In my last piece, 4 Techniques to Help with Physical Pain, I described five exercises to help ease bodily pain. The response to that piece was so positive that I thought I'd follow-up by describing one of the mainstays of mindfulness-based techniques for helping with chronic pain and illness: the body scan. (The body scan has its origins in one of the many mindfulness meditation techniques taught by the Buddha.)
People who are sick or in chronic pain often come to see their bodies as the enemy. This perception triggers emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness. In response to these emotions, people clench and tighten muscles in their bodies. This can lead to intensifying existing symptoms or to new symptoms in other parts of the body.
I see the body scan as an opportunity to reverse this perception that your body is the enemy. Yes, it's struggling, but it's also doing the best it can to support you. Your body isn't purposefully causing you discomfort and, despite its struggles, it's still the most remarkable living organism on the planet. Your body is so much more than just your pain or your illness. Making friends with this remarkable organism is emotionally calming and healing. It can release tension in your body which, in itself, can reduce symptoms.
The instructions will ask you to move your attention from one part of your body to another. As you move to a new area, linger there, imagining that you're breathing into it and out of it. After some moments, mentally let go of the area and move your attention to the next one.
You may not feel any sensations in some parts of your body. That's fine; just note, "not feeling anything." Or, you may feel pain or another unpleasant sensation. In this case, as you breathe into that part of your body, try to release any tension associated with it. The tension may be in your mind, in your body, or in both. If you can't release the tension, then try to soften it by just letting the unpleasant sensation be—riding its waves, not attaching a negative judgment or any meaning to it. It's just a sensation.
Throughout the exercise, maintain an attitude of friendliness and kindness toward your body. After all, it's working hard to support you. Let go of any expectations; in other words, don't have any particular results in mind. Just set the intention to be with your body with curiosity and kindness.
You might have someone read these instructions to you or record them for playback as you do the exercise.
The Body Scan
Find a comfortable place to lie down where you won't be disturbed. (In my opinion, if lying down causes you to fall sleep, that's just a bonus for your body! But you can do the scan while sitting up if you prefer.) Put aside anywhere from 20-45 minutes for the scan. The time you allot will affect how slowly or quickly you move from one area of your body to another.
1. Gently close your eyes and begin by resting your attention on the physical sensation of your breath as it comes in and goes out of your body. Breathing in, know you're breathing in. Breathing out, know you're breathing out. Feel your whole body connected to the earth as you do this.
2. Move your attention to the toes of your left foot. Imagine you are breathing into your toes and out from your toes. This may take some practice. It helps to imagine your breath flowing from the in-breath at your nostrils, down through your body and into your toes. Feel any sensations in your toes, or note the lack of sensation. If you feel tension in your toes or in your mind, try to release it. If you can't release it, just let it be, always with an attitude of friendliness and kindness. If your attention wanders off into thoughts, gently bring your attention back to your left toes.
3. When you're ready, on the out-breath, mentally leave your toes and move your attention to the sole of your left foot, then to the heel and then to the ankle, following the same instructions as for the toes.
4. Following the same instructions as in #2, withdraw your attention from one area of your body and move it to the next area in this order:
5. To finish the exercise, shift your attention back to your breath and become aware of your body as a whole again, connected to the earth and alive from head to toe. Send thoughts of friendliness and kindness to this remarkable organism that we call the human body. End by cultivating gratitude for how it sustains you in this precious life.
Note: This article is expanded on in my books, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013) and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015)
© 2011 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. In addition to the two books above, I'm the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers (2010)
All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.
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