What I'll Be Covering..
1. The Marathon: Pain Up Close & Personal
The sky was a pale, Neapolitan blue, with a few high clouds, and it was warm for the autumn. The sandy-haired young man, alert, wiry, anxious and intense, six foot three inches tall and irresistibly captivating in manner, looked up and—seeing seagulls swirling overhead—mused that he may as well be standing outside Cadiz.
Like most runners, he was both tanned and lean. Dressed, as ever, in shorts and a loose fitting t-shirt, there was nevertheless a certain drama to his presence.
To run a marathon, he knew, was to war against your own mind. Every participant that day was preparing to duel against their own courage, strength, and resilience. Skill meant nothing. Endurance and stamina meant everything.
By mile six, he begins to feel the first stabs of muscle burn. His feet become heavier—his chest muscles, tighter. And yet he keeps on pushing.
Sixty minutes later, lactic acid—hot and heavy—is pumping through his veins and filtering into his limbs like boiling poison. Each step forward twists his blood, until it feels like burning oil beats through his heart. He grunts, tired and dazed, and forces his legs to keep moving. Why was he doing this to himself?
“Anybody can go out for a run and it can clear your mind, take away the stress of life,” explains ultra-marathon runner Keira Henninger, “but running a marathon—it clears your soul, it’s the best thing in the world. In a strange way it’s as if your consciousness expands, and it’s why so many runners love hitting the tarmac.”
By mile twenty-two, his pulse thumps, muffled in his temples. The truth was that the pain was sapping him of any ability to think. And yet he loved it. He loved the primal nature of the sensations. And the dizzying feelings that came with them. There was such depthless joy in pure survival, he thought. Some things simply couldn’t be described and pain, real pain, was first among them. His body suffered, but with it came a weightlessness that let his spirit soar.
“Suffering is a kind of shortcut to mindfulness,” writes social psychologist Brock Bastian in his book: The Other Side Of Happiness: Embracing a More Fearless Approach To Living. “It makes us suddenly aware of everything in the environment. It brutally draws us into a virtual sensory awareness of the world, much like meditation does.”
Fighting against the lactic burning of an already exhausted body, he gasps. He gasps as he feels exhaustion that would cripple another person and pushes through it again and again.
For he was no longer an office menial, locked behind his computer terminal, responding to customer queries. In approaching mile twenty-four, he was a warrior, drawing blades to fight in a moment when personal courage and endurance threatened to meet insanity: he was a throwback to an older, more ancient time—when strength was forged in the raw potentiality of each moment.
Then, all of a sudden, he crosses the finish line, and the pain begins to ebb. His head ached; his body felt unutterably heavy. And yet he had never felt so alive, so purified, so reconstituted.
“At least for a while you have a kind of hall pass,” explains ex-professional road racing cyclist Lance Armstrong in his book: It’s Not About The Bike. “You can go out there with the weight of the world on your shoulders, and after a six-hour ride at a high pain threshold, you feel at peace. You don’t have to brood on your problems; you can shut everything else out, because the effort and subsequent fatigue are absolute.”
2. Reimagining Pain
My previous article showed us how suffering—handled in the right manner—paves the way for secondary pleasure and, in certain cases, happiness itself. But I want to go further this time. I want to explore how pain brings about more generalised changes to the self: how it reshapes identity and pushes outwards at the very boundaries of consciousness.
Consider this next essay, then, an invitation to reimagine suffering in a more meditative sense: to flip old belief systems upside down and—opening ourselves up to its state changing properties—permit pain to reinvigorate our mental makeup.
Researchers suggest those who do stand to reap a host of benefits. They discover that suffering, when done right, lays the groundwork for them to develop into stronger and more resilient people. They find qualities in themselves they never knew they had. They seize the impetus needed to rise up to the occasion and achieve more than what they thought possible.
But while suffering has the potential to change us in a myriad of positive ways, the key to unlocking each of them lies in our approach—and in how we conceptualise pain itself.
