It’s human – and certainly understandable – to want to escape from physical and emotional suffering, particularly when it lingers longer than we expect or imagine it should.
Our nervous systems are pretty much hard-wired to help us shut down and turn away from the most painful experiences of life, in order to survive. And many of us have made an art of escapism, but maybe we have taken our ability to choose distraction a bit too far.
Vipassana (insight) meditation, a means of focusing on and allowing our in-the-moment experience, can make a significant difference in our ability to manage physical and/or emotional pain.
Studies have demonstrated that meditation can increase pain tolerance and self-esteem while decreasing anxiety and depression. But that kind of transformation of one’s experience can take patience as well as disciplined effort.
What is meditation?
When first learning to meditate, people often think of it as an activity that is supposed to lead to an immediate and particular experience of peace, or bliss – an escape from everyday problems and concerns, thoughts and feelings. I certainly did.
Despite having really expert and dedicated meditation teachers, when I began my meditation practice I still imagined I was supposed to experience freedom from suffering from the start. At that time I was experiencing chronic physical pain. As a result, I became very focused on physical pain I was experiencing while sitting in meditation, and I created three months of even more intense suffering as I criticized myself, wondered what I was doing wrong, and wasted a great deal of time commiserating with friends about how this experience generally SUCKED.
Then one day during meditation, I found myself really caught in anger and resentment about the peace I wasn’t experiencing. I noticed myself directing my anger and discomfort at a particular person in the room – the person sitting directly in front of me. And somehow my brain noticed how ridiculous it was to be angry toward someone who had nothing to do with my suffering at that moment, and I surrendered to my own experience. Just like that – I took it back, deciding to allow it and pay attention to it, rather than continuing to believe it was somehow wrong.
Meditation and connection
And I felt deep love arise in response to this choice – love for the moment I was in, love for the person in front of me, love for my whole meditation class, and love for myself. Make no mistake – I was still experiencing physical pain, but I had stopped telling myself that I was supposed to be having something else. And I realized that focusing all my attention on trying to distract myself – to have a different experience than the one I was having – just kept me locked in the suffering I was creating about my pain.
In the several years since, I have worked with clients who have used a variety of insight meditation techniques to look more deeply and closely into symptoms of chronic illness, long-term depression and anxiety, addictions, triggers related to post-traumatic stress disorder, and even aspects of intense anger.
Meditation has also been a useful tool to help manage and shift unhealthy conflict patterns for some couples with whom I have worked. When they are able to use meditation alongside other treatment choices, many are able to develop a sense of acceptance – and even mastery – over aspects of their in-the-moment experience which have plagued them for extended periods of time.
One of the most useful teachings about meditation I have received is that, when we meditate, if we find ourselves unable to quiet our minds and achieve that more peaceful state we wish for, acceptance of the experience we are having is the most significant achievement.
If a meditation session is filled with thoughts that do not relate to that moment, or feelings or body sensations that we wish we weren’t having, we can use our experience of breathing to re-ground ourselves in the present. But if we aren’t having a peaceful moment, then whatever experience we are having creates the meditation we are meant to be having at that time.
Not resisting, not distracting ourselves, not fighting with whatever is happening, is the paradoxical key to starting the process of dissolving our pain and suffering.