Friday, 9 September 2011

On Pain

Pain, suffering: something I have been mulling over for a while.  Perhaps I am more Buddhist than I thought.

I spent the first half of August in London, doing some work for the National Youth Theatre and dodging riots.  With my customary flair for crisis, I was staying in Peckham, one of the unfortunate areas that was smashed and looted.  I was fine, though saddened, and there were a few wry comments on my Facebook page referring to the fact that Bangkok was also in riot when I passed through last.  But while plenty of people suffered as London burned, I was not one of them.  Well, in no more than the societal existential sense.

I was working with fourteen to eighteen year olds at NYT, not an age-group I generally have a lot to do with.  On three occasions, I was called upon to deal with minor injuries.  In all cases, they were the results of some tension or other causing muscles to go into spasm, probably brought about by the shifts, both physical and psychological, of the first experience of living away from home and immersing themselves in an intense (and in the case of my group, physical) workshop.  I’m not convinced the cocktail of rubbish food and chemical sugary drinks, the preferred diet of many of them, didn’t have something to add in terms of sending confused bodies into spasm.

As I palpated and organised hurting limbs, I frequently found myself uncrossing arms, urging  “Breathe.  Try and breathe.  Try not to hold your breath.  Breathe.”  I’d place my hands across their chests, encouraging breath into them.  I remember doing similar the last time I accompanied my brother to hospital with a bad asthma attack.  “Uncross your arms.  Breathe.”

What is it about pain that stops our breath?  

And not just physical pain.

I’ve noticed the same when practising yoga asana while in the grip of a bout of depression.  Impossible to breathe deeply.  Impossible for the breath to be anything other than shallow, for it to reach and stimulate my shut-down core.

It’s as though a (my) being in pain rejects any form of inspiration (inhalation, inspiration, the inhaling, breathing in, taking in of spirit).  I sometimes wonder whether this isn’t pain turning us away from life itself.  After all, without breath, what are we?

Dead, that’s what.

Often, by the end of my yoga practice, my breath has shifted, deepened, and with it something in my state of mind shifts.  But sometimes pain isn’t possible to move through and I must give in to stasis.  Interestingly, this is more true (for me) of emotional pain than the physical variety.

There’s a paradox here.  Pain is life-denying and binds me in stasis, perhaps the state I fear most.  Yet it is pain that pushes me to transformation.  This is how Tantra (as I understand it) explains the usefulness of suffering: it leads us to seek higher states of awareness, of consciousness, to learn to move past, to move with pain.  This too has been my experience.

So pain binds me and propels me to liberation.  A paradox.

A couple of months ago, after a particularly trying morning, I was surprised as I drove into the Tesco car park to find my neck wet with tears.  I dried my face, ran my errands and saw the caf√© above Swansea’s one bookshop advertising a £1.00 deal on filter coffee.  I walked up the stairs, paid my pound and took my coffee to a high table overlooking gracious Victorian windows and drizzle.  I can’t pretend my thoughts were cheerful.  Mainly I remember thinking that the nature of my suffering was exactly what it had been when I was a child. Nothing had changed except perhaps my relationship to it.  The only difference being that when I was nine, eleven or thirteen, I had the impetus to detail my pain and perceived injustices at length in one of my diaries.  At the time it felt vital, unique.  So many years on, it strikes me as desperately mundane.

What’s so interesting about pain, about my pain in particular?  We all have it.  It’s no more unusual than skin, or a digestive tract.

On my way out, I passed a table where I‘d noticed a woman with short silvered hair.  She stopped me as I went by.

“Are you all right dear?  You looked so sad.”

I had a disembodied sense of witnessing myself simultaneously from two angles.  The first was one of intense gratitude that someone had noticed, someone was kind enough to care.  The other vacillated between grief and desperation;  sweet Lord, what am I become?

Yes, that transformation can be painfully slow in coming.

