Our understanding of pain is elementary at best. We implemented interventions to manage pain within clinical settings less than 200 years ago, and given that ‘civilisation’ is only a few thousand years old, imagine how much pain our race has accumulated. Imagine what our ancestors had to endure by mere infection, physical labour, war, spiritual rites or sacrifices.
Pain is a subjective experience, although we objectively know the process. Just as you and I might differ in our confidence to jump into a cold plunge, there’s some pain we’re resilient to and can accept. Other types of pain is devasting and traumatic. I’ll give you a physical example: I cannot stand threading my eyebrows, it feels like razors slashing my face. I’ve been bludgeoned many times and I’d rather take a whack to my body or head than a piece of twisting string plucking my eyebrows.
Some of us are even attracted to pain, some chase the thrill. Some need it as a point of reference because without pain we couldn’t possibly appreciate joy. By the rules of duality, we cannot conceptualise one experience without having ever known its opposite. To have been exposed to only one side of the coin is a form of corruption. You will be a stranger to the human experience and withheld from expanding your empathy. Some people prefer such a state, they say ignorance is bliss.
We understand pain as a symptom, not a cause. Pain is the language of the body that knows no other way to communicate the discordance it endures. But it is loud and intolerable. Modern medicine has striven to treat the pain through anaesthesia, painkillers, antidepressants. So has the earth with its array of green remedies. But pain is not just a medical condition.
Think of emotional pain. Anguish. Sadness. Betrayal. Abandonment. Think of generational trauma. Isolation. Disconnection. Fear. Anger. All words that lead to the same symptom. Rather than looking at the root, as we often must do if we really want to overcome pain, let’s attempt something different. Let’s pluck out pain and examine it as a concept rather than a consequence.
Do you remember the last time you hurt? Are you hurting now? Where is the pain? Where does it sit? What is the sensation? Is it a prick, a sting, a gnawing feeling? When you regard your memories of pain, does it feel the same as it did then? Probably not.
Pain has an amnesiac effect. For me, it’s almost like I can’t remember just how bad my pain is historically, it’s as though my brain has erased the memory. And I can see why my brain might block that memory, it serves no functional purpose in the present day. But what puzzles me is not that I’ve felt pain, sometimes in inaccurate proportion (though who is to judge), or that I can’t remember it exactly, it’s how surprised and relieved I am when I overcome pain in the present moment.
You see, I’m a purveyor of pain. If it’s not in my womb, then it’s my nervous system, and if not in my nervous system, it’s in my muscles and if not in my muscles its in my joints and if it’s not in my body then it’s my mind and if it’s not in my mind, it’s in soul. Almost every day I am in anguish. I’m an addict to pain by no choice of my own. It just haunts me, regardless of the many years and techniques I have practised to heal, to recover, to let go. The pain is an infection, it wants to exist in bodies outside my own. And so I will bring pain to others, by not being able to mask my symptoms, being unable to save loved one from their empathy, by being unable to protect others from feelings of helplessness, inadequacies or hopelessness. Instead, the pain has its own gravitational pull and it attracts all with good intentions and saviour complexes. But being crowded when in pain is no relief for me, it amplifies my experience instead and I feel violated. I lash out. I try to keep my distance.
And even though I experience pain on a daily basis, I am still surprised when I overcome it. I am surprised that I experienced what I did, that in the moment I was unaware of the extent of pain I was enduring and it’s only when it is over that I can acknowledge just how bad I was. As I am someone whose baseline is pain, and brief happiness or respite is a relief that is always asked for, but never expected, I do not have an accurate point of reference. When I’m in pain, I don’t even realise it anymore, it’s been that long that I have lived in this state that I regard it as normal.
But I’m not the only one. When you’re someone who experiences chronic pain, the first thing you learn is that your 10, out of 1-10 rate your pain scale, is not actually the end of the scale. The scale slides up to 11, 12, 13, pain that was unimaginable before you experienced it. Eventually you lose count and you wonder what it might take until your body caves into itself. But it never does. The body is a spectacular specimen and it cannot succumb to pain. Shock, yes, can falter the heart. Blood loss, yes, will kill you. But pain is infinite. Mercy, to oneself will have you end your life. But pain cannot kill you. It just might drive you mad.
And to think, there’s others who experience pain to a different level to me.
But pain isn’t just an experience. Not like love or sadness. Repeat a common pain enough times and it will begin to shape and bend one’s character. I know this from firsthand experience.
I find it hard to believe there are people out there who endure extreme chronic pain for long periods time without it affecting their character, their perspective, their attitude, their dreams and hopes. But there are people who are humble, sophisticated, elegant in how they sit and hold their pain. With such poise I fail to understand how to reach such a state.
The image that comes to mind is Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who in a busy Saigon intersection, sat calmly in the lotus position and lit himself on fire. He was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. This is what I mean when I mention the laws of duality, he was not afraid of pain for himself because he valued the freedom and dignity of his community more. His act was a sacrifice for the greater good.
I am not a monk. I am not even close to being one of those people who can just accept pain, and it’s not from a lack of trying. There are other factors at play, feelings of injustice, exhaustion, anger, defeat. I too can be content if I put myself into a meditative state but for how long do you think I can stay that way? It’s impossible against the onslaught of despair that chases me. At most, I have been able to find peace for about two months and that was because I was living in isolation and dedicating every moment of every day to self-care. I don’t feel I’m capable of replicating the same experience in Australia.
Instead of yoyoing between a mediative state and losing myself into chaos, I pick the middle ground. Hypervigilance. I remain in state of anticipation for the inevitable pain to come. But hypervigilance isn’t a conscious technique, it’s an unconscious trauma response. For me, hypervigilance means I’m agitation and aggressive, ready to strike at the first thing that gets in my space, whether that be friend or foe.
I wish I knew a better way to be. I don’t mind the pain, I have learned to accept it begrudgingly but I don’t like what it makes of me. Maybe one day I will come to learn, through the laws of duality, something good will come from it. I just hope I don’t lose myself before then.