Discomfort Is the Food of Meditation Practice

I know you started meditating because you want more calm in your life. I know you are looking for peace. You want to not fight things in life so much. You want to stop overthinking everything. You want to be kinder, gentler, and just better. But there’s this problem. You don’t feel calm when you meditate. Your mind won’t shut up. Your knee hurts. You keep thinking of painful memories or, worse, frightening fantasies of things that will never happen. You fall asleep. You can’t sit still. You think that you and your meditation practice are doomed.

Guess what? All that stuff doesn’t mean you can’t meditate or benefit from meditation. Instead, all that stuff is meditation practice. At least, it’s the food of meditation practice. Yes, you read that right. The nasty, uncomfortable, and sometimes even gut-wrenching crap that comes up during meditation practice is all part of it. While this may be disappointing news, at least you know you aren’t doing something wrong.

Sometimes when people talk about meditation they can convey the idea that it’s magic. We see people sitting calmly and we want that calm ourselves. So, we think that if we just do the thing they are doing we will get calm too. What we don’t see is all the crap and inner shenanigans that person had to wade through to find that calm.

Meditation isn’t magic; it’s practice. Tell me something. How do those basketball players sink game-clenching free throws in the final seconds of the NCAA tournament? Do you have some illusion that they are just naturally calm? Clearly not. They have practiced free throws so much that even the situation can’t shake them. In the same way, you aren’t going to find real calm and stability in meditation practice until you work on your free throws. Those free throws are learning some skills as you encounter the unpleasant bits of life. 

It works like this. You get distracted and, instead of getting mad or disgusted with yourself, just focus back on the breath. Right there, you practiced restraint, self-kindness, and persistence. Or maybe your knee hurts and you feel the pain for a moment and watch how it affects you. In that case, you practice mindful awareness, holding space, and patience. If a painful memory arises and you can let yourself sit with it, you practice self-compassion, awareness, and courage. And maybe you just fall asleep or are lost in thought the whole meditation session and you laugh it off. You know what that’s practicing? It’s practicing being human and imperfect and still being worth the effort to try again.

Do you see my point here? All the so-called “bad” stuff that happens during your practice is not a distraction from the practice. It feeds the practice because it forces you to build the skills you need to handle the hard parts of life. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you or your practice. It means that life is imperfect and so are we. The practice of mediation can help you experience, though, that perfection isn’t required for a good life. Instead, it can help you learn how to create a good life by bringing joy and kindness to even the hard parts of life.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not telling you here that any problems in meditation practice should simply be powered through or that you can manage all turmoil that arises in your practice on your own. Sometimes you have to give yourself permission to move during your practice, to take a break, or to rely on your community, teachers, or trained professionals for help. But I am saying that struggle in meditation is a normal part of the practice. If you give yourself time, patience, and kindness as you encounter those struggles, they can teach you and help you build the skills to live a calmer, gentler, happier life.

So, when you start to meditate, and you find too many thoughts, physical discomfort, and all the judgment your mind can muster, don’t be surprised. The struggles of human life don’t magically disappear when you sit for a few moments and focus on your breath. But, if you can learn to sit long enough and watch those struggles arise and fade away, you can start to see them as the very substance from which calm, happiness, kindness, and presence can grow. The challenges that arise during meditation aren’t problems in your practice; they feed your practice.

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