Eckart Tolle's Pain Body
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 14, 2021
Our pain memories accumulate and repeatedly surface in what Eckart Tolle refers to as the Pain Body
Pain is a part of life. For the most part, we just wish the pain would go away. Pain descends and demands attention, drawing attention from the more pleasant feelings of living.
Physicians, psychologists, and religious leaders all lend effort to our frenzied desires to mange pain. In 1997, spiritual teacher and best selling author Eckart Tolle presented a simple, yet profound, concept of pain. He presented the concept of the pain body. He explained that the pain body is the accumulated hurt that lives inside of our bodies and minds.
For the most part, here at Flourishing Life Society, we prefer to rely on concepts with scientific backing, supporting our writing with peer reviewed articles and scientifcally researched books. Occasionally, teachers that lean heavy on new age spirituality may diverge from science, relying on "feel good" remedies without legitimate accompanying research. Eckart Tolle is no exception. However, Tolle's concept of a "pain body" may be useful for dealing with our hurts.
Pain Body is a figurative image presented by Eckart Tolle that represents the pain we accumulate throughout our lives that continue to live, occupying our bodies and minds.
Tolle's Pain Body is Figurative
In his book the Power of Now, Eckart suggests looking at our accumulated pain as an invisible entity (1997). He suggests that this view of accumulated pain provides a helpful picture of our contacts with the repeated aches interfering with peace and disrupting wellness.
Eckart's pain body does not physically exist in an identifiable physical location. Pain is intricately woven into our nervous system, with connections to memories, and conscious interpretations. Feeling pain is the conscious end point of many factors. Eckart's pain-body more accurately represents the entire process of feeling and experiencing pain.
Emotional and physical pain share many features. When we feel emotional pain, the same areas of our brain activate as when we feel physical pain, mainly the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex.
All pain is both a physical and an emotional experience. Physical pain arouses emotions and aroused emotions can hurt.
Whether pain is initiated by stubbing our toe, or faulty signals from the brain, both body and brain are involved. Sensations prick our consciousness and we hurt. With phantom limb syndrome, patients that have a limb amputated often continue to feel excruciating pain in the non-existent arm (or leg).
In an interesting paper about phantom headaches, researchers present the emotion-memory-pain (triangle) hypothesis, theorizing that all three are connected and influence the other (Prakash & Golwala 2011). This theory fits well with Tolle's accumulating pain and pain-body.
Pain: Dormant and Active
Like memories, Tolle teaches that pain can be either active or dormant. In happy people, he explains, the pain body lies dormant most of the time.
Tolle doesn't suggest that happy people don't have painful memories, he teaches that the focal point of their attention isn't typically fixated on the pain—the pain is dormant. Other people, Tolle warns, live almost entirely through their pain body.
Tolle explains that when a pain body is "ready to awaken from its dormant stage, even a thought or an innocent remark made by someone close to you can activate it" (1997).
Russ Harris, a physician and therapist that specializes in stress management, describes the activation of emotion as similar to the flipping of a switch. He suggests we envision a "struggle switch" in the back of our brain. "When it is switched on, it means we are going to struggle against any physical or emotional pain that comes our way, whatever discomfort we experience, we’ll see it as a problem and try hard to get rid of it or avoid it" (2008).
Tolle continues that when the pain body is active, "everything it says is deeply colored by the old, painful emotion of the pain body. Every interpretation...every judgement about your life, about other people, about a situation you are in, will be totally distorted by the old emotional pain" (2010).
The activated pain body sees a much different world. We see a dangerous world full of pain, threatening to hurt again. The activated pain body, according to Tolle, not only taints our interpretation of our world but also invites maladaptive behaviors to protect and defend against the sinister pain body, looming in the dark, waiting to lunge.
"Find a place inside where there's joy, and the joy will burn out the pain."
The awakening of the pain body, following thoughts and emotions, and reactive behaviors become patterned. We become entrenched in pain patterns. Environmental cues set the arousal roller coaster in motion, leading to maladaptive and defensive responses that keep our lives suspended in painful dramas.
Tolle explains that some people only react to certain situations, such as 'intimate relationships, or situations linked to past loss or abandonment, physical or emotional hurt, and so on." He continues, "Anything can trigger it, particularly if it resonates with a pain pattern from your past" (1997).
After my divorce, the painful experience that stretched over several years left scars—emotional residue. New relationships easily could track through the dusty floors of the past, stir up dormant pain, and awaken the demon. Although, with time, I believed I was completely healed, a sharp remark, lack of attentiveness or appreciation and I quickly am reminded that the beast was still alive and well. The awakened emotions beg for old patterns to play out, maladaptive protections, sorrowful regrets, and many other memories embodied in the pain.
Diana Fosha wrote:
Positive emotions (e.g., pleasure, joy, tenderness), particular traits, qualities, ways of being that are either highly positive or at least benign (e.g., gentleness, independence, emotional sensitivity, intelligence, generosity) can become sources of great emotional pain when, for historical-dynamic reasons, the caregiver finds them intolerable, usually because they evoke intolerable vulnerability (2000, location 986).
Something in our environment impinges on us, interfering with autonomy and awakening pasts that we feel incapable of controlling. Our emotional pattern is set in emotion and we feel powerless.
Identifying With the Pain Body
Tolle teaches that the pain body wants to survive. It's survival, he explains, is guaranteed only when we identify with the pain. The pain body then can "rises up, take you over, 'become you,' and live through you" (1997).
