Pleasure & the Mistake of Chronic Pain

By Sheri Cohen, Guild Certified Feldenkrais® Practitioner

I’ve been teaching my students to move toward pleasure in their yoga and Feldenkrais practices for many years. I find it a little awkward to use the word “pleasure,” with its connotations of sex and hedonism, but I’ve stuck with it. Sometimes, when I first drop the word into the class narration, I feel myself take a little breath — * — before saying the word carefully. I then contextualize: “I don’t mean just hedonistic pleasure, I mean the very simple pleasure of yourself in movement, and of your own physical sensations.” And then I notice a kind of relaxation move through the group, a letting go of the bracing and armoring that accompanies us daily. Most in the group visibly breath better.

Of course, these pleasures—hedonistic and somatic—aren’t so different. Pleasure experienced in the physical body is just that. These pleasures may come in many different forms and flavors, but they share more than they differ. It is important to make the distinction, however, to cut through unacknowledged taboos. It is taboo in our culture to experience physical pleasure in other than prescribed ways, especially in public. Also, for some, it transgresses a shield unconsciously put up to protect against historical or present trauma. For many in my classes, when I ask them to to brush their hand across their leg with no purpose but to sense and enjoy the self-contact—to touch themselves in a neutral way, in other words—it is a challenge to those taboos or shields .

I am inspired and moved every time I see someone allow themselves the pleasure of neutral self-touch, or let go of some bracing for an audible sigh. It is a privilege to witness these tectonic changes. Yes, tectonic. Every bit of letting go, opening, or releasing is potentially a personal triumph on a planetary scale. Even the smallest moments deserve great respect.

As I came back to the theme of Pleasure recently, I wanted to freshen my views a bit, so I went to a master on the subject. Reggie Ray and his book, Touching Enlightenment, is a lodestone for me. In reviewing the book, I started to collate some words into lists. I post these words for my students:


The Pleasure words help to clarify the profound gifts that moving toward pleasure rewards us with.

(It occurs to me here that I might need to explain toward what we move if not toward pleasure: ambitions, goals, what-the-teacher-did, what-the-teacher-said, what-my-classmate-can-do, whatever-end-I-seek-to-help-me-improve/change/become-someone-0ther-than-who-I-am. Do any of these sound familiar?)

On the wall next to the Pleasure words are the Pain words. Ray describes all these physical sensations as embodiments of pain:

Ouchy (sharp, dull, sudden, chronic, all of it)

Pleasure and Pain are on opposite ends of a continuum of mindbody experience.

Here, I stopped in my preparations, stunned that I had been so blind to a fundamental problem in my teaching. I realized that if one experiences any Pain—and most of us do—Pleasure is a far country to reach! To invite someone in Pain to head straight to Pleasure may be setting her up for immediate failure. “How can I go to Pleasure if I can’t stop thinking about this damn Pain!?!”

Concerned that I have been getting the cart before the horse, I made another list. This is a list of neutral sensations or experiences that lie somewhere in the middle of the Pleasure-Pain continuum:

Pressed Upon/Constrained—Free to Move/Unconstrained
Clear—Fuzzy or Foggy
Position/Direction/Path (in Space)
… is Different from…

The Neutral list keeps growing. I add to it every time I teach, and even now, as I write, I find some new ones. Some of us synesthetes experience tone, color, timbre and texture in our physical sensations. Some experience that parts of the body speak or have stories in them. Any category of experience of the physical body is included here.

The Neutral list is so important, because it is the gateway from Pain to Pleasure. We may balk when asked to focus on pleasure while we are in pain, but we can usually find our way to some neutral sensation somewhere in the body. An interesting thing happens when we rest our attention in a non-judgmental way, without expectation or ambition, on our neutral sensations. Our bodily experience becomes dimensional, unfixed, and responsive to our inquiry. Calm, spaciousness, and eventually pleasure creep in.

Why does this seem so elusive? Why don’t we just naturally attend to neutral and pleasurable sensations if they’re so good for us? Because the process of evolution selected for our ability to sense pain. Nature needs for us to get to the age of procreation. So it gave us very compelling pain sensations to help us avoid catastrophic injury. Initially, pain is there for a reason, to alert us that some harm has come to our organism that might threaten our ability to make it through till we reproduce. When I say the sensation is compelling, I mean it attracts and holds our attention, like a good movie. But there are some inefficiencies in our design. A pain can be so compelling that it echos throughout our nervous system even when the mortal danger has passed. Natural selection doesn’t mind about that, as long as our organism remains intact and functional for procreation. Scientists are now finding that our central nervous system can actually be damaged by pain signals that run for long periods of time, creating a cycle where mistaken messages of pain continue even after injury has been healed. While that initial pain was there for a reason, some of this residue pain is just confusion. But it’s pain, so we keep getting these messages that draw our attention and yell, “Alert! Alarm!” (For an excellent discussion of this, see Chapter 1 of The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge.)

Most of us live quite a bit longer than our reproductive period. Yet we’re given this body by natural selection that is designed to prioritize procreation.  The pain mechanism is powerful. But how can we live not just long, but well? Nature has selected for another characteristic that can help us out of this mess: our conscious minds. We can willfully direct our attention away from dysfunctional pain (pain that is no longer serving its purpose to keep us safe), toward neutral and pleasurable sensation. Because the nervous system is plastic, meaning changeable, we can actually strengthen and build more neutral and pleasure pathways to our sensory cortex by choosing to attend to those sensations, rather than being trapped by the dysfunctional pain cycle.

I want to be clear here that I am not advocating avoiding pain signals as way of bucking up and getting on with life. I am talking about opening a door to a range of experience that includes and goes beyond pain. Many of us (I include myself here) who experience chronic pain have a tendency to identify ourselves with our pain and with our conditions. (I am a Migraineur!) We become frienemies with our pain—it keeps us company, entertains us, holding our rapt attention, even as we despise it. I can say with confidence that if I did not have the “muscle”, built up during years of practice in dance, meditation and the Feldenkrais Method, to attend to the world of sensation beyond pain, I would have followed my pain down the rabbit hole, never to return.

Training my attention on neutral and pleasurable sensations, even during migraine, can decrease my pain level. More importantly, by opening that door to sensation, I become much more than my pain. I am living, breathing, sensate, and full of curiosity about my human condition. I am Sheri, experiencing pain as one of my many temporal experiences.

Training our attention on neutral and pleasurable sensations while not in intense pain benefits us in a similar way, and also flows easier, feels richer and develops in us a strength that supports us in more difficult times.

And so, our practice in Feldenkrais and yoga classes remains, as it has for so long, about attending to sensation. But we understand the context a bit better. We may be clearer that our practice is life-giving and nourishing, and not just another activity in our busy schedules.