Welcome back to the Healing Pain Podcast with Sean Fargo
Traveling around Asia and in Tibet for a little bit, meditation expert Sean Fargo became fascinated by the simplicity of the life of Buddhist monks. Sean found a Dallas master who took him under his wing and taught him a lot of mindfulness exercises like mindfulness of walking, mindfulness of standing, and mindfulness of breathing. The combination of simplicity and difficulty and the Dallas master’s way of being was peaceful, radiant, and loving led Sean to think about devoting the rest of his life to cultivating this way of being in the world. Sean shares a brief overview of the four foundations of mindfulness, how to use mindfulness to deal with adversity or unpleasant feelings and experiences, and how to access or crack open the heart space and experience the full spectrum of human emotions which can help with both your pain and suffering.
Joining us in this episode is meditation expert Sean Fargo. He is the Founder of the website called Mindfulness Exercises, which is one of the world’s top mindfulness resources which offers more than 1,500 free mindfulness talks, meditation worksheets, and more. He also trains people to deliver evidence-based mindfulness practices through his Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training Certification Program. He was ordained as a Buddhist monk for two years and trained by preeminent meditation leaders. He blends a combination of depth and practicality to all of his teachings.
You’ll learn all about Sean’s journey from a Buddhist monk to mindfulness expert and teacher, how a contemplative and mindfulness practice can help ease your pain. A brief overview of the four foundations of mindfulness, how to use mindfulness to deal with adversity or unpleasant feelings and experiences, and how to access or crack open the heart space and experience the full spectrum of human emotions which can help with both your pain and suffering.
To accompany this episode, I have a great freebie that you can download. This is a great mindfulness PDF download that is called Reaching Beyond the Cocoon of Pain. The reason why it’s called that is that pain can be like a cocoon that separates you from almost everything in your life. When you’re stuck in this cocoon, you use up all your energy to deal with and “manage” the pain on a daily basis. When all of your time is caught or spent simply managing pain that leaves you with few resources available for the other things that are important in your life.
When you become stuck in this cocoon, oftentimes you can become isolated. Sometimes the cocoon is thick enough to even keep others out or away from you. To access this PDF, all you have to do is text the word 101Download to 44222. If you’re on your computer, you can go to www.DrJoeTatta.com/101Download. If you’re new to the Healing Pain Podcasts please make sure you subscribe to the mailing list by going to www.DrJoeTatta.com/Podcasts. When you sign up for the mailing list, I’ll send you the latest podcast episode to your inbox each and every week. Let’s begin with meditation expert, Sean Fargo.
Reaching Beyond the Cocoon of Pain with Sean Fargo
Sean, thanks for joining me.
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
You have been working with a variety of people teaching them meditation for probably over a decade including medical patients. We’re going to talk about meditation and the actual practice of it. Can you tell us how you have discovered mindfulness on your own?
About fifteen years ago, I traveled around Asia and I was in Tibet for a little bit. That’s where I was first introduced to Buddhist monks. I found this guy in the back of a monastery who was sitting in silence in a dark room with a candle and I was very fascinated by the simplicity of what he was doing. Later, I ended up moving to Thailand for business to export jewelry and furniture. I lived in Northern Thailand and found another Buddhist monk who was teaching concentration exercises to business owners in the area. His way of being was so serene, calm and peaceful, which seemed like the opposite of my daily life just trying to make a buck.
Then I moved to Northeast China for a while and found a Taoist Master who took me under his wing. He taught me a lot of mindfulness of walking practices, mindfulness of standing, mindfulness of breathing, very simple practices that I found incredibly difficult at the time. I’m always fascinated by the combination of simplicity and difficulty. If something seems so simple, why can it be so difficult to do sometimes? I was fascinated by that combination. The Taoist Master’s way of being was so peaceful, radiant and loving. I thought, “If I could devote the rest of my life to cultivating this way of being in the world, I would die a happy man.” It put my whole life in perspective. I wanted to cultivate these values and this way of being that’s fluid with the world in a way that’s kind, peaceful, loving and seemingly wise. I went off and was ordained as a Buddhist monk for two years, shaved my head and told my family that I was going to be a monk in Thailand and the rest is history.
Was the experience of becoming a monk what you thought it would be like? How did that change you?
I didn’t know what it was going to be like. I originally thought that I might be a monk for the rest of my life. It was the best thing I’ve ever done, maybe outside of marrying my wife. It was intense. I woke up at 3:30 AM. I ate one meal a day and basically sat and slept on a hardwood floor all day practicing these mindfulness practices with other men doing the same thing with their lives. It was harder than I thought it was going to be. You have this image of monasteries being so peaceful and calm but that’s the outside, you don’t know what is going on internally for some of the monks.
