How to Work with Pain and Other Intense Sensations while Meditating

Let’s face it, sitting and meditating, especially when we are new to it, haven’t done it in a while, or are doing a longer sit than usual, can get pretty uncomfortable. There is a common misconception that, if you are “doing it right”, meditation is supposed to be a peaceful, relaxing, perhaps even blissful experience. Sure, that can happen, and it’s wonderful when it does, but it’s not the reality for most people most of the time, especially when engaged in mindfulness practices.

So, what do you do when you experience pain or other intense sensations during meditation?

First, realize that there is nothing wrong with being uncomfortable during meditation: you are not “doing it wrong”.

Second, it’s perfectly OK to change your posture to help alleviate the discomfort. You have permission to take care of yourself.

Third, you can turn pain and other intense sensations into your teachers by being curious and interested in them, rather than reflexively trying to “make them go away”.

How to Practice with Pain and Other Intense Sensations

Here are some suggestions on how to practice with uncomfortable and intense sensations.

When pain (or other intense sensations) begin to predominate in the moment, ask yourself, “How do I know I’m in pain?”

Remember, pain is just a concept. It doesn’t actually exist. There is no such thing as “pain” in the objective sense. Instead, there are physical sensations, thoughts, images, etc that you bundle up into a collection and label as “pain”.

”Pain” is a conceptual overlay on a constellation of sensations. The sensations are real, but in our day to day life, we often don’t take the time to get to know them very well. We feel “pain” and then we reflexively act to get rid of the “pain”.

The same is true for itchiness, restlessness, sadness, happiness, peacefulness, bliss, etc.

How do you Know You are Experiencing Pain?

Instead of acting on the of “pain”, let’s get to know the underlying cluster of sensations a little better.

How do you know you are experiencing “pain” in this moment?

What physical sensations are present that you associate with the concept of “pain”? Where are these sensations located in the body? What are the boundaries of these sensations like? Are the edges of the physical sensations hard or fuzzy? Are the sensations constant, or do they change — sometimes intense, other times less so? Do the sensations stay in the same place or do they move around? And so on.

What Arises in Conjunction with Pain’s Physical Sensations?

Also, see if you can notice any mental images or thoughts that arise in conjunction with the physical sensations. These also let you know that you are experiencing “pain”.

What do the images look like? Are they in focus or out of focus? Are they in colour or black and white? Do they linger or appear in a quick flash and then disappear? Get to know these mental sensations as well as you can.

Do the sensations feel pleasant, unpleasant, or neither? Is each sensation that is part of the cluster of sensations that you associate with pain actually unpleasant, or only some of them? How can you tell?

As you are observing all of these sensations, is there a wish for the pain to disappear? Are there thoughts like “maybe if I just observe this pain, it will go away”? We all do this =-) Just note these as “thinking” and keep observing.

Respect your Body

As you can see, you can go as deep as you want with this. There is always more to discover. It gets really interesting!

At the same time, respect your body. If the pain is really intense, there is no need to be macho about it. Move, stretch, stand up, take care of yourself. In fact, just before you move to alleviate the pain, there is a wonderful window of opportunity to observe something that is not always very obvious: intention.

Intention Precedes Action

Intention precedes action. Always. When you are uncomfortable is a great time to catch intention. See if you can notice the intention to move before you actually carry out the movement. Mentally label this as “intention” if you like.

An Example of Practicing with Pain

Let’s say that your right knee is beginning to hurt during your meditation. After a while, the pain becomes intense enough that it predominates your awareness.

At this point, you switch your attention to the pain and deconstruct it into the individual sensations that make it up.

You notice the desire for the pain to go away.

The pain is intense enough now that you notice thoughts like “I better move my leg before I permanently damage my knee”. You mentally note these as “thinking”.

You feel that you’ve explored pain enough and it’s time to stretch out your legs to try to get more comfortable. You notice the intention to move your right leg and mentally label it as “intention”.

Then, as you move your leg, you notice the physical sensations associated with your leg moving: pants brushing against skin, stretching sensations in the leg, sensations associated with pain and how they change with the movement, a mental image of a leg stretching out, thoughts like “if I was a good meditator, I would be able to handle the pain and not move” or “That was close, I almost permanently damaged my knee”, etc.

Do your best to be curious, even about uncomfortable or intense sensations, take care of yourself and see what amazing and interesting things you can discover!

Please leave a comment and share some of your experiences of uncomfortable or intense sensations in your meditation practice. How did you know you were experiencing “pain” or other intense sensation? How has approaching these sensations in this way changed your practice?

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3 Responses to “How to Work with Pain and Other Intense Sensations while Meditating”

  1. Why Pain Can be a Good Thing During Meditation - 30 Days of Mindfulness

    […] previous blog posts (here and here), I went into some detail on how to work with pain and other uncomfortable sensations […]

    • Nuala Leslie

      I have played with meditation for many years but it wasn’t until i did a vipassana retreat in Jan 17 that i seriously applied myself.
      I used a Chi meditation chair at the retreat but was still in pain. I managed the 3 one hour no moving sits amidst the other 8 hours of sitting. Just.
      I meditate twice a day. One session of 1 hour and another half an hour. I now try to sit on a meditation cushion. But after 20 mins my thighs are screaming. It becomes a focus of the meditation until i stretch out and re sit. This is not the way we are meant to practise!
      You say shifting is ok but in the vipassana tradition not so??!
      I go too one day edits and am a wriggle pot a lot of the time. Should i give up the floor for a chair? Go back to my chi chair (which is awkward to take to courses). I prefer to be close to the earth. I’ll re read your suggestions and try and manage the pain!! Mediation has made a huge difference to my life so i won’t give up!!
      Thanks for any comments or suggestions.

  2. Mary Hill

    Having dealt with many different sports related injuries and recovery over my 60 years, I took up mindfulness Dec. 1, 2014, because I could not make consistent progress in recovering activity levels after a whiplash car accident July 2014, preceeded by knee pain (again, after fully recovery, including 2 surgeries) onset spring 2013.
    Please understand that the 2014 onset not only interfered with the activities of daily living, but also sitting, working out, recreation, and caused me to have to stop my work, which is visual art making.
    I agree that meditating while in pain is useful and have kept up my practice.
    In my case, I found a great deal of mental suffering from the duration of the pain, in months and years.
    I started finding certain emotional states (fear, anger, grief) could make the pain worse.
    I found impatience (refusal to “be with things as they are” to be a very important aspect of mental suffering, in my case.
    I found conditioned thinking and emotional states that exacerbated the pain.
    I did a Google search on “conditioned response chronic pain” and found a modality called Somatic Experience taught by Peter Levine. I found a practitioner in my area who studied with him.
    After 5 sessions and continuing to meditate, the combination of the tools is really helping me get a handle on my own conditioning and it’s contribution to the sensations that I now call “activations”.

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