The following is a guided meditation audio, in which I lead you through working with pain and discomfort. So often, when we experience pain, it brings with it another layer of fear, worry, and resistance. We often brace against it, trying to push it away. Tara Brach says, “We all have the conditioning to not like pain, to be afraid of it.” Of course, pain can be deeply unpleasant and overwhelming. It is also a signal from the body that something needs attention. Western culture views it as bad or unnatural, but in fact pain has a crucial role in our survival and self-care.
When we can learn to soften into our pain, rather than brace against it, we can start to find our way through it with greater ease. Learning to be with the physical sensations, with a sense of intimate, loving attention, helps us step out of the cycle of reflexive thoughts and emotions. In this way, we begin to connect with our own inner strength and freedom.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional,” says a teaching from the wisdom traditions. The more we resist what’s here, the more we suffer. When we contract away from pain, it exhausts us. We become anxious, more uncomfortable, and disconnected from our bodies. We can lose our self-attunement, our innate sense of what we need for our own health and wellbeing. When we’re in pain, we often shrink into a small sense of self. The suffering absorbs us, takes us down to our survival brain. Fearful thoughts build on each other. “The world can get very small,” Tara says. “Pain can contract our identity.”
On the other hand, she says, “it can be a powerful portal to awakening.” Pain can connect us with the body’s intelligence. And pain can bring out our deepest compassion, for ourselves and others—the tenderness of our hearts. When we learn to relax with what’s happening, to hold our experience in loving awareness, we begin to feel less stuck. We’re able to notice the sensations themselves, feeling the subtle ways they shift and evolve. We develop inner resources that help us weather the storm. Relating to what’s going on with a sense of curiosity, openness, and care, we touch into the possibilities of the present moment: namely, our own innate capacity for healing.
In working with pain, the following intentions can help:
- Bring an attitude of allowing presence. Try to set aside ideas of the body as the enemy, any judgments or self-criticisms. Set aside, for a little while, the desire to fix or change anything. Simply bring a sense of interest and loving care. An attitude of allowing lets us see what’s really here, rather than getting caught in the circling thoughts.
- Distinguish between pain and sensations. The more specifically we can sense into and identify what we’re really feeling—tightness or heat, prickling or throbbing, whatever the experience is—the more we’re able to notice the subtle ways the sensations change. This is the beginning of freedom.
- Learn to stay with what’s here. Bring a sense of curiosity, a willingness to explore rather than turn away. See if it’s tolerable to just be with what’s here. See if you can begin to relax with it. Sense into a quality of attention that’s spacious and soft, large enough to hold whatever sensations arise.
- Cultivate inner resources. As we try to stay connected with our bodies during times of discomfort, it can help to locate some place where the sensations are pleasant or neutral. Maybe the hands, the feet, the ears, the eyes, or the lips. Resting our attention in this place can provide a sense of refuge, a point of self-connection that’s safe. When the painful sensations feel like too much, we can bring our attention back to this place—or to the natural rhythm of the breath, or the sounds around us. These present-moment sense perceptions can anchor us.
Also know that if at any point the inner exploration feels like too much, you can always open your eyes and ground yourself in the space around you. Use the “EGO” tool: Exhale, Ground, Orient. Take a couple of slow breaths, making the exhale a bit longer than the inhale. This helps to calm the nervous system. Feel the support of the chair or cushion, the sensations of your feet grounded on the floor. You might place your hands on something solid, taking in the sensations of support and grounding. Then, very very slowly, let your gaze gently take in the space around you. Notice colors, textures, and shapes. Linger on anything your eyes enjoy seeing. You can use this Exhale-Ground-Orient process at any point in your day, in quiet contemplation or in the midst of daily experience, to help settle your system.
To practice this meditation, please find a comfortable way to arrange your body. Ideally, sit with your spine erect but not rigid, in its natural curves, using any kind of support or cushions you need. If you’re unable to sit, you can stand or lie down. The idea is to find the posture that best connects you with a sense of dignity, relaxed alertness, and kindness towards yourself.