Self-compassion and back pain

Back pain is a big deal. An estimated 80% of the population will suffer from back pain at some point1, and in Australia, 1 in 6 people have chronic back pain.2
Self-compassion can help.

Six months ago, I couldn’t walk.

I was stuck in bed with acute lower back pain. Even standing in the kitchen to make tea was too painful. I’d somehow triggered an old condition of sciatica that gradually got worse and worse.

This condition had previously flared up from time to time, but nothing so dramatic for years. This time however, my approach was more accepting, less resistant. I “surrendered” into the experience.

“Well, if that’s what my body is saying right now, I better listen!”

It didn’t decrease the pain, but it sure felt softer, kinder and eased my tendency to tense up and brace against the discomfort.

As well as following medical advice, I tackled the emotional and mental side of back pain with self-compassion. Every day I practised Affectionate Breathing, Loving Kindness or Giving and Receiving Compassion, specifically for my back.

I religiously asked myself, “What do I need?” and asked friends, family and colleagues for more help. I felt so grateful to them, and this felt new and unusual to my proud, independent self. I gave that self some kindness and forgiveness.

Although I’m speaking about back pain here, as this was my personal experience, the evidence suggests that self-compassion can help with all kinds of chronic and acute pain.³

Mindfulness helped me discern between when I needed rest and when I was just avoiding exercise. I did gentle physio exercises every day. The inflammation died down with medication, and soon I returned to walking and swimming. I was listening to my body’s needs with more sensitivity than ever. Dancing slowly around my living room one night felt so good, answering a heartfelt wish and feeling the joy of moving again.

After a lovely, long Loving Kindness practice one day, I felt like exploring any unmet needs around my back pain. Something that “pinged” for me emotionally was sometimes feeling unsupported in life. So I called a counsellor and started exploring any life events that felt related. This was helpful; a great complement to practising self-compassion.

Five Tips for Working With Pain

  1. Give yourself a break! 
  • Acknowledging we are suffering and bringing loving awareness to the pain can help decrease our resistance to the pain.
  • Asking, “What do I need?” Maybe it’s rest, maybe movement.
  • Lowering your expectations of what you can do.
  • Adding rest and self-care breaks into the day.
  • Dropping work or activities that feel too exhausting. Say no, if you can!

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Self-care break

We all need to stop from time to time and recharge our batteries. Here’s a practical, 3-min self-care exercise that can decrease stress and increases self-awareness, self-compassion and resilience.

This practice uses the acronym S.N.A.C.K.

S is for Stop and self-care. Permission to stop. We can lift our eyes from our screens, perhaps looking at something soothing like the view out of a window, a plant or a family photo. In this phase, we can investigate a soothing touch… placing a hand on the heart or belly, rubbing the arm, hugging ourselves – whatever feels reassuring.

Once we’ve found our soothing touch, we can appreciate this for a moment. Taking in the warmth from that contact or the comforting sensations from the reassuring rub.

Now we can begin taking soothing breaths. Long, easy breaths… exhaling fully on the out-breath… encouraging a sense of letting go. Tuning into the nourishing quality of the in-breath, the way the body naturally energises itself with oxygen.

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Can compassion be learned?

Is compassion something you are born with, or can you learn to become more compassionate?

New research suggests that compassion can be both taught, and learned. Richard Davidson and associate scientist Antoine Lutz studied the brain scans of 16 monks and 16 control subjects. All were asked to practise a special compassion meditation whilst undergoing an fMRI scan. The scientists found that areas of the brain used for empathy were stimulated during the meditation practice.

Davidson and Lutz believe that this research could be useful in treating people with depression. The theory is that if people suffering with depression could be taught a compassionate meditation practice, they could relate to the suffering of others more easily. “Thinking about other people’s suffering and not just your own helps to put everything in perspective,” Lutz says.

This is a subject that science is taking very seriously. The Dalai Lama is speaking at the CCARE Conference on Scientific Explorations of Compassion and Altruism on Friday, October 15, 2010 at Stanford University. You can watch a live webcast of the conference here.

From personal experience, I can say that compassionate practise has helped me deal with family problems more usefully. Over the summer, I learned a compassionate meditation practise during my three weeks on working retreat at Casa Saraswati. This is based on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and involves visualising a being or situation that gave you love, feeling the love grow in your heart, and then transferring this same love to others. Often we would sing the Avalokiteswara mantra after meditating, which also encourages compassion. I practised for three weeks, and noticeably became a much kinder, more generous and giving person in my daily life.

When I returned from my retreat, I found that my mother had become mentally ill again. Up until now, I have been notoriously unkind to her during her bouts of illness. As a child and younger adult I felt angry at my mother for not taking her medication, and bringing such suffering to everyone around her, not just herself.

This time, things were different. I was much more understanding of my mum. I felt more tolerance towards her. It wasn’t always easy: sometimes the old anger would arise while I was sitting with my mother, so I would sing the Avalokiteswara mantra over and over in my head until I softened. This would always work, and allow me much greater empathy for my mum. As a result, I was much more able to help and support her through this difficult time, and she managed to come out of hospital much sooner and with much less stress than in the past.

I am extremely grateful to the Buddhist tradition and my teacher Didier Danthois for this incredible gift. I also had the support of a very loving and compassionate partner, Caroline, who is a care-worker. She has already achieved a very high level of compassion towards others, without any mediation.

Imagine if we could teach compassion practices like these to children who were bullies, or to prisoners?

Imagine how greater compassion could better your relationships with your family and work colleagues?

Imagine how we could all care for the environment and put an end to war if we all learned to develop greater emotional understanding of all living beings around us?