Today we are delving into a question I get quite often:
“I’ve been feeling a lot of pain while meditating. It’s so intense. What should I do?”
It’s a very common experience and an important question.
In the Yoga Sutras (the primary user manual for the practice of yoga and meditation), Patanjali explains that the purpose of spiritual practice is to remove the source of pain and suffering. Huh? Pain and suffering? Are they really different?
Pain and suffering are different.
Imagine you’re experiencing pain in your shoulders during meditation practice. As you sit, the pain arises. By turning your attention towards the pain, sensing the placement, intensity, movement and depth…you make contact with the pain.
Then, you experiment, mindfully shifting your posture, the angle of your neck, the placement of your hands, to discover what creates and what releases the pain.
You make subtle, mindful adjustments.
Making adjustments to your cushion, re‐balancing your posture, sensing the muscles of your shoulders, neck and upper back—and gently relaxing them—could release the pain.
You experiment and discover.
If the source of the pain is in the alignment of your spine, you discover this through mindful exploration. As your posture shifts the pain disappears.
But, what about suffering?
Suffering isn’t rooted in muscular patterns.
Suffering is based on your interpretation of experience. As the student said, “I never used to feel this before. I used to be able to sit. Why is this happening?”
Her suffering came from disappointment at having the pain. She interpreted the pain as a sign that she was losing her way, regressing, failing as a meditator. These interpretations were connected more with her self‐image than her shoulder muscles. So plumping up her cushion or re‐orienting her neck, won’t touch the suffering.
Because even if she manages to make the postural adjustments that eliminate the pain, the beliefs, assessments, and self-image that generate the suffering still remain.
Suffering is the call to let go.
How do you let go? It starts with being aware of the pattern of thoughts, beliefs, and assessments that support the suffering; seeing how the experience of suffering is a symptom of a particular psychological posture that you’re taking towards experience.
See the pattern without adding layers of interpretation and judgments.
Just be aware, notice, see the pattern of thought/emotion as a pattern, not a comment about your value, nature, or identity. Awareness—really seeing and feeling—is enough. No additional interpretations are needed.
Awareness, without commentary, frees you from identification with, and immersion in, the pattern of thought/emotion.
This freedom is the removal of suffering. In an instant of deeply seeing, you are free. And in that instant, the horizon of your awareness expands to include new insights, perspectives and wisdom.
You can release pain by making tangible changes.
Whether it’s pain in your body that calls for a change in posture or a pain in your checkbook that calls for a change in spending habits.
You solve the problem of pain by making practical, tangible adjustments.
But, for suffering the strategy is different.
Suffering is rooted in an interpretation, a story, a way of viewing the situation.
Suffering is dissolved when the thought/emotion pattern that generates the suffering is dissolved.
Let’s apply this distinction to your experience. Consider a current problem that you’re having with meditation practice or life.
Is your problem more pain or suffering?
If it is more pain—consider if the pain is located primarily in your body or in some other aspect of experience, i.e., relationship, money, work, etc.
If the pain is bodily-based: mindfully experiment and explore how you can make physical adjustments to release and relieve the pain.
If the pain is more based in some other area of life, focus on your behavior.
Pains are caused by tangible, observable, and changeable behaviors.
So, mindfully experiment and explore how to make behavioral adjustments -‐ changing what you do -‐ to produce less painful -‐ or even more pleasurable -‐ experiences.
What if your experience is more suffering than pain?
Suffering is caused by intangible (but equally real), patterns of thought/emotion—interpretations about your experience.
The first move in reducing your suffering is to take a psychological step back and become aware of the thought/emotions—the sensations in the body, the interpretations, stories, and self‐assessments that generate suffering.
Experience these patterns of thought/emotion as patterns.
Don’t judge them, argue with them, or even try to change them. They’re just thoughts—a pattern of psychological perspectives and emotions and sensations—flowing through the body. When you identify with these thought/emotions it’s liking picking up a pair of suffering glasses.
When you look through the suffering-glasses…you suffer.
Notice that. Experience it. Then…take a breath and put the glasses down.
Ask, “What is a way of seeing/feeling this situation that is at least as true as that old pattern, but which feels empowering, encouraging and life‐enriching?”
Try looking at your situation through that new perspective…notice how it reduces your suffering.
Of course, life is complex, and the most challenging situations are a blend of pain and suffering. Which means that you get to play, experiment and explore how to make both tangible and intangible changes as you free yourself from pain and suffering.
Share your experience:
Consider a challenge in your life—is it more pain or more suffering? What does this suggest? Share below.
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