Tolle's portrayal of this inner demon is frightening stuff. However, those of us that have experienced reoccurring emotional pain know that memories can haunt, disrupt and destroy.
While I wince at assigning "wants" of inner sensations, I understand the metaphor succinctly describes our tendency to collaborate feelings with experience. When we feel frightened, we see threats everywhere. And with the pain body, when we resonate with emotional pain, we tend to find more pain in life. When tormented by the traumatic past, we want to inflict pain, suffer pain, or both. Hurt is familiar, pain resonates, and we become a painful portal for receiving and dulling out misery.
Our pain body casts a dark shadow on our lives and the lives of those around us. We feed the pain and it grows.
Parable of the Two Wolves
A wise Cherokee grandfather taught the powerful parable of two wolves to his grandson:
"A fight is stirring inside me," he told the curious child.
"A terrible fight between two wolves." The grandfather pauses and then explains, "One wolf is evil; he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego."
"The other wolf is good," the wise old man continues "he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith." After a short pause,, he warns the child, "the same fight is going on inside you."
The grandson stunned by the thought of an internal battle contemplated the lesson for a minute and then astutely asked: "Which wolf will win?"
The wise old man grateful for the chance to teach replied, "The one you feed."
We Feed Our Pain Body
We unconsciously fuse with our pain memories and then feed those memories through stinging interpretations of the present. We continually reinforce the pain. "Life is unfair," we cry and the scurry about seeking the painful unfairness that readily surrounds us.
We justify our hurt by filtering out the joys. We settle for less and relish in our suffering. "Come here," we beckon, "let me tell you of my sorrows." And thus, we give life to our pain body and our pain body "becomes us."
Harris warns, "If we fuse with these stories, the switch goes on and we perceive uncomfortable emotions are a threat. Our brain then responds to a threat with a fight or flight response, which then gives rise to a whole new set of unpleasant feelings" (2008).
We choose what we identify with through our personal narrative, defining who we are and what we will become.
Mindfulness and the Pain Body
Tolle believes that the cure is bringing the pain body to conscious awareness. Tolle is in good company with his remedy. Carl Jung taught "until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate."
"So the pain body doesn't want you to observe it directly and see it for what it is. the moment you observe it, feel its energy field within you, and take attention into it, the identification is broken" (1997).
When we fuse with the pain, we don't experience the hurt because we are the hurt. Or in Tolle's words the hurt has "become us." In mindful observation we objectively step back with curiosity. We drop the stories. We see the pain.
Lawrence Heller PhD and Aline LaPierre instruct therapists working with this method to help clients gain "awareness of their emotional pain while helping them see that these painful affects are often relics of the past" (2012). This technique is a process of separation that forges a functional relationship with painful memories. Heller and LaPierre explain, "this mindful dual-awareness process supports increasing organization, and the increasing organization in turn supports a greater capacity for mindfulness" (location 3239).
Fosha adds to this concept, "As patients gain access to previously warded-off affective and relational experiences, the process of mourning is activated. The realization of losses, deprivations, and missed opportunities triggers deep emotional pain, the experience of which sets in motion the healing process" (2000, location 1951).
As we move, changing angles, our view changes. We see pain differently. "New dimensions of the experiences of both pain (physical and emotional) and suffering and the potential for embracing them and understanding them differently become available to us when we give our inner selves over to the present moment and let go of all the thoughts of the future and the past at just those moments of highest intensity" (Williams, Teasdale, Segal, & Kabat-Zinn, 2007, page 132).
"The real work of breaking free of the pain body," Tolle exhorts, "is to acknowledge that you identify with it." He continues, "Once an identification is seen and named, it will lose its power over you" (2019).
In a religious article, Fr. Richard Rohr suggested we stop responding from the pain body, which he associated to the 'flesh' and 'false self.' Instead, he proposed we should respond from the 'deepest me.' He defined the 'deepest me' as a place of positive, loving energy.
While I'm not certain an innate temperament of the 'deepest me" exists as Rohr presents, I do believe, as in the parable of the two wolves, we have a battle raging inside between many different traits, and the traits we identify with strengthen and take over our lives. We, in essence, choose who the 'deepest me' is by where we focus our attention.
Our Personal Narrative
We don't need to deny our painful memories existence, but before attending to the stings from the bruises and breaks, we must find strength from the good parts of our lives. By finding balance, we can include our hurtful pasts in a coherent story of success and overcoming. We write our narrative, we choose which wolf to feed, we decide what to identify with, whether it be Tolle's pain body or Rohr's 'deepest me."
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Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books; 0 edition
Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT. Trumpeter; Illustrated edition.
Heller, L., La Pierre, A. (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition
Prakash, S., & Golwala, P. (2011). Phantom headache: pain-memory-emotion hypothesis for chronic daily headache?. The Journal of Headache and Pain, 12(3), 281-286.
Rohr, R. (2015) Letting Go of the Pain Body. Center for Action and Contemplation. Published 10-19-2015. Accessed 7-10-2021.
Tolle, E. (1997). The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. New World Library.
Tolle, E. (2010). Living in the Presence with Your Emotional Pain Body. Huff Post. Published 10-6-2010, Accessed 7-13-2021.
Tolle, E. (2019). Dissolving Your Pain Body through "The Power of Now." Thrive Global. Published 7-1-2019. Accessed 7-12-2021.
Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z.V., Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. The Guilford Press.