There are certain difficulties associated with the discipline of meditation that are qualitatively no different than similar issues that arise when we’re not meditating, but the specific aspects of meditation practice make them seem more prominent and more urgent.
Pain may be the most common of these problems. Almost everyone has to adjust somehow to the physical discomfort that comes with meditation: Backs begin to ache, knees start to hurt, or legs go to sleep. Some of these discomforts will subside after continued practice, but some discomforts never go away.
When you begin to experience pain, do what you can to eliminate it. If your clothes are too restrictive, change them. If you find sitting on a cushion too painful, try a chair. There is enough pain in life without adding more of it to mindfulness practice.
There are certain discomforts that cannot be removed by changing our circumstances. However, meditation practice shows us that many of those discomforts can be lessened by mindfulness.
1. Dealing with Pain:
If physical discomfort appears as you meditate, allow the pain to become the object of your attention. Simply let the sensation itself provide the anchor for your awareness and become mindful of the pain as you would be of your breath. Watch the pain as you would watch your own inhalation and exhalation.
Try to relax any tension or contraction of muscles surrounding the painful sensation. Observe the sensation with curiosity. Try to narrow your focus on the pain. Watch the pain change and move. If your focus is sharp enough, you can perceive the impermanent nature of pain. If you cannot stay focused on the sensation itself, direct your attention to how you’re reacting to it.
As you study your pain, you may find your resistance to it diminishing. It may continue to hurt, but you may suffer less because you are no longer struggling against it. With enough practice, you may find yourself simply watching pain as nothing more than a sensation, like any other.
- In the early stages of practice, it is unrealistic to expect that this technique of observation will substantially lessen the suffering associated with severe pain, such as migraines. However, even that kind of pain can be ameliorated with mindfulness over time.
- As you continue working with little sensations, you will eventually become skilled enough to use these methods with more intense expressions of pain. People who endure chronic pain, in particular, have found the mindfulness approach to be helpful in ameliorating the sorts of pain that medicines are unable to treat.
2. Dealing with Strange Sensations:
As you meditate, you may feel a wide variety of strange things. These weird sensations probably occur all the time, but it’s often only in meditation that we become sharply conscious of them. These sensations may be unpleasant, but they can just as well be pleasant or neutral. Such feelings are totally normal for meditation.
Some of the commonly reported odd sensations include tingling in the arms, hands, legs, and feet; feeling the entire body becoming lighter, even to the extent of floating; and feeling the body—or parts of it, such as the hands—becoming larger.
Unusual feelings can also involve vision and sound. If you meditate with your eyes closed, you may become distracted by the displays of lights on the insides of your eyelids. If you keep your eyes open, you might see odd patterns on the floor. If it is extremely quiet, you may find the silence deafening.
If one of these strange sensations arises as you meditate, you should treat it like anything else: You should observe it and watch your reaction to it. If it is unpleasant, view it without aversion; if it is a pleasant sensation, view it without desire or attachment.
3. Dealing with Concentration:
Difficulty concentrating is hardly a problem unique to meditation, but it can be particularly annoying in this practice because so much in meditation concerns this skill.
Focusing attention on the breath and returning to it when the mind wanders is the fundamental exercise for developing concentration and refining mindfulness. Over time, diligence with this practice can dramatically improve our ability to attain one-pointedness.
If you’re finding it hard to stay focused, first consider whether this difficulty might derive from experiences apart from meditation. For example, drowsiness is a potential threat to concentration that can often be dealt with before meditation begins by getting more sleep or eating less.
While we can eliminate certain external circumstances that disrupt concentration, it is not always possible to do so. If it were, perhaps we wouldn’t need to meditate at all.
Just the ups and downs of a typical day can take their toll on the mind’s capacity to remain attentive. If you cannot settle those disrupting influences before sit down to meditate, sit down anyway.
There are several exercises you may use to regain and strengthen your concentration. First, simply try to take deeper breaths, inhaling and exhaling more forcibly than usual. This will heighten the sensation of breathing, giving your attention a more prominent object of focus. You can continue this exercise until you are able to stay more attentive to the breath.
Another concentrative practice involves counting. There are a number of variations of this technique. When your attention is able to remain with the breath for longer periods, you can drop the counting. Counting itself can become a distraction, so use it only as a prop and then let it go.
4. Dealing with Discouragement:
Discouragement often comes when we meet with little success in coping with physical discomfort, weird sensations, and the inability to concentrate. Discouragement leads us to want to quit the practice altogether.
There are some good ways to face discouragement in meditation—and they happen to be good ways to deal with it in the rest of our lives. The first way is to remind ourselves that the only way to fail at meditation is not to do it. The struggles we face and the “failures” we have are part of the process.
The second thing you can do is to examine your experience of being disheartened. Look at it dispassionately. See where it comes from. Watch it come and go. Discouragement is just an emotion like any other. It will pass away.
Sometimes the greatest problem we face in meditation is just sitting down. Regardless of how you feel about meditation at a particular moment, you should just do it anyway—no argument, no excuses. If that strategy fails, try to remind yourself of the many benefits to be gained by developing your mindfulness.
Source: Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation by