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Pain, Part 2: The Essay
Think you can outwit the genius of pain? Think again.
This essay is a follow-up to Pain, Part 1: The Poem, which I published two weeks ago. Frankly, pain is such an expansive subject, I could probably write Parts 3-300 and still not cover it all. So here is just one slice of the pain pie, with others possibly to follow… MPM
A lifetime ago, I acted in commercials — one of which was for Aleve, the well-named painkiller. In it, I was a pet shop owner who gets headaches from the stress of birds flying out of cages, bags of food mysteriously bursting open, and dogs shaking sudsy spray in my face.
All I had to do, I over-informed my “husband,” was to take two Aleve. And then? Back to my old self again!
If only our lives were that simple.
Most of the human beings I know use painkillers for real pain, not fluffy manufactured inconveniences. We’re recovering from surgery, losing sleep over debt, grieving loved ones, working two jobs, caretaking elderly parents, fighting with partners, or dealing with long-ago injuries — physical, emotional, and mental.
The pain we all feel is real, and “taking just two Aleve!” isn’t going to cut it.
I won’t bore you with the logical, scientific reasons you already know why human beings avoid pain. Bottom line: we all do it, because it’s an evolutionary hard-wire, without which the human race would probably perish.
Yet no one wants to feel pain, so throughout our evolution on this planet we’ve harnessed our creative minds to concoct ways of anesthetizing it: drinking fermented stuff, ingesting powdered stuff, smoking dried stuff.
Eons ago , though, that “stuff” wasn’t all that available. Most ordinary folk didn’t have access to a Total Wine & More, and distilling your own painkiller was a time suck.
Since then, technology wrought by human ingenuity has brought abundant, affordable, legal ways to circumvent a toothache, heartache, or backache. We now take plentiful prescriptions. We over-shop, over-eat, and over-exercise. We plug into our phones for an endless stream of narcotizing distractions. (I don’t need to list them; we all know what and who they are.)
None of these activities, taken in isolation and done in moderation, is inherently wrong.
The problem is, pain is good for us.
There aren’t enough words for pain, which is something you learn early if you do anything athletic. In my first yoga class, the teacher was obsessed with making sure the word was never used. I snickered quietly to myself every time he said “breathe into any sensation you might be feeling, and feel free to back off if the sensation is too much.”
Say it! Pain! It’s pain! Let’s not sugarcoat this!
Over time, I’ve appreciated his delicacy. Can you really call it pain, when it serves to inform you that you need to take better care of your body, or that you need to change something in your life? How about when it let you know that you experienced great love?
(There ARE more words for pain, but we tend to narrow our vocabulary to a catchall. More on that later. For now, for simplicity, I’ll stick with the catchall.)
“No pain, no gain.”
This annoying cliche migrated from sports training to our everyday lingo, for good reason. Before the usefulness of pain was turned into a slogan, it was known for eons as a great truth. Yes, it’s susceptible to extremism — in this case fostering masochistic, or even worse, sadistic, harmful behavior — but truth resides at its moderate center, and that’s where I’d like to meet it.
Of course pain creates gain. We can all point to pain-delivered lessons learned in our lives. In fact, if you can’t, you’re probably either psychotic or dead.
Some of those lessons are physical (“the next time I fall while waterskiing, for god’s sake, I’m letting go of the tow rope”), some are emotional (“firing off emails when I’m enraged is not helpful”), and some are a combination of the two (“if I drink too much, I say yes to the wrong people”).
Christopher Wallis, author of Tantra Illuminated, describes pain and suffering as part of a feedback mechanism that the universe uses to warn of misalignment. It’s a road sign that says, Slow the Hell Down or Yield, Dammit!, an indication that you’re moving in a direction that isn’t serving your highest purpose.
So if pain is our teacher, and we’ve known it forever, can we welcome it, rather than run from it as we so often do?
When Charlie, my eldest child, first started Waldorf kindergarten, I was swept up in the tender beauty of the classroom. The soft lighting and colors, the silky smoothness of natural materials, the conscious attention to every detail… I sighed with relief. Here was a cocoon of safety for my vulnerable little boy.
