Sunday, January 17, 2010

Transcending Pain

One of the more important processes that I think is life enhancing is the ability to control the states/feelings/emotings in your mind, heart and body.

And a key paradigmatic skill in this domain is the ability to control pain. I have always planned to blog on this, 'cause I think most people shy away from consciously skilling themselves in this area, or even thinking about it very deeply. Which means that when inevitably they experience a period in their lives in which paining is occurring, they are unable to cope and transcend the experience.

So I've become a 'collector' of strategies and skills for controlling paining and have done a number of ascetic practices to build and consolidate these skillings. I enjoy transcending paining. It's a skill that allows me to know that no matter what happens in life, I'll be able to cope with it, learn from it and transcend. In today's blog I'd like to share some great strategies for overcoming pain and describe what/how specifically to use your thoughts, mind and neurology to do controlling of paining.

I've personally used all these techniques in situations such as surgery without anesthesia, dental surgery without anesthesia or pain relief, meditating naked in the snow, plunging into ice cold water and deliberately burning through the flesh on my arm as a means of indelibly proving to myself that I know how to control my paining circuits and neurology. Thirty years on, the scar on my inner forearm stands as eloquent testimony to how learnable it is to transcend pain, and I am justifiably proud of this skill. (Though let me make it clear, I'm not a proponent of self-harming.)

Pain as a signal

PAIN = Please Acknowledge Information Now

Pain is a signal from one part of your brain/mind/body that there is something not right and needs attending to. This signal can be a message to your immuning processes to do healing, it can be a message from your muscles that you are overdoing an activity and need to slow down or even a message from your heart that one of your relationships needs attending to.

As long as you ignore the message - the signal - the emotional experience of pain will continue and will increase in intensity and salience. However, once you acknowledge the signal, acknowledge the part of your unconscious multi-mind that is attempting to communicate the message of dis-ease or dis-order, then the emotional valence of the signal will disappear. It's quite amazing how this works. Controlling pain is in large measure a process of acknowledging and negotiating between parts of your mind/body.

I always find that there are two key components to any pain experience - the nervous system signal of information and the 'hurt' or emotional/feeling component of the paining. When you can learn to separate these, acknowledging the first, you'll find you can easily dissipate and transcend the second.

De-nominalising Pain

Another key insight into 'how' to do this process is to realise that 'pain' is a disguised verb, it's a nominalisation, a process turned into a noun, a thing. You don't 'have pain' instead, the reality is that you 'do' paining with unconscious competence.

Paining is a skill. And the power of this insight is that the skill has structure and sub-skills. By learning and refining your abilities in paining you can easily learn to transcend the experience and gate on and off both the signal, the outcome of the signal and the emotional valence of the signal.

You have to do this ecologically however, otherwise your powerful unconscious mind/body system will do whatever it can to attempt to get you to shift the behaviours that are causing the issue. Pain communicates that all is not right in your world and you need to make some changes.

Acknowledging the signal and setting the appropriate changes as outcomes typically shifts your phenomenological experience of the paining and allows you to free up your energy and resources to make the required changes.


Based on these insights and distinctions, here are some of the more useful techniques and strategies that I've found to work very powerfully, and along with each one I've provided a link to a reference book in which you can learn more if you choose to do this:

Thong Len – Tibetan technique of breathing in pain from someone else and breathing out healing and wellness. The technique is based in part on the emoting of love and compassion.
"Thong Len is a meditative technique developed by Tibetan Buddhists almost 800 years before the discovery of anesthesia. It's explained in that classic of Tibetan Buddhist thought, the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. It works by imagining someone else's pain, like a burn, and drawing it into oneself. As you take the pain from others, your own hurt disappears."

Mental Ataraxis – Psychiatrist Ainslie Meares' technique of systematic relaxation of mind and body. This is a particularly powerful technique and a delightful experience. It's a life enhancing skill that I think every intelligent person should learn and practice. I can't recommend his book 'Relief Without Drugs' too highly and have bought many many copies over the years for friends, colleagues and family.

