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…

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