Pain and the Story of Life

April 2011

As I went through 23 hours labor when my daughter Sophie was born, I found that I had deep inner reserves and did not need to use any pain medication. But now, with only mild shoulder and arm soreness from carrying my baby, I find that I am often annoyed and constantly complaining because of this pain. On my daily walks this spring I see changes every day. The crocus that poked through the earth a couple of weeks ago now have almost finished flowering; some blooming tulips a week ago are now withering. As I see the cherry blossoms that were so magnificently blooming now start to fall in the rain and wind and become the pink dust back to the earth, I feel a poignant sense that the time is slipping away despite my every attempt to hold onto it. Or, more to the point, I am slipping away like crocus, tulips, and cherry blossoms and time is not going away anytime soon. I realize that which stories I make in my mind can make my experience with pain and life very different.

In my practice, I have seen many people who struggle with pain. There are different levels of struggling. From blatantly obvious wars against it, to subtle (mostly futile) efforts to mitigate it, to the even subtler (and more futile) desire to avoid it. As a practitioner, I am aware that it is important to help people ease physical pain, and I believe that it is even more important to help ease the suffering that arises from the struggle, uncertainty, and anxiety about whatever physical ailments inflict us. To become aware of what stories you make about these pain is a very useful way of healing: it helps you to realize that you are the one directing the story rather than helplessly following the script.

There is a saying in Chinese Medicine: “If there is blockage, there is pain; if there is smooth flow (of Qi), there will be no pain”. In treatment, when we use acupuncture to stimulate the flow of Qi, we help to relieve pain. And at the same time, when our life force flows smoothly, the tightly knotted story often opens up; and the emotions such as fear, worry, and anger generated from our beliefs will loosen up their grip on our minds. We can then re-examine and re-evaluate these beliefs. There may be fewer struggles and more peace. For most people who struggle with chronic pain, the turning point of healing often starts from letting go of the story. For example, my very different experiences with labor pain and shoulder pain came from the different stories I made about the pain.

During labor, I told myself that pain was normal, and not only normal but also that it was necessary to stimulate my body to secrete its natural painkillers to prepare for the birth. I was determined not to use any painkiller because I wanted to go through the birth in a natural way. I used every ounce of my energy during labor to tell myself that I was ok, it was just pain and I could handle it. My determination was tested toward the later part of the labor when the contraction got really strong and so did the pain. I could hear a voice in my head saying, “It’s enough. I don’t want to endure it. Just knock me out and I won’t feel it any more.” Focusing on my breathing not only helped to deal with pain, but also helped me not to listen to that voice of fear. When I was just aware of the voice, but not engaging with it, I felt a sense of ease and I could carry on despite the pain.

However, in the case of the shoulder and arm pain, my story is very different. It goes like this: “There is something wrong with my arms and shoulders… I have to get rid of this pain otherwise my shoulders and arms will never get better, and I will not be able to hold the baby. What am I going to do if I can’t hold the baby? That will certainly affect the bonding… the baby will grow up feeling lack of contact with her mother, which will affect her psychological health” In my mind, I have already gone 5 or 10 years into the future and lived out all those scary thoughts. Now my pain is not just the simple physical pain, it has escalated into the cause of my misery and my daughter’s problems in the future. I do not want to accept this pain as the normal process of the body trying to heal; I see it as a problem, a problem that I need to avoid and reject. The more focused I am on getting rid of the pain, the more entangled I become in the struggle. Now every time I feel the pain, I am reminded of the story that is related with the pain. I feel more tense, more stressed and moody. And the pain becomes worse. As my pain becomes identified with that particular problem in the future, every time I feel the mildest physical sensation of pain, I also suffer from the full-strength fear of consequences. Now, not only I want to get rid of the pain, but also that fear, which actually feels worse than the pain. My mind then tells me that in order to get rid of that fear, I have to get rid of the pain.

I have learned that during the labor process, some women are so afraid of pain that they tense up whenever contraction happens. This tensing up is directly opposite to what the body naturally wants to achieve, and it makes contraction worse and delays the process. Painkiller are useful not just to remove pain but also to relax the mind so that it stops getting in the way of the body’s job. The same thing happens in other physical pain. If I don’t separate the story and the actual physical pain, my mind will keep getting in the way of the healing of my body. The pain of my shoulders might be better, but if the “pain” of imagined consequences is not dealt with, the shoulder pain may still “feel” the same. But once I decide to disengage from the story, the pain in the shoulders and arms is once again merely an undesirable physical sensation. I no longer need to deal with the other problems: the tension, the stress, and the fear. I only need to do something to help my arms and shoulders to heal faster.

In the case of chronic pain, there are often many “stories” and mixed emotions associated with the pain. These stories and emotions are like binders that make pain solidify and harden. If we only relieve the physical pain, when the tension, fear, and other stories associated with pain arise, the pain will come back or worsen. That’s why the most important step of the treatment of chronic pain is to disengage the “stories” from the actual physical pain, to release the tied up energy in the blockage so that the body can start to heal.

We all make stories about our experiences, life and ourselves. Often, we get so engaged with the stories that we forget that the story is just a story. It’s like walking out of a movie theatre and spending the next week worrying about what the characters will do in the future. There is nothing wrong about making stories. On the other hand, it is undesirable to suffer because of the stories without knowing that you make them at the first place. When I look at the beautiful cherry blossom petals on the ground and feel sad, I make the story that it is the end of the cherry blossoms. But if I make the story that the petals will fertilize the soil and make more cherry blossoms next year, I feel very differently. Knowing the story that our mind makes helps us to gain a perspective and to have freedom and ease. Changing the story helps us to have a different feeling altogether. Pain will always be there as long as there is life. We can make the story that it is the opposite of life, which means it needs to be feared and rejected, or we can make the story that it is a part of the life. It is up to you to choose, and to experience the consequences of your choice.