Saying “Thank You” to Pain

Note: As this might not be a mega cheerful read I thought I’d supply a nice soundtrack, so if you can, listen to this while reading

I seem to be using this blog to talk a lot about mental health and well being, that was never my intention, and maybe in the future it will change but today I have a specific note I want to hit. Today I was struck by a thought; it’s important to say ‘thank you’ to your pain.

When you are making breakfast, and you’re late for work and you pick up your coffee pot by the base instead of the handle a shooting pain will run through your hand, up your arm and rattle around inside your brain. Your body, the disparate set of processes that it is, receives one solid piece of communication, a loud and clear message that says “DON’T DO THIS STEPHEN! IT’S NOT A GOOD IDEA!” Although, your body probably won’t use my name. The point is, your body has an over-riding experience, a shut-down moment of bright white light that is advising you of the danger of picking up coffee pots by the base and not by the handle. This message is one that needs to be heard, and usually, the next time you’re late for work and making breakfast, you’ll hesitate before picking the coffee pot up by the base, you’ll remember the sharp sucky pain of the last time, and you’ll swivel your wrist towards the window, taking the extra second, and pick up the pot by the handle. In this way, the pain, which was nasty and horrible, actually helped you. It gave you a message about your behaviour and you learned from it. That’s something to be thankful for, even if only in a very minor, thin and minimal way. You can still say thanks to your pain, for helping you learn. And hopefully by doing so, you can think of coffee-burny-gate as a positive experience instead of a purely negative one.

My suggestion today is that we should think about mental pain in similar terms. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a whole heap of anxiety and sorrowful feelings that take over in times of stress and tension. Experiencing anxiety for me is painful. It’s nasty, long and brutish. It makes me feel like a sick, damaged, half-a-person, who is unable to cope with the complexities of modern adult life. It’s painful. It’s a raw sharp and prolonged pain and I absolutely fucking hate it. It makes me isolated, bad to be around, unfriendly, pessimistic paranoid and down right nasty. It is literally the worst part of my all around happy life. So why on earth should I ever think about saying “Thank You” to it? Well here’s the thing. It’s powerful, it can take hours, days and weeks away from me, and when I’m not experiencing it fully it sits there lurking like the monster-under-the-bed, biding its time until it can pop out and grind my bones to make bread. So how do I go about depowerifying it? (I teach English by the way)

I was thinking about that very point today and it came to me that I should thank it. I should thank the pain. It’s the pain that let’s me know something’s up, it’s the pain that reminds me to calm down, take a breath and examine what’s going on. It’s the pain that highlights the toxic elements of the world around me and (and this point was only realised 3 or 4 hours ago) it’s the pain that says “Don’t worry dude, this is gonna pass soon, don’t do anything knee jerk, I’m here to remind you what’s up, so as long as I’m here don’t react to anything in a way you might regret i.e. don’t quit or move or get a tattoo, I’m here to tell you to lay low and wait til I’m gone, cause when I’m gone things will be a lot better”. (Yes, my pain is an eloquent if overly wordy Dubliner) If it wasn’t for the pain I think I’d just be wnadering around the world confused as to why everything sucks and why nothing makes sense and why I can’t seem to enjoy life. So yeah, experiencing pain is bollocks, it’s really shit and it hurts (tautology!) but it also is a way for you to communicate with yourself. It’s a diagnostic tool that points out which systems need attention, which ones need to be amped up and which ones need a rest.

Before wrapping up I want to make a small clarification. When I talk about pain, I’m not talking about injuries or those who inflict pain, you don’t need to thank them. If something or someone hurt you badly in the past, and that experience left an indelible mark on you, you shouldn’t be thankful or grateful about that (unless you feel you need to to move on). To go back to the coffee pot example, after that happened my finger tips were a bit red but they didn’t blister (#bassplayer) and the pain went away quite quickly. It stayed with me just long enough to make its point. Now other stuff that has happened in my life has left scars and clicking joints and damaged muscles and they suck, but they are a part of me. My scars are a part of me just like my beard or my big toe, I don’t owe them any special thanks except to wear them with the same pride as I wear any other marker of the life I have lived. Scars, wounds and injuries are, in my opinion, part of you, and not self-reflexive messages like pain can be. As for people who inflict, or have inflicted, pain on you; those people are dicks and do not deserve a single word of thanks. They took you into their story, made you an unwilling participant in their painful journey and the only thing we owe them is a short, firm goodbye.

Peace out!

