Sensation is the unity of the sensing and the sensed, a separation, and at once a reunion.  Subjectivity is preliminary to all consciousness. The subjectivity of a subject is vulnerability, exposure to affection, sensibility, to outrage, to insults and wounding. It is a writhing in the tight dimensions of pain. Pain tears me from myself. Pain is a pure deficit in a subject that does not have a hold on itself…my passivity as a subject, my exposedness to the other is physical pain. Being is being the-one-for-the-other, I am-for-the-other. The recurrence of self is in responsibility for others. This recurrence is incarnation, for this other is the heart, and the goodness, the very psyche in the soul. (*Emmanuel Levinas)

Illustration of a nerve cell on a colored background with light
Illustration of a nerve cell on a colored background with light effects

If you want to skip the following brief philosophical foray into pain then please go scroll to the bottom of this page where I explain how I work with pain in a practical sense.

I link body, pain and compassion together as I follow the philosophical view that compassion is first and foremost a bodily experience and not a mental act. I have been reading what I would call existential literature for the last 18 years and the author who, in my opinion, most accurately describes the human condition is Emmanuel Levinas.

He states that our ‘recurrence’ or our continued existence as human beings has little to do with our individuality, our ego or our consciousness. Instead our recurrence, our continued remaking, is dependent on the other, but more specifically than that, it is dependent on the other’s vulnerability, wounds and suffering. According to him we have an inescapable responsibility for the other, although we will try to escape from it because “this responsibility is like a cellular irritability“. He believes this responsibility precedes consciousness and therefore it is otherwise than being.

Male Nervous System Artwork
3d rendered Illustration of Male nervous system artwork

The need to understand the body, respect the body and listen to the body seems to be increasingly important in an age where more and more people experience pain on a daily basis, both through recognised medical conditions but also, and much more increasingly, through somatic ailments and the realisation that the body often feels pain.

It seems our bodies are constantly and unavoidably open to pain experiences. Most emotions are painful, having deep compassion to other people means you feel their pain. You really do feel their pain. Compassion and empathy are painful. We experience even more pain if we consciously stop and ‘listen’ to the body of the other because we allow that pain in. I would argue that this is not just a rational or theoretical construct. We are physically in pain when we do that. In fact, it is probably reasonable to argue that the more sensitive you are and the more compassion you have, the more physical pain you will experience.

Female Nervous System Artwork
3d rendered Illustration of Female nervous system artwork

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas take the above even further. He believes that our ability to feel the pain and vulnerability of the other is the very reason consciousness comes to exist. This acute sensitivity to the pain in the other, felt as pain in the self, creates the ego, compassion creates the ego. This is fairly radical thinking because it goes against everything we normally understand as what constitutes the formation of me. Our “strange loops of consciousness start to swirl” (Hofstadter) and are called into existence, and come to be identified as our ego, as me, based on care for the other, in responsibility for the other.

Inner Life Of The Child

The need to understand the body of the other, to respect the body of the other, to listen to the body of the other seems increasingly to be the only way we can stop actual violence to the body of the other, but also and probably more importantly, to stop the violence of everyday communications and verbal exchanges. It could be argued that this ability to feel the pain of the other is the foundation for attachment theory and it precedes all other types of knowledge and it is the basis for the development of compassion. It may be difficult for us to slow down enough due to the intensity of modern life to feel the emotional pain of the other as psychical pain in our own bodies but at least by coming to understand our body and by acknowledging the pain in the body of the other, we can perhaps learn to be more compassionate to everyone.

Holy Spirit doveIs there a difference between the pain we experience as a physical reaction when experiencing an emotion and the physical reaction we experience in the body as a substitute for not being able to express that emotion? Yes, and no. Many psychotherapy models are founded on the idea that cathartic release and ‘getting in touch with our emotions’ should be the outcome of a successful therapy. Laudable and worthy aims but is that really possible in our present age for both men and women?

Does not our evolutionary history mean we have been suppressing our emotions for thousands of years? It is plausible to suggest that in those thousands of years we have more often that not been unable to find a direct immediate expression for our emotional and psychological distress. We have been somatising for a long long time. Based on my experience of the last 17 years as a therapist, I would say the heavily somatised painful body could be the new norm. We cannot turn back that evolutionary or life-span clock and suddenly become non-somatised fully emotionally expressive beings. To be sure, we can learn to identify the connection between our somatised self and the suppressed emotions which may have led to that somatisation, we can learn to stay with that experience when it happens and link it to events in our life, we can even eventually learn to express more emotion, but probably not a lot more.

This is even before we factor in the pain caused by more dramatic traumas such as physical and sexual assault, injury/accident, surgery and war. Many models of therapy agree that the body ‘remembers’ these traumas, sometimes in conjunction with our mind in terms of memories/imagery but more often as direct physical painful experiences in the body.

Either way you look at it, pain is the price we pay for being embodied creatures. Having empathy and being painfully attuned to the other, receiving their pain, listening to their pain, trying to heal their pain, could be the price we pay for being embodied human beings.

Anatomy of a typical human neuron
Anatomy of a typical human neuron (axon, synapse, dendrite, mitochondrion, myelin sheath, node Ranvier and Schwann cell). Vector diagram

Yet we can find ways to reduce our pain and repair the constant ruptures which assail our bodies every day but that will not occur solely though the use of traditional talking therapies. An holistic framework including many other types of healing needs to be adopted. This may include treatments such as massage, dance as a form of conscious embodiment, mindfulness, meditation, reflexology, acupuncture and more traditionally psychological treatments such as EMDR which has now developed a pain protocol which I use in my work with pain.

To be in constant pain often involves a long period of readjustment and loss. Loss of no longer being able to do all the activities you may have done in the past and also loss about accepting the limits your body may be asking for, which could be at odds with what your heart and spirit wants to do. The EMDR protocol focuses on changing the relationship or meaning an individual has with their pain. So whether you suffer from arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraine or any other chronic pain condition, EMDR can help change the negative emotional and psychological impact your pain may be causing. This in turn can sometimes lessen the actual physical pain you are feeling.

Thoughtful elderly woman

(*Please note that you will not find this as a direct quote. These words from Levinas are taken from what is considered his major work Otherwise than Being. I have played with his words so the above come from various parts of that book, which I have studied, and represent my interpretation, using his words, of what I think he means)