Pain meditation for Boomers
by Richard S. Ellis
Why pain meditation? Many of us are fortunate to enter our sixties in good health and enjoying lives filled with blessings. We look back with pride to decades of achievement and to the joy of raising a family, which now has expanded to include the super-blessing of grandchildren. As our working years draw to a close, we look forward to a retirement free of the stress of the workplace and devoted to travel, reading, volunteer work, taking courses on topics we had always wanted to learn but never had time for, relaxation, and more.
Retirement will end in death. How, if at all, can we prepare ourselves for that final passage?
Some of us will die in our sleep without pain and without burdening our loved ones. However, many of us will die difficult deaths involving disease, dementia, or chronic, debilitating pain. How will we cope? How will our families cope? These are questions that most people never consider but one day can be a reality. Surely, waiting until the end to discover strategies for coping is doomed to fail. We should start now while we are still healthy and have time.
Buddhist meditation is an answer. Not only can it help us deal skillfully with the challenges of aging, but also it can enhance our lives immeasurably right now.
Here is my story about how meditation changed my life. I am a professor of mathematics and an adjunct professor of Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I have published numerous papers in mathematics and am the author of two research-level math books. Outside of math, I have published poetry and articles on the Torah, literature, art, and anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Sadly, I have also been the victim of two attacks of debilitating headaches separated by twenty years.
The first attack occurred in 1980. A friend who was also a therapist helped me slow down, minimize stress, and do relaxation techniques based on meditation. These techniques completely healed the headaches. But as soon as that happened, I stopped meditating and threw myself once again into my work. In 2000, when I was nearly 53, an onslaught of much more intense headaches nearly destroyed my career. Desperately seeking help from doctors but unable to find relief from the many pills they prescribed, I dealt with the pain by anger, avoidance, and fear, which only compounded my suffering.
After suffering for two and a half years, in September 2002 I started to work with another therapist who showed me the way. Jean Colucci guided me in meditation and urged me to participate in a meditation retreat, at which I experienced the truth about the headaches and the suffering they had caused. This truth is so simple, yet so deep: it is not the pain that causes suffering, but the mental state associated with the pain. Through meditation I learned not to push the pain away, or to react to the pain with anger and fear, but rather to accept it. Accepting the headaches allowed them to become my best teacher, a wise guide who constantly reveals new insights about life and pain and suffering and letting go and love.
The wisdom about pain, suffering, and healing that the headaches revealed is the subject of my recently published book, Blinding Pain, Simple Truth: Changing Your Life Through Buddhist Meditation. My goal in writing it is to empower people who suffer from physical and emotional pain to heal their suffering and embrace their lives with equanimity, gratitude, and joy. Detailed information about the book is available at http://RichardSEllis.com. Interested readers can email me at rsellis_at_math_dot_umass_dot_edu.
One of the deepest gifts of meditation for me is that the rewards of meditation are potentially infinite. Here are some of them.
1. Meditation calms the mind and brings equanimity.
2. It teaches us to accept whatever happens with perfect trust.
3. It enables us to connect with the wisdom of our bodies
and the wisdom of the present moment.
4. It helps us cope with pain, reduce stress, and alleviate suffering.
5. It allows the innate wisdom planted within us to blossom.
6. Through meditation, we heal ourselves.
7. Calming our minds creates peace within us and peace for those with whom we interact.
These gifts have guided me into a new relationship with chronic pain, and they can guide all of us into skillful relationships with the challenges of aging as they occur. As I learned from the headaches, dealing with these challenges unskillfully will only increase our suffering. Instead, let us open ourselves up to them and let them become our best teachers and let us quiet our minds to allow the body’s natural healing powers to flourish. By doing so, we will enjoy our lives in the present moment as we age gracefully, finding happiness and peace as we express our gratitude for having been blessed with the greatest gift of all, the gift of being alive.