Exercise: Stoicism for Indifference to Pain and Discomfort
This is a recording of a special psychological exercise. It's designed to be used while you're feeling pain or discomfort. For example, to test the current version I just held my laptop at arm's length for twenty minutes, which became kind of annoying after about five minutes. You could listen to this recording while engaging in certain forms of exercise, as a way of building endurance by learning to accept feelings of fatigue and physical discomfort. It could also be used to cope with chronic pain. The emphasis is on accepting unpleasant feelings and learning to view them with indifference. You might want to keep listening to the whole recording or find that you just borrow one or two ideas from it to use on your own. Either way is fine; just do whatever works best.
You’re listening to a meditation recording called Stoicism for Managing Pain and Discomfort. This is a special routine designed to be listened to while you’re experiencing some kind of physical discomfort. You can have your eyes open or closed – that’s up to you. You’ll gain the most benefit by using this recording every day for maybe 2-3 weeks or more.
Some people might be dealing with chronic pain. Others might use this recording while doing certain forms of exercise because the same techniques can be used to increase your endurance and overcome sensations of physical fatigue. You can use the recording to prepare for enduring discomfort by deliberately creating a sensation that requires practising endurance. That could be standing totally motionless for a long while or adopting an uncomfortable or tiring posture. It could also be supporting your own weight, lifting weights, walking, or running, and using these psychological techniques to help cope with feelings of tension or fatigue. Whatever you do, ensure that it is completely physically safe. Even if you just begin with a mild feeling of discomfort or tiredness, you’ll be learning exactly the same strategies many other people have employed in dealing, for instance, with severe pain like childbirth or surgery.
It’s wise to start with something easy and as you build your confidence using the strategies, move onto more challenging feelings of pain or discomfort. You’ll soon find that you’re able to endure unpleasant sensations, ignore them, or perhaps even forget about them completely. Set realistic goals for yourself, though. Some feelings can be accepted indefinitely. During physical exercise, on the other hand, you might aim to accept uncomfortable feelings for slightly longer each time, as you progressively increase your stamina and endurance. The first step to conquering physical sensations like this is to learn to accept them wholeheartedly and feel calm and indifferent toward them. Often when people really accept unpleasant feelings and stop struggling with them they become less unpleasant or at least easier to endure for longer. To begin with, therefore, just patiently accept the sensations you feel and let yourself become much more relaxed and indifferent towards them.
Now, allow yourself to imagine that with each and every moment that passes, you’re becoming more and more focused on these words. You can pay attention to other things you’re doing if you need to but your mind is becoming more absorbed in the process of accepting the feelings in your body and rising above them. As I begin counting from one all the way up to five, imagine you’re developing a more and more Stoic attitude toward your current feelings. It’s as if you’re saying to the sensations “You’re nothing to me” and adopting an attitude of profound indifference toward them.
On the count of one, imagine you’re becoming more and more centred and focused … More accepting and indifferent toward the sensations in your body … On the count of two … Your mind is becoming calm and relaxing into total acceptance, total indifference toward any discomfort whatsoever … On the count of three … Your mind is growing stronger and rising above the sensations in your body, viewing them calmly as though from a distance … On the count of four… You’re becoming completely focused on the inner strength and resilience developing within your mind … Your consciousness is much bigger and more powerful than those small sensations in the body … On the count of five … You’re entering deep into a Stoic mind-set empowered with greater self-discipline and endurance … With every breath you now take in, imagine your mind is becoming stronger and more resilient … and with every exhalation of breath, letting go and calmly accepting whatever sensations are happening in your body, with total indifference towards them.
Now as you continue to listen, just allow yourself to become more and more indifferent toward any uncomfortable sensations. Nothing bothers your mind when it separates itself from external things. Be patient, let go, and allow yourself to accept any sensations you feel more and more deeply, just seeing them as natural and indifferent bodily processes. With each second that passes, your mind can settle down more deeply into calm acceptance of the sensations in your body. With patience and calm acceptance, you’re naturally growing more and more used to the feelings passing through your awareness and while remaining completely detached from them.
You already know, deep down, that you can learn to cope more resiliently because many other people have done similar things in the past and you can take inspiration from knowing that. You just need to be confident and patient, tell yourself “I can do this” and keep practising the skills. You’re determined not to allow any feelings of pain or discomfort to stand in your way … By the end of this session, you will be more able to cope with pain and discomfort, whatever you’re doing at the time. You easily remember these skills and are able to use them just by thinking about things in the same way at any time in the future.
