Befriending the Pain Body – 1:
our hopes for comfort…
'…and thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good, so I never tried…'
Leonard Cohen, Famous Blue Raincoat
One of the most difficult things about being human is the experience of being assailed by the ‘worst’ in ourselves: states of acute despair, loss, terror, or pure pain take hold at times and feel almost too strong to bear. For each of us, the flavour of this pain may differ a little. But those of us who suffer such things are in no doubt when we are in their grip. They are personal and they are unrelenting. Such ‘invasions’ may be amplified by self-rejection, shame and hopelessness. We are dismayed to find ourselves here, again. We feel haunted; we tell ourselves we are pathetic, we dread what all this says about who we are. And we are simply scared to feel as bad as we do.
What is happening, and what will alleviate its impact?
I want to bring together a few threads of theory from psychotherapy and spirituality that may help to understand this kind of experience, map it a little inside us and live through it with less suffering and more grace. And I want to propose that these states usually need a range of things – skillful responses from us and good accompaniment from others – to begin to relax their density and release their grip.
What is the Pain Body?
'the accumulation of old emotional pain
that almost all people carry in their energy field'
When these states surge, we are in the field of what Eckhart Tolle calls the Pain Body, “the accumulation of old emotional pain that almost all people carry in their energy field.” For most of us, the core quality of this pain body seems to form its character in early childhood, and then ‘solidifies’ as we live through its’ recurrence. By the time we reach mid-life, our pain body carries both the signature of our original wound(s) alongside the traces of their repetition. It gets dense. We become adults for whom certain territories of feeling and experience remain difficult to endure.
Our pathways in these states do not yet know how to move well: to communicate or live through their need or distress in a fluid, wholesome way. But the density of the pain body can be dissipated; we can learn to attend skilfully to it and support its softening and release. Doing so successfully requires either exceptional spiritual prowess and grace - or something more humble and ordinary: a blend of discipline, tenderness, and attuned, loving accompaniment. This is what i want to look at here: the ordinary ways we can understand and respond to the pain we feel. In this segment, I focus on the theme of our need for company and our hope for help. (I will explore elsewhere, soon, what we can do for ourselves – the discipline and tenderness part).
Our need of others
Would you lay with me in a field of stone ?
If my needs were strong would you lay with me ?
(lyrics David Allan Coe, sung by Johnny Cash)
We tend to feel as adults that we ‘should’ be able to tolerate our inner experience and survive difficult states. And yet we cannot always do this.
Though there is a time in which to develop resilience and self-containment, trying to bear pain alone isn’t always good for us, especially if we are traumatised. Our soul may ache for human company, and that ache is intelligent and hopeful. If we reject our longing and merely survive each assault, we deprive ourselves of the loving contact that would actually facilitate our healing, and the emergence of a stronger, more resilient self.
Let’s backtrack a little and look at where we learned to feel – and find unbearable – the emotions which now assail us. Some obvious theory: Babies struggle to endure their feelings alone and need help to tolerate, and process the intense needs and fears that besiege them. In an ideal world, amid empathic, available parents they learn that soothing is possible, reliable, and available to them. In response, they slowly internalize a sense of safety and ‘holding’ when distressed. This does not mean there is no pain, just that their pain is less profoundly disturbing – that they have some sense of it being ‘workable’ and non-catastrophic.
Bion's 'nameless dread'
'It's not how she is, it's how we feel she is when we're in pain'
Robert Bly, on our mothers, The Sibling Society
Yet our world is not ideal, and most of us develop only partially. What are we left with? Places where we freeze over, and do not feel ‘safe’. Another theory fragment: Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion describes how when a baby is overwhelmed, he reaches to the eyes and arms of his mother for reassurance. When the baby looks to her and perceives that she cannot soothe him – because she herself is scared, preoccupied, irritated – instead of the reassurance he longs for, he absorbs her state, learning that not only can he not endure himself, but that she too rejects him. And so the baby imbibes catastrophe, rejection, heightened terror. Thereafter, in Bion’s evocative phrase, he comes to associate a quality of ‘nameless dread’ with those feelings he had sought her help with.
Whether Bion’s description is literally true for us, it captures how bad we can feel when we feel bad: bad beyond words, bad beyond help, and bad in a way that will evoke overwhelm, revulsion, and anxiety in others. And a ‘nameless dread’ – of certain states – may loop inside us for decades, destabilising us whenever it comes. We carry an often unconscious ‘knowing’ that nobody can help us endure ourselves – either because they could not bear to be near us, or because their presence would be futile.
'Longing to be comforted is not wrong...'
What I want to catch here is that though our hope for comfort is natural and healthy, it is often experienced as toxic, forbidden, pointless and shameful. And this stalls us in a repetitive loop of shame, isolation and self-abandonment. We forbid ourselves to seek the help we sense we need. Longing to be comforted is not wrong: mammals, when distressed, seek each other out. Our aching for soothing company is a signal of need, a sign of hope, and an ally in our desire to heal and be known by our kin.
The more trauma we carry, the more likely it is that we won’t heal its impact alone. There are many advantages to bringing pain into healing contact with others – we start to reverse the ‘convictions’ we formed in times of ‘nameless dread’; we learn that some others can bear with us when we feel bad; and, if we are lucky, we discover that loving human company is potent and lovely for our lonely, frightened cells. Sometimes we sense them swoon that another is willing to be with them.
(Later this week, i'll post the other element of this theme - how we ourselves can respond more creatively, tenderly and wisely to our pain. This balance of discipline and self-tenderness alongside authentic need of others can allow us unfold our futures differently, and be less haunted.)