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The willingness to suffer is… the secret to meditation

I started a new practice a few weeks back — on the surface it looks like meditation, but it’s really an exercise in what I’m calling radical discomfort.

I’ve written before about my struggle with meditation. It was a struggle I’d never satisfactorily resolved. I always meditated sporadically, doing it more because I felt like I “should” than because I really wanted to.

Until a few weeks ago, when I started reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching and the following passage caught my eye:

“If you let yourself be blown to and fro,
you lose touch with your root.
If you let restlessness move you,
you lose touch with who you are.”

Those few lines hit me really hard.

There have been so many times in my life when I’ve let restlessness move me — and in doing so I have often felt myself become disconnected from the truth of who I am.

Restlessness has shown up in so many ways in my life: as procrastination, as a short attention span, as physical fidgeting, as a kind of semi-permanent muscle tension that kept me braced against painful sensations and emotions I was unwilling to feel.

The contemplation of those lines lead me into deep inquiry as to what exactly restlessness is.

Here’s what I concluded:

Restlessness is the unwillingness to feel discomfort.

We feel restless when we’re bored or agitated or stressed or in physical discomfort.

But in avoiding the experience of our own discomfort we avoid the truth of who we are in that moment.

For the past two weeks now I’ve been practicing a daily meditation that looks just like every other seated meditation I have ever done. I set my timer for 10-20 minutes, I seat myself cross-legged on my meditation cushion, I close my eyes, I place my palms on my thighs.

And then I remain still in the face of my own restlessness.

I stare my discomfort in the face.

I endure each aching and relentless second that fills the 10 minutes or 15 minutes or 20 minutes that I have committed myself to.

I used to think that the discomfort was a distraction from the point of meditation.

After all, wasn’t meditation about feeling calm and peaceful? Wasn’t meditation supposed to help me reduce anxiety?

And the answer to those questions is yes, and yes.

But I’m increasingly convinced that meditation doesn’t do this by turning down our experience of suffering — it does it by helping us to turn up our willingness to suffer.

In meditation we meet our pain on the floor.

We have the opportunity to observe, to witness our pain, our discomfort, our restlessness.

We have the opportunity to witness our resistance to the reality of things.

And we have the opportunity to choose a new path:

A path of willingness, a path that invites us to really ask ourselves “this hurt, is it so bad? is it a problem? is it really troubling me right now?”

When I asked these questions of myself I found, to my surprise, that the answer was no.

I noticed that when I chose to sit and witness my restlessness, my uncomfortable emotions, my physical pain — I found that none of these things were so bad as I had imagined them to be when I was trying not to look at them.

Therein lies the real secret to meditation, I think — the secret I’d been missing.

Meditation is an opportunity to meet our discomfort with open curiosity and warm friendliness and seek the truth of whether or not the discomfort we’ve been avoiding really is as bad as we’d thought. (In my experience it’s usually not.)

But in order for the process to work we have to be willing to really look at our discomfort.

We have to be willing to stare our suffering in the eyes.

Now it’s your turn! Do you meditate? If so, do you practice a radical willingness to witness your own discomfort? How do you interpret those lines from the Tao Te Ching? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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