Troubleshooting Pain

Sam, modified 8 Months ago.

Troubleshooting Pain

Posts: 3 Join Date: 8/27/20 Recent Posts
I've never posted on here before, but I've been interested recently in starting my meditation practice back up and stumbled across this place as somewhere I might get some help.I love meditation and really miss doing it.

Back in 2014, according to my meditation journal at the time, I went through a phase of really intense meditation and got obsessed with attaining first jhana. In retrospect it was a really bad idea to get so goal directed, but I’d been meditating for a couple years at that point and felt advanced enough to go for it. After a few weeks of trying, I got through a two hour session and finally got it, and for a few days I could get into the jhana really easily, seemingly at will, with a little spot in my forehead radiating blissful feels.

Then abruptly it started being painful, with my face muscles in that spot tensing involuntarily until it hurt. Ever since then I get the same reaction any time I meditate too deeply, my face muscles contract and the pain starts. I’ve tried sitting with it, focusing on the breathing, and maintaining neutral awareness of the sensation, but it just gets worse and worse until I break and have to stop. I've asked a couple of teachers about this but just got the usual advice about neutrally observing the sensation until it passes; I've really tried but it just gets too painful. The only thing that helps some is breaking up the concentration, I.e. with music or guided meditations, but that's obviously not an ideal solution, and even then after a few sessions it comes back.

This problem has persisted for six years now, through many attempts to reestablish my practice, changed meds, and trying lots of different things. Has anyone ever encountered anything like this? I guess if nothing else I’m a cautionary tale about doing this kind of thing unsupervised and taking it slow.
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Zachary, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: Troubleshooting Pain

Posts: 197 Join Date: 3/16/18 Recent Posts
Hi Sam, welcome to DhO. 

Facial tension, pains and other unpleasant somatic sensations in the head, brow and face are very common at certain stages. This is dukkha. Good stuff to notice. What you describe sounds very normal, if you dig around other logs on this site you will come across many others with similar reports. Often it seems that these somatic tensions create the dualistic experience of there being an observer "in the head" looking "out there" at the world, a useful thing to investigate. 

A lot of people try all sorts of things to "get rid" of these sensations but I think the teachers you've asked have given you good advice. Be aware of any subtle attitude of aversion as you begin to meditate. Feeling these unpleasant sensations with a curious, gentle and open awareness is a good approach. Lightly investigating them for the three characteristics of impermanence, emptiness and unsatisfactoriness will also be helpful. 

If you wish, you could also try different postures and techniques (including standing or walking) which often can move things around energetically in a positive way. Often as practitioners we put too much emphasis on sitting practice and see it as "superior" when other techniques and embodied practices can be just as or even more skillful. 

Hope that helps! 




Sam, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: Troubleshooting Pain

Posts: 3 Join Date: 8/27/20 Recent Posts
I sincerely appreciate your response.

I think you're right that the key is working through this in the way that's typically described, the element that may be slightly different is just the intensity of the pain. So far I've found it impossible to "sit through" for very long at all, even a few minutes. Even more distressingly, if I pursue it for a longer duration it can persist for hours or even days after I'm off the cushion and interfere with everyday life. That makes it a difficult solution; maybe grinding out short sessions for weeks or months until things settle down enough to manage?

 You may be right about embodied meditation, that also seems like a good avenue to investigate. It's been much less intense with more embodied forms. Vipassana also helps although I struggle to maintain it for long without slipping back into concentration.
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Zachary, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: Troubleshooting Pain

Posts: 197 Join Date: 3/16/18 Recent Posts
Even more distressingly, if I pursue it for a longer duration it can persist for hours or even days after I'm off the cushion and interfere with everyday life. That makes it a difficult solution; maybe grinding out short sessions for weeks or months until things settle down enough to manage?

Yes, these sensations can persist while off the cushion for days, weeks or even much longer. Very normal. There is also a cyclical component to them as well that is dependent on one's current position and movement along the progress of insight. You will find that the granularity, spatial location and pleasure of them shifts over time. Gradually, you can develop a taste for all these different qualities. One can develop a sort of appreciation for even the most unpleasant sensations. 

How long they last, what they feel like experientially and when they occur is dependent on a vast amount of different conditions, but you may gradually develop a sense of what works and what doesn't as you try different things out and make changes to your lifestyle and practice. 

The best thing to do is to keep practicing and investigate these sensations in a gentle and open way with some consistency over time. 
Sam, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: Troubleshooting Pain

Posts: 3 Join Date: 8/27/20 Recent Posts
Not the answer anyone wants to hear but probably the wisest. Thank you for your advice.
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Siavash, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: Troubleshooting Pain

Posts: 1230 Join Date: 5/5/19 Recent Posts
Also Shinzen Young has a lot to say in this regard. You can find his approach and instructions on his youtube channels (expandcontract and Shinzen Videos).

