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Living From the Heart

Since yoga class yesterday, I have been in a terrific mood, even when my pain was bad. I’m loving the warmth of the shining sun, listening to music so loud that I can’t hear myself sing, admiring the pure happiness of the neighborhood kids.

My yoga teacher talks about living from the heart rather than always being led by your mind. We are guided to surrender our thoughts to the “heart center” (essentially your spirit or soul). While I agree with this idea in theory, believing in it is different than feeling it.

I spend too much time in my head. I’m a thinker who obsesses easily and am extraordinarily self-critical. The life changes of having a chronic illness have intensified and increased the frequency of all these thoughts.

Being in my head is not only in my mind, but in my brain. It literally directs one of the most prominent aspects of my life—chronic daily headaches and migraines. Living from the heart means thinking and obsessing less, but also keeping my illness from controlling my life. [insert raucous laughter here]

When I’m guided to send kind, supportive messages to myself, I give demands couched as encouragement: “Be nice to yourself,” “Worry less about if you’re a good person,” “Approach everyone with love.” Yesterday I unwittingly replaced these judgments with “Honey, honey, come and dance with me.”*

I got it. My heart invited my mind to celebrate with it. Love widely, be compassionate to yourself and others, care for others without neglecting yourself, accept who you are. It was an incredible feeling. The message was so clear that I haven’t thought about it much; I have simply lived from the heart.

*Maybe I should be concerned that lyrics from a Dave Matthews Band
song popped to mind while meditating. The song, Everyday, was originally written about the 1993 assassination of Chris Hani, the leader of the South African Communist Party who fought against the apartheid government. It’s all about love. I’m good with that.

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Meditation for Pain

Transcendental meditation may change the brain’s reaction to pain, according to a study in the August issue of the journal NeuroReport. The study compared the brain scans of people who had practiced transcendental meditation for 30 years to 12 participants who had only an introductory course in the technique. The brain scans of long-time meditators showed 40-50% less activity in response to acute pain than did the scans of newbies’ brains.

However, both groups rated their pain levels the same. Maybe I’m missing some bigger picture thing here, but I don’t care how my brain responds to pain if it still feels the same.

Before I go any further, you should know that transcendental meditation is a specific technique. It is only taught be certified experts and, oh yeah, a four-day course costs $2,500.

This isn’t to say that meditation isn’t effective for pain control, just that I’m skeptical that this is the best technique for it. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (only a government agency could have such an outrageously long name) provides a comprehensive look at meditation for health. Although the article doesn’t discuss headache specifically, the information is still relevant.

NCCAM describes two approaches to meditation; transcendental and mindfulness mediations. Mindfulness meditation is what’s taught all over the place, including yoga studios, on CDs and tapes, and even online (Google learn mindfulness meditation for links).

In any case, it’s certainly worth a try. No bodily harm can come of it, and, even if it doesn’t reduce perceived pain, it can help calm you down during a severe headache and possibly reduce your baseline stress level.

Meditation is something I’ve been thinking about trying for a long time, but attempts are easily thwarted (what a great word). I think am in-person class might be the right choice for me. Are any of you meditators? What benefits do you gain from it?

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Brain Scans Show Nerve Activation with Pain

Pain researchers at Stanford experimenting with a type of MRI that shows where pain occurs in the brain and how to control it. The scans indicate where pain is activated, how it is being processed and how it comes about. Researchers hope that eventually such imaging can be used to test pain medications and see the effects in real-time. Since patients can sit in the brain scanner and see the areas of the brain that are activated by pain, it could also be used in meditation or mental imaging. This technology has many potential uses and may one day be used for all types of pain patients; but it is years away from being available to patients.

The story, Tracking and Controlling Pain by Sight, is available on the NPR website. Written media reports of it don’t seem to be available yet, but you can read the researchers’ abstract from the American Pain Society’s 2004 annual meeting.

Thanks to koober1 on the Brain Talk migraine forum for sharing this story.

Note added 12/14/05: The researchers’ abstract is no longer available, but the NPR piece is.