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Emotional and Physical Pain: Are They Inextricably Connected?

Many years ago (if I will admit my age it was probably sometime in the early 1990’s), one of my frequent reference books was called You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L. Hay. Some of you might remember it too. It hit the New York Times Bestseller list in 1988 after she was invited to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

In the book, Louise talks about her journey healing from breast cancer using the power of positive thought. She goes into a troubled childhood and the thought processes that emerged. It was her belief that her negative self-thinking had created (or at least greatly contributed to) the cancer.

My favorite part of the book was the reference section at the back. In a neat three-column easy-to-locate format, it listed either a disease or a body part associated with a disease, followed by the negative thought pattern or emotion that had supposedly created the condition, and concluded with the positive affirmation meant to reverse it. It became family entertainment to leaf through the book when suffering from a physical affliction of one kind or another (i.e. a splintered toe, a burned finger, an infected tooth, or a bloated belly) and see what the mind-body connection was.

So do these types of connections really exist? In my experience as an acupuncturist I think they do, although I can’t get as specific as Louise when it comes to figuring out the emotion connected to the illness.

Over the years, as I have worked with patients, it is not unusual to place needles in a person only to have them start seeping tears of pent-up emotional release that seem to bring even greater relief than the needles. Working with the human body on a daily basis, one has to be constantly aware of what might lurk under the surface of pain and injury. And yet the beauty of acupuncture lies in its simplicity and in its intense privacy...The patient is there breathing and communing with his or her own body, even if he or she doesn’t realize it. The body in its infinite wisdom receives the release from the needle, and not only does the muscle, tendon, bone or tissue relax, but so can the emotional tension underneath.

Some years ago, in another phase of self-exploration and seeking to sort out the troubles of my own youth and young adult life, I delved deep into The Presence Process, by Michael Brown. In the mid-1990’s the South African author suddenly began experiencing excruciating migraines on a daily basis. Unable to find relief from conventional or alternative medicine, he embarked on a quest that eventually took him into South America and a medicine man through which, with a little help from the peyote plant, he found relief in what he called “the present moment”.

It took Michael several years of experimentation to maintain “present moment awareness” using exercises connecting his breath with physical sensations and contemplative questions. Over the course of this time, Michael not only cured himself of his migraines, he discovered--or so he claimed in his book--that physical pain and emotional pain were one and the same, energetic experiences along a continuum. He talked about physical pain as a great teacher, in that it called awareness to an energetic place in the body that was in need of emotional or spiritual healing. And healing itself, he said, was nothing but bringing intense present moment awareness into the place of pain.

Sometimes I tell people that the greatest gift of acupuncture is that you come to sit in a dark room, listening to calming music or ocean waves on a sound machine, are gently pinned to the chair or table...and then there’s nothing but you and your inward experience of your body for a whole glorious 45 minutes. Where else do we get to consciously experience that in our busy, stressful modern lives? The needles draw your attention into your body, the breath moves rhythmically, and the magical release starts to happen.

The Present Moment.

And if you wanted to get specific, you could dig out your pocket book with Louise’s handy reference afterwards, and figure out how to talk to yourself in a new way.

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