Clark R. Mollenhoff III M.Ac., L.Ac.
The Meaning of Pain
Pain can be seen as anything that overwhelms our mental, emotional, or physical experience enough to have us pause and recalibrate our actions. It can stop us dead in our tracks with the stabbing pain of a muscle spasm that literally drops us to our knees, or it can rest so heavily in our hearts that we are unable to engage life in the way we are accustomed. Pain can be a corrective measure in our body mechanics signaling us that our posture is inappropriate, or our activities are more demanding, or damaging than our current capacity for recovery. Oftentimes we are unaware of the small daily habits and patterns that overload our physical mental, and/or emotional being. Pain can mean stop, and it can also mean it is time to grow. Learning the difference is often the challenge. This article is the wandering of my own recent thoughts on the topic of pain in relation to my clinical work, helping clients to find relief, courage and understanding in their experience of what ails them.
One functional way of looking at pain is as a welcomed guest that has come to guide us back on course when we have strayed from balance. Some pain will resolve once a particular lesson is learned, while others take time to reestablish new patterns and rebuild strength. Other pains associated with more acute injury simply take time to heal. The more peripheral stress we can reduce while we are healing the faster our bodies can recuperate. Often healing has less to do with the actual area of trouble and more to do with lowering the peripheral stressors so that body can utilize its resources more efficiently. One thing to keep in mind is this should always be held in context with necessary stressors required to provide biological signals of where adaptive strength is needed. An example of this is the stress of exercise necessary to rebuild stronger. If all stress is removed and pain is avoided at all costs often weakness rather than strength will be reinforced. This is the challenging distinction between the signal to stop or grow and requires very specific attention to the unique circumstance of pain.
One thing I have learned about pain over the years is that it can take an exceptionally long time to resolve, especially as we get older. Everything is dependent on the individual having the pain. The most important factors in how long something takes to resolve is the length of time one has been in pain, the degree of the injury or disruptive pattern, and the individual's capacity to heal in any given moment. Our regenerative capacity can be affected by factors such as stress level, dietary intake, quality of air, water and sleep not to mention our tendencies to reinjure ourselves due to the habitual patterns that led to the issue in the first place, and finally the perspective we bring to our experience of the pain.
One of the biggest taxations on our capacity to heal is the distress we often feel about the pain itself. There is the pain, and there is the pain we have about the pain. We think to ourselves, “How could I do this again, why does this always happen to me, how long will this last, what kind of damage have I done, how will this effect my future, what might old age be like as I accumulate more pain?” Sometimes we cannot even figure out what happened, or why there is pain at all. The single most important thing we can do for ourselves is believe that we can heal, and then take the steps we know support a healing environment in the body. Most of us have an instinctual understanding of whether certain behaviors and practices support or detract from our healing capacity. It is not always clear what the word healing means. It does not always mean returning to a previous state of being. Oftentimes our previous state of being was part of the pattern that led to the pain/injury. What I mean when I say that we must believe we are healing is that we must believe that even our deepest pain has meaning for us to uncover about ourselves and the mystery of the universe we exist in. Almost every pondering of healing brings me back to the serenity prayer.
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."
“God” is the acknowledgement of the mystery of being that we have no capacity to fully understand. “Serenity” is the calm peaceful presence of surrender to that which is beyond us. “Courage” is the fortitude to face the pain rather than hide from it so that we might learn our capacity for strength. “Wisdom” is the accumulation of mistakes and victories over time that teach us how to better read the lesson at hand. A misunderstanding of modern medicine is that there is a solution to the infinite patterns of breakdown that occur in the human organism. The truth is there are many pains we must learn to live with more harmoniously in order that we ever have a for relief.
The cause of some pain can be so glaringly obvious while others can allude to us for months or even years. The pain about the pain has us running from specialist to specialist to alternative therapies looking for the magic bullet that will vanquish the pain. I am always hopeful that my modality of acupuncture can be helpful in reducing or eliminating pain, and often it is, but many times it is most effective in helping to alleviate the pain about the pain so we can step out of the way of the natural healing abilities of the body, and let time do its thing.
Unfortunately, we are never completely off the hook. Surrendering to the pain, enduring it, bearing it, is never enough. We must learn from it and make changes in our lives. I believe that every pain has meaning or at least something to teach us. All of us are moving through the cycles of life and aging for the first time. We may earn more life experience points with each year of our lives, but we have never been the age we are now before. Every cyclical milestone carries with it new things to uncover about life. We all face the mystery of what health in old age may look like and we each face the fear of the inevitable promise of death. We each have operative narratives that run in the background coloring the way we frame each experience of pain and fear we encounter.
There is no real guide for how to live well that is suitable to all people. Although I would argue that the great religious texts and the canon of literature draw some very compelling maps for a life well lived. Pain is a very functional guide for lessons needed to keep us on the correct track relative to our individual capacities and how we allow our fate to guide us towards our proper destiny.
It is always important to remember that some pain is inherent to life, and some pain is inevitable to circumstance. There is no solution to the simple pain of being, or the possibility of unfortunate circumstance beyond the domain of control. The more unsolvable the pain, the deeper the well of meaning, and the more strength required to extract it. When there is no escape from the pain the only option is to face it courageously. Courage is not an attribute one must possess in order to be without fear, it is the determination to move forward in the face of it.
Pain has the potential to show us something deeper about ourselves. We cannot learn how strong we can be until we first confront our weaknesses. That is what pain does. It shows us our weakness and asks us to be stronger and wiser. The part of us that recoils in fear of what that means is the part of us that thinks there is still another option. Sometimes there very well is another option. We live in an incredible time with amazing modern solutions. The purpose of this musing on pain is for when there is not. Some pains we must learn to live more well with. They may always be there but they can continue to guide us and teach us how to care more deeply for ourselves and others. It is important to have a personal faith in ourselves, in our ability to heal, and the hidden meaning left for us to discover.
Clark Mollenhoff M.Ac.,L.Ac.