Zen and pain maintenance
It is said that what donâ€™t know wonâ€™t hurt you. This truism extends perfectly to meditation and perception of pain in the sense that you will not feel pain as intensely if you have trained your mind to disconnect from it.
To test the link between meditation and pain researchers compared the response of people who practised Zen meditation to that of non-meditators in response to a pain generating heat source. Pain perception was measured and also compared to magnetic resonance images (MRIs) that were taken of the subjectâ€™s brains.
The most experienced of the meditation practitioners showed lower pain responses. They also showed less activity in the prefrontal cortex, the amygdale, and the hippocampus; the parts of the brain involved cognition, emotion, and memory. Additionally, the meditators showed a reduction in communication between the part of the brain that senses pain and the prefrontal cortex.
These findings suggest that Zen meditators are able to disengage some higher order brain processes while still experiencing the sensory stimulus. In this case this means that the pain source is still sensed, but the experience of pain is diminished.
The other interesting finding was that the more a person had trained in meditation, the greater was the effect in reducing pain perception. This reinforces the fact that meditation is a learned skill.
What the meditators have learned to do is experience the sensation but to refrain from interpreting or labelling the sensation as painful. This is in line with the Zen idea of mindfulness and has powerful implications beyond pain management. It also has relevance for emotion management and training of your thinking.
As we approach the time of year when we make resolutions and promise ourselves to be better next year, even if meditation is not for you, surely refraining from labelling and judging are worthy aspirations.