Physical discomfort is an unavoidable part of being human. If we are lucky, the discomforts are relatively minor for most of our lives. But even the most fortunate of us will ultimately get sick, sometimes painfully, and die. Modern medicine provides some remedies for pain, but often with unwanted side effects, and sometimes with unsatisfactory results. Therefore, it behooves us to develop alternative strategies. Mindfulness is a very powerful alternative. In fact, many long-term mindfulness practitioners began the practice because they could find no other way to deal with their intractable pain.
Although we can try to practice mindfulness in a comfortable posture (my friend and sometime co-teacher Stephanie Nash says "There is no shame in padding") if we sit long enough in one position, it will start to hurt. Rather than being a problem, this is actually an opportunity. It is an opportunity to learn use mindfulness methods to process discomfort in carefully metered doses. How do we do this?
The usual strategy for processing discomfort is to tighten up and turn away. Stated differently, we make an enemy of our discomfort and resist it. This "white knuckle" approach is not very effective at relieving our suffering. Mindfulness offers two alternatives to this standard approach: focus away from the discomfort or focus into the discomfort.
Focusing away might at first sound like the usual struggling resistance, but it has two fundamental differences. The first difference is that the concentration power of the trained mindfulness practitioner allows them to fill consciousness so completely with other sensory experience that there is little room left for discomfort to occupy. This is the pain management strategy of the famous Lamaze natural birth method, in which attention is focused away from contraction pain and into sensations of the breath. The second difference from the typical strategy of resistance is that in mindfulness we try to infuse the discomfort with equanimity. Even though the discomfort is outside our focus range in the focus away strategy (called "distraction space"), to the extent it still occupies some consciousness as a distraction we give it complete permission to be there. This is called background equanimity or equanimity with distraction space.
The other mindfulness strategy, focusing INTO the discomfort, may seem like a recipe for torment. But here the we come face to face with the real magic of mindfulness. It turns out that by focusing into discomfort we put our brains into a corner from which there is only one path out - equanimity. When our nervous system finds that equanimity, and drops resistance, the discomfort stops being an enemy that causes suffering and becomes a flowing energy. Stated another way, equanimity with discomfort eliminates the adversarial relationship that makes you the victim and the pain the assailant. When pain becomes "nothing personal", it ceases to cause suffering.
So here is how you focus into discomfort:
Turn your attention to the discomfort, ignoring everything else. Thoughts may arise. Just ignore them. Try to bring as much clarity to the sensation of discomfort as you can. Become a dispassionate cartographer or your own pain sensation. Be aware of as many qualities of the sensation as you can - size, shape, emotional "flavor", and ESPECIALLY movement. Dynamic qualities such as expansion, contraction, shape-shifting, changing location, changing emotional "flavor", changing intensity, and so on. Allow your fascination with the details to carry you into a state of non-resistance. And that's it. Concentration, sensory clarity, and complete acceptance of the discomfort. Drop any notion of making it "go away".
An acquaintance once told me the following story. She had to have back surgery. The unfortunate aftermath was agonizing, unrelenting pain. She suffered terribly, until one day her brain discovered equanimity. She described it like this: "I stopped fighting it, and instead cradled my pain in my loving arms like a crying baby." And that was the end of her suffering. Her injury forced her brain into a corner from which equanimity was the only escape.
So when we have discomfort during our mindfulness practice, that is an opportunity to develop the mindfulness skills for processing the inevitable discomforts of life.