A UK-based Wellingtonian’s mindfulness program for chronic pain and other illnesses is helping thousands improve the quality of their lives.
Vidyamala Burch's own experience of extreme pain informed her transformative journey towards compassionate awareness and helped develop the program, which is now recognised by the UK National Health Service. It has so far reached over 100,000 people.
An honorary member of the British Pain Society, she is also the author of three books, and the co-founder of Breathworks, an organization that teaches her mindfulness-based approach to pain, illness and stress.
She tells Nine to Noon suffering has made her more empathetic to people and cultivating her self awareness has allowed her to reduce secondary pain and brought a sense of acceptance of her condition.
As a teenager in New Zealand she sustained spinal injuries that required multiple surgeries. She ended up a partial paraplegic in chronic pain.
“When I was 16 I injured my spine in a lifting accident and went on to have two major surgeries when I was 17," she says. "When I was 23, I was in a car accident and fractured another part of my spine. So that obviously made things a lot worse.”
She worked in the film industry until she experienced a kind of physical collapse from overwork at 25. Burch had used her job as a means blocking out her pain. She then spent a period at a hospital in Auckland, including in intensive care.
It was here that Burch’s life began to change profoundly., after one night her pain became unbearable.
“I had this whole story going on in my head about getting through to the morning, that it's absolutely terrible. I can't bear it. I'll go mad.
“And then I had another part of my my mind, I suppose saying, ‘but you have to’… and it felt very tortured, very, very dark and very tense. Then at a certain point, another voice came in. And this voice said very clearly, ‘you don't have to get through until the morning, you just have to live this moment. And this one, and this one, and this one'.
“To this day, I have no idea what that voice was or where it came from. But I knew viscerally at the core of my being that it was true, that all this torture about the morning I was creating with my own mind. And all I needed to do was live each moment, one moment at a time. And my experience changed.”
The experience prompted a curiosity and she began contemplating questions on the nature of time, space and the mind, asking herself what it meant to be present.
“In a way my whole life has unfolded from that night… So much of our suffering is the mind sort of layering on all these thoughts and emotions and physical tension to take us away from our experience when actually we just need to come closer to our experience and then live it very fully moment by moment.”
Burch uses the insights she has since gained to help people learn to accept primary pain and overcome or reduce secondary pain. People normally resist pain, mentally, creating panic, anxiety, physical tension and more pain.
“What I've learned over the years is it's the secondary suffering, all the stuff that arises because of our resistance, that's what ruins your life. It's not the actual sensations, the actual sensations, moment by moment, are usually a small fraction of what we call suffering, or what we call pain,” she says. “And it's very liberating to realise that one can learn to let go of those secondary patterns using awareness.”
Burch refers to an awareness of breathing, awareness of physical tension and an awareness that we have a choice of experiencing pain in a different way. The alternative is embracing moment-by-moment acceptance of unpleasant sensation as a self-loving act.
“So rather than being in a kind of rigid, defensive, resistant stance, you drop into something that's much more kind of open and fluid,” she says.
“Then we also teach self-compassion, you bring kindness into that experience. So, right now, I can be with my pain with an attitude of care and kindness, rather than an attitude of harshness. And that starts to unwind all that secondary suffering.”
Another aspect of her mind training is visualisation and meditation, something she was introduced to during her hospitalisation in Auckland. After the medical team told her there was nothing else they could do for her condition, a kind chaplain invited her to recall a time and a place when she’d been happy. Burch remembered vividly holidaying in the Southern Alps of New Zealand and being ecstatically happy.
“I took my mind there. And then he ended that little visualization. I think it was probably only about 10 minutes.
“I felt really different - this was amazing to me, that my subjective experience of the pain changed by what I did with my awareness. And up to that point, I don't think I'd really even thought about whether I had awareness. I was just going through my life… It also really awoke this quest to learn, what is the mind and how can I train my mind, and everything that we teach in our program, I'm increasingly calling mind training.”
Part of Burch’s transformation involved a deep philosophical shift, with Buddhism becoming an important part of her life from the age of 30 when she moved to the UK and lived in a retreat centre.
“I did a lot of intensive retreats, intensive meditation retreats, intensive mind training. My back was still really bad at that time. Learning how to sit with the pain was a big part of that training.”
At 37 she had more major surgery after which she continued to employ the techniques she’d learned to regulate her habits and behaviour.
“When I was about 39, I, I thought this would be amazing to offer this to other people, because I knew that it worked by then,” she says.
She won a small grant from the UK’s Millennial Commission to complete a pilot a project, called the Peace of Mind project at that point. After taking out an ad in her local newspaper in Manchester she was overwhelmed by enquiries.
“I had no idea that there were so many people in our societies that lived with chronic pain. It's about one and three now here in the UK who live with chronic pain, which is classified as daily pain for at least three months. And it is one of the silent epidemics.”
She started developing her programme alongside three colleagues. Her group morphed into a training organisation, which now has 600 teachers in 40 countries. The group’s techniques centre on awareness and breathing.
“We teach a number of different meditations, we've got a body scan, which is a meditation where you come right inside your body, and you soften inside your body,” she says. “And that can be very helpful for any of us, particularly people with pain.
“We teach a breathing anchor, which is where you use a resting your awareness inside breathing inside the body. You're not thinking about breathing, but you're resting your awareness inside the experience of breathing… These are little things that you can bring into your daily life very easily. Then bring this attitude of, of compassionate attitude of kindness, so it's not a sort of cold, aloof awareness. But it's a warm, loving awareness, you're learning how to be with your experience, so it's bringing that kind of tender quality.”
Controlling negative thoughts is key to the programme and being aware of thoughts that don’t serve us is the first step to not continuing to get swept along by them, she says.
“I was completely and utterly unaware of what my mind was doing. And now I'm properly aware most of the time I think of what my mind is doing and having some kind of agility about how to work with the mind."
For those suffering from chronic pain asking the question ‘why me?', Burch says this is a reflection of how isolated we may be from an awareness of the human condition. The universal truth is humans suffer and the question should therefore be, 'why not me?', she says.
“My own struggles and my own journey has opened my heart to the human condition, and I am much more empathetic and kind to other people that struggle and suffer… When I realised that nobody has a perfect life that was incredibly liberating."
Burch says her cultivated awareness had made her happier and helped heal her. The programme has been a self-compassion that has spilled over, helping to further transform her own life and melt her own social isolation.
“I have a very good life now. I've still got pain, I've got a paralyzed bowel, and bladder, and mobility problems and all these things, but I have a really good life. I think it's partly because I've done this program helping other people. One of the reasons I started this program was I was pretty house-bound. And I thought, ‘look, you really need to get out more. You need to do things for other people’. And doing things to other people has, in fact, been part of my own healing of my heart, I suppose in my own mind.”