Recently, I was on a radio talk show to speak about the role of spirituality in dealing with chronic pain. In preparing for the interview, I spoke to some medical experts and to colleagues who are familiar with the research on spirituality and health outcomes. Here’s some of what I learned.
Because it’s difficult to measure it accurately, very few studies look specifically at chronic pain. However, experts are comfortable extrapolating from the large body of research on other health outcomes, leading to this conclusion: while no one would claim that religion or spirituality can cure chronic pain, spiritual practices, devotional activities and beliefs that enhance one’s sense of meaning and purpose can certainly help to alleviate pain and make it more bearable.
If you’ve ever dealt with pain over a prolonged period of time, you’ve probably noticed that it’s not a static feeling. Rather, it varies in intensity depending on a number of factors, some of which are rooted in biochemical events that are beyond the control of most of us. But it’s also affected by things we can influence, such as our mood, attitude, perceptions, relationships and other circumstances. Everyone has felt absolutely horrible physically, only to have their experience of the condition shift because a child says something delightful, or someone cracks a joke, or a shaft of sunlight illumines a dark landscape, or a certain song comes on the radio. Those common experiences point to why healthy spirituality can have a palliative effect even on long-term pain conditions: it shifts the way we relate to the pain.
I emphasize healthy spirituality to distinguish it from religious expressions that can exacerbate pain, by adding an overlay of guilt, fear and disillusionment to the physical condition. On many occasions, for example, I’ve started my daily meditation with a splitting headache or a stiff neck or a throbbing bruise. Initially, as I settle into stillness, the pain seems actually to increase. I see that as the beginning of healing. Instinctively, we want the opposite, i.e., to distract ourselves from the pain. I’ve learned that if I let go and allow my attention to go where it’s needed, the pain quickly diminishes. At various points during meditation, the pain disappears from my awareness altogether, and at the deepest moments, so does the rest of my body. Afterward, the pain may or may not return, but it is almost always noticeably diminished.
Similarly, spiritual practices like deep prayer, chanting, contemplating scriptures and performing acts of service, can have pain-defeating value—at least temporarily and in some cases over a longer term. Naturally, physical practices with spiritual roots, such as yoga, tai chi and sacred dance, have obvious and well-researched value in treating pain directly.
Healthy religious or spiritual practices also have a palliative effect by shifting our moods and our perceptions—not just about the pain itself but about life in general. A depressed or anxious person experiences pain differently from a happy, fearless person with the exact same physical condition. A lonely person experiences pain differently from someone surrounded by loved ones. Someone who thinks her pain is God’s punishment for her sins experiences it differently from someone who feels the presence of the divine as unconditional love. Someone who curses his fate experiences pain differently from someone who is grateful to be alive.
The bottom-line is, healthy spiritual beliefs and practices can dramatically alter your relationship to pain, and adding them to your total health package is a matter of choice.
There are several ways to understand the impact of spirituality on pain. One is that spiritual practices lift us out of our usual experience of time and space. They take us to a zone of timelessness where we stop thinking about our bodies, our egos, our needs and desires. That, in itself, is healing. Another is that a healthy spiritual life, even if it doesn’t reduce physical pain one iota, can certainly reduce suffering.
Contemplating the distinction between pain and suffering is a worthwhile spiritual exercise in its own right. The dictionary defines pain as "an unpleasant sensation occurring in varying degrees of severity as a consequence of injury, disease or emotional disorder." To suffer is to “feel distress.” To a great extent, the agony of physical pain is exacerbated or relieved by the extent to which you also suffer emotional or spiritual distress. And that, to a large extent, is determined by spiritual issues, such as how you see the world and your place in it, and whether your heart is filled with regret, self-pity and guilt on the one hand or contentment, peace and love on the other.
Suffering, a wise person once said, is wanting reality to be different from what it is. To which I hear you say, "Damn right I want things to be different. I want to not have pain." True enough, and it would not be very spiritual to ignore any possibility of healing that pain. At the same time, bemoaning your fate, feeling sorry for yourself or trying to cut deals with God might very well exacerbate the suffering. Somewhere, there is an appropriate balance between wanting to alleviate the physical condition and accepting what is at every moment. Healthy spirituality can help you locate that balance on your terms.
Perhaps this image will help. Many years ago, when I moved from a big city to rural New England, I had to walk some distance in icy, sub-freezing weather. A savvy native gave me this advice: don’t hunch up and tighten your body and lean forward—which is what we instinctively do, attempting to block out the cold—but rather, stand straight, relax and walk normally. The instructions altered my walk entirely. Obviously, I didn’t change the temperature, or even my clothes, but I suffered a whole lot less, and as a welcome bonus I noticed details in the beautiful surroundings for the very first time.