I was both eager and skeptical to read the book You Are Not Your Pain [Amazon affiliate link], which I received a free copy of for review. The book is a self-guided, pain-focused mindfulness-based stress reduction course that includes audio tracks of guided meditations. I was excited to read the book because I’ve been searching for an inexpensive DIY guide to MBSR to recommend to readers since I took an in-person course in 2008. None of the options quite fit. Until I found You Are Not Your Pain.
Even though authors Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman have chronic pain themselves, I was skeptical that they had the authority to really understand what it’s like to live with pain. I’m not proud to say I questioned their credibility, but I did. Reading their stories made it seem almost too easy. Like their symptoms were mild and non-disruptive to begin with, so applying mindfulness was no trouble for them. I was wrong. My misperception was a result of the authors distilling their stories so they wouldn’t overshadow the book’s content. After all, this is a guide to mindfulness, not a memoir.
I was fortunate to be able to ask Vidyamala Burch, one of the authors, the questions that arose when I read the book. Her responses were thoughtful and detailed. Instead of just printing the interview, this post is the first of a six-week series that uses her replies to explain concepts of the book. Even if you have no interest in the book, these posts contain valuable information about coping with chronic pain. The topics I (and Vidyamala) will address include:
- This Moment: When I was my sickest, I would go to bed wondering how I would get through each day. Similarly, Vidyamala did not think she would be able to make it through the night when she was in the hospital with severe pain. She describes the thought that got her through that night and subsequent nights. And started her journey with mindfulness.
- Primary and Secondary Suffering: A central concept of the book is that pain has two components, the physical sensation and our emotional reaction to the physical sensation. We cannot control the pain, but we can control our reaction to the pain. Before I grasped this concept, it seemed like a minor distinction that wouldn’t do much good. Now it is an essential part of my coping strategy—it’s quite possibly the one I use the most in all areas of my life.
- Mindfulness is a Practice (and Can Be Frustrating at First): “This can’t possibly work for someone who is as sick as I am,” I thought as I gave up on my first MBSR homework three minutes into the meditation. Eight years later, the visceral memory of that first meditation is so strong that I asked Vidyamala about it. The experience was familiar to her, too.
- Mindfulness for More Than Pain: The book is focused on pain, but the principles can apply to other symptoms (and, really, to life well beyond illness). Vidyamala explains how she uses mindfulness to manage fatigue.
- Beyond Mindfulness: Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a secular approach that applies the Buddhist principle of mindfulness to pain, illness, and stress. The more I learned about mindfulness, the more curious I became about Buddhism. It turns out many Buddhist practices can help with managing pain and illness (and aren’t inherently religious). Vidyamala talks about the ones that she employs regularly.
TL;DR: Read You Are Not Your Pain if you’re looking for a way to cope with any illness that causes frequent or chronic pain. Commit to doing the guided audio exercises 20 minutes a day for eight weeks for an inexpensive DIY mindfulness-based stress reduction course.