Mindfulness invites us to stay present. But what if the present is unpleasant?
Pleasure and pain
All animals, including humans, are designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Pleasurable experiences feel good; we want them to happen more often and last longer. Pain, for the purposes of this post, is the absence of pleasure. This includes physical disease, grief and loneliness, as well as “bleh” sensations, like boredom.
Pain is basically everything that we don’t want. Pain comes from ourselves not being as we want, or from our lives not being as we want. This “not-wanting” is a resistance to the present moment, which leads to mind-wandering that reduces happiness. Furthermore, pain makes us feel different from other people, and this “not-belonging” is also painful. This is how pain becomes a self-sustaining cycle:
Default response: diversion
We (often subconsciously) divert our attention away from pain. This is helpful to the extent that it allows us to continue functioning in daily life, minimising disruptions for all. However it is problematic because we easily become trapped in our diversions. We divert/numb pain by using various:
- Substances, like food, sugar, alcohol, drugs
- Activities, like exercising, playing video games, travelling
- Default thought patterns, like rumination, perfectionism, blaming
Notice that these approaches are not inherently bad. For example, food is necessary to nourish my body. What makes it a diversion is my intention to numb pain, such as excessive eating when I am bored or lonely. Read more about mindful eating.
Alternative response: compassion
Mindfulness invites us to be present, even with “negative” or uncomfortable sensations. All types of mindfulness practices may eventually unlock your innate compassion. However, these practices specifically target and develop compassion:
- Self-compassion meditation, as taught by Dr Kristin Neef
- Loving-kindness (metta) meditation, leading to compassion
- Active listening and unconditional positive regard, leading to empathy (not a traditional mindfulness practice, though I have used it as such during my work as a Lifeline counsellor)
Self-compassion, compassion and empathy are related; developing one will develop the others. These “compassion practices” break the cycle of pain by:
- Reducing our resistance to it by acknowledging and allowing ourselves to fully experience this moment without diversion or judgement
- Reducing the isolating effect of pain, by recognising that we all suffer, and we all feel inadequate sometimes – this is part of our shared human experience
This is mindfulness; radical acceptance of the present moment. As we allow ourselves to more fully experience our pain, we break down and eventually break through.
Alternative outcome: freedom
I know that it is not easy to sit with pain. Yet, when I have managed to do this, I have always been rewarded with motivation, healing, meaning, gratitude and ultimately, greater freedom. I hope that you find these compassion practices as useful as I do – comment below!
Yagesh is an actuary and yogini, devoted to building a wellbeing economy. Contact her for personalised lessons or corporate workshops.