Pain made useful: a story

I haven’t posted anything for months, but I feel very strongly about an experience I had yesterday and I want to tell you about it. This is a story involving a person who had been feeling extremely strong pain for months and months, and myself.

At first glance this post will look like it’s rather unrelated to what I have posted about before. In fact, it’s about the human mind and about how it works, and about how it changes.

Please understand that I have to suppress a lot of details and slightly warp the story to protect the identity of that person. I just flipped a coin to determine that I’ll be presenting that person as male, and I’ll call him Chris. I don’t know any person called Chris, so I guess that’s okay.

So Chris had been trying everything he could find. Pain medication, stronger pain medication, elaborate diagnostics, alternative approaches to healing, everything. All doctors pretty much agreed that there was no physiological basis for the pain. Chris found that hard to accept, because that had to mean that it’s a psychosomatic thing; a signal from the body that things aren’t going right… a signal that change needs to happen. Still, he started looking into psychotherapy. A few attempts had no real effect; at some point he found a therapist who could indeed help him reduce the pain for a while (in exchange for a lot of money, of course). A permanent solution wasn’t in sight, though. The last thing he tried was an inpatient therapy, during which on some days he actually felt really good… but there wasn’t any method to it. The pain would keep on coming back.

Then we met, and we talked about it.

The setup

Understandably, Chris was a bit hesitant to talk about his situation. Not many people are willing to accept psychological problems as real problems that need more than a stern talking to or a few words of encouragement. Many people who have acquired a seemingly irrational problem like a phobia or compulsive behaviour are met with ridicule, disbelief or even scorn every day. If you have a problem like that and everybody just tells you that it’s really not that difficult, it’s easy to get an additional problem: you start asking yourself if you’re broken or if something is fundamentally wrong with you. These kinds of doubts in yourself really make things harder by giving you even more to beat yourself up about.

You probably noticed just now that I don’t agree with this approach of marginalizing other people’s experiences. When I talked to Chris, he already knew that (and that’s another story I won’t go into now), so he gave it a try, and I listened to him and did something that I have been learning to do: I made no negative judgements. Not even in my thoughts. That in itself, of course, doesn’t change anything, but it doesn’t make things worse, either. Most importantly, what it definitely doesn’t do is make Chris feel bad about talking about things.

I listened and asked clarifying questions. It was a very interesting story. Before Chris started experiencing this strong pain, he’d been working almost all the time. He had taken multitasking to an extreme: doing housework while eating, thinking about nothing but work during the (short) lunch break, working through half of the night. If he woke up with a splitting headache, and that happened very often, he just took pain medicine and kept on working all day long. In a way, it’s not surprising that the body eventually decided to up the ante.

When I asked him, Chris admitted that he felt two ways about the pain: he understood that it was an important message from his body, but he was also very frustrated because it was, well, an extremely painful message. I suggested to help him have an experience of getting a message from the body that isn’t painful at all, to really understand that the message isn’t meant to be primarily about feeling bad. He sounded very curious (admittedly, if you’re all out of options you’ll eventually take anything you can get, no matter how stupid it sounds), so we gave it a go. I had never done anything this audacious before (though I only told Chris that when we were already in the middle of the amazing things). All I had done was to talk to many people who have been doing this kind of thing very successfully for a long time, and to share my thoughts with them. And I had changed my way of looking at communication. Now the fire trial was upon me.

The “magic”

I can tell you that I was extremely nervous. I was literally shivering even though I was beyond confident that it would have some effect. My main fear, I guess, was that what I was going to say would sound very “out there”, to put it diplomatically. Anyhow, apparently I managed to state my case convincingly, and Chris proceeded to get an actual message from his body. He experienced a very distinct tingling (he described it as a feeling like a weak electrical current) in his left index finger. We played around with that and got a few other feelings, too. Chris was, understandably, amazed. He suggested to try and have the pain diminish, but his body apparently wouldn’t have that.

I’ll skip over a few dead ends we hit and so, a few minutes later, I literally started talking to Chris’s body. No, really. I did this because I believed that it would make sense to Chris (and, in a way, to his body) in his particular situation. The gist of it was that I suggested to his body to stop the pain as long as Chris went easy enough on himself to stay reasonably healthy. Then we started talking about something completely different. A few minutes later, when I asked Chris about the pain, it was completely gone. It stayed gone for at least another hour, at which point I had to leave.

A day later (today, in fact) I briefly met Chris again. I asked him about the pain, and he said that he felt it “a bit”, and he went right on telling me how he couldn’t sleep all night because something upsetting (unrelated to his story) had happened… as if he felt there was a connection between the two. As if he felt that there is a reason for the pain, and he now understands the pain better, and the pain understands him better. Sorry if that just sounded a bit weird.

Is this all a big fluke? Perhaps, even if I don’t think so. Why should my party tricks have made a difference when Chris had spent thousands of Euros on all kinds of treatments, even some of the more outrageous ones?

Still, I’ll have plenty of opportunity to speak with Chris over the next few weeks, and I’ll see how things develop. No matter what happens, however, I am confident that I am on to something.

