Working with Discomfort and Pain



What most needs attention is the part of us that we seek to avoid feeling. When we have tended to that, we are changed, and the world changes with us.

—Dan Emmons



Often our efforts to avoid suffering serve only to exacerbate it. The very methods we use to label and address our problems become part of what keep them alive. The great power of meditation lies in becoming intimate with our suffering and how we respond to it. This allows us to distinguish between skillful and unskillful means. This process involves discerning what is pain and what is simply discomfort. Distinguishing between the two gives us a platform for developing wise means and taking appropriate action to alleviate suffering.


Differences Between Pain and Discomfort


One way to think about what differentiates pain and discomfort is to think about urgency and intensity.  You would not respond in the same way to a small cut and a gaping wound. A serious wound requires immediate and intensive action to prevent death, while a cut can be dealt with adequately with a bandaid. Unfortunately, not all cases are so clear, and because our subjective assessments are highly conditioned and unconscious, without more exploration we often treat both types of situations in the same ways.


Pain is a clear and sharp signal that something needs rapid attention and response. For example, if you place your hand on a burning surface, pain is a message to move it lest your skin be charred. Yet, there are instances where in spite of clear signals, we find ways of ignoring the pleas of pain.


image_miniDiscomfort in contrast, may feel quite unpleasant, but does not require an immediate response. It may even be a disservice to react right away. Say you feel a cold coming on and your first reaction is to take drugs to mask the symptoms. This might work for a time. It may even allow you to continue life at your ordinary pace. On the other hand, it could lead you to ignore the fact that your body is telling you it needs extra rest. Or perhaps there is a deeper imbalance in areas such as diet, lifestyle habits, and so forth. If you fail to examine these deeper issues and they go unaddressed, as a result you may end up getting more ill..


The capacity to discern between pain and discomfort guides us in determining what type of response is best suitable. While on a meditation retreat a good friend of mine, who is a committed and hard working practitioner, learned this lesson the hard way. He was determined not to move at all during his one hour (and longer) periods of seated meditation. During these retreats, individuals sit for ten and more hours a day. It’s not uncommon to experience tremendous physical, psychic and emotional discomfort and pain. At one of these sits, he found himself experiencing enormous amounts of knee pain, but such was his determination that he choose to not to move and just observe the pain. As it turned out, he severely injured himself and it took him months before he could walk normally again.


How often do we do this in our own lives? We move through life disconnected from our bodies and emotions and end up acting in ways that cause ourselves and others harm. Maybe find ourselves in another unhealthy relationship and can’t understand how we got there. Or we keep reacting angrily or critically towards people we love. Perhaps we keep engaging in addictive behaviors, long after understanding they are doing more harm than the paltry benefits they temporarily bring. We repeat harmful actions again and again and cannot find a way to stop. We can see this on all levels, family, community, and nations. Pain means action is required. Looking into it helps us see what actions are useful.


At my first long retreat, I quickly found myself in constant discomfort. As soon as I sat down my back got sore. At other times I felt an immense weight bearing down upon me. I was constantly drowsy and tired. There were mood swings, muscular spasms, and other strange phenomena. Looking around, I was clearly not the only one having a hard time. Nearby, one man was creatively fashioning the props at our disposal in attempts to find some comfort. During each new meditation period he would have a few more props and his assemblies grew into architectural marvels. Eventually he appeared to hit the jackpot. He had essentially created a reclining chair. Legs up on zafus, back resting on pillows wedged against a wall, and his arms relaxing at this side on more cushions. The bells wrung to signal start meditation. Moments later he was snoring cacophonously.


This humorous story perfectly illustrates how our efforts to avoid any and all discomfort can lead to us sleeping through our lives. Without an ability to tolerate emotional and physical discomfort, we shut down to important aspects of life. What happens we can’t avoid discomfort? Do we lose our patience, become overwhelmed, shut down? If we are always rehearsing running, distracting, shutting down, escaping, and masking the parts of life we dislike, how do we find courage and grace in the face of the difficult? If we don’t learn how to be awake to our pain and suffering we are loosing access to the very information that might free us from unnecessary suffering.


Wisdom and Waking Up

Some advocates of mindfulness seem to foster the notion that it will somehow cure all our ills. In fact, the Buddha’s himself delineated the Eightfold path which is to liberate us from “suffering and the causes of suffering”. But it is important to understand what the Buddha meant by suffering, so as not to have false expectations.  Suffering, in Buddhist psychology, arises from ignorance of the true nature of existence. Because our ordinary perception leads us to view ourselves and others as distinct, separate and semi-impermanent beings various illusion arise, namely attachment and aversion. These illusions are what lead to suffering.  So the Buddha does not claim this path will lead to the absence of pain or loss or unpleasant experiences, but from the limited mind that sees these as the ultimate cause of our suffering. Liberation in this view, arises when we experience joy, equanimity and wakefulness without shutting out unpleasant realities. In other words, we see and hold a deep joy and connectedness that is not solely dependent on external events. This is a deep freedom.


Of course, this does not mean we are to passively and complacently observe pain and discomfort in ourselves or others and take no steps to alleviate it. As the Dalai Lama said in an interview, “When faced with… injustice, it is totally wrong for a… person to remain indifferent… [P]eople must struggle to solve these problems.” With clear awareness of problems we are able to and moved to take wise action to address them. Through cultivating balance and equanimity in the face of suffering, we understand it deeply enough to know what is needed. Without this our actions are less fruitful and more likely to cause harm.