You may remember that I wrote some time ago about the sensation I have of walking over the earth and leaving no prints.  This most vividly came to me as I was circumambulating Tushita’s gompa in Dharamsala under a full moon, conscious of my feet treading my walking meditation.

I have been ambivalent about this sense of leaving no mark behind me, unsure whether to embrace it or correct it.  Should I force myself to root, to anchor?  It feels as unnatural, unattainable and unlikely as forcing my hair to grow blonde.

In February, my lovely friend Simone came to visit from Switzerland.  We went walking one day on Rhossili’s beach and at a certain point turned back to look at our footprints.  Simone is probably 10kg lighter than me and yet there were the marks our passing had made: hers clearly marked into the sand, mine barely visible.  So perhaps this is not simply something I imagine.

Somehow this feeling of passing without trace connects to my sense of my essential wateriness.  Fish leave no marks in the water they swim through.  I’ve also felt it connects to some of my deepest pain.  For a long time, I thought the solution was to earth myself, to find ground and force a mark upon the place where I stood.  Whenever I have tried this, it has resulted in me trapped, unhappy and scrabbling for survival.

Of course, I am still scrabbling for that.

A little while ago, during a craniosacral therapy treatment, the image came to me of my sacrum.  It was exactly as I imagined the stingray that lanced my heel in Thailand, and it was trying to swim free.  Only perhaps I was treading on it. At any rate, the left side, swimming along, was free of pain, while the right, which the rest of my skeleton was desperately holding onto, was in great distress.

So perhaps, I thought, the answer is not to tether, to root, to ground, but to swim.  Embrace the movement of water.

I haven’t found a way yet, but I am working on it.

From Lucy, with love. xx


  1. Reading your blog provoked this memory:

    Last year during a shirodhara treatment in India, which belongs to the ancient Indian healing method of Ayurveda (literally means 'knowledge of life'), where they pour warm oil across your forehead in rhythmic strokes for around 45 minutes, I became deeply relaxed into one of those half states at the edge of being awake and asleep. I knew that I was physically in the room where the treatment was taking place, yet I was also experiencing the images of dream:

    I was standing at the shore of a great sea, on the pier of a harbour, when a huge fish came up from the depths of the water. At the moment it appeared I knew that it was a great moment, so lucky to see this creature that does not come to the surface very often. I knew that I must feed it there and then in that very moment otherwise I may lose it to the depths once again. But what to feed it?

    Dream vanished, room reappeared in full.

    Although I could spend hours speculating about the symbolic meaning of this, ultimately I bring it down to a few essential points.

    We are constantly standing at the shore of life (death can come anytime to anyone) and if we do not recognise the great opportunity that this life is presenting us with in each moment, we are not accepting its great gift. On the surface, it is sometimes more obvious than at other times what we are here for, but to really grasp the meaning we have to constantly feed the depth of our being.

    In each moment we have the chance to recognise the meaning and be aware of our existence, otherwise the pathetic scenes of the dream of life that roll around like a film reel, capture our attention and we fall prey to living on the surface. If we see that these images of life appearing in the dreamlike illusion around us are but a mirrored play of the depth of our being, we may feed those images (without falling prey to their illusion) whilst simultaneously feeding the depth.

    Susie G-J

  2. Very beautiful, like the mellow wind, lovely Lucy! It is curious how I'm on the same plane at the moment, with the same questions (wonderings, perhaps?) about how pain almost means death, because of the exact process you have shared and yet, how pain initiates transcendence! I'm moved by your writings, it is like I connect to you in an existential level and it is wonderful!

    Thank you for sharing and I send you a lot of love and strength. Of course, Peace. XxX Nayana.

  3. As always I really enjoy this blog - heartfelt and reflective. Perhaps it's not pain that is life denying, but our reaction to it. The Buddha said "I teach only suffering and it's end" and he taught from his experience. It's not that he didn't experience pain (he died of food poisoning apparently) but that he no longer reacted with aversion towards it. This is the basis of a lot of the mindfulness work with chronic pain, depression, addiction etc.