Internal and External Pain

October 27, 2011 at 7:55 pm (Chronic Pain, Spiritual) (, , )

As someone active in the New Age/Neopagan religious communities, I am exposed to a lot of theories on the nature of pain and suffering, and what the “right” course of action is about it. Everyone has an opinion, and a lot of it is deeply based on the person’s own experience with their bodies and their understanding of the bodies of their loved ones. As an ordeal master, I know that there are several approaches to the spiritual experience of suffering and pain (or intense sensations), and different ones lead to different outcomes. When I try to cross-apply this knowledge, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

I find that we have different opinions when it comes to the source of the pain. External pain, that which comes from an outside source and is usually on-purpose, like scourging or hook suspension, is seen as something to be experienced in the body. We revel in the neurological responses to pain; we “ride the hormones”, and allow those sensations to induce altered states of consciousness. We focus on the experience, and allow it to reside in our bodies, even if it is unpleasant or traumatic. Those that engage in these sorts of practices claim that the body is the gateway to the spirit, and by applying these sensations we simultaneously experience what human embodiment is all about as well as the feeling of the soul being a separate entity to the body.

However, when the source of the pain is internal, that which comes from injury or illness, is seen as something to be transcended. We use healing modalities that “push” the pain out of the system and replace it with light and ease. We encourage people who suffer to meditate and breathe, to allow their mental focus to leave the body and allow them to escape some sort of “bodily prison”. We rarely, but sometimes, talk about directly addressing the source of the pain and trying to heal the illness, but I don’t know any faith healer that is claiming to cure fibromyalgia or cancer or splondyosis or anything like that. They focus on the experience of suffering and pain, and try to remove that from the equation.

Having been through both experiences, I have applied what I have learned about pain management and embodiment to my chronic illness. I have used the same breathing techniques I have taught to ordeal dancers in order to endure greater amounts of body pain than they thought possible, when I am faced with the onset of acute, immediate pain that I cannot address any other way. On the other hand, when enduring ordeal, sometimes I focus on transcending the pain, particularly when I am walking “both roads”, and am responsible for the ritual in some way no matter how much suffering the ordeal is causing me.

I wonder, however, if this leads my faith about the body and suffering to a strange crossroads. I want to believe that the body is holy, and that our experience of being embodied is important as our role of enduring the human existence. I do believe that the body creates better and more useful pathways to the divine than most other means, including drugs. You can put your body through a variety of experiences in your search for the divine – you can deprive it, you can overload it, you can slow it, you can overtax it.  All of these may lead to some better understanding of the divine and your place within the Universe.

I also believe that suffering can lead to a feeling of decreased quality of life, and can limit what one can do with the body. Most of us have a natural aversion to internal pain, (even when we say we enjoy pain – I always ask masochists if they are *really* into pain if it’s okay if I break their leg)  and look desperately for ways to make the suffering stop, or at least give us a sense of ease for an amount of time.

What I’ve been stuck with is the dichotomy of this. If I am truly a body worker in my role as Ordeal Master, and believe that pain is meant to be experienced in the body as a way to understand the Divine, why do I differentiate internal and external pain? Why is hanging from hooks a holy endeavor, but having severe nerve pain something to get rid of or treat This is why (arguably “real”) tattoo artists don’t use lidocaine (a topical anesthetic) when tattooing someone – they’ve learned that the experience of the pain is part of the package, and a painless tattoo just isn’t the same. But boy howdy, if I am experiencing terrible menstrual cramps, I am the first one to reach for the ibuprofen.

I guess because there are times now, in my experience, where I am tired of listening to whatever message or lesson my pain is trying to teach me. I am a bad student. Part of me thinks that if I really documented how my pain plays in my body, I might receive an important key that unlocks my diagnosis. But because I’m a normal human being, I spend more of my time trying desperately to dull the pain, to transcend it, to create a life experience that feels less painful. Maybe I can endure external pain in my body because I know it has a beginning, middle, and end. In that vein, I know for certain that my internal pain has an end; it’s just not a thought most people find pleasant (death).

I know another shaman and we frequently talk about how much we hate the fact that we have to live in bodies. Since both of us are well-schooled in what the kids call “astral travel”, or having life experiences outside of our bodies, it can feel like an option to just take off, leave the disabled and pain-ridden body behind and just experience life in this liminal state. However, we’ve both been told by our Deities that this is not an option. We have to live a human experience, so that we can relate to the people we work with. Also, if we were meant to be spirits, not humans, They wouldn’t have gone through the process of giving us bodies to begin with.

So in a way, I’m glad I have options. When I experience pain, I can examine it and decide if it is better treated as external pain – and then go about allowing my body to process the pain, and feel it sit and ache in my muscles/bones/nerves; or as internal pain – and medicate and meditate and treat it so I can feel some relief. I think where I reside right now is somewhere in the middle, even if none of my current pain is external pain. (I can’t bottom anymore, really, because my body has used up its store of endorphins and other fun hormones dealing with my internal pain.)

On the other hand, I feel like I am sending pain mixed signals about what I believe about its nature. Is it a thing to be nurtured and felt, to be experienced and embodied, as part of my human experience? Or is it something to be transcended, avoided, treated, like some unwelcome parasite that sucks my life dry? Can it be both, or some hybrid therein, or is “pain” just too small a word for the various ways we experience suffering in our bodies?

I know that I believe all pain is sacred, even the pain I try to medicate away. Without my chronic illness, I wouldn’t be the person I am, and I believe the pain has taught me a lot about being human. I just like to vacation from school once in a while.

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