The Alchemy of Pain

photo by Jairo Alzate (
“Our backs
tell stories
no books have
the spine to
carry. “
- Rupi kaur


Whether physical or emotional, chronic or acute, it is the thing we do our best to avoid. We try and numb it, suppress it with medication and we resist experiencing pain as much as is possible. 
But is pain really the enemy? 
The butterfly breaking through the chrysalis undergoes pain in order to grow. It is an important part of the process of transformation. 
Is it not perhaps possible to learn from our pain and also transform it into wisdom?

What is pain?

The definition of pain by the International Association for the Study of Pain’s is: “Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”

Pain is classified into:
- Nociceptive (where pain is caused by tissue damage/inflammation which stimulates pain receptors/nociceptors); 
- Neuropathic (where pain is due to injury of the neural pathway);
- Psychogenic as in conditions such as anxiety and depression (often these are secondary conditions and accompany physical pain).

Pain is not considered a condition in itself, but rather a symptom of an underlying condition. The body has many pain receptors (nerve endings present in most bodily tissues), that respond to damaging or potentially damaging stimuli. Basically when we experience pain it is because these pain receptors respond to the damaging stimuli and contact second-order pain transmission neurons in the spinal cord which then in turn relay the message through well defined pathways to the brain. It is thought that the processes underlying pain perception involve primarily the thalamus and cortex areas of the brain. We experience the pain and react accordingly (as with removing our hand from the hot stove) in order to avoid the continued experience of pain.

So we know pain is important as it has an evolutionary function, protecting us from harmful stimuli and causing us to withdraw from damaging situations. It is part of the body’s defense system and is vital to healthy survival. But pain is complex. Sometimes it can arise in the absence of any detectable stimulus, damage or disease. Plus studies have shown that when people feel emotional pain, the same areas of the brain get activated as when people feel physical pain: the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex.

Over the last three centuries there have been a huge number of theories on pain, from Descartes to Specificity theory to Intensive theory as medical scientists try to understand and cure pain. In the mean time, more and more of us experience debilitating pain that interferes with our quality of life. It is a major symptom in many medical conditions and pain continues to be the most common reason for physician consultations in most developed countries. We are a world in pain.

My pain.
I am fortunate to have experienced very little physical pain in my life, but recently this has changed and it has given me a wake up call. I have been flat on my back recovering from severe back pain this week. Somewhere along the line, in the past few months I injured my back. We are planning a move, a pretty big one in fact as we plan to move continents, and along with all the emotional stress and tension a move like that brings, there are the extra strenuous physical activities involved. In the process of lots of cleaning, packing and carrying of heavy boxes I must have injured my back.

As a holistic healer and coach, I spend my days helping clients understand their mind and bodies better. I teach about the importance of listening to our bodies, the value of being mindful and slowing down. These are all concepts I understand fully and teach daily, and because they are so obvious to me, I must have somehow thought myself exempt. I also taught yoga for many years and some arrogant part of my psyche must have thought that this too protected me from any spinal injury — that my knowledge and understanding would keep me bubble-wrapped and safe from this sort of physical pain in my life (this despite not having been consistent in my own practice since having children ten years ago!).

So I find myself being humbled,
 brought to my knees (literally on one occasion!) and in my head I hear my own words, and the truth that I know and now can experience first hand.

Pain is not something to be avoided or feared. It is not pleasant, but it is a gift. Why? Because pain makes us stop, it forces us to pay attention.

When our stubborn mind refuses to be quiet and listen, when we refuse to slow down the pace of our lives, our bodies take charge and make us.

Pain is the sign that something is wrong, that our lives are out of balance.

If we listen to it, breathe through it and with an open mind be willing to learn the lesson, we can move beyond the pain to a place of healing. But if we shy away from it, numb it with medication, ignore it with excuses, we perpetuate the problem and the condition will continue.

What we resist, persists.

When we continue to experience pain and are unable to understand why, it is debilitating and we can easily start to become disillusioned, cynical and lacking in hope. This is what suffering is. In order to be freed of suffering, we must have hope and a belief that we can heal. We also need a willingness to face our pain head on and work through it in order to heal.

There is often no quick fix here — true healing requires a great deal of time, patience and courage.