As you continue, just notice any automatic thoughts about the sensations in your body that may pass through your mind … Tell them “You are just a thought…” and view them from a distance … If you didn’t choose to have those thoughts … you don’t need to respond to them … Just shrug them off … Let go of any struggle with your feelings and just do nothing in response to them … Your thoughts are just thoughts … It’s not bodily sensations that upset us but our judgements about them … So suspend judgement … Withhold your opinions about the feelings you’re experiencing and just accept them with total indifference, as neither good nor bad … Allow them to remain where they are in the body, and let your mind keep its distance from them, by letting them be … These sensations belong to the body and they’re separate from the part of the mind where decisions are made about what actions you’re going to take … You can just carry on doing what you’ve chosen to do, while accepting those feelings, and observing any thoughts about them from a detached perspective ... Those feelings of discomfort can just remain there quietly in the background until they fade away.
Analysis and Transience
You’re learning to view the feelings in your body with scientific detachment, with studied indifference, almost as if they were happening to someone else and you could observe them and casually take down notes on them from a distance … You view bodily sensations as very limited in scope … They’re confined to a particular location, whereas your mind rises above them and expands far beyond them … You can divide any feeling like these into smaller parts, analyzing it into different sensations in different areas of the body … The feelings in your body naturally change over time, sometimes very slightly, sometimes very significantly … They may come and go, or be replaced by other feelings … So you increasingly focus on their transient and changeable nature … Like a flowing river, if you think about it, they’re never the same twice … Viewing your bodily sensations as temporary and ever-changing helps you to feel more profoundly indifferent toward them … You’ve experienced so many different sensations in your body, throughout your lifetime: some very pleasant, some not so pleasant, some neither here nor there … These are just more of the same, temporarily passing through your awareness.
As you continue to pay attention to these words, you’re accepting the feelings in your body more deeply, more profoundly, and more wholeheartedly … And the more deeply you accept them, the less you have to think about or pay any attention to them … You let go of any struggle with them and allow them to come and go, or remain where they are, in the body, without influencing your actions in the slightest … Your body is just fine … You can view those sensations as trivial, meaningless, and irrelevant, for the time being. You don’t care much about them any more … They don’t need to influence your actions … Think of them just like background noise … Like a radio playing in another room … If it helps, imagine smiling at them, and saying hello, but carrying on doing what you’re doing without being bothered by them any more.
Now think about the qualities of mind and character traits praised by Stoics … Endurance and self-discipline … Call to mind people you can admire for their ability to cope well with pain or discomfort, who carry on with what they’re doing even in the face of unpleasant feelings … Imagine having some of those traits yourself: strength of character and an ability to rise above physical challenges … The Stoics believe virtue is the only true good, character traits like wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline … and that everything else, including sensations of pain and pleasure is totally indifferent … That’s why they say “This is nothing to me” in response to rough or smooth feelings alike … Focus your mind on your strength of character, which fundamentally consists in your ability to keep going despite physical discomfort and despite physical urges trying to pull your strings in different directions … Keep living your life, and doing what you value, as if you’re walking straight through those feelings, not allowing them to stop you, but moving constantly forward despite them.
Now, as you continue to listen to these words, and focus on the strength of character you’re developing … You realize that the virtues and psychological skills you’re using to deal with these feelings right now can be used to deal with many other situations in the future … Whether you’re learning to endure pain, fatigue, or discomfort, it’s all fundamentally the same … Just like you’re strengthening a muscle in your body … You’re strengthening your mental endurance and self-discipline, character strengths that you can use throughout the whole of life … To deal with many different types of feelings … In other words, this is about much more than what you’re currently feeling … It’s about becoming more Stoic, more confident and more resilient every day … Being prepared for whatever you face in the future … And growing stronger in general as a person.
Now, in a moment, I’m going to begin counting from one up to five again, and this time as I do so, just allow your awareness to spread beyond your bodily sensations and grow wider in scope, as you emerge from meditation and conclude the exercise … On the count of one … let your awareness spread through the whole of your body … On the count of two, imagine your consciousness expanding far beyond those trivial feelings in your body … becoming more aware of the room around you … On the count of three, the sensations seem to shrink into insignificance as your mind rises far above and beyond them … They’re just one small part of your experience … in one small corner of your mind … On the count of four … You’re aware of everything going on around you, and focused on the way you’re using your mind and body, as you carry on with life, whatever feelings you may encounter along the way … On the count of five, you’re now emerging from this meditation exercise, taking forward a greater sense of self-awareness, greater strength, and greater confidence in yourself.