Meditation: Pause Before the Pain

“Meditation is living your life as if it really mattered.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

I had the great pleasure of attending a seminar this past weekend at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center called “Turning Toward the Pain: Bringing Mindfulness and Compassion to Depression, Anxiety and Other Forms of Mental Suffering”. Three local practitioners, Jerome Bass, Tom Pedulla, and Susan Pollak, shared insights from their years of practice (both as clinicians and meditators). The day alternated between instruction and guided meditation sessions, and introduced the study of meditation and how it relates to mental pain.

First, some basics of meditation to help you with your own practice, if classes aren’t available near you:

  • Find a safe, comfortable space, either alone or in a group.
  • Find a way to mark the time – either a timer or a group leader who keeps time.
  • Sit comfortably, on the floor, a mat, or on a chair if you need.
  • Maintain an upright, attentive posture – slouching is fatiguing, and you may have a harder time focusing.
  • Be aware of your hands – I like to have them touching, because it’s a clue to connect with myself. Others open their palms to the world, to be more open and aware. Find a posture that works for you.
  • Start off with a short amount of time (2 minutes) and gradually work your way up, making it a regular habit.

The seminar walked through three stages of meditation relevant to working through pain:

1. Concentration

The basis of meditation is concentration. And it is very taxing and the opposite of daydreaming. While your mind will naturally wander, you should work to maintain a focus. This focus can take many forms, and in this seminar, we worked on two: concentrating on the body and its connection to the world (through the floor, through itself), and concentrating on the breath, trying to isolate it and exclude everything else. This concentration takes years of practice, and as a beginner I highly recommend instruction, either in person or through recordings (apps, videos, and so on).

2. Mindfulness

Mindfulness moves beyond this concentration to a broader awareness, usually of the present moment. This again can take many forms. It can be externally focused (listening to the world around you, taking in all the sounds) or internally focused (monitoring the state of your body, how it feels). The key here is to only observe – don’t assign judgments to anything you observe, simply accept them as happening.

3. Compassion

Being more mindful of your surroundings or yourself, and more able to observe without judgment, you may find it much easier to be compassionate toward yourself and others. Actions aren’t immediately judged, they are only observed, so that instead of immediately generating a feeling (of doubt, inadequacy, fear, anxiety), you’ve developed a pause. Cultivate that pause – the ability to:

  • recognize an emotional situation as it happens
  • recognize how you usually react to this emotion
  • develop a pause before you react
  • in this pause, observe what’s happening, without judgment
  • in this pause, modify your reaction, moving away from bad habits and establishing good ones

This can become a positive feedback loop – pauses help avoid painful emotions, and engender more self-kindness. These feelings of anxiety, fear, and depression, when they grip you, can seem infinite. I’ve tried to run from them, fight them, escape them, shove them down, but they gain strength when I add my emotional power to them. Instead, use the pause and try to develop the ability to simply observe them. If you can avoid judging or demonizing these feelings, you can keep from empowering them. You can avoid turning one dart into two:

The Parable of the Dart, by Salatha Sutta

This work is by no means simple and takes a great deal of practice. But even a split-second pause can allow you to react in a different, informed way, as opposed to a purely emotional response or one that comes from habits you’re trying to change.

I highly recommend the CIMC, or any well-run group meditation practice near you. Meditation can be a solitary practice, but there’s much to learn, and good instruction is valuable. Meditating in a group has a power worth experiencing that can’t be found alone.

Feel free to share your thoughts on meditation in the comments below.

Categories: Emotional Fitness

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