Working With Physical Pain

Few of us are strangers to physical pain, and those of us who practice meditation will often feel some type of pain or discomfort during our practice--- especially if we are on retreat and have been meditating for several days. There are many reasons why we might experience pain when meditating.

It could be the result of your posture. It’s important to sit in a way that keeps you awake, alert and doesn’t hamper your breathing, and yet does not put undue stress on the body, . Generally, the best posture is to sit with the spine straight and with the head aligned with the spine and the shoulders. If you have a medical condition that requires another posture, then it’s important to find a meditation posture that works for you.

The pain you experience may itself be the result of a medical condition. Make sure your condition is not irritated or exacerbated by your posture. If you’re not sure the cause of your pain and if the pain is persistent even when you’re not doing formal practice then it’s prudent to seek advice from a health care provider.

The pain you experience could be psychogenetic, which means that its origin is in the mind. When we meditate for long periods of time, such as at a retreat, it’s very common for the body to feel sensations that are the result of the mind releasing energy that has been repressed in consciousness—perhaps for a very long time. When this happens you may also experience some emotions and/or memories arising along with the physical pain. This type of pain usually abates when the sitting ends. If the pain diminishes when you finish your formal practice then it is likely psychogenetic. Some teachers call this “dharma pain”.

How to meet the pain skillfully? Begin by bringing a gentle awareness to the area of the pain. Can you allow it to be there? Can you accept it, or even welcome it? Notice what happens when you do not resist the pain.

Explore with awareness. Let go of any stories, analysis and judgment. See if you can even drop the label of “pain” and simply see this as sensations arising. Notice the qualities of the sensation. How large is the area? How intense is the discomfort? What are the characteristics of the sensation? Notice if is it is burning, throbbing, aching, squeezing, pinching, stinging, tingling, itching, sharp or dull.? What happens as you bring awareness to it? Does it change? In what way?

If you cannot relax or meet the pain with nonresistance then just explore the resistance itself. Is the resistance in the mind or body? Is it Judgment? Analysis? Planning? Strategizing? Distracting? Tensing? Drop any stories about what should/could happen. Can you make the resistance okay--or is there self-judgment or some story about the experience? If so then let it go, if you can.

Meet pain with awareness, acceptance, and then relax into it. Drop the story or any judgment. Suffering arises from resistance. Know that’s possible to experience pain without suffering. Pain is in the body; suffering is from the mind.

If the pain seems too intense to endure then find a way to skillfully alleviate the pain without losing awareness. You may slowly shift the posture and notice what happens to the level of pain. Perhaps walking practice may be helpful.

Another strategy you can apply is to focus on areas of the body where there is no pain. You may shift the focus back and forth between the painful area in the body and the area where there is no pain. You may even explore the edges of the pain/no pain area in the body. Always bring a gentle compassion to the pain.

You may also shift awareness to hearing or seeing as your primary object. Mindfulness practice can be focused on any present moment experience. Often, over time, that which seems like intractable pain can lessen, or even disappear—but that should not be your primary intention. The primary intention is always to stay present to your experience in the moment with a clear mind and an open heart.