Meditating when you’re having physical, mental, or emotional pain is an opportunity for discovery.
I’m in my backyard meditating on a gorgeous, early autumn morning in New Orleans. Green and lush but not too hot or humid. The heat of the bayou in the summer has cooled and a slight breeze blows across my body.
I sit in a half-lotus pose, with one leg over the other, wearing nothing but board shorts. A thin pillow is under me and I rest upright on a wooden lounge chair. My back is straight, my hands are on my knees, and my eyes are open and gently downcast.
Birds are chirping from all directions. Dogs bark somewhere in the distance. I hear the whir of a few cars but the day is calm and gentle, the sun beaming on my face and skin, deeply warm. I’m still, relaxed, and…my body is killing me! The pain seems unstoppable!
I know this pain well. It’s been with me for over 30 years. It feels like a blacksmith is pounding a heavy hammer onto a metal anvil that is buried in the muscles of my back. Electric wires shock and thump with every heartbeat in my neck and shoulders. My mind is calm but my muscles are clenched and ready for an attack.`
Despite breathing in and breathing out like a Jedi on Dagobah connecting with Yoda and the Force, it’s as if a dictatorial general is marching with an army down my jaw and neck into my shoulder blades. Missiles and grenades landing, spreading shrapnel inside my body. The army continues to trudge down my back into my swollen, quivering hip and down my leg. It’s an apocalypse of nerve endings on fire.
I think to myself: what can I learn from this? Why don’t I just move? Why do I have to deal with this? Why can’t I just be calm and content and peaceful and Zen?!?
Can You Relate?
Does any of this happen to you when you meditate? Do you ever wonder if you’re crazy? Do you ever think, “Why me? No one else deals with this.”
Maybe you say to yourself, “My life is a constant struggle.” You feel you’re in a war, being tortured, locked in an invisible prison cell no one can understand.
I’ve thought about all of those things and I understand completely. What I believed to be singularly my own dark, treacherous thoughts led me to meditation and Buddhist study.
Years have gone by since I began meditating. I began a meditation practice when I was 23 years old, and it was pain, anxiety, depression, and trauma that brought me to it. Today, when I sit in a confident, relaxed way, with all the many pages of Buddhist thought I’ve read in my head and my many hours of breathing in silence, I still feel pain. Sometimes very little, sometimes a lot.
Since my suffering likely won’t ever go away completely, I decided to ask the question: what can be learned from my pain? As it turns out, a lot.
I hope that my words can help you learn from meditating with pain, too.
Pain is Personal
It’s important I express that I don’t know what your pain is and I don’t know what it feels like for you. Pain is defined by everyone differently because it is a completely personal experience. To me, pain can be physical, mental, emotional, or a combination of two or three sufferings together.
There are some who thrive on receiving pain through physical exercise or other means, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about hurt. The kind of hurts that make you suffer and you want to go away. The pains that you would go to the ends of the earth to find a cure, stop the madness, and end the torture.
How you hurt and your search for how to feel better is personal. Your journey to cure your suffering may have led you to this story. My own search led me to meditation, away from it, and back to it a number of times. Eventually, I realized being able to learn from my own suffering required that I do the work of just sitting. My work was to do absolutely nothing and just meditate.
It May Sound Like Nothing, But It’s Really Everything
I sit in meditation every day for about 20 minutes, sometimes more and sometimes less. I practice once and occasionally twice per day.
Meditation is not actually about doing nothing because your mind is busy 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, when you’re awake or asleep.
When you sit and be aware, you become quickly mindful of your aches and pains, your weird and obsessive thoughts, your emotional upheavals and bad choices and lost loves and things you shouldn’t have said and…and…and…
Often, that’s what meditation is. A constant waterfall of thoughts rushing by. Doing nothing but breathing can be hard work. It may feel like a series of “and’s”, then it changes.
The waterfall becomes a river and then it becomes a quiet, still sea. Calm and glassy and blue.
Pain changes. It goes away, comes back, and goes away again. It’s not permanent because nothing is.
Is pain sometimes extremely awful? Yes.
When it is truly awful, is it the end of all space and time and existence? No.
Does it sometimes feel like an actual black hole? Yes.
Is that black hole going to suck you into eternal, nihilistic nothingness? I don’t have an answer for that but I doubt it.
You Are Not Your Pain
You and your pain are not the same. It’s part of you and it may come and go, but you have the opportunity to learn and grow from it.
By sitting in meditation with my own pain, I learned that it is possible to be happy and suffer at the same time. I unearthed the discovery that pain and pleasure can co-exist. In fact, in any one instant, we are sufficiently suffering and pleasurably joyful about many things at once.
If we are glasses of champagne, our many thoughts and feelings are just bubbles that rise to the top, pop and dissipate into nothing. They’re replaced by more bubbles because our sparkling liquid never goes flat. We have a magnificent infinity of bubbles, thoughts, emotions, and feelings rising and popping all the time.
