An Anecdote of Mettā and Pain

| August 23, 2013 | 5 Comments
Image courtesy of foto76 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of foto76 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’ve been doing mettā (lovingkindness) practice this last month. Day to day it involves spending meditation periods slowly repeating well-meaning hopes and wishes towards myself and others. It started off interesting, since I had to come up with some new formulae for my wishes, but it quickly became rote, much akin to breathing or repeating a mantra. (The latter is a practice I have never done).

In her book Lovingkindness, Sharon Salzberg talks about how the dull repetition of good wishes can, in time, seem to make a difference in one’s outlook and behavior: one finds oneself feeling and acting more kindly towards others. I think I’ve seen the same thing in myself, though I am hesitant to claim anything remotely like certainty. For one thing, my practice is much more limited than the intensive retreat situation in which Salzberg worked. For another, I know that one tends to find what one wants to, particularly in one’s own attitude and behavior.

But I will relate an interesting anecdote I noted in a daylong practice I had a few weeks ago. The daylong involved alternating sitting and walking meditation periods, but apart from that and a few short readings, the time was left up to us to do with as we saw fit. I decided to spend all the sits in mettā. (I find it hard to do mettā while walking).

My usual experience with daylong sits is that by the early afternoon small discomforts have made themselves apparent, and usually my last sitting or two is spent dealing more or less desperately with some kind of physical pain. This day, however, my experience was different.

With each sitting, I noticed my concentration improving with the mettā practice: going through the lists of hopes and wishes seemed to focus my mind, something I’d noticed in passing doing my daily sits, but which only really became apparent in a daylong. When the bell rang I could sense a marked shift in perception, which I do not ordinarily find when doing mindfulness practice. By the afternoon I also found that I was suffused by a deep, calm happiness, probably on account of the well-meaning wishes I was trying to generate. That happiness arose alongside the ordinary forms of pain I’d come to expect.

On the podcast, Ted has documented some studies of meditation on pain perception, for instance by Drs. Fadel Zeidan and John McHaffie, and by Tim Gard. These studied mindfulness meditation in particular, and reductions in pain intensity in the low to mid double-digit percentages.

Pain is, of course, famously responsive to mood and attitude, so it doesn’t make much sense to distinguish a placebo from a real effect, so long as we are talking about relatively mild pain. If the pain is of such intensity as to require drug treatment, then palliation would be gauged by any reduction in required drugs. If, say, someone only needed half the amount of painkillers, that would be a significant result.

I doubt studies on the meditative effects of very intense pain — such as operative or post-operative pain — could be carried out ethically, so I don’t expect this will be studied. However I remain somewhat skeptical of claims that mindfulness meditation can reduce pain intensity, simply because I’ve never found it in myself, or at least not to any significant degree. I’ve sat for many an hour mindfully observing terrific back pain; it didn’t get any better by doing so.

My wife has a chronic pain condition, and neither does she find that meditation helps to reduce pain; it helps to reduce pain’s unpleasantness, which is a more complex condition involving the constellation of thoughts and worries that surround pain. This may be of great benefit, but it isn’t the same as reducing the pain’s intensity.

At any rate. By doing a daylong mettā meditation, I found for the first time a real reduction in pain intensity, much as though I had taken some form of painkiller. I can only speak phenomenologically, which was that I knew the pain was there, but it didn’t bother me nearly as much as normally it would have. And the pain seemed somehow far away, suffused as I was by the happiness of doing the meditation. When the bell rang and I came out of mettā, the pain was there as normal.

While it may be useful for mindfulness, mettā bhāvanā is not itself a mindfulness practice. Instead, it is a practice of concentration: in the suttas it is often described as a route towards the jhānas or mental absorptions, such as in the Sankhitta Sutta (Aṅguttara Nikāya 8.63). In later traditions this continued. We find the Brahmavihāras (of which mettā is the first) included in the section on concentration in the Theravādin Visuddhimagga, and under the section on the dhyānas (Pāli: jhānas) in the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharmakośa. Today contemporary teachers like Bhante Gunaratana use mettā as a way into the jhānas.

Phenomenologically these seem to me entirely appropriate: in concentration practice, the culmination of which is jhāna, one focuses the mind on a single object and holds it there. As mettā practice continues, one concentrates on the series of wishes, on their qualities, on the people to whom one directs those wishes, and so on. As the practice deepens, I find that this changes to a more specific focus onto the experience of mettā itself.

