Sunday, 21 February 2010


Another review of mine, also published in the latest edition of 'Pain Matters'. This is of the latest series of guided meditation CDs by Breathworks:

CD1: Body Scan
CD2: Mindfulness of Breathing (2 CDs)
CD3: Kindly Awareness (2 CDs)
Available from

Several years ago, Breathworks brought out a series of three guided mindfulness meditation CD’s with an emphasis on working with chronic pain and illness. I’ve loved them since I first heard them, finding them wonderfully helpful and with a calm, spacious quality which is very special. I felt a flash of disappointment when I realised that these new CDs are re-recordings, but it didn’t last because each meditation practice comes in several different versions, and these are essentially new CDs. In fact, I like them even more than the originals!

For anyone unfamiliar with it, mindfulness meditation is a practice of being aware, non-judgementally, of whatever is happening in the present moment, whether physical, mental or emotional. It includes practices such as being aware of the breath, or focusing on sensations in each part of the body in turn, and gently bringing the mind back to the present-moment awareness each time we notice it’s wandered. Such meditations have several benefits for those of us living with pain. For instance, they can often produce a calming effect, bringing us gently away from the thoughts cascading through our minds and coming home, over and over again, to the body. Also, focusing on different kinds of sensations, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, can help us to recognise that pain is only one part of our experience, and while listening to these CDs I have often realised that my pain was not as bad, more bearable, than I thought it was. All experiences, whether physical sensations or thoughts, change and pass in a gentle state of flux. Becoming more aware of this can help to reduce the ‘secondary suffering’ resulting from our agitated thoughts and feelings about our pain – which as I’ve learned myself through difficult experience, only makes the pain feel worse and can greatly prolong flare-ups.

The meditation practices on these CDs are led by the founders of Breathworks: Vidyamala Burch, who has long experience of coping with severe pain, and her colleague Sona Fricker. The Buddhist roots of mindfulness are not explicitly apparent here; the CDs are secular in feel although both leaders are Buddhists. They also have beautiful, calm voices which contribute much to the feeling of spaciousness, and in fact their leading sounds even more relaxed and fluid than before. They are very gentle with the listener, reminding us that it’s OK if our mind drifts; it’s normal, and we can simply bring it back again each time. But the real bonus of the new CDs is that they contain extra meditations; ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ and ‘Kindly Awareness’ now have two CDs each. Each has a longer and a shorter version of the meditation, as well as a choice between fully-led practices and ones with only minimal guidance. I like the fully-led ones the best, as the voice seems to act as an anchor, helping to bring my mind back from its wanderings, but I know people who like to have the space to meditate without the intrusion of a guiding voice. So it’s wonderful that listeners are provided with such choices here, and the sound quality of the new CDs is more beautiful too.

Of all the CDs, my own favourite is ‘Kindly Awareness’. Here the practice involves first of all focusing on our own sensations and feelings, and then gradually including other people, extending from a friend to a neutral person to someone we have difficulty with, and finally to the whole world. The beautiful thing about this is that, perhaps even more than the others, it fosters a sense of acceptance and kindness, both towards oneself and others. So often we can feel alone, isolated and frustrated with our pain, and all these feelings simply increase secondary suffering and make our condition harder to live with. Kindness, which is at the heart of mindfulness, helps to foster acceptance of all our experience, both painful and pleasant, and the Kindly Awareness meditation also encourages kindness to others: a sense of our kinship and the universality of suffering and joy. This can be quite liberating. The pain is no longer an enemy; it’s simply an experience which others share and which we can be tender and caring towards.

Discovering the original Breathworks CDs has been a revelation to me, and I can also recommend Vidyamala’s book and CD, ‘Living Well with Pain and Illness’, which with great clarity and compassion provide a further exploration of mindfulness and some useful extra practices. I frequently still find meditation a challenging practice, but it does help to reduce my pain and anxiety levels, and has been shown to do the same for many others. And the experience of clarity, calm and acceptance, when it comes, is a worthwhile and beautiful thing. It’s mirrored in the quality of the CDs themselves, in the leaders’ calm voices and in words and phrases that help to foster that clarity and calmness. In Vidyamala’s memorable phrase:

Body like a mountain…
Heart like the ocean…
Mind like the sky…

Reversing Chronic Pain

A review I wrote for the book‘Reversing Chronic Pain: A 10-Point All-Natural Plan for Lasting Relief’, by Maggie Phillips. It has been printed in the latest issue of Pain Concern's 'Pain Matters' magazine, and I thought I'd share it here.

The book is published by North Atlantic Books, and available from, or from

I’ve just read this book during a big pain flare-up, my first for a couple of years. I felt instinctively that I was going to like it, and it didn’t disappoint. This is a really comprehensive, structured presentation of contrasting and varied techniques for managing pain, and it gave me comfort, encouragement and hope.

It starts with the best and clearest explanation of the groundbreaking ‘gate’ theory of pain that I’ve ever come across. It was a relief, in my flared-up state, simply to feel that I understood more about what was happening to my nervous system, and why exactly pain is such a distressingly emotional experience. The gate theory suggests that there are points (‘gates’) along the spinal cord that let messages from the peripheral nerves through to the brain, where they are registered as pain. The messages arrive at three separate areas of the brain: the sensory cortex, which processes physical sensations, the limbic or emotional centre, and the ‘thinking’ frontal cortex. Hence the way that our experience of pain is influenced by our emotions and patterns of thinking.

