Awareness is painful

Meditation has made me more sensitive – and I can’t turn it off

“People who are spiritually minded tend to suffer from anxiety and depression more. Why?… Because they literally have an increased ability to feel the emotions of people around them.” – Osho

My journey in meditation began 5 years ago when I completed my first 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. It was a very challenging experience, very uncomfortable and painful in fact, but very rewarding all the same.

Rewarding enough that I have continued my practice ever since, but also expanded my practice to a variety of other forms including breathing techniques, guided meditations, visualization exercises and more.

I’ve also dabbled with the occasional psychedelic – my personal favorites being Psilocybin mushrooms and Ayahuasca.

All of these I liken to my “spiritual practice”, my understanding of the universe and challenging my belief systems and the nature of reality and existence.

What was interesting about Vipassana in particular however, is that it made me more sensitive. It made me more aware of my feelings. It opened up a doorway to emotions and feelings that I never knew were there.

Taking a course of Vipassana and becoming aware of these sensations was like walking through a door I wouldn’t ever be able to walk back through.

How did this process happen? How did Vipassana make me more aware of my feelings?

Let’s set the stage a bit and provide some insight into the technique.

In a 10-day Vipassana retreat you spend the first 3 days solely focused on your breathing by focusing all of your attention on the area below your nose and above your upper lip. At first you pay attention to your breath alone, and then you pay attention to any feeelings or sensations that you have in that area.

A sensation can be the feeling of the breath hitting your upper lip, or maybe the rim of your nostrils, or maybe just a random tickle or itch.

Nonetheless, for the first three days you pay attention to this and only this.

Then on day four, you apply this to the whole body. In the same way you were searching for feelings in the upper lip, now you do this to every part of your body. Top of your head, back of your head, sides of your head, right side of forehead, left side of forehead, left eye, right eye, left ear, right ear, nose, lips, mouth, and then so on throughout the rest of your body.

At first you don’t feel very much. It feels like you’re searching for feelings. What does my elbow feel like? What about my ankles? It seems kind of absurd at first.  

But nonetheless, over time feelings begin to emerge. They begin to come out and say hello.

By the time I hit day 7, my body was an ocean of feelings. I could feel pulsating vibrations in every part of my body. Some spots tingling, other spots vibrating. Some parts cool and warm, other parts tense. Some filled with extreme pain, others relaxed.

By days 9 and 10 I had free flowing uniform sensations throughout my body where in a single In>out breath I could feel my entire body at  once. I could scan from head to toe, toe to head, with a vibrating orchestra – it was like I could feel my heartbeat ripple through every part of my body at the same time.

When the retreat was finally finished it felt like I was inside of my body for the first time in my life. Like I could feel myself. All of my kinks and nooks and crannies. All of my pain and emotions staring me in the face.

Around this time we were also allowed to start talking again. This is when I noticed that I could feel my reactions to what other people were saying to me.

Conversations were slightly overwhelming. It was like I could feel the energy of all the people around me. I could feel their words hit me.

I felt sensitive. Vulnerable. Like I just got out of an operation and I need to take it easy. Need time to readjust and re-acclimate after being given a heavy dose of realization and awareness.

So eventually I went back home and got some rest. I tried to keep up my meditation practice, but I was starting a business at the time and was inconsistent with the practice.

By the time I hit March of that year my meditation was infrequent and my mindfulness was lost.

But the sensitivity to emotions and feelings? It never went away.

Even when I fell off of my meditation practice – the awareness of feelings was still there.

Maybe not quite as strong, but there nonetheless.

I would notice feelings pop up in everyday situations, even if I hadn’t meditated in weeks.

If I got angry I would get hot. If I was sad I would get cold chills throughout my body. I would notice my body tense up. When I was happy I would get warm fuzzy tingles everywhere.

I began to notice how people make me feel. How people all have unique energies and some lighten me up while others bring me down.

It was both good and bad. In some ways it was nice to have this new awareness of feelings. To be able to be in touch with my “alarm system” that is sending me notifications of my reactions to situations.

But on the other hand, it made everything more intense. I simply FEEL more in every situation that I’m in. Like I’m taking in more stimuli and it’s grabbing more of my attention.

When I used to get sad, it would be mostly in my head. It would be me thinking negative thoughts and getting myself down. I didn’t notice any of the feelings associated with it.

Post-Vipassana sadness had a feeling to it….and that feeling was PAINFUL. It hurt, physically.

