I sprained my next-to-little toe yesterday. I was pushing a shopping cart through a grocery store, in a hurry to pick up all the goods I needed, when I accidentally jammed my foot against the metal wheel. I took a couple skips, leaned hard against the cart handle, and looked up to the ceiling, opening my mouth in a silent “Fuuuuuuu…”
And then something kind of wonderful happened. I felt the pain, and I heard the whooshing of lots of thoughts that weren’t pain, right alongside. It’s broken! they cried. You won’t be able to walk, they warned. So much for the rest of your day, they lamented. And then I stopped listening.
I stood on one leg, like a flamingo right there in the condiment aisle, and held the injured foot in my hand, both to elevate it and to cradle it, to care for it. I felt numbness melt into throbbing pain, which then focused into shooting pains, but not for long. It soon settled into a deep, thick ache. I put my foot down and limped through the store, picking up the rest of my items.
It probably wasn’t broken, and even if it was, there wasn’t much to be done. I’d broken a toe years ago and had gone to the hospital, where they taped it up and sent me on my way. So this was not the end of the world, or even the end of my very productive afternoon.
I got back to my car and pulled out of the parking lot. Halfway down the street, I almost had to pull over because the pain was so extreme. Pushing on the gas pedal with the ball of my suffering foot was almost unbearable, so I experimented with different angles until I found one that worked. I watched the sensations carefully and with great interest: it felt like a thunderstorm, with clouds of dull pain interrupted by sharp lightning bolts and deep, penetrating thunder. Each movement from gas to brake to gas was an opportunity for study, for practice.
Experientially opening oneself to pain rather than avoiding it is said to reduce the mind’s tendency toward avoidance or anxiety which can further exacerbate the experience of pain. This is a central feature of mindfulness-based therapies. Little is known about the neural mechanisms of mindfulness on pain. During a meditation practice similar to mindfulness, functional magnetic resonance imaging was used in expert meditators (>10,000h of practice) to dissociate neural activation patterns associated with pain, its anticipation, and habituation. Compared to novices, expert meditators reported equal pain intensity, but less unpleasantness … These findings suggest that cultivating experiential openness down-regulates anticipatory representation of aversive events, and increases the recruitment of attentional resources during pain, which is associated with faster neural habituation.
In other words, mindfulness over matter. The pain is there, but more important is what you do with that information. Lean into it, explore it, see what it is and what is isn’t. It works. Even I, true believer that I am, was surprised at how beautifully it worked for me yesterday. And I’m proof that you don’t have to wait until 10,000 hours for the benefits to kick* in.