Meditation: Being Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Whatever your goals are with meditation, there is one bridge you must cross: being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

It is the first bridge, and everyone must cross it. Then, no matter how far you get with meditation, from absolute beginner to master yogi, you will still have to cross that bridge each time you meditate. There will always be elements of this first bridge there.

This post takes the form of an email I received and my replies to the reader. These issues are extremely common.

N wrote:

Hello Illuminatus,

I stumbled upon your writings in the most random of ways as tends to happen. I’ve really enjoyed reading your insights and it has pushed my perspective in a new direction.

I have been trying to commit to a daily meditation practice for a number of years and I really struggle with this. I’ve tried every sort of productivity and accountability technique and I simply find it difficult.

There is a lot of resistance, some which I can feel physically in my body, to the act of meditating. As soon as the thought enters my head to meditate I can feel myself begin to get uncomfortable. Sometimes it can take up to 3 hours from when I decide I want to meditate to my beginning the meditation. During this time period a whole repetitive cycle of thought and emotions takes. All of them are quite negative, upset as to why I am not meditating, a story about this sense of resistance that is always there etc. I can feel a sensation in the middle of my chest that I relate to this discomfort/resistance and I’ve spent a lot of time sitting with this sensation.

Do you have any advice on this? I am really tired of going through a mini battle every time I want to meditate and even more so I really want to see the benefits you describe from your meditations but I feel that the first step along the way is blocked.

Much appreciated,

N

Hi N,

What you’re describing is not uncommon.

I am going to give you a customized plan.

The first approach is to “become comfortable being uncomfortable”. You see, at the moment, you are making a separation that says: “Meditation should be a space free from these negative thoughts and feelings” — and everything else is “life”. However, a major part of meditation is actually simply being with such negative thoughts and feelings. So, rather than trying to make meditation about “feeling okay”, instead you need to spend some time having meditation being about “not feeling okay, and feeling okay, as and when each happens”. I wrote the following meditation specifically for this purpose:

  1. Sit and get as comfortable as possible – then make the decision to not fidget or adjust myself for the next 30 minutes, and set a timer.
  2. Watch the breath. A light kind of attention, not intense like concentration meditation. Thoughts should be able to come and go. The breath is just something to return to.
  3. Any thought or body sensation that occurs, let it arise as it wishes, observe it with peace, then return attention to the breath. You can make brief verbal-thought notes in your mind about the thought/sensation if you like, but don’t dwell. This kind of noting could be along the lines of, “Pain”. “Fear.” “Warm.”

N wrote:

There is a lot of resistance, some which I can feel physically in my body, to the act of meditating. As soon as the thought enters my head to meditate I can feel myself begin to get uncomfortable.

You’ve started the meditation by noticing the discomfort. 🙂 Now sit, and continue to just notice what else comes up. Eyes closed, eyes open, sitting cross-legged or lying back in a comfy chair, it doesn’t matter. Just NOTICE for 30 minutes. No goals besides NOTICING.

I can feel a sensation in the middle of my chest that I relate to this discomfort/resistance and I’ve spent a lot of time sitting with this sensation.

Yes, there is a “well of pain” accumulated from various sources. What I do is imagine this sensation as a well inside me which I can “drink from” by breathing — so, feel it while breathing, let it rise up and out your mouth like the breathing is taking some of the feeling out of that well.

I won’t lie to you — at times this really hurts. I mean, that’s kind of the point — it’s all in there, waiting to bubble up and be expelled. Other times, for me, it becomes a pleasurable sensation of relief. The point is to be okay with it whatever it is, and to keep up the practice. 🙂

Meditation in this respect is like draining a very large bathtub. Breathing while feeling is the plughole being opened, and the water draining out. However, at the start, the bathtub is so big that it looks like the water level is not going down. However, rest assured, it is. It is only when the water level reaches the more shallow part of the bathtub, where the sides curve inward, that the water appears to be going down quicker and there is the perception that the speed of progress has increased. In fact, you were always making progress, it just gets more noticeable when you are coming towards the end of draining that particular well.

Now, all you do is set a timer for 30 minutes each day and sit and notice what you are noticing. That is all. I’ve written other meditations, e.g. concentration meditation, about generating bliss states, but you are not at the point where you are ready to take that on yet — you need to get comfortable being uncomfortable, first.

