“So, how much will this piercing hurt?” “If I’m being honest, a stubbed toe is worse than this one, it’s a little pinch but not as bad as you might expect!” This is the answer that Lynn-the-piercer gives, soothing the nerves of a client who is worried about the piercing they’ve just committed to. And that would be honest, as a piercer I do everything in my power to minimize how painful an experience will be for my client. From the tools I use to the techniques I practice to the jewelry I install, care is given to make the process comfortable. To avoid pain.
After all, who would seek out a painful experience? Who wants to experience pain? Most of us would do anything to avoid being in pain; physical, emotional, or otherwise. Why then would various religious worshippers starve themselves, walk across hot coals, wear crows of thorns, flagellate themselves, pierce spears through their cheeks, hang from hooks in their skin, and walk for miles and miles on bloodied bare feet? Why would historically so many groups choose pain, and not only choose it but embrace it? Ritual pain is well documented in a variety of cultures and religions all across the world, from the most isolated places to the most populated, throughout human history. Pain can bring about a “transformation of consciousness and identity of the spiritual seeker” according to professor of theology Ariel Glucklich. Lynn-the-piercer will do everything to avoid creating pain for their clients. But Lynn-the-suspension-practioner?
I worship at the church of pain, I lay my body down on sterile upholstery and submit to the needle, to the burn of flesh pulled taught, to the screaming of my nerve endings, to the scent of blood thick in my nostrils. A glucose tab is my eucharist, my own blood and body the offering, my sharp inhales and whispered curses a prayer on my tongue. And here, I am at peace. Here my mind is still, my soul open to the world around me. Here I am my truest self.
“When pain transcends the limits, it becomes medicine”
-Mizra Asadullah Ghalib
Today, pain is seen as something that exists between patient and doctor. This is a relatively new relationship with pain. We can trace this back to William Morton, who in 1846 first proved ether caused insensitivity to pain during dental work. With the advent of anesthetics, we became able to numb our pain, to turn away from it. Pain became a clinical experience, something to be diagnosed, treated, and forgotten. But this time period of pain as clinical is shy of only 200 years- when we look at the vastness of human history before this, pain has a deeply different context. We had next to no way of dulling the pains we experienced, and certainly not to this level. Before this, pain was the uniting, human experience, something everyone understood and had experienced. There was no choosing to run from and avoid pain- it was part of who we are. From a young age humans experienced many varied pains and sufferings. In many faiths, pain became a means to transcendence, pain was a form of worship, it was a sacred experience. Pain has long been deeply entwined in coming-of-age rituals, rites of passage, and initiations into various societies and groups. Growing up Christian, I spent a great deal of time reading about pain as a way to draw closer to Christ, whose painful death offered salvation. I listened to the experiences of Christian martyrs who went smiling to their deaths, experiencing painlessness in the face of torture through the love and power of god.
““The delight of the contemplation of divine things dulls the sense of pain; hence the martyrs in their passions bore up more bravely by thinking of the divine love.” Aquinas sees this “dullness” as due entirely to God’s grace since “the sensible pain of the body makes one insensible to the spiritual delight of virtue, without the copious assistance of God’s grace, which has more strength to raise the soul to the Divine things in which it delights, than bodily pains have to afflict it.” For Aquinas, the Christian who has the virtue of fortitude may successfully endure pain that would be unbearable to others; this endurance comes from God, however, and not from their own abilities.” -Scarry, The Body in Pain
St Sebastian, an early Christian saint and martyr. He is bound to a tree or post and shot through with arrows. Despite this, many paintings and depictions of his torture show him gazing peacefully up toward god, despite his sufferings.
I grew up with the image of the smiling martyr engraved in my heart, of saints who suffered indescribable torture with an expression of bliss, who through the power of god could endure the unendurable. But we are not living in the time of Christian martyrs and medieval torture. In modern times the thought of the pain of a simple ear piercing is unbearable to many, so far removed are we from pain and suffering. Despite this, there is a very deep, very human desire to explore pain, to discover the transformational powers that can occur in the mind when we submit to experiences of intense physical sensation. For some people this is working out at the gym for hours and hours, it’s the burn in their lungs and aches in their legs on an intense run or hike. For some it’s fasting, it’s the gnawing hunger of days and weeks without food. Others find it hours into a long tattoo session, writhing at the slow steady pain in their skin. Some find the pain of childbirth to be empowering, transcendent, and healing, and many choose to refuse medical anesthetics and instead experience the pain and everything it brings. For me? It was hanging from hooks in my skin, one of the oldest and widest spread forms of pain as ritual, as rite.
“Every midwife knows
that not until a mother's womb
softens from the pain of labour
will a way unfold
and the infant find that opening to be born.
Oh friend! There is treasure in your heart,
it is heavy with child.
Listen. All the awakened ones,
like trusted midwives are saying,
'welcome this pain.'
It opens the dark passage of Grace.”
“The cure for pain is in the pain. What hurts you blesses you”
When we run from pain and we avoid it, were do ourselves a disservice. We as humans were built to experience pain as much as we were built to experience pleasure, bliss, and happiness. Pain is part of the human experience. To not suffer through pain but to endure it, to face it, it will teach you about yourself. Who you become at your most vulnerable. Who you are below the layers of society, religion, and socialization that create “you.” To submit to pain is to allow yourself to meet the deepest, truest version of yourself. It allows you to understand what you are capable of, it teaches you your strength, your endurance, and your ability to persevere. To do so held in community with others who have experienced this same pain, who have laid where you are and suffered as you suffer and came out stronger and more whole for it, that is the most healing experience. In your darkest moments when you are sure you can not do this, you can not endure this, to have those surrounding you to bolster you, to believe in you, to lend their strength to you, this is what community is.
I write this as a reflection of my recent experience at the immersive environments suspension retreat, where myself and 30 others came together in the wilderness to do exactly that- willingly submit to pain, to discover what our bodies and minds are capable of. We came together to explore the limitations of our humanity, of our physical bodies, and to uncover what it means for pain to become medicine. I watched magic happen in this space, and understood how medieval torturers might have thought the smiling martyrs were practicing witchcraft. I saw people smiling, laughing through the pain, I watched people find their bliss on hooks, I watched people relax into the hurt, find comfort in discomfort. I saw people face fear head on, I watched the terror of the ‘What if” (what if my skin rips, what if it hurts too much, what if I’m not strong enough, what if I can do it) transform into the certainty of success. Their minds went from what if I fail to look at how I fly. In those moments I am not just bearing witness to their conquering of pain and suffering in this moment, but rather in life. When people’s feet returned to the ground, when gravity took hold once again, they were changed people. Having come face to face with their deepest self, having conquered their fears, having found themselves more capable than they ever considered, they took their first steps on earth again born anew. New people, with a deeper understanding of themselves and their place in the world, the things they are capable of, their strength, and their internal power. And through it all, smiles abounded. For those of us called to this, pain is not just a clinical experience that means a trip to the doctor. It’s not something to numb away with medication. Pain is sacred. It’s transcendental. It’s a part of the human experience that balances us out, that reveals to us deep secrets and mysteries of our souls. It is our medicine, it is our salvation.
Together, we worship at the church of pain.
“The cure for pain is in the pain. What hurts you blesses you”