Life is hard, especially in a capitalist society. The vast majority of us are only valued for our time and energy — our labor — and not for our creativity and passion. And even that doesn’t buy us the stability, community, and free time we all yearn for. Markets crash, the rent keeps going up, and we feel further and further behind.
So, why meditate? Why waste the little free time you have on something that at times can feel like work?
Ajahn Chah, the late Thai Buddhist monk, wrote, “There are two kinds of suffering: the suffering that leads to more suffering and the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. If you are not willing to face the second kind of suffering, you will surely continue to experience the first.”
Yes, meditation is suffering — but in a comfortable, safe environment. It turns suffering into a means towards learning how to suffer less.
What do I mean by suffering? I don’t mean pain. It hurts when you get the flu, or someone breaks your heart. There’s no way around the pain. But we suffer when we try to get around the pain, to avoid it, to even deny that we feel it. We feel a lingering sense that something is wrong or a little off. Our minds go haywire, churning stories that only add fuel to the fire. It’s all her fault. But maybe I don’t deserve love. I should’ve gotten a flu shot. Etc. Etc.
That’s the sort of suffering that, as Ajahn Chah said, leads to more suffering.
Right in the middle of a seven-day meditation retreat a few months back, I started feeling pain in my lower back. I spent a good three or four hours suffering, not because of the pain, but because of all the stories that I invented that made it a problem. I’m not a good meditator. I’m a meditation teacher, I shouldn’t have pain when I sit. Maybe I’m not cut out for this after all.
Once I noticed the stories, I stopped resisting the pain in my back. The pain became interesting rather than evidence of me being weak or a fraud. Instead of a problem, it appeared as it actually was: a little bit of heat that throbbed up and down as I breathed. I could handle it.
Meditation can feel like suffering sometimes, but that’s the point: by practicing, we’re forcing ourselves to sit down and stay with whatever sensations and emotions come up.
Any time you’re resisting what is actually happening — that your heart hurts, that you have the flu — you’re suffering. Mindfulness is noticing all the little ways you try to avoid staying put.
If I asked you, would you rather spend 20 or 30 minutes mildly suffering right now or spend the rest of the day suffering at the whims of everything that’s out of your control — which is pretty much everything — which would you take?
Ready to get serious about meditation?
Sign up for my weekly email on meditation and bringing mindfulness to the stuff that matters — work, relationships, and politics.
Listen to the podcast version
My podcast, Meditation for the Masses, takes meditation out of faraway monasteries, expensive retreat centers, and corporate America, and brings it to the things that matter most to people who work for a living—work, relationships, and politics. It’s mindfulness for the hustle and the class struggle.