Part Three: The Pain-Body
Welcome to week three. By now, you might be thinking ‘Ok Ruby, I get it, we have a habit to disconnect from the present moment- move on!’. The reason I place so much emphasis on it is because it is the fundamental root of our current human predicament and the foundation for understanding the potential of the horse- human bond. Not because I want to numb you with words (!). This week we’re going to explore the toll that ‘avoiding pain and just trying to get comfortable’ (1) takes on our bodies and the importance of emotional awareness and directly experiencing the living, feeling organism that is the body.
The Pain Body - processing what keeps the habits of humanity alive
Last week we started to look at how identifying with the idea we have of ourselves cuts us off from the present moment, trapping us in an illusion of separateness and that this unexamined habit comes from our unexamined belief that ‘the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable.’ (1). But what is the impact of running from our so called ‘negative’ emotions?
In A New Earth, Create a Better Life, Eckhart Tolle explains: ‘Any negative emotion that is not fully faced and seen for what it is in the moment it arises does not completely dissolve. It leaves behind a remnant of pain.’ ‘The remnants of pain left behind by every strong negative emotion that is not fully faced, accepted, and then let go of, join together to form an energy field that lives in the very cells of your body.’ ‘This energy field of old, but still very much alive emotion, that lives in almost every human-being is the pain-body’ (2).
In becoming aware of this we can begin to understand that every time we avoid meeting the discomfort of our present experience, we add a rock to the metaphorical rucksacks we carry through life. The rocks being the unprocessed pain, and the rucksacks being our bodies. Maybe avoiding pain and just trying to get comfortable isn’t such a good plan after all.
It’s important to note that the pain-body is not just individual in nature, it has a collective dimension too. Tolle continues, ‘It also partakes of the pain suffered by countless humans throughout the history of humanity, which has a history of continuous tribal warfare, of enslavement, pillage, rape, torture, and other forms of violence. This pain still lives in the collective psyche of humanity and is being added to on a daily basis, as you can verify when you watch the news tonight or look at the drama in people’s relationships’ (2).
When considering the violence and trauma of our collective human past, it’s important to understand that our ability to dissociate from the pain of violence and abuse that is an imminent threat to life is an involuntary protective response of our organism – trauma specialist Peter A. Levine describes it as ‘a gift to us from the wild’ (3). Whilst the habit to avoid pain that, in reality, is not a threat to our life is the root of our suffering, the innate ability of our bodies to dissociate in the face of overwhelming pain, in order to preserve life, is indeed a gift.
Levine explains this response in his book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: ‘Physiologists call this altered state the “immobility” or “freezing” response. It is one of the three primary responses available to reptiles and mammals when faced with an overwhelming threat’. Levine explains how the “freezing” response serves a survival function with a pain killing effect but also acts as a key part of the nervous system’s circuit breaker: ‘Without it, a human might not survive the intense activation of a serious inescapable situation without risking energetic overload’(3).
Given our heavy history of continuous tribal warfare, enslavement, pillage, rape, torture and other forms of violence it’s easy to imagine how often the freezing response would have been evoked due to very real and overwhelming threats to life. It’s as though we have collectively endured so much violence that the protective response to dissociate when faced with pain becomes habitually activated, despite no longer being in a state of overwhelming threat. Our unconscious habit to move away from pain seems to differ from the body’s intelligent protective response only in the sense that, in reality, the pain is not a threat to life. In which case, awareness is the only ingredient needed to separate them.
In this way it’s possible to see where the belief that ‘the best way to live is to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable’ (1) came from – life times of dissociation. Originally because it was necessary for survival, more recently because we believe it is necessary for survival - despite that no longer being the case. Remember morphic resonance? There is a memory to all of nature’s systems (of which we are a part) and the more things are repeated, the more memory there will be for that thing happening as all systems draw upon a collective memory and in turn contribute to it (4).
It feels timely to reflect on the Greeks idea of 'nemesis' which was invented to demonstrate how any single virtue stubbornly maintained gradually changes into a destructive vice (5). We are clinging dearly to the virtue of dissociation, which at one time aided our survival in the form of the body’s involuntary “freezing” response. However, we have now reached a stage where dissociation is not serving our survival. In fact, stubbornly avoiding feeling and processing the pains of our past, both individually and collectively, has now morphed into a destructive vice that is the greatest threat to the survival of humanity and our world.
