What to Do in Meditation When You Are Flooded with Mental Pain

(article by Steven Goodheart)

Each meditation is so different. Today, as I settled into my breath, I was immediately aware of a great deal of mental pain. The pain didn’t seem to be tied to anything in particular, but was more an existential kind of pain—just the fact of “being” hurt.

One I got mentally quiet enough to feel its full intensity, this background pain wanted all of my attention. I knew that if I just ignored it, or tried to push it away, it would only get worse, and it would be impossible to develop any concentration and insight. So, what to do?

Sometimes, when the existential pain is that bad, I’ve found that it’s wise to just stop trying to meditate, and turn one’s whole attention to the pain. Sometimes this means just exploring the pain—seeing what its nature is and, especially, what it feels like in the body. One looks into the pain or angst with a non-judgmental curiosity. You just want to see what’s going on, so to speak, and you do it with as much compassion and loving-kindness as you can.

If the pain really roars when you look into it with non-judgmental interest, and you don’t seem to be getting a handle on its causes, then it may be well to step back and begin doing metta, loving-kindness, meditation for oneself: “May I be free of this pain, and the causes of this pain. May I have peace of mind and know the causes of peace of mind.”

Or, you may want to address the pain directly, as my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, likes to say, as dealing with a crying baby: “Dear pain, I hear your cries! I do not reject you! I will not lock you away in some other room of my mind and let you wail! (I would hear you anyway!) I am here for you, dear pain. I hold you in my heart, even though it hurts to much. I want to know what you are all about, and set this painful energy free, for you and I are not different, but the same. The pain is me, and I am the pain. I will not reject myself, but look deeply, with love and compassion, so that I may be free.”

Giving some mental pain all one’s attention, like this, can be very skillful—or very unskillful! It all depends on whether we can hold the pain in thought and our heart, without getting sucked into the pains’ story line or getting overwhelmed by the emotions and images that may arise as we pay attention.

Again, if one feels overwhelmed, then it’s usually skillful to just stop, back away, and give oneself and the pain some space. In some cases, it might be wise to just turn one’s thought entirely away from the pain and go do something else—take a walk, do some housework, listen to some music, or talk to a friend. Is this “abandoning” the baby? Not really. It’s not like you’ll won’t hear it in the background! But the fact is, if you are utterly overwhelmed by some mental pain, you won’t be a very good or skillful “mother” or “father” to the pain, and your unskillful attention will actually just make matters worse!

Giving yourself some mental space, you will find that after a while you can usually return to giving yourself metta—loving and embracing yourself in heartfelt well-wishes and the aspiration that you be free of mental entanglements and tight emotional knots. If you find you can return to mindfulness of the pain, and begin to investigate again with fearless, non-judgmental curiosity, that’s great. But if not, then my experience is that staying with the metta, with the loving-kindness work, is the most skillful thing you can do.

Selfless love can heal as much as insight can, and a deep, unconditional love always brings insight. Likewise, with insight into the “not self” nature of the mental things that plague us, one gains equanimity and often the compassion that comes from deeply understanding the nature of something. Understanding often leads to forgiveness, of ourselves, and of others, but only when we’ve plumbed the depths of our hurt and seen through the pain that binds us.

I hope what I’ve shared here is helpful to you. One never knows what will show up when one sits down to meditate. Part of the practice is learning how to deal with what arises skillfully. Though I’ve explained here what to do when one is overwhelmed by pain or angst or some powerful emotion, there are times when one can simply note some lesser pain, some thought that would snag us, and then just smile, and gently return to the breath and the concentration.

You’ll have to see for yourself what works best, and each time is different. There are times to resist the tug of some thought or emotion and to resolutely stick with the breath. The “monkey mind” will want to say everything that arises in our thought is important and that everything we can think or feel should be followed and chased after. Don’t be fooled! Don’t chase the monkey’s tempting bananas! Meditation is indeed a discipline. It takes hard work and an ardent desire to awaken from the monkey mind’s entanglements and delusions.

I can happily report that as I have stuck with meditation practice, and as I’ve gained more skill as a meditator, I’m far less likely to follow some “banana” thought, incidental pain, or fascinating feeling into its imaginary, self-justifying world of pleasures and pains. But, yes, when some mental pain is truly great, when we get overwhelmed, there are times to stop working on concentration and to turn our attention to the cry of our being, to the crying baby within us.

If we investigate mental pain with the twin tools of non-judgmental curiosity and loving-kindness, we will find the way to heal ourselves and gain our freedom.  With each day’s practice, whether on or off “the cushion,” we will learn how to live life more fully and skillfully.  It’s all a matter of learning how to pay attention, even when our “monkey mind” wants to swing from thought to thought—and how to love unconditionally, even in the face of great, screaming pain. My friend, I can testify from my own trial and errors, you can learn how to do it!

 

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~ by sandranwheeler on October 18, 2011.

2 Responses to “What to Do in Meditation When You Are Flooded with Mental Pain”

  1. I really like this blog and certainly did bookmark it. Looking forward to more wonderful articles. Your are ranking very high in Yahoo Now i know where to find valuable information and will return to read more.

  2. Great information to those who practice meditation with some difficulty , keep going

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