Unweaving pain’s tapestry

There are three main approaches that can help make meditation enjoyable and sustainable when meditating with pain.

1. Learning to deal with resistance

The first hurdle is actually getting down to meditation. Even after meditating for 20 years I almost always have to overcome resistance — and I’m not alone. This tendency is especially pronounced if you’re living with pain. When you meditate you turn towards your experience in an honest and open way, including your pain. That takes courage, but often I don’t feel so brave and when I contemplate meditating suddenly I find many other things that need doing instead. I’ll make that phone call, I’ll have another cup of tea, I’ll check my emails. Alternatively, I may think, I can’t bear to sit with myself and my pain — I’m too tired. Then I roll over in bed and go back to sleep.

But I always regret it when I give in to the resistance and I always feel better when I find the energy and courage to meditate. Even if I struggle in a particular session, I still end up feeling more honest and aware, which leads to more confidence and stability as I learn to be with my pain in a clean way. It’s important to persevere and to recognize resistance rather than to be ruled by it.

2. Examining your agenda

Even when you’ve got down to meditating, attitudes still affect the practice and it’s important to investigate them. Most of us living with pain or illness long for our pain to go away and you’ll probably bring this desire with you when you start to practice meditation and mindfulness. No matter how much you think you’ve accepted your pain, many of us retain a secret hope that meditation will reduce or even eliminate it. On the face of it, this is entirely reasonable, but for people with intractable pain, mindfulness means coming to terms at the deepest level with the aspects of pain you can’t avoid and making peace with the situation.

When I first encountered meditation in my mid-twenties I definitely brought an escapist agenda to my practice. I had intolerable pain and I wasn’t coping well; I wanted to escape my body and dwell in states of calm and bliss and I hoped meditation would be a quick fix. That fantasy was understandable if you consider the ideas that circulate about meditation. I’d read books on Buddhism and meditation — and selectively remembered certain parts. Most of the literature gives a rounded picture of the human condition and describes how meditation can help you to be more awake. But instead I focused on descriptions of people who achieved meditative states in which they no longer experienced their body or described having a heart and mind that was vast, clear and boundless, or described the body becoming so spacious and diffuse that it was like having a body of light. Fantastic, I thought, I want some of that.

These descriptions of higher meditative states were very attractive and each time I meditated, I strained to be magically transported to a pain-free, blissful state. I even became adept at generating similar states through willpower and fantasy. At this stage, I would gather my awareness in my head, away from my painful body or outside my body altogether, and for a time the pain would lessen and I felt calm and joyful. But there was also a lot of strain and as soon as the meditation ended, I crash-landed back in my body and felt worse than before I’d started.

Many of us who learn to meditate when living with pain are motivated by a similar wish to escape the experience of the body — friends who are experienced meditators and also live with painful bodies have told me they had experiences of strain and escapism in their early meditation experiences that were very like my own. One woman, who has a great deal of pain, told me how her practice has finally become much deeper and quieter:

My body is aging and stiffening. More and more, I’m seeing this as an advantage as I simply can’t be very active and the frustrations just have to be faced and accepted. My life has greatly simplified this year, internally as well as externally … I’m seeing more clearly how I’ve pushed against life! Relaxation is what I’m learning right now (and I’m discovering how unrelaxed I am at a deep level). I’m meditating much more than ever before, but without pushing at it. Life is more painful, but more real and therefore more rich.

Another friend suffers from a degenerative spinal condition that causes him a great deal of pain and stiffness. He describes the end of an escapist meditation session as, “crash-landing back in hell,” which was very confusing and unpleasant. All three of us have now moved on to the next phase: using meditation to dwell ever more deeply within the body and using the experience of pain to cultivate equanimity and peace with life as it is.

One of the wonderful things about meditation is that it seems to bring out one’s native intelligence and wisdom. If you meditate with sincerity and bring an unrealistic agenda, you’ll realize that something’s not quite right. In my case it took many years to realize this, but eventually instead of trying to move away from my experience, I turned to face it. I began the journey of engaging with my body with awareness.

3. Understanding the paradox of pain

Rather than trying to move out of the body in a vain attempt to escape pain, the answer seems to lie in moving towards it, going more and more deeply into the body. This might seem a bitter pill to swallow — it’s certainly counterintuitive. It may sound as if I’m suggesting that day after day, your whole meditation experience will involve sitting with awareness of pain. Hardly an inspiring prospect! But what I’m actually suggesting goes far deeper than that. To a large extent my meditation practice consists of simply sitting with an experience that includes the discomfort and pain, noticing the thoughts and emotions that arise and working with my reactions to avoid piling on secondary suffering. But there are also times when I become awake to my experience in a very accurate and refined way. My awareness sinks deeply into my body, which starts to feel diffuse and spacious. The sense of space and translucence that fills me comes not from going outside myself into space, but from sinking so far inside that space and light seem to arise from within.

