Using Meditation to Get Acquainted with Pain-Are You Serious?

Steve Goodheart Essay

Everybody has to deal with pain. It’s one of the biggest problems we face as human beings. If we are dealing with chronic or acute disease, pain can literally fill our world. Over time, chronic pain can feeling like we are being ground down by a mountain. And one of the worst aspects of chronic pain is the feeling helplessness and hopeless it can engender.

Meditation can be a huge help and comfort to one dealing with pain. Even if there seems to be nothing we can do to assuage the physical pain, we can help ourselves with the mental suffering our minds create in relationship to pain. And because of the intimate and total interdependence mind and body have, healing mental pain (suffering) can often have a healing effect on the body, even bringing physical healing and pain relief.

In the article I share below, “An Introduction to Pain,” Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains practical and powerful ways to deal with pain by looking deeply into the pain through meditation and mindfulness.  Of course, if we are in terrible pain, we may think, “Who wants to get better acquainted with pain?  I know all I could possibly want to know about pain!”

But in fact, we may actually have almost no real insight into what pain is and how our own minds can magnify pain and makes it much worse by magnifying suffering.

That last assertion may not make sense until we begin to understand and see for ourselves that mental suffering and physical pain are not the same thing. Learning how to mediate—how to work with the breath as an object of concentration and awareness—can be a huge help in bringing our mental suffering—the emotions, feelings, and “stories” we create about pain—under control so that our life is not so dominated by whatever physical pain we have to deal with.

I can attest, as can many others, that what Thanissaro Bhikkhu shares here works. I have used the concentration and meditation skills the Buddha taught in my own life to deal with chronic pain issues relating to old football injuries and their arthritic flare-ups, as well as other chronic and acute physical pains in my life. (Loving-kindness mediation is another powerful antidote to pain and can even bring about physical healing, as I’ve explained in other articles.)

If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and hopeless by pain in your life, I hope you will consider trying what the article below shares.  Of course, just reading about it won’t do a thing. You’ll need to put this into practice! You’ll have to learn how to work with your breath, work with the breath in your body, work with body sensations, and begin to understand how you mind works to increase or decrease suffering. Becoming acquainted with pain in this new, skillful way, we don’t have to have our minds and lives so dominated by it. We can find a freedom that we may never have thought possible.

At the end of the article, I’m also including a 20-minute audio dharma talk by Thanissaro Bhikkhu titled “Insight into Pain,” which you can listen to.  When you don’t feel like reading, or can’t read because of pain, I think you’ll find Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s talk a huge help and comfort, as many have.

You might also want to read post, which share the remarkable story and wisdom of Zen teacher Darlene Cohen:

Alleviating Suffering by Facing Pain

Very Important Note:

If one is dealing with terrible, unremitting pain, the very idea of becoming “intimate” with pain can seem abhorrent, and tremendously uncompassionate.  And then, to start talking about how pain can eventually become a kind of “friend” may seem plain crazy, if not the height of insensitivity.  It might even make you angry, since pain has been an implacable “enemy” for so long.  But before you dismiss this teaching out of hand, I ask you give this practice a chance.

What have you got to lose, but your suffering over pain?  And if you read Darlene Cohen’s moving story, (link above) about her battle with crippling arthritis, you’ll know she isn’t someone theorizing.  She’s proved in her own life how meditation and mindfulness can help us with truly incapacitating pain. She’s put into practice the kind of skills described in this article and has shared what she’s learned from her own mediation practice with hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

Keep in mind, too, that as you work with your mind in meditation and look deeply into your suffering, you may well find all kinds of “stuff,” to use a nice term, coming to the surface.  You may well find yourself seeing and feeling old, old hurts, sorrows, deep wounds, things we can’t forgive, anger, hatred, remorse, despair.  Believe it or not, this is normal!  Don’t give up!  All these hidden and unresolved feelings and emotions feed on physical pain and make it worse.

If you find yourself overwhelmed, and sitting with your pain mindfully feels impossible, please avail yourself of the loving-kindness teachings you can find at this blog, or elsewhere.  Learn how to treat yourself with metta, with loving-kindness meditation. The medicine of the Buddha is designed to heal the heart as well as the mind, freeing us from the deep roots and seeds of suffering.

Steve Goodheart

Dear visitor, may you be free of pain and the causes of pain. May you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. And may this post be a skillful means to that end of suffering!

