Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

Obstacles to Practice: Discomfort, Pain, and Intensity

Today I continue the series on obstacles to practice with a focus on affective factors that may keep us off the cushion. Denise commented that:

“My story telling mind is always trying to steer me away from the pillow! The thing is, if I don’t meditate first thing in the morning, I won’t do it. I then notice my day feels a little more rushed, and I feel a little more on edge. What I can’t figure out is I see and feel the benefits of my morning meditation practice yet every morning the desire to ‘skip it’ still lingers?”

Why would this be so? Part of the answer may be avoidance. As biological creatures we are motivated to avoid things that are not pleasant. Sometimes–often–depending upon the current context of your life, meditation may not be a fun time. The quiet space of practice makes us vulnerable to intrusive thoughts, images, and feelings.


A difficult situation that we are dealing with has to compete with the activities of daily life for attention, but when we are meditating there is an open space where that situation can take center stage. The unpleasant feelings may intensify. The natural tendency as biological creatures is to dodge that pain.

However, mindfulness meditation is metabolizing. When you can sit with those difficult feelings and pay attention to them as sensations in your body, you are digesting the experience. Each time you touch that energy without the accompanying story, you diminish its hold on you. Confronting painful emotions may seem like a counterintuitive solution, but with persistence you can move through it.

The idea of meditating may not coincide with the actual experience of it. We may idealize the practice, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, moment-to-moment experience we discover that meditation can sometimes be hard work. It’s not some mystical connection to the infinite, but a slugging through petty thoughts, aches and pains, and the intensity mentioned above.


If we can acknowledge that it is normal to want to avoid something that is unpleasant, we can grant ourselves permission to be with whatever arises during practice.

Lest I sound cynical, practice is not always arduous. It can be a mystical connection to the infinite, a spacious bliss can emerge in the quiet of practice. But we can’t control what comes up during a practice session.

I know that practice is going to generate some discomfort in my body. Most of the time, I welcome these sensations as opportunities to explore how I related to discomfort, knowing this exploration will lead to more freedom in the future. These uncomfortable sensations may often become painful and the same opportunity presents itself–explore with acceptance and generate freedom.


So, too, with intensity. I try to see practice as a crucible for burning away the obstacles to emotional freedom. When I find myself trying to aver the cushion, I remind myself that I am bigger than the need to be comfortable all the time. I encourage myself to embrace confidence to deal with whatever arises as it arises. I chide myself gently to move towards rather than away from, what Pema Chodron called, “the places that scare” me.


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