09/28/2012 01:22 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Is Pain Holding You Back? Try This


In my last post, I shared four insights on the habitual nature of chronic pain. This post describes how I abandoned the habit of suffering to build a better life. Remarkably, my path to relief was revealed in a dream.

After two major surgeries, pain was a daily ordeal for me. I tried to meditate using a wonderful practice called centering prayer. But for a long time, pain was omnipresent, and there seemed to be no escape.

One night in a dream, a friend whose husband suffers debilitating back pain asked for help. I had no idea what to do for her husband (let alone for myself). But my friend pleaded, so I sat facing him and to my surprise, this is what I said:

For you, pain is a distraction, another form of drama. It is one more thing that separates you from the blessings of life. You can change that, and here's how. Look for a moment when the pain subsides a bit, then stop whatever you're doing and rejoice. Receive the blessing and give thanks. Do this, and in time, each pain-free moment will give birth to another, and another, until your life shifts from suffering to grace.

I awoke with a jolt. Obviously the message was for me! Was my pain really a distraction, a spiritual quagmire keeping me from God and the joy of life? This was a bizarre (and, I thought, rather ridiculous) notion. But I was desperate, so I started looking for moments when the pain eased up. Each time, I reveled in the goodness and gave thanks.

At first, those moments were few and far between. But gradually I began to have whole minutes of relief. I would suddenly notice : Hey, I feel better. This gave me hope, and out of hope came empowerment. Maybe I really could have a normal life! I began to notice subtle behaviors that brought comfort -- things as simple as better sitting postures, ways of walking, deeper breathing and foods to avoid.

I'll never forget the day I sat down to meditate and realized, Nothing is hurting! I wept with gratitude. Today, pain is the exception in my life, not the rule, and meditation is time spent with God, not suffering.

How did this dramatic shift occur? Recent fMRI research suggests that neurological habit patterns remain in the brain for a lifetime. It is futile to try to change them. The way forward is to create new habits -- that is, embrace new thoughts, feelings and sensations and give them your attention until the new pattern trumps the old. (For more on this amazing process, read The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg.)

My dream taught me that where I focus matters. The human brain is plastic and can be molded by means of intention, repetition and good will.

Whether you suffer physical or emotional pain, if you think it has become a neurological habit, try this simple practice: Bless the moments of grace and give thanks. Celebrate your glimpses of freedom, however fleeting they may be. In doing so, you are signaling your brain to build new neural pathways of comfort and well-being. Chances are, in time, they may multiply!

For more by N. E. Marsden, click here.

For more on the spirit, click here.