So, to wrap up, my suggestion is that you don’t have to like it, you don’t have to be happy about it, but maybe it’s a good idea to say thank you to it every once and a while. It’s not trying to hurt you, in fact it’s trying to stop you hurting yourself any further, it’s just doing it in a bit of a spiky way. So stop, look and listen and feel around for where your pain is coming from. Follow what it’s trying to tell you and if you find it say thanks. Acknowledge it, thank it, be grateful and let it go. Let it go knowing it did its job and that you’ve found the issue and you don’t need to feel it anymore. Say thanks and let it go.

Oh and by the way I mean say thanks, as in out loud, to yourself. You’d be amazed the difference that you can feel between thinking something and saying it out loud so the whole cosmos can hear.

Anyway, that’s enough from me. Have a lovely weekend and as ever feel free to comment/email me with any thoughts, although I’m not on Facebook at the minute so on here is best.

K byeeee!!

PS Isn’t John Coltrane just the business?!

The Social Circus Caravan; from Afghanistan to Palestine, and from Belgium to Belfast.

David Mason of the Mini Mobile Circus, Afghanistan, Virginie Lavenant of L’Alea des Possibles, Madagascar and Nina the Caravan network intern practicing their funambulism

In early July, I had the privilege of participating in the Caravan network’s European seminar “Circus Arts- A tool for social inclusion”. The Caravan network is a cohort of 12 international circus organisations who are unified by their work in social circus. The seminar was a two event that focused on how circus arts are used as a tool for social inclusion around the world. It also saw the completion and unveiling the Caravan Network’s Guide to social circus training, a text that is the product of a five year research project Circus Trans Formation.

Previously, I have written about my involvement in circus studies and about circus as a new field of research. When I say new I mean both as a field of study and as an aspect of my academic career. It was less than a year ago that I first went to Brussels. I was working with Galway Community Circus and my role was essentially as a PA. I was there to help out and take notes at meetings and co-present a brief history of the GCC. It was a great experience and meeting such lovely people encouraged me to keep working on my research into circus studies. Less than a year later and I have presented my circus research at multiple international conferences, had a study published, joined a network of local like-minded thinkers and helped found an international organisation to promote and develop circus studies.

It was in Brussels that this whole adventure began, so when I was invited by Laurent Bauthier, the administrator of the Caravan project, to moderate two panels at the Circus Arts conference I felt it to be both a privilege and an honour.

Arriving at the École de Cirque de Bruxelles on the morning of July 1st I was reminded of how circus studies conferences just aren’t like any others. The school is situated in a cavernous old ship breaking yard. There are tight ropes strung at a variety of heights around the huge main room. It is common to watch funambulists practice as they non-chalantly walk across a thin wire over a forty-foot drop. The conference itself was being held in a chapiteau (big top) permanently erected in the corner of the warehouse. Circus performers, theorists, researchers, funders and a few curious members of the public milled around outside the tent sipping coffee and waiting for the first panel to begin. I gulped down a tiny French coffee while trying to introduce myself to the speakers that I would be introducing in the second panel. As a side note, I love name badges; we should all wear them all the time. Fortunately I had met quite a few of the conference goers before so I was able to find my quarry quite quickly and head inside for the first panel.

Pierre Viatour signals the start of the first panel
Pierre Viatour signals the start of the first panel

The host of the conference was a gentleman by the name of Pierre Viatour, he is a clown, teacher and gifted presenter. The first panel featured a round of the work undertaken by the Caravan Partners who had been involved in the Circus TransFormation project. Given my involvement with Galway Community Circus I was already quite familiar with the work of the these different organisations but as ever I was fascinated to hear how no matter the size, financial solvency or experience of your group you will all still face similar problems. It was also exciting to see that groups from as far apart as Finland and Barcelona and Belfast and Bucharest all share a belief in the power of active community engagement through art as a way of directly effecting lies of those most in need. As one of the speakers said, “A revolution is coming…” I might add that it might already be here; hidden inside a circus. But it wasn’t all fighting against the oppressor the main focus of each groups talk was the impact and effect circus can have, has and should have, on the marginalised. This belief, attitude and approach is shared by groups from all around the world and the second panel would outline precisely the international nature of the social circus movement.

