Can Pain Be My Medicine?
Is pain something to be avoided at all costs? Or can pain be my friend, my teacher, my companion on the spiritual journey?
Where does pain come from? This is a deep question that neither doctors nor philosophers can adequately answer. If I cut my finger or place my hand on a hot iron, my nerves fire lightning-speed, and my brain tells my muscles to withdraw. This is a natural protective response in our physical bodies to protect us from physical harm. Scientists call it the sympathetic nervous system.
But what about spiritual pain? How can we protect our spirit-bodies from injury? Intuition is key here. If you have a “gut feeling” about something, you should always follow that instinct. As a matter of fact, scientists say that the third nervous system of our physical bodies, called the enteric nervous system, is housed in our digestive system. Our guts can literally “think” for themselves, even if completely cut off from the brain. Our enteric nervous system holds most of our serotonin and dopamine receptors, our emotional center, and the enteric nervous system partners with the brain to process these emotions. We call this our “heart” feelings or “butterflies in our stomach.” And, again, butterflies are very spiritual. There are many connections here. Shamans and tribal people have often referred to the stomach as the origin of pain and the origin of healing, the seat of understanding.
Each person’s pain is unique, and I believe that all pain is a mixture of the physical, emotional, and spiritual. We cannot separate these parts of our being. If you fall down and break your ankle,your body has a marvelous power to mend the bones back together, but your spirit tends to hold the memory of that traumatic event in that joint. I struggle a lot with ankle pain, but I am learning to let go. I used to be a long-distance runner, something that I really enjoyed doing. When I developed severe tendonitis in my ankle, and could no longer run, I also suffered the emotional injury of losing an activity that I loved. In addition, I had wrapped part of my identity around being thin and “fit,” and my spirit body had experienced the pain of me rejecting my true self for a cultural ideal. There are many layers of pain, and unraveling all of this has taken me years of work, and is still a journey.
The pain is my teacher and guide to help me understand where I have strayed from my deepest self. For another example, when I was studying at the conservatory as a classical clarinetist, I developed severe, intractable pain in my arms and back. Some days I could hardly walk or lift anything or even get out of bed. It got so bad that I was forced to put down my instrument completely for a period of time.
But where did all this pain come from? Did I simply practice too much? Not really. The pain started out as an emotion. I beat myself up in the practice room over every little mistake, punishing myself for every imperfection in my last lesson or recital. My spirit shriveled under my self-abuse, and under the harsh words of my teachers, who themselves struggled with ego and emotional pain. The result eventually became physical pain in my body.
The pain was my wake-up call. The pain was my medicine. The pain forced me to look at my emotions and my beat-up spirit body. In the forced break from my instrument, I slowly learned the importance of refuge, rest, and nurturing of my spiritual self.
I am still a healer on a healing journey for myself. Sometimes when I do a Reiki session with another person, I feel their pain in my own body. My spirit connects with their spirit so deeply that I join them, if only briefly, on their spiritual journey. The pain is the guide to the healing. We are called to help bear one another’s burdens, and this pain is medicine, too.
If you are struggling with pain anywhere in your body or psyche today, listen to the pain. Welcome the pain as a guide and companion for your journey. Don’t just flush it away with another pill and ignore it (although there is certainly a time and a place for medicine). What is your spirit trying to communicate to your physical body? What memory do you need to process and release? What is causing tension and friction in your life, and how can you release that?
Breathe deeply, drink in the new day, and embrace your pain so that you can live in true healing.
Namaste, my friends.