Pain as the messenger

 © Jenn Shallvey

© Jenn Shallvey

So at the moment I am sitting to write this piece from a point of pain. An all too familiar default in my body is headache. Yes there are physical reasons. Let’s just call it transition or change of life.  This explanation still does not alter the fact that pain comes up in my life.

When not my full self, my habitual response to pain is to succumb. I succumb completely and check out of life basically. Retreating to my bed I can escape. It works. I certainly don’t get back that time.  It is time I lose.

Yet I also lose a sense of me. In that experience of physically checking out I also check out of all I am doing.  Projects, creative endeavours, relationships, simply enjoying life. In the pain all of these are absent. It is not fun. It is not happy. In fact it is downright depressing.

In an esoteric sense pain is something more.  Pain is a messenger when all the other messages remain unheard.  Our body comprises many unseen aspects. This view is based on personal experiences of healing and physical change as well as years of exploring practices and modalities. Focusing on helping others is my work at the expense sometimes of helping myself. So when I am in pain and my systems are not working there is something else going on. I need to pay attention. I need to listen.

This is not about fixing nor curing, though I would like that too. It is about using the point of pain to understand where the pain can assist me as much as the normal default of pleasure and happiness.  How can the pain assist me if it is managed and not feared nor judged?

One dialogue with pain might be angry. It might be me almost yelling at the pain to go away. I hate it, curse it, yell at it. It to me is the enemy. It to me is the irritating unplanned disruption in my day. How dare it come and take over my life. How dare it think it’s the boss of me.

Then another dialogue with pain might be more understanding and kind.  Instead I accept it is there. I find ways to help it feel better and assuage it.   But I do not succumb. I do not let pain trigger and hijack the emotional part of me so that all spirals down. 

In other words I can choose to be in the drama I create around the pain or simply be with the pain. Easier said than done to be honest. My history with pain is a undulating one. There are times when I feel able to manage and others when not. I notice in reflection that there is always a story or association with the pain, something for me to learn, do differently or experience.

One response is to simply get on with your day, your tasks or whatever you are doing. The distraction provides another focus for your mind away from dwelling on the pain. This is the first response.  Not feeding the pain story.

Yet sometimes the pain stays. For some people there is even chronic pain. I remember learning to teach meditation years ago and watching a video by a famous pioneering teacher about using meditation to manage chronic pain.  The example illustrated how pain did not go away but the reaction and response to pain changed.  The person’s relationship with pain changed.

My relationship with pain is mixed. There have been many times in my life when the pain was telling me something I needed to address but the logical and controlling part of me kept trying to avoid. Pain has its way. 

Before we get all negative about pain let me highlight a positive pain experience.  Yes. I am not talking about going to the gym or doing a good workout and feeling the aftermath. I am talking full on screaming your lungs out level of pain that still has a good outcome. Childbirth.

Blessed to be a mother, I experienced the pain and joy of childbirth twice. I know from this experience and conversations with other mothers that we all have different personal pain thresholds. We also agree that you do not remember the pain but you remember the experience around the pain.   

When I had my first child I remember going into the whole experience with a three page birth plan (I was a bit control oriented back then).  My doctor, who delivered up to 300 babies in that same year, looked at me and said simply that he would do his best but in the moment it depended on the baby and me. Of course.  

Then my son decided he wanted to try and come into the world at 21 weeks. Pain was a positive messenger in this emergency telling me to get help.  Ten stressful days in hospital and 20 more weeks of rest luckily meant he came later, actually overdue.  When it came to his birth all my plans went completely out the window.  Yes it was long, painful but so worth it.  

Sometimes working with and through pain is part of a well needed emotional healing process. One such experience for me occurred after my dad passed away.  It was after visiting my mother and sister and returning to Australia that I started to succumb.  No longer able to distract myself with all the doing and tasks I took on I found myself in pain. Not mild or fleeting, but constant. My back was on fire.  I went to the physiotherapist to no avail. I went to the doctor to no avail. I got to the point where on some days I could not even walk but had to crawl to get to the bathroom.   

