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Working with Pain

August 16, 2012

When you meditate, it’s likely that you will experience some sort of pain. It’s natural to want to do something to alleviate the pain. But in our meditation instructions we’re told to do something that feels unnatural: we’re asked to allow painful physical sensations to persist. Why should we do that?

We allow those painful sensations to persist so that we can familiarize ourselves with our relationship to them. When we allow painful sensations to persist, we experience how weak our mind is in the face of such sensations.  We are driven by those sensations: we do whatever they tell us. When we allow painful sensations to persist, we develop strength and stability of mind, and learn to be patient towards painful sensations.

In our everyday life, we might find that some discomfort arises when we start on a beneficial activity. That discomfort is like a barrier that we have to cross in order to help ourselves or to help someone else. For instance, you might want to start an exercise regime in order to improve the health of your body. But when you first begin to exercise, you experience some muscular pain from the exercise, and you also experience some psychological pain because you can’t do the exercises gracefully. You feel awkward and your body hurts. If you allow those painful sensations to deter you, you won’t continue to exercise, and your body won’t receive the benefit of the exercise.  But if you were able to be patient in the face of those painful sensations, you could persist in your exercise. Eventually, the exercises would begin to feel comfortable, perhaps even pleasant, and your body would receive the benefit.

The ability to be patient and to persevere in the face of unpleasant sensations is a mark of maturity of mind.

Psychological pain can also prevent us from taking beneficial action.  For example, perhaps there’s an issue between you and a friend that is causing friction between you.  You might feel that this issue really needs to be spoken about, but when you think about having the conversation you feel awkward and embarrassed.  When you begin to speak with your friend about it, those uncomfortable feelings seem too intense to endure, so you turn the conversation to a different, less painful topic. The psychological pain has deterred you from speaking about the issue with your friend.  But the issue won’t go away. Over time your friendship suffers. Now you begin to feel the persistent pain of estrangement from your friend.

When we refrain from taking a beneficial action because we don’t want to experience a small discomfort, we often end up experiencing a much greater discomfort later. So on a purely practical, day-to-day level, it’s good to become familiar with our response to discomfort, and to develop patience with discomfort.

Gil Fronsdal, a teacher in the Insight Meditation tradition, teaches a simple Thai meditation exercise that helps meditators become familiar with their relationship to discomfort. (You can find the instructions in this audio file at minute 21:00). Here are the instructions: Just sit in a chair, and notice how many times you change your posture.  Also notice why  you make those changes. Fronsdal points out that it can be almost embarrassing to notice how often we are unconsciously driven toward pleasure and away from pain.  He calls this “amoeba mind.” Try doing the exercise again. This time when you notice the impulse to move, just try staying still for a few seconds and then choose whether you want to move or not.

In a meditation session we can practice rising above our “amoeba mind” and learn to be patient with small discomforts such as itches, small aches, or limbs that fall asleep. If you experience and intense pain that indicates that something is happening that is damaging your body, by all means address that.

Lama Tenpa tells this story: Once he was meditating in a charnel ground, when he felt a painful sensation in his leg.  He decided to have patience, and simply experience the sensation.  The sensation began to increase in intensity.  It felt like a stabbing or tearing sensation.  When he looked down, he realized that a dog was gnawing on his leg. At that point, he decided that he no longer needed to be practicing patience.  He encouraged the dog to stop biting him and to go elsewhere.

We often hear the expression “No pain, no gain.” It’s true that most learning and growth includes some degree of discomfort.   If we always run away from pain, we won’t be able to learn and to grow. But that doesn’t mean that pain equals gain. An increase in pain does not automatically lead to an increase in learning or growth.

So in our meditation practice, we don’t try to increase our pain.  We just try to learn to be patient and present with whatever pain we might happen to experience. If the pain is too intense or if the pain is telling us that our body is being damaged, then we can make a change in our posture or in the meditation environment.  You’re allowed to make the dog stop chewing on your leg. Gradually, we can learn to be patient and present with larger and larger degrees of discomfort.  Then when we meet with some unavoidable pain, our mind will be much more relaxed and much less likely to freak out.

Our goal is to be open to all of the sensations that we experience. We want to expand our happiness so that it can include everything in our experience. We want to experience vast happiness that appreciates all sensations, not gated-community happiness that tries to limit the set of experiences that are acceptable.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Tracy Rydzy, MSW, LSW permalink
    August 16, 2012 6:54 pm

    I love your blog! I too have a chronic pain blog-

  2. August 17, 2012 3:27 am

    Acceptance of discomfort is one of the most beneficial lessons I have learned (okay…still learning!) from meditation. Thanks for sharing:)

    • August 17, 2012 9:51 am

      Me too! I still find many places where some discomfort acts as a barrier to me. Meditation helps me move through that discomfort.

  3. Justine permalink
    February 18, 2013 3:49 pm

    I love the story about the gnawing dog — it’s hilarious. I found this on the Shambhala blog, the part about sorrow driving pride out reminded me of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.” She named her baby Sorrow and throughout the story is confronted with the downfalls of pride (and not only her own.) Anyway I appreciate this class and blog a lot!


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