Like many rheumatoid disease patients, I sometimes take opioid analgesics to keep my joint pain tamped down to a dull and manageable roar. But over the last year or so, the U.S. government has made these drugs much harder for doctors to prescribe, for pharmacies to stock, and for patients like me to get.
Our leaders are worried—and rightly so—about the rising number of opioid addicts and opioid overdose deaths. I worry—equally as rightly—that my government will continue restricting the prescription of my opioid pain relievers to the point that I, and many others, will no longer be able to get them at all.
And what then?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recently released very restrictive “guidelines” for doctors who prescribe opioids for their chronic pain patients, suggests that we try other “modalities” for pain relief. These include such things as cognitive behavior therapy, biofeedback, acupuncture, mindfulness, meditation, increased exercise, and better nutrition.
And while any one—or all of them—might be of some help in controlling chronic pain, none of them works as fast, or as efficiently, as that little white pill.
Nevertheless, I’m going to explore one of those modalities: meditation. Why? Because this is one I know actually works. Well, mostly.
Meditation is the practice of calming the mind by clearing it. Simply focusing on the breath is the most often-used technique; if all you’re thinking about is your breath, there’s no room in your mind to acknowledge or think about pain. And since one has to be conscious of pain to notice and feel it, meditation can work to relieve it temporarily.
Almost everyone can think of a time when, caught up in some good music, or absorbed by a great movie, they’ve forgotten their RD pain for a time. Distraction from pain works—when I’m hurting, I read or watch a movie, play a game, or find some other activity that might take my mind off it for a while. Meditation works in the same way, but with practice, it can work much better than mere distraction.
Meditation is simple. It’s easy. But it’s hard, too. It takes some discipline and perseverance. Our minds are always busy, always full of thoughts, plans, worries, hashed-over conversations, and that running, jabbering inner narrative we’re all so familiar with. Stopping it takes effort. That’s where the breath comes in.
A long time ago I read an article by Deepak Chopra. (Here’s a link.) In it, he suggested a simple mantra, focused on the breath, that’s perfect for beginning meditators. You can practice it anywhere: at work, at home, when you first wake up in the morning or go to bed at night, or even while sitting in the car at a red light. You don’t have to do anything special, or even sit in any particular way unless you want to. This is a meditation for anytime, anywhere.
It goes like this: You inhale, and as you fill your lungs, you think the word “so.” When you exhale, you think the word “hum.” Don’t try to breathe extra deeply, or hold the inhale or exhale for extra time. Just breathe like always. Normally. But with each breath in and each breath out, think “so,” and “hum.”
And that’s it. Do that for a minute, wrote Chopra. Then, another time, try it for three minutes. Then five. You can do it for as long as you like, he wrote. The only rule is to think the words “so” and “hum” with each breath in and out.
You’ll notice that the sound your breath makes when you inhale sounds like “so.” When you exhale, it sounds like “hum.” Cool, yes?
By focusing on the words and your breath—and gently acknowledging, then pushing aside the cacophony of thoughts your “monkey mind” will be sure to toss at you one by one—your mind will calm, your breathing will become naturally deeper, oxygenating your body and brain, and—amazingly—your pain will fade into the background. When it tries to come forward (and it will) you simply acknowledge it like the other thoughts—“Yes, pain, I know you’re there”—and gently push it away in favor of inhaling to “so” and exhaling to “hum.”
I tried it that day, and I’ve practiced this simple meditation almost every day, several times a day, for years, now. Sometimes all I have time for is a minute of “so-hums”, but that minute gives me a short reprieve from my joint pain, my mind and body are refreshed, and I can get on with my life with a little more calm and a little more happiness. It helps with pain, but it also helps to relieve stress and anxiety, as well.
No, this simple meditation won’t get rid of your pain entirely. It’s temporary. But as you learn to control your thoughts and your breath, you’ll find that you can call on it and fall into it whenever you need to. It really is helpful. And it might prompt you to try other types of meditation as well: guided imagery, for instance, or relaxing your entire body, head to toe, slowly, muscle by muscle, as you breathe. Maybe even yoga, someday.
Meditation is, simply, a distraction method. I’d be lying if I told you it could replace a dose of opioid analgesic. It can’t. Meditation takes concentration and a measure of discipline, and we live busy lives that don’t allow us to step off the world for prolonged periods. But we can breathe. We can “so.” We can “hum.” And we can learn how to better control and cope with our pain.
I’m afraid we’ll have to.