Being relatively new to the practice, I had a lot of emotions arise, lots of desires, lots of craving for food, chicken tikka masala, you name it. Overtime, I began to build concentration focus. The most surprising thing for me was how much heart there is in mindfulness practice. I’m not talking about Buddhism but in actual mindfulness practice, there’s a lot of heart. My heart broke open from years or decades of shielding, fear, rejection, sadness, and pain that I wasn’t allowing myself to feel or acknowledge. Once I tapped into my own suffering, my own pain and allowed it to be there without judging it or judging myself or judging anyone, my heart cracked open. It overflowed with compassion for myself, loved ones, family and the world.
It’s the four foundations of mindfulness and going through all those different steps internally. There are common stories that people share when they start a mindfulness practice.
With the four foundations of mindfulness, I encourage people to check that out. Google it online. The mindfulness of the body is such a critical piece that a lot of Americans are missing. We tend to be very head base. We get rewarded for analytical thinking and working hard using our brains, but a lot of us ignore what’s happening in the body. The first foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of the body, which includes practices like mindfulness of breathing, the body scanning, your non-judgmental awareness throughout your body. Even practices like mindfulness of standing or walking or eating could be considered a body or somatic practice. Mindfulness of death could be considered a somatic practice. If you reflect on your body as this temporary living thing that is going to die and you can reflect on your body as a corpse. I know that sounds macabre or dark, but the point of the practice is to appreciate how precious every moment of living is in real time. The Buddha and a lot of mindfulness teachers will say that mindfulness of death is the most powerful mindfulness practice there is.
For a long time, I didn’t understand why mindfulness of death was a mindfulness practice if mindfulness is paying attention to what’s happening now. Mindfulness of death can seem very hypothetical or theoretical or something that will happen in many years from now. The practice is tuning into this very breath, feeling at the sensations of breathing either in your belly or your chest or the tip of your nose and acknowledging that this could be your last breath. Accept and acknowledge that. Don’t judge it, open to the fear around it, and open to that fact and some very deep insights can arise around how you spend your time and what’s valuable to you in your life.
Maybe you’ll start thinking of important things that you want to do before your last breath like by saying I love you to someone or writing a note of forgiveness or appreciation. Maybe it’s helping others in a more meaningful way, that’s a very powerful practice. All those practices can be considered part of the first foundation of mindfulness. The second foundation is mindfulness of feeling tones and tuning into sensations in the body. That in your experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neither pleasant nor unpleasant, which can provide a lot of insights into showing how you react to situations based on the feeling of it. For pleasant feelings, we want more of them and we tend to crave them or grasp them or do what we can. For more unpleasant feelings, we tend to be aversive to them, push them away, fight them or ignore them.
People with chronic pain will have an aversive feeling or unpleasant feeling. Mindfulness of the unpleasant nature of pain can be a powerful practice to allow us to see, “Do we make the pain into a bigger deal than it is by catastrophizing and allowing it to overcome you and your whole experience? Do you run away from the unpleasant nature by ignoring and glossing it over, not being worth it and acknowledging it?” Mindfulness opens to the unpleasant nature of pain for what it is without catastrophizing it or ignoring it, but just being with it without judging it.
You go in baby steps to be able to do that, you don’t want to jump straight into it. The second foundation of mindfulness is extremely powerful for people with chronic pain. The third foundation is the mindfulness of thoughts and our mental volition is very powerful. I consider it more of an advanced practice. It’s hard to be mindful of thoughts. The fourth foundation is a bit more about some Buddhist concepts around the noble truths that everyone suffers to some degree. We can navigate that suffering with some practices of mindfulness and concentration and living a life of value and meaning.
It’s a great review of the four foundations of mindfulness. Within the Buddhist practice, life until suffering but also in those practices it also teaches that there is a way out of suffering. Ultimately, the way to do that is to sit and sit with yourself and practice meditation. Can you talk about the paradox of how you have chronic pain as the last thing you want to do? What does that look like to a beginning meditator who has chronic pain? How do they start to create this willingness to pay attention to the pain?
I want to clarify that you don’t necessarily need to sit in a physical sense, you can do it standing or lying down if that’s more comfortable. To look within or sense within is the way to help alleviate what’s happening physically. A lot of people asked me why I would want to pay attention to the pain when I want to get rid of it. It’s the last thing I want to do. I don’t want to open to it, it’s like ruining my life. A lot of people with chronic pain lose their homes, spouses, jobs and their whole life trajectory. There are a lot of people who want to get rid of it, call me out to get rid of it without paying attention to it. It’s important to acknowledge that you have pain or that pain exists in the body. Talking about it openly can be very helpful.
