Pain Opens a Door

Mindfulness teacher Vidyamala Burch opens up about her firsthand experience with the power of mindfulness and compassion to support those living with chronic pain.

Adobe Stock/ Benjavisa Ruangvaree

Vidyamala Burch was 25 when she first practiced mindfulness. Two years earlier, she had been in a car crash that caused the second spinal fracture she had experienced within 10 years. At 25, after a physical breakdown from pushing herself too hard, she was back in the hospital. “It was a total dark night of the soul,” she says. “I got obsessed with getting through until morning.” She told herself, “You just have to live this moment, and this one, and this one,” and moment by moment, she reached the morning. “I was one person before that and I’ve been another person since.”

With no way to fix her spine or stop her pain, the physicians sent a hospital chaplain who led Burch in a meditation. He asked her to recall a time and place where she felt happy, and she thought of a time before her injuries when she climbed the Southern Alps of New Zealand. “I went from feeling lost and desperate to feeling connected to these very happy, beautiful times,” she says.

“Rather than feeling like this pain is just ruining my life it’s more like this pain has opened a door for me to work with my mind and my heart, and then I can offer that to others.”

Vidyamala Burch

After leaving the hospital, she asked a social worker for some meditation cassette tapes (this was 1985) and she taught herself to meditate. Eventually she traveled to England to live at a retreat center for five years, where, she says, “I learned to soften and feel some of the grief and the sorrow—I learned to love and be loved.”

For people living with chronic pain, “Mindfulness is not some kind of optional extra to make life a bit easier,” she says. Instead mindfulness is about a very significant choice: “Are you going to have pain and be mentally tortured, or are you going to have pain and have a little bit more mental and emotional ease?” In answering this question for herself, Burch found her purpose.

Today, Burch is the cofounder of Breathworks, a UK-based charity that developed from courses she began to lead in 2000 offering mindfulness and compassion training for people living with chronic pain, illness, and stress. In 2022 Burch was awarded an OBE by the Queen for her service. “This is no longer a fringe-y thing, it’s a recognized healthcare intervention.” Burch works every day to help those with chronic pain find peace.

“Rather than feeling like this pain is just ruining my life,” says Burch, “it’s more like this pain has opened a door for me to work with my mind and my heart, and then I can offer that to others.”

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