One day, I picked him up at the end of the school day and buckled him into his carseat next to his younger sister Maddie for the ride home. He popped his thumb in his mouth and stared out the window as we pulled out of the parking lot, while Maddie peppered him with questions: “What did you eat? What did you do? Did you dig in the sandbox?”
He pondered for a moment, then pulled his thumb out and began to tell her the story, with an astonishing level of detail, of a fairy tale his teacher had told that day. It had all the elements I expected: multiple siblings, a forbidding forest, some kind of quest. Maddie and I listened, rapt.
Then he matter-of-factly recounted the part of the story where the heroine of the story chopped off her own finger to overcome some evildoer.
Maddie kept listening, taking in that gruesome act with total aplomb while I, on the flip side, felt my hands tighten on the wheel. What kind of crazy school tells this kind of story to my child? To any child??
Many concerned phone calls and tense parent/teacher conferences later, I finally understood. Stories help all of us, particularly children, to make sense of the world. Each tale told and received creates a roadmap, a guide to return to when they’re lost.
If we’ve never presented our children a picture of the world that includes both the light and the dark, if we feed them only pictures that prettify the world in the hopes of keeping them safe, we actually keep them locked inside a cell of permanent illusion with no tools to set themselves free, and little fortitude to survive difficult times.
I’m sympathetic to the argument that if all children were presented with tales of a perfect world, then perhaps they could usher that world into reality. Who knows? Perhaps there have been such unrecorded utopias before us. I’m open to that possibility.
I’m also not advocating a steady diet of Grimm’s Fairy Tales for children, or police dramas and slasher films. I know a parent who showed his 4-year-old the movie “Backdraft” because his kid liked fire engines. No, that’s not the takeaway.
I’m suggesting that there is value in allowing our gaze to fall on the totality of human experience, not just cherry-picking only “the light.” My kids may not be perfect, but they have grown up meeting pain with curiosity and resilience, a skill they learned from an education that embraced shadows as integral.
(There’s much more to say on this topic, about the culture of fragility that seems to have engulfed our society at the moment. I’m currently reading The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, recommended to me by my now-adult son Charlie. I’ll be writing about it down the road, so stay tuned.)
I mention my experience with Fairy Tales mainly to illustrate how intellectually knowing that pain is a teacher does not make it any easier to welcome it. I, like everyone else on Earth, have to work concertedly against the natural, powerful inclination to run from it.
Giving birth was one time in my life when I didn’t run.
All three of my nearly 10-pound babies arrived on this planet with no anesthesia in their bloodstreams. When I told other mothers that, most of them thought I was nuts. Why would I voluntarily choose to experience that kind of pain, when relief was just a syringe away? At the time, my answer was all about the baby; I wanted him or her to come into this world alert and awake, present to those first moments of life.
Make no mistake; what I experienced on all three occasions, that tsunami of being rent asunder down under, was beyond anything I had ever (or have ever since) felt. It was not “sensation,” dear yoga teacher. It was definitely pain with a capital P. Each time, I actually thought I might not survive it.
I read an article once that told the tragic story of a woman who started suffering significant, unusual pain during childbirth. Her attending physicians explained away her body’s warning signals that something wasn’t right, and medicated her more and more — attempting to deaden the pain that was there for a reason. Her baby was born healthy; she did not survive.
My answer now to the question, “Why would anyone voluntarily choose to experience pain?” has multiple parts, but the overall theme is this: pain is information, and as such, is there for a reason. Pain is never arbitrary.
That’s why I felt it was important to accept the pain that accompanied childbirth. I figured it had to have a reason, even if I didn’t know at the time what it was. I still don’t know, though I’ve come up with a number of suppositions: maybe the pain is a natural form of birth control, or it creates a trauma bond between mother and child. My favorite: maybe the pain’s intensity makes the eventual arrival of this new being all the more sweet, welcome, and cherished.
