How can I deal with pain when I’m meditating?

It can be very challenging to work with painful and discomfort when you're meditating. With practice, you can learn to approach pain and other kinds of discomfort with more skill and less suffering. Joseph Goldstein talks more about dealing with discomfort during meditation in the video for Session 6 of The Basics course, Challenges in Meditation. You can also search in the app for guided meditations and podcasts related to working with pain.

There are a few options for working with pain when you're meditating.

  • One option is to go ahead and recognize the discomfort. See if you can gently allow it to be part of your awareness without resistance or other kinds of reactivity. If possible, get really curious about the pain. For example, check for sensations that might be less solid and fixed than you think. So rather than thinking "pain," try using more specific words that are more specific about the direct physical experience you're having like "tightness," "pressure," "burning," and so on. In the area of the discomfort you might find spots that actually feel neutral or even pleasant and that when we explore closely, the uncomfortable sensations that seem very firm are often changing and shifting.
  • If looking at the pain is hard, you can consciously turn your attention away from the pain to areas of the body that might feel subtly neutral or pleasant—where there's no discomfort—and intentionally concentrate your attention in these areas. It’s perfectly acceptable, and sometimes smart, to shift positions when you decide it's not healthy or safe for your body to be in its current position or that the sensations are getting to be too much to handle. When this happens, the key is to shift positions mindfully and with awareness, rather than doing it automatically or reactively. Can you make a conscious choice to shift, instead of shifting without thinking about it? Can you pay attention to your body moving as you shift and how the sensations change after you've shifted? How long can you follow the new sensations?
  • A third option is to try being aware of your whole body, and even outside the body, so that while you're still aware of the uncomfortable sensations, they occupy a much smaller portion of awareness and you're noticing other things happening like sounds, air temperature and more. As an analogy, if you put a handful of salt into a small container of water it would have a big effect on the taste of the water. But if you put the same amount of salt into a huge lake it wouldn't be noticeable at all. Like this, try being aware of the uncomfortable sensations within a much larger field of awareness that's also aware of other experiences. You can play with your awareness to move in and out of the uncomfortable sensations as you're feel up to it, using the techniques described above. The meditation Open Awareness in the Ten Percent Happier app is a good one to practice repeatedly so you get used to this skill.

Pain doesn't happen just in the body, it can also be helpful to check out what's happening in your mind, especially your attitude towards it. With pain, it's common to have negative thoughts and feelings about it and “eternalize” it. For example you might think, without realizing it, something like this, “Because I’m feeling pain right now, the whole rest of my life is going to be that way.” This can create a lot of added stress and suffering on top of an already unpleasant experience. Sometimes the hardest part of working with physical pain is actually the fear, anxiety, or sadness that comes with it, our projections into the future and anxiety about how we'll feel going forward. These are all valid concerns and experiences but it can be easy to fall into a pattern of projecting into the future instead of staying present with what's actually happening right now, which, at its most basic, is just the bare experience of sensations, albeit unpleasant ones.

Finally, during periods of very intense pain, self-compassion can be very helpful. Try some loving-kindness meditation — as taught in Sharon Salzberg's course, 10% Nicer — to practice being kind to yourself and taking care of yourself. You can put your hand on your heart or hug yourself as a way to recognize the wish to be free of pain and suffering. The skill of being able to comfort and kindly care for yourself is one you can build so iff you practice self-compassion regularly, it'll be there when you need it, both in times of physical pain and other kinds of stress and trouble.

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