A student asks: Sometimes when scanning my body during mindfulness practice, I come across some pain or discomfort. Do I try to stay with it until it goes away? And if it doesn’t go away, do I move on?
Sunada replies: Well, first of all, if the pain seems to be an indication of something wrong –- like an aggravated injury –- please do something to address it right away! You’ll have to be the judge of what’s really going on, of course.
But otherwise, mindfulness is about getting to know ourselves and our world better, not to escape into a feel-good state or to get rid of unpleasant/painful things. It’s a useful practice to stay with our discomfort, make it the object of our concentration, and observe what happens as it waxes and wanes. If we just let it be, in many cases, it will pass away on its own.
But other times it won’t go away — like chronic physical conditions or emotional issues like depression or anxiety. So yes, it’s a good question — what to do when it doesn’t go away?
Let me share my experience of walking outdoors recently on a bitterly cold New England winter day. My body’s natural reaction to being out in the cold is to hunch up my shoulders, cave my chest in, and get into a protective sort of posture. But as I was observing myself, I realized that my responses were doing nothing to make me feel warmer or more protected from the cold. It was just making me tense up (shoulders up around my neck, for instance), and if anything was making me feel worse –- not so much from the cold but from all the tension I was carrying around. I also noted that if I dropped my shoulders and stood up straight and faced the cold, it really didn’t feel that bad. And if I brought my attention more closely to the raw sensation of the wind on my face, and setting aside any judgments about how cold it was, it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I had thought it was. So I’d say at least 75% of that feeling of “cold and uncomfortable” was an inflated judgment I had made up in my mind, and was not the reality.
I think this is one of the lessons of mindfulness. If we stay with our experiences, we can begin to separate out the bare reality from what’s a fabrication of our minds –- in this case, exaggerated thoughts of discomfort that served no purpose other than make me feel worse! Being mindful of my discomfort didn’t make it go away –- I couldn’t make the cold weather go away, of course -– but I WAS able to find a way to be in the cold without piling unnecessary suffering on myself. That realization alone made the coldness much easier to live with.
Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.