Whether you’re a new meditator or have sat many long retreats, you’ve likely experienced some physical pain during meditation practice. Maybe it’s your knees, somewhere in the back, or a chronic condition elsewhere in the body. In our meditation groups and online courses, we have quite a few people actually arrive at meditation practice with the hopes of learning to approach their pain with some new skills. Unfortunately, the nature of the body is to experience discomfort at times. Whether your pain is really difficult and chronic or arising as a result of sitting still for a while, there are ways through meditation to approach pain with compassion and wisdom.
Here are five ways that we have found useful in approaching pain that either arises during meditation practice or that we are already experiencing and hoping to work with in meditation practice. As a disclaimer, these are not pieces of medical advice, and we are not doctors! If you’re experiencing pain, meditation may be a helpful tool, but you should absolutely seek advice from a medical professional if there is a need. You may seek out lower back pain treatment from a trusted professional, help from a physical therapist, or investigate other options to relieve pain.
Scanning the Body
Body scan meditations are a wonderful foundational practice. In a body scan meditation you move through the body slowly, looking at each part of the body with a patient awareness. Generally people start from the top of the head and move bit by bit down the body to the toes. I personally use this practice quite a bit at the beginning of sitting periods, as it can help us settle into the present moment. In addition to being a great way to arrive at our practice, body scans can be useful in approaching pain. As we move through looking at specific part of the body, we can see points of pain that we may not have noticed. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by all of our experience in the body, we have the structure to help us focus on one piece at a time. You can of course do a body scan in a formal meditation, but you can also scan through the body at work, in bed, or while walking.
Part of scanning the body is attending to our present-time experience with mindfulness, non-judgement, and compassion. To attend to the body with mindfulness means we view our experience in the present-time, observing our direct experience in the body and not buying into any thoughts about the experience. We may notice the impermanent, fluid nature of the pain, how the pain moves or changes, or that there is a general discontentment with the experience. It’s important to bring awareness to the judging mind should it arise, and not encourage ourselves to tighten around the pain. This is all compassionate action. Compassion literally means “to suffer with,” and this act of being present with awareness during pain is truly a deep act of compassion for ourselves. We can keep this intention of compassion close during the body scan, or even jump into a self-compassion practice if necessary (more on this later).
Open Body Awareness
Instead of going through the body systematically, you can sit in a more open awareness. In my personal sitting practice, I’ll often begin with a body scan and move into an open body awareness practice when I wish to sit with mindfulness of the body. In open awareness we rest in a state of receiving, waiting for a sensation to arise in the body. You can do this any time by simply tuning into the body and what is present for you. As I often say in my guided meditation offerings, there is no “right” or “wrong” in open awareness practice. The task is to be with whatever arises in your experience.
With pain, you can notice the spots in the body where pain is present and turn toward them. As you tune into the pain, you can bring mindfulness and compassion to the experience. This act of choosing to be with pain is incredibly beneficial in reducing suffering. Rather than compounding our pain with judgemental thoughts, tightening, or averting, we are training the mind to respond wisely to unpleasant experiences. You may notice if the pain feels warm or cool, sharp or dull, or still or moving. As we familiarize ourselves with pain we are allowing ourselves the opportunity to understand and not react by worsening it.
Metta & Compassion for the Body
If you’re practicing awareness of the pain with a touch of compassion, it may be useful to switch over to a compassion practice. It’s helpful to notice if we are switching from mindfulness to compassion out of care or out of aversion, as we can sometimes try to avoid the pain by switching away from an investigative mindfulness practice. If you do notice pain in your body and want to work with it directly with compassion, you can pick a few phrases to offer yourself. You can offer yourself these phrases silently in your head, recognizing the intention behind them to care for yourself. You may not mean it each and every time, but this practice is a practice of tuning into and cultivating the seeds of self-compassion we already have within us. Here are a few phrases we use for self-compassion practice in the body:
May my body be at ease.
May I be at ease with my body.
May my (body part) be at ease.
May I be at ease with my (body part).
May I care for my body.
May I care about the pain in my (body part).
I love you, keep going.
