‘Like the ama, Japanese women pearl divers of days gone by, when we dive deep in our wounds, we may emerge with treasure. Bare breasted, the ama wore nothing more than a short loincloth, a face mask, and a pair of fins. They filled their lungs with air and plunged courageously into the cold, dark waters of the sea, disappearing below the surface and emerging several minutes later with a pearl.’ - Frank Ostaseski, The Five Invitations.
The concept I want to explore in this article is ‘hidden trauma’. The idea that by diving deep into our unconscious we can resolve deeply-repressed emotional problems and emerge with pearls of self-discovery and personal liberation. We might even be able to address chronic physical pain.
I have recently acquired a new obsession with myths, sparked by Joseph Campbell’s extraordinary interviews in The Power of Myth. It is a book dense with centuries of accumulated human wisdom. In Campbell’s own estimation, ‘myths are infinite in their revelation’. Metaphors can reveal far more about our inner landscapes than is sometimes immediately obvious.
Even now, the movies and TV shows that really push our buttons say much more about us than we may first realise. It’s why our the topic of favourite movies is such a foundational question, especially in any early social or romantic encounter.
That being said, English literature lessons where the teacher tried to find meanings where none clearly existed used to seriously annoy me. I appreciate I may now be guilty of the same crime. But, as I see it, the theme of emotional repression is a very common feature of modern cinema myths (SPOILERS ABOUND LOWER DOWN- YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED).
Dr. John Sarno’s book The Mindbody Prescription has some fascinating, controversial and potentially revelatory things to say about pain. Sarno spent 24 years treating chronic pain, predominantly back pain. In that time he has seen over ten thousand cases and claims an 80–90% cure rate.
His core argument is that chronic physical pain can be a defence mechanism ‘to divert people’s attention to the body, so that they can avoid the awareness of or confrontation with certain unconscious (repressed) feelings.’ One of his theories is that the brain restricts oxygen supply to certain areas of the body, creating various sensations of pain, numbness, burning and weakness. He makes the eyebrow-raising claim that gastric ulcers used to be a manifestation of emotional pain. But once society at large realized the cause was at least partially mental -‘stress’- the pain migrated to a different location, most commonly the lower back.
In other words, emotional traumas, chronic anxiety, and unexpressed psychic pain can be stored in our bodies and manifest in pain or depression. This view was confirmed in conversation with psychotherapist Dr. Sharna Striar, Ph.D.
Lower back pain is currently the most common cause of disability for Americans under 45. And chronic pain is a worsening global pandemic. Defined as any pain lasting longer than 3 months, chronic pain currently afflicts more than 50 million Americans each year. Is the US opioid addiction partially another symptom of an epidemic of chronic emotional repression?
The myths might concur. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman’s lower back is broken by his ‘shadow’ self, Bane (the ‘shadow’ is a related topic, but for another day). Batman is then sent to the bottom of a well, and his only way out is to climb the walls and make a leap of faith by facing his own childhood fears. In The Machinist, Christian Bale famously loses ever-more weight and is haunted by his shadow-self Ivan. He can only exit this personal purgatory when he learns to accept his repressed role in a hit-and-run accident years earlier. Christian Bale must have some pretty bad karma.
Sarno argues that repressed emotions can accumulate until they reach critical levels. ‘Deposits of anger are made not only during childhood but throughout a person’s life. Because there are no withdrawals from this account, the anger accumulates. Thus anger becomes rage; when it reaches a critical level and threatens to erupt into consciousness, the brain creates pain or some other physical symptom as a distraction, to prevent a violent emotional explosion.’
A terrifyingly effective modern metaphor for this explosion is the movie The Ring. I believe the demon girl Samara represents fear of the havoc caused by the emergence of childhood trauma from the deep well of our unconscious.
Sarno writes (emphasis added): ‘Because we are not aware of those unconscious feelings and cannot, therefore, control them, and because they are so threatening and frightening, the brain will automatically induce physical symptoms to prevent the dangerous feelings from becoming overt, and thus becoming conscious. That is how mindbody symptoms come about — and they are universal in Western society. They are not a sign of mental or emotional illness. To look upon them as abnormal or aberrant leads to gross medical mismanagement.’
