On the Benefits of Pain

(MEDITATION Mudra) Dhyana mudra. (Image sourced from Google.)

One of the central tenets of the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism is that everything that happens to us can be used as a means for waking up. Like most profoundly simple insights, this one can take years to sink in. The challenge, as always, is to keep stripping away what gets in the way of receiving the message.


My favorite realization so far since going back to sitting meditation: pain can be helpful.

No really. And I don’t mean this in the sense of “it’s helpful because it builds character” or any of those other things we tell ourselves so that we can grimly endure the unpleasant until it’s far-too-belated end. So what do I mean?

Today’s Insight: If you can sit, and really just sit, in the presence of physical pain without attempting to do anything to alleviate it, deny it, ignore it or suppress it—it vanishes. Anyone who’s tried sitting cross-legged and straight-backed on the floor for at least a quarter of an hour quickly realizes that meditation can be a literally painful business. Modern human beings have anatomically adjusted to lives padded by such things as chairs and couches. The first thing anyone who tries to meditate has to get accustomed to is the unfamiliar and unwanted sensation of pain coming from achy knees, numb legs, tingly feet and sore shoulders. Then there are the dozens of other trivial discomforts: itches, twitches, rumbles, stings, pricks and tremors. These are unpleasantries that, for the most apart, we alleviate reflexively and unconsciously with hundreds of body movements: scratching, swatting, shifting, stretching, rubbing, pressing, kneading and moving.

And here’s the thing: we do exactly the same with our mental and emotional painsreflexively and unconsciously dodging, evading, restraining or ignoring them with an endless supply of old and new distractions (food, music, film, literature, alcohol, work, Facebook…).

But the other thing is: much of that reacting is needless effort. If we can endure the discomfort just long enough, it really does pass. And our patient forbearance will cost us nothing while also saving us (and others around us) from the collateral damage that usually arises when we do things in instinctive response to an unpleasant stimulus.

Why meditating helps in discovering this is because if you can restrain the urge to scratch your neck when it’s been badly bitten by a fat red ant so you can keep your hands in dhyana mudra,* you’ll find that after the first few unbearable moments, the sting actually abates and eventually disappears. From there, it’s not too difficult to extrapolate that the same thing happens with mental and emotional pain.

All of which brings an entirely new level of meaning to that phrase often cited to those on the verge of panic: just sit tight.


* This really happened to me today. I got bitten at least five times. By the same ant. Gaaaaaaaaaaaaah.


4 thoughts on “On the Benefits of Pain

  1. Tristan says:

    Hahaha, I can totally relate with thism coach. This happened long ago, perhaps all the way back in college, but I remember the incident quite well.

    Unable to sleep, I simply got frustrated and tired of trying to hit or drive away vicious and hungry mosquitoes as they fell over me with the fans out during a blackout and with me protected only by a thin blanket which failed to even cover my the whole length of my body. At one point, I decided to just lie on my back and let the little bloodsuckers do their thing as I was also feeling down at that time. The urge to move or do something was driving me crazy but I resolved to make a game of it and to remain still for as long as I could. Soon enough, I stopped feeling the tiny, irritating pricks especially on the unprotected parts of my body(pinpricks which had made me anxious and upset). Instead, the stings began to converge and blend into a warm, throbbing sensation sweeping all over my body. I dwelt in it, empowered by my new found willpower and ability to remain still, happy to have finally found peace. Indeed, soon enough, I was sound asleep.

    Of course, the following morning, the prick marks remained and I was amazed by their numbers. But what was weird was that they didn’t feel itchy at all and didn’t swell as expected. Perhaps, it was because I discovered a new way of responding to such annoyances and didn’t scratch my skin throughout the night. And later that day, most of the marks even disappeared!

    Wouldn’t it be great if I could only apply this ability to the other areas of my life? 🙂

    P.S. I just want you to know I’ve enjoyed reading some of your writings, but this is the first time I was inspired enough to sign up for WordPress just so I could leave a comment.


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