As a metaphor for this experience, consider the image of a tapestry such as those you might you see in country mansions and châteaux. From a distance the tapestry depicts a complex scene that looks dense and solid, but as you come closer you realize it’s made up of thousands of colored threads. If you looked into the weave of the threads with a microscope, you’d see millions of tiny spaces in between the threads. Through meditation, you develop this open, expansive perspective and you find the spaces in the weave of your experience and gently rest there.

These experiences of profound spaciousness are part of the world opened up by meditation. They are the states that I’d read about and been drawn to when I first learned to meditate but then I made the mistake of trying to bypass my body to achieve them. Only by sitting with the pain can one access intense joy. I like to say that the open sky lies beneath the earth. Feeling supported by the earth, you can take your awareness so far inside the body that you come to a place of peace and calm.

This article is extracted and adapted from her book, “Living Well with Pain and Illness: the mindful way to free yourself from suffering,” published by Little, Brown in November of 2008.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Catherine Choy
    May 31, 2008 9:21 am

    I’m wondering what attitude we should take towards our resistance. Shall we treat it as an enemy so that we have to find ways to overcome it? Shall we treat it as a temptation so that we have to avoid giving in to it? Is it trying to protect me or is it over-protective so that I cannot learn/grow. Or, shall we treat it as a friend, trying to understand it? Or, as a partner that we can work collaboratively with it?

    I think we have to understand resistance itself, to know it, to have a deeper look into it. But, how? specifically.

    It’s interesting to see that when I meditate, all kinds of resistance come out. Even though we “know” that our persistance to meditate would eventually bring benefits to us, our natural response is to do anything to prevent ourselves to do so. Why?

  • Hi Catherine,

    Those are very interesting questions, and I hope Vidyamala will have time to respond. In the meantime I wanted to point you towards an article I recently wrote about resistance to meditation — not quite the same topic but there’s enough overlap that I think you’ll find some useful pointers there.

    To have a stab at addressing a couple of the points you raise, I consider resistance to be a strategy where we assume on some level that we’ll be happier if we avoid a particular experience. The experience that we avoid may be an emotion, or meditating itself, or a sensation like pain. We assume it will help us if we avoid these experiences and we assume that it’s possible to push them away, block them out, or otherwise keep them at bay. But of course that’s not possible, and resistance is not helpful, so resistance is based on delusion.

    I’d therefore not see resistance as an enemy, but as a misguided friend — one who wants to protect us but who’s going about it in the wrong way. And I’d suggest that we treat resistance like a friend — sit down with it and empathize wit it, but not necessarily believe what it tells us. As I suggested in the article I’ve linked to it’s possible to treat resistance as an object of awareness in meditation, and when we do this we eventually see through the delusions that drive the resistance.

    I hope this is helpful in some way.

    With metta,

  • Hi Catherine

    Thanks very much for your questions, which are very interesting. I’m really glad that Bodhipaksa’s replied and I agree with everything he said. I would also encourage you to read his other article on resistance which I think is really good. Obviously he’s talking more about resistance in daily life as opposed to getting on the cushion specifically, but i think all the pointers apply to meditation as well.

    Of all your options of how to treat it I agree that probably the best ones are as a friend or as a partner. Certainly seeing it as the enemy or as a temptation is unhelpful – as it is still rather oppositional. In my approach to meditation with physical pain, I always encourage people to turn towards the difficulty rather than resist and oppose it as this just creates more strain and REACTIVE pain. But if you can move towards it and soften around it then very gradually it can become just an aspect of one’s journey through life without being such a struggle.

    I find myself that if I can simply notice resistance as resistance can be very liberating. If I intend to meditate and feel that weight of avoidance, then just noting “oh I’m resisting” with a sort of watching mind as opposed to being completely identified with the experience can sometimes help me kindly put it to one side and still meditate. I’ve also found that receiving benefits from medidation over time is a great ally. It helps me to remember that if I just meditate regularly then over time my whole quality of life has improved, even if I don’t want to get on the cushions on any given day.

    I talk much more about some of these issues in the book that I’m writing that is going to be published in November, so perhaps you’ll be able to read it and get a broader picture then.

    Thanks again for writing and good luck!


  • Catherine Choy
    June 6, 2008 8:11 am

    Hi, Bodhipaksa and Vidyamala,

    Thank you for your feedback. I would like to read the other article on resistance in daily life by Bodhipaksa. May I have the link? I do experience that the resistance in daily life is even harder for me than resistance to meditation. For example, when I am struggling if I should have a cup of coffee for my breakfast.

    Sometimes, it is even more difficult to recognise if it is a kind of resistance or it is just a reminder of my another need. That’s tricky here. For example, on one hand I want to meditate while on the other I want to spend time with my family. Both of them seem to be very important to me. Would I consider spending time with my family is a kind of resistance to do meditation?


  • Hi Catherine,

    The link to the article is right there in my comment.

    All the best,

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