What to Do in Meditation When You Are Flooded with Mental Pain

Steve Goodheart Essay

Each meditation is so different. Today, as I settled into my breath, I was immediately aware of a great deal of mental pain. The pain didn’t seem to be tied to anything in particular, but was more an existential kind of pain—just “being” felt painful.

One I got mentally quiet enough to feel its full intensity, this background pain wanted all of my attention. I knew that if I just ignored it, or tried to push it away, it would only get worse, making concentration and insight impossible.  Also, I’ve come to understand more clearly that ignoring pain is not only unskillful but is itself a sign of emotional damage. So, what to do?

When existential or emotional pain is crying out for attention, I’ve found that it’s both wise and compassionate to just stop trying to “meditate” and to turn one’s whole attention to the pain. In other words, the pain itself becomes the object of meditation.  Sometimes this means just exploring the mental pain—seeing what its nature is and, especially, what it feels like in the body. The goal is to look into the mental pain or stress with a non-judgmental curiosity and openness. You just want to see what’s going on, so to speak, and you want to do it with as much compassion and loving-kindness as you can.  If you’d like to learn more about what involved with this kind of mediative investigation of pain—any kind of pain—this post should be a big help:

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

When Mental Pain is Extreme, Consider Doing Metta

If the pain really roars when you look into it with gentle curiosity and interest, and if you don’t seem to be getting a handle on its causes, then it may be well wise to step back and begin doing metta, loving-kindness, meditation for oneself.  Just stop and give your attention to some specific loving and kind phrase, like this: “May I be free of this pain, and the causes of this pain. May I have peace of mind and know the causes of peace of mind.”

myWPEditImage ImageOr, you may want to address the pain directly, as if dealing with a crying baby—a skillful way of dealing with pain and other emotions that my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, often talks about.  You might work something like this:

“My dear pain, I hear you crying! I do not reject you! I will not lock you away in some room of my mind and let you wail! (I would hear you anyway!) I am here for you, dear pain. I will hold you tenderly in my heart, even though it hurts.  I want to know what you are all about, and set this painful energy free.  For you and I, dear pain, are not different, but the same. The pain is me, and I am the pain. I will not reject myself, but look deeply into myself, with love and compassion, so that I may be free.”

Giving some mental pain all one’s attention, like this, can be very skillful—or very unskillful! It all depends on whether we can hold the pain in thought and in our heart without getting sucked into the pains’ story line or getting so overwhelmed by the emotions and images that may arise as we pay attention that we just re-traumatize ourselves.

Give Yourself Mental Space When You Need It—Take a Break from the Work

If one feels overwhelmed, by the “crying baby,” then it’s usually skillful to just stop, mentally take a step back, and give oneself and the pain some space.  Getting in touch with one’s breath is always a skillful thing to do, and after working with the breath for a while, one may well be able to return addressing the big pain with loving-kindness work.  But if not, it just might be wise to just turn one’s thought entirely away from the pain and go do something else—take a walk, do some housework, listen to some music you love, or mabye talk to a friend.

Is this “abandoning” the baby? Not really. It’s not like you probably won’t notice the mental pain wailing in the background! But the fact is, if you are utterly overwhelmed by some mental pain or emotion, grimly trying to push on will probably only increase your stress and anxiety and just make matters worse!  There are, however, times to really hang in there, and only you will know what’s skillful.  And yes, you will make mistakes as you learn, so don’t judge or condemn! At every step along the way, have the willingness to stop and listen to see what the best course of action, or non-action, might be.

myWPEditImage ImageAfter giving yourself some mental space, you may find that you can return to giving yourself metta—loving and embracing yourself in heartfelt well-wishes and the aspiration that you be free of mental entanglements and emotional knots—the kilesas of Buddhism. If you find you can return to mindfulness of the pain, and begin to investigate again with fearless, non-judgmental curiosity, that’s great. But if not, then my experience has generally been that working with the metta—with the loving-kindness work—is the most skillful thing you can do.  Again, only you can know.  This skillful path of self-examination and boundless love is as much an art of the heart as a kind of science of the mind.

The Power of Working with the “Not Self” Teaching to Deal with Big Mental Pain

My experience is that loving-kindness meditation can heal the mind and heart as effectively as deep meditative insight.  Indeed, I’ve found that cultivating a deep, unconditional, unselfed love for oneself and others always brings liberating insight, unbinding of the mind and heart.  There are times, however, when working with the “not self” teaching of the Buddha seems to be the most effective way to deal with powerful pain and mental trauma.  Again, there’s no general rule about what is “best” to use. What is “best” is what works!  Sometimes that might be loving-kindness meditation.  Another time it might be insight meditation that helps us see how suffering arises, the impermanence of something we think is so real, and how what we identify with as “self” causes suffering.

Meditative insight into “not self”—the “not me,” “not my”, “not mine,” “not I” nature of the mental things that plague us—is powerfully healing.  It develops equanimity.  What we don’t identify with as “my, “me,” or “mine” cannot cause us pain.  This non-identification isn’t dissociation, spiritual by-passing, psychological denial, or numbing ourselves out!  Looking into “not self” actually helps unbinds our hearts from limited views of self and the self-imposed limitations that deny the our essential freedom, clarity, goodness, and luminosity.

As we unbind by letting go of our painful clinging to an fabricated, dependent, illusory “self,” we at the same time gain the wisdom and compassion that come from deeply understanding the true nature of things. Deep understandin often leads to forgiveness of ourselves and of others.   But when there is great pain and trauma, full healing usually takes plumbing the depths of our hurt and seeing through the pain and various self-identifications that bind us to the past and to a suffering, fabricated sense of self.

