Pain Is Just a Signal

The best sales pitches are the ones where your prospect learns something new, then the insight does the convincing for you. My dentist was not the place where I expected a demonstration of this technique, and yet…

“Pain is a signal,” he said. “After we take out your wisdom teeth, your body will have to send blood, repair molecules, and other little fixers to the cavities left behind. In order to let the brain know they require those healing materials, the cavities hurt. Pain is the messenger — but if we use this new APRF technique, where we take some of your blood, turn it into plasma, then place it into the cavities, that messenger will be out of a job — because the necessary components are already there. No need for transmission; no need for pain.” Man, he was good. And he hadn’t even touched my teeth yet!

In his book Letting Go of Nothing, Peter Russell makes a similar point, except he’s not trying to sell you a 250-euro procedure but a new approach to dealing with unpleasant experiences in your life. We tend to “turn our attention away from pain,” Russell claims, because if we faced it head on, it’d likely hurt a lot more than it already does — “and that’s the last thing we want.” Actually, the opposite is required: “Pain evolved to alert organisms to bodily damage or dysfunction. […] It is a call for attention, the body’s alarm bell: Hey! There’s something wrong here. Attention, please. Rather than ignoring it, resisting it, or trying to make it go away, we can give pain the attention it is requesting.”

If we do so, Russell suggests, the pain may indeed initially surge. The more time we spend in its presence and explore it, however, the more specifically we’ll be able to point at what’s truly going on. Is it a tension in our shoulder? A numbness in our hip? A sharp sting in our neck? What hides behind the generic label of “pain?”

While sometimes, exploring our pain is merely a smart step to take before consulting our doctor, often, it is enough to make said pain go away. Russell mentions a common ache beneath his shoulder blades. If he welcomes the pain and shows curiosity towards it, he finds his body naturally shifting, muscles relaxing to accommodate the ailment — and thus making it disappear. “Without my doing anything, the pain goes and comfort returns. The body does the releasing for me — once, that is, my conscious mind gets out of the way.”

This applies to more than just physical ailments. Emotional pain, too, is a signal. Something is off, and our soul is requesting the resources to mend itself, be it healing from a broken heart, workplace depression, or a gut-wrenching loss in the family.

Sadness, anger, and grief aren’t enemies to be fought. They are messengers asking for help. But in order to listen to a messenger and fully understand his message, first, we have to let him in. If we slam the door in his face, we won’t get any closer to what’s really going on, let alone to fixing whatever might be broken. Should we invite him in and allow him to sit down, perhaps even offer him a glass of water, however, the messenger will calmly relay his news, then be on his way.

When we sit in sadness, share our post-breakup disappointment with a friend, or journal about our burnout, we may not get rid of all our pain immediately, but the load on our shoulders will lighten. At the very least, our relationship with the discomfort will begin to transform. That’s the first step of alleviating any kind of suffering — and it is the most important one to take.

The next time you’re at the dentist, therapy, or throw your back out on the stairs, remember: Pain is just a signal — but unlike plenty of life’s remaining noise, it is a cue worth paying attention to.