And there are good instructions in Rob Burbea's jhana retreat. It's freely available on dharmaseed website.

I have a lot of these pains too, and I notice that most of the locations that have pain, I almost always tense and tighten its muscles, and it needs a constant effort to keep it relaxed. Maybe that is the case for you too.
agnostic, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: Troubleshooting Pain

Posts: 1610 Join Date: 2/26/19 Recent Posts
I had continuous facial pains for 25 years which got exponentially stronger when I started meditating 2 years ago. I even had a brain scan I was so concerned! Recently the pains have been in remission. I would second everything said here about finding the tension and resistance. If you've been tensing there for a long time it is hard to detect because it feels normal, but over time it becomes apparent. The resistance comes from not liking it. I used to see-saw between focussing on the pain and trying to ignore it, both of which seemed to make it worse. What did work was a kind of middle path between the two extremes - holding the pain gently in awareness along with the breath and slowly expanding the awareness to include other body sensations and eventually the whole body. Kind of like joining up the energy field. Eventually the pain started to dislodge and the blocked energy started flowing again and it all started to feel quite blissful. But yeah for about a year my meditation experience was dominated by painful energy waves in the face.

I also realized that I was hyperventilating and started Buteyko breathing which has helped, although it can also seem to make the pain stronger at first because it improves the concentration and makes the meditation more powerful. Other simple tips - make sure you are not dehydrated as this can cause headaches, as can a lack of sodium (use natural sea salt). You can feel this after excercising sometimes. Try to be gentle on yourself and reduce stress as much as possible. A lot of the tension which causes headaches is actually in the jaw and neck.

It helps to know that these symptoms are common and pass eventually.
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Bismuth, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: Troubleshooting Pain

Posts: 36 Join Date: 5/26/18 Recent Posts
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Jim Smith, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: Troubleshooting Pain

Posts: 958 Join Date: 1/17/15 Recent Posts
Sam:
After a few weeks of trying, I got through a two hour session and finally got it, and for a few days I could get into the jhana really easily, seemingly at will, with a little spot in my forehead radiating blissful feels.

Then abruptly it started being painful, with my face muscles in that spot tensing involuntarily until it hurt. Ever since then I get the same reaction any time I meditate too deeply, my face muscles contract and the pain starts. 

I'm not clear on where the pain is. Is it in that little spot in your forehead?

Have you tried doing relaxation exercises for your face? I can't predict if it would help but it seems like something that is worth trying.

This is part of a longer routine I do for my whole body before I begin meditating:

Close your jaw but draw back your lips in a grimace while squeezing your eyes closed.
Then open your jaw as far as possible and sitck out your tongue still keeping your eyes closed.
Then open your eyes as far as possible, bring your tongue back into your mouth and form an o with your lips.

Repeat this ten times.

Then move your jaw side to side ten times.

Then move you jaw forward and back ten times.

You could try doing this before or during the meditation session to prevent or releive facial tension.

The way I enter the jhanas is to do relaxation exercises until I feel pleasantly peaceful (see the link, it also quiets any mental turbulence, and removes unpleasant emotions), then I focus my attention on the pleasant feeling and it gets stronger. But I don't try to force my way in which just feel creepy and doesn't work. If you are getting tense meditating, maybe you should try a more relaxed posture (maybe sit in a chair using the back rest).
Ben Sulsky, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: Troubleshooting Pain

Posts: 118 Join Date: 11/5/19 Recent Posts
One of the qualities of first jhana is uncomfortable effort and one pointedness.

A good way to find 2nd jhana is to investigate the feeling of uncomfortableness from one pointed effort and be drawn towards a different state.

A wider focus as if you're looking off into the distance at a wide vista seems like a good eye posture.  Releasing the one pointedness and allowing the accumulated energy to release through the body along with the phase of the breath (or w/e object you're using) might be nice.  
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John W, modified 8 Months ago.

RE: Troubleshooting Pain

Posts: 384 Join Date: 2/11/20 Recent Posts
Hey Sam, I've also experienced head pains in the past, only for periods of weeks though and from what it seems not as intense. Though, there have been a few moments where I am sitting and my head literally feels like it's going to explode.  It's been many months now and I have hardly had any head pain.

Seconded, you might want to look into some breathing exercises and look into the concept of subtle body.  I've heard several teachers talk about this stuff in terms of 'energy imbalances' or 'blockages' and it has certainly felt that way to me.  With breath sometimes it gives you an ability to sort of play with the sensations of the breath and of your body and loosen yourself up.  Maybe you can try "breathing relaxation into" your pain.

There are also insight(s) related to this. I am not sure how helpful it is to think about this in terms of the Jhanas, as I am not really sure how 1st Jhana is related to headaches, but that might be something to investigate if you do feel like there is some connection there.  Your description does seem to follow the classic stages of insight (bliss dissolving into pain) if that helps at all.

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