Embracing the Pain Body

This piece looks at one element of our response to the Pain Body - the quality of embrace that meets and transforms our distress.

In the throes of distress, how do we embrace ourselves, take our life in our arms?  What kind of embrace transforms us, rendering our futures translucent, fresh, buoyant amid our flaws, vulnerability and hurt?

The term that comes to me is a kind of resonant communion: When we look at what both soothes the pain body, and begins to dissipate it, the answer  is something similar: non-rejection, non-indulgence, a kind of loving 'communion' with the raw truth of our experience...'




Befriending the Pain Body 1, a workshop in Dublin on March 3 2018

“we know well enough that some things we never learn,
cannot help, fall back to and cry from again and again… 
James Hillman

From time to time we find ourselves submerged in the Pain Body, “the accumulation of old emotional pain that almost all people carry in their energy field.”  (Tolle) For many of us, this is one of the most difficult elements of our human experience: the states of acute despair, loss, terror, or pure pain which take hold at times and feel almost too strong to bear.  For each of us, the flavour of pain will differ a little – we may feel a profound looping anxiety, bereft abandonment, enraged bitterness, relentless gloom, loneliness:

‘it is as if there were a basic cry in persons that gives direct voice to the abandoned content. For some persons it is: "Help me, please help me…or the cry from the bottom may say, “Let me alone, all alone; just let me be... 
 James Hillman, Blue Fire

Such ‘invasions’ are often 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 where our lives are headed. And we are often simply scared to feel as bad as we do. 

The Self-Embrace

What I want to speak to here is what we can do – or more accurately – how we can be with ourselves in a way that helps us. I am writing for those not deeply talented or disciplined in transcending the grip of the pain body (some people are gifted at drawing on extraordinary grace or discipline to penetrate suffering at its source without much emotional involvement). – I am writing for those of us whose skills are more clumsy and tentative – who sense we need a range of things – ordinary, cumulative, and humble things – to help us soften.

There are so many layers by which we can engage this material. For now, I’ll keep it simple, and look at two 1) the practice of presence, as outlined by Tolle and others, and 2) a more empathic, patient self-accompaniment that does not strive too quickly to cut through our suffering. I emphasize (2) for two reasons: Tolle’s instructions are expressed more skilfully elsewhere and because sometimes we can feel like failures (and accentuate the pain body) when we fail to live up to this guidance.

1)    Dis-identification and Presence

For Tolle, the Pain Body “consists of negative emotions that were not faced, accepted, and then let go in the moment they arose.“ Tolle suggests that  ‘…we release [the pain body] by cutting the link between the pain-body and our thought processes, so that we no longer feed the pain-body with our thinking… dis-identification from the emotion and just being in the now moment is the way to stop the cycle of constantly recreating painful experiences’. What Tolle describes is both ambitious and effective: We can learn to cut the link between thought and pain body – we do so by feeling into the body directly, being as present there as we are able, and not ‘identifying’ with the thoughts connected to our emotions.

Tolle’s guidance here is echoed by many other teachers: in Pema Chodron’s thorough, down-to-earth, and profound teachings on bearing with the ‘raw stuff’ of our experience and ‘learning to stay’;  by Zen teacher Ezra Bayda, who encourages us to make contact with overwhelming experience for ‘just three breaths,’ slowly and safely learning to relax the intensity of our dread.

2)    the tender, resonant embrace...

the abandoned child is both that which never grows….and also that futurity springing from vulnerability itself…that which becomes different are our connections with these places and our reflections through them’

James Hillman, Abandoning.

I love this quote from Hillman. It captures both the inevitability of repetition – we will never get rid of ourselves, never fully resolve the substance of our wounds, and yet the way that we relate to our 'abandoned' parts is capable of profound, creative transformation. Being kind and tolerant toward ourselves, patient with the recurrence of the same pain, is what transforms our connections. The spirit of Hillman’s words is close to Arthur Miller’sdescription of reluctantly overcoming an intense pattern of self-rejection:

I dreamed I had a child, and even in the dream I saw it was my life, and it was an idiot, and I ran away. But it always crept onto my lap again, clutched at my clothes. Until I thought, if I could kiss it, whatever in it was my own, perhaps I could sleep. And I bent to its broken face, and it was horrible...but I kissed it. I think one must finally take one's life in one's arms.

Arthur Miller – After the Fall

So how do we embrace ourselves like this, take our life in our arms and thereby give birth, in Hillman's words to ‘that futurity springing from vulnerability itself’?  What kind of embrace transforms us, rendering our futures translucent, fresh, buoyant amid our flaws, fragility and beauty? The term that comes to me is a kind of resonant communion: When I reflect on what both soothes the pain body, and begins to dissipate it, the answer in both cases is something similar: non-rejection, non-indulgence, a kind of loving 'communion' with the raw truths of ourselves and our experience. (Resistance, self-aversion, overwhelm – these seem to feed its’ anxiety and magnify our suffering). When we become more willing, skilful and confident in bearing with ourselves, we can ‘accompany’ ourselves in the throes of the pain body or our hurt without colluding with the world view it tries to pitch to us – that we are failures, that we are unlovable, that all is hopeless. In this we experience a kind of deep harmonic permission to be ourselves, a cellular accompaniment, and wherever this communion is offered we experience a blessing and a relaxation.  

Whatever the intensity of our pain body, we can become more confident in bearing with fear, remembering, as Tolle suggests, to release the connection between feeling and thought, ‘rest’ into the unfolding of the body, learning to be so deeply present that we are no longer fuelling our own distress, but helping it settle. We also learn to tolerate the temporary return of states of torture, to share ourselves when we know that is what we need, developing a discernment about who can bear with us lovingly in ways that help us.


moments of embrace transform us...

What is realistic to hope for? Most of us, probably, would like to transcend identification and emotional suffering forever, but we could do worse than aim for a flexible maturity - an ongoing extension of capacity. Capacity in what we can bear alone; capacity in what we can be vulnerably alive in with others. Optimally, as adults, we would rarely be spinning in hell realms, but, depending on our history, sometimes these tendencies endure.

For most of us, the pain body must be befriended from many angles, and we absorb the goodness of these moments - and they are moments - of attunement from others, of grace, of relaxation or internal gentleness. As these accumulate, the ‘nameless dread’ begins to retreat, and when our worst suffering arises, its toxicity is less dreadful and its’ shame less acute. The self besieged is more 'held' in an inner and outer community that do not shun it. This embrace holds us more gracefully. Slowly we grow toward a new, tentative adulthood, finding our feet like foals do.  Slowly, we learn to stand, more often, with more grace, in the unfolding futurity that Hillman speaks of...


'Befriending the Pain Body 1' on March 3 offers an opportunity to explore these themes and how we relate to our suffering in a small, confidential group. More info and booking: