Sometimes I’ll hear a conversation flirt with acknowledging really terrible things in the world. Someone will bring up how people are starving to death in parts of the world, or how children are sold into slavery and often horribly violated and abused, or some other wicked thing that should not be. And at that point, sometimes, I’ll hear someone say something like this:

“I try not to think about that too much. I’m afraid that if I do, it’ll be too much for me to handle.”

I want to point at this question of what we can or cannot handle. I think this is a really important question. I suspect that what we believe we can endure guides what we can and cannot clearly see; after all, if looking too closely at (say) our own mortality would destroy us, maybe it makes sense not to look. If we want to see everything in our lives clearly, on the other hand, maybe we first need to know we’ll be okay after we see whatever we find.

So, how might we come to endure whatever we find?

Well, in short, I think there’s something wrong with the question. I think we already can endure whatever we find. What I think we need instead is a sort of skill with trusting this fact about ourselves.

I know this is a bold claim. Some horrors do seem to shatter us. People do, in fact, seem to experience psychological trauma and get triggered. If we can already weather any hellish storm, why do we sometimes break?

I think it’s because we misperceive our relationship to horror.

I think it’s because “endurance” might be the wrong word.

I suspect it’s because we try to look away.

In this post I’ll start by talking about physical pain. I think it’s both a rich source of analogies and also an example of the thing I’d like to point at. In a future post I’ll point more directly at emotional versions.

There’s something funny going on with physical pain. For instance, phantom limb pain shows us that pain can’t just be about perceiving actual or threatened damage. Otherwise, how could a limb that isn’t there hurt? And why would mirror box therapy help? Conversely, it looks like there are some forms of damage-perception that we don’t always experience as pain, like spicy food and deep tissue massage.

Part of the reason for this seems to be that pain is an interpretation of sensation, not a sensation itself. Pain grabs our conscious attention and says “Look here! Pay attention to this! Deal with this!”, I think because the pain-identifying part of our minds thinks that there’s something to avoid and maybe fix. (“Sliver! Sliver in the finger! Don’t push it in farther! Avoid touching anything!”) If the pain system has no impression of there being something in need of attention, then there’s no pain.

One quirky effect of this is that stretching within normal range of movement can hurt. For instance, I suspect that most people have it well within their mechanical abilities to put their palms on the ground with their knees locked. I think the reason so many people can’t even touch their toes is that their bodies don’t trust that the unfamiliar movement is safe, and therefore restrict movement with tension across the hamstrings and possibly elsewhere too. So, the body might perceive attempts to reach beyond the known region of safe movement (as in hamstring stretches) as dangerous and label the sensations of doing so as pain. This effect vanishes as movement at that extreme becomes more familiar with practice (by stretching, dancing, etc.). I think this is why it’s possible to make significant flexibility gains over the course of a few minutes, but without regular stretching afterwards the new flexibility doesn’t remain. It’s a bit like cramming for a test and then not reviewing the material afterwards.

By default, though, I imagine we just avoid things that hurt — which, over time, means we might develop habits that have us carefully avoiding movements that have been labeled as “painful”. An example of this going badly is the way in which many people avoid stretching their hamstrings by rounding their backs when they pick something up: this successfully avoids making the hamstrings elongate more than they want to, but at the risk of severely damaging the spine instead if the object is too heavy.

I think this is basically how pain is supposed to work. It would be bad if pain weren’t automatically aversive and we had to consciously remember to avoid things that cause it. Instead, we have a really clever automatic system that notices when something is bad or dangerous, grabs our conscious attention to make us change our behavior, and often has us avoiding the problem unconsciously thereafter.

But because pain is an interpretation rather than a sensation, avoiding it acts as an approximation of avoiding things that are actually bad for us.

This can result in some really quirky behavior on beyond things like dangerously bending at the waist. For instance, moving or touching ourselves seems to distract us from painful sensations. So if the goal is to decrease conscious experience of pain, we might find ourselves automatically clutching or rubbing hurt body parts, rocking, or pounding our feet or fists in response to pain. Especially the latter actions probably don’t help much with the injury, but they push some of the pain out of mind, so many of us end up doing this kind of behavior without really knowing why.

