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Chest Pain During Sitting Meditation

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Chest Pain During Sitting Meditation
Answer
8/31/19 3:31 AM
Hello, I've been having some difficulties lately. I heard about this message board recently and I thought it might be a good place to search for answers. I hope I'm posting this in the right place.

I started meditating about 2 years ago and it's become a major passion for me. I haven't missed a day since I started. I went on my first retreat a month ago at IMS. The retreat was a very positive experience, although maybe less profound than I had expected. When I got off retreat I was feeling very enthusiastic and practicing a bit more than usual. I was feeling very good about how things were going and my sittings tended to be quite blissful. For the last couple days, my practice has been a major struggle. Whenever I sit, I feel tension and pain in my chest. I feel like my breath gets very shallow and it's hard to focus on anything else. Directing my attention towards the discomfort seems to just make it worse. This has sort of happened in the past to a much milder degree when I use my breath as an anchor so I usually use sounds or some other bodily sensation that's more neutral. When I use my breath as an anchor I can't seem to breath naturally. When I'm not noticing my breath I'm fine but when I direct my attention towards it it's like I forget how to breath. The breath feels forced and uncomfortable. For the first year or so of my practice I used the breath as an anchor but it became kind of anxiety provoking. I asked a meditation teacher about this and they recommended using a different anchor. Last week I decided to use the breath as an anchor for a couple sits and I feel like maybe the muscles in my chest are aggrivated from that. Now even if I use something else as an anchor it really starts to bother me. Even if I'm watching TV or reading a book my attention tends to go to this area and I feel pain.

I feel fairly distressed because my practice is so important to me but right now it feels like I can't meditate. Walking meditation doesn't seem to bother me so I did that today and a short 10 minute sit, just trying to note whatever was arising. The sitting just seems to inevitably lead to pain and anxiety. It's hard to not get lost in thought and I'm worried the pain will get worse. I think I'll probably go to a doctor just to make sure there's nothing wrong with my heart or anything but this feels very connected to meditation and my breathing. The discomfort seems to go away when I'm sufficiently distracted. I'm just wondering if anyone has heard of or experienced something similar to this? I would really appreciate any help I can get. Thank you!

RE: Chest Pain During Sitting Meditation
Answer
8/31/19 10:18 PM as a reply to Aden.
Hey Aden.

It sounds like you are starting to gain awareness of emotional pain that you may not have been aware of previously, which can be stirred up with awareness based meditative practices. The term heartache is a saying for a reason, as unprocessed emotions and trauma are held in implicit memory bound to the body. If you keep focusing on the pain it will deepen until you are able to fully process it. If you are interested in knowing more I would check out a book called In touch by John Prendergast for a good overview with how to work with emotions through meditative practice. If you feel like it might be too overwhelming to deal with by yourself then I would strongly recommend finding a therapist who has a background in working with people somatically, such as someone who specialises in Focusing, Emotion Focused Therapy, or AEDP to name just a few.

Hope you found this post helpful. If you have any related questions let me know.

RE: Chest Pain During Sitting Meditation
Answer
8/31/19 8:22 AM as a reply to Aden.
As a precaution, have you seen a doctor about this pain?

RE: Chest Pain During Sitting Meditation
Answer
8/31/19 10:36 AM as a reply to Aden.
Another poster here, angelicphase, has raised a good point. As you progress with Insight Meditation, you’ll begin to be more sensitive to things that weren’t on your radar before. Pain is one of them. So, as weird as it might sound from where you’re currently at, this sounds like a sign of progress. And of course always keep in mind the path is constantly evolving, so this is just a stage and it’ll pass.

I get chest tension or stiffness frequently as I cycle through the Insight stages, then when the stage giving rise to that is moved beyond, the pain vanishes. At times, it can be really intense til it feels uncomfortable to breathe. But, and this is very important, you have to distinguish between muscles tightening around the torso, on the one hand, and heart trouble on the other. To me, they’re very different things. The Insight chest pains I get are all around and through the torso in varying degrees and places, but never in the heart specifically. If that happened, I’d probably go see a doctor. As should you if you think that’s where it’s coming from. There are times when it does seem maybe the pains connect up with some kind of deep-seated psychological tension, and so intense practice can increase the intensity of the pain. 

Finally, on the point about breathing being difficult and even feeling like you’re controlling it or it’s impossible to breathe naturally, IMO this is just a trick of the self-illusion-based mind. Whenever you get the sense you’re controlling or forcing the breath, try to let go and not control it. You’ll notice very quickly that it’s not possible to let go of it or ‘make’ the breath become natural. Direct your attention to your, say, hand, then come back. The breath is still difficult, like before. So it’s clear you’re not controlling it or making it happen unnaturally. This is simply how the breath manifests right now. The good news is it’s completely normal to experience these things at stages along the Insight path. Bad news is it can be very unpleasant, so you just have to summon up some courage and keep pushing on, as it will definitely pass sooner or later.