Lessons from Pain, Secrets of Healing (II)
4 ideas to support you in your dark night
This is Part II of a series on pain and healing. Read Part I here.
In my last post, I spoke about the way we frame the experience of pain in our minds, and how it invites us into a search for meaning. This post is a set of reminders for when you are in pain: four ideas that might nudge you onwards in the healing process.
This is the most obvious of the four, so I place it at the top more as a reminder than a new idea. When we are hurt, ill, or in pain of any kind, we need time and space to heal. The pain is a sign to (at)tend to and care for ourselves. It is not something to run away from, ignore, suppress, deny, or even ‘manage’.
This is the kind of thing I say so much that I almost don’t want to go into it any more. But the truth is, we all still need to hear it, including me, because I regularly try to wriggle out of facing the facts. Whether the pain is physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual—time and space are non-negotiable for healing.
The pressures of life make it hard to accept and acknowledge this, especially when pain is long-lasting. The belief is that I need to be getting on with things, that I’m failing, or I’m missing out, or that something or someone needs me—so I can’t afford to let go. Taking a day, a week, a month off to rest doesn’t fit in with my life plan. I have to get all this and that done, and I don’t have time to just do nothing. That’s my inner voice, but maybe it sounds similar to yours?
Implicit in these objections is the idea that all the plans I’ve made and the things I’ve got to do are more important than healing from my wounds. What’s a little pelvic pain when I’ve got meetings scheduled and projects to work on? And the discontent when physical reality intrudes on our preconceptions. I can’t let a headache get in the way of this important event that I’ve been working towards for months. These are the ingrained priorities we have to unravel and examine to see if they are really in our best interests.
We all have this secret fear that if we give in to our need for rest, everything important will pass us by. It’s like an alarm bell constantly buzzing under our skin, never allowing us to fully switch off. But we forget about the hidden cost: pain that is not given time and space to heal gets worse, not better. It might go ‘underground’ in some way that allows you to forget about it, but that’s usually a temporary fix. It’ll pop back up again somewhere else, when you’re not expecting it.
How can you free yourself from the tyranny of these thoughts that say you can’t slow down? First and foremost, embrace your own frustration and refusal to stop. And then: dive down underneath it into your fatigue and need for peace, quiet, space, softness. You could encapsulate the two parts like this: I don’t want to stop…but I’m so tired, I need to slow down. Or make up your own mantra that works. The words are a way to find the ‘I’ that needs rest and space, and let it speak to the ‘I’ that doesn’t want to stop. Go back and forth enough and maybe the two can come to an accord, a temporary truce.
All of us are doing this all the time, finding ways to reconcile conflicting impulses and end our inner wars. It’s such a relief when it finally happens. When both sides are seen and heard, there is an upwelling of energy (which was previously being used up in the fighting and the suppressing), and a real chance to move forward.
It helps to have supportive and understanding family members, housemates, colleagues, and bosses. Despite all my years of bodywork and practice, I still feel anxious and frustrated when I have to call in sick or cancel sessions. I’ve come to realise it’s a me thing, because the response from people is usually one of concern. I am fortunate to be surrounded by good people, and I don’t take advantage of it. But it’s kind of funny to reflect on it: here I am, already feeling awful and then winding myself up with paranoid suspicions that they’ll think I’m lazy, or they’ll judge me for being weak, getting injured shows I’m a bad bodyworker, while what they’re actually saying is get well soon, so sorry to hear that, sending good wishes for your recovery. As I said in my last post, pain muddles your thinking.
2. Resistance: Receptivity
Now we move from outwardly oriented beliefs to inner ones. All of us resist pain, no matter where or how it arises, no matter how much practice we have with it. It’s instinctive to shrink away from what hurts, to tense up and try not to feel it. Humans do it, animals do it, even single-celled organisms do it. Millions of years of evolution have ingrained this into us as a survival mechanism. Move away from what hurts you, and you’ll live. It works well for outer threats, but what happens when what hurts is inside you? How can you move away from yourself? By creating barriers, freezing up, tensing, and refusing to feel.
Feeling and sensation are the body’s ways of knowing. They are the way our bodies acknowledge that something exists. Not feeling is ignoring, cutting off that part from the rest, denying that it is. In the outer world, analogously, this is among the worst things that humans do to each other: exile and expulsion from the tribe. It’s about as bad when we do it to ourselves: hence, pain.
One of the fundamental premises shared by all somatic systems is the understanding that all of us are way too tense. Tension is the body’s resistance to the natural movement of life. It’s the barriers you put up without even knowing, the way you brace when you don’t want to feel or face something. Another way to think about it is that tension is the body’s response to trauma. It’s not something to blame yourself about, or judge; you’re not doing it on purpose or with any sense of conscious intention. It’s just the way we are, and fortunately we have many wonderful tools to work through it.
When I was training in somatic meditation, I spent several years during which the entirety of my practice was lying on the ground, feeling various parts of my body and releasing their tension into the earth. That’s all I did, for 20, 30, 40 minutes every day, for years. All this tension kept bubbling up, and I remember thinking: Where is this all coming from? How come it never seems to end?
We are all stuck in (literally) self-perpetuating loops of tension, because tensing up is how we maintain a sense of identity. Ego is the imposition of the solid onto the liquid, the fixed onto the changing, the static onto the flowing.And when we are in pain, the instinct is to tense up even more, to build more walls, to freeze up more spaces. Anything to stop feeling.