In the beginning, it’s helpful to explore what’s happening in the body that’s not painful. Maybe you look for pleasant sensations or you sense two areas of the body that are not painful. Let’s say you have pain in your right knee. In the beginning, it’s helpful to sense into the upper half of your body that doesn’t feel too triggered around the knee. You open to the sensations of your belly as you breathe, maybe you can open up to the sensations of your hands. Can you close your eyes or look downward to limit visual distractions and sense into other areas of the body? Can you explore the sensations of the body with curiosity? Can you open to the sensations without judging the sensations to be good or bad, right or wrong, they should or should not be this way? Also noticing the physical sensations that are happening right now.
This helps build our insula in the brain to allow us to be able to sense more into the body. We can tune into areas of the body that may not seem so obvious, sensory speaking. We can start to tune in to the pelvic area or upper thigh and move closer towards the region of the pain with a sense of openness and curiosity noticing there’s fear around getting close to the area of pain. Can you notice any judgments that arise around whether these sensations are bad or wrong? You continually open up the sensations closer and closer to the knee until you get to the peripheral edges or the boundaries around the pain. Can you sense into where the “pain” starts? Can you play with those edges a little bit and notice where the fear arises, where the physical pain is manifesting? Can you almost tickle it with your awareness or slowly peek at it from around the corner? Getting closer to it again without judgment. If judgment does arise, not judging yourself with a judgment but opening to the actual sensations.
Sometimes when people have chronic pain, there’s a story that’s automatically associated with the pain. Maybe there’s a doctor who botched an operation. Maybe there’s someone who is driving their car who hit into you. Maybe you fell off a ladder. Does the story get triggered? If it does, can you come back to the actual sensations? Letting the story go, coming back to the body and being with their physical sensations with this openness. I would even promote inviting a sense of care or a sense of ease in the body. You’re slowly coming closer to the epicenter pain and seeing what you can be with at this moment physically, viscerally. Seeing how much of the pain you can sense into without catastrophizing it into something bigger than it is and without darting away from it by going into your story, distraction or excuse.
This process takes weeks for people who have been living with chronic pain for a while or if the pain is intense. It’s not something that I invite people to jump into right now. It takes a while to build this ability to sense into the body in the first place, much less get closer to the pain without judging it or letting the story go. That is part of the overall framework of what I encourage people to try in their path to decrease the chronic pain of mindfulness.
There’s a bit of patience that’s required as you start to learn these techniques which can be subtle but very powerful. When you start people doing Shamatha or mindfulness of the breath, with a chronic pain patient, how long would you stay with the breath practice before you move into another type of mindfulness practice with them?
I encourage people to incorporate mindfulness of breathing or Shamatha practice just a bit more of a concentration throughout their whole life and to incorporate it, ideally, on a daily basis. To begin with mindfulness and breathing at the beginning of every meditation. Even if you’re incorporating other meditations where if you’re moving towards the physical pain internally with your awareness, I do invite people to first ground their bodies by sensing into the feeling of their feet on the floor or the weight of their body on the chair.
A lot of people with chronic pain prefer lying down, which is totally acceptable. Can you feel the weight of your body on the bed or the ground? Can you feel the places where your body touches the ground? Doing some grounding practices to help settle the mind, to help your awareness become more comfortable with being in the body rather than thinking about what you have to do later in the day or why you don’t like this practice of meditating or whatever the thoughts are. Can you almost open up a siphon from your neck and allow some of the energy from all this thinking in the head to shift into the body? To balance your energy out, balance out your awareness, so that you’re not head-based but rather fully embodied.
I encourage people to ground their body then go into mindfulness of breathing to sensing their belly as they breathe. As the belly rises and falls, can you feel what that feels like in the belly and notice the peripheral sensations of the belly as you breathe? Where can you feel it? At the top, the bottom, right and left, front and back of the belly? Where can you sense your belly as air moves in and out of it? That will help you build this concentration that allows you to sustain your mindfulness for more moments at a time. This concentration that you’re building by staying with the breath is the fuel for mindfulness.
This ability to concentrate and stay with one thing helps you to sustain your awareness at this moment without you getting distracted too quickly. Concentration practice is crucial. I advise people to keep building that on a daily basis near the start of every meditation even if you’re incorporating other elements in your meditation like love and kindness, body scan, self-compassion practices, gratitude practice. There are all sorts of peripheral practices here that we can play with but I always enjoy mindfulness breathing at the beginning of every meditation. Then segueing into the main thrust of the practice or the main focal point for what you want out of that meditation.
