Dealing with Pain during Meditation

In just two minutes, Ajahn Brahm tells us with clarity and compassion how to deal with pain during meditation:

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As he says, when the pain builds and builds, “It’s common sense: move.” Otherwise you end up like the guy with the double knee-replacement.

I’ll note that there is plenty of wisdom in sitting through discomfort, through itches, and through distractions of various types. Otherwise few of us would manage to sit still at all. But learning to see what is discomfort and what is pain that can lead to long-term damage is a process nearly all meditators must go through.

And remember, everyone is different. Some people are genetically more flexible than others. Some people have practiced yoga for years and can painlessly plop into full lotus. Others (like me) tend to run, which can have much the opposite effect on flexibility.

Along with everyone being different, everyone is going to give you advice based on their own limited experience. I encourage everyone to run because it makes me feel great. Because I run I tend to talk about running and know more runners and hear more stories about how great running is, so a little positive feedback loop forms. I’ve met people who were obese before they started running but then lost weight; I’ve met people who were injured from one thing or another recover through running. People who meditate or do yoga or anything else that is good will often have their own positive feedback loops. That doesn’t make them (or me) wrong, it just means we have a well-developed particular perspective, and there are other ways out there of looking at things.

So talk to different people. Try different things. Find out what works for you. That goes as much for meditation as it does for life.

For more, see this lovely short piece by Dan Cayer at the ID Project Blog.

  • Douglass Smith

    Thanks for that, Justin. Exercise is great — I don’t run, but do plenty of it otherwise. But I also often suffer from pretty intense pain during long meditation sits. Shifting position is great for awhile, but by the end of a day, it seems like every position has its drawbacks.

    The only thing I found working for me (though I’ve only tried it once) is doing continuous mettā meditation. FWIW I wrote about my experience here:

    • justinwhitaker

      Continuous metta is a great suggestion. Thanks for the link to your post, too!

    • Jeanne Desy

      Just want to say, no one should suffer like that. Once during a retreat I was experiencing terrific back pain, and at last I asked the teacher, Daniel Terragno, whether I could lie down to meditate. He told me, “Do what you have to do for your body, but keep meditating.” So I did. It is, of course, hard to meditate lying down. Takes practice.

      • Douglass Smith

        Thanks for the suggestion, Jeanne. There are others in the sangha who meditate lying down and it’s something I would consider if the pain were to become too much of a nuisance.

  • Joseph Koudelka

    Take it from me – thirteen knee surgeries in 8 years. I practiced at a zen center where sitting through pain was encouraged, and due to my own samskaras, I embraced it. Today I sit comfortably in a chair, can’t even mange quarter lotus. My favorite chair, a lazy boy.

    • justinwhitaker

      13 knee surgeries!? That sounds horrific and perhaps even *abusive* if your teacher(s) knew of this and still encouraged you to sit though the pain.

      • Joseph Koudelka

        After I began having surgeries my teacher did not encourage me to sit through pain. In fact, I was encouraged to use a chair, which I would do, until I could get back down on a zafu. Due to my own samskaras, my ego thrived in a macho Rinzai environement. After a few years, I found I could consistently reach deep samadhi and sit for hours, pain or not. This was a mistake on my part.

        • Jeanne Desy

          Boy, it can take a lot to get through these egos. I bow to you.

          • Joseph Koudelka

            It would appear so, lol! But that was a long time ago, only a dream now. Today life is a celebration; meditation, a sublime state of great ease. I am so happy that I stuck with it.

  • mufi

    I know from experience that my lower right leg (it always starts on the right) will usually begin to fall asleep after roughly 15-20 minutes, if I sit cross-legged. It’s not exactly painful, but I find it unpleasant and distracting, nonetheless.

    Of course, I don’t have to sit to cross-legged, but for whatever reason I prefer to do so – at least for that first 15 minutes, after which I simply move to a chair position.

    That said, thanks for this affirmation!

    • justinwhitaker

      Mufi, that sounds exactly like me! I can almost tell to the minute how long I have been meditating by when my right leg starts to hurt/fall asleep. Sometimes I just wait 5 or so minutes for it to go numb (probably horrible in the long run) and then I’m okay until I have to move and deal with it ‘waking up’ again… Smarter to move to the chair :)

  • gimpi1

    I have rheumatoid arthritis. I make it a point to move every half-hour or so when awake. Just a quick stretch or walk a couple of times an hour makes it so much easier to move throughout the day. If I stay in one position for more than an hour or so, getting up is really painful. It also risks long-term joint damage. Does Buddhist meditation allow for this?

    • justinwhitaker

      My answer would be a strong “yes” – but it may vary from tradition to tradition and teacher to teacher (although I doubt you will find many teachers who hear this and still say “no, you have to sit perfectly still”).

    • Jeanne Desy

      I think it would be a rare teacher who would not help you accommodate to this, but ask the teacher, not another student. In my tradition (Soto Zen), we usually sit 25 minutes, walk 10. I also have a pain disorder. At one retreat, I was so racked with pain that my teacher told me, “Do whatever you have to do for your body, but keep meditating.” I did some of that retreat on my back on the floor. This is not ideal – we just naturally drift and dream more lying down – but I’ve had to learn to do it, sometimes on my bed on a heating pad. The biggest point to staying aware meditating in a recliner or whatever you have to do is to keep the eyes open in a soft gaze. Best of luck to you.

      • gimpi1

        I don’t actually have a teacher. I meditate, but I’m mostly self-taught, and use the techniques I know mostly to regulate my otherwise bad temper and as a way of dealing with discomfort. I also find lying down, generally with my knees elevated in a sort of “faux” sitting position is less painful, but still, a half-hour or so is my limit. The 25/10 split sound ideal.

        I have thought about looking into more formal meditation-training but frankly, I’ve been a bit self-conscious about perhaps not being able to do what others can regarding sitting. I still remember taking a water-exercise class specifically for people with arthritis, not being able to do some of the exercises, and being called out in front of the class by the instructor as “lazy.” You would have thought an exercise-instructor teaching a class for disabled people would be a bit more sensitive. Needless to say, I never went back. I didn’t want to get into that kind of situation with meditation-training.

        • Jeanne Desy

          I know what you mean. I had a yoga teacher make a sarcastic remark to me in a restorative yoga class, like “as we’ve already discussed . . . ” Well, stupid me for asking.

          But several teachers later I found a good teacher. As the old Latin guys said, Illegitimi non carborundum.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I think you have just spoken the most profound words about any belief and practice system ever, “I encourage everyone to run because it makes me feel great.” Would that this was understood by all those running around proselytizing instead of simply sharing their own lives of joy.

  • Moonleap Meditation

    Try the Moonleap Meditation Cushion. Helps alleviate back pain and hip, leg and foot numbness and pain. Lets the meditator sit in comfort for longer periods .

  • Meditation Up North

    It is important that when you meditate you should find the best position that is comfortable to you. It could be while sitting or lying down; it doesn’t matter as long as your comfortable to stay at that position. If you think sitting gives you cramps then try lying down.