Pain’s got a bad reputation, no?
The worst, maybe.
No one wants this dude at the party; he’s the thief of pleasure, joy, & peace—not welcome to hang out, even for a little while.
But let’s—just for the length of this blog post—let’s consider that this bad reputation may be unfair. And let’s notice that we haven’t really found out for ourselves. We’ve just assumed pain was no good.
Animals so clearly feel pain. All animals. If you’ve ever had a pet, you know this. (Each year we get a new report acknowledging that, yes, animals we didn’t think feel pain actually do …last year it was fish). But it is admittedly a bit tricky to determine how animals really feel, because they don’t act like humans when they experience pain; they don’t appear to suffer in the same way.
This is because animals don’t have a narrative about their pain. Their pain just… is.
There seems to be a natural, instantaneous progression in their bodies that goes something like this: Trigger —> Pain —> Attention —> Release. Eckhart Tolle has a beautiful description in The Power of Now of two ducks fighting; the painful conflict is over within seconds, peace returning to the pond in no time.
Animals howl & bark & wail & growl & yelp & flop & shake & run & jump & moan—all of which I highly recommend (if it feels right… and isn’t an emotional performance). With animals there is a full embrace, & the body processes the pain naturally.
For humans, (though we are critters too!) our pain is treated very differently. We drive our attention away from the pain at the time of impact (whether physical, emotional/energetic, or both), and thus we hold unresolved pain (trauma) in our bodies.
When we were hurt as a kid—whether we experienced emotional or physical pain (both physical, really)—we perceived that it wasn’t safe to express it.
We understood our hurt, our feelings to be problems. We learned this through our parents, our teachers, our whole social network’s response (whether the pain was in the form of heartache, nausea, shock, grief etc).
Perhaps we saw fear in our mother’s eyes when we were hurt on the playground, or we heard from our father that we should ‘suck it up’ and not express ourselves emotionally when our heart broke after we lost a game, lost a friend.
Or maybe our caretakers distracted us (and themselves) with toys, food, medicine, entertainment, or even ‘cheering us up’—out of their fear of our pain (and of their own).
As humans, avoidance of pain is at the root of our suffering. All addiction, all struggle, all stress, all resistance…the root is pain avoidance. And turning toward it is the crux of healing, of awakening.
Certainly this was the case for me.
I used to struggle in my marriage, operating from tangled limiting beliefs, which created suffering and conflict. Here are some of the killers:
I need to be special/right/perfect
I have to do everything, be the responsible one
I’m not good enough, worthy enough
I can’t say no
It’s not safe to have my own needs, my own desires.
Each of these thoughts were built on pain avoidance.
I didn’t want to feel that wound/pain I felt when, for instance, I was angry at 10 years old (my body saying no) and my mother couldn’t hear it, sending the message that it was not ok, that my no/my boundary was a problem (her own pain innocently in action here—i.e. her belief that she needed me to be close, to not separate from her).
So pain is deemed ‘bad.’
The ‘bad’ label is there because our limbic system is built to move away from physical threat—to protect our body from pain. This primal system has wisdom in it, but somehow it is full of bugs in the human programming.
The mind misfires and calls potentially anything a threat (for instance you might be allergic to bananas because you were eating a banana on the day of a car accident—the mental belief/conditioning is that the banana itself is a threat, and the body responds according).
Here are some examples of feelings, from myself and my clients, that have been subconsciously labeled bad/a problem: Love, freedom, openness, emptiness, ease …even peace!
Seems strange, right? How could these be bad?
Limbic/fear conditioning guns for anything that has been paired with a seeming threat in the past. If you were really open and free as a child and got a glare from mom…your limbic system picked up that openness means not safe.
So the mental labels on our feelings & experiences are entirely suspect.
This is essentially what I do all day with clients. I investigate the mental label-maker that deems things a problem, realizing along with my clients that—feeling by feeling, experience by experience—what was thought to be a problem actually isn’t.
Every sensation, every feeling, every heartbreak, every gut punch… these are not a problems.
But we will fight these sensations til the death, due to their unconscious reputation. We’ll throw anything at them—alcohol, positive thinking, distraction, sex, spirituality, meditation, therapy, medication, T.V., etc.
And pain has the number one worst reputation, so he gets it all thrown at him. But I tell you, I’ve been getting to know pain. And his reputation is bullshit.
Whenever I get triggered now—maybe an email causes frustration, a look from a friend feels judgmental…or maybe I just feel down, lonely, panicky… well, I get kind of excited, tracking for where the underlying pain is. I know deeper healing is on the horizon, if I can meet the underlying physical pain (I learned from Kiran Trace…see below).
It’s a terribly simple process.
But not at all easy, because no one is doing it. All doctors and therapists (and most spiritual teachers and healers) are attempting to rid the body of pain, to ‘treat the symptom.’ This is admirable work, of course, but when we do something out of stress/resistance/fight/‘trying to help,’ we contribute to the resistance, to the bad reputation…and we move further away from the actual healing.
So try moving toward it instead.
When you get triggered, come into your body and out of the wild mind. Throw on an embodiment meditation & feel your senses. Where do you hurt, underneath the mental & emotional storyline…? Where is there actual physical pain in your body…?
Slow down and bring attention there. Bring awareness. Bring the hug you needed when you were 7 years old. That wound is precious. And someone touching that wound is what you’ve always wanted—it’s what you’ve been looking for in your relationships, in food, in alcohol… or in your attempt to out-think/understand/analyze yourself.
We don’t have to DO anything. We don’t have to go digging in our storylines of the past. In fact, stay out of them (you need to question your thoughts, not process them). Let go of the cheap substitutes for the loving, intimate attention that you (awareness itself) can bring. Meeting the pain feels like long lost lovers embracing—so pleasurable, such a relief.
But, yes, it is a strange pleasure.
Come to my monthly community meditation here in Chicago—Embodied Together—where we meet the tension and pain in our bodies, releasing it back into Life.
For more embodiment & pain-release tools, as well as a conversation on the nature of pain, see these links:
A Disclaimer: I am not speaking of self-induced pain, nor am I attempting to discount pain’s intensity. i am also not glorifying pain—i.e. ‘No pain, no gain.’ Rather, this is an invitation; I am asking you to find out for yourself what the pain in your body actually is, what it might have to share with you…but in the gentlest, most tender sense…with no agenda, & with a willingness to make contact with it, as it is.