Thoughts on Pain
Yesterday I read a beautifully written excerpt about pain by David White and it got me thinking, again, about pain. I’ve been writing about it in ways that have been as-yet invisible, as I’m digging deep into the questions of: who do I best serve, and how, and why?
And, I hurt my foot at Aikido the other night.
We’ve all heard the wisdom of “pain is your body telling you something.” But many of us have gotten so very far from our bodies, and also from our feelings, that we may wrack our brains to try and figure out what it is that is being spoken by the pain. We’ve forgotten, at least to some degree, how to ask our bodies straight up without going through an immense thought process of cause and effect along the lines of: well, I ate some wheat two nights ago, so maybe that’s why my guts hurt today. Or, maybe not. Maybe it has to do with the fight I had with my mom last week. Or not. Etc.
Sometimes pain is simple and you know where it came from and likely what will heal it. Like my foot: I caught my big toe on the edge of one of the firm Aikido mats and it pulled away from the rest of my foot. Now it hurts between my first two toes and feels bruised on the sole. I took care of it by putting on bruise cream with arnica and not wearing my between-the-toes sandals for a couple of days and instead slightly limped around in my softest slippers and tried not to walk too much.
Except for some feelings of sympathy for myself and some minor complaining, there’s not much more I can do for that foot but wait.
Other pain is far, far more complicated.
I believe that complicated pain is a combination of an incident to the body on any level, external or deeply internal, and emotions within the body.
The pain can begin from the physical level or the level of the emotions.
Maybe it starts with stashing stuff – emotions, events, thoughts about ourselves – in our bodies that is hard to feel and process in the moment that it is happening, and pain wraps itself around this.
Maybe it starts with an incident to the body that we don’t have the time or the capacity at that moment to heal fully, and emotion falls into this body-based sinkhole of unprocessed stuff.
We can go for YEARS carrying tangled up pain and emotion. Or this process can happen all of a sudden.
Maybe we notice the pain, maybe we don’t. But then one day, something happens and BAM! We can’t ignore it anymore. Now the pain is interrupting our ability to do life in a way that we want to.
And what I am saying here is that by now you might have been carrying this for a long time and it’s not so straightforward as going to see your doctor and getting it fixed lickety split. You might need to unpick years’ worth of feelings that you don’t quite know how to get at.
Back to my relationship with Aikido, though not about my foot.
For about two years, I practiced Aikido while carrying a huge amount of fear of forward rolls, which are an essential element of Aikido – you get thrown, you roll over your shoulder and down your back and leap up again, ready to move back into the technique.
I couldn’t seem to learn how to do them without injuring my shoulders. Again and again and again. I would start to get really tired on the way to Aikido and wonder if I was getting sick and maybe I shouldn’t go. I was resisting it and wanting it at the same time.
In 2004, long before beginning my relationship with Aikido, I had a bicycle accident where I was thrown forward off of my bike and found myself in a smashed-up heap on the pavement. And before that by a couple of years I had a similar, though much less dramatic, bike accident where I was also thrown forward and landed in a heap on a stony dirt path.
I could clearly see the relationship between these two bicycle accidents and my inability to throw myself into a forward roll with any competence, but I could not get at the fear that was in my body. I didn’t even at first really recognize it as fear, I just termed it “holding” – as in my shoulders are holding something.
“You’re afraid,” one Sensei declared abruptly. Oh. Yes, I guess I am, but what the hell can I do about it?
If I hadn’t been so in love with Aikido, I probably would have given up. I wanted so badly to be able to do this well. At one point I had to stop going to Aikido for several months because I had damaged my collar bone area by trying, and failing, to roll.
I went for massage and Rolfing and chiropractic. I saw my intuitive and shamanic healers. I also sat in gentle inquiry with my body: what are you saying, shoulders, what do you need from me? I stretched. Slowly, slowly my shoulders healed. I started rolling with more confidence. I had witnessed and eaten the fear that I had been holding for years, one small bite at a time.
My takeaway from all of this? That processing some kinds of pain is work that takes our own kind attention AND help from people who do hands-on body work AND help from people who help us tend our emotional selves.