Our relationship to pain

Like a chipmunk hanging off a log by its teeth determined to never let go, it was this active pushing into the force that made the pain go away.

What is our relationship to pain?

Without it we are numb to the environment, it is one of the greatest warning signals we have. Look at conditions where a person has never been able to feel pain such as congenital insensitivity and the associated problems with that. Pain in some ways makes us alive, but how can we engage with it and can it paradoxically bring vitality and presence? Does it have a use?

From Peter Levine’s work in re-regulating the body following trauma, (see Waking the Tiger), he notes that individuals during the event that become active and find solutions when faced with life-threatening events, use the fight and flight response to naturally dissipate the high energy of the situation through the body during the event. In cases, where this does not happen the body can become stuck in either a “freeze” or “fight or flight” state creating long-term health conditions and symptoms of PTSD.

Meeting the pain

A recent talk with CLOD Ensemble on “Enduring Bodies” featured the immersive theatre work of Martin O’Brien. Martin suffers from cystic fibrosis and creates live and filmed theatre pieces of endurance and self-inflicting pain. He may use a scalpel to slice into his skin, or go through the ritual of coughing up phlegm for hours (as required in earlier treatment of his cystic fibrosis). He found that by actively engaging the pain shifted, he had a different relationship to it and a sense of regaining control.

It brings to mind the phrase “suffering is optional, pain is inevitable” (An ancient saying,  – the source undefined/disputed). It is said that suffering is only resistance to pain, the key to it, acceptance.

Pain pathways

In an article written by Colm McDonnell, he explores the effects of passive stretching versus active pandiculation (the contraction of muscles in a stretch), and the nerve signal pathways associated with these. In a passive stretch the nerve signal travels from the muscle up to the spinal cord, crosses the motor neuron synapses there and returns with an automatic response to the muscle to reduce the stretch.

In contrast in pandiculation the contracted muscle sends a sensory nerve signal through the spinal cord up to the sensory motor cortex in the brain. Here the response can be to increase or lessen the contraction and comes as a voluntary/conscious response from the body.

The role of pain in bodywork

Rolf Work

In the Rolf Method of Structural Integration, it is known by many for being painful – partly from some of the infamous tales of people stumbling out of excruciating sessions at Esalen, California with Dr. Rolf back in the 1970’s. For me when I first received Structural Integration, a heavy handed approach caused me to tense, grit my teeth, block my diaphragm and shut down to get through the sessions. Needless to say there was very little change from those sessions.

In great contrast, I later came across a practitioner with a light and precise touch, and through the 10 series, experienced a very different opening up. Over the 10 sessions, I “grew” over 1.5 inches as my structure unfolded, seen in the photos before and after, and has led me to be known as a gentle Rolf practitioner.

Touch and pressure is a key level of interaction with the outside world. The amount of pressure is like the volume at which we speak. If we shout all the time it’s not so great, equally a constant whisper in some circumstances is not heard. It is about communication between client and practitioner.

In light of these more recent experiences in the dentist chair, an added factor comes across. The importance of engagement from the client and their nervous system from the inside out. Accessed not just through guided movement during session work, but a level of contact, engagement and possible muscle activation into the pain.

It opens up an exploration within bodywork and other physical practices (yoga, pilates), when we meet those dark, stuck, muddy places in our body, that alongside the release and silent watching, there are other options to play, wiggle, contract, move, or even dance into other areas of the body, to help our system flow through the pain and sensations which arise.

Congenital Insensitivity: Science Museum London – Pain less Exhibition 2013
Waking the Tiger: by Peter Levine
CLOD Ensemble, Performing Medicine
Stretching vs. Pandiculation: What’s the difference and why does it matter? – Colm McDonnell