What is pain?
Well, on a physical level, pain is discomfort in the body. It’s a signal from the body that something isn’t right and that something in our lives needs to change. This physical signal can be as simple as asking us to change the position of our body, as when our foot “falls asleep,” or to ask us to drink more water or eat more potassium, as when our muscles cramp during strenuous exercise. Sometimes, our body’s pain signals are harder to interpret, as with chronic pain or injury (pain or injury lasting more than three months). Additionally, there’s a whole other field of pain to look at — emotional pain and turmoil, which can depress our mood, bring tears to our eyes, and start to manifest itself on a physical level through stomach aches and headaches, heartaches and, if left unresolved, into the deeper tissues of our bodies.
I recently wrote a research paper comparing Western allopathic and Ayurvedic treatments for both acute and chronic musculoskeletal injuries/pain, which you can find here. What I found was that, when dealing with chronic pain and injury, both Western and Ayurvedic treatments work with the physical body and the mind in order to address healing. However, Ayurveda looks at the body as an integrated system with different forces at work (the doshas) and is able to provide a more accurate and unique healing program for individuals. Additionally, Ayurvedic knowledge moves deeper than Western to include information about subtle body anatomy, and is able to address how our beliefs and thoughts, and their corresponding attitudes and behaviors, affect our health.
How many times have you had a headache, or a backache, or some other kind of ache, and simply fed it with an over-the-counter pain reliever and thought nothing more? I know I have, several times. We are human, and when the human body is suffering, we need to have our symptoms eased. However, when our body cries out in pain and we feed it with a synthetic numbing agent, we are essentially telling the body, “Shut up, I don’t want to hear it.” And indeed, when pain occurs over and over, and we constantly ask the body to “shut up,” we create a disrespectful relationship with the body, and can start to see the body as something “other” than we are. We start to believe that the body is “acting up,” like, “why won’t my body feel good so I can do the things I want to,” as if our bodies weren’t attached to the rest of mind and spirit. How many of you have related this way because you believed that the pain was something that you inherited? As in, “My dad has a bad back, so bad backs run in the family.” Or, “My mom always got headaches before her period, and she passed that on to me.” The belief that we will always inherit the physical problems of our predecessors is simply that — a belief. Fortunately or unfortunately, we are what we believe, and our beliefs create our experiences. Believing that we inherit some form of illness is a story that we can choose to tell ourselves or not.
Taking that NSAID pain reliever for a headache now and then isn’t a bad thing. However, if you are consistently getting headaches, or back aches, or other aches, it’s time to stop turning off the body’s signals and start listening to the message your body is trying to tell you. Pain is an effective communicative skill that the body has, if only we are able to listen and to open ourselves to the more subtle meanings behind our pain.
Sometimes physical pain is just that — physical. But always there’s an underlying cause. Since this heat wave has started, I have been getting slight headaches around noon that manifest behind my eyes. Because of my studies in Ayurveda, I know that this type of headache is from heat and from having too many fire-building activities during this hot weather. For example, it’s been over 80 degrees on the coast, yet I continued to treat myself to local burritos with hot sauce, drinks with friends, and long walks during mid-day. All of these things build heat, and once I listened to my body’s signals, took note of my actions and changed them, my body stopped sending me the pain signal. Sometimes, the underlying cause becomes more difficult to find, as with chronic pain.
Working through sacro-iliac dysfunction, with its consistent pain and discomfort, taught me a lot about myself. Pain changes this game we call life. When I first experienced the severe pain that would change the course of my life, I did what I’ve been taught to do — in fact, what my family always did when there was back pain (because we are that family of “bad backs”) — I gave up my personal power to heal and helplessly handed myself over to a person in white coat, who by their credentials must know more about healing than me, and did what they told me to do, which included lots of pain relievers and muscle relaxers. I went to traditional physical therapy, where I was in a large room of people, my therapist treating me while gossiping with his friends and treating another patient simultaneously. I didn’t change my lifestyle, except for what the pain made me change. I didn’t look inside. Until I realized I wasn’t getting any better.
But I’ve told my story here, so I won’t run it here again. Unfortunately, this is the type of story that is told over and over again in health care offices everywhere. That story that we are doing everything “right,” or at least doing everything our doctors have asked us to, yet we’re still not getting better. We might be getting worse. The bottom line is that when pain becomes chronic, and no form of physical treatment, Western or alternative, can fix it, it’s time too look inside to the subtle body factors contributing to pain.
We know that certain emotions can have very fast acting effects in the physical body. For example, fear — it accelerates the heart rate and creates a hormonal response in the body, which increases your respiration, effects your sphincter control and relaxes the bladder (you gotta “go” so you can run if you have to), creates tunnel vision, and more. Often times, the fear we experience is because we are afraid of pain. And if we haven’t yet recognized the source of our pain, we can become fearful of having more pain, and our body can continue to show symptoms of both pain and now fear, creating a viscous cycle of chicken and egg.
But I digress. Chronic pain, or any dis-ease in the body really, has an origin. Especially if the pain wasn’t caused by a sudden injury (and sometimes even if it was), there is often a pattern in our attitudes and behaviors that is supporting the pain and letting it stay there so that we can recognize this pattern and change it. We become the stories we tell ourselves. If we believe that we have a bad back, hip, neck, whatever, from our family, or if we believe in general that “people get old at age 60” and fall apart, then “So Be It,” says the universe. If your mind-body-spirit system isn’t in line with that belief, then pain will manifest.
Often times, the stories we tell ourselves aren’t as obviously related to pain as what I mentioned above. The stories we unconsciously tell ourselves sound something like this:
I have a right to be angry.
I’m too fat (or ugly, slow, fast, late, early, straight, narrow, liberal, conservative, etc).
So what do we do? What if you’re experiencing pain and not sure what it means? By all means, find yourself an alternative health practitioner with experience in the connections between the subtle and physical bodies, and whose job it is first and foremost to LOVE you (really, that’s what we’re trained to do). Look for someone who will give you health advice to return the power of healing back to YOU, and gently guide you toward figuring out the subtle body components to your pain. Because I’ve experienced pain that had a very significant subtle body cause, I’m now helping people move past their experiences in chronic pain at my office in North Park, and I’d be happy to help you as well. Or pick up one of my most inspirational books by Louise Hay, Carolynn Myss, or Maya Tiwari. Either way, do something — life is too precious to be lived in pain.