I recently developed a meditation series for the app Calm called 7 Days of Soothing Pain and two meditations to support sleep, Deep Rest and Rhythm of the Train. I sat down with the folks from Calm to talk about meditation, pain and some key tips for practice.
Why did you start meditating?
I started meditating in my late teens after a series of difficult events brought up some deeper questions for me about life. I was attending college in New York City, pursuing a career as an actor, and things kind of came crashing down. I had a big falling out with my friends, my girlfriend left me, and I realized I had a problematic drug habit. On top of all of it, my parents told me they were getting divorced after 30 years of marriage.
I decided I needed to get some perspective and clear my head, and ended up leaving the country to study abroad in India at a Buddhist monastery. It was tremendous good fortune and a huge privilege to be able to do this.
I didn’t take well to meditating. I felt restless, my knees were sore, and my back ached. I couldn’t stop thinking—even for a few moments. And yet, in this simple practice of sitting still and observing my own body and mind, I sensed the potential for a deeper kind of freedom.
I recall one incident in the first few weeks at the monastery that made a lasting impression on me. I was sorely homesick, missing my family and friends. I went to see one of the meditation teachers to get some support. He listened, his face filled with care and interest. At one point, he paused and asked: “Where does it hurt?”
I’d never stopped to considered this. I turned my attention inward for a moment, then felt the ache in my heart. Some tears welled up as the ache moved up to my throat, briefly intensified, and then passed. At the time, I thought it was some kind of magic! It was only later that I understood what had happened: his caring presence had allowed me to feel my emotions. Once I gave myself the space to feel it, it resolved on its own.
I began to realize that if I could feel and observe what was happening—rather than getting lost in it, reacting to it, or trying to control it—that I could gain some clarity and calm in myself, the changes that were happening in my life, and a sense of direction in the world.
Why is meditation such a beneficial tool for working with pain?
Meditation teaches us how to relate to life with a clear, balanced mind. When we’re in pain, we tend to react physically, mentally and emotionally. Our body contracts and tightens. We ruminate on the pain, worrying about what will happen or berating ourselves for things we can’t change. We slip into afflictive emotions like fear, anger, despair or depression. All of this, of course, only makes the pain worse. It’s like rubbing salt into the wound.
Meditation practice helps us to understand this entire process so we can short-circuit it. We learn to allow physical pain to stop there: it’s just sensation. It doesn’t need to drag us down, ruin our day, or sour our mood. When our mind is clear and balanced, we see pain for what it is: a series of unpleasant sensations that come and go.
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How has meditation helped you overcome pain in your own life?
I was in my mid-twenties when I developed a chronic digestive disorder that entailed a lot of physical discomfort and a range of unpleasant symptoms. It wasn’t easy to handle, but I was fortunate to have the tools of meditation to help.
The condition taught me a tremendous amount about the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable in life. A human body gets sick, it gets old, it hurts. This is just what bodies do. Suffering is the extra mental and emotional anguish that we add on top of that. This is what meditation can cure: the unnecessary struggle we add to life.
What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you started meditating?
Don’t try to stop thinking.
Expect to feel uncomfortable.
Thinking is a natural function of the mind. While it can grown quiet (and even disappear altogether) for periods of time in deeper meditation, that’s not the point. The point of meditation is to learn to be more aware of our thoughts so that we have more choice in relation to them.
Many of us come to meditation seeking some kind of relief. We want to feel peaceful, calm, happy. The road there isn’t all sweet and light. Anything in life worthwhile takes effort and hard work, and that usually means bearing with some discomfort. This doesn’t mean you need to be a hero and push through pain. It means softening your expectations, letting go of impossibly high standards, and being willing to be uncomfortable. Instead of interpreting discomfort as a problem, view it as part of the learning process. This will save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
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