Creative Responses To The Pains Of Change
“You cannot step into the same river twice” — Heraclitus
We can avoid neither pain nor change, inevitable factors in our human condition. However, there is always a way through these factors and the possibility to come out better, not worse, by transforming negative energies into something more life sustaining. This requires the awakening, organizing and integrating of the body and the mind, which we accomplish by listening in to our own internal somatic signals. Shifting out of pain is a learned skill involving a body-centered process of reprogramming.
If you look at the statistics of our national physical and mental condition, you will find that along with cancer and heart trouble being the dominant pathologies, one third of the population is obese, ten percent diabetic, three million have knee, hip and shoulder replacements annually, and osteoarthritis and chronic pain are still on the rise. Even eighty percent of running enthusiasts will develop injuries that eventually end their running. Put all the statistics together and what emerges is that most of the population is living with periodic or repetitive pain.
The repetition of pain becomes a conditioned pattern called suffering. While pain is an unavoidable part of the biological experience, suffering is a pattern of adaptation to pain. With so many developed treatment modalities for the varieties of pain, one would expect the statistics for painful pathologies to show a decline. However, that is not the case, for we see a slowly rising tide of pathologies.
Like the frog that became so accustomed to the slowly heating water in its pot that it never jumped out and boiled to death, how long can our society sustain increasing stress and pain without relief? Eventually catastrophe strikes unless we make changes. Some changes come strong and sudden, whereas others are slower and almost imperceptible. Those who do not know how to manage change can get pulled into a reactive fear state, which immobilizes the body and brain into a habitual pattern of suffering. Those who learn to respond to change can turn crisis into opportunity and may actually improve the quality of their lives, like some of our ancestors from the Middle Ages.
In the year 1348, the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, hit the European continent and British Isles, eventually wiping out twenty five to sixty percent of the local populations. When the plague struck — mostly in densely populated cities, towns and villages — it was regarded as punishment from God for the sinfulness of the times. So local people took themselves to church to pray more and harder and longer. This was its own heavenly reward for the Bubonic bacteria; it thrived and spread where people gathered in concentration.
Within the human condition, we sometimes experience a form of behavior called cognitive dissonance — the more something is not working or has gone wrong, the more we keep repeating the same behaviors hoping that something will change. The more people went to church, the more breathing, wheezing and close proximity body contact they shared, the more the infections spread. Only those who intuited something else was needed — like getting out of town if you could — survived.
But they were not simply the ones who survived. Their experiences stimulated a new awakening that moved away from the punitive mode of a toil-driven, dreary life and toward a new way of thinking that brought an appreciation for and connection with nature, the human body, beauty, knowledge, and eventually, science. The new thinking became a change agent, ushering in a time of cultural explosion known as the Renaissance (rebirth). Those who survived had to change their perceptions, habits, behaviors and lifestyle. The Renaissance was a return to principles of nature, a revival of the Greek body-mind-spirit organic connection.
We can talk about change, but because of its unpredictable nature, we cannot see the outcome. To be living in a time of change breeds anxiety and can sometimes be painful, but it can also be transformed into creative excitement. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus described change as the very way of nature — the rule, not the exception. You cannot step in the same river twice, the saying goes.
Somatic pioneer Moshe Feldenkrais observed that “movement is life,” and that “awareness through movement” is a necessary process for bringing the body-mind into sync with actions that actually stimulate the brain and improve the quality of life. On the other hand, fear of change results in trying to keep things the same. The reality is that both constellations of habit and change coexist within us. In the universe of physics, things that do not move or change result in entropy, a gradual decline into disorder.
Any kind of sustained pain is a signal from the brain that something is wrong; it’s a warning that we might do more damage if we continue a particular behavior. Pain signals originate in the brain and nervous system. If pain signals keep firing even after treatments have been applied to reduce them, something else must be causing them internally. This is called state-bound conditioning. The brain becomes conditioned to be in chronic pain, expecting relief from the next treatment, which never comes, so it becomes a closed circle of vicious repetition.
As the signal continues, the once acute pain becomes a habitual pain. “Whenever any activity that links neurons is repeated, those neurons fire faster, stronger, and the circuit gets better at pain,” notes The Brain’s Way of Healing author Norman Doidge. “The brain that wires together fires together. The converse is also true. Stop doing that behavior and the connections are weakened.”
Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change itself, is both a blessing and a curse. If you learn something and get pleasant sensations, it’s a blessing. If you get painful sensations, it’s a curse. Cognitive dissonance perpetuates pain into suffering — a mindset of accepting and adapting to known sources of suffering rather than risking the unknown and unpredictable ways out of suffering. Gautama the Buddha was one of the first to recognize this and called it the major source of suffering: avidya, not wanting to see what is.
We cannot control the stresses of life, but we can learn the skills of transforming the stresses and pains of life into creative responses. This is best achieved through mindfulness in our movements, actions, and decisions in the present moments of everyday life.
Josef DellaGrotte, PhD, CFP-physio, trained with Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais from 1973-1981, becoming one of the first certified Feldenkrais practitioners and trainers in the U.S. His training experience also includes physical therapy, Rolf Structural Integration, yoga and t’ai chi chi kung. For more information visit www.dellagrotte-somatic.com.