Earlier we looked at Tolle’s description of the pain-body and how the remnants of pain left behind by every strong negative emotion that is not fully faced, accepted, and then let go of, join together to form an energy field that lives in the very cells of our bodies. What do these trapped residues of energy cause?
I find it interesting to look at the link between Tolle’s description of the pain-body and traumatic symptoms as outlined by Levine. Levine explains that ‘traumatic symptoms are not caused by the “triggering” event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. The long-term, alarming, debilitating, and often bizarre symptoms of PTSD develop when we cannot complete the process of moving in, through and out of the “immobility” or “freezing” state’ (3). ‘Healing trauma requires a direct experience of the living, feeling, knowing organism’ (3). We seem to be collectively arrested in the freeze state by living in a largely disembodied culture where we mistake the whole of who we are for an idea of who we are (ie. we are identified with ‘the act of thinking’). As a result, we unknowingly cut ourselves off from our bodies, denying our organism’s innate ability to release the frozen energies, move on from the trauma and pains of the past and resume a state of dynamic equilibrium.
Reflecting on our violent history (and current daily aggressions), just imagine the frequency with which the freezing response must have been activated and the resultant frozen residues of energy that ensued and how, due to our habit to avoid feeling our experience in the present moment, they have remained frozen within the body. In this way we start to get a pretty powerful image of quite how heavy our collective human rucksack is. A rucksack that is threatening to crush its wearer if we don’t start to wake up to it soon.
Awareness and compassion are our way out. Through awareness we can start to observe this habit, thank it for how it has kept us safe in the past, but show it that avoiding the pain is no longer serving survival. We don’t have to jump into the mental control tower to protect ourselves – the body’s intelligence will do this for us if we do happen to find ourselves in a genuinely life threatening situation. Only by anchoring ourselves in the present and holding a safe, compassionate space, or accessing a safe, compassionate space through conscious friends, family or professionals, can we allow ourselves to feel and process these bodies of pain without becoming identified with them and feeling compelled to continue acting out the pain in our lives. Only then will we be free to move forward, unburdened.
The pain-body is simply unprocessed emotion. It is not who you are. By becoming aware of it, but not identifying with it as ‘who I am’, you begin to stop adding rocks to your rucksack. Remember the space in the room that experiences the chair? It is your awareness that experiences the emotion.
Levine writes, ‘Body sensation, rather than intense emotion is the key to healing trauma. Be aware of any emotional reaction swelling up inside you and be aware of how your body is experiencing these emotions in the form of sensations and thoughts’ (3).
Tolle writes, ‘Not projecting the old emotion into situations means facing it directly within yourself. It may not be pleasant, but it won’t kill you. Your Presence [the awareness that sees the emotion] is more than capable of containing it. The emotion is not who you are’. ‘When you feel the pain-body, don’t fall into the error of thinking there is something wrong with you’. ‘The knowing needs to be followed by accepting […], accepting means you allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling at that moment’ (2).
The common denominator in both is awareness, non-identification with emotion or thought and acceptance. It seems fitting to cast our minds back to part one and revisit what clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach describes as the two wings of radical acceptance: Clear seeing awareness of our experience and a compassionate holding of what we find there. ‘Both wings together help us remain in the experience of the moment, just as it is. When we do this, something begins to happen- we feel freer, options open before us, we see with more clarity how we want to proceed’ (6).
So perhaps you are starting to see what we’re up against and why we find it so hard to contact the present moment. Not only do we have the unexamined habit of moving away from it in the first place, in doing so we have also created a body of pain that is waiting for us when we do finally turn to meet it. But it is not something to fear, it is not going to kill you (despite the fact it sometimes feels that way). In fact, it teaches us how to develop ‘a much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life’, and in doing so delivers us home. Mary Oliver puts it this way: 'Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift' (7).
I just want to take a moment here to pause. The words written here point to an experiential process that is not a one-time deal. Alas. The part of you hoping for a quick fix might deflate a little at that. But it is the only way to a more whole and peaceful life. One which you can begin to taste soon enough. One of connection, love and belonging. We’ve got a way to go but I have no doubt that we each have what it takes to face our individual and collective pain bodies and slowly regain our wholeness that is currently fragmented, lost beneath a sea of fear and scarcity. It is a capacity innate within us all. Once we do, we gradually begin to rekindle our connection with our own intuitive intelligence that can guide us home to ourselves, each other and our world.