Anger hurt. Being mistreated hurt. Seeing others be hurt, hurt me.

And it still does.

Don’t get me wrong – it also means that I get higher off of the pleasant emotions as well. I FEEL gratitude – and it feels great! I feel happiness and joy. I feel love. I feel compassion and empathy.

The craziest bittersweet part? It only seems to grow stronger the longer I continue my practice.

In my last 10-day Vipassana I felt overwhelming waves of sadness completely disconnected from any thoughts about sad things.

When I broke up with my girlfriend last year it felt like I was being ripped in half internally. I would get waves of anguish. My heart literally felt piercing stabbing pains.

When I found out about some health issues it felt like a stabbing pain in my gut. I felt nauseous and sick. Heavy. My throat felt like I was choking or suffocating.

This experience has shown me one of the downsides of meditation – Awareness is painful.

The quintessential ignorance is bliss, sometimes it’s better not to know the truth at all. To sit in blissful ignorance of our feelings and emotions and avoid feeling all of the pain associated with it.

We need look no further than the bible for the best example of this – When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge and became aware that they were naked, they felt shame and embarrassment for the first time – and shame and embarrassment are painful!

While awareness helps us to see reality and truth for what it is, that reality isn’t always a pleasant one. Our realizations from awareness can be some of the most painful realizations we experience in life.

Need more evidence? In Buddhist scriptures we have the “Four Noble Truths” – and the FIRST ONE is that suffering is the underlying nature of the human state.

“The noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering;”

Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

Despite common misconceptions that meditation is all relaxation and smiles, the hardest part of walking the path is seeing the inevitability of suffering and the unsatisfactory nature of the human condition.

So what does this mean for us? What does this mean for the average person looking to deepen their meditative or spiritual practice?

The more aware we become of our feelings and emotions, the more that we are going to FEEL everything. The good will feel better, and the bad will feel worse. Even the neutral will feel more like neutral.

Personally though? I’m happy for it. These feelings make me feel more alive. Make me feel more connection to my body and mind.

For example, meditation has made me aware of a handful of health issues that I’m glad I’ve discovered, but are uncomfortable nonetheless.

In my 2nd Vipassana I noticed a subtle ringing in my ears. Was this always there or did this arise during meditation? Turns out it’s always been there – I’ve had tinnitus for a while now but didn’t notice it until I was in a room of complete silence and my mind calmed down.

In my 3rd Vipassana my jaw felt like it locked up on me – was this a new feeling? Nope, I’ve had TMJ for years. It was only once I dove deep into my feelings that I could feel all the tension there in my jaw.  

Lo and behold, the tinnitus in my ear is actually caused by tension from my jaw that has radiated down to the left side of my neck and shoulders.

Happy I noticed this – but nonetheless uncomfortable realizations all the same. My jaw physically hurts. The tinnitus is uncomfortable and I notice it whenever I go to sleep in a quiet place. My shoulder feels tight and needs to constantly be stretched.

These feelings were always there – it was just the awareness of the pain that brought it to my attention.

I’m grateful for this practice, and the feelings that it has made me aware of, but it’s an important principle to take notice of.

Our pain brings us back to the present moment, it calls our attention to the here and now. When we become aware of this pain it helps us to act – but it’s uncomfortable all the same.

As you dive into a meditation or spiritual path, there will be a lot of uncomfortable realizations. Hard truths. Feelings that confuse you.

…And that’s OK. IT’s good to know that meditation isn’t all chocolate and roses. With the good comes the bad and vice versa…and such is life.

HOWEVER, the other part to keep in mind is – There is no turning back.

Once you have turned these feelings on, you can’t silence them. They don’t go away. They don’t leave you alone.

Once you walk through the door of feelings and awareness, you can’t turn it off. You are going to feel experiences more, for good or for bad.

It’s a realization that I’ve come to terms with and appreciate. It’s a principle that I will apply into my life in many ways.

However, I just wish someone told me this before I got started so that all this shit didn’t catch me so off guard.

So that’s what I’m doing here. Sharing this realization with you so that when you experience some tough shit and you’re asking yourself “why the hell do I feel this so much?!” – this is why. So that it doesn’t catch you off guard and you can welcome the pain of awareness with open arms 🙂

May it help you on your path of cultivating a happy life filled with gratitude for good and bad. May you be happy, loving, caring, and compassionate. Have a wonderful day and week and month and year and life ahead!


Also published on Medium.

One thought on “Awareness is painful

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.