on pain in meditation

The other day, someone mentioned to me that she often has pain in her neck and shoulders during meditation. It got me thinking about what we do with the experience of pain during meditation — when is it useful to work with, when is it worth avoiding, and why is it important to pay attention to?

In this context, I don’t mean the physical discomfort of needing to shift position after a number of minutes when your legs get uncomfortable, or feeling the need to scratch an itch or adjust your shoulders.

If you’ve ever received meditation instruction, there’s a way you’ve probably been taught to work with this kind of physical discomfort that I think is useful: it’s what I did yesterday when my left ear started itching during meditation:

  • bring awareness to the sensation
  • pause for a moment before responding to the sensation, to practice feeling present, curious, and less habitually reactive
  • then, mindfully scratch the itch, or adjust your posture, and resettle
  • return to the breath (or the focus of meditation)

Working with some discomfort or distraction in this way is a key part of mindfulness practice. It’s where we hone the ability to meet what’s arising in our awareness with discernment, curiosity, and kindness.

But what I want to talk about is *pain.*

Like, you’re trying to practice seated meditation, and a major part of the experience is sharp pain between your shoulder blades, or a nagging ache in your low back, or a steady, persistent tension in your neck.

This used to be a big part of my seated meditation practice. My legs would fall asleep in ways that felt dangerous. This spot between my shoulder blades would feel really stabby.

(I’m happy to share more about what has helped physically. But for today, I want to focus more on the mental aspect of this.)

What I want to say is: I think it’s important to be careful about what we’re reinforcing in our meditation practice.

I notice, when I’m experiencing pain like this, there are two primary options for my habitual reactions:

  1. Self blame.
    “If I had better posture, this wouldn’t happen.”
    “If I were better at meditation, I wouldn’t be distracted.”
    “My body is so broken.”
    “Getting old sucks.”
    “My hips are awful.”

  2. Self congratulation.
    “Look at how steady I’m keeping my breathing even though I’m in pain.”
    “I’m doing such a good job noticing this pain and not reacting to it.”
    “Pain is part of life, I feel so spiritual for noticing this.”

Do you relate to either of these? Self blame, or self congratulation?

On the one hand, being able to notice these reactions and hone some self-awareness and sense of humor around them can be pretty transformative — I know that for me, gradually becoming more attuned to my habitual tendencies to either blame or congratulate myself has been super useful.

But — on the other hand — spending a lot of your meditation practice experiencing physical pain, and having habitual reactions of “this hurts, I’m broken, but at least I’m so good at holding it together,” might not be the most helpful things to keep reinforcing.

I wanted to offer another possible option.

Which is — you could try meditating in a shape that doesn’t hurt.

What?!

Blasphemy?!

It’s totally legal and possible to practice meditation in other shapes besides sitting upright. My own mindfulness practice started to transform when I started making restorative yoga a regular alternative to my seated meditation practice.

Because if what you’re reinforcing during meditation is primarily physical pain (and trying to have a bit more awareness of your habitual reactions to it), you may be missing out on a lot of other potentially valuable meditation experiences.

The world is giving us a lot of practice with pain and discomfort.

So, yes, working with how we react to and meet discomfort is useful.

But meditation is also, even more deeply, about practicing being unconditionally present with yourself.

It can be about having first-hand, felt-sense experiences of life as impermanent (and therefore wildly precious and worth showing up for).

It can be about having first-hand, felt-sense experiences of yourself as already completely enough in this moment.

It can be about having first-hand, felt-sense experiences of yourself as a continually shifting, ebb and flow of interdependent relationship with the world around you.

I wish I could go back in time to six-years-ago Sarah and tell her: practicing these things might be more useful than spending 15 minutes trying to ignore the pain between your shoulder blades.

What I want to offer to you: especially now, when there is plenty of emotional discomfort to work with, choosing a physical shape for your mindfulness practice that lets you experience comfort and ease — is not cheating.

It might actually give you access to different, and more meaningful, practice.

I find that when my body isn’t working so hard to manage tension, there is finally bandwidth for the emotional discomfort — grief, disappointment, fear — to arise, be held in loving awareness, and be processed.

Is this something you’d be interested in discussing more?

Let me know — I’ve been deepening my studies and practice of Buddhist meditation this past year, and I know lots of us are interested in meditation these days.

It’s been coming up in classes, and is certainly something I’d be happy to talk more about. I’m not an expert, but I’ve been on the path long enough to have some thoughts and suggestions.

If you want to experience a practice of meditation in other shapes, this is a big component of Getting Unstuck. You’re welcome to join us sometime.

Getting Unstuck
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Thursdays, 4:30 – 5:45pm, EDT
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Please be sure to register by 4:15pm Eastern, so that I have time to get you the link.

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Sarah