. Without the ability to notice the moment by moment experience of sensation, it is very difficult to affect it with the imagination. This is why we wholeheartedly support the idea of mindfulness and recommend it to anyone wanting to get some control of their inner experience. We repeatedly tell participants in our groups that of all the skills we teach, seated meditation is the most important. It is always tempting to rush to the seemingly more advance techniques of imagining a feeling and controlling it. But this will not function as well if one cannot remain mindful of what is happening.

So this is why we say that we start with mindfulness. By investing time building the skill of noticing exactly what is taking place, moment by moment, one can begin to examine the best use of the imagination to have a positive effect on sensations and the ability to move. Each person will have his/her own needs and our approach encourages each to find the best use of our methods. Remember that our circumstances are always changing so each person is best served by noticing the exact nature of these changes. We believe that engaging mind and body together can enhance not just coping but actual physical performance.