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Pain in Meditation and How to Use it to Your Advantage

Let’s look at how to manage and work smart with pain in meditation.

Our tendency is to see pain as an enemy. But it can be a tremendous ally, and the following techniques will help you transform your relationship to it.

Pain is a recurring theme for meditators of all levels, and part of the journey is learning how to process it optimally.

This process equally applies to discomfort that appears during meditation as a result of holding a posture and to pain that you’re experiencing in life.

It also works well with uncomfortable emotions.

See Pain As An Opportunity

First and foremost, I want you to see it as an opportunity.

This might sound ridiculous if you’re hearing this advice for the first time. How could pain be an opportunity? Don’t we just want to get rid of it as soon as possible?

You might not believe me, but there will come a time in your meditation practice when you relish pain. You understand that when you optimally process it, you grow and gain a sense of freedom. Your palette changes, and you begin to savour the taste.

And like any other experience, pain is an opportunity for your to develop your meditative skills. It’s a test of them – how far have you come in your meditation practice?

This might seem far off right now, but you can start developing this attitude today. Whenever you experience it, remind yourself that it’s an opportunity.

Keep the Body Relaxed in Meditation

When you notice pain appear, the first step is to relax the body.

We tend to do the opposite – we tense up and attempt to flush out the discomfort. The problem is that tensing up the body only makes you more uncomfortable and prevents you from bringing clarity and equanimity to the experience.

Quickly scan the body for tension. It can appear in almost any part of the body. When you detect it, loosen the tense body part. Continue scanning and loosening until your whole body is free of tension.

This whole process should only take a few seconds, and you should notice that it impacts your attention and helps you permit the pain to be there.

Maximise Your Equanimity

Once your body is relaxed, it’s time to drop your resistance as much as possible.

This is a challenging step. We tend to resist pain because we perceive it as unpleasant. But this resistance only intensifies it.

You must take the opposite approach. Allow the pain to be there, opening up to it, welcoming it in. This is the first step towards seeing it as it really is.

When you drop your resistance to experience, you should notice a change in how you perceive it. It’ll seem more like a challenge than an enemy.

Turn Towards: Make Pain the Object of Focus in Meditation

The next few points relate to what my long-time meditation teacher, Shinzen Young, calls Turn Towards. This is an umbrella term for any strategy in which we put the challenging experience at the forefront of awareness.

So in this case, we bring the discomfort to the forefront of our awareness, no matter where it’s located in the body, attempting to isolate it from everything else we experience. This is also called making pain the object of focus.

You can do this as a meditation in its own right, or switch to it briefly during another technique.

Remember to keep your equanimity as high as possible, and run the following steps.

Detect Qualities

Holding the pain at the forefront of attention enables us to investigate it as it is. Try to detect the following qualities:

  • Location: where is it located in the body? Is it local or spread out?
  • Size: how large is it? Where does it begin and end?
  • Intensity: how intense is the pain? Are there different amounts of intensity?
  • Flavour: what kind of pain is it? Pain exists in different forms, each with a different flavour.
  • Transparency: our body experience is actually transparent and luminous rather than solid and lumpy. Can you see these qualities in it?

It’s important to note that we’re not trying to form theories about the discomfort. We’re investigating it with our awareness, noticing what’s going on. If you notice you’re thinking rather than sensing, go deeper into the raw experience of the discomfort.

Intense Point and Milder Surround

Often you’ll find there’s an intense core surrounded by a milder, widespread ripple. You can investigate both, detecting the qualities above for both. When you go into the core, make sure to keep the body loose and to maximise equanimity.

Detect Flow

When working with pain in meditation, it’s really helpful to detect movement and change. You might notice it shifts in location, or momentarily disappears, or suddenly changes in intensity.

This is a wonderful way to free yourself from its grip. You realise it’s not as solid and formidable as you thought. And you might even notice that the pain suddenly disappears altogether.

Turn Away: Use a Different Object of Focus

The opposite approach is to Turn Away from the pain by making something else your object of focus. You automatically do this if you experience it while doing a breathing meditation or a Focus In technique, for example. By definition your pain is not your object of focus, and that’s okay.

Why do this?

For one thing, maintaining your attention elsewhere while experiencing pain is tricky. It lures your attention away. Your selective attention is put to the test.

It also provides relief. Maybe you just don’t want to directly face the discomfort right now.

Don’t mistake Turning Away with rejection, suppression or avoidance. This is a misinterpretation. We’re not stuffing it down, but simply choosing to put another experience at the forefront of our attention.

The key with Turn Away is to drop your resistance as much as possible. Sure, the discomfort isn’t your object of focus, but you must still welcome it “in the background”.

Doing Long Meditation Sits

Find the most comfortable posture.
Remain in that posture for thirty minutes.
The most comfortable posture soon becomes the most uncomfortable.
Everything is impermanent, including the world’s most comfortable posture.

Haemin Sunim

Part of a mature meditation practice is the ability to sit for long periods while optimally dealing with all the challenges this provokes, like boredom, impatience, tricky emotions, and physical pain.

If you sit for 30 minutes or more as a beginner meditator, it’s likely you’ll experience quite intense pain that challenges your equanimity.

You can do this deliberately as a way to deepen your meditation skills.

As your meditation practice develops, you’ll likely need to extend your sits to one hour or several hours to generate challenging discomfort. This is a common practice among advanced practitioners, and is par for the course during meditation retreats.

Learn more about long-term meditation with this episode of the GU Podcast.

Sit Through The Pain

You successfully sit through pain by applying Turn Towards or Turn Away to a deep level. You must hold a high level of equanimity and be vigilant of any unpleasant thoughts or emotions that the discomfort dredges up.

Also keep the reward in mind. It’s like going to the gym. You do the last few reps and push through the aching muscles because you know this is the most powerful part of your workout.

The same thing happens in meditation – reward is proportional to effort. You’re not truly learning and growing when you have effortless attention and feel no physical or emotional pain. You grow most when you have to struggle to maintain attention and deal with pain – whether you Turn Towards or Turn Away.

Do this enough, and you’ll eventually train yourself to optimally process all discomfort, including emotional challenges. You’ll never experience them the same way again.

Pain in Meditation as a Bliss Experience

Know that it is possible to be in considerable pain and experience it as blissful. In fact, the more pain you optimally experience, the more reward you get.

This tends to happen on the other side of the painful experience. When it first appears, it’s quite challenging to remain equanimous.

But if you sit through it long enough, you’ll find that at some point it breaks up and becomes flowing, energetic, alive, glowing.

The pain is still present, but it’s now liberated. You have enough equanimity to let it come and go freely. Your body is loose enough that it’s not congealed and blocked in the body.

The key is to sit long enough, applying the above tips. Don’t do this in order to reach the bliss experience, but to process the pain. The bliss may or may not come in any given sit, but the more experience you build up, the more your practice will trend towards a blissful experience of pain.

I send you blessings and wish you fruitful meditation practice.