Like placebo, the term ‘psychosomatic’ has acquired a diminishing, patronizing tone, something Sarno clearly thinks is deeply wrong. ‘The word psychosomatic is widely misunderstood to describe an imaginary disorder experienced by people who are mentally abnormal, or an exaggeration of symptoms that are structurally based (“real”). To set the record straight, psychosomatic symptoms are real, they occur in normal people and they are universal in Western society.’
In fact, Sarno found that these chronic pain conditions tended to occur in people that exhibited the character traits that society applauds; ‘perfectionistic, compulsive, highly conscientious and ambitious; they are driven, self-critical and generally successful.’
In David Fincher’s superb thriller The Game, successful but isolated executive Michael Douglas is sent on a terrifying journey of self-discovery. It culminates in acceptance of his father’s suicide, a leap of faith and a rebirth into a more emotionally-attuned life. In Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise plays a handsome and successful playboy. But he’s also a shallow narcissist. Cruise’s character encounters his shadow self after a near-death experience. Only by eventually learning about his role in the murder of his lover does he escape the cryonic purgatory that has become his nightmare. The movie ends with a leap of faith into his new life.
Sarno’s revelatory implication is that we can alleviate these chronic pain conditions simply by becoming more aware of the potential for unconscious feelings to manifest in physical symptoms. ‘Awareness is the principal therapeutic ingredient’.
Christopher Nolan’s Inception is literally structured around this entire concept. The team goes deeper and deeper into Cillian Murphy’s unconscious to resolve the nature of his relationship with his dying father. DiCaprio’s protagonist Cob is also simultaneously going into his own unconscious to resolve the feelings of guilt he feels about his wife Mal’s suicide.
There’s an obvious qualification here; to the man with an ‘awareness’ hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. A broken leg is not in your head. The possibility that chronic pain is mental shouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeking a professional diagnosis or the help of a trained psychotherapist. Isolated personal introspection is sometimes not enough; and could even lead to more repression. A trained professional therapist or psychologist will always be better at seeing your problems more clearly from the outside.
One therapy session before you need it is much cheaper than ten sessions after you really, really do.
You might be reading this relieved that none of it applies to you. But the question I would ask is: have you truly allowed yourself to feel your pain? Or even discomfort? When was your last drink? Our phones provide the perfect distraction buffer against honest introspection. Just as retreating into our screens now spares us the discomfort of forced social interaction, they may also insulate us from difficult but necessary reflection.
It’s not just our phones. In the magnificent book The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski writes that ‘we have become masters of distraction. To a great extent, this is our primary human practice. A large portion of our day is consumed with activities that are attempts to protect ourselves from discomfort: surfing the Internet, watching TV, working long hours, drinking, eating. Our approach naturally leads to epidemics of alcoholism and drug abuse; compulsive overeating, gambling, and shopping; and an insecure attachment to our technological devices. We have become a society riddled with unhealthy addictions.’
Witness how many screens adorn even the most spartan of American sports-bars. Indeed, the bigger our cities, the more elaborate the distractions seem to become. Times Square in New York, Piccadilly Circus in London or Shinjuku Crossing in Tokyo. Our biggest cities are now filled with cacophonous noises, blinding lights and screaming advertisements.
‘There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.’ — Carl Jung.
How do we find our pain? Start by telling your story.
‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ — Maya Angelou.
A growing body of research shows that the coherence of our own internal narratives and stories are intrinsically linked to our mental and physical health. In the book Mindsight, Dr. Daniel Siegel makes the claim that being able to tell a coherent story about our childhood is incredibly important later in life. ‘When it comes to how our children will be attached to us, having difficult experiences early in life is less important than whether we’ve found a way to make sense of how those experiences have affected us. Making sense is a source of strength and resilience. In my twenty-five years as a therapist, I’ve also come to believe that making sense is essential to our well-being and happiness.’
Siegel’s professional experience is that a physical and mental integration of a coherent personal narrative offers profound benefits. ‘Narrative integration enables them to create a much richer social, autobiographical, and bodily sense of themselves in the present. “Making sense” goes way beyond having a logical understanding of past events — a coherent story involves all of our senses, head to toe.’