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

An Introduction to Pain

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

So many people accuse the Buddha of being pessimistic: He starts his teachings with pain. And yet when you first sit and meditate, what do you find after the first five or ten minutes? Pain. You can’t avoid it. Or when people just can’t sit by themselves, can’t spend a whole day by themselves without busying themselves with this, that, or the other thing, what’s the problem? It’s mental pain, mental discomfort. These are things we live with all the time, and yet we think somehow that if people point them out, they’re being pessimistic.

Of course, the Buddha’s purpose in pointing out pain and suffering wasn’t just to stop right there, pointing them out and saying, “Isn’t that horrible.” He says, “Look. There’s a solution.” In fact, his approach to pain is extremely optimistic: Human beings can put an end to suffering, in this lifetime, through their own efforts.

So when we sit here, we have to anticipate that there will be pain in sitting still. The reason we normally move around is because we encounter pain in a particular posture, so we change a little bit to get away from it. The Buddha’s approach isn’t to try to run away from it that way. He says, “Look into it.”

As Ajaan Suwat used to say, “We normally take our cravings as our friends and our pains as our enemies. We should switch that around. Learn to look at pain as your friend, and craving as your enemy.” The craving is what’s really causing all the problems. The pain is just there to teach you something. Of course, it’s a difficult friend. Some people are easy to be friends with; you can get along with them with no problem at all. Others are difficult. Pain is definitely a difficult friend, but one worth cultivating. Still, because it’s difficult, you have to go about it the right way.

This is why, when we start meditating, the Buddha doesn’t have us focus immediately on the pain. He says to focus on the breath instead, because whatever pain is associated with the breath—and it tends to be subtle, but it is there—is something you can manage, something you can deal with. He gives you the breath as your tool for dealing with the pain.

So when you’re aware of pain, don’t yet let your primary focus be on the pain. Keep your focus on the breath. In other words, get used to being acquainted with the breath first, because that’s the person who’ll introduce you to pain properly. It’s like meeting any important person: You first have to get to know certain well-connected friends who can introduce you to that person. And that’s the way it is with pain: You have to know the breath first, for it’s your well-connected friend.

So get in touch with the breath. Find a place in the body that’s relatively at ease, relatively comfortable, and focus there first; get to know that spot first; be very sensitive to the breathing at that spot. When you breathe in there, how does it feel? When you breathe out there, how does it feel? Is there even the slightest discomfort? Can you make it feel better? Can you experiment with different ways of breathing, different ways of conceiving the breath energy in your body? When you find something that feels really good, the whole tone of your body will feel really good.

Instead of sitting here tensely trying to breathe in one spot, think of the whole body relaxing into the breath. The more relaxed you are about the practice, the longer you’ll be able to stay with it. So think of yourself as just relaxing into the body, relaxing into the breath. Find a way of breathing that feels really good—all the way from the beginning to the end as it goes in, and all the way from the beginning to the end as it goes out. Make that your foundation.

Once that feels good, think of spreading that good breath energy to the other parts of the body. Think of it as going right through the pain. Many times a lot of the discomfort we feel around pain comes from tensing up around it, and the tensing up just makes things worse. So try to breathe through any tension you feel. Breathe right through the pain, all the way on out. Suppose there’s a pain in your hip or in your knee: Think of the breath going through the hip, through the knee, all the way out through the toes as you breathe in, and out into the air as you breathe out.

As you approach the pain, try to maintain the same mental tone and feeling tone you had when focusing on the comfortable breath. Your primary frame of reference here should still be the breath. There’s no way you’re not going to notice the pain, but ask yourself, “How does the breath affect the pain? How does the pain affect the breath?” Always keep the breath in mind as your frame of reference. That gives you a handle on the pain. Otherwise if you jump right into the pain, you find yourself picking up the energy from the pain that puts you on edge. The first thing you’ll think will be: “Make the pain go away.” And then there’s even more impatience as you get involved in the past and the future of the pain.

But when you stay with the breath, you want to be as much with the present as possible. Don’t think about how long the pain has been there or how long it’s going to stay. Just, “What’s there right now?” That takes one huge burden off the mind right there. So as you go through the pain, make the thread of your awareness stay with the breath. That’s what you want to keep track of; that’s what you want to hold onto. Learn to relate to the pain through the breath rather than just butting up against the pain head-on.