As for scheduling meditation, for you I would recommend you put it right after brushing your teeth. You need to have it scheduled along with other daily habits so it becomes one also.


If, like my reader above, you are just starting out with meditation and are crossing this first bridge, do the above for 30 minutes a day for the next week then feel free to write in the comments section what you noticed. You are not trying to “make anything happen”, or achieve goals at this point — just do the meditation as I have said every day for the next week.

Writing down your experience in a journal after each session could be useful — even if you just write, “I fidgeted and thought a lot for 30 minutes”. You’re draining the bathtub, and it takes time. You might also have some pleasant moments and realizations along the way. 🙂

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23 Responses

  1. N says:

    Hey Illum,

    Thank you for the speedy and thorough response. I am glad you provided this stepping stone to deeper concentration practises. I think it will help many new comers out. I will be sure to try it for seven days and if you like I’ll share my journals of the meditations with you. I usually write after each session anyway.

    I appreciate what you wrote in regards to becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable and I understand why you stated that as the issue. However to use your bridge analogy the area that I struggle with is not so much crossing the bridge, I have spent a lot of meditation time learning to become familiar with discomfort. At certain points I have felt sensations similar to a burning fire in my chest, sweating, shakes and have come out of sessions with a pounding heart beat.
    But to get back on point what I struggle with is actually making myself step onto the bridge.

    I find that I stand at the steps to the bridge, frozen and unable to walk onto it. My body becomes resistant, heavy and it is almost as if I unconsciously begin to step back. At the same time I am pushed by an intense desire to walk onto the bridge yet held in place by a massive reluctance. Taking the first step onto the bridge becomes a daily exercise of will power and some days my will power is just not strong enough for the task.

    You have assigned a meditation task which I want to act on but my difficulty is in the ACTing part. So now I will be stuck on the same loop of desperately wanting to follow your advice and battling to make myself follow it.

    I love the analogy of drinking the pain by the way. I have been practising something similar for about a year now, trying to get to the heart of the pain and stay there. I have been playing with this drinking methodology though and it seems to be working a lot better.

  2. PsySeducer says:

    “That is all. I’ve written other meditations, e.g. concentration meditation, about generating bliss states, but you are not at the point where you are ready to take that on yet — you need to get comfortable being uncomfortable, first”

    Sorry but I see it the other way around.Is like youre saying to a stressed person with masive inner dialogue who cant fall asleep to stay there for 30 minutes untill it sorts itself out…holding breath after exhale or few push ups to change your overall state are much more efficient (2 quicker and better fixes came right now)
    You cant do insight meditation without starting your right brain on some form of concentration meditation especially when your bombarded with internal dialogue and intense phisical discomfort.That’s what “return to noticing your breath” trick is all about…a quick form of concentration to meditation that keeps the right brain going,overcoming other mental processes.

    Brain works on sessions (trances) and needs only 6 seconds of convincing himself to change and adopt a new path. This means you can hack it and trigger better moods with holding you focus at least 6 secs on anything you desire ,internal or external,brain and body will follow.On this you cand build the right kind of awearness (unreactive to feelings,thought patterns and sensations) and fall deeper into meditation.

    For compulsive thinkers,stressed people,hipertensive,hipertiroid people etc. takes only a tiny proof of easily quick change in their state to get them highly entusiastic and motivated to overcome discomfort.That’s good fuel for insight journey.

    • Illuminatus says:

      What would you recommend, PsySeducer?

      • PsySeducer says:

        It obvious he hasn’t developed any form of basic concentration meditation to the point where sustained focus is strong enough for 1st jhana.I can’t figure why’s that, since Ihaven’t found other place on the internet with more and better guides,techs and explanations.

        Also what he describes are physical symptoms of beeing in bad shape,hart condition,high bloodpressure,diabetus.More reasons to develop basic meditation.

        I would try a more agressive approach.Before meditating should start with physical exhaustion(intense 10 minutes workout),oxigen depravation (holding breath for as long as possible) and masturbation.Do rapture meditation untill you master 1st jhana,quit trying to notice thoughts instead use a good feeling or sensation to overwhelm everything else.This will give you a sense of full control wich is the que for the perfect moment to start doing insight.

        • Illuminatus says:

          You are entitled to your opinion and it may work for N.

