Why Pain Can be a Good Thing During Meditation

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

If you follow my instructions on how to deal with pain during meditation or during daily life, you’ll at some point begin to experience your discomfort in a more objective way.

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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21 Responses to “Why Pain Can be a Good Thing During Meditation”

  1. Erin

    I find your blogs very interesting and helpful and look forward to reading more. I suffer from depression, anxiety and TMJ and I believe getting inside your own mind about it has got to be the best way to fix it. I look forward to learning more.

    Reply
    • Nickolas Grabovac

      Thanks for your kind words Erin. I’m glad you’re finding the blog helpful =)

      Reply
  2. Delonix Liew

    Thanks a lot for your invaluable sharing. May you be well and happy with all these meritorious work done.

    Reply
  3. Brian

    Thanks for these insights. I imagine you have a lot of experience with this to explain it so articulately and I can relate to this agonizing pain you speak of. I practice 30 minutes a day sitting on the ground with back straight. I try to focus on the sensation of the pain itself and just be aware of it. I can’t remember if I’ve had the ah ha moment yet though, I may have once but if that were the case it hasn’t happened in a long time.

    Reply
  4. Laurel

    I tried this today… Tolerating & accepting the physical pain, in 20 min of meditation. I’m looking for a way to break thru &/or release persistent depressing thoughts & feelings, as well as chronic discomfort. I feel blocked from the Love I know is within & want to find how to open up to let God in. Thank you for sharing this… I feel a bit better & perhaps this is the path I’ve been looking for 🙂

    Reply
  5. rabin gajmer

    i m the biginer for meditation but i totaly feel my breathing and surprising energy which is start with incoming breath in that time my gets stable but it totaly forms the dhanush aakar and my head is directed to the straight up side and i get afraid about this happen ……………………plz suggest me what is this happen ….is this good thing or bad (because i get pain too)…

    Reply
  6. Lilly

    I have recently started to meditate longer sessions on the cussion instead my comfortable chair. So I’m a few steps into dealing with pain. Especially since I often have quickly back pain anyways. All the tension of the day seems to gather there. So for a while I was trying to avoid the pain, but I’m getting the of working with pain. And I think there is a lot of truth in there for me. BUT – I’m strongly psychosomatic and have been ill or hurting most of my life as a reaction to unresolved emotional stress. Now that I finally started listening to myself and my body, (meditation is part of that path) I find, that I’m next to never ill or hurting. And if I do feel anything coming up, I take it as a sign, that I have to take care of myself. (childhood pattern, this getting ill,really) So my question is, although I think working through pain in meditation is the way to go, is it for me though, when I’m psychosomatic? I’m really anxious it will somehow destroy my new found relationship with my body. And to me being mindfull meant for a while now actually listening to what my body has to say. Can you help me with this knot? I’m sure it is untangleable. 🙂

    Reply
    • Nickolas Grabovac

      Hi Lilly, it’s wonderful to hear how you’ve been using meditation and mindfulness to bring more awareness to your experience and learn how to take better care of yourself. That is extremely valuable! “Working through pain” in meditation is all about accepting what is. Observing the desire for things to be different and coming to understand how that desire leads to habitual thoughts and actions. You do your best to bring that full awareness to your present moment experience. And, if for whatever reason, you decide to adjust your posture, or move, or do something else to help alleviate that pain, there’s nothing wrong with that. Do what you need to in order to try to be more comfortable … and carefully observe what happens when you do that. What are the thoughts in the mind? How do the physical sensations change? It’s a process of discovery that, over time, can transform how you relate to pain and other uncomfortable sensations. It’s certainly not about toughing it out or ignoring the pain. That’s really important! If the pain is telling you that it’s time to take care of yourself, then by all means, take care of yourself =) And bring mindfulness to that process and see what you discover. Hope that helps untangle things a bit for you =)

      Reply
  7. Tuhina

    Hi Erin,

    It is very refreshing to come across a simple, zero-fluff guide to handling pain, which is something that most meditators face during their practice, and I’d like to thank you for that. I am fairly new to practice, with about a year of experience under my belt. Under the technique of meditation (Vipassana) that I have learnt, progress and learning go hand in hand with pain. With time, my tolerance for pain has increased but there are still times when I wonder if the pain really needs to be a necessary part of every sitting, which it seems to be for me. I’m curious to know what you have to say.

    Reply
  8. Yvonne

    Can you please give me an opinion as to is it ok to meditate lying down? Due to physical problems I can sit for any length of time so I meditate lining down. I would really appreciate your thoughts on this.

