We might also ask, Given my present situation, how long should I stay with uncomfortable feelings? This is a good question, yet there is no right answer. We simply get accustomed to coming back to the present just as it is for a second, for a minute, for an hour—whatever is currently natural—without its becoming an endurance trial. Just pausing for two to three breaths is a perfect way to stay present. This is a good use of our life. Indeed, it is an excellent, joyful use of our life. – Pema Chödrön, Taking the Leap
I think this is a very important thing to discuss. When is it okay NOT to be with what we are experiencing? Meditation is called a practice for a reason. It can be very hard and sometimes impossible before one has acquired a certain proficiency to stay with some experiences. Sometimes it’s appropriate to NOT meditate, even. When I was in acute psychiatric drug withdrawal syndrome the noise and chaos and pain and suffering was so immense that trying to deeply be with that ugliness for more than a few seconds at a time was more than I could bear. This is true for most people in acute phases of psych drug withdrawal. It’s easy to imagine all sorts of other potential sorts of situations that might be similar. Distraction and dissociation when things are that grave and chaotic are simply a way to be merciful to oneself before more skill has been developed. When trauma is that severe it’s also pure and simply about surviving. You do what you need to do to get through.
I wrote in Life as a meditation: my contemplative adventure:
My life is such that meditation was thrust upon me via grave illness…I had no choice…I was too sick to sit at all for a couple of years (while bedridden I literally could not sit up at all) and during that time the multiple symptoms I had were screaming, crazy loud pain and chaos in my being such that my only meditation was to sit with the agony a minute at a time…two minutes…three minutes in acceptance…slowly I built my capacity and slowly over years now the tone of the symptoms have diminished too. They’re still often very loud and difficult and I still often need to use a combination of meditation and sometimes simple distraction. Nothing wrong with distraction when one is in great pain. I’ve learned that too. Being kind to oneself is so important. (read more)
I have now acquired the capacity to sit with intense sorts of discomforts and pain but that has taken many years and there are certainly times I still employ distraction, though the need is far less frequent now.
I’ve written another article with accompanying links entitled: Meditation, not all bliss and roses. That article begins:
A very common misunderstanding about meditation that can lead to discouragement is that it’s supposed to be all bliss and roses. That is simply not the case on the ground, so to speak. Sometimes meditation is about being with the dark and ugly and anxious parts of our being too. Meditation is about being with the whole spectrum of human psyche and emotion. We cannot know ourselves without becoming intimate with those parts too. That means it’s just not always fun or peaceful or calm to practice meditation. Though it can lead to all those things in time. It can help us learn to live more skillfully in general.
There may also be times for some people in which it’s not appropriate to practice sitting meditation. Yoga or other body based practices may be safer and more useful at some junctures. (read more)
Being with what is also means learning to be kind to yourself. There is no such thing as a perfect meditation nor a perfect meditator.