3. Pain at First Glance: A Homeostatic Emotion
Generally speaking, scientists will tell you pain is a homeostatic emotion: reflecting our body’s need to maintain a state of equilibrium. Remain deep inside your comfort zone, and suffering isn’t, or shouldn’t, be felt. Leave it behind, however, and bodily functions get pushed into a state of imbalance: internal temperature increases, blood levels grow more acidic, cell metabolism accelerates.
Built-in regulatory devices—designed to bring things back into equilibrium—kick in to restore balance. We breathe quicker to draw in more oxygen. Blood vessels expand and dilate to cool us down. We sweat, which, when it evaporates, cools the skin and the blood flowing through it.
Suffering, simply put, is another such regulatory feedback mechanism: an early warning system designed to tell us when something is not right within the body.
Unpleasant sensations tug on conscious awareness; they pull at nerve strings and send electric fires racing through our blood vessels. By doing so they shift our attention away from higher level reflections and back towards more immediate goings on. They’re the body’s way of telling us, rather forcefully, to confront the situation we have before us and bring things back into equilibrium as quickly as possible.
That being said, this generally agreed upon perspective is also somewhat limited. Especially given the fact that so many of those who deal with suffering report the experience to be transformative—rather than standardising. Something else is happening as well.
4. Pain at Second Glance: Transient Hypo-Frontality
Have you seen the movie Limitless? Eddie, the main character, takes a wonder drug that supposedly gives him conscious control over one hundred percent of his brain. The razor-sharp state of mind this propagates allows him to achieve things he didn’t believe possible. He ends up writing a book, defeating the bad guys, and becoming state senator for New York. And while I am not suggesting that reengineering our relationship to pain will allow us to become Eddie—the analogy after all holds its own limitations—I want to conceptualise pain in a similar kind of way.
By now I must have read a dozen studies about how extreme sports, mental or physical, thrust people into higher states of consciousness. They all share the same conclusion: when you place additional demands upon the mind, it tends to rise up to meet them. Give the mind hardship, in manageable amounts, and it reconfigures itself to thrive in adversity. Give it apathy, on the other hand, give it security, and it will stagnate and degenerate.
Dr. Arne Dietrich, professor of cognitive neuroscience, has pioneered much of the research behind this line of thinking. Brain scans, he tells us, show how extreme discomfort triggers a progressive down regulation in neural networks: manoeuvring blood flow away from regions associated with higher cognition, towards those deemed more vital for survival.
Deal with added discomfort, he says, and you force the brain to rearrange its cognitive priorities: dialling down the focused, thinking, part of the mind, while at the same time pushing other regions to the forefront.
Scientists label it Transient Hypo Frontality: By stripping us of our capacity for higher-level reflections and complex emotions, physical discomfort propels our awareness into the present moment. Worries, concerns and anxieties get pushed into the background, replaced by a strange sense of timelessness and tranquillity.
Like radar bases placed on high alert, new dimensions of awareness get elevated, perhaps for the first time, into conscious recognition. Heightened activity—particularly within the sensory cortex—brings previously unknown sensory information into the realm of conscious recognition. And it’s through this dynamic, that pain is able to grant us a degree of cerebral mobility otherwise hard to come by.
5. Pain at Third Glance: A Creative Lubricant
Perhaps even more surprising, as the brain begins to shift into Sports Mode, we tend to think about things differently as well: perceiving problems in a different light and coming up with more creative solutions.
Dietrich explores this idea in his book: How Creativity Happens in the Brain. He sees physical pain as a catalyst, one which drives more creative, responsive, and dynamic temperaments. “The prolonged disengagement of higher cognitive centres in the prefrontal cortex,” he writes, “allows unconscious thoughts that are somewhat more random, unfiltered, and bizarre in nature, to rise to the surface and be integrated into working memory.”
6. Pain at Fourth Glance: Emotional Rejuvenation
Ariel Glucklich, Professor of Theology at Georgetown University, makes a remarkable case for the emotional benefits of discomfort in Sacred Pain—Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. “Physical pain can be the solution to mental suffering,” he writes, “a psychological analgesic, one that removes anxiety, guilt, and even depression.”
