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How to Cope with Physical Discomfort when Practicing Mindfulness

Working with physical discomfort is an important learning process in mindfulness. Usually, human beings try to avoid physical discomfort as far as possible. But discomfort can be a wonderful teacher because mindfulness is about developing acceptance and moving towards difficulties rather than running away and avoiding them.

By noticing how your mind reacts to physical discomfort, you can notice the avoidant tendency of your mind and begin to develop a little more acceptance of the sensation, just as it is.

Your discomfort could be itching, stiffness, throbbing, aching, sharp, dull or some other sensation. The key is to notice both the actual sensation itself and your thoughts and feelings about the sensation as two distinctly different processes. Then, to go back to actually feeling the raw sensation.

You may find that the actual sensation isn’t as bad as you thought — the commentary in your mind can make it worse. Negative thoughts are the real culprits that make the experience one you want to avoid.

You don’t need to tolerate pain — especially not to the extent that it does damage to your body! Pain is a messenger, and sometimes it’s saying that something is wrong and needs fixing. So if you’re experiencing an unusual pain in your body, see your doctor.

The starting point for managing discomfort in your body is to become curious and aware of the sensation itself. Identify any discomfort you have during meditation. Mark the location, size and shape of the discomfort you experienced. Be as accurate as you can.

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Now consider the following questions:

  • What was the point of most discomfort (for example, ten minutes into seated meditation)?

  • What was the shape of the discomfort?

  • What was the texture of it, if any?

  • If it had a color, what was it?

  • What size was the discomfort?

  • When I felt the discomfort with the sensation of my breath inhaling, what happened?

  • When I felt it with the sensation of my breath exhaling, what happened?

By answering these questions, you’re being mindful of the sensation itself instead of getting caught up in your own inner criticisms and judgments, such as blaming yourself for not being better at meditating. You’re discovering a new and mindful way of being with difficulty, which leads, in the long term, to a reduction in your suffering, despite the pain.

Pain and suffering don’t have to go hand in hand. Pain is the sensation itself. Suffering is your reaction to the pain. Suffering is deepened if you believe the negative thoughts about the pain to be true, rather than seeing them simply as thoughts that pop into your mind.

Suffering can deepen through avoidance strategies (such as deciding not to meditate) instead of acknowledging and accepting your present-moment experience. So, mindfulness is about learning to be with pain so the sensation causes minimal suffering.

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