However it’s not simply that one becomes concentrated. One can become concentrated onto anything. My experience with pain during concentration isn’t that different from my experience with pain during mindfulness: pain is dulled to a small degree as I keep my mind focused on the breath, but usually the pain overcomes the concentration, and shifting to concentrate on the pain doesn’t decrease its intensity. What I found made the difference was the happiness; that is, it wasn’t the concentration per se that minimized the pain, it was the quality of concentration. It was as though the psychological pleasantness of well-wishing helped to counter physical discomfort.

I don’t know if this sort of process has been studied. I do recall (though I cannot place it just now) hearing of concentration practice having some effect on pain perception, but again, meditation on the breath is not the same as mettā.

The experience I recount is only from a single day, and may not be replicable. However given the extent of different kinds of meditation practice, I imagine that anecdotes can at least be food for thought and perhaps future experimentation, to see if there’s anything really there. Meanwhile we hope for the best, and for the well-being of all.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. As a long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tripiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma.

Comments (5)

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  1. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    I’ve also found that practices which metaphorically lighten the heart, like metta, have a much greater impact on the muting of intensity of sensation. That is of a different character than the muting of sensation I’ve found with other concentration objects. Perhaps the advantage to these kinds of mind states over *only* concentration on the physical, like anapanasati, is that in addition to the sustained attention on something other than the pain we have a further layer of a much more pleasant state, which compounds the focus.

    Mere conjecture, of course! It would be interesting to see studies complete with fMRI and blood tests of experienced meditators in the different meditative states, to compare.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Yes, exactly Ted. It seemed as though being concentrated on the layer of pleasantness was what counteracted the pain, as though the pleasant thoughts themselves — when accessed in relatively deep concentration — had painkilling properties. It’s an interesting combination, if true. The concentration itself doesn’t seem to do very much, and of course just having normal pleasant thoughts doesn’t do much either.

      One caveat here is that this happened after several hours of sitting and walking meditation, after several weeks of daily mettā practice, and after long meditation experience. I don’t know that a beginner could pick up mettā and after some short period of time expect it to have this effect. Maybe, maybe not. I hope so.

      This also makes me think further about jhāna. IIRC in the Mahāparinibbāna sutta the Buddha mentioned that he was only without pain during meditation, which may have been jhāna. While I’ve heard people say it’s impossible to get to jhāna if you’re in real pain, I expect that accomplished meditators can do so no matter.

      I’d be interested to know if anyone has studied any of this to any depth in the literature. Jhāna is a higher bar, of course, but if a few hours of mettā is useful, that would be good to know.

  2. NJK says:

    Quick search revealed:
    http://jhn.sagepub.com/content/23/3/287.abstract

    Note might start with the thought intentions but drop verbalization/vitakka later, similar to counting breaths. Here is Analayo:
    Being an ‘anger-type’ I thought it was important to develop metta. (loving-kindness). In Thailand I followed the Visuddhimagga approach of sending metta to oneself, a friend, a neutral person and an enemy, and verbalising good wishes. I found I got stuck in ideas, and when I turned to the suttas I saw that the Buddha just says that, ‘with a mind full of metta’ (that is an attitude or feeling of loving-kindness) ‘he radiates metta in all directions’. There’s no verbalisation, no particular people, just this radiation. That made an incredible change in my practice and from then on it evolved very
    strongly.

    Seems to be essentially replacing the perception of pain with pleasant/sukha caused by metta. I suppose how I would put it is that pain can be largely drowned out by sukha. Only so much attention to go around eh. Further is equanimity, often called neither painful nor pleasant, peaceful and sublime. The monk Udayi asked: “How can there be happiness when there is no feeling?” The venerable Sariputta replied: “Just this is happiness, friend, that therein there is no feeling.” (AN 9.34) :)

  3. Ron Stillman Ron Stillman says:

    “I don’t know if this sort of process has been studied. I do recall (though I cannot place it just now) hearing of concentration practice having some effect on pain perception, but again, meditation on the breath is not the same as mettā.”

    Doug, I found this study entitled “Brain Mechanisms Supporting Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation” at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3090218/ and thought it might shed some light on the subject.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Ron, and thanks for that. Yes, I am aware of the work that Fadel Zeidan and others have done — Ted has interviewed Fadel on the podcast. Re. this particular study you cite, it uses a variety of mindfulness meditation rather than mettā. It is also a very small sample size. (15 volunteers).

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