Writhing in agony strikes me as a particularly loud example: if some touch and movement can block pain, then maybe more touch and movement can block more pain. So if you’re in extreme pain and the goal is to get away from it, large whole-body movements seem to make sense. (Although I think there might be other reasons we do this too.)

To me, this looks like a Red Queen race, with the two “competitors” being the pain system and the “distract from pain” reflex. First the pain system tries to get our attention and change our behavior (protect a body part, get help, etc.). This is unpleasant, so the look-away reflex grabs onto the nearest available way to stop the experience of pain, and muddles some of the sensation that’s getting labeled as pain. The pain system still perceives a threat, though, so it turns up the volume so to speak. And then the look-away reflex encourages us to look even more wildly for a way out, which causes pain’s volume to go up even more….

I think there’s a fairly simple way out of this kind of vicious cycle: turn our conscious minds toward the pain, examine it carefully, and take the action that makes sense based on what we find.

For instance, to deal with hamstring inflexibility, I will lean forward gently with my legs straight until my pain system gives a very mild warning. Then I mentally examine the sensation that’s getting labeled as “slightly uncomfortable”. I notice exactly what it feels like, exactly where it is, and to what degree (if any) it feels like there’s actual mechanical threat with, say, tearing muscle. If and only if it feels okay to do so, I’ll gently and playfully explore what I can do at that end of my range of motion. (Can I rotate my torso slightly? Can I lift my leg? Can I wiggle my toes?) Usually by this time the “this is pain” tag on the sensation in the back of my legs has gone away, which lets me playfully explore a little farther before the pain system gives another warning. At no point does it feel like stretching to me. Before doing this kind of approach I couldn’t reach my toes, but now I can easily put my palms on the ground without warming up. And as long as I do this palm-on-the-ground movement once a day or so, I maintain that flexibility, even without stretching or doing more playful exploration there.

However, I think this wouldn’t work if I were to just push through pain. Noticing the pain, gritting my teeth (which generates distracting sensation…), and just forcing myself to reach the floor might actually have damaged my body — and, I suspect, the pain system would be less likely to trust my judgment. The gentle, exploratory approach works only if I fully experience every nuance of the pain, with no acted-on inclination to look away from or ignore it.

Gentle exploration might also give time to get curious about whether, in fact, there is a problem without aggravating it. As I write this, for instance, I’m recovering from shoulder surgery I had earlier this month. Two weeks after the surgery, I had roughly the range of motion expected for someone about four or so weeks post-op, presumably because of the above approaches. However, this wasn’t true of reaching forward or behind me: those movements would have threatened to ruin the effects of the surgery. If I start to do something that has me making those movements, I feel a gentle “warning” ache, and I heed it because I know that its warning reflects something real. My surgery has been almost perfectly pain-free except for the places like this where the pain is correctly (as far as I know) protecting me, and I suspect I owe that in part to doing this kind of process.

So, I think there are a few things to take from this, to the degree that this kind of approach to addressing pain makes sense:

  1. It seems important to develop a mental habit of looking toward pain — not flinching toward it per se, but recognizing it as the sign of an internal ally who thinks they have urgent and important information for us and who might or might not be right.
  2. Once we recognize the pain, we need to let ourselves experience it fully, in every nuance. Any place where we try to hide our consciousness from pain both puts us in potential danger and also might set up something like a Red Queen race.
  3. To help inform the pain system of where it is and isn’t helpful, it seems powerful to gently and curiously explore our movements up to (but right before) they hurt, while keeping in mind an accurate idea of what is or is not actually dangerous to do and heeding the pain in those places — not to avoid the pain, but because the pain is correct to offer warning.

(However, as with any advice, caveat emptor.)

In another post I’ll extend this to more emotional/social examples. However, I think it’s an application of the same skill, and it’s the skill that matters most because it seems to me to be necessary for a coherent art of clearly seeing the world. That said, it’s often counterintuitive to let horror in all the way, and I think it’s an especially important application of abyssal sight, so I think it will be worth dwelling on in its own post.

(Many thanks to Todd Hargrove for his wonderful compilation research on pain and proprioception, particularly in his book A Guide to Better Movement. Credit for the main body-based insights should go to him, and errors and misapplications of that science in this post should be blamed on me alone.)