So here I am, exploring what pain actually means, and where does the suffering come from.
There are certain parts of the brain which are responsible for the experience of physical pain. As everything happening inside the skull, it's a complex process that integrates many different regions. However, some of them are reported to be most directly related to noxious sensations. The main ones of those brain parts are thalamus, insula and mid-cingulate cortex.
It sounds rather logical that in order decrease pain their activity should be suppressed. Actually, that's exactly the way painkillers relieve the unpleasant sensations.
Very straightforward, generally effective… but too easy to be true for the intricacy of our nature.
Plenty of mystery, plenty of paradoxes. And that's beautiful.
Ok, let's get down to real science now, friend. In the recent research inquiring into the issue of pain regulation in mindfulness meditation practitioners and non-practitioners thought-provoking results were found. Contrary to common sense, the density of grey matter in those regions responsible for experiencing pain increased and, consequently, its activity was on a much greater level in the case of practitioners. At the same time, activation of the brain parts involved in emotion, memory, and appraisal (medial prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, caudate, hippocampus) decreased during pain stimulation.
And so what does it all mean? Were we outwitted by zen seekers advocating for mindfulness, if hapless practitioners appear to suffer from pain even more?
Easy, there's still something important to discover. Subjectively reported acuteness of pain was much lesser in zen practitioners compared to meditation-naive controls.
So, the uncovering picture is the following: mindfulness meditation practitioners experience the same amount of pain as everybody does; but they do suffer from it much less. And the key to such disparity between the levels of real noxious sensations and suffering is the way we interpret our bodily responses. Zen practitioners seem not to perceive physical pain as an inevitable source of psychological one. This disruption between stimulus and reaction is what gives them some space to grow inner freedom inside.
And this little inquiry into the neuroscience of pain was a real stroke of insight, because, as it usually happens to me, I saw something personal, even existential, in it.
I've been in therapy for the last several months. Many things have changed since I made probably the most important decision in my life – to seek help when I really needed it – but still, there's one outstanding feature that doesn't stop to amaze me every day. I used to think there was so much wrong with me and with everything unfolding around. Every time I experienced negative emotions, I interpreted them as another defect of mine that I had to demolish. In this way, I tried in vein to cut off the flip side of happiness — sadness. I thought it was unacceptable not to be inspired and glowing all the time. Thus, I made myself suffer from those natural moments of authentic negative feelings.
I believed it would be a sign of weakness, if I stopped fighting for perfection one day.
Now, I actually did. I quitted. These days, when I see something going to hell, I let it go.
It is ok not to feel ok sometimes, friend. Just remember, that after one moment another will come. And you will try again, if you choose to.