What is the spiritual role of chronic pain?
Chronic pain is a signal. Literally, it is a signal from the body to the brain, but it can also metaphorically be a signal from something bigger than ourselves as well. We store so much emotional energy in the body that it turns into physical sensations all the time. This is what butterflies in the stomach, and sweaty palms are. They’re emotional energy. Chronic pain is just like that- this is long-term emotional energy that is stored and stored and stored, until it finally comes out.
The type of emotional energy is different for different sensations. The sweaty palms and butterfly stomach are nervous or excited energy, so it comes out quickly, and dissipates quickly. That’s what nervousness is like. Chronic pain on the other hand, is the stored up emotional energy of frustration, anger, self-abandonment, hurt, and sadness. It is also habitual behaviours that are not in line with our basic goodness.
I mentioned self-abandonment because we store it up because often we don’t know how to dissipate it; it’s too uncomfortable and scary to look at directly. So when it finally comes out, it comes out in physical chronic pain. It does this because it needs to be looked at in order to dissipate, so it takes the form of something “un-ignorable” – intense pain. It’s the body asking you to pay attention.
Dr Gabor Mate talks about the function of physical pain and illness, and how it is commonly a manifestation of old emotional pain. He mercifully describes it as an opportunity to look at pain differently, as a way to see ourselves as needing attention, care, and love.
What spiritual lessons can be learned from chronic pain?
We can learn to turn towards our difficult emotions and behaviour patterns that may be getting stored up and coming out as chronic pain. We can learn to soften towards emotional energy that has previously made us feel avoidant, or dismissive, or even made us project it on to others. The body sends strong signals that are not ignorable – pain, debility, throbbing – that makes us take pause and disengage from our normal life because we have to step out of our normal habits in order to see the source of the pain clearly.
We can’t keep pushing through because that is how the emotional energy got stored up in the first place. So the first spiritual lesson is to stop and look at the pain. It’s there for a reason. What is it trying to tell you? Then the ongoing lesson is to try and learn what the pain is teaching you. What have you been storing up, avoiding, dismissing, or projecting? The overlying spiritual lesson is that the pain isn’t there to torture you, or worse, for no reason at all; the pain there as a signal and a roadmap to deeper spiritual healing.
Spiritual leader Jess Foster describes depression as a kind of chronic emotional pain with a deep spiritual lesson: