One Buddhist meditation teacher is fond of asking his students, “Why does your knee hurt when you meditate?” After entertaining a few answers, he smiles impishly and laughs, “Because you have a body.”
Human bodies feel pleasure and pain. It’s what they do. Whether it’s a minor ache or chronic pain, unpleasant sensations are an unavoidable, universal, and completely natural part of being alive.
Most meditation involves sitting still for extended periods of time — a perfect recipe for pain. In some ways, the practice is designed to reveal the nature of our bodies. We can always mindfully shift postures, but we also want to investigate discomfort and learn from the experience. After all, some pain can’t be alleviated.
I was diagnosed with colitis, a painful chronic digestive disorder, when I was 25. A decade later, I hit the jackpot and got Lyme disease. My years of meditation practice coupled with my stellar luck in the health department have demanded that I learn how to work with physical pain.
The default instruction most meditators receive is usually some variation of, “Be mindful of the pain. Note it. Observe the sensation.” But to be mindful of something is different than simply being aware of it. Mindfulness includes a degree of inner balance, the non-reactivity known as equanimity. Without some equanimity, we can’t properly observe an unpleasant sensation or investigate it. Instead, we end up just reacting – inadvertently exacerbating the pain by resisting or fighting it.
What’s needed is a flexible set of tools that we can apply to find some inner balance and transform our relationship to pain. Here are the five tools that I’ve found most helpful in working with pain.
1. Find Compassion
Creating an inner atmosphere of care and good will is the first step. In whatever you can, try to find some compassion for yourself and for the pain. If it were a friend or loved one that were suffering, how would you relate to them? Can you bring some of that tenderness to yourself? Compassion is a universal balm that can begin to soothe any hurt.
2. Explore the Relationship
Check out how your mind is relating to the pain. Are you resisting it, tightening, or avoiding it? Are you fighting, getting angry, or catastrophizing? Notice how any mental or physical reactivity agitates the mind and increases discomfort. Are we adding mental and emotional stress to physical discomfort? What would it be like to soften that resistance, even a little? Can you relax any tension and find some balance inside?
3. Shift your Attention
To find balance, we may need to shift our attention away from the painful sensation to something more pleasant or neutral. This could be another physical sensation like the warmth or tingling in your hands, or another sense altogether, like hearing or seeing. With chronic pain, Norman Doidge has written extensively about how we can train our brain to reduce the pain signal by deliberately recruiting attention to other sensory experience. If the pain is intense and unrelenting, try “zooming out” with your awareness, focusing on something broader like sound, space or the experience of being aware itself.
4. Investigate with Mindfulness
When the mind has some care and balance, we can begin to be mindful of the sensations, exploring the experience of “pain” in a direct way. For strong or acute pain, feel the outermost edge of the pain for a moment or two, then shift your attention back to something more neutral. For less intense pain, you may be able to linger and observe longer, discerning more nuanced aspects of the sensory experience: its shape, size or density, which sensations are present, how they change over time. Is there heat, hardness, stabbing, twisting, burning, aching? Is it sharp, rough, brittle? Does an image appear in the mind as you observe it? From time to time, check your relationship with the sensations to see if any resistance has crept in.
5. Reflect with Wisdom
The aim of meditation is to develop transformative understanding. Step back and reflect on the nature of your body. It’s okay to feel pain. Contrary to the messages of our culture, it’s not a personal failing to get sick or be in pain. We all grow old, get sick, and must die. Can we find some peace and acceptance with the way things are?
There’s one more step – and that’s returning to compassion. Compassion is the beginning, the end, and hopefully the underlying tone throughout. This is more than just feeling tenderness towards one’s own pain. Compassion connects us to one another. When we reflect, we realize that all creatures feel pain. Instead of being alone in our suffering, we can find a beautiful release in the way that it softens our heart, and connects us to the world.