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Pain Entered My Life Unannounced -- Now, I Manage Chronic Pain With Mindfulness

Mindfulness has helped turn my life around. Even though I still live with constant pain, have partial paraplegia in my lower body and spend a lot of time in a wheelchair, my life could well be filled with suffering and misery, but it isn't.
01/08/2015 02:56pm ET | Updated March 10, 2015
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I am on more than nodding terms with chronic pain. I was 16 in 1976 when pain came into my life and basically took it over. Before the pain, I was a fit, sporty, young woman -- I loved to be outside hiking in the awe-inspiring New Zealand hills. Being active, moving without having to think about it, and enjoying what my body could do were absolutely fundamentals in my life. Like most people, I took these things totally for granted.

My first accident -- innocuous enough, you would think -- was pulling a friend out of a swimming pool. This revealed a back problem where one of my vertebrae had fractured and slipped forward on the one below. I went on to have two major spinal surgeries when I was just 17.

Things got worse in 1985, when I was 23 and being driven home by a friend on New Year's Day, when he dozed off at the wheel and crashed into a telegraph pole. The car was written off, and I was dealt another body blow with another vertebrae fractured. One back injury on top of the other was pretty much catastrophic for me.

By now, I was living with a constant searing pain and boy, did I push against it. I have always been very driven, so now I turned that energy against the pain. I worked night and day establishing myself in the New Zealand film industry. I was no wimp; severe back injuries and chronic pain weren't going to stop me.

But, of course, they did. My body eventually broke down, and I ended up in intensive care after my bladder became paralyzed. I knew my pain intimately by this stage but was in no way prepared for after yet another investigation, having to sit up straight in my hospital bed for a whole night, especially as I hadn't been able to sit upright for many months prior to this.

I was 25, and I thought my life was over. The pain was so intense and relentless and two voices screamed inside my head, "I cannot bear this any longer," the other hit back, "you have to, you have no choice." I thought I was losing my mind.

Then suddenly, another voice came through and said, "You don't have to get through till morning, you just have to live through this moment." Everything changed, and I relaxed because I knew that I could live in this moment, and this one, and this one -- each moment became bearable.

By focusing my attention to living in the moment, I was able to pull myself back from the brink. That awareness of living in each and every moment -- rather than being tortured by ideas of the past and the future -- is the essence of mindfulness. It has not only saved my life but become my life's work.

I went on to study meditation and create my own Mindfulness-based Pain and Illness Management programme (MBPM), which is taught through Breathworks, a social enterprise that I founded in 2001. Thousands of people from over 25 countries have now undertaken Breathworks courses, or, become certified Breathworks teachers.

Mindfulness has helped turn my life around. Even though I still live with constant pain, have partial paraplegia in my lower body and spend a lot of time in a wheelchair, my life could well be filled with suffering and misery, but it isn't. My life is wonderful, fulfilling and joyful thanks to mindfulness (with the odd grump here and there).

Over the next few weeks, I will be giving mindful guidance and exercises from my award-winning book, "Mindfulness for Health -- a practical guide to relieving pain, reducing stress and restoring wellbeing." The book was released as "You Are Not Your Pain" in the USA on Jan. 6. Nobody else need travel the long and lonely path of pain.