“The secret of success is learning to use pain and pleasure, instead of having pain and pleasure use you. If you do that, you’re in control of your life. If you don’t, life controls you.”
– Tony Robbins
By all accounts, my own life has not been one that most would consider physically painful. I’ve suffered a single broken bone, a couple of surgeries, and a few car accidents, but all were fairly insignificant. On the other hand, my chosen body modifications stand out as having caused me far more pain, but they also offered me more healing than any prescription or medicine ever has.
Growing up watching National Geographic with my parents I would often find myself marveling at what I was seeing. So many lovely faces, so many modifications. All I could do was think about how beautiful these people were, and how different they were from anything else I had ever seen. The stretched lobes of the Dyak tribes of Borneo, the crocodile skin scarification of the Korogo People in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, and tattooed faces of the Ukit tribes from the Chin region of Borneo – each and everyone made a specific impression in my mind.
However, and perhaps strangely enough, I only developed a superficial anthropological interest in anything other than the aesthetics of body modification. I believe that this is unfortunately where most North Americans’ interest in body modification stands: a vague curiosity of the unknown and the bizarre. Quotes such as the following only further support that idea:
“Bound feet, stretched necks, deformed skulls, flesh permanently marked and scarred, elongated ear-lobes- as suggested by the standard terminology of “mutilation” and “deformation” itself, these are practices that have long fascinated the West where they have been viewed as exotic distortions of the body.” (Mascia-Lees et. Al. 1992: 1).
Now with that being said, other than the concern about whether it will look nice, the majority of my clients all want to know, “Is this going to hurt?” or “Didn’t that hurt?” My answer – always truthful – rings out in a single word, “Yes.”
One would think that the answer would be obvious. Pain is pain, right? What I cannot explain to them in one word is just how that pain, and the experience, will feel to them personally.
The International Association for The Study of Pain defines pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage.” However, pain is a symptom that cannot be objectively assessed. I cannot look at one of my clients and precisely know what hurts, how badly, and what that pain will feel like. Pain, therefore, is subjective; it is whatever the person experiencing it says it is. There will be no evidence – logical, empirical, theoretical, or even theological for that matter – that will be able to fully explain the multitudes of experiences pain can cause.
You see, pain is seen as an unpleasant sensation often caused by intense or damaging stimuli, such as stubbing a toe, burning a finger, or putting alcohol on a cut. This pain then motivates an individual to withdraw from damaging situations and to protect themselves while the wound heals.
“We rarely see the gifts that pain can bring, as a doorway to awareness” (Ferlic, 2005). This means that, for most people, the fear of the pain itself will cause us to avoid any and all situations that may cause pain. Yet pain, undoubtedly, is a central aspect of the lived realities of human experience.
Like most North Americans, I grew up afraid of pain. The idea of being harmed intentionally or otherwise was horrible. In order to better understand the multitudes of experiences that my clients may have (or may be hoping to have), I decided to explore my own personal definitions and experiences with pain. This in-depth exploration began two years ago when I was approached with the idea of becoming a body piercer. My first response was, “No. No, definitely not.” The idea of causing other people (what I, then, perceived to be) pain was not something I could do. However, from that point on, my idea of pain has been evolving to its current definition. This is not to say that it will be the same definition that my clients, colleagues, or peers will share. However, as important as it may be to define pain for myself, it is my own interpretation of pain and how it serves me that will better allow me to understand the varied motivations and experiences of my clients.
By most standards in my industry I am still relatively unmodified. The majority of my modifications have occurred in the past two years. In the beginning, the first few piercings I got were based on my limited knowledge and interpretations at the time, and were chosen for aesthetic reasons. As my apprenticeship progressed and I began to develop a much greater appreciation and understanding of modifications for different motivations, the reasons for my own modifications began to change. I now find that I want to get pierced to be able to better relate to my clients.
The latest addition to my modification collection is a scarification piece on my ribcage. It is by far the most personal piece – as well as the most “painful” piece – I’ve ever had done. Halfway through the procedure I was asked if I was all right, as tears streamed down my face. I grinned, laughed, and just managed to say, “Yes.” Four hours later I was tired, sore, and bleeding, and still had no idea that the most difficult parts were still to come.
Like with any modification, scarification is done for aesthetic, religious, and social reasons. In biomedicine, pain and the body are reduced to biological phenomena. In theological or spiritual terms, they are understood through penance, on one hand, and visionary suffering and sainthood, on the other.
“Modern pain, of course, normally chains us down to the material world. It keeps us centered in the flesh. It places us within the secular circle of medical science. On the other hand visionary pain, or pain viewed from a more theological perspective, acts in providing release into pure communion with something divine, it becomes not something to be cured or even endured but rather as a means of knowledge, offering access to an otherwise inaccessible understanding. Visionary pain employs the body in order to free us from the body. It initiates or accompanies an experience that escapes the time-bound world of human suffering” (Morris 1993: 135).
In various contexts, the deliberate infliction of pain in the form of corporal punishment is used as retribution for an offense, or for the purpose of disciplining or reforming a wrongdoer. At times, it has been used to deter attitudes or behaviors deemed unacceptable. Yet in other cultures, extreme practices such as rites of passage are highly regarded.
Fakir Musafar points to the Kulavarna Tantra that, in speaking of “the left-hand way” in Hinduism, says that “spiritual advancement is best achieved by means of those very things which are the causes of man’s downfall” (Blake, cited in Vale & Juno 1989: 204, Musafar Body Play issue #13: 7). Through bodily pain we learn what the modern primitives argue; in a controlled context, it becomes possible to utilize pain for positive ends.
For many tribal cultures, the modern primitives argue that, when accompanied by some measure of self-control, ordeals of pain give insight and maturity to the sufferer. As we face our fear of pain we gain self-confidence and pride. “The experience of pain allows us to test our physical and mental endurance under safe, controlled conditions” (Body Play issue #9: 4). Whereas science sees pain as negative and avoidable, the modern primitives hold pain to be a positive and useful experience, ascribing its rich personal and spiritual meanings.
After the journey I have taken, I look not at what modification or pain have done to me, but what that pain has given me. Pain has given me my life back. I am no longer afraid to try or to fail, no matter how painful it may be. I now believe that it is so much worse to live in fear–fear of pain, mental, physical, or otherwise. To do nothing, to walk away, then to travel forward, endure the pain, and come away with a richer perspective.
EDITOR’S NOTE: While the APP does not have any official stance on scarifcation or the rituals associated with pain and piercing, we are aware that individuals embark on body modifications for a variety of reasons. Whatever the reason – or modification – we simply encourage recipients to use discretion and seek out qualified, educated, and highly experienced piercers, tattoo or body modification artists.