Psychologist James Pennebaker has produced some remarkable supporting research that confirms the link between a coherent personal narrative and physical and mental health. ‘I discovered that if people were asked to write about emotional upheavals, their physical health improved. Apparently, putting emotional experiences into language changed the ways people thought about their upheavals.’
In Good Will Hunting, Sean and Will’s shared acceptance of childhood abuse allows them both to overcome the sense of repressed self-blame. The power of that newfound awareness is encapsulated in the famous line: ‘It’s not your fault’. Similarly, in Garden State, Largeman confronts a literal abyss and learns to resolve the repressed childhood issue of his own culpability for his mother’s accident.
In its simplest form, this is the basis of therapy; it’s the ability of the individual to construct a coherent narrative for their own lives. Stories put order on personal chaos. Catholic ‘confession’, the unburdening of yourself to a priest, not only provides absolution but also frames the narrative through the act of storytelling. It’s why it’s so important to be a good listener; the other person can be relieving their traumas simply by telling you a coherent narrative. Even if it’s just describing their day at work. They don’t necessarily need a you to provide them with a solution to their problems- the solution is sometimes the result of just telling a coherent story.
Pennebaker found that the use of ‘cognitive’ words accounted for far more health improvement than ‘emotional’ words. Examples of emotional words would be happy, sad, love or hate. Examples of cognitive words would be because, reason, think or believe. The insight here is that it’s not necessarily about how positive or negative an event was in your past, it’s how coherently you can frame it to yourself in retrospect. As Dr. Striar asks; ‘is the memory a source of negative obsessive thinking or a platform for a positive constructive voice from which you derive personal strength and wisdom? We must be our own best friend.’…..
….‘Free from subjectivity, we are better able to recognize our talents and passions, and therefore form a compelling future that is uniquely ours.’
Mythologist, psychologist and all-round-genius Jordan Peterson also places similar importance on the process he calls ‘self-authoring’. He has developed a simple series of online writing exercises designed to help people articulate their past, present and future. He too agrees that ‘written accounts of trauma positively influence health.’
The effectiveness of any suggestion can only be judged by the reader. But I am not recommending anything I haven’t tried myself and found to be effective. Personally, the most persuasive factor of all is that ‘self-authoring’ isn’t particularly time-consuming relative to the longer-term benefits it claims. Nor is reading Sarno’s book.
Conclusion: pick what pain you want
If pain is inevitable, but suffering is not, that means we have a choice to make. A choice of WHAT pain we experience. This insight was echoed in a famous essay by blogger Mark Manson ‘The Most Important Question of Your Life’. ‘A more interesting question, a question that perhaps you’ve never considered before, is what pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for? Because that seems to be a greater determinant of how our lives turn out.’
That choice may be between the pain of growth and the pain of stability. But a life before revelation may a life less fully-lived.
The purgatory concept is a recurring trope; that we are condemned to live out the same loops until the trauma is fully recognized or resolved. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray narcissistic weatherman is condemned to repeat the same day forever. He only finds peace and exits the loops through a combination of acts of service to the community, self-improvement and the love of another. Likewise, in Edge of Tomorrow (later appropriately rebranded as Live. Die. Repeat), Tom Cruise’s selfish, cowardly PR guy is condemned to fight a supernaturally intelligent species of alien day-after-day. [His emotions?]. He ends the loops by diving deeply into water (a very common metaphor for the unconscious) and destroying the pearl-shaped ‘Omega’ alien brain through self-sacrifice; destroying his own ego.
The conclusion here is that we NEED the suffering. If we examine the pain, with help from friends and experts, it might tell us what to do. Buddha would ‘invite the demon god Mara in for tea’. But it can take almost impossible bravery to allow yourself to willingly accept your own discomfort. You don’t have to do it alone.
In the excellent A Monster Calls this metaphor is made it’s most explicit. A little boy facing bullying and the death of his mother is visited by a Monster; his unconscious given physical form. The monster slowly helps him understand his truth and allows him to resolve repressed emotions.
It’s only after allowing ourselves to really feel our pain and deeply interrogating our own histories, we too may find that the monster is actually here to help us.
‘What is to give light must endure burning’ — Viktor Frankl
**I hope this article will mark the start of a short series on the meaning of modern mythology and its application to our own lives. If you like it and you’re interested in learning more, drop me a line! If you just want to talk, drop me a line**