“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
– Zen Aphorism 

Several months ago I began “standing”. Standing is an exercise popular in internal martial arts for cultivating chi (energy) and self-discipline. You hold a stance and over time gravity begins to exert greater amounts of pressure on your legs. The discipline comes from maintaining your posture as the strain increases.

I’d had some success with two-leg postures, but discovered with single leg I couldn’t do much more than a minute before experiencing severe discomfort, and it was impossible for me to hold the stance for any length of time.

I started doing 50-squats a day to help build up my leg muscles. This helped to a degree, and I was able to make it to the 3 minute mark. However, the ability to stay in the posture remained a struggle and I had to continuously fight the urge to come out of it.

It was the night I first made it to 4 minutes that I had a break-through. As I stood, breathing deeply and mildly despairing at my fate, awareness clicked into place.

I realized that the discomfort in my legs was not a big deal. It wasn’t just that I could distract my mind from the pain, it was that the pain itself was not important. I didn’t stop feeling it or do anything to change the situation, but I let go of the charge associated with the discomfort.

In life we tend to seek out good feelings and try to avoid bad feelings. This creates a sense of “wrongness” around painful emotions, adding intensity to difficult experiences.

If we feel bad, either we or someone else did something wrong. Blame, anger, guilt, resentment all build up in resistance to feelings of sadness, disappointment, or pain.

Even voluntarily holding a posture, it was easy to become angry at my teacher or feel guilty I wasn’t doing a better job. It was something to recognize there was no wrong about the burning in my legs, it was simply part of the stance. When that was okay, my entire experience of standing changed. I found freedom.

When I let go of the charge around discomfort, my thought processes were no longer trapped in reaction to it. Instead of the loop “something needs to change”, I opened to the consideration, “what is available for me here?” If feeling better is no longer the priority, negative experience is no longer so captivating. My mind is not caught up in guilt or resentment, and I relax deeper into the present, where change happens.

Suppose feeling bad isn’t a bad thing. It is simply part of your experience. 

Suppose the struggle to stop feeling bad is part of what gives negative emotions power in your life. What happens if you open deeper to your experiences regardless of whether or not you like them? What happens if absence of discomfort is no longer the measure by which you gauge a successful life? What becomes possible?

For myself, I stopped caring so much if I liked something or not and focused on how it served me. I found that everything will serve whatever energy I engage it with, even if it’s something I don’t like. If I engage it with peace, peace grows.

And I went from standing 4 minutes on each leg to 6 in a matter of days. Very soon I’ll try for 7.