Humans have a strong aversion to pain.
This is only natural. Pain is, after all, uncomfortable.
On the other hand, we know that pain is absolutely essential to our well-being and survival.
How would you know that your hand is on a burning stove if you didn’t feel pain?
How would you know that your ankle is injured and needs time to heal, so you’d better stay off it for a week or two?
That type of pain is simple to understand and easy to accept, and thus probably doesn’t stick around for too long. It doesn’t turn into prolonged suffering.
After a typical injury, you may have a few really bad days of pain, but then it will generally start to lessen to more tolerable levels.
In a non-injury situation, we all know that pain comes and goes in our day-to-day life. We ache after exercise, after standing too long, or dancing too much.
It’s expected and tolerable. We don’t freak out about it.
The harder type of pain to understand and accept is when there doesn’t seem to be any logical sense to the pain: there was no injury, no sickness, no burns. The doctors can’t find any physical reason behind it.
Your body just hurts.
Muscular Tension and Pain
Pain of an unknown origin that goes on for weeks, months, or even years is horribly depressing and frustrating.
Where does it come from?
In my studies, and my personal experience, I’ve learned that this type of pain generally results from muscle tension.
Tension in muscles is produced through both physical and mental processes.
A muscle that is constantly being used, and never able to relax, will be tense. This is an example of a “positional” type pain. Your body is stuck in a position and held there by certain muscles that just never turn off.
The pain you feel is a signal that your body is not moving correctly.
This is the type of pain that Postural Restoration is so good at resolving. PRI helps people identify dysfunctional movement and breathing patterns that build up over time.
In this scenario the pain goes away since the pain’s mission has been accomplished: it got you to change your behavior.
It got you to move and breathe more effectively.
The more complicated issues are when muscular tension has its origins in anxiety.
When you are anxious about something, does your body feel light and flexible, or tight and heavy?
A Buddhist monk would probably say that you are holding on to something too tightly and that mental agitation is exhibiting itself in your body.
You have to “let go” of what is troubling you, or let go of pain that has turned into prolonged suffering.
Yet letting go is hard!
The human mind wants to do just the opposite.
It wants to hold on to what is familiar and gives comfort (job, family, love, community).
It attaches to what provides temporary relief from whatever situation we are too fearful to face, or feelings that are too painful to experience.
When that comfort and security is threatened we become frustrated and angry because we can’t deal with the sense of loss and lack of control.
We can’t accept the fact that life is constantly changing: nothing stays the same no matter how much we wish it would.
We fight that fact, and we lose the battle every time.
The stronger the attachment to keeping things the way they are, the stronger the experience of fear and loss.
What type of body will a person in this situation have?
Light and flexible, or tight and heavy?
Even more difficult is when we have to let go of something we aren’t even aware of. This is the basis of Dr. John Sarno’s groundbreaking book called “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Solution”.
Over a long career, he recognized that many of his patients were exhibiting symptoms that didn’t match up with what he was seeing on X-Rays and MRIs.
He realized that, although the pain was quite real, the pain had its origins in the mind.
His patient’s unconscious anxiety and repression of unresolved emotional issues had manifested themselves in physical pain (although he believed that the physical pain served as a “distraction” that kept our unresolved emotional issues, issues too painful to confront, safely buried in our unconscious).
He found that bringing his patient’s awareness to the fact that there was no physical origin for their pain enabled the patient to recover.
The reason this worked was because the pain was a trick: it focused people’s attention on the physical, while the emotional was left unexamined.
The unknown origins of bodily pain can be so confusing because we are not trained to read the signals our body sends us, and the professionals we consult often have a strict either/or mindset: It’s either physical, or it’s mental.
Rarely do they say it could be both at the same time, and rarely are they “qualified” (in the legal professional sense) to combine approaches. Perhaps it’s just due to the bifurcated nature of our healthcare system that physical and mental are considered separate, when in real life they are inexorably and forever linked.
I firmly believe that it can be both at the same time, or one or the other, depending on the conditions of your life.
Think about it: if you are in chronic back pain, do you think you might also experience depression, isolation, and helplessness?
And do you think those feelings of depression, isolation, and helplessness will further reinforce the muscular tension in your body?
It’s a vicious cycle.
A pattern of systemic tension that has to be interrupted one way or another.
Our body and brain, and thus our mind (both conscious and unconscious mind), are one indivisible unit, constantly communicating with each other–sometimes harmoniously, sometimes not.
I’ve experienced lots of pain in my life, and I’ve been in all these situations I described above.
Postural Restoration, Buddhist psychology, and John Sarno have all helped me in different ways and at different times. All three acknowledge muscular tension as the reason for pain, and all three recognize the autonomic nervous system as what influences muscle tension.
They are all complimentary because all recognize that you can’t split the body up into physical and mental: it’s all the same system, completely indivisible.
How to Approach Pain
The first thing I would advise anyone to do is to experiment by changing your attitude towards pain.
Use pain as a way to guide you.
Learn to view it as your body telling you where you are stuck, both physically (PRI) or mentally (Buddhism, Sarno)
Learn to respect and listen to the pain instead of getting angry at it and looking at it as the enemy.
After all, the pain is part of you.
It isn’t all of you, but it’s a temporary part of you, and it serves to alert you to a problem in the system.
Hating the pain is hating yourself. If you can learn to be as accepting of your painful self as you are your joyful self, life gets a lot easier.
In the video below I talk about two different instances where I learned to use pain as my teacher and guide. The first was something I was quite aware of. The second was something that I wasn’t aware of at all but came to me because I listened to the signals my body was sending me.