          My advice is the opposite — for now.

          N should feel free to mutter his thoughts under his breath for 30 minutes until one day *POP* he observes himself doing it. Then there’s leeway for him to not be his thoughts. Then he can move onto concentration meditation.

          Ultimately it’s going to be a matter of being purposeful in either approach and probably tracking (journalling) results.

          You never know what’s going on in someone else’s head; that’s why teaching this stuff is so damn hard.

        • Illuminatus says:

          Having read N’s reply back, there may be something to your physical exhaustion idea, PsySeducer.

        • N says:

          Actually I am a very fit, 21 year old female. I cycle on a daily basis and I workout at least 3 times a week. No diabetes or any serious physical ailments.

          What I am trying to describe is what feels like heavy emotions that arise and the physical responses which accompany them.

          • Illuminatus says:

            Tried collapsing in a chair and meditating after a long workout?

            • N says:

              I haven’t actually. I have a 10 to 15 minute walk between the gym and my house. Most of the exhaustion is calmed during that walk. I’ll see if I can give it a try in the changing room though I become quite distracted and uncomfortable with strangers walking around me as I meditate. Still I’ll try.

          • Illuminatus says:

            BTW I know about pain that doesn’t want to be addressed, and it will delay you all it can — I’ve been on drugs for days trying to avoid facing it in the past. But ultimately it is only ever addressed with a sit-down sober acceptance (which hurts, by definition).

            I’m at the state now where I can immerse myself in pain when it comes a-knocking — e.g. my cat died a week and a half ago or something and it only took until last night for me to finally cry my eyes out.

            I think the delay between something happening then finally feeling it is normal, and is often for good reasons (e.g. you have other survival projects that must be done before a window opens where you have some free time to grieve).

            I’m at a place now where I let emotions like that run riot (within the containment of my practice) because I have dropped to the need to be “tough guy”. At that point, emotions are experienced at the exact moment they happen, which doesn’t cause suffering.

            If you are at a stage where you reckon floodgates might open if you sit and meditate on things, I say let those flood gates open. Get 1 week’s misery for a year’s insight.

          • PsySeducer says:

            I believe some people, especially women,need personal 1 on 1 real training to get on the right path from the start. It’s because of that attention shifting reflex a.k.a. multitasking habbit wich is exactly the oposite part of mental activity you want to strenghten in order to fall easy in meditatiton mode. A person who shows you how it’s done,guides you with the power of inducing the right kind of trances and atitude towards your goal, to give you a sense of how and where you want to go in meditation.It’s hard to figure it out (sense it )from words on a website. I think you should taje a yoga class with an experienced master. I recommend sahaja yoga.

          • Illuminatus says:

            You might want to give the breath of fire (kapalbhati) a go to help reduce that heavy emotional burden before then meditating: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBjnograjq4