The second panel
The second panel

The second panel was about the needs of social circus organisations. First up was Delphine Biquet (pictured speaking above) who was presenting her research on the Palestinian Circus School. Given the current atrocities that are happening in Gaza, it might seem naive or distasteful to consider circus as being an appropriate topic of discussion  but the truth is, and this was supported again and again by the presenters, was that circus is a way to circumvent distinctions between groups of people, be they based on gender, religion, class or ethnicity, and as a way of providing modes of expression, personal development and most importantly FUN for young people in the most difficult situations so while no one involved with this conference believed that juggling or acrobatics would bring peace to troubled regions we did believe, and are now able to prove, that it can bring life, support and joy to those who need it most. This attitude was born out by Delphine’s research and immediately echoed by Lisa Jorgensen from Etnoartes Peru. Their work with young men who dance at highway traffic lights for coins showed how circus can embrace and redirect talents and offer new paths or avenues for talented young people, who may not have many opportunities otherwise. Virginie Lavenant from L’Aléa des Possibles (Chapito Metisy) spoke about her work with street children and highlighted how the smallest investment of time, money, care or attention can make the greatest difference in their lives. She also spoke about the importance of engaging with the community rather than forcing external ideas of what circus is or should be onto them. This idea of community involvement was supported and accentuated by David Mason of the Mini Mobile Circus from Kabul, Afghanistan who work with children and young people from all over Afghanistan has made a huge impact on their lives, their families and their communities (I am working on an article about David’s work with the MMC so I won’t go into too much detail here). In his presentation, David explained the MMC’s approach of developing and distributing funtainers (fun + containers), which are large, heavy duty strong boxes filled with all the props, mats and decorations a group would need to stage a circus show, to towns and villages around Afghanistan. This approach has empowered individuals and communities to collectivise and co-operate in creating their own circuses all of which come under the support and protection of the MMC.

The four presentations provoked a stimulating discussion which carried on over (the very tasty) lunch. We then made our way back into the tent for the third panel which centred on the impacts social circus can have. These presentations more closely on individuals or groups and tried to capture some of the immediate effects social circus had on them. Riikka Astrand presented a fascinating and personal account of how circus training opened new possibilities and experiences for a group of young people from a disadvantaged part of Finland. Entitled “We would’ve ended up as hooligans if not for that bloody circus” it showed circus to be a lighter an alternative to a darker path. Next up was Ella Berkovich talking about the work of Phare Ponleu Selpak an arts organisation from Cambodia who train young people in circus. Ella explained how the PPS were able to use contacts with European organisations to start up a touring troupe which meant that the Cambodian performers could receive EU pay rates. This might seem like a triviality but when you consider the difference between European and Cambodian costs of living this simple issue was able to provide young performers with real, circumstance changing opportunities that would lead to a direct impact in their community. The third speaker in the third panel was Giorgia Giunta of the Fekat Circus from Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia. Giorgia focussed on one member of the circus and spoke about the immediate effects it had on his life; opening doors that seemed closed and forcing others to see past his disability and economic status. An inspiring story and an inspiring speaker, Giorgia made a deep impact on everyone who heard her presentation. The next presentation centred on a project closer to home, Steven Desanghere spoke about a community circus project running in a divided neighbourhood in Ghent, Belgium. He spoke about the way circus can transcend ethnic differences and literally bring people together in a way that other artforms or activities may not. Finishing off the panel we had a reiteration of this theme from René Hildesheim who spoke about his work with an Israeli circus school and paid particular attention to their use of non-verbal communication as a way of crossing barriers.

He's got the whole world in his hands....
He’s got the whole world in his hands….

Having spent the whole day sitting (which circus people are NOT good at) we hopped up and made our way out into the open space and played around with tightropes, juggling balls and a giant globe (certainly beats a phenomenology conference!). We stuck stickers on the globe marking where we were from and then drew connections between them while all the while a Dutch acrobat walked the globe around the space.

She's on, top of the world lookin...
She’s on, top of the world lookin…

It was the most interesting and entertaining networking session I have had the pleasure of attending. After a delicious meal and more chats we went home, totally exhausted.

The second day was more practical and as such less conducive to diary taking, but the day began with a sunny walking tour of the EU area in Brussels and ended in the EU press office where we officially launched the Social Circus Training Guidebook

Let's play where's Stevo
Let’s play where’s Stevo

After a long lunch, we went back to the École to develop a strategy for how best to carry on the work that had been done up to this point and to outline where social circus needed to go. We then took a long leisurely meal on a hillside in a co-op urban farm and dreamt about the exciting future of social circus.

It was a fascinating experience and I am excited to say that I will be able to continue working with these people in the future and doing our best to keep helping people with the awesome power of circus arts!