3. Meditation reduces our perception of pain.
When our physical body is injured or at risk of being injured, pain receptors send a message up the spinal cord to let our brain know. Then, the unpleasant experience of pain is created by a perceptual process involving the emotional parts of our brain. An ancient Buddhist text states that meditation practitioners are able to experience the sensory aspect of pain without the unpleasant emotional reaction that typically accompanies it. Recently, scientists have begun examining how meditation may stimulate the release of endogenous opioids, naturally relieving pain, as well as alter how emotional parts of the brain respond to pain.
Studies of long-term Zen meditators and vipassana practitioners have found that while their pain intensity ratings are in the normal range, they report significantly lower pain unpleasantness ratings than non-meditators. These results correlate with brain scans showing reduced activation in brain areas that process the emotional experience of pain.
Good news for the rest of us—even short-term meditation practice can produce similar results. After just four 20-minute sessions of mindfulness meditation, healthy volunteers experienced a 40% reduction in pain intensity and a 57% reduction in pain unpleasantness. Brain scans showed increased activation in areas involved in analgesia (pain relief), and also showed evidence that meditation may help to block pain information being sent from the peripheral nerves to the brain.
Another study of long-term meditators found a correlation between meditation, brain volume, and pain perception. Long-term Zen meditators were found to be significantly less sensitive to pain, and this lower pain sensitivity correlated with a thicker cortex in pain-related regions of the brain.
If you want to do an experiment—and please don’t actually hurt yourself—try this:
Close your eyes. Take one or two slow, deep breaths down into your lower belly, and completely relax.
Take one thumb and dig your thumbnail into the thumb or a finger of your opposite hand. When it starts to hurt enough that you want to stop, don’t stop. Keep your eyes closed, keep taking deep breaths down into your belly (not your chest!), and relax as much as possible. Let go of the emotional, stressful reaction that you would normally have to this painful sensation. Notice that painful sensation, but try to relax and not react to it. Can you feel how this is different than how you would normally respond to pain?