Third Position/Dissociation – American Indian technique of floating up above and looking down on your body [From: Education of LittleTree, by Forrest Carter].

NLP Burn Off in the Sun Swish Pattern – Based in part on the NLP Swish Pattern and NLP Submodality shifts. Make an image of the pain and then shoot the image off to the Sun and burn it up in the image of the Sun way in the distance, make a zooming and burning up sound as you zoom that image into the distance, getting smaller and smaller till it disappears in the Sun. Repeat 3 or more times.

Submodality Shifting and Message Acknowledgement of Pain Signals

– “Healing starts when pain is complete. Pain is completed when you look at it in detail.

Examine the submodalities of the colour of the pain signal, the size/bigness/smallness of the pain signal and the weight of the pain signal in order to acknowledge to the unconscious mind the message of the signal. Ask yourself "How big is the pain? What colour is the pain? How much does it weigh?" Make a guess at these.

Once the message has been acknowledged, the pain signal has done its work and is no longer as painful or as necessary. After you have asked and answered the three questions, examine the paining again. Ask the questions a second time. You'll find the colour, size and weight have changed and become less intense and more manageable. Repeat a third or fourth time, till the paining has diminished. [Technique from: Enemy Mine, by Barry Longyear and Edward Khmara, Charter Books, 1985]

Self Hypnosis – Deep Relaxation and talking to the Unconscious Mind to remove pain experience and feel relaxed and at ease.

TENS Technology

Another very useful tool for controlling pain is a TENS device. TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation - and is a great technology that can be used to gate off and control pain and help relax and induce healing. These inexpensive devices are life saving if you ever get a pinched nerve or pulled/strained muscle. I would never be without one in my medicine cabinet. They really work! Yes, I could use the other techniques described above to control and transcend the paining of a pulled muscle. However, it is far more effective to combine the mind techniques with the healing massage effects of a TENS.

Why learn these skills?

For me, the larger more encompassing issue of why you would want to learn to control paining, is the life enhancing importance of learning to control the states/feelings/emotings in your mind, heart and body. When you are able to control your own states, you are no longer at the mercy of the contingencies of reinforcement around you. Other people and situations no longer have the power to negatively impact you. When you can calm abide through the vicissitudes of life, you can more easily do compassion for yourself and others. This truly enhances your life.

So I truly do recommend that you start to learn and practice controlling your mind/body state. Pick one of the strategies above and begin to learn about it in detail and practice it. Once you've mastered these skills, you will thank yourself again and again. State control is incredibly life enhancing.

wishing you wellness and love


  1. Fascinating. But these techniques appear to last only as long as you stay in their mode, correct? When you return to a normal interactive state with your surroundings, your mind/body revert to common stimuli-response patterns.

    And the "American Indian technique" -- a form of astral projection?

    We have to talk! Save your answers for me, if you will...

    -- Sully

  2. Hi
    In 2017, there is now a new book on Ainslie Meares that includes a distilled version of Relief Without Drugs that includes the completet relaxing mental exercise.
    The new book- Ainslie Meares on Meditation- includes:
    1. an occupational biography of Ainslie Meares.
    2. Relief without Drugs Distilled by Meares (with summaries of the Relaxing Mental Exercise and Notes on Pain prepared by the Editor (OB) that were not in the original book)
    3. The Refinements After Relief Without Drugs – Stillness Meditation - includes information on learning Stillness, experiencing Stillness Meditation outside the classroom and living calm – bring the calm into daily life. How Meares’ poetry fits into his method and how he intended it to be used.
    4. 30 Sample Poems by Ainslie Meares (to help chose which of Meares’ poetry books to get)
    5. Ainslie Meares’ Teaching Protocol and Personal Practices.
    6. Information about his books. A list of ALL his books together with the Editor's recommendations. This includes the names of the poetry books and approximate number of poems in each book. Meares’ own recommendations as to which of his books his readers should get.
    7. A summary of Meares’ final method.
    8. around 200 footnoted references – in some cases the footnotes refer to several articles.


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