Writings

Meditating with pain


Pain and sickness are inevitable inconveniences of life and they tend to create suffering in different layers. Meditation helps separating these layers and distinguishing the evitable from the inevitable.
Meditating with pain
We can easily identify at least three major layers of pain related discomfort:

- Pain itself is a physical inconvenience, almost no one likes being in pain and almost everyone desires to rid themselves from its physical manifestation when it appears.

- Besides the physical discomfort, pain presents an obstacle to the fulfilment of other desires and to the enjoyment of relationships. You can’t go climbing with a broken wrist or play hide and seek with your kids with a heavy flu. Furthermore, chronic pain can cripple us and erase altogether some of the joys of life as we knew it, creating a feeling of missing out, which adds another layer suffering beyond the pain itself.

- Finally, the fear that it might last for a long time or even get worse, the fear of sustained suffering or even death, grows easy in painful soil. Thus a variable degree of anxiety builds up around each injury, around each indigestion.

How can we work with it in meditation

Let me start by making a distinction between pre-existing pain or injury and discomfort due to the sitting posture itself. While the later can easily be worked out by the use of a cushion, blankets or a meditation bench and by regulating the duration of the sitting, when conditions prior to the practice are the cause of pain, special care should be exercised in sitting meditation, specially if the meditator is not experienced. You can simplify and sit on a chair or even a sofa or alternatively substitute sitting meditation by laying down meditation instead.

When you practice, identify the different sensations in the body, note the pain but try not to highlight it. The intensity of the sensation will naturally bring it up to the foreground of your mid’s eye, without the need to add psychological value to it. In other words, don’t ignore it but don’t feed it either. A good idea is not to verbalize it as ‘pain’ in your head but instead as ‘intense sensation’ which is a more neutral description.

See how it changes, how it evolves with time, see if it relates or ’talks’ to any other part of the body. See if you can relax around the area where you feel the pain or if you identify any pre-existing tension that lurks ‘below’ the pain. If so, relax it as well.

After working for sometime, move to another area, to a healthy one with vibrant, comfortable sensations, warmth and tingling. Periferic areas, such as hands and feet, or wrists and ankles can provide such pleasant sensations if you don’t find them anywhere else. Also, don’t miss the sense of fulfilment that comes from the act of breathing, simply, rhythmically.

Eventually, as you calm your mind around the pain, a quiet sense of comfort tends to appear, the pain is not gone but you are no longer at its mercy, immediately suffering from it, which gives you a rest and also a clearer vantage point for further observation. This peaceful acceptance of the pain you feel now, gives you the sensitivity to find sensations associated with deeper feelings that might have attached themselves to the pain, or even brought it to existence. It could be the anxiety of the pain not leaving, the fear of disease spreading, the disappointment of you not being able to fix it, of your meditations skills not being up to the task. It could be a number of things but whatever it might be it is more likely to be the cause of your suffering than the pain itself.

Now treat this feeling the same way you did with the pain. Relax around it, identify which sensations conform the feeling, where is it stronger in the body, which other areas it affects, does it change with time…? As usual, rather than beat our opponent we chose to understand it, to coexist with it and learn to love it as part of who we are.

 

The truth is that most pains and illnesses pass away. But it is also true that some will not, a pain will come eventually that will not let go, that will heal slower than the body decays. And so the middle way between upgiving determinism and unrealistic expectations of meditation being a holy grail of eternal youth is not easy to find, and that equilibrium is very personal and dependent of specific moments in life. Meditation is the art of balancing on a razors edge.

All the experiences that we miss while injured or ill, create negative space, an absence that is soon filled by another type of experience, that one of journeying though hardship and becoming in the way. While unpleasant, this journey can be most meaningful and that becoming, highly up to us.

We are what we are, what we have been and what we will become and pain is part of all three of them, part of us.

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