As I lean forwards I feel something shift. I pause for a moment. The feeling was too subtle to even register as a problem, so I continue what I was doing. But a minute later a pain begins to radiate out from my lower back, gradually increasing in intensity. Now I stop.
My hips begin to tighten and my abdominals contract to try and ease the pressure on my spine. I can no longer twist, or bend, or even walk without pain. Every shift of weight turns up the volume on my lower back’s protest against movement of any kind. In fact, just breathing is hard. My whole core is locked up against the pain, so I can only breathe, short and shallow, through my chest.
Lower back injuries can, like my most recent one, be relatively mild and merciful. And sometimes they can be completely debilitating, resulting in a complete loss of movement and biting pain around the clock. But I was and am lucky. I’ve tweaked my lower back three times now, and each time has been mild. No slipped discs and no ambulances required. In fact, this last time has helped me discover a shortcut to mindfulness. But, be warned, it’s not the type of shortcut you want to take too often.
The shortcut, quite simply, is pain. I’ll say it again. The shortcut to mindfulness is pain. Not emotional or metaphysical, but physical pain.
Immediately after I injured my back it was very hard to focus on anything except the alarms going off in my nervous system. It was near-impossible to think about what I need to accomplish this month. I couldn’t focus on what happened last week and how I’m going to learn from it. I couldn’t be overcome by anxiety or desire because there was no mental bandwidth spare to allocate to such trivialities. The only thing I could pay attention to was the pain.
Obviously, the inducement of intense pain isn’t a great long-term strategy for developing mindfulness and awareness of the presence. But I do believe, that in small, controlled doses, pain can be a very effective tool in the development of mindfulness.
For example, what makes strength training and exercise such a revitalising tonic for so many people? Obviously, the physical reactions to it play a part. But mentally, in the moment, exercise and training are uncomfortable. Not unbearably so, but it’s definitely a level higher than sitting on the sofa. And it is this uncomfortable-ness, the challenging nature of training, that provides the mental benefit. It forces you to lock into the present moment. You can’t deadlift double your bodyweight if you’re thinking about that meeting tomorrow. There’s no room for worry about the trip next week when you’re at the tail end of a 2000m row for time.
Or think about actual meditation practice. Most meditation postures, like the lotus, half-lotus and Japanese seiza, are uncomfortable for Westerners. The discomfort these positions provoke can act as a mechanism that helps you stay where you are.
In training, in meditation practice, in other scenarios, pain can be used as a focusing tool. It can help centre your attention on what is in front of you, on what is most important and critical right now. And it works, pain functions as a shortcut to mindfulness, because pain imprisons you in the present. Without artificial aids, you cannot escape it. Which means you cannot escape the place where the pain is occurring; the present moment.