I have a little saying that goes, “life tickles us with a feather and if we don’t get the message, it hits us over the head with a brick”. Sadly, many of us need the brick before we open our eyes and are willing to change. It doesn’t matter what degrees we have or experiences we have gone through, none of us is exempt from learning this lesson (and perhaps having to learn it again, and again).

The wisdom gained.
This morning I lay in the bath, taking deep breaths in and out through the pain, connecting with my body. I allowed myself to feel open and vulnerable. I released the urgency to ‘do’ and allowed myself to just ‘be’. Instead of fighting the pain and feeling frustrated by my new limitations, I embraced them. I sent gratitude to my body and my pain. I allowed myself to be open to the lessons and willing to learn.

*These are some of the lessons pain has taught me (and some healing tools to apply the lessons):

1) To listen to my body
 Our bodies are the barometers of our souls. They are our greatest gift but are so often undervalued and ignored. Any discomfort or imbalance in the body is a sign that something is out of balance in our lives and must not be ignored. The physical body makes manifest what our emotional body and soul can’t. Not listening to our body is really a type of abuse. It is time to love myself enough to really pay attention to what my body is saying.
 => Close your eyes, take five deep breaths and tune in to how your body feels right now.

2) To slow down the pace of my life
 We are conditioned in today’s society to multitask, to rush from one activity to the next, to fill space with visual or auditory stimulation. We glamorize being ‘busy’ and don’t stop for a second as that is seen as a waste of time. The truth is that when we slow down and do one task properly at a time, we actually get more done. When we quiet our minds and take a few minutes out of our day to just sit and enjoy a cup of tea, walk in the garden or do some breathing, we feel refreshed and restored. Our mind is no longer overwhelmed. 
 => Avoid rushing and over-scheduling. 
 => Say ‘No’ more. 
 => Take 15 minutes out of each day to do nothing. Just sit and quiet your mind. Breathe deeply, feel fully, push all distracting thoughts to the side.

3) To prioritise myself and my needs
I am a mother, and like most mothers I end up placing myself last on the list. Pain has taught me that this can’t continue. I need to schedule in activities that are a priority for my mental, emotional and physical well-being. For me, personally, this means getting back into a regular Yoga practice and not just doing the poses that are my favourite! I need to value my needs and start doing what I love, taking better care of myself by eating better, exercising more and having more fun. Your family are important but your life cannot revolve solely around them. As a role model for my daughters, the impact of this lesson magnifies.
 => Make a list of your priorities — your goals, needs and activities that nurture and inspire you. Then start to do some of these each week.
 => Reflect on your lifestyle habits and what needs improving. How can you value yourself more and through your behaviour, treat yourself better?

4) To not do everything myself.
 It is arrogant to think we are superwoman and ignorant to try and aim for perfection. It is not weakness to ask for help sometimes. Responsibilities that are shared help with bonding and team building. Delegating leads to less stress all round and greater productivity. In the home involving others in responsibilities and household chores will lead to less resentment on your part and a greater sense of involvement and independence, on your family’s. I realize how I rarely ask others for help and how I try and do everything myself as it will then get done faster or ‘better’. This has to stop. While I was resting this week my youngest daughter commented on how the Tuna sandwhich her dad made her for lunch, was different from how I make them, but it was good. We are not always right. Sometimes we need to give others a chance to do things their ways. 
 => Don’t be too proud to ask for help.
 => Start to delegate. Share the load!

5) To be present in this exact moment.
One of the greatest lessons that this pain has taught me is that the only thing that matters in life is this moment. Although I already practiced mindfulness, I had become obsessed with my future plans and not appreciated what was in my life right in the moment. I had also not appreciated my healthy body. The pain and lack of mobility it brought with it, caused me to stop, do nothing and realize that this is it. I am not going anywhere for now. This moment, good or bad, is where all life begins and ends. There is nothing else, so make the most of it.
 => Take stock of where you are in your life right now. Breathe, acknowledge, give gratitude for what you have, even if it is not all you want or are hoping for right now. Even what you want to change, try and see what is good in it, what can you learn? How can you appreciate this moment more fully and make the most of it?
Bottom line — be grateful, fully present and do the best you can, with what you have, right now in this moment, where you are.

This way, I hope you avoid the brick, my friends. x