Befriending the Pain Body – 2:
the resonant embrace…
“we know well enough that some things we never learn,
cannot help, fall back to and cry from again and again…
From time to time we find ourselves submerged in what Eckhart Tolle called the Pain Body, “the accumulation of old emotional pain that almost all people carry in their energy field.” As I wrote in the first piece (below), this can be one of the most difficult things about being human: 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 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’ tend to 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 where our lives are headed. And we are often simply scared to feel as bad as we do.
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 it absorbs the goodness of these moments - and they are moments - of atunement 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 futurity that Hillman speaks of.
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.)