When Meditation Feels Too Painful

Q: I just came back from a retreat. I feel like I need to have my entire body massaged. Am I doing something wrong? How good could this be if it’s making me hurt?

Meditation is not a “no pain, no gain” proposition. Being in a lot of pain is not a mark of doing it right. It can take some work, though, to find a position (or a few positions) that don’t lead to intense pain. Some folks sit cross-legged on a single cushion; others sit astride a tower of cushions; others perch on benches; still others prefer chairs. Each person finds the posture and support that best suits their bodily condition. So try out different postures and supports, and by all means don’t assume you’re cursed to experience meditating as akin to being stuck in the middle seat on a budget airline. On the other hand, a hugely important lesson of meditation is that even comfort is, well, bound to eventually become uncomfortable. For this reason, once you find a suitable posture and support, it’s a good idea to avoid making too many adjustments. Constantly tinkering can make you feel as though you’re trying to outrun the reality that the body is naturally going to drift in and out of states: some comfortable, some uncomfortable, and some neither/nor.

Try out different postures and supports, and by all means don’t assume you’re cursed to experience meditating as akin to being stuck in the middle seat on a budget airline.

In one sense, a retreat is a laboratory for creating the conditions most conducive to meditation. It’s also a microcosm of life itself, a chance to observe deeply how things drift in and out of discord, regardless of how much effort we’ve put into creating an ideal environment. In the quietest place on Earth, a feather dropping can ring out like a gunshot. A minor ache, likewise, can scream like a broken limb. Take advantage of the supportive environment of the retreat to begin inoculating yourself against the tendency to react too strongly to these pangs, so you’re prepared to face discomforts of every shape and size back in “the real world.” You’re practicing for life, and all its wanted and unwanted elements. You can become comfortable with discomfort and aware that even when discomfort arises, it doesn’t have to totally define your experience.

People have found that as they relax that inner tension, it often results in less bodily tension.

One way to look at the lingering soreness is that it indicates a retreat well spent—a signal of the valuable work you’ve done in teaching yourself to unpack every sensation, in order to face them without drama or disconsolation.

Even so, maintaining any position for hours and hours a day for several days or more is bound to give any body a run for its money. One way to look at the lingering soreness is that it indicates a retreat well spent—a signal of the valuable work you’ve done in teaching yourself to unpack every sensation, in order to face them without drama or disconsolation. Finally, don’t forget to seek the counsel of wise, experienced teachers and meditators. They’ve been there. They are there.

This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of Mindful magazine.

Train Your Mind to Ease Your Pain

Am I Doing This Right?

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