Dealing With Pail Mindfully


Salt columnist Andy Hix this week looks at how mindfulness can be used to deal with pain.

The other day I asked David, a Big Issue seller in Angel, how he was. It was a bit of surprise when he actually told me. He said he wasn’t feeling too good. I was running late. I thought: “This isn’t how it works! We’re supposed to ask each other how we are, both say “fine thanks” and then hurry off. As I had asked I thought I’d better take the time to hear what he wanted to say.

In his Spanish accent, he told me he had painful kidney stones, which kept coming back each time the doctors got rid of them. His weather-worn face was tensed up from how much he was suffering. Painkillers weren’t doing any good.

I asked him if he’d ever tried using mindfulness to deal with the pain. He hadn’t heard of it. I usually talk about how mindfulness is useful at work and in day-to-day life. In fact, one of the key things that gave this ancient practice credibility in the West was when MIT Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn used it to treat people whom mainstream medicine had given up on.

His Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School treated patients who were experiencing constant chronic pain. His approach turned western medical thinking on its head. Instead of numbing the pain or getting rid of it, he taught his patients to purposefully pay attention to it.

The mindful approach to pain holds that our reaction to the physical sensation is what causes us to suffer. When we tense up, curse our bodies for what they are inflicting on us and resist our experience, we prolong and intensify the pain. By being curious about the size, shape, intensity, undulation and tone of the pain and by doing so with patience and compassion, rather than with frustration and resistance, it is possible to start to make peace with it and thereby reduce how much we suffer as a result of it.

It is exactly the same principle with emotions. When we resist feeling sad, anxious, depressed, agitated, bored or whatever, we cause ourselves much more suffering than when we can just accept how we’re feeling compassionately, and make peace with it.

So this was what I said to David. Instead of resisting the pain, I suggested he allow himself to feel it. He said he’d give it a go. I bought a Big Issue and offered to get him something from Pret. I thought that even if he didn’t try it, the fact that I’d taken a moment to listen and that I’d wanted to help, would have an effect in itself.

It reminded me that when I don’t create space in my life I feel I become less compassionate because I don’t leave time for people, and that when I do make time I am willing and able to give so much more. One of my favourite sayings is: “The slower you go, the more you know.” You could add to that: “The more you enjoy, the more you can give, the more peace you have and the more conscious your choices”.

Here’s to going slow.

Andy Hix is director of zen at work, a London-based mindfulness consultancy. Get in touch with Andy for a free taster session at


Photo Credit: Annais Ferreira from flickr