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Mindfulness Meditation: How to Face Pain

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

The most beneficial gift I have ever given myself is learning mindfulness meditation.

I attended a ten-day silent retreat which taught meditation techniques used by the Buddha to gain enlightenment, or, the freedom from the seesaw of pleasure and aversion. It always sounds so easy. Words like enlightenment, ascension, and presence are thrown around so often. But allow my adventures in life and meditation below to illustrate the truth of the difficulty in this process. The intention here is NOT to scare or trigger or dissuade. My intention is to provide clarity on the true reality of this process from one personal experience, which WILL be different than yours, but may resonate. My intention is to provide validation for those of you who are drawn to the path of self-knowledge, but then find the process more difficult than anyone admits. This is my truth about the "path to enlightenment."

We are taught to avoid pain, keep everything pleasurable, and stay in the feel-good, love-and-light place. There is a time for this, like when you need to energetically detox to have a breakthrough. But living in this place compulsively, as I was unconsciously doing, means having aversion to the reality of life. I don't mean wallowing in your pain, or living in a place of “accepting the darkness” or “embracing your shadow” to the point of resonating with it -- which is what happens eventually when people do this to an excessive extent. I’m talking about how to really do what spiritual teachers talk about, which is to end up in a balanced place along this spectrum. We find this balance by facing aversions; by facing and disciplining the mind, and its resonant effects on the body. The point of my story is to illustrate just how unbalanced finding balance can feel.

Let me start with the fact that I was/am incredibly averse to pain and discomfort. My naturally sensitive nature causes me to feel everything acutely. The retreats forced me to endure all the sensations of my body without being able to run away or escape via my usual methods. I was forced to face my mind, and all the ways it would try to distract and wheedle out of being present with aversion. The value this brought to my life has been immeasurable, and it was not something I could have done on my own. I needed the structured environment of the retreat setting for the space necessary to push myself to this result. By the end, I realized the fear of pain was worse than the actual physical sensation, because I was finally no longer running from it. So much of it was truly all in my head.

I noticed echoes of this theme interwoven throughout my life and my issues. I saw my lifelong emotional eating as an extension of this. It was yet another way for me to not sit through the uncomfortable sensations of the day/hour/moment. When I was crowning at the natural birth of my son and I was waiting for one of the last contractions to push him out, I was at my most vulnerable and blurted to my midwife “I’m afraid of the pain!” She looked me square in the eye and replied, “Yes. And you are going to push through it.”

Be still and know. I got to see myself bring new life into the world. I realized that in order to be presentBoth are fleeting, and so much worse if met with resistance, which I was fully in at that moment. So I did what she said. I pushed through the sensations in full awareness, releasing the added tension of fear as best I could, and they transformed. – whether to the birth of my child or a daily life situation – I had to remember that the mental reaction of fear is worse than the physical sensation.

This is an ongoing process. It can be easy to “forget” from moment to moment. The importance is continuing the work of releasing resistance, and pushing through/into the pain rather than around/away from it. This causes our world to open up for us, letting us fully experience life. When we live a life of reaction and aversion, our fear, ego, and pain tends to creep in around us and contract, making our world ever smaller.

Mindfulness taught me how to break out of this by making me sit in it. At the retreat, I struggled through each sitting, each day. I wanted to crawl out of my skin; to escape the part of me I was facing at every sitting. My body ached as I reached deep levels of relaxation and brainwave activity. Sometimes I even saw the air vibrating before my eyes, and I felt altered in a way that allowed more healing to seep into my bones. Those times were euphoric, others were excruciating. There was a sitting in which I endured the feeling of both legs shattering all down the femur. It was such an intense pain that I was almost out of my body from it. My upper back held tension in the tiniest muscles that burned like hot coals for those entire ten days. It would disappear when I got up, but it would come back as soon as I settled back in again. To illustrate how long this process took, it was at my third retreat (almost 30 whole days, not consecutively) that I finally gained enough awareness to feel into those back muscles and release them, finally easing the ache that had been with me constantly. Before this happened, I had imagined elaborate reasons for the burning sensations: demons with hooks in my back, old family resentment that I needed to shed forcibly, pools of lava-like sankaras(traumas) releasing so fast it burned the skin. When I realized I was habitually tensing those tiny muscles around the spine, I was floored by the simplicity of it. I released the muscles and moved on, almost reluctantly. Scanning my body for sensations seemed less exciting without my familiar excruciation. I found I would even attach myself to pain!

I started having serious aversion to the focus that is required for the technique of Vipassana, or body scanning. After a few sittings where I did very little actual meditating and mostly entertained random thoughts, I forced myself into the mental discipline required of slowly scanning every inch of my body. I felt what could only be described as a tantrum-like sensation start to arise, where I wanted to bang and thrash around in my tedious discomfort, and I stopped the scanning. My mind wandered again, and then I forced myself once more into the tedium of disciplined mind. Forcing myself INTO the tantrum-like quality of my body’s very physical aversion to my mind’s focus was a different kind of painful. It felt like my body AND mind started to convulse in electric-like waves that were supremely uncomfortable. I was breaking a sweat, but at this point I forced my mind back into the fray - starting again at the tip of the head and running slowly over each inch of the scalp and face. My body spasmed. It completely rebelled. I felt myself snapping the rubber band of mental programming that was lying layered deep inside my physical body, like a barrier to the mental freedom I was so desiring. This thought made me both angry and more determined to continue. After a full hour of devastating shockwaves running the length of my body, I stood up for our break, damp with sweat and mentally exhausted. The next day, I could barely concentrate. My mind was so exhausted and it was rebelling from the labors of the focused practice the day before. I let myself take a breather day whether I should have or not. The next day, I felt myself more easily concentrating and the shockwaves lessened throughout the day until they were manageable vibrations in a subtle form. I had pushed through a storm and reached a victory within myself, and I was proud! I was also exhausted, and ready to go home, though this was only day 5. The New Age movement would sum this up as a "kundalini awakening."

What I received from that experience was a gigantic release of a mental trap. It was like a steel door had been blasted out of the way, and my subconscious issues rose to the surface obviously and innanely. I dealt with them more easily than before. I could finally observe my thoughts objectively. I was equanimous with things that would have previously pushed me into states of despair. When I visited my parents later, I even faced a shadow man without overwhelming fear. I felt like I was a different person. I had hit a sort of reset button on my mind and I was able to absorb information more clearly. I no longer had automatic, visceral, compulsive reactions to annoying things, like cars that cut me off. Some triggered me more than others, but even my worst triggers became manageable and the subtle ones no longer even there. It was a huge shift.

This was the work, and it was hard, but it was working. It has helped me push through pain and into the reality of walking the talk of the spiritual path I had heard so much about. No more surface phrases and nebulous concepts. I was changing my reactions with this practice, and my life, personality, and patterns were following suit. It's called a rabbit hole because it keeps getting deeper once you start down it, and I found that to be true. It is a work in progress, and I'll keep you posted.

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