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Pain - Relationship Between Body and Psyche

by Sue Green(more info)

listed in psychospiritual, originally published in issue 45 - October 1999

Reading December 1998's issue of Positive Health made me realise just how many ways there were to relate to our life and our symptoms, whether mental, physical, or just annoying life circumstances that we don't really want. Likewise, there are now well over a hundred types of psychotherapy, and probably as many forms of complementary health, maybe more.

It is wonderful to know that there is a real flourishing of interest in ways to move forward in our lives – and it is also sometimes difficult to see the wood for the trees, there is so much selection available.

Riding the tiger

In this article I would like to propose a wandering around the question of living with physical pain. There is room for reserving judgement on what physical pain actually is – the most highly qualified experts cannot ultimately be sure how far physical pain is precisely physical and how far it is related to other things, psychosomatic conditions for example, or a lateral and indefinable response to an aspect of our environmental conditions.

There seems to be evidence that even the so-called 'organic' symptoms cannot be boxed up neatly and dealt with purely physically. Dr Batmanghelidj's book, Your Body's Many Cries for Water is a persuasive argument that what we often experience as clear physical pain may in fact be a signal that the body is dehydrated and needs water. To treat it as a physical symptom by applying remedies – whether drugs or whatever – may actually be missing the point of the pain.

Dr Batmanghelidj doesn't say that all disease is about dehydration and nor does he say that all pain can be treated by increasing your water consumption. He simply suggests that some acute and chronic pain that we call 'disease' can in some circumstances be less of a disease and more of a signal for a particular form of rebalancing, the body experiencing 'drought' conditions.

However, the early work of the psychologist C.G.Jung, who was also trained as a conventional medical doctor, provides a theoretical basis for another theory of pain – in the suggestion that there is a 'mysterious' relationship between the physical body and the psyche. His profound and extensive work showed that this relationship goes on moment by moment and we can use it to our advantage in our healing.

In his book, Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore tells a story which shows this relationship both simply and clearly. He had a physical symptom which caused some pain. It didn't get worse and it didn't seem to be nameable. He went to receive a massage, and the massage was begun by a series of questions about the pain.

Halfway through the treatment, when the practitioner approached the place of the pain, he suddenly received an image of tigers, large and brightly coloured. He describes them as 'at once playful and ferocious'. Whenever the pain returned in the future, the tigers were able to provide a resource of confidence and strength to him.

Many times when pain is around, our confidence is sapped, partly by the energy it takes to manage pain, but also because of the underlying fear that is often barely recognised. A sort of 'timidity' sets in. I can certainly see tigers as a wonderful antidote to that, and the story shows how the psyche can provide what the body needs – not as a direct physical cure, but as a new relationship to the pain. Also tigers can be very expressive in their environments – how often does pain make us retreat into ourselves and lose our colour and self-expression.

But whether suffering or not, we live in a world where it is fashionable to be a hero. At one level, it means gritting your teeth and carrying on through the pain. But heroic thinking also means treating pain as if it is something to be warred with, got rid of, brought under control. Even though we are now familiar with the world of holistic medicine and the mind-body relationship, many of us still harbour deep-down the old view that the body can be a bit of a nuisance, unreliable, imperfect and prone to go wrong when we least want it to.

In my experience one of the most valuable long-term benefits of complementary treatment is that we can learn a new way to exist alongside the body, even if we are not always entirely at one with it.

Of course, when we are only aware of the gripping and griping quality of pain, there is little to be done except remember to breathe, become aware of the tension that we are holding and make a conscious attempt either to tighten even more, or to choose a relaxation response, depending on the methods we have learned for handling tension.

But in a treatment session, there is often a space of relaxation to allow pain to have its own voice – I remember once going to an osteopath and saying in the session how wonderful it was to feel all the delicious pains that were there. The practitioner was surprised at first by my describing the pains in this way until he realised that I was being quite genuine. Because they were not overwhelming and I was not frightened by them, I was able to feel them as small moving sensations which were interesting, stimulating, and a way of feeling my life energy in that moment.

