Why Mindfulness Can Make Life More Painful

Let’s face it, most of us start meditating out of quiet desperation! Ok, I’ll speak for myself: That’s how I got into it. I struggled with anxiety and depression and I was hoping to avoid medication. So, a therapist recommended a couple of simple practices. I set a goal for myself of three months, 1/2 hour a day, to give the practice a chance to have an effect. Two years later I was still practicing every day, and that’s when I took things to the next level with intensive retreats.

I expected meditation to offer pain relief, but that’s not exactly what I got. What I got was something I didn’t even know I needed, something I couldn’t have fathomed. I got insight. But insight is a funny paradox. I actually feel more pain than I used to, although I suffer less. How is that possible?

Well, it depends on how you define suffering. Although mindfulness is a secular practice, it has its origins in the Buddhist practice of Vipassana. In Buddhism, suffering is commonly attributed to three causes: ignorance, craving and aversion. We typically link pain to suffering, but through the practice of mindfulness you discover the true source of suffering is actually your relationship to pain and to pleasure.

The truly liberating news is that we have the ability to change that relationship and free ourselves from suffering! I’ve been at this for a while now, and in my experience, it’s slow going. But I have no regrets. The process has radically changed my inner experience, for the better.

So how has my relationship to pain changed over years of practice? In a few major ways:

1. I discovered how much pain I was truly in.

They say ignorance is bliss, but in my experience, ignorance dulls vitality. While ignorance may help you remain pleasantly clueless, or manageably numb, the tradeoff is that it prevents you from experiencing the fullness of life, the richness of life. Mindfulness is the process of illuminating life’s completeness, and in order to experience all of life’s riches, you have to be willing to know pain.

So, after years of practice, I experience pain more intensely and poignantly. The same is true of pleasure. I’m less dull than I used to be. As a consequence, I’ve become more aware of pain that would formerly drag me down in ways unknown to me. Mindfulness is a choice to be more fully alive, and also a reconciling with the truth of our struggles and our passing away.

2. My actions are less driven and distorted by pain.

The good news about being more aware of pain is that you’re less likely to unconsciously take it out on other people, or yourself. With awareness comes choice. As long as you remain unaware of the pain you’re in, you're also being driven by pain in ways unknown to you. Sadly, this results in greater suffering. My ability to be more aware of pain has reduced my suffering by improving my relationship with others and with myself.

3. I get less stuck in pain.

The more willing you are to experience pain, the less it sticks around. Resistance to pain is what makes it sticky. I’ve found that while I now experience pain more intensely when it comes up, it doesn’t linger or trouble me as much as it used to. I’m more of an open channel, so I bounce back from pain more quickly, and the residual effects fade more easily.

4. I have less preference for pleasure over pain.

The more clearly you see how your aversion to pain perpetuates suffering, the more willing you are to experience it. If pain happens and you fight it, you just make matters worse. Or, if something painful is happening in your life, but you’re avoiding it, you render yourself unable to take effective action.

When I first started this path, all I wanted was relief. But mindfulness isn't simply palliative; it’s curative. Mindfulness reaches down to the very roots of suffering while keeping your feet firmly planted in the groundless.

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