Today I’m going to talk about pain and how meditation can help you deal with it. You may not be experiencing pain today, but it’s something that happens to us all, and hopefully there will be something here that you find useful. Also what I’m going to say applies not just to physical but to emotional pain (hurt, anxiety, loneliness, etc.) so it’s relevant to everyone.
In the midst of pain there is magic. If you find this puzzling, let me tell you how I know this and how you can see it for yourself.
I started having migraines when I was perhaps 13 years old. When I first tried meditating with migraines it did not help. As soon as I took my awareness to the nausea it would become more intense. And there was no way on earth I wanted to turn toward the headaches. I just wanted them to go away.
It turned out, though, that being mindful of less extreme forms of discomfort, like an aching back, hunger, an itch, or even emotional forms of pain, such as sadness or grief was a useful way to train for more extreme pain. It became more natural to turn toward what is painful rather than to turn away. I found that much of the pain that is involved in such experiences is actually caused by my resistance. When we tense up physically or emotionally around pain, it gets more intense.
Part of the practice of investigating pain was to see that it wasn’t a unitary phenomenon. We can use the single word “pain” to refer to, say, a sore back, but that doesn’t capture the richness and complexity of the experience. When I looked closely, I found that the pain was composed of a number of interwoven sensations. There might be heat, pressure, tingling, pulsing, throbbing, stabbing, and so on. One or another of these might be the most prominent part of the pain at any given time. Each of them changed, moment by moment. Pain stopped seeming so solid. In fact even the individual interwoven sensations I’ve mentioned stopped seeming solid, and instead had the appearance of twinkling points of sensation suspended in space. Sometimes, in turning my attention toward pain, I’d find that there was no pain to be found.
I’ve noticed the same in other arenas in life. I often edit my own meditation recordings, and sometimes I’ll have to remove a click that’s in the middle of a sound, like the AH sound in the word “relaxed.” And I noticed that when I zoom in really close to a sound like AH — down at the level of fractions of a hundredth of a second — there’s no AH to be heard. This morning, at the end of my meditation, I was looking at a white candle, and I couldn’t see any white. There were infinite shades of browns and yellows, but no white. So, sometimes when you look close enough at a thing, it has a completely different appearance from when it’s viewed from further away or with less attention.
So a few days ago I woke up with a migraine. I observed that there were many sensations in the body that were unrelated to the migraine at all. When we fixate on pain we miss those. I found that my calf muscles in particular were full of pleasurable tingling energy, and the more I paid attention to everything that was not the migraine, the more intense and widespread those sensations became. And then turning toward the pain and the nausea, everything very quickly took on that now familiar sense of transparency. Around 15 minutes into the meditation my tummy started rumbling, which is always a sign that the migraine is on the way out, since my entire digestive tract shuts down during a migraine. At that point the migraine wasn’t entirely gone, but it was quite manageable and I was able to get up and go about my day.
I don’t want to give the impression that I have this sorted out. Sometimes pain sneaks up on me and I forget to be mindful of it. And there are some forms of emotional discomfort that I have most definitely not learned to embrace in awareness, and that I react to strongly. I’m still working with all this and trying to learn to do it better.
But I’d strongly suggest, if you have problems with pain (and you all will at some point) that you practice turning toward smaller discomforts as a way of training yourself to be mindful and equanimous with difficult experiences. Over time I hope you’ll find, as I have, that in the midst of pain there is magic.
Do you think mindfulness can help with neuropathic pain emanating randomly directly from the nerve? Trigeminal Neuralgia.
I’m confident it would. The issue isn’t where the pain arises but how it’s processed in the brain. It seems that when we start treating pain as being a sensation like any other (although doing this requires a process of learning that takes time) the brain “understands” pain differently.
Thanks for your article and your clear description of your experience. I appreciate that you said you are still learning about how to do this… I have experimented a little with this too. I notice that often there is a feeling of, well almost like attachment to the pain, like if I take my attention away from that then I will not be listening to my body. And fear that the pain will come back. Then I have to notice that’s going on, and just keep doing what you’re talking about, noticing what’s arising – whether it’s resistance to taking my attention away from the pain, or the experience of the pain changing/lessening as I notice other sensations in the body. the main point is that this shows how much freedom we actually have in experience when we choose to open our awareness like this. Makes me feel stronger and more able to face whatever may be coming down the track…
thank you , that is very helpful…. <3
Cramps that occur during meditation are a great thing to start with. I have learned to not react to cramps beyond trying to relax the muscle once the cramp has subsided. During my last serious bout of depression/anxiety I was able to sit with the immense discomfort that I was feeling but that was after quite a few years of practice.
I am starting to get arthritis in my fingers and in bed last night I had some very strong sensations from my right hand that I think I would have described as painful in the past. I was able to react minimally to them and they went away quite quickly. Definitely a great fringe benefit from all that sitting.
Hello Bodhipaksa ? I am familiar with your work on Open Sit and on Insight Timer. I found this “talk” about pain and meditation timely. For many years I have been using various meditation practices to manage pain and wondered if I am going about it wrong as my results have not been very productive. I look forward to taking a new path. Thank you for this. Peace.
Hi, Anita. Vidyamala on Open Sit is very experienced at teaching ways to deal with pain, and you might want to check out what she’s doing there. Anyway, I’d encourage you to keep exploring. The skills of turning toward pain, of acceptance, and of self-compassion really are deeply transformative when practiced together.
How do you approach the emotional pains?. Sometimes, i think i have depression and want to sleep all the time maybe to escape the reality of my life and my job and…What can one do to face this kind of pain?. I live in San Diego(california). Do you know of any respectful meditation practice that i can go to learn more how to deal with pain?. Thanks.
Hi, Alex. I’m sorry to hear about you depression. It’s a sucky experience to have.
There’s actually a lot of information on this site about dealing with emotional pain. I’d suggest using the search function to look for “self-compassion.” Hopefully you’ll find something helpful there.
All the best,