How Mindfulness Provides Relief from Chronic Pain

Just 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day can help trigger your brain’s pain-relieving power.

Illustration by Veronica Gretch

“This probably isn’t going to kill me, but it’ll hurt,” Danny Penman remembers thinking back in May 2006. Moments earlier, Penman had been floating serenely over England’s Cotswold Hills when a blast of wind collapsed his paraglider. He somersaulted head over heels through the air before slamming into a hillside some 30 feet below.

An agonizing pain engulfed him as he realized his leg was shattered. He slipped into shock; near-seizures shook his body. That’s when Penman deployed his secret weapon: He’d learned meditation as a student in England. In sheer desperation, he gave it a try.

Forcing himself to breathe slowly and deeply, he focused on the sensations his breath made. He envisioned himself in a beautiful garden and imagined breathing its tranquil air. Gradually, his perception of the pain shifted, so that it became less “personal” and intense, as if he was watching it on TV rather than experiencing it directly.

Over the next five months, Penman needed three operations to rebuild his leg. The pain—plus the insomnia, irritability, and anxiety—was excruciating, he recalls in his book, You Are Not Your Pain, written with Vidyamala Burch. 

The powerful pain meds provided by his doctors weren’t much help, and…

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