He tells the story of one woman, who took part in an ancient bare-foot fire-walking ritual known as the Anastenaria. She’d been suffering from depression, and for years could barely find the will to get out of her house. Deciding she needed to try something new, she travelled to Greece to take part in the Orthodox Christian ceremony and—following days of dancing and fire-walking to the point of exhaustion—gradually began to feel different. Little by little, her depression lifted, and her mental health improved. Where antidepressants had failed—pain succeeded.
By stripping away our capacity for higher thought and complex emotion, Glucklich goes on to explain, suffering flips the mind into an alternative state of consciousness: creating the necessary space for us to confront and release long buried mental anguish and trauma. The body suffers, he admits, but the mind is born anew.
For another example, we can look to the Sun Dance: an American Plains Indian ritual undertaken “for the good of others, and for the improvement of the world.” In it, young men inserted hooks into their chest, and—attaching themselves to poles—began to dance around them for up to three or four days, eventually forcing the hooks to rip through their chests and set them free.
“It felt glorious and explosive. The energy was high and brilliant,” recounted Manny Twofeathers, an American Indian elder, in his book: Road to the Sundance: My Journey Into Native Spirituality. In it, he describes how the agony of being impaled onto the hooks made him feel “he had lost all sense of time.” He set out how, in those final moments, hearing his flesh “tear, rip, and pop,” he was seized by absolute elation.
Notably, it was through this method that men such as Twofeathers felt they were able to transcend the physical world and embrace spiritual revival.
“I felt pain.. but I also felt like crying for all the people who needed my prayers,” the Indian elder continued in his book. By transcending his day-to-day limitations, he was able to channel his physical suffering into its emotional counterparts—feelings like compassion and courage—that in turn propelled Twofeathers into closer synchronicity with those around him.
Admittedly, rituals like the Anastenaria and the Sun Dance push participants into facing extreme levels of physical discomfort. But that’s the precise point. The idea is to transmute psychological pain—the type that ravages our minds and weighs us down spiritually—into physical pain, which can then, in turn, be released through the body.
Think of it a bit like performing disk defragmentation on your computer. First, you run your PC in safe mode—opening up space for your mind to troubleshoot what’s causing the issue. Then, your consciousness proceeds to burn away the dead wood. Simple enough, right?
The lesson is straightforward. Don’t bury mental anguish through prescription drugs: exorcise it from your mind instead. For those of us considering this approach, the evidence in favour seems to be startlingly persuasive, which may explain why—historically speaking at least—so many have attempted such things in the first place.
7. How We Conceptualise Pain—Matters
“Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense, that it’s absolutely cleansing,” Lance Armstrong writes in his second book: Every Second Counts. The ex-road cyclist may have been a controversial figure—he may have taken performance enhancing supplements—but when it came to suffering, the man knew what he was talking about. “The pain is so deep and strong that a curtain descends over your brain. Once; someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. ‘PLEASURE????’ I said. ‘I don’t understand the question.’ I didn’t do it for the pleasure; I did it for the pain.”
How we conceptualise pain often decides whether it ends up helping or hurting us. Lance was able to use it, alongside other substances, to fuel his identity as a superstar athlete. Like Lance, if we stop seeing pain as a problem, even though it undoubtedly can be, and instead frame it in more productive ways, we can use it to become stronger, more in control, and more resilient.
I highlight some of the physiological mechanisms through which this is made possible in an article called Hormones & Hardship. But how about first learning how to handle it from a more psychological perspective?
Professor Glucklich seeks to answer this very question in his book: Sacred Pain—Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. In the process, he makes an important distinction between “the unwanted pain of a cancer patient or victim of a car crash, and the voluntary and modulated self-hurting of, say, a religious practitioner.” Put another way, only in the right types of situations, he says, buttressed by the right kind of mindsets, does pain impart the sort of ‘cognitive-emotional changes’ we would like to see—the type that propel us into a higher state of being.
Glucklich’s advising us, in other words, to make a distinction between physical pain and the mental responses it triggers inside us. If we can do this, he tells us—if we can divide worry and mental rumination from the physical sensations themselves—we should be able to achieve more control over our suffering. “Anguish is not a sensation,” he goes on to explain, “but an emotional and evaluative reaction to any number of situations, some of them, such as grief, entirely absent of physical causes altogether.”
