So, you’ve heard about mindfulness and you’d like to give it a go? Fantastic! It’s really helped me and I hope it could help you. If you’re overwhelmed by all the information that’s out there (and there’s a lot of it) then here are my top tips on where to get started.
If you’ve read my previous article then you’ll know that the practice of mindfulness involves a range of activities, some of which you can easily do anywhere.
Quick exercises to try
Here are a couple of my favourite quick exercises. You can do them anytime, anyplace. In fact, why don’t you have a go now?
- Close your eyes and breath deeply. Allow your mind to relax and try to recognise your thoughts as they come and go. Once you feel relaxed, start to tune in to your different senses, still keeping your eyes shut. What can you feel? Is there a breeze or is the air still? What temperature is it – are you hot or cold? Now move on to what you can hear. Is there birdsong or traffic noise? Carry on through each of your five senses – hearing, touch, smell, taste and finally sight, trying to identify five things you notice through each of them. When you open your eyes, try to notice the things that catch your attention first.
I find this brief exercise a wonderful way of grounding me in the current moment. You can gain a remarkable amount of joy from noticing the tiny things around us that we often are too busy to recognise.
- I find this exercise especially useful if I’m feeling upset or my pain is high. Find yourself somewhere to sit where you feel safe and comfortable, but where you have a view of the outside. Ideally, you’d want to see clouds, or traffic, or birds in the sky or even leaves on a tree – anything that moves through your field of vision. Now try to breathe deeply and start to notice your thoughts as they come. Try to put the thoughts into words: for me, they’re often things like “I’m frightened by my pain” and “I don’t know how to cope”. They could be absolutely anything; the point is simply trying to recognise the thoughts as they come into your mind. Now, each time a thought comes into your mind, try writing it onto a leaf or a cloud or whatever you can see. The first time I did this I was sitting by Westminster Bridge, and I mentally wrote my thoughts on the buses as they crossed the Thames. Notice how the thoughts move away and as they do new thoughts come to take their place.
This exercise is a great way of starting to release some of the power that negative thoughts may have. Through it, you can begin to recognise that thoughts are merely that, not beliefs and that once you’ve had one, like buses, three more will be along any second. I find it very calming and it helps me to see my way when I’m distressed.
One of the key practices for sufferers of chronic pain is the body scan. You can do this through guided meditation or simply on your own. Through the body scan you quieten your mind and then gradually move through each part of your body from top to bottom or vice versa. When you move to each new section of your body you allow your attention to fill that part completely, quietly and calmly, simply noticing what you’re feeling without judgement and without panic. You then try to let any tension go, relaxing every part of you as you go.
Personally, I find that I can’t do a successful body scan if I start at my feet, as the pain in my leg is too distressing. However, if I start with my head then I find by the time I get to my CRPS area then I am relaxed and calm enough that I can fully open my mind to the CRPS without it overwhelming me. I find this exercise fantastically relaxing and I try to do it if I’m suffering from pain-related insomnia as it really helps me to sleep. I’m always amazed by how much tension I hold in my body; non-painful areas are often wound so tightly, simply through trying to control the pain, and this provides a great way to relieve this tension.
If you’d like to use a guided meditation to help you with the body scan exercise, I recommend the Breathworks version. They’re available here and I tend to use the 40 minute body scan led by Vidyamala Burch (about halfway down the page), or if you’re in a hurry, the 20 minute version is also good.
Where can I learn more?
I myself was taught mindfulness when I spent four weeks at St Thomas’ Hospital in London on their Input pain management programme. This is an intensive programme, working to help chronic pain sufferers live the best life they can with their pain. It’s not CRPS-specific, instead catering to any kind of chronic pain, and applying the same principles for everyone. I found it hugely beneficial; it made no difference to my physical condition, but it enabled me to start living a life I loved again. It was incredibly hard work and very challenging but I would do it again in a heartbeat; anyone in the UK can apply for a place on the course, so if you think it might help you I encourage you to take a look.
Another really good place to begin is with Breathworks Mindfulness. This organisation was set up by Vidyamala Burch, a hugely inspirational woman who has lived with terrible chronic pain since her first spinal injury in 1977 at the age of just 17. She learned to meditate a few years later and has been teaching mindfulness to people living with pain and illness since 2001. Her book Living Well with Pain and Illness is a fantastic guide to mindfulness for pain. I have the book myself and really recommend it; it’s a great way of dipping your toe into mindfulness, understanding how it works and finding out if it’s something that may help you.
If you find it interesting or useful, Breathworks also offer 8 week Mindfulness for Health courses in Manchester and London. I myself did one of their courses as a refresher to what I learned on the Input course and found it very helpful. The full course price is £250 in London and £200 in Manchester, but discounts are available for those with limited incomes.
I hope this article inspires you to give mindfulness a go. You don’t need special equipment, lots of time or any particular training; you could start with the exercises I’ve outlined above and see if it helps you. I really hope this might help someone as much as it’s helped me live with my own CRPS.