All of those may be true, or none of them. In the end, it might not really matter.
in Tantra Illuminated, Wallis describes a process of learning from painful experience that I’ve not seen elsewhere:
“…you don’t have to understand it with your mind; you simply open to it in full awareness and without resistance, whether it is painful or pleasurable, and the learning happens automatically.”
Over the span of my life so far, I have gradually embraced the idea that everything is for my awakening, and have attempted to cultivate gratitude for even the most painful parts. But I’ve also believed that unless I could intellectually pinpoint the actual lesson or “gift” of learning, I hadn’t really received it.
Wallis’s concept — that if I am open to the pain, the learning comes, regardless — is a revelation for me. When I imagine it, my brain melts into a place of welcome relief. Does yours, too?
If what he’s positing is true, then it might serve as an answer to the question I posed earlier: can we welcome pain, rather than run from it?
For some, physical pain is far preferable to emotional pain. Those individuals don’t run from it; they sprint full tilt towards it, pushing their muscles and heart and lungs to their absolute limits, certain that the searing pain is making them stronger. Which it is. No pain… yada yada yada.
Yet some of these same individuals will do just about anything to avoid emotional pain, even in its most benign forms — an uncomfortable conversation, for example. Would knowing that they were gaining an inner strength be enough to turn them toward the discomfort, rather than away? Could they apply that catchy slogan to their own personal development? “No emotional pain, no evolutionary gain”?
Healing trauma isn’t exactly like that scene in Shawshank Redemption, when Andy Dufresne crawls through a 500-yard sewer pipe, a “river of shit,” to escape his prison, but at times it can feel that way. It’s a challenge, for sure. But oh, the freedom at the end — a gift from the universe. From Pain, Part 1: The Poem:
I sobbed over it in my lap
until it opened itself, oyster-like,
and its emptiness
spilled pearls of light at my feet.
It has taken a lifetime
to thank you for the gift
that was and always shall be:
growth, wrapped in pain
If you accept that pain is the messenger, not the message, then you begin to see that Aleve shouldn’t really be called a “painkiller.” Pain can’t be “killed,” because it’s never the true source of the problem. The source is whatever is sending that message of pain: a faltering marriage, stress, a stultifying job, or, if you keep following the thread of pain far back enough, unresolved trauma. (To dive into the relationship between emotions and back pain, check out the work of the late Dr. John Sarno.)
What we use over and over to deaden pain, the “painkillers,” are really just “painpostponers.” They provide temporary relief from our misaligned situations, allowing us to kick the can down the road until, as my hypnotist-husband says, “we’ve suffered enough.”
Look. All life will have pain; that’s the message of just about every religion on the planet. In a perfect (read: healthy) world, we would 1) feel the pain, 2) follow it back to its source, and 3) heal it then and there. But our world doesn’t encourage that kind of direct process. In fact, that sequence of events often gets hijacked before it even starts — most of us don’t feel the pain. At the first sign of discomfort, we reach for the painpostponers.
To be fair, sometimes the situation just doesn’t allow for immediate feeling. I sure wouldn’t want a firefighter to show up at my burning house and burst into tears at the scene.
But in those times when nothing is on fire, I invite you to create your own version of “pain-free.” It’s not what commercials tell you it is. It’s living in such a way that pain is not allowed to get stuck. You feel it — all of its prickly icky discomfort, the shortened breath, the ache, the sorrow, the pangs, the hurt (remember all the words for pain we rarely use? Now’s the time!) — and stay with it, patiently and lovingly, until it decides it’s ready to move on.
And it will move on.
In fact, you may notice that the more you allow pain to flow unimpeded through you, without resistance, the more the pain actually diminishes. Pain always lessens when you relax, because it’s the fear of pain that creates resistance, rigidity, and tension in the body — a feedback loop that builds and grows in intensity and more pain. Ironic, isn’t it? Or maybe not. Maybe that’s the point.
If we can welcome pain from the start, breathe into it and trust in the transformative wisdom that is its gift, we might find that it no longer possesses the power over us it once had.
So… no thanks, Aleve. Who wants to be their old self again? Not me.
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