Regardless of the modality of practice, one of the most common reason I have seen that people enter into this kind of work is to find away to escape their experiences of pain, particularly in the body. We often go to physiotherapists, or do movement practices or yoga or Pilates all in the name of ‘getting rid of’ pain. Or we thrash ourselves into oblivion with Crossfit or weights or F45 to get a sweet dose of those addictive stress hormones that are only released under the incredible pressure of modern exercise, that will distract us temporarily from a deeper emotional or psychological pain. We can also see this as a goal of most careers, to get enough money so that we can rid ourselves of all the discomforts of pressure caused by ‘not having enough’. It is, of course, a very human thing to want to rid ourselves of our pain and suffering.
I came into my practice for a different reason – an insatiable curiosity that asked me to discover more about myself and the world around me. Although I delved into the realm of pain relief for a time, I eventually realized that I was curious about all of life, and so this curiosity extended the parts of my life that were painful, uncomfortable or difficult. I wanted to know about them, not escape them. What are these difficult sensations? What’s their purpose, why do they exist, what are they trying to communicate to me? Should I really be trying to rid myself of these seemingly important communications despite their discomfort?
In early 2017 I was in a meetup with some friends, doing some flexibility and acrobatic practices. By this time I was well into my Daoist practice and hadn’t done too much of the in the way of gymnastics for some time. Still, my previous training in the field was reasonably extensive and for fun I decided to participate in the front summersault practices. A couple of landings were a bit wonky and jarred me in a peculiar way. It wasn’t painful, but it was a signal that I disregarded, a signal asking me to stop. I did not listen and continued. More flips, more jumping, more landings. The next day I woke up unable to even sit up from my bed. The slightest movement would send lightning through my body. Getting to standing was impossible for a couple of days, and I had to army crawl to the toilet for the better part of a week. Twist the wrong way, lightning. Bend the wrong way, lightning.
Most people would have called an ambulance. I’m not most people. Through some kind of grace, despite the incredible bodily pain, my mind was clear and my emotions were calm. There was an impracticality to being not able to walk, so I asked my friend Emmet to see if he could help me to get mobile again, but otherwise I wasn’t really concerned with getting rid of the pain. It became apparent that my body was asking for attention, particularly attention to be given to this area that had not received it for a long time. It had patiently asked for many years, and I had ignored it, so it did the only reasonable thing it could: asked a whole lot more loudly. I spent the week investigating this pain and everything connected to it. Areas of my body I had never felt before were lit up into clarity with each lightning bolt that seared through my body. Life was returning.
Slowly but surely something began to happen – by following the pain, I was able to re-establish a relationship with a forgotten part of my body. It was a shaky relationship at first, but I have tended to it ever since and it has revealed to me what no amount of fancy therapy could – that we are forever in a relationship with ourselves, our body, our mind. The strength of that relationship is completely dependent on our willingness to attend to areas that have been forgotten for too long.
The pain did not ‘go away’. As my body realized that I would attend to it when proper signals were given, it started to sprout up other areas of pain, long forgotten corners of my body that now saw a chance to be given the spotlight for a time. So I attended to them too. My relationship with these signals became stronger and clearer, and I became far more capable of translating what they meant, understanding their language.
As I got stronger in these relationships, I noticed a disturbing trend. Almost everywhere I looked, there were people doing their very best to smother these signals. 10,000 techniques, practices, drugs, and therapies, all designed to do the same thing – remove our pain and therefore keep us from attending those hidden parts of our being, leaving them to be dormant and rot, far from the light of our awareness. The longer they are left, the more they send louder and louder signals: “Please attend to me. Please. Please, please please! PLEASE!” And we respond by taking a new drug or doing a new therapy to pacify the signal. And even if we appear outwardly healthy, we end up with cancer, or dementia, or worse, from a lifetime of ignoring these signals, shooing them away, and making them stop with all of our available means. I once heard a doctor describe cancer cells as the loneliest cells in the body, disconnected from the rest, replicating endlessly to simply have a familiar community of cells around them. I doubt any cures we have for these diseases will work with our attitudes and orientations as they are.
I am not free of pain. I don’t want to be free of pain, otherwise how will my body or my mind call to me when it needs my attention? What I’m interested in is reorienting towards these signals, establishing a relationship with them that is strong, clear and ever trustworthy. If you come to me asking to be free of pain, I will turn you around and send you straight back towards it, if only in steps that you can digest at that time.
It’s not a magical cure-all. You can’t ‘cure’ a bad relationship. Our pain asks many things of us: stop doing something, start doing something, do less, do more. Regardless of these contexts, I have found that all pain requires two things, which happen to be our two most valuable resources: our time and our attention (this also works in other relationships…). If you come into this approach with the attitude of “how much time before the pain goes away” then you are already starting on the wrong foot. It’s like asking a child who was abused at a young age how much love they will need before they stop being traumatized from it. As a psychologist must learn to listen to their patients without trying to solve their problems, so must we learn to listen to our pain. My crippling incident above that was so full of epic pain has lead me to some profound and wonderful discoveries. Even years on, every day my body sends me signals directly related to this incident. Every day I discover new wonders that were hidden beneath these painful signals, trapped in the shadow of the unconscious patiently waiting to be found so they can dance in euphoria as they finally receive some much needed attention.
When I took this attitude into my Daoist practice, I noticed something incredible: the people who designed this system understood this thoroughly. This system is perfectly designed to slowly but surely sweep our being, discovering the dormant, the hidden, the painful, and giving us practices that will specifically revive these forgotten parts of ourselves. They explain it with a couple of simple principles: someone free of disease is someone who has perfect circulation. A blockage is an area of our being where that circulation has become stuck, unable to complete its cycle due to a lack of energy. Energy follows our attention. If we want to unstick ourselves, we better put our attention towards the blockages, not find a way to hide them again.
If we are in a good relationship with our signals of pain, if we can understand the communications clearly and concisely, neither indulging them nor suppressing them, they will lead us straight to these blockages, then we can feed them our attention and restore them to their original life. And so, with the right orientation and a dedication to a relationship that forever continues to grow with time, we can discover that our pain can be our greatest ally.