The comforting aspect of this is that pain messages can be blocked, either through techniques that ‘close’ the gates to stop messages getting through, or by dealing with the messages that have already reached the brain. An example of the latter is any technique that boosts levels of pain-relieving endorphins, such as humour, exercise, or listening to music. An example of the former is massage or any pleasurable or neutral physical sensations; these travel along the nervous system up to seven times faster than pain messages, and thereby block some or all of the pain from reaching the brain – in effect, ‘closing the pain gates’.

Understanding this theory, for me, not only gave me encouragement and hope that I could reduce my pain through ‘natural’ means; it also made me aware that I have some control over my pain. Chronic pain, especially during flare-ups can be such an overwhelming experience, that we can feel as if we have no control over our bodies and our lives. Understanding brings the potential for more choices in how we respond to the pain. I’m very grateful to Maggie Phillips for explaining this so clearly, and for helping me to identify my own most effective ‘pain blockers’, which I am now starting to utilise much more regularly.

The theory of pain is just the start, however; the book explains far more than that. The coping techniques presented include breathing, visualisation, mindfulness meditation, exercise, ‘energy therapies’ and addressing past traumas and the emotional context of pain. It includes a great number of varied exercises and skills to practise; so many, that ideally I’d like to spend a week on each chapter, adopting the book as a kind of ten week course. I think I’ll do that before long, but Phillips does emphasise that the reader can choose to adopt the exercises they most relate to or find helpful, leaving the others to take on if and when they feel ready. My own favourites include a beautiful ‘lovingkindness’ mantra; finding a ‘safe place’ within my body; and some of the visualisations, some of which are very comforting, while others sounded quite bizarre until I actually tried them. The ‘brain’s pain relief centre’ one is even entertaining, like a mini-action movie in the body, where you can be director and actor at the same time!

There were parts of the book I felt resistant to or didn’t understand well. The spiritual element in the mindfulness chapter seemed unaware that many chronic pain sufferers might be atheists, but on the other hand it certainly wasn’t organised-religious either. And I could not relate to the chapter on energy therapies; for personal reasons, I have a strong emotional resistance to anything that includes phrases like ‘energy flow’. The chapters that most resonate with me are two near the end, which deal with the role of trauma and loss in chronic pain. As a recovering anxiety sufferer as well as someone with neuropathic pain, I’ve increasingly wondered if the two conditions are related, and lately feel as if a build-up of grief and tension from unresolved losses and traumas in my life has contributed to the physical and emotional difficulties I’ve had over the past few years. So far my thoughts are just beginning to touch on the issue, but with the help of Maggie Phillips’s book and the exercises and insights it contains, I think I’ll be exploring in far more depth and hopefully will gain a deeper understanding and acceptance of my pain. Will this lead to a reduction in pain and a more active and fulfilled life? I don’t know, but it seems there’s nothing to lose by trying.

In short, this is an admirable and very helpful book, at times a little too ‘Californian’ for my taste, but one which I know I’ll return to again and again to help me manage and understand my pain. I think most chronic pain sufferers will find at least some of the exercises beneficial, and for many it will be a breath of fresh air that brings the hope, comfort and support that those of us with pain so often, and so dearly, need.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Living Peace

Yesterday a friend gave Angie and me a late Christmas present, and obviously knew what we needed. It's a CD called 'Living Peace' by Gael Chiarella, and it's really beautiful.

Gael has a lovely, gentle American voice, and leads you through four deep relaxations. They're based on practises I've encountered before, such as yoga and mindfulness meditation; the latter is something I practise every day. Having listened to them all, I've found that they encourage a state of appreciation of my surroundings and the good things I have, as well as a balanced observation of the impermanence and changability of things, including sensations which I label unpleasant, such as pain. And they also do something which is important for chronic pain and anxiety sufferers: they seem to help 'slow down' the nervous system. Helpful for anyone in these stressful and fast-paced times, it's also something that ambient music can do. So every night once we're in bed, Angie and I relax and doze to Brian Eno's 'Music for Airports', present almost at the edge of hearing, like a musical soft light or perfume!

The music on this CD is less distinctive than Eno, but beautifully calm and not mixed too forwardly, so it doesn't intrude too much. The sensation of listening to these tracks is a bit like sitting in the courtyard of some Tibetan monastery, witha deep blue sky above and the Himalayan peaks catching yellow sunlight all around. Which is not a bad place to be, if only in your imagination.

I can recommend this CD highly. You can obtain it and other CDs by Gael at Amazon, or by visiting her website at


Thursday, 4 February 2010


Hello again after a long absence! I've changed the title of this blog, because I no longer see myself as a peace activist, having reluctantly given it up due to its effects on my emotional and physical health. I may still post occasional 'political' entries, but also I'd like to try and find a new focus for my blog, with a greater emphasis on personal experience than before. So its character is changing, but what precise direction it will take is something I'm not sure of, yet! I'll just see if it evolves into something a bit different from before!

In my personal life I've been struggling recently with health problems; none of them 'serious', but quite debilitating. I hope I'm learning though, and will come through as I have before.

To help keep me positive, I've been creating a new ebsite for my photography, which at present you can see at: It will have a proper domain name in a few weeks once I start paying for it, so I'll post the new link when I have it. Meanwhile, if you like photographs of landscapes, animals, flowers, architecture and anti-war marches, I hope you enjoy browsing!

Bye for now, and peace to all.