The True Nature of Pain

All of us have had to deal with pain, sometimes on a daily basis. People often explore Rolfing as a source of pain management, but Rolfing aims at helping the individual get to a place in life where pain is no longer such an immanent factor. This goes well beyond pain management. If we are stacked well in gravity, our various muscle groups are functioning properly, and our joints decompressed, we should hope that the individual could live a more pain free life. Even if getting completely past the pain is not a possibility, developing a new relationship with the body and with pain can be.

I have had my share of injuries. After a pretty serious weightlifting injury, I had been dealing with upper back pain, which eventually lead to hip and lower back pain. I managed to keep it down to a dull roar with yoga and some gentle movement exercises, but my first real experience in questioning the very nature of pain itself occurred during a long Buddhist retreat. In the tradition of Vipassana, a Southeast Asian lineage of Thervatta Buddhism in the linage of Goenke, we sat in silent meditation for 10 days, about 15 hours a day. We were allowed to get up every hour to stretch our legs, and every few hours we might get a longer break. Needless to say, sitting all day is pretty hard on the hips and back, or any other place that tends to bother you.

In Vipassana, we meditate on sensation in the body. It is not for the purpose of escape, it is for the purpose of exploring reality on a deeper level. During this time I went through periods of experiencing fairly acute back pain. There were times when I did not think I could go on with the retreat. It was fairly constant and nagging. I was nearly at the point of not being able to handle it anymore when the 4th day or 5th day rolled around and my mind was able to reach a more subtle level of perception. During these very deep states, the pain disappeared completely. These were not by any means disassociative states, but rather deeper levels of perception in which one was quite aware of themselves and even their surroundings, so where did the pain go during these deeper states of awareness?

It was only later at the Rolf Institute that these experiences were put into perspective. We learned that pain actually occurs in the brain, not the body. We do not have pain receptors in our body, we only have receptors. It is the brain that interprets those signals and identifies them as pain or not pain. Suddenly phantom pain issues like fibromyalgia made more sense to me. The brain can interpret ordinary signals as pain, even light touch, even if there is nothing visibly wrong with the person’s body. Likewise anyone can have a different relationship to their body and to pain. We can develop new neural maps of the body and the way our body and our mind perceive things can change. Addressing an obvious restriction in the body is a less mysterious way of addressing pain, but when we approach an individual in a Rolfing series we aim to establish a new relationship with the body, and this includes a new relationship to pain. Often, many of these common aches and pains tend to go away with a Rolfing series. Some of them will come back from time to time but usually not stay around as long as before. Some pain issues that can not be resolved can be made more manageable by Rolfing. The truth is, we don’t really know what is going to happen when going through a Rolfing series, we simply give the individual the input and attention they need to reorganize themselves, not the way they want to be, but the best way they CAN be.

John WilsonComment