When more difficult pain appears, it can be helpful to practise remembering times when pain has felt more friendly and interesting – or at least tolerable.

Some of the more subtle forms of body therapy, such as cranial osteopathy, indicate that we can often find within us that 'spaciousness' of awareness where we can open up to our experience. Getting caught up in pain is a form of contraction, withdrawing from our experience. The opposite of pain and contraction is relaxation, so whether we come at it by the creative imagination, or by the reflective space of near-meditation, we are moving towards the healing of pain. We are giving pain a space where it can be part of our picture of the moment rather than the overwhelming whole of it. (This is not at all the same as 'spacing out' so that we no longer feel anything, of course, though it may take a while to recognise the difference.)

Ultimately in the search for healing there is an important question about the relationship between 'healing' and 'cure'. If we see symptoms as a nuisance, and we see health as an absence of symptoms, we will use all our powers of mind to bring that about. However, if we come to see our bodies as a direct expression of who we are in this very moment, symptoms will begin to be included as part of that expression – not to be ignored and left untreated, or used to avoid dealing with difficult situations, but also not to be shunned as the black sheep of the family.

The word, 'healing' like the word 'holistic', refers to the process of 'becoming whole.' In the holistic model there is an urge within us which is always moving us towards that wholeness; even our symptoms are part of that movement, however incoherent it may seem to us.

For many of us, nature is the way that opens us up to a sense of that wholeness. When we experience the world of nature, we can sometimes almost idealise it as a 'miracle of creation and natural laws'. The pattern on the wing of a butterfly seems to be so beautifully and aesthetically formed that it simply must reflect that miracle. However, the Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann suggests another perspective alongside that. He writes, 'The effective complexity of the universe... receives only a small contribution from the fundamental laws. The rest comes from the numerous regularities resulting from "frozen accidents".'

In this view, the universe and the earth too have had their traumas, their lack of symmetry and perfection, their stories which could all have turned out differently if there had been a different distribution of 'fundamental laws' and 'frozen accidents'. In this light we could see our natural world as a courageous, miraculous and stunning ongoing improvisation, sometimes against the odds, as well as the aesthetic and inspiring array of magnificence reflecting the harmony and perfection that we yearn for – and also, the pragmatic search for survival reflected in 'nature red in tooth and claw'.

As for the healing which is also being sought in that improvisation, about some aspects of our world and our physical bodies there need be no argument – a broken arm is a simple mechanical symptom which it would be foolish not to repair mechanically. Infection is also something that our conventional systems have a mastery in. But the advance in interest in complementary health suggests that we are beginning to think that only a very small part of our physical symptoms are 'merely' mechanical or open to technology alone as effective treatment.

There are many options open to us in healing, but all of them rest on their own philosophies whether they are made explicit or not. In this article I have tried to suggest that if we have some idea of our general guiding philosophy, it will be easier to discriminate between the many options that are presented to us in the complementary health world. It will also be easier for us to know when our conventional medical model can be of use to us too.

I don't want to suggest that it is a simple matter, knowing our philosophy. But in our world it is often shut away as a subject for university professors when actually we need it on our supermarket shelves. A philosophy doesn't make pain go away, but it can give both our everyday suffering and our times of crisis some sense of context, meaning and purpose – and then it is not wasted, it becomes our own experience of ourselves, fully lived.


Batmanghelidj, F., MD, Your Body's Many Cries for Water, Global Health Solutions, Inc., first published 1992.
Gell-Mann, Murray, The Quark And The Jaguar, quoted in 'Thawing the Frozen Accidents,' by B.D. Zabriskie, in Journal of Analytical Psychology, Vol 42 No.1 Jan 1997.
Moore, Thomas, Care of The Soul, Piatkus 1992.


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About Sue Green

Sue Green is trained in Holistic Massage and is in ongoing training in Core Process Psychotherapy with Karuna Institute. Her background has included work with meditation in various forms, and contemplative bodywork forms such as yoga and chi kung, and her interest is in pursuing increasingly integrative forms of experience which cross or transcend boundaries of culture and thought.

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