Buddhists sometimes refer to our thoughts and emotions as waves on the vast ocean. Some are large and some are small, but they’re all part of the sea.
Another common Buddhist metaphor is that our feelings and thoughts are clouds passing by in the blue sky. Some clouds are dark and heavy and others are wispy and light, but they all eventually pass in the sky.
Pain Can Be Funny
If you focus completely, intently, on how awful it is to have pain, then you can very easily self-victimize. In your head, you may say, “Woe is me. No one else feels pain like me. Why me? Why has my life been ruined? Why am I the only one?”
It’s ok. I’ve thought that way, too. It’s funny when I write it, but it’s not funny when I experience it. Pain itself is usually not hilarious. It requires some work and a change of perspective to discover that pain itself is not as serious as you may think.
You may have an illness that is serious or the depressive feeling you have may be very deeply ingrained and serious, but the pain itself is fleeting. If you are able to step back and laugh, you can see that easier. You may even be able to befriend your suffering. If pain has been there a long time as mine has, it’s been a strange kind of companion for a while anyway.
Pain Can Be a Friend
It seems like an oxymoron, but ask yourself: how has my pain helped me? I’ve asked myself that question and found a number of answers.
Pain slowed me down when I needed it. Going a thousand miles an hour at times in my life didn’t usually turn out well, and pain prevented me from continuing on destructive paths.
Pain has helped to make sure I take care of myself. I know that I feel better when I exercise, take it easy, and don’t go too hard. Swimming, surfing, and SUPing have kept me healthy and the endorphins produced by exercising assist my brain when it wants to be depressed. I’ve also been stretching for a very long time and that’s kept me limber and physically better off.
Pain helped me learn to be alone and be a friend to myself. I discovered over many years that I don’t get bored. I’m fairly certain I got bored as a child because most children do. Suffering didn’t allow me to keep going and just do and do and do; instead, I focused on just being. That led to learning that everything can be fascinating and entertaining.
Pain brought me to meditation and spiritual study. Without my sometimes extreme physical, mental, and emotional suffering, I don’t think I would ever have turned my search inward. It sometimes requires a great personal upheaval to stop and meditate. Great suffering can be the personal tsunami that drives us to look in, instead of outside ourselves.
Stop Wondering If and Appreciate Now
I have often wondered what my life would be like in some alternate universe where I am pain-free and I’ve accomplished miraculous things.
My negative ruminations sometimes go like this: if I didn’t have pain, I might have been a bonafide piano rock star. If I didn’t have pain, I could have been a triathlete and competed in an Iron Man. I could have been a big wave surfer and dropped in on a 100-footer at Nazaré in Portugal. I could have…and I could have…and I could…
Who knows? It’s unimportant. We are here and now in this life.
I ask you to stop and appreciate with Olympic levels of gratitude how much you have accomplished in this life with your pain. You have done a lot with your disabilities. You have achieved so much success with your traumas and sufferings. You’re a superhero!
Your Pain Can Be Used for Good
One of the most incredible things I’ve learned through meditating with pain is: you are not the only one.
Meditating with pain allows you to recognize that others suffer, too. It’s a beautiful way to connect with other people. When you are able to get outside your own suffering and recognize that you are similar to others, then you can connect with them.
When you are meditating and you imagine someone else — a friend, partner, family member, a stranger, an animal — and you see that they have pain, then you can turn your focus from yourself and to them. This is a compassionate connection.
You can breathe in your own suffering and then breathe out directing positive thoughts and energy to them so that they be pain-free. You wish their suffering will go away and you use your own struggles as a basis for understanding. This compassionate action is often called tonglen in Buddhist practices.
I believe that all people, animals, fish, birds, insects, trees, and beings sometimes suffer but they also have joy, happiness, and pleasure, too.
What is now won’t be here forever. It will change. Your pain and your pleasure won’t always be there. I believe that in between both is a wide, wonderful, middle path, and that’s where pure joy exists.
Sit with Yourself and See What Happens
My words and my experience are simply mine. Your personal experience is yours and meditating on pain for you can lead to different conclusions. To have your own insights, I recommend that you meditate when you’re happy or sad, ecstatic or depressed, feeling good or feeling pain. You’ll need to just sit with it.
Be still. Breathe. Recognize what is there. Don’t try to change it. Breathe. Acknowledge whatever is there. Be like a tree or a mountain. Completely still.
Breathe. Experience the world like a poet. There is no right or wrong way. Allow your pain to just be and allow pleasure to be, too. Breathe.
Do that for a while and see what happens. Maybe for only five minutes or maybe for half an hour. Continue trying it each day for a week and then see what occurs practicing for a month.
What will you discover? What will you learn? Maybe there is fabulous hidden treasure or magic inside you, but you never thought to look right where you are.
If you have never meditated but would like to try it out, read my story Seven Breaths — A Simple Way to Begin Meditating.