An excerpt from Ajahn Amaro’s ‘Finding the missing peace’ - a primer of Buddhist meditation.
Q: Could you talk about the body and movement – particularly the question of when to move to relieve discomfort in sitting meditation?
A: Movement is a major part of meditation practice. When I first walked
into a monastery in Thailand, I had never meditated before. We would sit on
a thin grass mat on a concrete floor. Each sitting was an hour long, and you
weren’t supposed to move. So, my immediate introduction to meditation
after the first 15 minutes was pain.
But it’s important to realize that Buddhist meditation isn’t a masochistic
enterprise, even though it sometimes ends up that way. We don’t seek physical pain – it’s a side effect rather than the purpose. We would all be quite
happy without it. But there are a couple of issues we need to deal with in
terms of physical pain.
First, how we learn to deal with physical pain in a skilful way translates
directly into how we deal with emotional pain. Physical pain is a very simple
monosyllabic language: “Ouch.” “This hurts.” “Don’t want.” “Get away.”
“Stop.” “Ah, that’s better.” On the other hand, our reaction to emotional
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pain is convoluted and distracting. So it’s very useful to learn how to work
with physical discomfort with a balance of movement and stillness. Approaching pain with attitudes like, “I vowed I’m not going to move,” “Everyone’s watching,” “It’s wrong to move – I should force my way through
it,” is a direct route to the osteopath, if not the emergency room. You can’t
just force yourself with will power – the body won’t comply. You can override pain for a while, but you feel pain because the body is being stressed to
some degree. It’s a warning sign. If you’re rigid or stiff, you break. If, at the
other extreme, you’re completely limp and, as soon as you feel a slight bit
of discomfort, you start fidgeting, then you will never experience any really
deep peace, because you’ve developed a blind reactivity towards pain. If you
move as soon as you experience discomfort, you make yourself vulnerable
What Buddhism calls the Middle Way is a balance between these extremes. This balance is not a matter of deciding to move half the time
and remain still half the time; it’s something different. The Middle Way is
like the point from which the two extremes pivot, not just being halfway
between the two, or going 50/50. It’s the source of the two extremes. It is
achieved by finding the right attitude towards discomfort.
When we feel physical pain, our first instinct is to tense up against it,
to resist it, be frightened of it or annoyed with it. This feels like a reasonable hatred; it seems totally valid to dislike the pain just because it’s not
pleasure. Just as in the example above about the noise in the street during
Ajahn Chah’s meditation session, it seems reasonable to think that the noise
is annoying me. The pain in the knee seems annoying, but as Ajahn Chah
pointed out, it’s really you annoying the pain. The mind grabs hold of the
pain and starts a fight with it. With meditation, you start to let go of the
reactivity, of the thought that the pain is bad, that it shouldn’t be there, you
don’t want it, and you begin to ask what is really going on.
As we discussed earlier, pain is exactly like sound: if you can’t hide it,
then make a feature of it. If pain in the back, the leg, the arm, or wherever it
is grabs your attention, don’t look at it as an irritation, distracting you from
the breath. Let go of the breath and give the pain centre stage. Explore the
pain. You will begin to notice that the feeling is unpleasant just as a sound
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might be irritating. Don’t try to make it pleasant or block it out. Simply
recognize it as an unpleasant feeling. You’ll start to see that the feeling is
one thing, and what the mind adds to it is another. Even if the mind buys
into the resistance, you can catch it and see that happening. You can recognize the pain as just a feeling and begin to see the distance between the
discomfort and real physical damage. You will find that you can learn to be
with that uncomfortable feeling, not by being tough and resisting it through
strength alone, but by being able to simply know that it is an unpleasant
feeling. You don’t have to hate it, fight it, or worry about it. If you need to,
you can move, but you can stay with it as long as it’s bearable, seeing that
it’s not that bad.
The main point is to adjust your attitude towards it. Establish an attitude of determination not to start a war with your own body. From that perspective, you will find that the discomfort can be present, but that you can
be quite at peace with it. If you find yourself looking at the discomfort as an
annoying intruder ruining your meditation, bring in an attitude of kindness
– loving-kindness – towards the pain, towards the feeling that is not likeable.
To employ loving-kindness doesn’t mean we try to like the pain. We simply
recognize and accept the presence of the pain in the leg, or the headache.
You can’t will it away, but softening the attitude towards it is the first step.
The second step is that in bringing the pain into the centre of attention,
you begin to notice that you’ve become tense by resisting the discomfort.
You can then relax the body like relaxing into a yoga pose. When doing
yoga, you might try to get the pose right, and you can be rigid in that effort.
But then you learn to relax into it and suddenly an extra couple of inches
manifest from somewhere, enabling you to move fully into the pose. Working with pain in meditation is exactly the same. You see how you tense up
against it, and then you relax into it. You see how the joints in the hips, in
the knees – all the way through – are tight. Physically relaxing the system
actually reduces the tension that you create through resistance to the pain.
As the tension drops, the cause of the pain is substantially removed. The degree of pain goes down, and the fact that you’re not fighting with it means
that even though there’s discomfort, it’s not a problem.
When you work with pain in this more genuine and direct way, you
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will develop a much more accurate intuitive sense of your own body. Then,
when you know your body is really being stressed, that you’ve pushed yourself too hard, you know that it’s time to move. When you move, it’s not an
act of aversion to the pain, it’s an act of kindness towards the body. This is
a major difference.
Ajahn Chah would say, “Always wait for a few minutes. When you really
want to move, just wait. For another minute or two, just wait. Just relax a
bit. Be patient.” For this kind of waiting to be most useful, you have to wait
until the motivation to move is not out of aversion to the pain, but out of
kindness to the body. You need to be careful, though, because your “inner
lawyer” will try to convince you that you’re being kind, just to get you to
move at any cost. But you need to examine whether you’re really being kind
or whether you’re moving out of fear or avoidance. The blessing of waiting,
of being patient, is that when you move, there’s a physical release and relief
in the heart as well. If you move out of fear and avoidance of the pain,
then when there’s another twitch, you will go right back to the fear/aversion
Working with chronic pain that has nothing to do with the posture of
the body is exactly the same. Let yourself fully accept it in your heart. It
makes a huge difference.
Working with physical pain this way is useful, because you start to relate to emotional pain in the same way. You can be with grief or anger or
sadness or fear and abide with them – accepting them, knowing them, and
letting go of them – in exactly the same way.
BTW, I don’t know your level of development, but just in case you’re wondering about the difference in approach between Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Amaro, its because they tend towards two different technical ‘flavours’ of Meditation- Samatha vs Vipassana. Depending on which way your mind tends to go, the techniques used would differ- though all methods converge in the end to the same goal.