This article was originally written for The Fallbrook Village News, featured in their April 2018 issue. Photo credit: Shane Gibson
In our current culture, much of our time is spent avoiding pain. Pain “killers”, meds, staying single (wink wink), avoiding those challenging conversations. Pretty much anything can be used to avoid pain. It’s understandable, especially when we associate pain with “something is wrong”. “I did something wrong, you did something wrong, there must be something wrong here if I’m in pain.” Yet, pain is much more nuanced than the binary options of right vs. wrong.
There are times when pain is a warning – “Hey, if you keep doing that something will be wrong. Stop.” It can be a whisper or a shout, especially if it wasn’t heard the first time, or the second, or third. It’s trying to get your attention.
Other times, when we start to feel more – perhaps a layer of numbness is thawed or our defenses go down – pain suddenly shows up. I see this often in massage. New clients will come in and need heavy pressure in order to feel something. But with time and regular massages, the tissues soften, more blood flows, allowing more sensation and feeling. They end up wanting less and less pressure. This pain says something like “I’ve always been here. Feel me. Be with me.” It’s often old and has a message. Like a friend who just wants to chat and be heard over a cup of tea more than they want you to solve all their problems.
Most commonly, pain is a fear; a mental projection we brace against. The other week I saw a child running towards his mom, crying loudly holding his finger. It looked as if his finger nail was bent back. I cringed and my stomach knotted. On closer inspection, a little bit of his skin had pulled away, and he was back playing with his friends in no time, without a thought of his finger. We think it, we fear it, and in those moments, there is a disconnect from what we are actually feeling in the present.
Pain as fear is often a sensation that quickly turns into a story. That story challenges our image of ourselves, and our mind exaggerates the actuality of the situation. A way to work with this kind of pain is to turn towards it with curiosity and notice what it feels like. This is how my dad Craig practiced 40 years of dental work without Novocain: he’d break it down into sensation. “That’s sharp and cold, pointed, warm, etc.” Note: I’m not saying to try this at home! It takes a special kind of will and conviction to do that. Yet the fear and the story of having dental work was not attached to the experience, and hence, allowed him to keep going year after year.
So why all this talk of pain? Well, because it’s not going away. We live in a world of sensation, of feeling, and throughout our lifetime we will continue to experience both pain and pleasure. Yes, there are pains that will lessen, some will go away, and seeking a comfortable pain-free life is a worthy aspiration. It’s what I have chosen to do for a living – help people reduce their pain and discomfort. Yet to avoid pain means we let it rule our lives by circumambulating it. To move towards pain, to be in relationship with it, opens up a whole new realm of possibility on our livelihoods. We become freer – our joy and spirit untethered by the ebbs and flows of pain and pleasure.