What About Dealing with “Ordinary” Mental Pain and the Relentless Monkey Mind?

Though I’ve mainly focused in this essay on what to do when one is overwhelmed by big mental pain or some overwhelming emotion, much of the time, the minor discomforts and pains that arise in meditation don’t need a tour de force to be skillfully handled. Thank goodness! Many times one can simply note some lesser pain, some uncomfortable thought  or feeling or memory that would snag us, and then just smile at it and gently return to the “anchor” of our concentration, whether that’s the breath, a koan, a mantra, or some metta phrase.

You’ll have to see for yourself what works best, and each meditation session is different. There are times to diligently resist the tug of some thought or emotion by noting it, letting it go, smiling to the universe, and resolutely returning to the breath or the object of concentration. If we have to do that a thousand times in a sitting, that’s OK! What’s important is the process itself, the development of skills through own through mindful practice and loving-kindness.

myWPEditImage Image

Of course, the infamous “monkey” or “wild ox” mind feels that everything that arises in our thought is important and that everything we can think or feel should be pursued and chased after!  But I can happily report that as I have stuck with meditation practice, and as I’ve gained a better understanding of how my mind works, I’m far less likely to chase after some tempting “banana” of the “monkey mind”  But, it’s still work, I’ll be the first to admit.  Meditation is indeed a discipline.  Biologically speaking, it takes time and repetition for the brain to be create new pathways through the process called neuroplasticity.  Liberation takes “right effort,” one of the skills of the Eightfold Path, and the Buddha spoke highly of  the need to cultivate an ardent desire to be free from the monkey mind’s endless need to feed, its endless entanglements, and ceaseless illusions and delusions.

If we investigate mental pain with the tools of insight and loving-kindness, each time we do meditative work, we will find fresh, new ways to heal ourselves and to gain our freedom.  We will begin to see, not theoretically, but experientially, how the ceaseless chasing after thoughts and feelings creates a “self” from moment to moment.  The stopping and staying with the breath, or object of concentration, are how we begin to break down the wheel of fabricated becoming and its attendant suffering.

With each day’s practice of mindfulness, whether on or off “the cushion,” we will learn how to live life more freely and more skillfully.  We break down our habitual clinging to self-views and tired old story lines about ourselves.  It’s all a matter of learning how to pay attention, even when our “monkey mind” wants to swing from thought to thought and chase after some tempting “banana!”

Everything is Practice, Everything Can Teach Us, Healing is Possible

Meditation is truly an adventure!  As I said in the beginning, one never knows what will show up when one sits down to meditate. A big part of the practice is learning how to deal skillfully with what arises.  If meditation ever seems boring, it’s probably a sign one is not really paying attention!  Even boredom and dullness are something to look into, because they reveal something about the state of our minds.  In meditation everything—everything—is grist for the mill of mindfulness.  Indeed, everything we experience in life has something to teach us—when we give life our our full attention and open-minded curiosity—Zen’s wonderful “what is this?”

I hope what I’ve shared here from my own practice about dealing with pain and trauma has been helpful to you. Learning how to embrace our pain and our traumas with great compassion and loving-kindness does take practice and patience. But my friend, I can testify from my own struggles and efforts that this skill is something one can learn how to do it!  No matter how big our mental pains or how long we’ve had our traumas, we can always apply the medicine of the Buddha—mindfulness, attention, insight, wisdom, and loving-kindness—with great healing effect.


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

2 Responses to “What to Do in Meditation When You Are Flooded with Mental Pain”

  1. Thank you. This helps, and my personal experience prior to reading this was to give in and listen. While at the cusp of meditation I first experienced a difference between two types of monkey-mind, one which seems to jump on the quiet being, and another in which the quiet being chases after thoughts.

    Should the author or anyone on this page have suggestions for a type of emotional discomfort which arises during active forms, during what is often called moving meditation, if you have weathered such a thing as a great sadness experienced while doing tai chi, please do comment, preferably here.

    Good will towards all

  2. I love this simple guidance. It’s great to hear it…..

    I’ve found this kind of practice woefully lacking in Tibetan Buddhist groups, I’m sure it must have been there at some point but now so many practitioners that I know will dive straight into prayers, Lojong, complex ritual, or endless group meditation rather than simply getting to a point of mental composure with pain. I’ve witnessed that with that approach Tibetan Buddhism quickly becomes a vehicle for avoidance of the truth of the situation and the practice of repression grows and ultimately groups corrupt themselves. The practice that you’ve described is essential as part of any meditation process/path. Without it being practiced to some degree the main practice naturally distorts into a suppression technique over time.

    This guidance is the cornerstone at every stage of the path and deserves it’s slot. I’ve seen many very senior monks and practitioners “pop” after 10 to 20 years of “practice” when they can’t take their repression practice anymore. It’s awful to see and causes a great deal of pain to themselves and others. I left my Tibetan tradition because of this so it’s very encouraging and inspiring to see your guidance here.

    I’m not dissing Tibetan Buddhist practice, they are great tools. By the way if you’re wound up with my comments then please ask yourself if you do this practice whole-heartedly, if you’re projecting your pain outwards then here’s your chance to practice the advice in this post rather than moving into arguement with me.

    Running before walking is a natural human urge, this guidance is the walking, overlook it at your peril. If it sounds daunting practice do it with someone else or in a group for a while. If you find someone practising this sincerely and skillfully over a long period of time then you’ve been very fortunate.

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