Perspectives on Pain

Working with Pain and discomfort

Mastery: gross pain and discomfort that are disruptive to the flow of practice are gone. There may be subtle muscle tensions but they are easily ignored and soothed with body breathing and other techniques used to soothe the body and mind. 

Pain and discomfort in the body are bound to happen on the way to the development of calm abiding. The body is not accustomed to sitting erect and alert, and through attempting to be still, we find that the body is really quite a mess of tension, asymmetry, and imperfection. The mind has a tendency to unconsciously introduce tension into certain muscle groups as a protective mechanism toward a perceived threat. This is instinctual and only barely at the level of awareness. But we sure feel it on the cushion- this is simply a fact of the process of development, and the only way to truly overcome these tensions and pain is to confront them head on.

Physical practices such as Zhan Zhuang and yoga can give a practitioner a leg up in the pain department. Pain appears to be due in part to unconscious resistances, and through physical practices like yoga and tai chi, it is easier to first become aware of these tensions and asymmetry, and through a deep awareness of these tensions and a continued bodily awareness during sitting, these tensions can gradually dissolve. A practice based Any practice that emphasizes a subtle awareness of the body, done in conjunction with meditation, will be highly beneficial.

Key is to introduce movement, and get the blood flowing in mundane terms. For some reason I have observed that women practitioners seem to have more of an inuitive feel for the bosy-mind connection in general. One student of mine just sort of spontaneously started doing movement excercises in her routine, and she has been having great success with it. Doing mundane movements to rotate the hips, knees, and shoulder joints can be helpful both before and as a last ditch intervention to relieve pain and tension in the body during a meditation session. Ideal is to have a balance between confronting the tension and pain head-on, and recognizing when we have sat with it long enough and being compassionate to ourselves, mindfully getting up, stretching, feeling the release of pain, and then continuing. 

The basic practice flow around pain goes as follows: 

  1.  Pain becomes an object in awareness. It does not instantly displace the attention from the object, but it lingers and tends to intensify unless something is done to treat the pain. Resistance to the pain tends to propagate the pain. We can get real, direct, genuine insight into craving and aversion, and the difference between pain and suffering, if we are courageous and dispassionate enough to genuinely engage with the pain as an insight meditation object. 
  2. When the pain becomes too loud and displaces the attention from the object, it is best to then take the pain as the meditation object. Take the painful sensation as the center of your awareness while maintaining awareness of the rest of experience. This broadening of the scope of attention puts the pain in perspective and we can see that despite this annoying painful area, there is still an overall sense of OK-ness. We are safe, sittin gon a cushion or chair.
  3. When you go into pain, you can start to look for the actual pain sensation. If you inspect the area, you may find that the seemingly solid pain sensation may be seen as changing, different, but ultimately mirage-like aspect to the “problem-ness” of the pain. It seems like a problem, until we look at it, and then for a moment there is no problem, then we fall back into problem-ness, and we can start to see a basic dynamic in the mind where there isn’t one sensation that is disagreeable. There is some ephemeral, hard to pin down reason why this pain is a problem, right? In meditation, sometimes when we inspect pain in this way there is a shift into equanimity, and the pain is still occurring but it is somehow insulated from the sense of it threatening the self. 

Then, sometimes, the pain doesn’t abate, we’ve stayed with it for long enough, could stay with it longer, but it is ok to mindfully move, stretch, or otherwise change position to ease the painful area. Sometimes this in not possible, and one has to remain with the pain. At some point the pain may dissolve into rapture, and this is a wonderful experience when it happens and an opportunity to see the fabricating activities of the mind. We can see directly that pain is not the problem, it’s the mental reaction of suffering that really causes us problems. Developing a fearlessness toward pain by gracefully accepting it as an object of meditation, is good practice. Have faith, there is a point where there will no longer be any pain when sitting, and the body is simply happy to be still and centered.

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