The brain's systems are complex pathways of information in which all experience is translated into messages for various systems in the body. The systems are integrated; everything that happens in the body affects the pathways and messages sent to and by the brain back into the system. How we interpret and react to those messages trains the entire system, breath, body, brain, mind and spirit.
In the case of pain, we believe that the degree of pain is an indicator of the severity of a problem in the body, which is simply not true-Neil's example was a paper cut, a relatively harmless injury which can produce fairly severe amounts of pain. (Pain is actually one of the warning systems used to protect us.) If we react to pain in non-productive ways, we can train the brain to increase the signals to our bodies and intensify the pain, extending it out to other places in the body. We can also train the brain to numb the body so that we are no longer able to correctly interpret the data we need to live our lives fully. (Think of "checking out.") "Pain is pain" for the brain; it doesn't matter to the system whether the initial reaction came from physical or emotional experience. Physical pain is always attached to emotion. Emotional experiences can cause physical pain.
All of this is good news, because the brain is so adaptable. The brain loves to learn; if we find the ways we need to teach ourselves to manage our human condition, whatever that may be now, we open ourselves up to rich, productive experiences with a potential for joy, no matter what is happening in our physical or emotional bodies.
This workshop was just the tip of the iceberg for me in terms of understanding and managing pain, which, of course, is part of the human condition-we all have pain. I won't begin to advise how to manage that pain. For that, you need to head over to Neil's website, Life is Now. What I will ask you to consider how we can begin to approach pain differently. In Neil's words, we need:
If you're a knitter, or a spinner, or a weaver, or you'd like to be, you know that the first thing you need to do in order to learn something new is to recognize that you want to learn something new. In other words, we need to acknowledge that we want to learn to knit before we can learn to knit. After that, we need some sort of plan to learn that new skill-perhaps we buy a stitch dictionary, sign up for a class, gather some yarn and needles. Once we've done that, we can proceed to practise casting on, forming the knit stitch, combining it with the purl stitch, finding just the right combination of knits and purls to give us the pattern we want. We will have many false starts. We will discover that what worked for someone else does not work for us. If we are determined to learn to knit, we will keep practising, persisting in our efforts to learn what best suits us. This takes time and patience, but we know that, in the long run, the combination of all these things will give us new skills which not only allow us to follow basic knitting techniques, but also provide us with opportunities to extend those new skills into more complex experiences, such as learning to knit garments, or using knitting as an art medium.
How we adapt in one area will teach us methods for adapting in other aspects of our lives, which is why I find fibre arts so effective in building a meditation practice or in calming the breath, body, mind and spirit. If you have learned to knit or spin, you quite literally have at hand the skills you need to manage other aspects of your life, including pain.
As Neil says, "Pain is a troublesome human experience, much like love," and much like love, we need to learn not only how to manage it, but also how to listen to what it can teach us.