You can also try practicing metta, or loving-kindness, for the body whether or not you are experiencing pain in a given moment. By cultivating this gentle friendliness toward the body, we can train ourselves to care about the body, respond with kindness to experiences, and be present with whatever is arising. I return to metta for the body as a practice in my own life regularly, especially as I am undertaking the practice of sitting with a few minutes of self-metta every day in 2017 (read about my experience so far HERE).
Softening into Pain
Whether you’re sitting in a period of meditation or going about your day when you notice pain arise, this is a practice that is extremely pragmatic and helpful. When we have a pain in the body, it’s our natural instinct to tighten a bit around it. If you’ve ever experienced something that was extremely painful, you probably know the feeling of the whole body clenching like this. Although it may happen quite obviously in dramatic cases of pain, we don’t always notice it happening in the more subtle moments. The tightening of muscles in the body serves a purpose. When we experience something painful, the body braces for more pain by tightening. For example, when a pain arises in the stomach, the body prepares for more pain by tightening the abdominal muscle to protect ourselves from further pain. Although this makes some sense as a survival instinct in the wild, it doesn’t always serve us in this day and age.
If we are in a safe environment (which is up to you to decide for yourself in a given moment), we can make an effort to soften around the pain. Like many practices from the Buddhist tradition, we are essentially retraining our mind away from some unhelpful instincts. Bring awareness to the painful area and see if you can soften around it. This may mean allowing the muscles to relax, breathing into the space (see next section), or perhaps moving that part of the body or wiggling it. My experience both for myself and with students is that you will know when you’ve softened. We may not be able to describe or know what exactly is happening when we’re softening, but it is a tangibly different experience than holding the tension. I try to soften with each exhale, offering myself the word “soft” silently in my head as the body breathes out.
Breathing into the Body
This is a practice I had a lot of resistance to at first. I learned it while sitting with Than Geoff at Wat Metta, a monastery in San Diego county. It’s a practice I’ve also heard taught in yoga classes, and is related to practices found in Tai Chi and Qi Gong. With this practice, we make the effort to breathe into specific areas of the body. Of course, we may not be able to actually push air into our pinky toe, but we can hold this intention and investigate the experience. I was skeptical because it seemed rather non-scientific to me. However, after giving the practice a shot, I have found it to be quite useful. It’s actually my preferred method of settling into a meditation period. When we breathe into a specific part of the body, we bring awareness to that place and end up softening around it. I highly encourage giving this practice a shot!
What I do is inhale and fill the space in the body, and exhale out through that body part. You can try it with an arm. As you inhale, picture you filling your arm with breath energy. As you exhale, breath out through your fingertips. Take a few breaths like this with a body part, and tune into the physical experience. This is a useful practice any time, but especially beneficial when in pain. I have a condition that causes some chronic pain in the kidneys, and often use this practice to help tune into and soften around the pain.
Bonus Thought: What are Emotions?
It may seem like I’m switching gears here, but it’s actually super relevant. What is an emotion? I don’t mean from a neurochemical standpoint. How do you actually experience emotion? As Scientific American discusses here, we often experience emotions in the body. People like William James have suggested that emotions actually start in the body, and the theory of constructed emotion argues that emotion is a construction of physical experience, mental response, and interpretation of the experience based on previous experiences, views, etc. Although there are a lot of unknowns still, you can investigate for yourself. When you experience “sadness” or “joy,” what is it you’re experiencing? I find that my actual experience of emotions is a combination of physical sensations and a pattern of thinking or mental mood. For example, anxiety may be a tightness in the stomach or chest coupled with a thought pattern of thinking about the future and a state of high activity in the thinking mind.
When you’re experiencing physical OR emotional pain, tune into the body and how it is interacting with the mind. It’s no longer some psuedoscientific idea that the mind and body are deeply connected. We experience emotions in the body, and physical sensations can be caused by an emotion or give rise to an emotion. Next time you’re experiencing an emotion (especially a painful one as that’s what we’re talking about in this post!), tune into the body!
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Matthew Sockolov is a Buddhist meditation teacher and author. He was empowered to teach meditation by Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and is the founding teacher of One Mind Dharma. His new book, Practicing Mindfulness - 75 Essential Meditations is now available on Amazon.