So that post was rather different from the stuff I usually write. I may let you convince me to write more about it. A lot more, probably. But only if I know you’re interested, and you’re now officially in charge of telling me whether you are. That’s not too bad, is it? I’m not even asking for donations.

Comments

The following is a selection of user-submitted comments from the previous iteration of this website.

A few weeks I ago I read a book about happiness and found a great Buddhist metaphor in it. Essentially, our mind is split in multiple ways, one of which is the emotional/rational split. The Buddhist metaphor describes the emotional part as an elephant and the rational part as its rider. Whatever you do, your elephant is with you. Sometimes you can let go and the elephant indulges in whatever it likes, sometimes the rider has to steer the elephant to prevent it from harming itself. Most of the time, you have to steer the elephant to reach long term goals.

There came a time where I noticed that I seemed to follow all these rules and demands and became more and more unhappy. More and more, my elephant distrusted its rider and ignored its commands, rendering me a seemingly dishonest person – someone who promises one thing and does other things. My rider had the best intentions, but my elephant was very stubborn.

Psychologically, my impulse control was severely damaged. But I also read that impulse control is like a muscle. You can train it. It seems to me that I needed some time for the muscle to heal, and now I’m in recovery, training it. Of course you have to do that responsibly. Saying “I will work eight hours every day, starting tomorrow” is like saying “I will lift 100kg weights for four hours in a row every day, starting tomorrow”. It won’t work. You might be able to get there, but not right away.

“The gist of it was that I suggested to his body to stop the pain as long as Chris went easy enough on himself to stay reasonably healthy”

Getting back to the metaphor, your elephant has to learn to trust its rider again, and for that the rider has to make good choices. And for that it has to listen to the elephant, get to know it really well, otherwise the elephant will ignore him again. So be a smart rider. Think about your long-term goals. Then think about how you’re going to implement these goals. This is called making implementation intentions. But for every intention, ask your elephant kindly, whether he feels up to it. If the elephant gets anxious, you’re asking for too much. What you’re aiming at is a response like “Okay, I think I can do that. It takes some effort, but it’s possible”. Once you got that, thank your elephant for its cooperation. Every person essentially is a team of a rider and an elephant. Whatever you do, you’re both in this together. The elephant needs to trust the rider to make wise choices – but also to let go when it’s alright.

Dennis

There are approximately equal parts wisdom and confusion in that metaphor.

The confusion comes from the fact that there isn’t actually any split in the mind. All functions of the mind are separated and connected at the same time. The wisdom is in recognizing that thoughts and feelings are tightly connected (which the metaphor actually acknowledge) and interact very strongly with each other. Thoughts influence feelings, feelings influence thoughts.

Keeping with the metaphor, I’d like to point out that elephants can’t be stubborn. Stubbornness is a human concept based in conscious evaluation of actions. If you label what the elephant is doing as “being stubborn”, you have just reduced the information available to you. Stubbornness is a rather abstract notion; what the elephant is doing in any given moment is not.

Curiously, the same is true for the rider. Without looking at what the rider is doing, you can’t possibly have the slightest idea about what made the elephant go this or that way. Of course, the outside world, the environment the elephant and the rider navigate through, needs to be kept in awareness, too, for the same reason.

I’d like to recommend a very insightful book about this kind of awareness. It’s called, surprisingly enough, “Awareness”, written by Anthony de Mello.

The most important point I’d like to stress in the rider/elephant metaphor is this: you are not the rider, nor are you the elephant.

Jan

I think we pretty much agree. “Split” indeed sounds too sharp, but the point is that there are distinguishable parts. Learning that my computer is not just one piece of metal, but has a CPU and a chipset (among other components, this is not meant to be an analogy) let’s me understand its behavior better, but of course those things still form one computer because they are interconnected.

My rider labeled my elephant stubborn because the elephant refused to listen. Just like you said, the rider knows these concepts. Really the elephant was just continually ignorant of the rider, doing it’s own thing, for it’s own reasons. Knowing these reasons is indeed necessary to change that pattern, and like you said, just calling it stubborn did not bring me any further. Yet that’s how I perceived it at the time. If anything, my rider was stubborn in not acknowledging the elephants need.

I do not agree with the following statement: “Without looking at what the rider is doing, you can’t possibly have the slightest idea about what made the elephant go this or that way”

In a healthy human being, that is usually true, concerning the bigger picture. Still, in the moment an elephant does lots of things on its own, like keeping the car on the road. You don’t have to think about that and explicitly command your elephant to do so. Suppose your rider gets distracted by the radio for half an hour, you would probably not have crashed, but gotten off course, without any idea of where you are (at least on something as straightforward as a motorway).

I agree with your last statement. The irony is that when people talk or think about other people, mostly their rider is considered, especially if you do not personally know this person, like celebrities, etc. This is why I (my reasoning, thinking rider) did not really notice me (the quite lovely elephant) for quite some time. It seems to me that regardless of how ugly the rider can get (because of being very malleable), the elephants in most, maybe all people are really beautiful. That’s my source of self-love, perhaps it helps others, too.

Thank you for the book tip, I put it on my wishlist.

Dennis
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