A friend spoke movingly about her slow realisation that rather than ‘conquering’ her migraines she might need to learn to live with them, to approach them rather than push them away.
I found myself referring her to the tender counsel of Vidyamala Burch, whose Breathworks programme supports a practice of mindfulness that encourages just that, turning towards discomfort, pain, and suffering with an open, kind, and curious compassion. Concurrently there’s also a noticing of what is wholesome, lovely, and pleasurable in our experience.
In her book Mindfulness for Health (co-written with Danny Penman) Vidyamala – who herself has lived with chronic pain from a major spinal injury and additional illness, all of her adult life – offers approaches, activities, and meditations that support this tender turning towards.
This is not to wallow in suffering, rather to distinguish the primary source of pain – most often something we cannot change – from the secondary suffering elicited by our aversion to the pain, in a physical or emotional reaction to our situation.
To spot the ‘first dart’ of primary pain, over which we have no control, without succumbing to second and subsequent ‘darts’ (our reactions to the first) allows us to lessen the impact of the bombardment.
Vidyamala shares a lovely image of us being able to lean ever so gently upon the ‘hay bale’ of those experiences (and memories, sensations) to which we feel a resistance, noticing the slight ‘give’ of the hay under our bodies as we do so.
Whenever I see baled hay (or, more likely in the east of England, round bales of straw from wheat harvest) I chuckle slightly, remembering the simple beauty and value of this practice.
She also encourages us to investigate and relish little mindful moments of comfort, appreciation and pleasure in our experience, even sometimes within the pain itself, which is not – we find – a fixed block of ‘badness’, but a complex assemblage of sensations, some of them supportive and healing,
So, learning to recognise the ‘treasure of pleasure’, and the ‘give’ of bales of hay and straw against which we lean, we can approach life as a treasure hunt (albeit prickly), an adventure, an onward journey.