by Michael W. Taft
I remember throwing out my back one time, which caused terrible pain in one leg. I went to doctors, chiropractors, took medications, all of which helped. But still as I was walking around, it felt as if my leg was on fire, with hot lava swirling in the thigh and knee, burning my flesh. Searing pain like that is such a strange experience, because it completely dominates your life, but nobody else can see it or feel it. It’s like you have this horrible secret that you’re carrying around, invisible to everybody else and yet—in a way—the most important thing in your world.
Physical pain, especially chronic pain, is an enormous challenge. Severe pain can become the defining feature of your life—a force that controls your every moment. After you’ve done everything possible using medications and treatments, doctors and therapists, sometimes that’s just not enough, and the pain is still there. What are you supposed to do, when all the options have run out? What I did for my pain was to do mindfulness meditation, specifically the practice I call “The Safe Haven.”
A safe haven is a metaphor for a place in your body that doesn’t hurt. More specifically, a body sensation that is neutral and restful. Even with high levels of pain, there is often a spot or sensation somewhere else in the body that just doesn’t feel that bad. It’s not that it has to feel wonderful or ecstatic. Instead, it’s a sensation that is chilled out and calm. I call it a “safe haven” because—just like a calm harbor in a terrible storm at sea—this restful sensation can offer your mind a place to relax somewhat, feel some relief, and weather out the storm.
“A safe haven is a metaphor for a place in your body that doesn’t hurt.”
The essence of the technique is to find such a sensation and to focus as much of your attention upon it as possible. You scan your body and search for a sensation that is calm, peaceful, light, neutral, relaxed, or open. It may feel so subtle or soft that it’s almost not there at all, compared to the loud, harsh intensity of the pain. But this “quietness” of the sensation is one of the good things about it. It offers a peacefulness compared to the chaos and fury of the pain. It can be any place in your body, but some examples (depending on where your pain is located, of course) could be the back of your upper arm (tricep region), your hands or feet, or even your head or ears. These areas are often chilled out and calm, even when other places aren’t.
Once you find a safe haven, you concentrate on the feelings there. You focus all your mindful awareness on the qualities of the sensation. This is the challenging part, at first, because it’s akin to trying to listen to somebody whisper at a boisterous party. It’s much easier to pay attention to the pain than to focus on this restful, calm sensation. You will have one big advantage, however, and that is that the safe haven feels good (or at least doesn’t feel bad). Because it feels good, your mind will be attracted towards it. It’s easy to focus on things we like.
Simply feeling the restful sensation in the safe haven is good, but even better is to explore the sensation. Get curious about it. What is its shape, its texture, its density? How is one part of it different from another? Remember that because your body is three dimensional, sensations are three dimensional as well, so try exploring the “thickness” or “inside” of the sensation. If the restful sensation goes away or changes location, simply find a different one. Focus on the safe haven for as long as you want to or need to.
This mindfulness meditation practice is not a miracle, nor is it incredibly easy to do. It takes time and effort to get good at focusing on the safe haven enough to feel the relief it offers. And, of course, this is only meant as an adjunct or addition to whatever professional medical treatments you are engaging in. Yet even practicing this a little bit, whenever the pain requires you to, can offer some respite from torment. And as your skill grows, you may notice that you can ride out storms of pain with relative ease in your safe haven.
photo by Alessandro Capone