Transforming Chronic Pain Through Mindfulness

How Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) changed my relationship with my pain, myself and those around me.

By | January 24, 2021

Having been raised in a home where prayer and meditation were highly valued and encouraged, and having carried that appreciation with me over the years, I have always valued the benefits of secular and faith-based meditative practices. In 2008, I began regular yoga practice, but my first encounter with mindfulness through the lens of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) came four years later, during one of the darkest periods of my life.

In 2012, I was diagnosed with acute lumbar spondylosis, compounded by a cracked vertebrae from my days playing rugby. The degenerating discs, bone spurs and nerve compression caused severe discomfort in my back and legs. Physically and emotionally, I was all but incapacitated for almost 12 months. With my personal and professional life suffering the adverse impacts of these symptoms, and with no course of action or treatment proving effective, I had lost hope. Timing could not be worse as my wife was expecting our first child.

After seeing dozens of specialists I had all but lost hope in finding some respite from the pain.
Photography: Cottonbro/Pexels

I tried everything to avoid surgery, which even the consultants said would only provide temporary relief. I shuttled from chiropractors and osteopaths to rolfers and acupuncturists. I took TCM and natural supplements, prescription muscle relaxants and opioids. Nothing alleviated the chronic pain, and my mental wellbeing began to come apart at the seams. At this point, I couldn’t even do the simplest things like sit on the sofa or hold my infant daughter for more than a few minutes.

Then one day a colleague suggested I check out the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist and professor of medicine whose work has contributed greatly to popularising and demystifying mindfulness in the West.

Kabat-Zinn is the creator of the secular eight-week MBSR programme, which marries the fundamental principles of mindfulness—namely moment-to-moment awareness—with meditative practices and brain science to alleviate the suffering caused by stress, anxiety, and chronic pain. His body of work includes the bestselling books Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are.

Kabat-Zinn’s seminal Full Catastrophe living has been called “one of the great classics of mind/body medicine” Photography: Rebecca Jo-Rushdy

A few hours later I purchased Kabat-Zinn’s guided Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief, which draws upon the MBSR methodology. Over the next six months I practised religiously, 60 to 90 minutes a day. I focused all my energy on internalising every word of instruction and “tuning my instrument” as it were. Regular practice (20 to 30 minutes, at least five days a week) became the cornerstone of my daily routine for the next several years.

To say the practice revolutionised my relationship with physical and emotional suffering would be an understatement. The discomfort remained, and the degeneration continued, albeit at a slower pace. What changed entirely was the way I viewed and responded to it. I was no longer consumed by the pain, nor did I identify myself with my condition. The biggest insight gained through observing the arising of these sensations, emotions and thoughts was the realisation that they are transient, not the truth of things and that our response to them can be a conscious choice rather than conditioned habit.

Perhaps the most profound question the practice prompted me to ask was: Is my awareness of the pain in this moment actually in pain? Substituting “pain” for “anger”, “despair” or “fear” proved equally effective. Our awareness, when cultivated regularly,  is boundless, as big as the sky, and can hold thoughts, emotions, and sensations within it.

Nourishing the mind on a daily basis requires commitment and dedication. Photography: Gabby K/Pexels

After leaving Hong Kong and taking a one-year sabbatical to travel with my family, in 2018 we moved to Malaysia where I set out to establish a regional business for our company. It was an extremely stressful time. My emotional and physical health deteriorated once again and, ironically, it was during this period, when I needed the practice most, that my daily meditation fell by the wayside.

In early 2020, as the coronovirus pandemic spread across the globe and humanity’s stress levels, including my own, spiked, I reinstituted a regular practise and quickly rediscovered the benefits of integrating mindfulness into our daily lives.

Jon Kabat-Zinn explains the 9 Attitudes of MBSR. Photography: Masaaki Komori/Unsplash

Mindfulness has proven benefits for improving emotional and physical wellbeing, including, but not limited to reducing pain, anxiety, stress and emotional reactivity; enhancing memory, improving focus and cognitive flexibility and much more. The “relaxation response” even changes gene expression that controls your cells’ energy!

Having experienced first-hand the life-changing benefits of mindfulness, I am always looking for opportunities to share this knowledge with others who are living with chronic pain and emotional distress. Formalising a decade of practise through the eight-week MBSR course, and learning more about the research and principles behind the methodology has deepened my appreciation for the importance of bringing moment to moment awareness to our daily lives, and the myriad ways mindfulness can improve our relationship with ourselves and others.

For the past decade I have worked in executive education, designing and facilitating leadership learning programmes for government agencies and companies around the world. My experience in this field has convinced me that without the difficult yet necessary inner work, real growth and transformation, whether of individuals or organisations, is almost impossible to achieve.

Whilst I am deeply passionate about directing anyone who might be struggling with chronic stress to MBSR, I also hold the strong conviction that public, private, and civil sector leaders can gain a great deal by applying the principles of MBSR in their personal and professional lives by fusing mindfulness-based interventions with more conventional modes of continuing education and leadership learning.

Calligraphy by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Illustration: Plum Village.

Whatever your profession, background or beliefs, mindfulness is a practical, accessible and profound approach to living yourself in the present moment. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Making time for formal practise every day is like feeding yourself every day. It is that important.”

Surf, or get swept up. With each wave, you have the ability to choose again. Image: Rebecca Jo-Rushdy.


Karim Rushdy

Karim Rushdy

Karim is a father of two daughters, student of mindfulness, an avid rugby fan, and managing director for SE Asia for Global Institute for Tomorrow.