Early in my career, I found it gratifying to treat pain and I was pretty good at it. The art of choosing the right acupuncture points is fascinating, creative, and even fun. But then I attended a seminar on marketing where the instructor advised, “Choose a specialty and focus on just treating that one thing,” and a friend suggested I should become a pain specialist. At the time, it felt like someone suggesting to a painter, “You should limit yourself to painting only in yellow from now on.”
I was resistant to the idea partly because, like most people, I enjoy variety, and partly because the treatment of pain seemed like superficial work. Fixing sore elbows day in and day out would have been the equivalent of painting only in yellow, so I decided I couldn’t be a fixer of body parts. The only way I could be satisfied – and simultaneously facilitate a deeper level of healing – was to treat whole people.
Over the years since, I’ve come to understand that pain encompasses a huge range of health concerns and it’s often broader than we think. Chronic pain is frequently part of a complex pattern where it may be intertwined with depression, anxiety, anger, grief, psychological trauma, and also with digestive disorders, sleep disturbances, and more. So there’s plenty of opportunity for variety and depth, and there’s also a great need for pain treatments that are more intelligent than pills.
I’ve felt called to educate people on different ways of understanding pain. It helps more than you might think. In 2014, Lancet published a study on the impact of education on people with neck pain. Participants were divided into two groups: half of them got 20 sessions of physical therapy, lasting an hour each. The other half got 30 minutes of education and two follow up phone calls about pain. Throughout the 12-month study, both groups had equal rates of improvement. Spending a short time learning about pain was as effective as twenty hours of physical therapy!
I created an online course to teach people productive ways of understanding pain along with instruction in a wide range of do-it-yourself methods for stopping pain. We also unravel the broader psychological, social, and physiological context that the pain is wrapped up in. I know everybody isn’t going to take this course, though, and there are a few concepts I teach in it that I want to share with the whole world. So I’ll be explaining them in the next couple articles. Even if you’re not in pain now, chances are you’ll experience some in the future, or someone close to you will struggle with it. Knowing what’s going on inside can really help. And as you’ll see, the possible expressions of pain go way beyond our usual definition.
I want the world to understand this because it’s simple, it makes sense, and it gives us an intuitive sense of what to do about it. Here it is: all pain is due to some form of stagnation. When things (blood, food, lymph, energy, feelings, etc.) move freely through us we generally feel good, and when they don’t we feel bad.
Here are some examples. When we have a traumatic injury, there is damaged skin and nerves, crushed or severed blood vessels, torn muscle and other connective tissue, and perhaps broken bone. The damage means that free flow through the area is impeded. Thus, there is stagnation and it hurts.
If we overeat and food is so crammed into our digestive tract that it’s barely moving, this is a form of stagnation and it feels bad. If we have a blood clot that’s blocking the flow, this is stagnation and it’s painful. If blood stops moving through the vessels that serve the heart itself, this is dire stagnation, and it’s intensely painful. If we sleep in a cramped position, are dehydrated, or don’t move much, our muscles can become locked up and irritated – i.e., stagnant – and they hurt.
In the same way, if we lose someone we love and we cling to them even though they’re not physically here anymore, this is mental and emotional stagnation, and it makes the process more painful. If we harbor any negative feeling (rather than allowing it to be felt and to move through us freely) this is a form of emotional stagnation, and so we suffer. Aside: all negative emotions are qualitatively different from positive ones in that they have a restrictive or contractive effect on the body-mind. Positive emotions have an opening or expansive effect.
I’m not implying that if you’re grieving a loss or have been stuck in a state of anger, you should feel bad or wrong for doing this. In fact, if you do so – i.e., if you resist what’s happening or tell yourself, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” – you only compound the stagnation, which makes the pain worse and impedes the healing process.
Resistance is a major cause of stagnation. So, looking at this mechanism in the broadest way, when we resist reality – meaning, we don’t accept any aspect of life (either in the outside world or within our own inner experience) – we contract ourselves, we tighten up, and we limit our own freedom. This causes stagnation and stagnation hurts – physically, mentally, and emotionally. Resistance causes stagnation and stagnation causes pain and suffering. If we resist the pain and suffering, we get caught in a vicious circle.
Although I learned about the connection between stagnation and pain when I was studying acupuncture, it was only through years of treating people and self-exploration that I came to understand the staggering implications of this mechanism and the role that resistance plays. When I began to see pain in this way – all the different forms and how profoundly it affects the course of our lives – it no longer felt like a limited career path!
Before I get into how to use this model to get out of pain, I want to add a few sub-principles. First, all parts of us are interconnected, so stagnation on one level can readily lead to stagnation on another level. For example, if we’re chronically angry, tense, or sad (emotional stagnation) this can eventually show up as, say, a tension headache or lower back pain (physical stagnation). Vice versa, living in a tight and inflexible body (physical stagnation) can contribute to a lack of mental flexibility – rigid thinking, frustration, depression, etc.
Second, because of this interconnection, clearing stagnation on any level tends to promote healthy flow on all levels. For instance, physical exercise is beneficial for depression, because moving the body moves the mind. Likewise, using the mind to imagine energy and blood coursing freely through a painful area of the body can often be as effective as painkillers. For the same reason, if we’re in physical pain, it is always worthwhile to look inward and see if there’s some story or emotional pattern we need to let go of.
Third, while resistance leads to stagnation, acceptance (feeling willingly, not arguing with reality, surrendering) restores flow. Thus, there is often immediate relief from suffering when we stop resisting it. So, to summarize:
- Where there is pain there is stagnation
- Resistance promotes stagnation
- All levels of our being are interconnected, so
- Stagnation can spread between levels
- Movement on one level can alleviate stagnation on multiple levels
- Relinquishing resistance restores the flow
Take some time to think about this and feel into it. And tell me about your experience with it in the comments section below. I’ll explain some ways to utilize this model next week and we’ll also look at an updated Western model of pain.