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Meditation series: Working with pain
May 2nd, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Meditation series: Working with pain

Following the previous "Suggested 'new year resolution': learn to properly meditate!" ( and "Experiencing a 'HARD time' during meditation?" (, here is a take on dealing with pain arising (in the knees, or the back, or the neck…) during meditation.

The general advice is simple, but often misunderstood: it is to
"bear beyond strength"!

Objectively, people have been meditating in monasteries, forests, dwellings, etc. for millennia, probably they experienced pain too as they trained their bodies and, no, they didn't die…

Is it necessary to follow a path of pain?

A path of pain, in and of itself, has no particular value or interest. So why "bear beyond strength"? Because this advice is not about pain!  It is about your thoughts, your mental fabrications, about pain. It is about aversion, and the endless but ignorant quest for the cessation of suffering!

Enquiring into the thoughts about pain

A thought that easily arises in many circumstances —and most notably if nothing distracts you from uncertainty— is: "I can't bear this any longer" (one day longer, one session longer, one minute longer, a moment longer…). But the reality is that, more often than not, this is not strictly true! Far from it, in fact! So why do you think this?

Safety cushion
The thought "I can't bear this any longer" embeds a "safety cushion", i.e. the thought kicks in long before it being necessary, which effectively reduces any risk of serious injury. While this offers some benefit at the survival level, it is also an exaggeration, a distortion of "reality as it is".

To realise this and internalise the lesson allows you to not automatically believe your thoughts. You can see the usefulness of (conventionally valid) thoughts, while also seeing that they're essentially lies. You can learn that thoughts can perform a function, but also that you do not have to believe them, i.e. you can use them while reclaiming some freedom from their grasp. But obviously to do so, you need to confront the lie, you need to call the bluff of your own thoughts, you need to go through the pain to realise fully that "I actually could bear what my brain called 'unbearable'."

Narrative protecting a lie
The thought "I can't bear this any longer" also is a narrative you make up simply to stop doing what you don't want to do, and switch to something else (anything else). It is an excuse, not a reality.

In meditation, with the right techniques, you will at some point face the dissolution of certainties… and face the anxiety that "not knowing" generates. We can actually learn to rest in this uncertainty, at peace. We can accept that, although we have some control of our lives, it is an 'adaptative' control (a form of constant adjustment to changing conditions, thanks to attentive monitoring of contextual changes and appropriateness of possible context-based responses), not some 'rigid' deterministic control (where we can at some point think "that's it, it should work now, I can let it run its course without monitoring anymore").

But to learn to rest in peace in the midst of uncertainty(-yet-not-chaos), we need to train ourselves that it's okay to be in this world, no matter how much aware we can become of our not-knowing. Meditation can be used to develop the awareness, but the only way to develop intimacy with it is to… sit with it, not run away!
Initially, our mind rebels against this awareness though, it busies itself with thoughts, it tries to "catch the ropes" (i.e. certainties), and one way to avoid the awareness is to make oneself believe "I cannot stand this one moment longer!" Except you perfectly can stand this awareness (it's one of the greatest gifts of a higher consciousness!): life is uncertain but you're here, you didn't die, so uncertainty in itself doesn't kill… You simply don't want to develop intimacy with it, you simply want to cling to what you think is more comfortable.
What's funny though is that a life filled with certainties is not comfortable; the promise of comfort from 'security' is a lie, and you know this… precisely because you're here meditating: you know that 'certainties' are regularly challenged, that belief systems fail, that a life of certainties and clinging so far has proven dissatisfactory… So you already know that the promises of saṃsāra are lies. Comfortable lies, that you know well and that you probably think you can navigate (although your track record says otherwise, but "this time it'll be different, right?") but lies all the same.
Happiness exists in saṃsāra but it has always proven short-lived: impermanence comes in (in the form of changing conditions and circumstances… sometimes in the mind itself, e.g. with boredom). Nothing can intrinsically keep you happy forever: happiness in saṃsāra is context-dependent and the context proves to be ever-changing…

The only way to develop ease and intimacy with uncertainty is to… sit with it. Your mind will try all the tricks in the books to divert you from this, and has successfully convinced you in the past that "this is good enough for now, let's rest" or "this is good enough for now, let's switch to something more 'applied' for a while" but you need to just sit with it. "I cannot take this anymore" is just another attempt to get you to do anything other than becoming intimate with impermanence, uncertainty, selflessness, emptiness…
The last thing a mind locked in saṃsāra wants is for saṃsāra to be exposed for what it is!

Arising, enduring, ceasing
The last reason to "bear beyond strength" is to actually use pain itself as an observable phenomena! Pay attention to how it arises, endures, ceases… and pay attention to the associated thoughts. Again, this is a training into not automatically believing your thoughts, a training into reclaiming some freedom from them.