If we see discomfort as a form of communication we can use mindfulness to become better listeners. To accomplish this we must renounce the notion that we should always be comfortable, feel pleasure, and be happy. Darker emotions, unpleasant sensations, and challenging events can be windows into neglected parts of psyches and lives. Attachment to always feeling positive and good leads us to fight or avoid whole aspects of existence.


Making the space for things that are uncomfortable allows us to be present when things are difficult. We do not have to bail on our grief or anger, our sick selves, on each other. This is not macho stoicism or masochistic denial of pain. Quite the contrary, it is taking a kind and loving attitude towards the parts of us that need our attention most. Practicing this way builds courage, tenacity, and inner confidence. Whatever the vicissitudes of life may bring, we find that we can remain present and open.


Improving Our Responses 

The line between pain and discomfort is ever shifting. As our practice deepens and broadens, we may notice what was once unbearable pain becomes a dull ache. Parts of our lives that were acceptable become unbearable and with these realizations comes energy and motivation to change. With a mind that is lucid and equanimous, we are able to discern what whether we need to act or wait, listen or speak, slow down or speed up. Meditation is not a passive activity that makes our stress go away magically. It is a path to liberation that requires our full investment and participation. It generates changes that can not been predicted, and even some that are painful. While this may not sound like high praise, the alternative is sleeping through our life and missing all that is precious in it.


Practical Considerations

What follows are some practical ways to work with pain and discomfort in meditation practice. They are tools to experiment with. It is not necessary or advisably to try them all at once.


  1. Honor your body. We each have different bodies with different needs. The iconic meditation posture may be the lotus seated position, but there is nothing inherently superior about this posture. If your body does better sitting, walking, standing or lying down. Find what brings the best sense of wakefulness.
  2. Don’t assume it will always be the same. People often make the mistake of having one or two negative experiences and assuming every time will be the same. There are so many factors that will alter your experience. Don’t assume anything. Practice not knowing and notice how things change all the time, including you.
  3. Oscillating attention. If you have pain in one part of the body you don’t have to exclusively pay attention to that part. Shift your attention throughout the body. See if there are parts of the body where there is no pain. Often the breath is a helpful neutral space. Or else focus on sounds or sights and move your attention outside the body. Moving your attention back and forth between the painful and neutral object of attention, offers a way to meet the pain without become overwhelmed.
  4. Explore discomfort. Rather than immediately shifting or moving every time you feel the slightest bit uncomfortable, lean in for a while. Whether it’s a few seconds or minutes isn’t important. Notice what sensations are present. Are they static or changing? What is the topography of the uncomfortable area? How deep does it go? Are the sensations tingling, throbbing, poking, stabbing, hot, cold, or other? While I have to use words to explain this, don’t make this an intellectual exercise, but a sensory exploration.
  5. Notice your reactions. Notice your habitual reactions to what arises. Do you grasp at pleasant fantasies? Do you get angry or restless when unpleasant sensations arise? Do you become drowsy and miss things when your experiences are more neutral? Noticing these reactions or mind states is a rich realm of inquiry.
  6. Adjust mindfully. Often when we encounter pain or discomfort we react without thinking or choosing. Practice slowing your reactions down, so that even when you decide to adjust you do it mindfully, slowly, and in an embodied way.
  7. Minimal adjustments. Another great practice is to adjust your posture the minimal amount possible. Instead of making a huge and dramatic movement, try a slight change and then pause for awhile, observing what happens.
  8. Wait awhile. Experiment staying with an unpleasant situation for some time. Notice what happens over time. Does the sensation get stronger or weaker? Does it go away? Does it come and go in waves? Some sensations arise and pass on there own.
  9. Investigate the message. If every time you practice there is a pain or discomfort in an area of your body, maybe there is something deeper at hand. Bring mindfulness into the rest of your life and investigate whether there are things you are doing (or not doing) that may contributing to this pain. Are there things you can do to alleviate your pain? This is a place between obsessing and ignoring.
  10. Cultivate equanimity. Sometimes when pain or discomfort are present there is nothing that can be done to remediate or decrease it. However, we can always practice cultivating equanimity. Equanimity involves detachment from identification with the pain, in the sense that we are responsible for it or that it’s a reflection on our character. Not identifying with pain on a personal level can help us not become overwhelmed by it. Phrases such as, “pain is happening”, or, “suffering is arising,” can serve as reminders that you are not the pain and the pain is not you.
  11. Cultivate compassion. Compassion is not pity. It is not about ruminating on our suffering. It is an kind acknowledgement that suffering is present, when it is present. It is directing love and support towards ourselves as a means of bearing witness without judgment, guilt or resentment. These phrases may be used to encourage this attitude: “Suffering is here. May I bear this suffering gracefully. May I hold this suffering kindly. May I tend to this suffering.”
  12. Get additional support. Meditation is traditionally practiced in the context of community and for a reason. We need support from others. When experiences arise that are beyond your capacity for addressing them alone it is good to get help. Whether it’s a friend, meditation community, therapist or someone else, there is no shame in getting extra support. Mindfulness is not a panacea for all our ills. Challenging emotional and physical experiences may be more than you can handle alone. Community support is essential to meeting and moving through obstacles on the path.

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