Sage Medicine

Mindfulness in Medicine: Pain and Smelling

Understanding how mindfulness can be applied to medicine requires an experiential understanding of mindfulness practice. The notion of effectively achieving this in a column with 400 words or less is completely absurd. Therefore, my intention for this ongoing column is to offer ideas for discussion and inspiration for practice, with the hope that we all develop our own relationship with mindfulness in our lives.

Last month, I raised the questions, “Is mindfulness even helpful in the healing process?” and “Is it necessary?”  Instead of answering these questions directly, I suggest we look toward experiences of mindfulness for ourselves and discover our own answers.

Let us begin with a relatively benign bodily experience: smelling. The automatic response is for the mind to organize a smell into one of three categories: pleasurable, not pleasurable, or neutral. The mind says, “This smells good.” Or “What is that awful smell?” Or, if it’s neutral, the mind may or may not notice it, and then immediately move on to something else. Of course, all of this happens subconsciously in a fraction of a second.

In a mindful smelling experience, one makes this subconscious experience, conscious. One would notice the smell, and rather than immediately push it into a category of positive, negative or neutral, one would explore the smell, without judgment. Noticing the textures, the subtle tones, the potency, the colors of the smell, and the transition from smell to no-smell. If there is a thought of “I like this smell,” or “I don’t like this smell,” one would notice the thought, also without judgment.

The same practice can be applied to all body sensations: pain, for instance. Typically, we experience pain and our mind says, “Ouch. I’m in Pain. This is uncomfortable.” Then we immediately see if we can make the pain sensation go away.

Similarly, in a mindful pain experience, instead of immediately saying, “Pain. Bad. Make it stop,” one might bring awareness inside the pain. Explore the pain with curiosity. Notice the temperature, the texture and the potency. Notice the obvious qualities as well as the more subtle tones. Does it have shape or color? Does is move or radiate? Where is the body not in pain? What is the ‘no painlike? What happens when we release our judgment of ‘pain’ or ‘no pain’ and simply experience the sensations in our body?

To be continued…in June.

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