Yet in all this pain I kept functioning. I was a professional, running my own consulting business. I remember delivering training for a client. Standing up in front of the room I was virtually a robot stuck in one position. Back then I did not listen to my pain. I buried, squashed, hid and judged all pain - whether physical, emotional or mental. Pain was bad. Pain had no benefit.

It was in this dark space that I reached out. I remember being at a large networking event. 500 women in a room, sitting at a table of 10, doing my best to engage whilst not being able to move.  

The speaker that day was teaching the group about energy management. I remember even today the analogy she gave of how the energy flows in our body. But when we do things to stop it we create blockages that manifest as physical issues.  She likened the flow to a stream or a river flowing. First we might drop a few pebbles, then bigger rocks and then boulders. Soon there is impeded flow and problems. She sees people who want to fix the problems but do not know that it is the flow that is broken.

The lady next to me who knows me and my situation says I should go see this amazing woman. Given I trust the recommendation I book in for the next week. The pain continues to worsen. I still don’t know how I got to the appointment.  I gingerly and slowly walk in to a small cozy room lit only by a lamp yet inviting and warm. There is a bed, a chair and a desk. I have no idea what to expect. So I am asked to sit in the chair. I lower myself into the chair holding on to everything I can.  

The appointment is for 1.5 hours.  We talk, talk, talk. Or I should say I talk, talk talk. She listens. She asks questions. She gets me to do some things with my body that I did not understand at the time but was willing to try. I trusted her. I don’t remember much about the session now except that 1.5 hours seemed like minutes. I do know that we went straight to the crux of what was going on in my life. We got to the issue right away. It probably helped that I had been exploring and immersing myself in self development. I was open, willing to reflect and share. 

She took me back in time. She helped me to see the links to my father’s death and experiences in my life I was not able to deal with in the past. These events were too traumatic to address and had been buried, squashed, ignored for a long time.   I loved and yet feared my father on many levels. When he was no longer in the world I knew I was ok, safe. Only my body was not ready. My body was both grieving his loss and at the same time giving me permission to grieve my loss. All in one big explosion of physical pain.

I gave myself permission to feel and let go. Unlike the past processes where I spent many hours analysing in my head, this time I did not. We worked at an energetic level. We worked with energy centres, meridians and other subconscious systems. I did not understand the processes until more formal study later. It makes sense now. Back then all I wanted was the pain to go away.

Then the combination of techniques shifted something. The pain moved and lessened. A fraction of what was there before now localised in a different part of my body. We worked on the shifted pain and then it released. By the end of the session I could stand up and walk without pain. My back did not hurt anymore. I had some niggily pain in other new places which we would work on at a subsequent session.

I share these stories to illustrate that our relationship with pain is multilayered.  Healing can be simple and physical and it can be more than that.  There are many more aspects to pain that I have explored in my journey. These learnings are for another post. For now know that I see my relationship with pain as a journey.

My biggest learning is that pain is a messenger and requires attention.  Attention is two pronged - my own attention and others’. For me it is about going within and asking my own self what the pain is about.  Sometimes I find that I can sort it out myself. It might mean time out in stillness, a rest, a visit to nature, meditation or other process. Too much attention and it can be worse. So in these types of situations it is actually a choice of not letting the pain dominate. I acknowledge it’s existence consciously and then get on with things. 

For example I had a challenging meeting the other day. I was not happy with the way it went and in the circumstances it was not appropriate to share further.  Yet on the inside I could feel frustration and emotions stirring. I also felt the tension in my body and the burgeoning headache. Oh that pattern again.  Being aware and willing, yes key word is willing, to notice and be with it I check in with my own self. What did my body need?  Physical movement. Clearing.  For me the most therapeutic response was a swim. I swam with intention of letting go. I swam with joy.  Both were antidotes and worked a treat.

It is when these self applied remedies do not work that I go to the next level and get help. I also know that dealing with the emotional, mental and other associated aspects of a pain story requires courage and readiness. It also is about letting others help you so you are not alone.   

I have learned the hard way and the easy way. Avoidance just makes it harder. Yet avoidance also helps you cope sometimes.  In the end the journey with pain is never the same, can change as you change and still produces opportunities for growth. 

The only thing in the way perhaps is my stubborn independent will - something for another discussion.    I know myself. I know my patterns. I know when I need help.