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How getting inked changed my relationship with pain

No matter what anyone says, getting tattooed is uncomfortable. You stay still for long periods of time while someone uses a mechanical needle to "drill" ink into your skin. While getting tattoos might help you cope if you’re in a funk, tattoo studios don’t seem like ideal places to meditate. They’re often loud places designed to distract you from the discomfort so that getting tattooed is fun and exciting. But, as a seasoned meditator and tattoo enthusiast, I wondered if getting tattooed could be a meditative experience.

Of course, whether getting inked can be a spiritual experience or not largely depends on the person who’s penetrating you with that inky needle. I love the artist I’ve been going to lately. Stacey is a precise artist, a stone cold fox, and easy to talk to, an ideal combo in a tattooist (or just a human in general). I love getting to hang with her for a few hours, but I noticed the first time she worked on me that when we weren’t talking, I wasn’t looking for something to keep my mind off the pain. Instead, I felt curious about it.

I closed my eyes as Stacey worked, following the lines of her gun on my skin with my mind’s eye. I noticed the subtle changes in pressure. When she first moved the gun to the softer inner skin of my arm, I observed that I started sweating, my heart rate sped up slightly. It slowed when she moved back to thicker skin.

An hour in, as my body tired, I noticed how close my nervous system felt to my skin. I felt a bit raw and my body started responding more quickly. It hurt, but it was controlled and safe pain, nothing unusual or unbearable. I had the feeling I get when I am in a good mediation, like I am able to observe my experiences without feeling assaulted by them.

Courtesy of Tracey Anne Duncan

When Stacey was finished, I felt calm and centered, like I had spent time in a spa. Stacey sprayed witch hazel onto my new tat and every pore responded, a cold rush. It all felt delightful. Not just because I had beautiful new art on my body, but also because I felt deeply aware and alive. And, I felt deeply resilient, like I had just fully experienced my discomfort and come through the other side stronger.

That doesn’t mean that anyone seek something painful or uncomfortable in a pursuit for mindfulness. “We don’t have to go looking for trouble in order to prove how far we’ve come,” says Kevin Townley, and NYC-based meditation instructor. “If you’re going to get a tattoo anyway, it’s the perfect opportunity to tune into the discomfort. But getting a tattoo to prove you can handle pain like a marine or something is maybe a little extra.”

I’ve been teaching meditation for a few years and I’ve had a daily practice for much longer. In the style I practice and teach, called “shamatha vipassana,” we keep our eyes open. My meditation teacher and author of literature on the subject, Susan Piver, always says that’s because we are trying to become aware of the fact that there is nowhere to go and nowhere to come back from. In other words, you stay in the world while you meditate because meditation is meant to help you attune to the world instead of trying to escape it.

I see meditating on the discomfort of tattoos as an extension of that sentiment. Instead of checking out into the loud metal anthem playing, I am trying to check in to the realness of my experience. It should be noted that people do try and meditate during getting tattooed as a way to manage the pain. My discomfort is both real and temporary and staying checked in helps me understand that on a visceral level.