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Pain & Equanimity

I recently got a chance to do something that I’ve been wanting to do for many years:

10 days of silence: no talking, no gestures, no eye contact with fellow meditators.

10 days of meditation: on the cushion for 10 ½ hours per day. Nothing to do but meditate, eat, and walk.

I’ve been interested in attending a retreat since I first learned about them about 5 years ago, shortly after I started learning about meditation and practicing regularly. I had a yearning to deepen my practice. To deepen my experiences of the centeredness, spaciousness, and peace that I only touch during my daily 25 to 40-minute sits.

I knew it would be difficult. I knew there would be pain. But I also—somewhat explicitly but mostly implicitly—expected a profound and sustained peace to wash over me. And I expected this at a specific time: around the 3-day mark.

I’d heard that the first 3 days are the most difficult, then it gets much easier. This was not my experience. In fact, the first few days were some of the easiest days for me. Overall, the 10 days were quite the rollercoaster ride for me; changing day-to-day, hour-to-hour, and moment-to-moment until the very end.

This was difficult for me.

The depth, spaciousness, and peace were there. But what was the pain doing there? What was the emotional turmoil doing there? Why was I still suffering just as much, if not more, than in my everyday life?

Day 4 was my first really ‘down’ day.

I remember walking on the walking path, knees aching, feeling down, watching the thoughts go by:

“What am I doing here?“

“What’s the point?”

“Why deal with all this pain?”

“What if the pain keeps getting worse?”

“Should I just leave?”

Then something shifted.

It’s after lunch. I walk into the meditation hall for the first hour of the 4-hour block of afternoon meditation time, still feeling ambivalent about life. I sit down on my cushion, close my eyes, and hear a new instruction. The instruction for the real technique.

Up until that point, we had been solely focusing on the sensation of the breath as it passes in and out of the nose. The purpose of this is to build up enough concentration so that you have enough focus to properly perform the real technique.

The technique is a rather simple body scanning practice. The purpose of the practice is to fully experience everything that you are feeling in your body:

Sensations that you like, sensations that you don’t like, lack of sensation—all of it.

The idea behind this is that every experience we have has a physical sensory manifestation, and that we spend much of our time subconsciously craving, clinging to, or pushing away these sensations that we are experiencing in our body. This practice is about experiencing it all with equanimity (non-reactivity) and in so doing, developing experiential knowledge (wisdom) of the ever-changing nature of all things, which in turn will lead to more equanimity, peace, and happiness.

As I sat in the meditation hall, listening to the instruction, there was one part in particular that hit me in a deep way:

“The only measure of success in this practice is equanimity. It does not matter what you feel: pleasant sensations, unpleasant sensations, no sensations. The only thing that matters is equanimity.”

The only thing that matters is equanimity.

How profound. But is it true?

Over the next 6 days, I got to run my own experiment to see whether this was true for me.

Did this golden nugget of wisdom take away my pain? No.

Did it take away my emotional turmoil? No (flash-forward to day 9 when I was lying on the floor of my room sobbing).

Did it take away my suffering? No.

But it created a space for me to work with the pain, work with the turmoil, work with the suffering. And even work with the joy, the peace, the spaciousness in a balanced way.

What does that mean?

Hundreds of times over the next 6 days I experienced 2 things:

  1. The freedom in equanimity. There was a freedom in feeling something that I liked or didn’t like without reacting to it so much. Without holding onto it or pushing it away. This wasn’t always easy, and I certainly wasn’t 100% equanimous with all sensations (or lack thereof). But the little bits of equanimity that were present for brief moments showed me a profound possibility.

  2. The ever-changing nature of sensations (and indeed all things). I can’t tell you how many times I would be scanning my body somewhere, my attention being tugged on by a pain somewhere else, only to find that by the time I got to that area that had been so painful, the pain had vanished. Or how many times I would scan through an area as pain was present, only to find that the big solid-feeling pain was really made up of a constellation of experiences that were in a constant state of change.

I went into the retreat with this implicit expectation that I would 'break through' some barrier and more or less coast through the rest of the retreat. What I got was something much more valuable: a practice. A practice for working with myself. A practice for working with life in all its ups and downs, twists and turns.

Because life isn’t meant to be coasted through.

It isn’t meant to be easy. It isn’t meant to be hard either. It isn’t meant to be any one thing. It’s meant to be lived. And hopefully learned from.

Equanimity is the space in which we can fully experience what is—whatever it may be—and learn from it. This doesn’t mean we have no preferences. It doesn’t mean we don’t care what happens to us or our loved ones. It means that we don’t waste so much energy fighting against the reality of the present moment.

And when we do that, even if just a little bit, or just for a moment, we will notice that what is right now is not forever. So that when something happens that we don’t like, we know that it will eventually pass, so maybe we don’t get quite so worked up about it. And when something happens that we do like, we know that it will eventually pass, so we relish every moment in all its preciousness.

For me, in equanimity lies the promise of a life fully lived. And that’s something worth practicing.

Good luck out there,


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