Practicing with Pain and Pleasure

Practicing with pain and pleasure - algebraic equation
Practicing with Pain and Pleasure

There it was, that familiar twinge. While training for a third marathon, I’d chosen the indoor track over the ice and snow-covered Olentangy Trail. Sixteen miles into the twenty-mile track run, the back spasms began.

Time to work with pain.

When Ed introduced me to meditation, I wasn’t convinced until I experienced how effectively it addressed pain. In my first book, Depression Hates a Moving Target, the wonky ankle stole the show. I didn’t write about back pain, but mild scoliosis does tweak my back from time to time. The difference is that now I know how to work with it.

Back spasms are just that: spasms. Impermanent. Before I learned to meditate, I tensed during a spasm and steeled myself against the pain. If I’m caught off guard, I still do. But on the track that day, having four more miles to go provided ample opportunity to investigate the spasms. I got curious about them, did my best to relax as each one began, and noticed how they passed.

When my mind yelled at me with the story, “You’re ruining your body. You’ll be paralyzed! Why didn’t you choose a smarter sport?” I made that an  object of meditation. All of it coming and going, it was a little theater to watch as I continued to run. Investigating your own back spasms might seem  an odd form of entertainment, but it beats being doubled over.

And pain isn’t the only teacher. We can also meditate on joy.

With pain, the tendency is to internally push it away. With joy, the tendency is to pull. Skillful practice requires us to neither push nor pull, regardless of the experience. As counterintuitive as it sounds, we learn to turn toward pain, release joy, and notice what happens. Then, we recycle any response into the practice.

Pleasure, like any other experience, is made up of thoughts and body sensations. In your movement practice, you have the option to choose pleasant  thoughts, pleasant body sensations, or both to serve as the object of meditation. Relax into them. Notice what happens when you do. The inner grasping for more pleasure actually diminishes pleasure.

Often, when you pay close attention to pleasant experiences and do so with a balanced mind, the pleasure increases. You may have the urge to cling to that increased pleasure. Notice that. Turn your attention to whatever happens.

Shinzen offered this splendid equation about pain and suffering:

Suffering equals pain multiplied by resistance.26

If your pain is a 7 out of 10 and you resist at a level of 6 out of 10, you suffer around a level of 42 out of 100. If instead you open to the pain and infuse  it with equanimity, the suffering drops. You might not be able to lower how you resist to level 1, but even at a level 3, your suffering will only be a 21 instead of a 42.

While I don’t know Shinzen’s exact formula for joy, the same principle works.

Joy experienced in the present moment without craving is bliss. Infusing joy with equanimity by not interfering with the thoughts and body sensations around it makes it last longer and be more fulfilling. Grasping after joy ruins it.

26 Shinzen Young, “Natural Pain Relief.” (December 7, 2016).

I have included more than twenty “Your Turn” exercises in the book Make Every Move a Meditation.

This excerpt is from Make Every Move a Meditation by Nita Sweeney. Buy the paperback, ebook, or audiobook now at Amazon or Mango Publishing Group.