    Reply
  9. Linda

    I went to a meditation class for the first time last night. I have been suffering with neck, back and hip pains for some time but I have gone through significant stress in my life. I have also had a headache for a few weeks that will not go away. I went to the meditation class as a friend suggested I needed to do something to elieviat my stress and help me to try and relax. During concentrating on my breathing the pain I felt the most awful pain in my head, neck, shoulders and ached everywhere. I also felt like I wanted to cry. My fingers even hurt. Can you tell me what this is? It had nothing to do with my posture I was sitting on a chair comfortably. I am going to go again next week, it is only for an hour, but am I doing harm or good to my body. I thought I was going to feel relaxed not in pain? Please can you help explain what was happening. Thank you.

    Reply
  10. Maggie

    Speaking of pain, in the last few meditation sessions I have, that is, by myself, I’ve been experiencing pain, a stabbing sensation, in the left part of my brain just behind my ear. Normally if I experience an itch, I can ‘ask’ it to go away but not this headache like pain. I’ve been meditating for the last two years and I’ve not come across this before. Any idea why this is?
    Thanks

    Reply
  11. Anjali kumari

    Since i have started meditation few days …i m suffer a lot of pain in stomach , back nd neck region and my ears brings a lot of jingur sound continously …itching also occur …and pain brings disturbance in my study too ….so i decided to not doing meditation …i know lot of advantages came in my life lije anxiety and sometime my head ache also occur….what will i do ????

    Reply
  12. Utsav talwar

    Hey
    Thank you so much for this amazing write up. I just prayed in my recent meditation for some guidance andI wondered if I should practice Hatha yoga to push beyond the 2 hour meditation which I’ve been at for a while. I think I’ll try and perceive the pain in awareness now. The fact that I might permanently damage my ankles since I’m practicing in vajrasana bothered me too even though the pain does reset after the session.
    Love and light to you always
    Keep spreading the wisdom ?

    Reply
  13. Buddho

    Your casual comments about 16 hours a day in a Yurt and 20 years meditation experience belie a very strong ego and grasping for status.

    Reply
    • sheila

      Thanks for this write up ..from my ownexperiences, I would definitely encourage others to sit with pain ……having done this in Burma with an amazing teacher, I have seen it is only the mind tjat makes a problem of the pain …the instruction was to watch the mind only and not the body …..with intense
      pain, the mind has strong reactions but these also pass and
      so does the intensity of the pain ….pain brings on very strong
      craving to move and if the craving isn’t followed, it
      ceases…..It does take great faith, and diligence but has
      amazing results ….as sitting through pain brings up a lot of
      craving at one time ..Which is difficult not to follow in normal
      life ……so the pain is used as a decoy to bringbup the craving
      …the source of suffering …Just as in a room full of flies, it
      would take a long time to individually catch all the flies, but if
      a pot of jam wete put in the room to attract the flies, it
      would be much easier to catch the flies …we are not
      intetested in the jam …the pain, in and of itself, but as a tool …a decoy to see or catch the flies …the craving ……

      …thanks for posting …always there will be those for whom this way isn’t right or who will be critical …blessings to them, may they find a way which works for them and blessings to all who use pain to see through the illusion of suffering to see the truth ……

      Reply
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  15. Shankar

    I am doing meditation for a very long time in a day, because I likes it, but there is a very very big pain from waist up to feet, how I will overcome over this, after meditation it is not possible for me to walk, walking results big pain for hours

    Reply
  16. Shankar

    I am doing meditatiovery long time in a day, because I likes it, but there is a very very big pain from waist up to feet, how I will overcome over this, after meditation it is not possible for me to walk, walking results big pain for hours

    Reply
  17. tamara

    Unfortunately, after one prolonged session of sitting with pain and numbness for about 40 min, my feet became damaged so badly that for the past two months they have been hurting daily, and there is no sign if improvement. I feel small bones cracking and popping with every step. This pain really affects my lifestyle and so far the only relief is when I ice them or keep them elevated for prolong times, which is incompatible with my work. This is my two cents about sitting with pain. Please be careful

    Reply
  18. Thalia

    Namaste Nicholas,

    I’m researching pain and transcendence, on account of longstanding vipassana practice, through which I learned exactly what you have given in this post. My experience went further, into a space of vibration that was so opposite pain that it became harder not to crave the sensations than it was to quit viewing pain with aversion! The sensation infiltrated my life outside of sitting, and made it very easy to meditate 2 or 3 hours/day. Eventually meditation led to lucid out of body experiences, and what seemed to be remarkable (intentional) healing as well.

    Of course I got distracted by these experiences in spite of warnings from the wise ones not to get sidetracked, just to observe. But my curiosity was strong, and as a scientist who’s been using the body to explore human capacities since early teens, I couldn’t help myself. One should ask whether they want the egg or the goose that laid it! Anyway it was a wonderful phase of life wherein I got an inkling of our larger being and that there’s more to us than conditioned awareness produced by the experiences of a material body.

    Meditation is its own reward. Thank you for Being and for sharing your wisdom.

    Reply

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