8. Dissociation: Breaking Pain Down Into Its Component Parts
In a book he co-authored with Daniel Goleman, called “The Science of Meditation,” notable Harvard researcher Richard Davidson, seemingly by accident, puts Glucklich’s theory to the test. During his initial forays into prolonged meditation, Davidson describes noticing “a twinge of pain in his right knee.” As the hours tick by “the feeling morphs into a howl of discomfort,” which begins to threaten the rest of his body. But regardless, he continues to “meditate on these sensations,” and, believe it or not, on the third day of prolonged meditation, found himself “entering into a state of total absorption.”
Davidson succeeds, through meditation, to divide suffering into its physiological and psychological components. The academic continued to feel “throbbing pain in that knee,” but no longer found himself troubled by it. In fact, he tells us that the “profound sense of well-being” he cultivated remained with him for days afterwards—despite the lingering pain.
And while I am not suggesting we can all replicate this—after all it took Davidson three days of intensive meditation to truly figure it out—if we make a conscious effort to practice this approach, to separate physical sensations from the emotional reactions they provoke inside us, perhaps we might be able to bear our own discomfort with a little more dignity and grace?
Perhaps, by learning how to dissociate ourselves from the pain, we can extract the good it has to offer, while at the same time shielding ourselves from the bad?
Why not try it for yourself? Take a cold shower while counting up to sixty. You’ll find the simple mental task functions much like an amnesia-like barrier inside your brain: one that helps to diminish your overall perception of the pain, while at the same time allowing you to reap its benefits. Experience first-hand, for example, how new neural regions get elevated into conscious awareness. Experience first-hand, how a surge of mood boosting endorphins flood into your brain and revitalise your consciousness.
By taking this perspective, we discover that we can, in fact, take the good from pain—transient hypo-frontality and emotional rejuvenation, for example—while at the same time shielding ourselves from its more pugnacious effects, such as demoralisation and psychological destruction.
Painful sensations still get registered inside the brains of those practicing dissociation but—as indicated by multiple studies—they do not get consciously felt or, at least, their presence in the mind is substantially reduced.
9. Using Pain To Re-forge Broken Identities
Randolph Bowers, a first nations man, who returned back home to Canada after a life spent in Australia, writes about how the attitude he took towards suffering helped reunite him with his heritage. “To heal from those years of alienation,” he reflects, “my identity needed to grow strong in other ways—by seeking solitude I found my path in life.” Randolph allowed his pain, in other words, to lead him back home.
Having said that, the indigenous man’s writings end on a less optimistic note. “My spirit prays with great concern today,” he adds. “Children and youth are forced into such harsh circumstances, placed into dismaying cities and communities, before their spirits have time to gain strength and awaken.”
The latest generation of western men, with few exceptions, has grown up addicted to porn, swamped in consumer goods, and psychologically apathetic. Being able to frame pain in a more positive light, being able to use it to help re-forge broken identities, has never been more crucial.
Nowadays few of us understand this. We neither appreciate the benefits pain can bring, nor care much to find out more about them. We allow the psychological clutter to build up. We let negative thought loops run amok in our minds. We permit the stress to overwhelm us. Why? Because we find no release. Pain, real pain, is that release.
And while many may prefer to remain bounded up by the same routines, surrounded by material comforts, and to all intents and purposes allergic to its mere presence; those few who are brave enough to detour from this well-trodden path, who choose to flirt with suffering along the frontiers of their consciousness; stand to blaze a trail of self-discovery and transformation for themselves. They discover in a very real way, like that Imagine Dragon song says, that ‘the path to heaven runs through miles of clouded hell.’
So reader—you have a choice to make—decide to let your innate epigenetic potential degenerate, sapped by the competing novelties and distractions of the modern world. Or return to tradition—let pain be your guide. Let it return you towards a more complete sense of self.
Take this away with you at least—pain can be useful. The more you know about it, the more you understand it, the more you can use it in ways that help you become healthier, happier, and more dynamic.
Through suffering we learn triumph and endurance, struggle and success. We rediscover a more complete and visceral sense of what it is to be alive. We redefine how we feel about ourselves at the most fundamental level. I wish you the joy of pain in your journey. Take care—but not too much.