You mentioned how as you’ve meditated more and more, there is the opening of your heart space basically. Why that could be important for people with chronic pain or why it is important for those with chronic pain? How do you work that into practice?
This is hard to overstate the importance of the heart with this practice. A lot of people who have chronic pain lived with a lot of anger or resentment, sadness, grief which is very strong in people who live with chronic pain. These are matters of the heart. When we hold onto this anger, resentment, sadness and don’t process it, it can intensify the pain because we’re holding on to this contracted way being that we’re not opening to the grief, sadness, frustration or anger. We’re holding on to this in a tight way psychologically, but also it impacts how we hold on in our bodies. Our bellies tend to tighten up, our shoulders hunch, our jaws get tight and our hands might be contracting because there’s this stress and the suffering of this powerful emotion. The pain can intensify when we contract our bodies and our minds.
With chronic pain, there’s so much fear around opening up to the pain even more. Some of the fears are either it’s going to overwhelm you, you won’t be able to handle it or you might be suicidal. If that’s the case, I encourage you to work with a therapist and a guided professional to walk you through that. It can be very triggering, there’s a lot of fear there. I encourage everyone to even sense into their heart right now, does it feel heavy? Does it feel tight? Does it feel hard? Sensing into the actual heart can be difficult, but if you can get a sense like, “Does it feel open, spacious and light or does it feel dark, heavy, and contracted?” Everyone wants to live with an open heart and to be kind to themselves and others. There’s a lot of fear there when you have this chronic pain because you feel like you can’t open to other parts of your experience.
When we talk about mindfulness, it’s this non-judgmental awareness of whatever is happening in your experience including physically. This non-judgmental piece, some teachers will replace the word non-judgmental with open awareness or curious awareness. Some teachers like Ram Dass or Jack Kornfield or Sharon Salzberg sometimes say, caring awareness, where you’re opening to whatever your experiences with the sense of openness, care and curiosity. It’s almost like you’re exploring what’s happening. A sense of care. At the very least, you’re not judging it to be bad or wrong or that it should be different. You’re opening to it. The practices that allow you to not judge your experience are heart practices around loving kindness, compassion, self-compassion, joy, equanimity, gratitude, generosity, and forgiveness.
There are seven practices around the heart that will teach people with chronic pain. When we open up to a sense of loving kindness and compassion for ourselves and others, that helps us to refrain from judging ourselves and others and to open to our actual experience without that judgment. Heart practices are at the very heart of mindfulness. With the awareness piece, it can seem a little heady or analytical like, “I know what I’m aware of.”
If there’s a judgment against something including yourself you’re not opening your experience, you’re judging it and concluding what it’s like. You stay open and stay non-judgmental the whole time. This non-judgmental piece is crucial to refrain from judging pain and someone who caused the pain through cultivating this open heart which allows us to be compassionate for ourselves and others and leads to forgiveness. That three-step process is important to open to our experience and their natural response of the heart in the midst of suffering as a sense of compassion. When we’re compassionate, it helps us to forgive. It’s important not to jump into compassion too quickly as a way to bypass the pain, as a way to bypass what’s happening. Some people with chronic pain will jump straight into self-passion.
While that’s fine, the danger is that you’re bypassing what’s happening in your experience. When you bypass what’s happening including the pain, you miss out on the opportunity to understand the nuance of what’s happening now, to understand exactly where the pain is or what pain it is. That information can be so valuable in understanding what’s happening in the body. That information may help you to know how to respond to that pain in an appropriate way like, “Is this getting out of hand where I need to see my doctor sooner than later? Do I need medication right now? Do I need to take a rest? Is this pain actually not as bad as I thought it was where I can walk or move around or get on with my life physically?” Going into mindfulness of the body then self-compassion then forgiveness is a nice three-step sequence that I encourage people to try it in a way that incorporates the heart into your experience.
There’s even been some good research done on compassion and healthcare workers and how that can improve how they relate to patients and how they work with patients. It’s not only for those who have pain but also for those of us who are working with people who have pain. Compassion is also central to Buddhism, correct?
