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Mediation & Self-Compassion: Suffering is Optional

I keep talking about how my migraines have improved, though my migraine diary for December appears to tell a different story. I had at least a level 7 migraine 17 of the first 18 days of the month. Those can be explained by bad weather, Botox injection aftermath, and more bad weather. Just when the weather stabilized, I came down with some lingering low-level virus that has kicked up the migraines, made me nauseated, and drained all my energy. That appears to have finally lifted, so I hope I’m on the upswing. All this and I still say I feel better. Partly this is relative — it doesn’t take much to improve on the migraine hell I was in — but it is more that I have learned how to limit how much I suffer from migraine.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Through meditation, the simple truth of this statement has woven itself into my life: Suffering is not in the pain itself, but in how we react to pain. Understanding these words and truly embracing their meaning take much practice. I have only just begun this practice, but the relief it has brought me is tremendous.

Since I began meditating in earnest in April, I’ve learned to just be with my illness instead of constantly thinking about it and evaluating it. I’ve learned to turn off the critical internal dialogue that has always accompanied migraines, the one that tells me I’m faking it for attention and letting other people down. I finally learned that I am worthy of the love and understanding I so readily give others; that self-compassion is, in fact, a necessary foundation for caring for others.

To figure all this out, I set aside my aversion to all things spiritual/religious and listened to guided meditations and Buddhist teachings and read about applying Buddhist concepts to chronic illness. (So far, Buddhism feels more like psychology than religion to me.) I’ve culled resources from all over the internet and from multiple libraries. The most accessible and helpful (for me) include:

I recommend the first three as audiobooks. I have listened to each one multiple times, often during a migraine. They are calming and easy to fall asleep to. I like to think that my mind is mulling over the concepts while I sleep. Those are good general approaches to healing. How to Be Sick is an invaluable resource for learning to minimize the suffering of chronic illness. It includes detailed examples of how to apply different principles to particular difficult situations common to people with chronic illness (like losing friends and feeling isolated or dealing with the disappointment of failed treatments).

Have you found meditation to be helpful in dealing with your own migraines or headaches? What other techniques helped you accept your illness?

7 Responses to Mediation & Self-Compassion: Suffering is Optional

  1. Sue says:

    I read “How To Be Sick” and listen to Tara Brach regularly, but I still find it difficult to avoid the implied ” you-caused-it-you-can-fix-it” attitude buried within these philosophies.

    For the eighty gazillionth time – I neither caused, nor WANT to be in pain. Zen or no zen, I’m not making this pain happen. If anything, I’m doing everything in my power to make it stop.

  2. Julie says:

    I have read three of the four books you mentioned and I will check out the fourth! All excellent and all help in not “suffering” so much while being in pain. Thanks for this post!

  3. Hello. I’m the author of “How to Be Sick.” I’m so glad you found my book helpful! I just wanted to address Sue, who left a comment. I hope she’ll get my note!

    Sue – I agree with you 100%. I never meant to imply “you caused it you can fix it.” Look at Chapter 3 again on the first noble truth. Stuff happens to us in life. It’s not our fault. It’s just part of being alive. I got sick because I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I completely agree with you: I didn’t cause my illness or pain. I am not making them happen. I’m so sorry if you thought I was saying anything other than that!

    Warmest wishes,
    Toni

  4. Syd says:

    Truly, ‘how to be sick’ changed my life. It was the first glimpse of light in the tunnel — I made everyone in my family buy it so they could start to understand my small world. I’ve been slogging through ‘Full catastrophe living’ audiobook for months, but I am SO happy to have these guided meditations to try. As always, thank you so very much!

  5. Jessica says:

    I’m so glad to hear that these books have helped. I have been dealing with CDH for 2 years now and I recently started participating in a study at Johns Hopkins that is testing the effects of Vipassana meditation on headaches. I am going on a 12 day retreat where they teach you how to meditate, and I was a little skeptical. But, this really helped. 🙂
    thanks

  6. Kaitlyn says:

    I have been facilitating groups with How to Be Sick for some time… and we certainly don’t ascribe to “its your fault”. However, the more compassion you learn for yourself and others, visualizing yourself not trapped but a vessel open on the top and bottom is a practice that helps so many. If you do not picture the pain being poured into you, but flowing out, while you breathe through, it helps so much. Also star gazing, looking at the sky during pain, opens up my world.

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