We have to go against the grain if we want to heal. It is incredibly hard to face your pain, to soften enough to let it in and feel it. When I try it, I immediately start to think
I can’t take this much. I can’t handle this any more. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t…
This goes on and on like a mantra in my head. And in a way, it’s true. The ‘I’ that I have been until now—the one that’s panicking and squirming and refusing to accept reality, that wants to maintain status quo, that’s trying desperately to get a handle on things and manage the pain and find solutions—that ‘I’ cannot take this. It has to die, to dissolve into the pain and be reborn in a new form. That’s what healing is. That’s why it’s so hard. Part of you has to let go and be transformed. You can think of that part as dying cells and tissues, or fragments of your wounded heart, or facets of your psyche that have reached their limit. It doesn’t matter; these are all parallel ways of talking about the same process.
There is a famous parable in the Buddhist tradition called The Two Arrows. The first arrow is the pain: what actually wounds you. The second arrow is all the extra, unnecessary suffering we create by ruminating on, interpreting and resisting our pain. Which arrow hurts more? Which one can you do something about? The secret is that most of the time, when you stop resisting, things get easier. Like I explained before, declaring an inner ceasefire frees up so much energy. Maybe the pain feels more potent for a while, but it fades away faster, and in its wake is the dawning clarity I spoke about in the previous post.
One of my meditation teachers says: ‘a meditator’s job is to learn to tolerate the intolerable.’ You may not think of yourself as a meditator, but pain could be your gateway into this skill. Wouldn’t it be a useful capacity to have, to be able to handle more and more?
Tense up, notice, relax, let go. Tense up, notice, relax, let go.
It’s a practice, to keep doing that, over and over again. Even for just a moment or two, which is about the best we can hope for in the midst of a painful experience—we can be receptive rather than resistant.
3. Rhythm: Impermanence
One reason we are able to bear pain is because it’s not permanent. Although it might feel that way, pain is like everything else in the universe: fleeting, changing, dynamic. Even in the worst experiences there are periods of reprieve.
When you cultivate somatic sensitivity, it immediately becomes clear that no two moments of pain are the same. Sometimes it comes in waves, sometimes it’s like you’re being crushed under pressure, sometimes it’s fiery and your nerves are burning, sometimes it feels like things are being torn apart…you get the idea. Why does this matter? Not so you can dissect and analyse your pain, but so that you can recognize its different faces and forms, and come to realize it’s not a monolithic monster to run away from or fight.
Receptivity and rhythm are bound together, and rely on each other. When you are able to be receptive to your pain, you start to sense its rhythm—and when you sense its rhythm, you are able to let go and be more receptive. My mantra for this is usually something like it’s not forever. This calms my hysterical conviction that I’m going to be stuck this way for the rest of my life (a belief that often surges out of the tangled mind of pain). The famous version of this mantra is this too shall pass. As ever, you can find your own words or ways to self-soothe and remind yourself of impermanence.
The notion of rhythm attunes us to moments of lightness and space within and around our hurt. These are the moments that keep us going, that give us strength to face our wounds. Especially when pain is chronic, we need to find spaces of safety and joy where we can unwind a little, release some tension, and restore ourselves. Seek out beauty, peace, connection, relaxation—whatever you love and crave. Amplify these experiences and use them to nourish yourself so you can heal. In a way we have help from the world in doing so, because pain sensitises us so much that both the good and the bad feel exquisite and profound. In other words, even the smallest reprieve can be monumental when we are so vulnerable. Simple things like a gorgeous piece of music, a familiar or evocative scent, a small object of beauty—it all helps.
My final suggestion is not to give up hope. Despair is not conducive to healing, nor to letting go into the next phase of your journey (if that’s where you are at). Remember that it is not the thing you hope for that matters, but the energy of hope itself that keeps life going, in whatever form it is meant to take.
This is a stunning clip on the power of hope that gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. It also speaks to the power of imagination, another faculty that can be powerfully supportive in times of pain. The video is only 5 minutes long, but I think it will touch you deeply, if you let it. Watch till the end, and note the evolution of ideas embodied (from micro to macro back to micro) as the game progresses.
I leave you with one of the most charged verses from the Radiance Sutras. Implicitly, it is an invitation to turn towards the pain, surrender to it—let it dissolve you and form you afresh. It takes courage, but I believe all of us have it within us to accept this invitation. Here goes:
Sting of a wasp. Rip of a nail. A razor's slice. The needle's plunge. A piercing word. A stab of betrayal. The boundary crossed. A trust broken. In this lacerating moment, Pain is all you know. Life is tattooing scripture into your flesh, Scribing incandescence in your nerves. Right here, In this single searing point Of intolerable concentration. Wound becomes portal. Brokenness surrenders to Crystalline brilliance of Being. —Radiance Sutras 70
Thank you for reading. I hope these words brought you ease, whether you are in pain or not. Please share your thoughts and responses with me in the comments.
Next I will be sending out a simple healing meditation that you can put on when you want to be guided in unwinding. In that post I will also include some easy and practical tools I’ve found helpful when I’m in pain to support my healing process: breath, hot-cold therapy, and a couple of nervous system resets for post-pain recovery.
Finally, if you enjoy my writing, please share it with friends, and consider giving me a tip (via PayPal) to show your appreciation.
For a deep exploration of this topic, check out the work of Will Johnson, specifically his book The Posture of Meditation. I subscribe to his newsletter just for his delightful and profound somatic takes on these topics.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without words
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea
Yet never in extremity
It asked a crumb of me.