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Where does pain come from?

Have you ever described something as a pain in the neck?

Or maybe worse? 😉

While out walking Metta a couple of months ago, I came across a Metro newspaper left on a park bench. As I work from home, I don’t often get the chance to read this commuter paper, and I flipped through it to see what’s happening out there in the big, wide world.

I was drawn in by a full-page article about back pain- la maladie du siècle, according to the article. Too much sitting, bad posture, lack of exercise, and so on. 

As a lot of my work is helping people understand the root cause of their pain, I’m left frustrated that people are constantly told their back pain is primarily due to physical causes. Just as people continue to blame others when they “catch a cold”, without acknowledging it’s only possible if they’re already susceptible to getting sick, the victim mentality around our health does a great disservice to our ability to heal.

Unless there has been a major accident or a tumour is growing against other tissues in the body, lasting pain is rarely the fault of the body. To be sure, there would have been a time when acute pain was experienced for some reason, but it is our mind that imprints and overlays an emotion – which was being felt at the time of the initial incident – on top of the original physical sensation and perpetuates it through a mental cycle of anticipating pain then fearing the expected pain, thereby increasing the sensation of pain, which leads to limiting activities because of the pain, and hopefully – a perceived reduction in the sensation of pain until the cycle starts over again. And on it goes, sometimes for years, with the mostly innocent body being blamed for it all.

What fascinates me is this emotional component to pain. I have never met anyone with chronic back pain who was not somehow dissatisfied with their life: either they didn’t find their work meaningful, or it was too stressful, or they had troubles in their marriage, or they were lonely because they didn’t have a partner, or they felt isolated and unsupported… the list is long, but notice that none of those things are a physical risk to the back.

By opening up an intimate conversation with our own body, we can learn a lot about ourselves. The body-mind complex can’t be separated, and never works in isolation no matter what that x-ray shows. Our weakest link is where we are out of alignment with life itself, and the body is just reflecting this back to us.

There is a somatic exercise I love to share with my students and therapy clients, and I do it myself whenever I feel physical discomfort or pain. Take a pen and paper, or ask a partner to take notes for you during the exercise. Sitting or lying down, scan your body from head to toe (or toe to head, doesn’t matter) and speak on behalf of each part. Say: I am my head and I feel…; I am my neck and I feel…: I am my shoulders and I feel….

There might not be much sensation, or maybe there is a lot of sensation in only one or a few places. We’re not looking for trouble; just write what you feel as you notice it.

Continue like this until you have reviewed more or less your entire body, and then look at your results. Perhaps you wrote that your shoulders were tight and tender, your neck was stiff and constricted, your back was tired and weak. Now look at the list again, removing the names of the body parts and simply saying: “I feel tight and tender, stiff and constricted, tired and weak.”

By listening to your body in this way, you will develop a whole new relationship to yourself and your physical sensations. Whatever is happening in your body has already happened on the level of thoughts and emotions, and the body is the messenger.

Don’t shoot the messenger. Listen with compassion and be grateful you heard it in time.

Much love and light as always,

Susan

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