Meditation is supposed to make us feel good. However, when we sit for more than 30 minutes, meditation no longer feels as pleasant. It’s enough that we have to deal with all the mental noise—experiencing physical pain can often feel unbearable.
Some people suffer from backaches, shoulder pain, or leg pain. Staying motionless for a long period of time is tiring and can cause us great discomfort. Then, the battle between our minds and bodies begins, and we grow impatient and eager to leave the session.
We struggle to find the proper posture—one that won’t cause us pain—and we add more cushions, hoping to minimise the pressure on our legs and back.
In my own experience, I suffered greatly from leg pain during the first four years of my meditation practice. The maximum time I could sit, without moving, ranged from 30 to 40 minutes. After 40 minutes, I’d shift position, give myself a hard time, and plan for my much-needed knee operation.
A major shift however occurred when I took my first Vipassana medication course in India almost 14 months ago. In Vipassana, you have to complete around 11 hours of meditation, daily, for 10 days. Among the 11 hours, there are three in which you must practice “strong determination.” This means that you shouldn’t move at all during the sitting.
You are asked to remain motionless while observing the sensations that arise in the body. When we remain still and observe our bodies, all kinds of sensations surface—such as pain, itching, throbbing, numbness, and tickling—and you shouldn’t react, with craving or aversion, toward any sensation that you experience.
The first time I practised the Vipassana technique, I came to an imperative realisation that has forever changed my meditation practice. The fact is that it’s not about the posture or how many cushions that we use. There are some postures that are more comfortable than others, and some of them might delay the pain to a certain extent.
However, I’ve come to realise that some pain in meditation is inevitable—but how we identify with it is what makes the difference.
Now, I can finally comfortably sit for one hour without moving. The pain is still there, but I’ve come to accept it, instead of judging it. Believe it or not, the pain becomes pleasurable and less intense.
At the beginning of this month, I entered my second Vipassana course, and I’ve had another interesting realisation. My mind was the reason that I suffered greatly from pain during meditation.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche says that physical pain is composed of two parts: the physical component and the mental component. The physical pain starts at a very low level, but grows bigger through our mental labelling. When we start feeling backaches or pain in our legs, our mind identifies the pain as an unpleasant feeling. Then the labelling of the pain starts:
“What if the blood stops flowing properly in my body? Am I going to harm myself?”
“Should I switch to a more comfortable position?”
“This is very painful.”
“This is going to last forever.”
“My meditation is ruined.”
“Is this pain going to end?”
When we verbalise our pain, the pain intensifies—and, not so surprisingly, it persists. It’s like time stops, and all that we can feel is our pain.
When discomfort surfaces during meditation, we should observe it without any judgment. Always remember, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. So, when we start suffering because of pain—it’s our choice.
Don’t put any label on the sensations that arise in your body. Observe them mindfully and objectively. It may still feel unpleasant, but you won’t suffer because of it. To eradicate pain while we meditate, we shouldn’t stop because of it. We need to acknowledge and accept it, so we can transcend it. So long as we stop at every discomfort, we will remain stuck there.
As the technique of Vipassana implies, all sensations are impermanent. The pain that we feel during meditation doesn’t last. When we come to accept discomfort—without fighting it—and understand its ephemeral nature, pain won’t be a problem for us anymore.
Something helpful to remember is the Four Noble Truths—these are the essence of the Buddhist teachings.
1. Life is suffering.
2. There are causes for suffering.
3. We can put an end to suffering.
4. There is a path that frees us from suffering.
Remembering the Four Noble Truths can help us a great deal with our meditation practice. When pain arises, we should understand that it’s normal. Then, we should identify the reasons behind its intensity (the mental labelling and the attachment to feeling only good sensations).
Next, we put an end to this pain (or at least minimise it) through shifting our perspective and accepting it. And finally, we should keep on practising acceptance and stop our resistance to pain, so we won’t cause ourselves more suffering.
Before sitting, remind yourself that you can’t change the discomfort you may feel. Nonetheless, you can change how you perceive it. Believe that you are the master of your mind, and your body is only your faithful listener. Whatever seeds you plant in your mind will be manifested as trees in your body.