  3. Axel says:

    I´ve heard it takes 15 seconds, not six, for the brain to get into something. And according to more esoteric teachings, it is 20 seconds of focused attention to create a change in your energy field. Now, I think that both the emotions coming up and your observation of it is already successful meditation, so as Illuminatus said, don´t separate it in your mind.
    I can relate to all of your feelings, both the heart pounding and fire within (though I feel my head extremely warm and not so much my chest, the emotion is actually sadness) and the resistance. What can I say, it usually sorts itself out (but not always in the same day, so don´t force yourself) and the more you try to understand it the better. For me it can happen with anything, not just meditation. I think it comes from wanting a specific result that you may not achieve and that´s why you put yourself in “working/studying/going to war” mode, but meditation could be more like contemplation, natural and/or spontaneous, and not a task list to complete, though you should be able to do it that way too. It can also come from knowing it will work (bring pain) and not wanting to do it. I get a sense you either have too many problems, responsabilities, unintegrated pain, or big expectations. Drop as much “weight” from your shoulders as you can. Meditation, if added to the weight, doesn´t help to drop it.
    Now that was just to maybe help you to get more clarity on it. My actual suggestion: Meditate for 30 seconds. Several times. Meditate, reflect, journal, meditate. Meditate, cook, meditate. Meditate, brush your teeth, meditate. Meditate after you shower for God´s sake. Meditate when you are a passenger in a car or bus or whatever, there´s where I´ve had my most amazing meditations. Notice that you may want to keep meditating after the 30 seconds, because you have overcome your resistance. Thinking “I will meditate for 30 seconds” doesn´t bring up that much resistance, and after you begin it is difficult even to stop because you have changed pathways. Complete you task in 30 seconds and then explore, do free-style meditation.
    Another suggestion is to actually complete a bunch of easy tasks that require no thinking and then plunge into the meditation in the same mood.
    And my final suggestion is to try this little exercise: Declare what you are going to do and the do it, repeat, don´t do anything without declaring it first, finally declare you are going to meditate. Example: “I´m going to walk to that door and stop”, you do it, “i´m going to turn and walk back to the bed and stop”,execute, “I´m going to raise my hand to eye level”, and on it goes. You can even think I´m going to say bla bla bla and you do it to. Gain control of your actions and words, declare when you begin and end the exercise and have complete control over yourself during it. This should give you a very unique feeling, in just a few minutes. Then you can decide to meditate and do it, you don´t have to do it during the exercise but after you finish and you don´t even have to declare it, since you will feel in more control of what you do and you can simply do it. Of course, feel free to include meditation in the exercise and experiment with it however you want.
    Additional tips: Ask yourself: Why is it so easy for me to -begin- meditating?, or if it isn´t working: How can I make it easy to begin meditating? I know you are already doing this, so my suggestion is you keep asking until you get a good enough answer, and it can come from you. Also you can pretend you are some new-age hippy or something and then meditating will come naturally to you, identity drives behaviour and emotion.
    I know this sounds like a drunk rambling, but english is not my native language. I hope you can understand it and it helps, Good Luck.

    • Illuminatus says:

      Thanks for the input Axel.

    • Illuminatus says:

      I had a couple more thoughts on the whole thing.

      The first was that, for many years, I only meditated when I absolutely had to — as a last resort. So let’s say I had fucked something up completely in my life, done all the thinking I could possibly have done about it, and was just sitting there miserable — that’s when I would meditate. Surprisingly those were the times I would also hit jhana, or just truly good “zoned-out” states. I did not have a regular meditation schedule for a very long time and would always wait till life forced me e.g. I had no alternative but to zone out. I wish I had set the schedule sooner because I always got some (usually unexpected) beneficial result from it.

      The second thought I had, particularly pertaining to N’s problem, is reframing — so, using different words to describe the experience. So she liked my idea of drinking the pain. That’s just one example. Hell, you could see meditation as going and whipping yourself if it helped. Also set yourself little challenges, like “If I definitely don’t want to do it then that’s when I have do.” So inverting it: the worse the feeling, intentionally punish yourself more. Those with Christian upbringings seem to seriously get off on that sort of thinking. Intentionally suffering and carrying a cross etc.

      But any more useful reframes from anyone would obviously be useful at this point.

      • N says:

        To psyseducer, I am not sure where I’ll find a teacher. I can look around but I’m always weary when it comes to teachers as it’s difficult to judge.

        To Illuminatus; the re frame of whipping I don’t find very attractive. I have passed through that phase of extreme harshness towards myself and can’t seem to muster that again. The approach I take now is pretty gentle actually and it seems to create more results.

        The reason I like the drinking the pain analogy is that it almost gives me something similar to an action. Rather than simply observing the pain, where it is harder to keep the attention, with drinking the pain there’s an engagement.

        Your general responses seem to lean towards this resistance being a running away from pain and perhaps to some extent you are right. Overall though it feels more like an issue to do with beginning tasks rather than avoiding pain. I say that because I am no stranger to feeling pain to allow it to process and I am not opposed to letting the pain come up. Again the problem arises in actually getting myself to sit down but once I sit there’s enough understanding of the benefit of being with pain that I am usually quite happy when it comes up.

        That brings me to a question. You mentioned below invoking pain. How do I do that purposely?

    • N says:

      Thank you Axel for that extremely helpful response. I really appreciate you taking the time.

      You hit the nail right on the head when you said that meditation is like a task on a list to accomplish. Accomplishing tasks on a list is something that I’ve struggled with for a while, so this resistance over flows into other areas of life as well where that modality exists. It’s a general resistance to taking action on tasks and I wonder how accurate your description of wanting a specific result that may not be achieved is. It sounds close to the mark.

