According to Eckhart Tolle, the pain-body is a “semiautonomous energy-form that lives within most human beings, an entity made up of emotion.” This emotional pain-body has its own primitive intelligence. Its primary goal is survival. The emotional pain-body is fueled, fed, and sustained by the ego.
Egoic thoughts are actually the catalysts that activate the emotional pain-body. How? Emotion follows thought. This is always true, even if it sometimes seems as though your emotions are unrelated to your thoughts. The thoughts – or the mental interpretation of an event or situation – actually come first.
So let’s say you think an egoic thought, something like:
- “I can’t do anything right”
- “I don’t deserve love”
- “I’m unlucky in relationships”
- “I’m in danger” (even if you’re comfortably lying in your bed)
- “I’m so stupid/ugly/fat/thin/old/lazy, etc.”
- “People can’t be trusted”
- “The world is a scary place”
- “I’m not doing good enough” or “I will never heal”
When you identify with these thoughts, that’s when the ego hijacks your whole system. In the words of Tolle:
“The voice in the head tells a story that the body believes in and reacts to. Those reactions are the emotions. The emotions, in turn, feed energy back to the thoughts that created the emotion in the first place. This is the vicious circle between unexamined thoughts and emotions, giving rise to emotional thinking and emotional story-making.”
(from A New Earth)
If we allow it, the ego will constantly disrupt the body’s natural state of well-being and peace. If this goes on for long enough, we may start to exhibit physical symptoms of exhaustion, stress, and dis-ease.
How the Ego Feeds the Pain-Body
Every time you have an egoic thought and identify with it — meaning that you believe it and it makes you feel bad — you’re feeding your emotional pain-body. As Tolle explains, the pain-body requires food to replenish itself. This food “consists of energy that is compatible with its own.” So the emotional pain-body feeds on trauma, pain, suffering, unhappiness, anger, and other lower-frequency emotions. It also thrives on negative thinking and drama.
Typically, the pain-body is awakened when it needs to feed. It might be awakened by a specific event, such as a fight with your spouse. It might also get triggered by an insignificant thing, such as what someone says or a look someone gives you. The pain-body is not only triggered relationally — that is, when there are other people around. It also becomes activated by your own negative thoughts.
Once your pain-body becomes triggered by an emotion, thought, or event, it will begin to feed. The pain-body is addicted to unhappiness and suffering. Have you ever wondered whether you yourself might be addicted to suffering, drama, or difficult situations? Or suspected that you might be sabotaging your own happiness?
If so, it was actually your pain-body becoming activated and taking over. It wasn’t the real You doing this. The real You is not addicted to suffering or unhappiness. Your pain-body is one limited part of you, but you also have a Higher Self — that’s the much bigger, wiser part of you.
Once the pain-body becomes triggered, it’s very difficult to stop it from seeking more and more unhappiness to feed on. In the words of Tolle:
“It is not so much that you cannot stop your train of negative thoughts, but that you don’t want to. This is because the pain-body at that time is living through you, pretending to be you. And to the pain-body, pain is pleasure.”
The Pain-Body in Relationships
So how does the pain-body express itself in relationships? Here are some examples of the emotional pain-body in action:
- lashing out at your partner for the slightest thing (a look, a word, a chore that wasn’t done)
- provoking your partner to fight with you
- pushing your partner’s buttons
- holding a grudge and punishing your partner for a past mistake
- allowing your partner to provoke you into a fight or push your buttons (it goes both ways)
- being emotionally explosive or reactive with others
All of these behaviors can happen even if you realize what you’re doing and a wiser part of you wants you to stop. Once the pain-body is fully activated, it’s extremely difficult not to get drawn into or to cause drama. As Tolle points out, certain behaviors — like drinking alcohol — may also feed the pain-body and cause it to become more vicious (i.e., when someone becomes a “mean drunk”).
Pain-bodies are also very good at energizing and feeding off each other. This is why we say “misery loves company” and why we often bond with other people over shared misfortune and negative experiences. Tolle explains how the pain-body sometimes works in relationships:
“Some couples who may think they have fallen in love are actually feeling drawn to each other because their respective pain-bodies complement each other.”
Liberating Yourself from Your Pain-Body
There are a few steps you must take to become free of your emotional pain-body. Or, at least, to make it less reactive and less likely to hijack your entire personality and energy field.
1 – Recognize that you have a pain-body.
The first step is to actually recognize the existence of your emotional pain-body. (We all have one.) This can help you separate yourself from your pain-body and realize that it’s just one limited aspect of yourself. It’s not the real You. Once the pain-body is recognized for what it is, it can’t pretend to be you any longer.
2 – Dissolve the pain-body with Presence.
Intentional and conscious presence can dissolve the pain-body. Tolle says, “your conscious Presence breaks your identification with the pain-body.” So what does it mean to be present? The next time you feel an influx of negative thoughts or emotions, try to see them as an expression of your pain-body. Sit with the emotions or thoughts without trying to change them, push them away, or dissect them.
Remember that, if you stop feeding your pain-body with more and more negative thoughts, these emotions and thoughts will pass. The pain-body doesn’t dissolve immediately. But naming it for what it is and refusing to feed it begins to cut off its energy supply.
3 – Practice non-reactivity when your pain-body is activated.
Aside from being present, try to practice non-reactivity when your pain-body is activated. If your pain-body is urging you to lash out at your partner or provoke someone into an argument, try to take a deep breath and repeat the mantra: “This is my pain-body trying to hijack me. I’m bigger and wiser than this pain-body. I don’t have to act on this feeling reactively.” Sometimes this will work, and sometimes it won’t. But the more you practice it, the less reactive you’ll be.
4 – Step beyond the negative story your pain-body is telling you.
To sustain itself and keep you feeding it, your pain-body will tell you negative stories about whatever’s happening. For example, if your partner forgets to do a chore you had asked them to do, your pain-body won’t just simply say, “oh well, no big deal.” Your pain-body will say, “How dare they?? They never do anything around the house. This is so disrespectful and malicious. I can’t believe I’m letting this person get away with this! I won’t let them get away with this!!” And now your pain-body is fully triggered and convincing you to punish and attack your partner.
So to further dissolve the pain-body, you need to counteract the horror stories it tells you with stories that are more grounded in reality. More peaceful, compassionate, loving stories — not just about other people but also about yourself.
5 – Recognize your pain-body’s triggers.
Your pain-body is unique to you. This means that it will be triggered by specific events, situations, words, thoughts, and emotions. For example, alcohol is a trigger for some people (as we saw above). Entertainment that depicts horrific or traumatic situations can be triggers for other people. There might be something specific that your partner does that instantaneously activates your pain-body. This might include giving you a certain look, speaking to you in a certain tone, or pushing one of your buttons.
Try to start recognizing the triggers that awaken your pain-body. For instance, for someone with a predominantly anxious pain-body, watching the news might be a trigger that then leads to a panic attack. The point here is to start avoiding these triggers. If they can’t be avoided, at least you can be more aware of the potential activation of your pain-body and how you’re going to respond to it.
Ultimately, you don’t have to be driven or hijacked by your emotional pain-body. The more you cultivate Presence and connect to your Higher Self, the less reactive and “dense” your pain-body will be. This is why practices like meditation, mindfulness, and deep breathing can be so transformative. They allow us to infuse our lives with more awareness and to work with all these different aspects of ourselves from an intentional, loving place.