I remember hearing two phrases regarding pain during my youth. The first one was “suck it up and push through it.” The second was “no whining or complaining allowed.”
We American Midwesterners—primarily the women of this population—are stoic and unemotional. Enduring harsh weather, hard times, heartaches, and aching bodies is our trademark skill. We would rather die (and many often do) than change our way of life and admit that we’re in pain.
My relationship with pain was defined by denial and delusion for many years. I think this is true for many of us. People speak about their pain only reticently. If they do talk about it, it’s in whispers, waved off as “nothing,” or downgraded in comparison to another’s pain. I’ve been in conversations where having a “high pain threshold” is a point of pride, as is being able to “tough it out” to go to work, school, or social events.
The consensus toward pain in our culture is one of dismissal and disdain: we don’t like to talk about it, and, truly, we don’t want to hear about it either. But when pain lives in the shadows, it transforms into suffering.
But we needn’t suffer. Alchemy, the ancient science and art of transformation, can show us how to transform pain into something much healthier.
How Alchemy Works
Alchemy, often called the Royal Art, is the art and science of transforming a substance into something entirely different. Transformation is very different from change. Change describes the natural life cycle of a leaf. Transformation is the magical metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.
While, of course, no promises can be made that we can transform our pain into glowing health, we can, at a minimum, transform our relationship with pain from one of denial and contempt to that of respect and understanding.
Using Alchemy for Chronic Pain
In our culture, we treat pain like an enemy. We “fight” it, “battle” against it, and “take it on.” People who have cancer are lauded as “warriors.” We don’t view pain as merely a messenger, letting us know something is out of balance. And, because we so often ignore the early whispers of pain and imbalance, pain does what it must: it raises its voice until we cannot deny it anymore.
Here are the two alchemical steps to changing your relationship with pain.
In any alchemical experiment, the first step is to completely break a substance down to its essence by using the element of fire. Fire is a metaphor for light, awareness, and heat. This step requires inquiry with a steady gaze at the truth of the situation.
So settle in, and ask yourself and your body the following questions. Use your inner fire to burn things down to the deepest truth you can access.
When did the pain begin? What else was happening in your life during this time?
Is this a recurring pain, or something new?
Is the pain referred from somewhere else in your body? If so, where?
How long have you been ignoring or denying the pain?
What scares you about accepting this pain?
Were there earlier signs of uneasiness or discomfort coming from your body? What did you do with those signs?
Does the pain move around or stay in one place?
Next, do your best to describe the pain using adjectives. Is it sharp, dull, achy, stabbing, hot, cold, tender, sticky, slippery, deep, shallow, sudden, constant? Now, are there any other areas of your life where these descriptors apply, such as at work or in a relationship? Physical pain is often a mirror to another kind of pain in our lives that needs attention.
To confront pain is not about picking a fight with it, just as the Western playbook might have us conditioned to believe. In alchemical wisdom, the confrontation stage is when we come face to face with something that we’ve been avoiding—with respect, reverence, and a willingness to learn. To undergo this stage, ask yourself these questions:
Imagine yourself sitting across from your pain, as if it were its own being. What does it look like? What does it want to say? What is its message, its purpose? Under what circumstances might it leave?
Continue to learn from your pain by asking if there is anything you can do to diminish the pain. Are you willing to make those changes?
Developing a New Alchemical Relationship to Pain
Sometimes, pain is here to stay. There are, of course, no magic pills and no single right approach. But by changing our relationship with pain, the pain itself can become less all-consuming. Or maybe we can talk it into visiting less frequently now that we’re open to listening to it.
If we learn to listen deep enough, we can transform pain and pain’s message into something far more valuable in the long run: peace of mind and body.
Learn how to use alchemy to transform anxiety.