      I love your suggestion on changing pathways by meditating for 30 seconds. I found I have been doing that naturally over the last few days whenever I get brief moments. What type of meditation would you suggest for those 30 seconds? Right now my attention moves to body sensations, follows them around briefly and sometimes the breath.

      I am really excited by the potential of this little technique for other areas of my life, so again thank you.

      Secondly the declaration exercise has been very interesting in unexpected ways. I usually try to meditate in the morning and when the thought to do so enters my mind after I wake up I feel this immense heaviness, as if getting up and mediating was akin to lifting a mountain. There’s almost an exaggeration, a felt one, of the difficulty of the task.

      I’ve been using the declaration exercise to get myself out of that exaggeration. As everything seems pretty difficult first thing in the morning, I will declare in my mind that I am going to move my finger. Then do it. I move through my fingers, to my hand, sometimes my neck or leg or whatever amuses me that morning, declaring each as I go along. It seems that this way, bit by bit the heaviness of the morning is lifted until I am declaring to meditate.

      I should note that over the last few days after I posted the initial question I have been getting up to meditate with the least resistance I have felt my entire life. This is before even applying the techniques. There is some resistance but at a level that I feel is manageable and not so destructive. It’s only 15 minute meditations but I am slowly increasing the time scale.

      Once again thank you Axel for the wonderful tips

      • Illuminatus says:

        I am glad we have a community where we can all help each other with a variety of approaches. Thank you all. 🙂

        And yeah I hate the whipping thing too, but I know some people who go into suffering intentionally in that way. I don’t think it’s a good approach personally, but I was throwing a variety out there.

        Also, have you tried just yawning when you feel pain? It’s like one of the most simple yet best little techniques.

  4. PsySeducer says:

    “Those with Christian upbringings seem to seriously get off on that sort of thinking. Intentionally suffering and carrying a cross etc.”

    In old rites of christian orthodox churches hermit-monks do repetitive prayers that are chanted only on specific breathing patterns.
    Also they use different words describing a state of wakefullness given by the holy spirit for accesing divine inspiration.

    My fav reframe is not a reframe but trying to actually hear the pain-body. On real pain works fast but it comes back , on feelings and sensations… magic pill.

    • Illuminatus says:

      “In old rites of christian orthodox churches hermit-monks do repetitive prayers that are chanted only on specific breathing patterns.
      Also they use different words describing a state of wakefullness given by the holy spirit for accesing divine inspiration.”

      Unfortunately, Christianity has lost its mystical orders. Sufi is outright banned by most of Islam, and not many Jews practise Kabbalah any more. This loss, in the mainstream religions, of the essential connection to nature that is attained by such meditative practices is summed up quite nicely by Shinzen Young on The Science of Enlightenment.

      “My fav reframe is not a reframe but trying to actually hear the pain-body. On real pain works fast but it comes back , on feelings and sensations… magic pill.”

      If I was N I would, standing upright, invoke and feel that pain completely, intentionally, for the next three days, eradicating it entirely. Much yawning-like movements would be made — conditioned pain is nothing but internally looped fascia. Crying, laughter, yawning, wailing — all have rhythmic motions in common that unwinds such deep internal fascia.

      But this is me, 8 years’ meditation experience under my belt, and living primarily in the right brain. I literally don’t know how to tell someone who is scared of their own emotions and thoughts what to do, so I just do my best.

    • N says:

      And what would the technique for hearing the pain body specifically be like?

      At the moment I place my attention on sensations and stay there as long as I can. Is that what you mean?

      • PsySeducer says:

        There’s no tech,theres no “place attention”, it’s listening. Just like you try to hear noise from far away or someone’s hartbeat.

        Assume the discomfort in your body, feeling, emotion, senzation whateva..create noise. After you localized it (stomach, chest etc.) actively follow it with your hearing ONLY! , until it vanishes then return to breath.

        Trying intensely over longer period of time (6 secs +) to hear something inside or outside body, even if theres nothing to hear it’s called concentrantion meditation. Same goes with all other 4 senses but listening is more powerfull because you get distracted less than sight and touch ,if it happens it’s much easier to return to , and never goes away like smell or taste .

        Always should pay attention by 1 sense only ,even better if the object of focus can’t be perceived through one used.

        As for the right instructor…choose the one with the lighter and deeper gaze.

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