Ajahn Brahm tells the story of a monk who thought he deserved punishment for breaking a monastic rule. He had knowingly done wrong and expected reprimand, yet this was not the way. The monk insisted, so Ajahn Brahm prescribed 50 strokes. The thought of this ancient punishment undoubtedly filled the monk with fear yet he knew this was his fate. However, no whip was produced but instead a cat, which the monk was ordered to stroke—50 times. After the 50 strokes of the cat there was peace and calm and the passing of a learning experience. Change was afoot.
In physiotherapy we use our hands to treat and create calm in a body that is protecting itself, perceiving a range of cues to be threatening. It has been thought that moving joints, muscles and nerves bring about the desired changes (or not if unwisely applied) because of a change in the structures. Science has since taught us otherwise, and that in fact what we are really doing is changing the processing in the body systems and then the recipient has a different and better experience—pain eased and movement more natural and thoughtless.
Touch is very human. Touch is a part of the way we develop in the early years, a lack of touch being detrimental to normal development. So potent when the meaning is aligned with a sense of creating wellbeing and soothing woes both physical and emotional, touch should be part of therapy for any pain condition. Interweaving hands-on treatments during sessions, teaching patients how to use touch themselves, teaching carers and partners how they can use touch, all create the conditions for healthy change.
Touch send signals from the nerves in the skin and muscles to the spinal cord and then onwards to the brain. In this way, the body is an extension of the brain and the brain an extension of the body, demonstrating how we are a whole person with no system or structure being in isolation to any other. Using touch is literally sculpting the representation of the body that exists in the brain, like moulding clay into a humanly shape. And of course, a shape has a function and the two are not distinct. The more precise the shape, the better the function. The manifestation of this being a normal sense of self in how we think and feel and a move. Normalising, desensitising, to me are one and the same.
— 50 strokes of the area of the body being protected, much like stroking the cat then, sculpts our ever changing brain and sense of physical body. The physical body exists and occupies space with the ever-potential of action, yet this does not exists without thought—it is my thought, the meaning that I give to my body that creates what it is in any given moment. When the strokes feel pleasant, or at least not painful, then this is your body and brain perceiving the action as being non-threatening and learning that the area is safe. The more of this the better. The same applies with movement: any action that is tolerable or feels good is the body (your whole self) saying ‘yes, that’s ok’. And that’s what we practice and practice.
To overcome and change pain is to normalise and to alter one’s relationship with pain and overall perception. We have much more say in this than most people realise but once they understand their pain, what pain really is and what they can do, change occurs in the desired direction.