Someone was stabbing me between the shoulder blades with one of those big kitchen knives.
Or, at least, that’s what the mental activity going on in my mind would have me believe.
In reality, I was sitting in the meditation yurt, in a beautiful patch of desert way out in the Arizona wilderness. And my body just wasn’t used to spending 16 hours a day alternating between sitting and walking meditation.
Hence the pain in my back.
Why Meditation Sometimes Hurts
The human body wasn’t designed to stay motionless for long periods of time.
Even while working for hours at the computer, or vegging out in front of the TV, you’ve probably noticed that you’re constantly shifting positions.
That’s your body’s response to the feelings of discomfort that arise from too much physical inactivity.
When you sit down to meditate, however, your intention is usually to remain still for the duration of your practice session. And if that session is long enough or frequent enough, discomfort is bound to occur.
Sometimes, that discomfort is intense enough that you experience it as pain.
Which is what was happening to me as I sat there in the yurt trying to remain focused on my breath.
If you practice meditation long enough, you’re bound to run into pain and discomfort while sitting. And when you do, it’s important to understand how to use these uncomfortable sensations to deepen your practice.
How to use Pain to Deepen your Meditation Practice
In previous blog posts (here and here), I went into some detail on how to work with pain and other uncomfortable sensations during meditation and daily life, and how to use these experiences to deepen your practice.
I won’t go over that material here. Instead, I’ll explore why you might want to fully embrace practicing with pain and what you can hope to gain by using pain as the object of your meditation.
But first, here’s a fairly typical progression of working with pain during meditation.
Progressing with Pain
The first few run-ins with pain (and possibly the first few hundred =) ), your most common response will be to shift your posture a bit and move your body in a way that you hope will minimize the discomfort. This is what you do unconsciously during periods of inactivity while you’re not meditating.
Then, your meditation teacher says something about not moving the body right away when you’re experiencing pain or discomfort (or you’ve read my blog) and so you decide to give it a try.
The first few times you try it, you probably still end up moving, but you now have a greater conscious awareness of the arising of the pain and, more importantly, the desire to move your body to alleviate it.
Then you might get curious. “I wonder what will happen if I don’t move right away? I wonder how long I can last before I feel like I have to shift positions?”
And so you see how long you can tough it out.
People’s tolerance to pain varies greatly, so maybe you last a few seconds, maybe you last an hour.
But whether or not you moved isn’t really the point.
What you want to do is use the pain to help you realize a profound truth that lies underneath all those uncomfortable sensations.
What is that deep truth?
Well, let me start by saying that there’s a big difference between understanding this stuff on an intellectual level, and really experiencing it – getting it on a deep, gut level.
So even though I’m going to explain it here for you in this blog post, you shouldn’t expect to sail through your next painful meditation session after reading it. You’ll need to “put in the time” under discomfort and duress until you experience this truth for yourself.
And, if you’re like most people, you’ll need to experience this truth multiple times before it sinks in enough to really cause a shift in your relationship with pain and other uncomfortable sensations.
This has certainly been the case for me! And I’m still learning and re-learning these lessons =)
A Process of Discovery
If you observe mindfully, you’ll notice that, even when you do move to alleviate the pain or discomfort you’re experiencing, the pain usually persists. It may temporarily go away, but it usually comes back, strong as ever, after only a short while.
That’s the first discovery.
Moving doesn’t actually make the pain go away.
Of course, if the pain is caused by poor posture, fixing that posture may greatly delay the onset of discomfort, so it’s useful to tinker with your posture to see if that the case. After all, you’re not actually trying to produce pain in your meditation! You should take the time necessary to find a posture that’s as comfortable as possible.
But if your meditation session is long enough, even the most comfortable posture won’t prevent the arising of uncomfortable physical sensations.
As an example, while on retreat recently, I did some of my longer meditation sessions in a very comfortable lying down posture.
Well, by the third of these in a row, 45 minutes in, it felt like I would need knee surgery!
In other words, at some point, you’ll need to deal with the arising of pain and make that first discovery.
Ok, so if moving isn’t the solution, then what is?
The solution lies in your relationship with the pain.
Discomfort is Unavoidable. Suffering is Optional
The pain will begin to transform from “I’m in pain” or “my pain” to “pain is present” or even “there’s a bunch of constantly changing intense sensations in my right knee that I conceptualize as pain”.
You’ll start to notice that “pain” has both a physical component and a mental component.
The physical component is a bunch of sensations of pressure, heat, etc. whose location and intensity are constantly changing.
A careful, objective examination of these physical manifestations of pain reveals that they are a mix of both pleasant and unpleasant sensations. And that, when observed in this way, these sensations are quite tolerable and even interesting.
The mental component is made up of thoughts such as “this pain is killing me”, “I must be doing permanent damage to my knee”, “I better move before I really harm myself”, “I must be doing something wrong”, and so on.
It’s this mental component that’s responsible for the “agony” of the discomfort. It’s what’s actually making the pain so difficult to accept.
Once you’ve really experienced this, you’ll get this ah-ha moment in your practice.
It’s the mental component that causes the suffering.
And that suffering is in direct proportion to how strongly you’re resisting the pain.
At some point, if you keep mindfully observing this process, your resistance to the pain will suddenly drop. You’ll completely accept the discomfort.
In fact, you’ll reach a place where it’s genuinely just fine by you if these sensations hang around for the rest of the meditation session.
When you reach that place, it means you’ve finally accepted the presence of the discomfort. You’re no longer trying to get rid of the pain.
And when that happens, you’ll notice that there’s no longer any mentally created suffering present. It’s gone!
Of course, the pain still hurts. It still feels unpleasant.
But the anguish is gone.
This is the deep truth that hanging out with pain during meditation can lead you to.
The discomfort is unavoidable, but the suffering is optional.
A Glimpse into The Four Noble Truths
What you’ve just had a taste of is what, in Buddhism, is called the “Four Noble Truths”.
The First Noble Truth is that there is suffering.
In terms of your experience with uncomfortable sensations while sitting on the cushion, the discomfort and pain is, ultimately, part of being alive and having a body. It’s unavoidable.
The Second Noble Truth is that it’s possible to figure out the cause of this suffering.
As you realized during your ah-ha moment, the cause of your suffering is your resistance to the discomfort. This resistance, or craving for things to be different than they are in this moment, is what generates the mental anguish.
The Third Noble Truth is that there is a way to stop the generation of that mental anguish, even if you can’t do anything about the discomfort itself.
And the Fourth Noble Truth is that the way to do that is to fully accept what’s happening right now and let go of the craving for it to be different.
When you are genuinely ok with the presence of uncomfortable sensations during your meditation session, the resistance you have to those sensations disappears, and so does the mental suffering that resistance generated.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to these Four Noble Truths than what I’ve talked about here. It’s pretty profound stuff.
But, just by hanging out with, and being curious about, your discomfort during meditation, you can get a glimpse into the fundamental teachings of Buddhism and gain an appreciation for their amazingly practical application.
Pretty cool, eh?
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