Pain Relief

Pain is one facet of life that very few people can face, accept, understand and overcome. As a result of this, a vast amount of time and money has been spent in trying to find more and better ways of relieving pain in its many forms. From the earliest known use of opium in ancient China there has been a steady profusion of drugs in an attempt to relieve mankind of suffering, from common aspirin to narcotics such as morphine, from local anaesthetics through to severing the pain fibres which run in the spinal tract. Recently research chemists have synthesised the drug Buprenorphine, which is fifty times more powerful than morphine, in their ongoing search for more effective pain relief.

Pain has such undesirable connotations in the mind of modern man that our scientists are trying to remove the necessity of this experience from the realm of human existence. Though this may seem to be admirable and even compassionate, it is based on ignorance of the basic laws of human life. We are in danger of missing the whole point of pain and forgetting the great role it plays in reminding us to transcend our material existence.

Pain is probably our greatest educator and can be used together with every other experience in the quest for higher life, Kahlil Gibran, the Lebonese poet and mystic, described pain as "the breaking of the shell which encloses our understanding". It must be understood that the experience of physical, mental and emotional pain leads to an expansion of our consciousness if we accept and use it positively.

The pain of life is removed when we expand and liberate our consciousness. Actually, it is not the pain we remove but its ability to hurt us. For in the blissful experience, pain and joy fuse so that all experiences of life lead to higher awareness. By seeking to create a world devoid of pain we are also removing the possibility of joy, for they are interdependent. We can only appreciate joy when we have experienced pain. They are two extremes of the same experience.

Without pain and pleasure, our life becomes boring. By purposely trying to avoid pain, we begin to live in a neurotic fantasy world. Of course, no one likes pain, but when we realise that pain is a necessary part of life, we are better able to accept and face it bravely. With a courageous attitude, pain loses its hold on us, for most of the sting in pain lies in our fear of it. Actually, it is never as bad as we think it is going to be.

In order to alleviate suffering, and to gain the correct perspective and direction in the battle against pain, we need a system such as yoga. Yoga offers us techniques to strengthen the body, emotions and mind, so that we can handle pain. This is not to say that yoga is against the use of pain killing drugs in certain cases of intense physical pain. However, if we utilise yoga we can reduce our dependency on external means of handling pain and suffering and use such means only when we really need them. At the same time yoga offers us the means to grow and expand our awareness. Then we lose our fear of pain, and we are able to use it to strengthen the mind and learn the lessons of life. Pains and traumas must become as little children to us, sometimes annoying, but understood and accepted, and we must play with them as such.

What is pain?

Physical pain is a reaction caused by the stimulation of certain nerves in the body. There are two main components to this reaction - the objective and the subjective:

  1. The objective aspect involves the nerve endings being activated by a painful stimulus, such as physical trauma (bums, cuts, etc.). The signal is sent to (he brain by a pathway called the spinothalamic tract in the spinal cord. It enters a part of the midbrain known as the thalamus and is then sent on to register in the higher regions of the cerebral cortex. In the meantime a reflex action has already taken place in which the affected part is pulled back by unconscious muscular controls so as to avoid further stimulus. After a fraction of a second we become aware of the pain and our reflex action to it.
  2. The subjective aspect involves our psychological reaction to the pain. This occurs later, and the variations in this component are infinite. Each individual reacts in his own way, depending on his upbringing. Some people, for example, are taught to regard pain as a natural part of their lives and to be little affected by it. The Australian aborigine, African tribesman or American Indian who has suffered the hardships of natural living and undergone the trials of the initiation procedure is less affected by pain than his civilised brother brought up in the lap of luxury. Our conditioning, therefore, colours our reaction to pain, whether we cry or 'grin and bear it' in the spartan manner.

How to handle it

It is easy to say that pain is all in the mind, but how to handle it when we are actually experiencing it? This was the subject of a recent world conference held at Montreal in 1978 to discuss pain, its mechanisms, psychology and meaning.*1 The findings of this conference point to the fact that we have within us the means to unlearn the conditioning that causes us so much pain and to actually control pain reactions. The conference dealt with such subjects as hypnosis, biofeedback and acupuncture, all closely allied to yoga. One of the major points to emerge from the conference is that if we can become more aware of ourselves, we can actually reduce the pain of life.

Yoga is a scientific system whereby we initially relax the tensions in the body and mind and simultaneously increase our awareness both of the pain itself and the means to control it. This is done through asanas, pranayama, mudras, bandhas and meditative awareness which includes both relaxation and concentration. Yoga is a sophisticated method for it offers us superior techniques to enhance awareness of the deeper psycho-physiological processes.

Asanas release body tensions and when performed with awareness, make us more capable of responding to body needs because we are learning about how our body is structured. Pranayama, mudras and bandhas enhance our awareness and control of energy systems. They stretch our physiological mechanisms to their limit and thereby teach us about the natural restrictions inherent in our body. At the same time they enable us to transcend these limitations because they are, for the most part, self imposed or learned. Meditation is a direct means to enhance our awareness and to see into the natural workings and interrelationships between our body and mind. Yogic techniques make us more aware of the inner processes so that we can learn to control them. It is when these inner processes are not within our conscious control that they can become disordered through the effects of internal and external stresses and tension and thereby cause us pain.

Awareness teaches us about ourselves, our conditioning and our limitations. Our past experiences are registered in our subconscious memory, both at the mental and neurological levels. We are programmed to perceive the world and react to it in certain fixed ways. Thus we often over-react or react too soon to environmental stimuli even when they are essentially benign. G. N. Kryzhanovsky of the Institute of General Pathology, Moscow has shown that pain can be induced experimentally when a group of neurones in (he brain becomes disturbed and disinhibited, that is, when they start to fire but in a pathological pattern of activity.*2 He also showed that a similar neuronal pattern can cause pain relief.

It seems that by building up chaotic nervous activity in the brain we become more prone to pain. However, by regaining control of nervous system function we can undo those patterns which lead us to experience life in a painful manner. It has been shown by electroencephalographs studies that meditation can definitely help us to do this.

Chronic pain sufferers are often depressed and possess a poor self image. Up until now it has been difficult to determine which factor causes which. J. J. Marbach and J. A. Lipton of Columbia University (USA) studied 75 chronic facial pain patients and discovered that in their life history "loss" had seemed more significant than to a control group.*3 This seems to imply that this type of personality is more predisposed to pain than an emotionally healthy one.

Yoga's ability to inculcate a sense of self confidence, increased ability to face life's problems and to enhance our energy level, thereby overcoming depression, makes it the ideal approach to overcome the subjective elements of emotional pain. By regular yogic practice we slowly erase the mental and neuronal patterns that lead to anxiety, depression and a negative perception of life. What once seemed to be a source of pain slowly becomes the means to a higher and more joyful appreciation of life.


*1-*3. "Pain conference in Montreal sees mind as Factor X" Brain/Mind Bulletin, vol. 3, no. 22, Oct. 2, 1978.