Or at least the ones that got the most attention and memorialised in our consciousness (partially because we are horrified, but also secretly in awe that people survived these things).
Initiations involving: genital mutilation, cutting & scarring, being hung painfully suspended, death defying stunts, insect stings, being harshly isolated/outcast from family, being whipped and more.
All without anesthesia.
Once upon a time, these initiation rites and the respective pain were accepted in the tribe or community (although many done in secret sacred spaces). It was usually treated as something to be revered and a celebration.
But now, this perspective is getting less & less so. Not that I’m condoning painful and dangerous initiation rites, but it seems like it’s swung the other way.
A juxtaposition type perspective has come instead – a need to avoid pain at all cost. That pain is bad.
And yet, pain has not been avoided in our society at all. Not really.
In Australia, in 2018, 1 in 8 people live with chronic pain, 1 in 8 live with anxiety and 1 in 10 live with depression (or feelings of depression). I’m sure Australia isn’t greatly different from other first world countries in these statistics.
Embracing pain is not the same as accepting it. Although there are similarities.
A small example
Let’s use a less dramatic example ~ because I’m not advocating any dangerous initiation rites mentioned earlier.
When I was little, I had no problem getting dental work (partially because my dad was a gentle dentist, but he also had practices to reduce pain), however I was terrified of the doctors because of needles. I can’t recall what type of needle in early childhood, a vaccination was the first memory, but even in school age I would be close to tears if the doctor wanted to draw blood.
I learnt later in life to face the pain by watching the process. It still hurt and affected me in my 30s, but I could control my emotions.
Recently, I got a blood tests for general check-up and was commenting to the nurse/medical assistant how it doesn’t hurt like it used to. He did make mention of techniques and technology improvements, however my general attitude towards pain has also improved in the past 3 years.
I still watch the process, but I also know how to relax into the pain (before & during).
It’s more than an accepting or even wallowing in it, it’s an embracing. The whole pain experience is less heightened, and doesn’t leave an imprint on my nervous system like it once did.
Opening the doorway
Embracing the pain is a small counterintuitive strategy that changes your inner paradigm. Counter-instinctive is a better word, because you ‘instinctively’ want to pull back from the pain but unfortunately that word doesn’t exist in the English language.
It’s counter-intuitive to embrace the pain – because our reflexes are designed to draw back from it.
The withdrawal reflex is useful in a situation where there is a source of pain/potential pain, and drawing back will protect you from further harm. That’s why we have that reflex. However, when it’s a ‘stuck pain’ (as in stuck within you – chronic form), drawing away won’t lead to resolution even if it might give you temporary relief.
‘Leaning in’ provides an opportunity for transformation. It opens the doorway.
Chiron the wounded healer
Perhaps one of the best classic stories about pain transformation and ‘leaning in’ is of Chiron the wounded healer.
In the ancient Greek myths, Chiron (pronounced as ‘Kye-ron’) was a centaur (half-man, half-horse) who was known to have an immortal wound. The below is an excerpt from an old blog (which you can find here).
Chiron was a healer and renowned teacher of great warriors such as Hercules, Achilles and Jason of the Argonauts. He was hit by a poison arrow made by the poison of the Hydra (multi-headed water monster) ~ which normally would be fatal, except that he was an immortal.
Unfortunately, this eventuated as an unhealable wound, causing him unbearable pain. He continued his selfless service with his wound, able to heal others but not himself.
Chiron longed for the day to die, rather than carry out immortality with the unhealable wound. Chiron learnt of the titan Prometheus, held in the underworld of Hades (aka Greek hell), chained to a rock where an eagle would eat out his liver daily ~ and that his freedom from torture could only be attained by swapping with an immortal.
So, he chose to take Prometheus’ place on the rock. Zeus, the god of gods, took pity on Chiron and freed him from the torture, to become immortalised in the stars as Centaurus (aka Sagittarius).
At face value, you might want to interpret this myth as you will be saved & immortalised if you become a martyr. But that’s a pretty false interpretation, and perpetuates the martyr complex.
Consider another viewpoint.
That Chiron, in all his wisdom gained, took the final act of wisdom and leaned into the pain, by opening the doorway to travel down to the core and fully embraced the experience. In that, a transformation was sparked that shifted him to another paradigm where it no longer existed.
The paradigm shift
You may have experienced a pain or health resolution in the past, and realised how much of a paradigm shift it is. It’s like the condition or experience never existed. Was it all just a dream?
Especially in the case of a sensory experience, such as pain, it needs to be remember that your senses are an illusion formed by your own body. Whether that sensory experience is operating functionally and responding to a stimuli that you can ‘get away from’ or just operating dysfunctionally, it’s created by your body.
So, you would think that you could have some say in the experience, right? That there would an opportunity somewhere to shift that experience (slightly or greatly) when the pain is serving no functional purpose.
In 1968, Ronald Melzack & Kenneth Casey developed a model to describe chronic pain called the 3 Dimensions. Simply, the intensity & unpleasantness of the pain experience is also affected by ‘higher cognitive activities’ such as belief/placebo, suggestions, cultural values and heightened states. They proposed that pain is a multi-dimensional experience.
Embracing pain is a lost art. Perhaps it became lost with our initiation rites and the times where it was once revered to look pain in the eye. This is not about enticing more pain into our lives, but an evolved understanding that moves beyond those times.
It’s time to move into a place where members of our society realise their ability to affect their inner experience and that pain is not something within to victimise us.
Instead, pain is something that can be shifted, and we can lean in to activate that ability that lies within us.
Check out the Inner Alchemy self-study online course to go deeper in understanding and activating your ability to shift pain at will here.