For example, our brain encodes information much better about duration of pain than it does about intensity of pain.
From one session of seated meditation to the next, you might notice that, in every session, there is a moment when the perception of pain arises, and later another moment when the thought of "this is unbearable" arises. If you pay attention to your thoughts, you can observe some anticipation of these… you can also observe how the pain never seems to diminish, as if your body never adapted to the meditation schedule, never 'trained', as if no 'conditioning' was occurring. Since your brain doesn't encode intentity of pain well, maybe it doesn't capture progress?
How do you get these feelings of lack of physical conditioning? Because in every session, there is a moment when the perception of pain arises, and later another moment when the thought of "this is unbearable" arises. Only with paying really close attention would you notice e.g. that it takes longer and longer before the thoughts of pain and of intolerability arise… Because your brain doesn't encode time perfectly, and most importantly because you pay attention to pain and not to time, "later and later arising" is merely thought as "just arising" and you prevented yourself from correctly 'conceptualising' the improving condition of your body! Your thoughts distort your bodily reality, even as you monitor it, session after session, and even as it is your own body!

Basically, there are lessons in observing the arising, enduring and ceasing of pain… and pain from your body helps you stay with the observation (rather than switch off and think of something else, if things don't change fast enough to easily captivate your attention).

Bear beyond strength: is there no limit?

So we've seen that what we imagine to be our strength is a conservative estimate (which participates to protect us but also limits us needlessly). We've seen how the debate in our head may be more about escaping the anxiety, the discomfort of the unknown, than about stopping the physical discomfort. We've seen how pain itself can be a good phenomena to observe the nature of thoughts (projecting past experiences into the future, anticipating… but also good at noticing some facts but not others, even when we couldn't be closer to what's observed).

But is there no limit? Should we meditate even if the pain is excruciating?

Enquiring into pain during meditation is not possible if pain takes the form of agony. You need the head-space where observation is possible: if you cannot take the smallest step back from your pain, then there is no point with this.
In such a case, you need to adjust your posture, maybe sitting on a chair or even lying down, so to make meditation physically bearable… But this usually will be manifest as soon as you start meditating.
You need to be careful, of course, that the moment you know 'agony' is an acceptable "way out", your brain will label a perfectly-bearable pain, an 'agony'! Only you can know if it is possible to take a step-back from the pain or if it engulfs your consciousness entirely…

Mindfulness has been recognised and used by Western medicine to help patients cope with pain (physical and / or psychological). One of the reasons is that meditators learn not to automatically 'believe' what their brains tell them; they learn to enquire and reclaim freedom, thus to use pain as a useful survival-linked 'signal' (worth listening to, but without letting it choose their life for them)… But to learn how to do so, you need to learn about pain, and to fully learn about pain in your context and your conditions and your circumstances, no theory can provide the most intimate answers: general knowledge can help you, but direct experience is necessary to know fully 'your' pain in its (temporary) uniqueness.

So, the point of meditation is not to suffer, as if to 'pay' for accumulated bad karma or past sins… The point is to reclaim freedom, by developing the skills necessary to "let go"… But to acquire these skills, there is no need to seek pain (life is suffering, it will come to you, no need to look for it!) but you should refrain from actively avoiding pain.
If nibbāna is the cessation of lust, hatred, and ignorance, then to embody this includes no lust for pain, no aversion from pain, and accepting to "sit with it" in order to fully pay attention to it and learn about it. The way you face pain during meditation is itself a development of your buddha-nature.

When I really struggle with this, this is the thought I use to stick with it:
"life is suffering… If I give in to the 'this is intolerable' chatter, as soon as I'll get up, I'll simply rush into another form of suffering (e.g. feeling crap by identifying as a bad, lousy meditator), so why have aversion for this pain and not for the other? Why not simply sit with the one at hand, and trust that I can develop —here and now— the skills that provably help to cope with all pains?"
Maybe this thought can help you too sit for a bit longer ;-) There's no need to endure a longer meditation session than you had initially set to do… but there's no need to cut it short. The meditative session itself is so impermanent that the experience at the end of it has nothing to do with the experience at the beginning of it, and you even know in advance by when it will have ceased! Just sit it!

#Buddhism   #Dharma   #meditation  
(photo © Malcolm Browne, 1963, for Associated Press. Remastered as per
Obviousvly, to "bear beyond strength" is applicable in many contexts, as in "reject beyond strength the justification of violence"… but also as in "bear beyond strength, no matter what you suffer, do not end your life (as progress can only be experienced if you're alive)". Life is suffering, so bear with it! Of course, there is no easy answer!)