Some Instructions on Working with Discomfort and Pain in Meditation

Carla Brennan

(The first thing to check is your posture. Having a relaxed, alert, balanced posture both supports not creating unnecessary discomfort and it supports a relaxed, alert mind.)

Discomfort and pain in the body will inevitably arise during meditation. This is because:
1. the still meditation posture – especially when not used to it – can be uncomfortable, even painful, while learning to adjust to it,
2. pain that has been present but has been suppressed by distraction and constant movement may come into awareness when sitting still,
3. the body, due to illness, injury and aging, will naturally have painful episodes.

Discomfort and pain are not obstacles to meditation. They actually offer an essential opportunity for deepening our awareness and insight. They offer some of the greatest lessons of mindfulness.

When we experience discomfort there are usually 3 components occurring. The physical sensations (tightness, burning, ache, tingling, pressure, etc.), an emotional reaction (usually, aversion, fear, or anxiety), and a story about the experience in the mind (“I can’t handle this.” “I hate this pain.” “Maybe I am becoming crippled.”) True mindfulness will bring to light these 3 aspects and you will begin to see more clearly your own reactive patterns.

We are learning to walk the “middle path” in meditation. Where that path falls is unique to each one of us. Recognizing your middle path is one of the arts of meditation. In one extreme, we get lost in our usual avoidance patterns when pain and discomfort appears, continually moving and adjusting to keep unpleasant feelings at bay. This just supports agitation, fidgety-ness, fear and lack of presence. We are unwilling to face our sensations as they are. The other extreme is to “soldier on” by keeping still in extreme pain in the name of mindfulness. We are instead overriding the pain, usually from a striving, forcing and tense perspective.

Taking the middle path means we do not move automatically but instead turn toward the actual sensations of pain, itching, tension, numbness, whatever uncomfortable feelings are arising. We notice our emotional reactions and the storyline created in our mind. We distinguish between the discomfort experienced in the body and the pain created by our reactions to it. We start to recognize the process of creating unnecessary suffering through our emotional reactions and our inner stories. Sometimes we discover that our reactions are more painful than the physical sensations.

Openness and relaxation are the key. We can see our reactions and thoughts for what they are: habitual conditioned responses learned unconsciously. Something learned can be unlearned. We can have warm compassion for the suffering created and gradually learn to relax around intense unpleasant sensations. Eventually, equanimity arises and one can stay alert, at ease and present with the inevitable arising of discomfort. We are changing our relationship to pain from contentious resistance to curious, connected caring. On the cushion and off.

(Also, we can also always adjust our posture when the discomfort is more than we can be truly be present with!)