It is a delicate process that cannot be rushed. Only you will know where you are and what you are ready for. Gentleness and kindness towards whatever situation you find yourself in are gifts we can all learn to offer ourselves. The purpose of these words is not to encourage you to do anything you don’t want to, but simply to illuminate the truth that there is a ‘more joyful, interesting and adventurous approach to life’ that we can all lead. And that it starts here. The invitation renews itself in each and every moment. We always have this choice.
You may be feeling a little exhausted by this point (I know I am), we have certainly covered a lot of ground in the past two weeks. Maybe you’re thinking, I’m not totally ready for all this pain-body stuff, but I’m intrigued… how can I, in my life, become more aware of this habit to move away from the present moment?
Pema Chödrön highlights the three categories that we tend to use as ways to avoid meeting our present experience in her audio book Getting Unstuck, Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality (8). I include them here as naming them helps us to bring our own personal habits of moving away into awareness. And as you know, with awareness comes choice. So, before we end, let’s check out the big three human favourites for disconnecting…
1) Numbing out. I’ll use the same example as earlier- how often have you found yourself stood at the fridge, wondering how you got there, analysing the contents for a little something to nibble, despite not actually being hungry? I know I’m not alone here. Maybe it isn’t the fridge for you. Maybe it’s compulsive working. Or reaching for a bottle of wine to take the edge off a stressful day. Perhaps it’s the pull to have one more cigarette (or one more biscuit). Or do you find yourself hopping between TV channels or mindlessly scrolling through social media hoping to find entertainment rather than brave the silence that comes with turning it off. Another example would be obsessive thinking –escaping into the mind and out of the feeling body. Regardless of method, the question is, what present feeling are we running from when we use any form of numbing? Maybe next time we could pause and consider (non-judgmentally and gently) asking just that.
2) Aggression. In the form of action or thoughts. ‘He said that’, ‘I should have said this’, you rehearse in your head what you’ll say next time to get the other back, ‘I’ll show him who’s right’ and on and on it goes. You get totally lost in the story. But what is the story of revenge and anger papering over?
3) Needing, craving and grasping. (My personal favourite that has become an insidious art form). ‘Once I achieve this, then everything will be ok’. It can be grasping for physical forms but often it’s grasping for a mind hold - an idea of self, for example a job role : ‘I am a (insert job role) = I am someone’, it can be any idea of yourself that you hold on to so you can validate yourself as ‘someone’ in this world. We would often rather hold onto even a debilitating idea of ourselves (despite it destroying our close relationships) in order to feel some sense of security, rather than face the uncertainty of discovering who we are beyond it.
These three habits are taught as the main routes by which we cause our own suffering. All three of these habits have a fundamental commonality: resistance. Resisting feeling our present experience. Frank Ostaseski, author and pioneer in end of life care, shares a useful little formula in his book, The Five Invitations, which is good to bear in mind: Pain + Resistance = Suffering (9). Pain in life is inevitable. But you can learn to stop causing your own suffering.
Remember, ‘…to lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure everything turns out on our terms, to lead a more passionate, full and delightful life than that, we must realise that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is.’ (1)
We are stronger than we think.
1. Chödrön P. Awakening Loving-Kindness. 3rd edition. Colorado: Shambhala Publications Inc; 2017. pp. 1-2.
2. Tolle E. A New Earth, Create a Better Life. 2nd edition. UK: Penguin Books; 2016. pp. 141-143, 183-184.
3. Levine PA. Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 1997. pp. 7, 15-21, 106.
4. Sheldrake R. The Science Delusion. London: Hodder and Stoughton; 2012. pp. 99-101.
5. Keen S. Fire in the Belly. USA: Bantam Books; 1991. p. 66.
6. Brach T. Radical Acceptance. New York: Random House US; 2004. Cited by: Brach T. Unfolding the Wings of Acceptance. tarabrach.com. https://www.tarabrach.com/unfolding-the-wings-of-acceptance-2/. Accessed September 20, 2019.
7. Oliver M. Thirst. Boston: Beacon Press; 2006. p. 52.
8. Chödrön P. Getting Unstuck, Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality. [Audiobook]. USA: Sounds True; 2005.
9. Ostaseski F. The Five Invitations, Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully. London: Bluebird; 2017. p. 91.