“No pain no gain.” Is that true?

I was recently staying with some friends in a cabin east of Seattle. Beautiful place and surroundings.

During breakfast, the wise father was trying to convince the 11-year old child of going for a 1000 vertical feet hike in the breath-taking surroundings. The kid, being a kid, was not convinced this was such a good idea. She emphatically argued that the hike was painful, as she has done this particular hike before. The father, being a father, came up with all sorts of rationalizations why doing the hike was indeed good for the body and the soul. One of his persuasive arguments, or one that stuck with me, was that as he has aged he has understood how pain can also be pleasurable, that pain could also be enjoyable. Some of us at the table agreed to the necessity of learning how to balance pain and pleasure, and that in order to participate in a somehow painful activity by choice, the pleasure needs to overcome the overall pain. After all, the well-known proverb “no pain no gain” promises reward in exchange for suffering.

Now, let’s think for a minute about what “pain” really is, and how we construct the idea (and reality) of pain in our society. If you look in the dictionary, it will probably give you two interpretations: one is the common idea of the physical suffering caused by illness or injury, and the other relates to the careful effort or trouble that one person puts in attaining something (in line with the proverb).

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), pain is just energy, and as energy, it has consciousness and a message. It is a message from your body. How you interpret that message is the most import part. To my surprise, when I looked up definitions of pain in our western medical tradition, it also defines it as a message: “We feel pain when a signal is sent through nerve fibers to the brain for interpretation” (Medicalnewstoday.com).

Whether it is acute pain or chronic, physical or emotional, both traditions agree on the warning aspect of pain as the body asking for some action to be taken. However, the way pain is dealt with in both frameworks is very different. Where western medicine sees differentiation, TCM looks for similarities. They way I was taught was that if you have an ear complication, you go to a otolaryngologist, for anxiety or emotional issues you go to a psychologist, maybe a psychiatrist if medication is needed, and for back problems, chiropractors are a great choice. A western doctor probably would not consider your hearing problems to be related to your lower back pain, much less to any anxiety disorder, while a traditional Chinese doctor will not only see a relation in all of these conditions, but also will ask you whether you feel supported at work or in your family environment.

Where western medicine wants to “kill” the pain literally with painkillers (therefore erasing the message), TCM encourages us to look deeper into our symptoms to get to the root cause of the discomfort with gratitude instead of fear. Where Western medicine sees illness and diseases, TCM looks for health and opportunities. And I think we could all gain from thinking more about health and opportunities and less on the negative elements of disease. Western medicine is great at putting out fires, and it is the best for emergency medicine. However, I want to focus here on prevention, on taking the necessary measures to install “fire alarms” that work so we do not set fire to the house in the first place.

A person’s understanding of pain, and its negative associations, can actually make it worse. According to TCM, fear is the emotion associated with the kidney, and when experienced for a long time on a regular basis, it can disrupt the delicate balance of the kidney’s energy function. Unfortunately, we live in a fear driven society. We live in a constant mindset of “what if…something bad happens?” We spend money and energy protecting ourselves with all sorts of insurance for the worst-case scenarios that we play in our heads again and again every day. Any bone issues, ear problems, lower back problems, and panic attacks, are all related to an imbalance of the kidney energy. But there are a lot of little simple things we could do to counteract these immediate “fight or flight” responses by just exploring other ways to interpret our own realities (and get our kidneys and other organs back into balance and health).

For the most part, we are taught in our culture to take a pill rather than take responsibility for our own bodies. We are too used to the instantaneity of our mediated world, and have forgotten how to take time to really heal and be patient (in both senses of the word).

I want to propose that, when pain arrives, we look at it as an opportunity for change, as an actual message that our body is working very well. Pain may actually be a sign that our body is taking care of us, and that we need to pay attention and be aware of the here and now of our daily lives in order to listen to what the pain is conveying. I urge you to leave behind the automatic response that we have internalized that “something is wrong with me” when pain or illness arrives, and trust that your body can take care of itself, and that healing is in your hands. Don’t just run for medication, but try alternative ways to deal with the message at first.

Pain can be an opportunity to check on your own self-discrimination; those negative ideas that you may have about yourself, and the way you view your own reality – your cultural beliefs, your thoughts, desires, frustrations. They are all energy, and they all can affect your body and your overall health in positive or negative ways. Pain can bring change, can make us grow, and it can show us the way to our better selves…

Don’t get me wrong. Pain is real, and pain is, well, painful. And sometimes medication is indeed a good option. But, for example, one way I have changed with practice (my daily Qigong, my meditation, and my martial arts practice) is the way I react to pain. My first automatic response used to be fear – when my knees hurt I thought, “crap” the cancer may have come back, and I worried, and worried some more. And then I would feel sorry for my “poor” knees, and felt victimized that “this” happened to me. I would eventually talk myself out of it. Eventually.

Now, when my knees hurt, and they do hurt sometimes going up and down stairs of my house, my first response is to be thankful. Second, I take care of my kidney by conserving more energy, doing more Qigong, eating more salty food. I massage my ears once a day, and give myself some acupressure in some of the points of the kidney meridians. I also imagine myself without pain, and I know from my heart, that the pain is just energy stuck, and that eventually it will flow. I talk to myself with love and respect, and I talk to my knees with kindness. They are not broken, they have been through a lot, and they are still standing, taking me places. They are awesome!

Fear and worry are just emotions, are just energy, and we will all feel it one way or another, one time or other. It is part of who we are as humans. Accepting the fear, seeing where it is coming from and letting it go is a healthy way to deal with those emotions. Pain is also energy, with a message. Exploring what your body is telling you can be life changing.

I highly recommend practicing the simple Qigong routine of the Four Energy Gates that I learned with my Qigong master (Dr. Nan Lu). It is really simple but effective. You can find it at http://www.taoofhealing.com/patient-care/self-care/

Needless to say, we did not go for the hike that day. The kids (old souls in smaller bodies) convinced us that sitting in front of the fire on a cold winter day was a better option than weathering the storm, literally.

Remember that, according to Yin and Yang, there is no light without darkness, no summer without winter, no morning without night, and certainly, no pleasure without a little of pain.

After all, the rainbow only shows when there is rain…