Towards a Meditation on Pain

How do people talk about and understand lived experiences of pain? For the past year, I have immersed myself in the world of qualitative research into lived experiences of trauma, including in relation to amputation, a large part of which is the experience, management and understanding of pain. Some of this research has been motivated by the study on which I have been assisting. This led me to consider more generally how we understand and communicate different types of pain. In reading the transcripts of research studies and conversations, literary and creative output, and academic papers, the very language used to communicate pain in different settings and for various purposes is intriguing. This communication is an important part of an individual’s engagement with health and social care, and medical services. However, it was not until this past year that I realised how difficult it can be to communicate the experience of pain.

The question I raise at the beginning of this piece is a variation of one of the questions I have written to guide my independent enquiry into areas of personal research interest. The two questions are as follows:

  1. How do people talk about and understand individual and collective lived experiences of trauma?
  2. How can the individual express, come to terms with and understand their lived experiences of trauma, through literature, the wider written word, conversation, or their own creative use of language?

The consideration of pain, for example, the different types, and ways to describe how and why pain is experienced, is my starting point. In future writings, I would like to investigate how creative language, including semiotics and use of language devices such as metaphor, is used instinctively as part of verbal communication, including within medical settings, to enable the individual to describe how they feel about what has happened to them.

To start with, some exploratory thoughts about the concept of pain. Pain is something you cannot see, it is hidden. Something might look painful, but the sensations of both physical and psychological pain are invisible to everyone surrounding the sufferer. This can make it difficult to describe. Pain is something we experience alone, although others can support us or suggest ways to treat it. Pain is often internalised, located firmly inside an individual’s mind or body.

What about emotional pain? Do we experience this ‘somewhere between the two’, connecting mind and body, as a bridge between thoughts and physical sensations? When it comes to discussions of pain, should we be trying to separate, or bring together considerations of mind and body?

We look at people who have gone through specific experiences, accidents or illnesses, or see certain bodies, with scars, evidence of injury, or plagued by illness, and associate them with the experience of pain, without understanding the pain itself. We might also associate pain with specific health conditions or illnesses. These associations are often based on assumptions unless we have had the same embodied experience ourselves. Having said this, one individual’s experience of something can be different from another’s; in some respects, we have no way of proving or disproving this, because we cannot possibly feel or sense somebody else’s embodied experience. Can you ever compare one experience of pain to another, when each happens within a different human body? Pain is relative.

These are not new ideas. The question of whether it could ever be possible – what it would be like and what the implications might be if we were able – to feel inside someone else’s body, in the ultimate vicarious experience of simulated stimulation, has been explored through various creative mediums; the 1995 film Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is one such exploration.

We can empathise with others to some extent (to what extent?), but how can we ever really know about something that is going on inside someone else’s mind or body? Would it help if we could understand or truly feel someone else’s pain? Would it make us more compassionate? Does it help the person suffering the pain to be able to describe it to someone else? To feel, at the very least, understood.

We describe something as a ‘painful experience’, sometimes flippantly, sometimes seriously. Sometimes we use the phrase ‘painful experience’ to describe something that is literal, for example having an injection or getting stitches, or as a description of a mundane task; for example, doing housework or talking to someone we don’t like. Sometimes the outcome of a painful experience will be negative, sometimes positive; pain resulting from an accident might signal life threatening injuries; some would view having a tattoo or ear piercing as worthwhile pain with a positive outcome.

Pain is, most often, a warning sign. However, there is something beyond the need for us to know how to treat pain. Pain is in many ways a central part of our experience of being human. Sometimes pain is how we experience life.

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