Absolutely, some might say it’s half of Buddhism. It’s central to a Buddhist life. I was a Buddhist monk for a couple of years and I’ve been in the Buddhist circle for a long time. I don’t necessarily consider myself “Buddhist,” but I follow the teachings. Compassion is a central rule to Buddhism in the sense that everyone suffers. Not everyone is suffering all the time per se, but everyone has some degree of suffering physically and mentally. Can we love and care? Can we bring kindness to ourselves and to others when they suffer? Compassion is half of Buddhism because they say there are two wings to awakening in Buddhism to enlightenment. One wing on the bird is compassion and the other wing is wisdom and you need both wings to fly. We need wisdom and we need compassion.
There’s a great quote, “Wisdom tells me I am nothing, love tells me I am everything, and in between the two, my life flows.” Can we incorporate the sense of wisdom that, “Everything changes. I am a small part in this grand scheme of the universe, whatever this universe is.” Life can be hard. Those are the tenants of wisdom, change, suffering and that we’re a small piece of the whole puzzle. Love is this realization that, “We’re all interconnected. We’re all in this together. These beautiful feelings of gratitude, joy and care fill me up. We feel connected to one another.” Those are beautiful qualities too. Can you navigate your life with both wisdom and compassion with a sense of care for others when things are going well and when things aren’t going so well?
Also having the wisdom or the perspective that, “This is temporary, trying not to take this too personally. This is a common part of our experience, this living with pain.” When I think of my life, if I get to be 80 years old or 90 years old, I might lose my memory. I might not remember this conversation at all. I might not remember my own name or what my wife looks like. If I’ve cultivated the practice of the heart of love, compassion, joy, gratitude and cultivate those qualities on a daily basis and allow room for those qualities to be cultivated and to take up more of my focus through up more and more of my day, those qualities will translate into my 80s and 90s. I may not know who you are and who I am, but I can feel grateful. I can feel love for you. I can feel compassion for myself. To me, it’s the heart qualities and the qualities of not judging that is more important than cultivating a sense of pure awareness of what’s happening. It’s the heart that is very important because that’s how I want to live my life with that sense of kindness.
Sean Fargo gave us a great PDF download and it’s called Decentralizing Pain. It is a handout designed to help you think about pain and the experience of pain in a different way. To download that, all you have to do is go to DrJoeTatta.com/98Download or you can text the word 98Download to the number 44-222. Sean, can you let everyone know what you’re up to and where they can learn more about you?
I hope that for people who are interested in mindfulness and to give it a whirl, not to necessarily believe anything we say, but to try it out and see if it works for you or not. It’s been so helpful for hundreds of thousands of pain patients around the world. I encourage you to check it out. I have a website called MindfulnessExercises.com where there are over 1,500 free mindfulness exercises, worksheets, meditation videos, you name it. My mission is to share these practices of mindfulness with as many people as possible for free. I also teach people how to teach mindfulness. For people who have been practicing for a while and want to teach mindfulness to others, I run a Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training Certification Program that you can find on my website.
Mindfulness is one of the best evidence-based ways to help alleviate chronic pain. It’s been around for centuries and we’re learning more about it now in research. The research has been out there for a long time probably since Jon Kabat-Zinn has been around who pioneered mindfulness and chronic pain here in the United States. There are over 1,500 free resources so you can get a good taste of what mindfulness is at a beginner and/or intermediate level. Check out his certification program, Mindfulness Teacher Training Certification Program on MindfulnessExercises.com. I want to thank Sean for being here. Please share this with your friends and family on social media. Go onto iTunes and give us a five-star review. We sure will appreciate that.
About Sean Fargo
Sean Fargo has been teaching mindfulness to executives, families, inmates and medical patients around the world for more than 10 years. As Chief Zen Officer for WellBrain.io from 2015-2017, he focused on relieving chronic pain by empowering doctors to digitally prescribe his mindfulness meditations to patients. Traveling around the country speaking to doctors at hospitals, conferences and pain clinics, he has seen the healing power of mindfulness change lives over and over again.
He is also a Certified Instructor for Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (the mindfulness program born at Google), leading corporate mindfulness workshops for Tesla, Reddit, PG&E, DocuSign and Singtel.
Sean is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, one of the world’s top mindfulness resources, offering more than 1,500 free mindfulness talks, meditations, worksheets and more.
He currently runs an online Mindfulness Teacher Training Certification Program, in which he trains people to deliver evidence-based mindfulness practices in professional settings.
Ordained as a Buddhist monk for 2 years and trained by pre-eminent meditation leaders, Sean blends a combination of depth and practicality to his teachings. Sean’s trainings are experiential, fun and engaging. He eloquently presents techniques that are practical, down to earth and innovative. Drawing from a range of mindfulness and meditation methods, he’s responsive to his audience and tailors each presentation to their needs.
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