Leaning into pain

Pain is a gateway to bring our attention to our body and change what is not healthy into something that is

  1. Pain is a part of life. We cannot live fully without experiencing emotional and physical pain yet our culture socialises us to expect to live without pain, and does not equip us to lean into it, to work with it.
  2. Pain draws our attention to an area and asks us to change.
  3. Pain is the body’s effort to be healthy – it requires us to change in order to protect our life and enable us to fulfill our potential.

Pain is a part of life. We cannot live fully without experiencing emotional and physical pain yet we learn to expect to live without pain and to resist it, which only makes it worse.

We do certain things, things work out for us, and we are happy and healthy.  We do the same things in different situations and something else happens: we fall off our bicycle and break an ankle, we lose a friendship that we valued. The experience of being alive is the on-going cycle of these experiences. They teach each of us as individuals about what works, what doesn’t and what we need to do to make things better.

Physical pain comes when our body is injured or damaged in some way. Emotional pain comes from an injury to our sense of who we are, when someone has disrespected us, or neglected us, or left us: the pain of loss tells us how precious someone is or something has been to us.

Life without pain would be a shallow existence and yet it is the one that we are educated by our culture to expect. Somehow we have a culture in which to be in pain is seen as a failing, a weakness.  In our society, pain is perceived as something unwanted, even shameful. To be in pain is to be weak, and this is perceived as a problem.

If we are hurt by someone, or feel betrayed, or lose the love of someone on whom we depend, whom we love, we are expected not to show pain, not to show the hurt, but to ‘put on a brave face’, and swallow it down. We are expected to bottle up our emotional pain, to hold it down, not to feel or express it, and we achieve this, often without being aware that we are doing it, by tensing the muscles around our chest, limiting our breathing and in doing so, creating an armour around our heart, which leads to health problems in later life.  Avoiding and disconnecting from emotional pain means avoiding and disconnecting from life, which means disconnecting from all of life, from joy, pleasure, excitement, as well as from emotional hurts.

Similarly, in our society, physical pain is not to be endured, with ‘pain killers’ used to remove it.   When pain is acute, it is sharp and immediate, grabbing all of our attention, making it impossible to do anything else. Chronic pain is there is the background, calling our attention. In both cases, pain directs attention to an area of the body in order to attract healing and energy from the rest of the body.

The body is designed with healing properties, it knows about physical damage, brings pain to direct our attention to the area and the need to heal it, and to rest so that the body can take care of itself and survive. And it knows about the physical pain that emotional wounds create, and how these can be healed in the same way, by accepting them by breathing fully, expanding and opening the body to allow the pain to be there and then dissolve. 

If we interrupt this healing process by over-relying on pain-killers or by numbing ourselves out with alcohol, food, drugs or over-work, the body’s healing energy will not be activated, and pain will remain stuck in the body, always there, an ever-present reminder.

Pain draws our attention to an area and asks us to change

Pain is a message calling for change. It alerts us to a threat, stimulates our survival instincts, and awakes our strength. Pain is there to wake us up and force us to notice that we are doing something that is not good for us. Pain is a useful force, it forces us to find solutions and move to new places.  Pain is our bodyguard: it protects us.  We need to learn to value it and not fight it, so that we can experience the waves of healing energy that accompany pain.

It is difficult to ignore chronic pain.  The experience of pain draws our attention to the area, forces us to take notice to it. Pain is the result of tension, of energy collecting in an area and getting stuck, rather than flowing. The tension comes from experience and emotions that have not been felt and digested. If we can take an attitude of interest, curiosity and concern for this thing we call ‘pain’ and the area of the body in which we perceive it, we can bring our focused attention to it, notice what is happening, describe the sensations of how the pain feels when it appears, where it is experienced intensely, and how it affects the body as a whole. In this way, pain can be a gateway, to draw our attention to our body, to an area that we have not been aware of, to a pattern of holding tension that we are not aware of, to experiences that we have not yet digested and to the need to change something about how we are living in our body.

In this way, the body is a teacher, drawing our attention to specific aspects and demanding that we do something different. If we can recognise pain within this dynamic, that it is a part of us and not something ‘out there’ and hostile, that is being imposed on us, we have the opportunity to learn how we create chronic pain, through the patterns held in the muscular-skeletal system. Numbing out the pain with painkillers means that we don’t have this information about the need for change, we don’t respond to the body’s message of urgency, of the need to change and do something new. 

When we push against pain, it gets worse. Pain reduces when we stop fighting it. When we stop our rigidity, our contracting to protect ourselves from experiencing pain, pain itself reduces.  Muscles relax, causing the muscles alongside them to relax, which allows energy to flow, bringing greater softness, calm and openness to the body and silence in the mind.  Bringing attention to pain through respectful touch and concentration brings a message that this pain is acknowledged. Touch is an invitation to the muscle to relax.  Breathing fully, bringing more energy into the body, and bringing the person’s attention to the area will further encourage this process. Inviting the contracted muscles to resist or contract, to intensify the movement and then relax brings even more attention to the area, and more relaxation and expansion on release of the muscles. Allowing the experience of pain and its release enables us to become stronger and gives us back energy that was stored in the area of pain.

Pain is the body’s effort to be healthy – it requires us to change in order to protect our life and fulfill our potential.

Pain hurts. Its function is to alert us that something is wrong and that we need to do something about it. Pain not only wakes us up and directs our attention to where it is needed, it is accompanied by a wave of healing energy.  If we can learn to breathe and relax into pain, whether physical or emotional, we can dissolve the constellation of stuck energy that creates the very experience that is the pain we are feeling.  The heart, lung and ribs can expand and bring in more oxygen and tense muscles can relax, the healing energy can start to flow.  If there is is no pain, and no relaxing into pain, there is no wave of healing energy and the body suffers, we suffer.

Fear of pain can cause us to contract in our body, as though by doing this we can somehow protect ourselves from the pain, and repel the feeling of pain from our body.  But contracting perpetuates the pain, it maintains it, feeds it. What is needed is expansion not contraction, to release what has become stuck.  Release comes from the combination of deep breathing and the energy it brings, and the bringing of focused attention to an area, from the body paying attention to itself.

If we change how we respond to pain, we can allow pain, and benefit from its healing energy.  Instead of being small and contracted in response to pain, accumulating more and more tension and pain in our body with each new situation that doesn’t work for us, we can enter situations differently, and allow pain to be experienced and the wounds to be healed. We learn to be more perceptive, and bring more attention in to the different situations that we encounter and to lean into these, learning from them and staying attentive as we encounter new situations.

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