Using discomfort as an opportunity for mindfulness
I’ve been meditating for the last 5 years now, but there’s one thing that I have consistently avoided….correcting my posture.
I can sit up straight for about 20 minutes or so, but after that, I gradually start to relax, and by the time I’m 30-40 minutes in I’m hunched over in bad posture.
I don’t mind it because it’s relaxing. I find that I’m actually most focused when I’m like this. I’m “tapped in”. Not distracted by pain running through my body. I’m able to sit for very long durations of time (1-2 hours in a sitting), and my meditation practice has grown stronger over time.
But at the same time, I think it has it’s limitations as well. Maybe I’m actually holding myself back in the long run by not working on my posture while sitting. Maybe I’m actually avoiding discomfort and developing the ability to hold a good posture is a part of the process.
To set some context on how I arrived at this point, I started my training in meditation via Vipassana as taught by S.N. Goenka – it’s one that emphasizes sitting for an hour at a time in perfect posture and doing your best not to move.
I remember that during my first Vipassana, the hardest part about it was the pain. My legs constantly fell asleep. My knees hurt. My lower back throbbed. My shoulders ached.
The lesson here? Non-reactivity. Learn how to sit with your pain and not react to it. To observe it and not resist.
Valuable lesson. A core principle of the technique of Vipassana. A principle that has overflowed into other areas of my life as well. Developing a healthy indifference, an equanimity, an ability to control your reactions.
I get it. But at the same time, something felt wrong about harming myself during a meditation session. If meditation is causing lingering knee and ankle pain when I’m off the cushion, maybe I shouldn’t be sitting like this, right?
Well in the school of Vipassana, no, even if it’s causing you pain you should sit with it. You can use cushions to support yourself, but overall you should continue sitting through the pain and remaining equanimous.
It’s funny too, because whenever you go to a 10 day Vipassana retreat, you see all sorts of elaborate setups of cushions, all in an attempt to alleviate some of the pain associated with sitting for long durations of time.
Either way, although I understood the principle of the practice, I felt like there were other ways to teach it. I could learn about non-reactivity in other manners. Sitting with discomfort was just one of those ways.
Then one day I was reading “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Tanh, and he talks about how he doesn’t believe that meditation should be painful. That we shouldn’t be inflicting harm on ourselves while meditating. That we should try to meditate in whatever position is most comfortable.
This really resonated with me. FINALLY some confirmation of my hunch (pun intended) that sitting up straight and embracing the pain isn’t 100% necessary.
So with this in mind, I began to cut myself some slack. I began to give myself more freedom with my meditation practice.
Now I meditate with cushions, with back support, in chairs, or sometimes even lying down. It’s enabled me to go much deeper when I sit for extended periods of time.
I completed my last Vipassana entirely in a chair. It didn’t alleviate ALL of the pain, but it did eliminate a lot of it, and because of this I had my best Vipassana to date.
I felt like I wasn’t distracted by pain the whole time, and because of this I was able to do a lot more inner work and had experiences that I never previously had. I was very happy with my results.
Reaffirmed by Thich Nhat Tanh and my deep Vipassana retreat, for the last 2 years or so I’ve given up on sitting up completely straight, and pay more attention to the practice itself.
For the last 4 years I’ve done Vipassana during the Christmas/New Years break. This year however I traveled to Brazil, and I wasn’t able to get into the course.
Hungry for a few days of silent meditation, I decided to do a self-conducted Vipassana in the comfort of my own home for three days.
During that time I was also more lenient with myself than the normal Vipassana. I alternated between sitting and walking meditation. I meditated on the beach. I took time to journal and reflect. I ate nice meals and didn’t adhere to the fasting.
Due to this additional flexibility, I spent less total time in sitting meditation, so when I DID eventually sit down, my body felt ready and prepared for longer sits.
In one of those sessions on the first day, I wanted to practice strong determination, or as they call it in Vipassana “Adhittana”, which is where you sit up straight and don’t move a muscle for the entire duration of the 1 hour sitting.
During this time I decided that I was going to sit up with perfect posture and FEEL the pain, not avoid it, but sit with it. Give myself a nice dose of discomfort.
In the past I’ve written about the use of “anchors” when meditating – these are things that you can focus on so that when your mind inevitably wanders off, you can return back to that anchor and remain in the present moment again. Examples of anchors could be your breathing, sounds around you, feelings in the body, or a specific topic/intention you’re thinking about.
For this session I made pain my anchor. I wanted to use my pain and discomfort as a means of staying in the present moment.
In this session I wanted to examine my pain, dissect it, feel it, and change my relationship to it. Embrace it and befriend it.
So that’s what I did. I sat with the intention of using my pain and discomfort (when it arises around the ±20 min mark).
And when it did, something interesting happened….
My focus was unfuckwithable. My mind failed to wander. My concentration was through the roof.
Normally when I use my breath, my mind is like a game of pong, bouncing all over the place from idea to idea. It’s hard to focus. Especially if I haven’t been meditating consistently, or recently smoked weed or had a night of drinking.
But for some reason, my pain was a stable anchor. One that didn’t lose my attention. It had the right amount of intensity and stimulation to keep me engaged for an extended period of time (something that is normally difficult for me with my ADHD).
It made me realize that pain is an incredibly powerful anchor to the present moment.
It might not be a comfortable present moment, it might not be relaxing, but you’re present nonetheless. You’re in the here and now, engaged what is happening RIGHT NOW.
Your pain feels so real, so intense, that it’s all you can think about. It consumes you.
But this is GOOD if we don’t avoid it. If we feel it. If we examine it.
Pain is merely a physical sensation. What matters is how we respond to it. Suffering is optional.
When we shift and move our position, when we complain about it, when we avoid it, we avoid the reality of the present moment.
Pain brings us back to the parts of ourselves that we have been neglecting or abusing. It tells us to pay more attention or ease up a bit. It acts as a calibration system.
When we have a moment of discomfort, we can use it as an opportunity to put our practice into action. We can sit with it, feel it, and remain anchored to the present moment. We can use it to teach us that life isn’t always comfortable, but that doesn’t mean we have to react to it. We can learn to normalize pain and discomfort and remain equanimous.
Thus, if we can become comfortable with discomfort, if we can make discomfort our new normal, then we can become masters of remaining in the present moment. Discomfort no longer becomes something to run away from, but instead something to run towards.
Try to experiment with this on your own and see how it works for you. Try to observe how you react to pain. Use it as an anchor in your next sitting and take note of what happens.
Here’s an example of how you can do it yourself –
“For example, you are sitting silently in the last part of the meditation, unmoving, and you feel many problems in the body. You feel the leg is going dead, there is some itching in the hand, you feel ants creeping on the body and you have looked many times – there are no ants. What should you do? You feel the leg going dead – be watchful, just pay attention to it. You feel itching – don’t scratch, that will not help. Just pay attention. Don’t even open your eyes….simply see the pain in your head; watch it. Be the watcher.”Osho
We can use pain to our advantage to become more mindful, more present, and less reactive. We can use it to tackle uncomfortable situations head on. To train for the moments that test us.
Now get out there and enjoy your pain with a smile on your face 🙂
Also published on Medium.