Now, if you find that the pain just gets worse and worse and worse to the point where you can’t stand it, sit with it another five minutes and then change your position. In other words, push your limits a bit at a time and you’ll find that you get better and better at staying with the pain, more skillful in maintaining your frame of reference with the breath. As long as you really stay with the breath you’ll be okay.

Slipping away from the breath is what creates the problems, because the mind then immediately creates stories about the pain, creates issues around the pain: “Why is this pain happening to me?” Or if it’s a physical pain that you know you caused: “Why did I do that?” All these questions—“How much longer is it going to last? Am I going to have this pain the rest of my life?”— just drop them right now. Stay with the breath. Deal immediately in the present, because the past and the future are not actually there. They are things the mind creates, and once they’re created they turn around and bite the mind. So try to stay with that thread of the breath as it goes through the pain.

Then you’ll begin to see why the Buddha focused on pain as the primary spiritual issue in our practice, for it teaches you so much about the mind. It is like filming a documentary on the animals in the desert: If you go out and spend the day wandering around the desert, you’ll probably miss most of the animals. But if you set up your camera at a safe place near the water hole 24 hours a day, all of the animals in the area are going to have to come there. That’s where you get to film them all. It’s the same with the pain. If you focus steadily on the pain, you’ll see all the mind’s reactions around the pain. All its issues will come to the surface and congregate there.

At the same time, if you use the breath as your tool for dealing with the pain, those issues won’t totally overwhelm you. It’s like having a safe shelter to run to if the lions object to being filmed. You’ve got a safe place in the breath. You’re not totally at the mercy of the pain. You can pull out any time you want, and you’ve got a handle to deal with it. You’ve established a feeling tone around the whole body that holds the pain, not grasping onto it, but surrounding it with an energy, surrounding it with a space where you’re not threatened by it. Then you can deal with it. When you’re not threatened, you can really get into the present moment. If you find that you can’t yet handle it, you’ve got the breath to go back to.

But when things get stable enough in the mind, clear enough in the mind so that you can handle it, then you really can start looking at the pain as your friend. You can get familiar enough with it so that ultimately you can understand it for what it truly is, so that ultimately it’s no longer a problem. Until that point, it’s always going to be a difficult friend, but if you start off on the right foot, using the breath as the basis of your friendship, you’ll find that you’re in a good position to make the friendship work.

Thanisarro Bhikkhu, dharma talk, click to listen to “Insight Into Pain.”

See also:

Alleviating Suffering by Facing the Pain

Bathing in the Breath to Heal Body and Mind

Healing the Body with Mindfulness of Breathing

Audio Dharma-Healing Breath as Medicine

Learn the Alchemy True Human Beings Know!


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

6 Responses to “Using Meditation to Get Acquainted with Pain-Are You Serious?”

  1. What I find most difficult is knowing when to “sit with” the pain, and when to move or get up!
    I am in a Zen tradition where the discipline to not to move at all during a formal meditation period so that the default is to always try to sit through pain no matter how extreme. This is not always a good thing, and folks hurt themselves this way. But even if sitting all alone and pain arises, it seems like a big challenge to know where to draw the line of what to accept and what to change….gee, sorta like life I guess.

    PS thanks for the beautiful blog and photos–always a lift!


  2. One of the biggest barriers I’ve had to dealing with pain is not pain itself. It’s the perception that I’m not in control of the pain. Once I get my head around that, the powerlessnes, I’m free to actually look at the pain itself as Than Geoff advises here. The thing itself is never as bad as it seemed. That’s probably got a lot to do with imperanence. Things, even pain, seem to be permanent. But the reality is everything passes.

    • tokenbearcub – yes! That’s been a bugaboo for me too…the feeling that we have no control is really a tough one. But as you say, once you see that you can’t control the pain, can’t keep it from arising, you are then free to look into the pain itself. And as you also point out, when you do that (and this may take time and the development of concentration and insight) you can begin to see that pain is both impermanent and “not self.” That way lies freedom one can hardly imagine when feeling crushed by chronic or acute pain.

      Thanks for sharing these insights and for your support of the blog,

      With warm metta,



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    […] Using Meditation to Get Acquainted with Pain-Are You Serious? […]

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    […] UPDATE 8/17/10: Using meditation to get acquainted with pain – are you serious? […]

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