By Michael Klachkin
Pain is an inseparable part of our lives in this world. We all experience it in various forms. As a concept, pain has several aspects: the physical aspect (“I have a headache”, “My back is killing me”), the emotional aspect – for example following death or separation (“When she left, me I felt heartbroken”), as well as other pains that can be said to exist in a spiritual dimension – which may serve as beacons of mistakes, or as a way of setting limits to how we relate to things. In this collection of papers, we discuss pain as manifested in our physical body.
Pain has different manifestations and the analogies we use to describe them are multifarious, and deeply related to our inner world and our culture. Physical pain occasionally accompanies us in our life. We usually consider a state of pain as diametrically opposed to what we call a “normal” state (though some derive pleasure from pain, and we know of various mental conditions in which people display masochistic or self-loathing behavior).
In our Western culture, the most common attitude towards pain is to regard it as a negative phenomenon which is to be eliminated as soon as possible. Pain is an annoyance that we wish to promptly “kill” (hence painkillers). This approach becomes ever more radical as our culture leans towards valuing leisure and comfort, in which we regard difficulty, suffering and pain as annoyances that are to be eradicated from our lives.
In other cultures (Eastern and Native American), as well as ancient cultures (such as the Sufi), with traditions that are products of various religions, the attitude towards pain and hardship is to regard them as a welcome challenge that contributes to our development and individuality, and which can deepen our familiarity with our inner world, our character and the world we live in. These cultures regard pain as an edifying element, which is necessary for our spiritual development. Even in the West, in past eras, pain was considered a toughening element that is meant to prepare a boy or girl for adult life.
The culture in which we live strives to create a synthetic pain-free and difficulty-free environment. This tendency gives rise to our dismissive attitude towards pain – as a nuisance that scares us and makes us anxious. The fact that we use less and less of our bodily functions, makes us draw away from our bodies and senses, so that each physiological occurrence that is unfamiliar causes consternation or panic, in a similar way to how we react to phenomena that are foreign to us in general. Thus, we are slowly becoming aliens to our own bodies and feelings, and losing our ability to understand our body’s language and the signals it sends out.
We know that every mental state has a measureable physical expression. In this way, our body can function as a mirror of our mental life. Therefore, not all pains or unfamiliar sensations should be considered “abnormal” or pathological. We must treat chronic pains or long-term bodily changes as warnings or signals that are to be interpreted and understood by ourselves, or with the help of a professional.
Edgar Cayce, the well-known American healer and psychic, who lived in the first half of the 20th century, described the dynamics of illness development in his readings. He spoke of the following three phases or levels:
- The spiritual level: an illness or condition that is grounded in sins or errors of previous lives, and which we must come to terms with in order to get better. (For example, a person who was cruel to others in a previous life may, in this life, be given a taste of the suffering he caused. The suffering is then an opportunity to make amends and to understand previous mistakes and sins.)
- The emotional or mental level: here the pain or illness are a consequence of a wrong-headed or excessive involvement, such as hypersensitivity which harbors anger, frustration, envy, etc. This emotional turmoil, if continued over a long period of time, may infringe on our bodily functions and result in a pathological condition such as ulcer, constipation, heart conditions, neurological problems, auto-immune disorders, tumors, etc. (Chinese medicine and homeopathy focuses on such connections.)
- The physiological and environmental level: illness and pain may develop as a result of a weak immune system, insufficient or wrongly-adapted nutrition, poisoning, hygiene issues, viruses, bacteria, overworking, etc. These are cases where our illness is self-inflicted, and arises as a result of ignorance or lack of awareness, weakening our body and making it more susceptible to disease. In other words, this is a problem that arises from improper usage of our physical machinery – our body.
Investigating these aspects of pathology, we find that a disruption, pain or illness, may begin through any of them, but will usually find a physical expression at some point in the way of pain. In other words, the physical body, with its tissues, organs and systems, is the “final stop” for pathological expressions in the mental, spiritual, or corporeal levels.
In our body, the variety of expressions is huge, and depends on our internal constitution, that is, on our genetic and personal makeup. Typically, an illness will develop in a system or organ that is relatively weak, for genetic or behavioral reasons.
Pain has a function: it informs us of disruptions in the spiritual, emotional, and physical levels. We must make an effort to understand this signal and fix the associated problem on all three levels. Those who are sensitive and self-aware often pay attention to their pains, and think of their pain as a signal that is sent to us from one of these levels of being (spiritual, emotional, or physical). Thus, pain is meant to warn us, to set a limit, or to turn our attention to a wrong behavioral pattern or way of looking at things that does not suit our inner world, or our body, and thus stands in contrast to our ideals, our personality, our goals and way of life. If we are attentive, our physical sensations and pains can be our beacons.
The natural conclusion from the above is that we ought to strive toward knowing ourselves on all three levels – spiritual, emotional, and physical – and to try to establish harmony between them. A severe disruption on any of these levels over time will result in illness. From this wider perspective, the function of pain is that of a messenger from one the levels of our being. Therefore, it is better to try to understand pain and what it is indicating, than to simply “kill” it.
A deeper understand of the basis of pain will allow us to treat it in a circumspect manner, and without anxiety that may steer us towards wrong-headed and harmful action. Physical pain, properly understood, may enrich our familiarity with ourselves on both physical and mental levels.