Writer: Erin Lee
While mindfulness meditation is often associated with relaxation and maybe even feelings of enjoyment, it is not uncommon for many of us to encounter varying degrees of physical discomfort during practice.
Very often, the unpleasantness of sitting still and doing nothing is enough to deter us from continuing with meditation.
We might set our timer for a 30-minute practice, but the moment we sit down, we experience restlessness as the body fidgets from being put in stillness.
Five minutes into the practice, parts of the body begin to ache, and the legs go numb. Impatience and annoyance arise from within.
Remembering our intention to sit for a full half an hour, we tolerate the uncomfortable experience as best as we can.
Some of us struggle throughout the practice, fighting the pain with much anger and animosity towards our own body.
Some of us escape into dreamland - losing ourselves in imagination or drowsiness as a way to distract the mind from the discomfort.
And some of us simply give up - we open our eyes and stop practicing.
None of these approaches are ideal for mindfulness practitioners who understand it is only with sitting for longer periods of time that we are able to develop and strengthen the skills we need.
Working with physical discomfort is part and parcel of practicing mindfulness. We accept that pain is inevitable, and let go of the desire for our experience to always be enjoyable or pleasant.
As we learn to work with discomfort and pain during meditation, we are also building resilience towards any difficult experiences that come our way in day-to-day life.
And so how do we actually work with physical discomfort during meditation?
I'd like to share the five steps I follow whenever pain or discomfort arises during my practice:
1. Turn Towards the Discomfort
Instead of trying to escape or distract myself, I intentionally turn towards the discomfort. This will feel counterintuitive at the start, but is an essential first step to working with pain. Everything begins with awareness and the willingness to notice things.
2. Stay With the Discomfort
This step strengthens our present-moment focus. I practice staying with the experience, one moment at a time - each time my attention wanders away, I gently bring it back to the part of the body where the discomfort is showing up.
3. Observe the Discomfort
I invite patience and curiosity towards what is happening from moment to moment, and observe the physical sensations that are present at the area of discomfort.
With this practice I am able to recognise the presence of physical sensations other than what I had perceived and identified as "pain" - feelings of heat, heaviness, pressure, tightness, expanding, contracting, pulsing, tingling, etc.
This way of observing the body allows me to "break up" the pain and see it for what it really is - an experience made up of different bodily sensations.
This step is where we primarily cultivate the skills of non-judgemental awareness, which helps create space for us to work with feelings of discomfort more calmly and objectively, rather than reacting to them.
4. Breathe through the Discomfort
Sometimes, we may not be skilled enough to keep attending to the physical sensations of discomfort, and some light intervention may be required.
This is when I bring my awareness to the breath and imagine gently breathing in and out through the part of the body that is feeling the discomfort. This can help to soften the unpleasant experience and alleviate some pain, making it a little more acceptable for the mind to observe.
5. Mindfully Move the Body
There may come a point where we feel the need to move the body or change our posture, and this is okay. We simply need to be intentional about moving the body.
I slow down and bring awareness to each moment of moving my body. When the pain or discomfort subsides adequately, I make sure I return my body to the original posture I started in, and continue practicing.
This five-step approach will work for mental discomfort as much as physical pain.
When thoughts and emotions arise and bring unpleasantness to our experience, we practice observing how this unpleasantness is showing up in the physical body.
For example, during meditation you feel impatience and notice the desire to stop practicing. Try turning towards this impatience and staying with it for a few moments. If this impatience feels unpleasant in the mind, it will most likely feel unpleasant somewhere in the body as well.
Notice if this impatience has any presence in some parts of the body, such as a tightness in the belly, or fidgeting at the legs or hands. Work through the five steps - turning towards, staying with, observing from moment to moment, as well as breathing through and moving mindfully if needed.
"Meditation teaches us to be present with our pain, to hold it with tenderness and care. In this way, we discover a deep reservoir of strength and resilience within ourselves."
- Pema Chodron