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Buddhadharma : Fall 2010
41 fall 2 01 0 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly Kerr cites evidence that the map of the human body within the brain’s somatosensory cortex reorganizes, based on the amount of attention paid to each body part. For instance, people who read Braille have more sensory territory devoted to the hand. Similarly, people who experience chronic back pain may have more neurons devoted to monitoring the back. Picture a distorted map in which a state’s size is based on the electoral votes it pos- sesses, and so New Jersey looks bigger than Alaska. The distorted sensory map of a person in chronic pain would exaggerate the body parts in pain. Paying equal attention to all areas of the body using the body scan method may undo distorted body maps. “Our theory is that meditation actually fine-tunes that ability to main- tain sensory equanimity,” Kerr says. “That’s what we’re testing.” There are at least two other ways by which our attention can affect the first arrow, the pure sensation of pain. Ronald Melzack and his colleague Patrick Wall described how pain signals from the extremities are filtered at the spine before they ever reach the brain. Like partygoers lined up before a nightclub’s velvet ropes, pain signals clamor to get through. Whether the spinal gatekeepers admit them depends on instructions from on high. In the case of pain, signals from the brain pass down to the spine and tell the gatekeepers how exclusive they should be. “The descending pathway is usually a regulatory pathway. It could facilitate or it could inhibit,” says Tarek Samad, a pharmaceuticals researcher and former assistant professor of anesthesia research at Harvard Medical School. “This is where emotional states or situations or environment affect the pain sensation.” Depend- ing on our attitude and expectations, therefore, we can actually filter out pain before it reaches our consciousness. When we pay fearful attention to pain, however, we instruct the gates to open wide. As a result, we feel more intense pain. The other way we can amplify pain is through the feedback loop described by Ronald Siegel. When we experience fear, the brain sends sig- nals to our muscles that tense them. When muscles are tensed for a long time, they start to hurt. When something starts to hurt, we become fearful, and we tense our muscles further. The old Cartesian model of the pain system is simple but misleading. The real way the pain system works is not intuitively obvious, which makes the Buddha’s insights into it all the more startling. The old Cartesian model of the pain system is simple but misleading. The real way the pain system works is not intuitively obvious, which makes the Buddha’s insights into it all the more startling. ➤ gain more understanding of your physical pain, your emotional reactions to it, and the differences between them, you’ll begin to see that there’s a difference between physical pain and suffering. Even in times when you can’t change the physical sensations of pain, you can change your emotional responses to them and thereby reduce your suffering. In other words, physical pain is a reality, but suffering is optional. The body does have pain recep- tors and is designed to feel pain; in fact, in some cases it can help prevent injury. How- ever, your emotional response to pain is in your hands. With time and practice, you can learn to feel the pain and suffer less. Step 3: Living in the Present Moment The third step is living in the present moment. The truth is, you can only live in the here and now. This is the only moment in which you can make any changes. When you iden- tify with stress, tension, or chronic pain, you may think of it as a long-term problem or life sentence, and this attitude can take you out of the present moment and increase your suffer- ing. Mindfulness teaches you to be here now. You don’t know what the future may bring, and you really don’t know if the stress and pain will last forever: Through mindfulness practice, you can learn to be with pain one moment at a time and develop an attitude of “Let’s see if I can be with pain in this moment. If pain arises in the next moment, I’ll deal with it then.” As you deepen your practice of mindful- ness, you’ll reconnect to yourself and discover new strategies to work with tension and pain. Rather than being held hostage by your dis- comfort, you can cultivate the attitude that it’s possible to learn from it. As you learn to let go of the past and not to cling to a specific vision of the future, you’ll be able to see things as they are in the moment, with a growing sense of freedom and the possibility of new options. This perspective transforms you, your pain, and your relationship to your pain. From A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook by Bob Stahl and elisha Goldstein, © 2010. Reprinted with permission from New Harbinger Publications. alanRabold ➤ continued page 90