Pain magic – what’s the first thing that pops into your mind?
American pop culture suggests a blood pact of a pinprick at the tip of a finger. The other end of the spectrum proposes a nude self-flagellation scene in the DaVinci Code. Perhaps, looking more historically, the regimented lives of the American Puritans could give a clear answer. American Puritans breathed pain magic daily, whether it was fully noticed or not. Despite what media portrays, pain magic is not only alive, it’s thriving.
Common & Modern Pain Practice
One of the most easily identifiable facets of present day, voluntary pain magic is tattoo culture. Undeniably, some tattooed folks simply want the ink, others consider this act sacred. The pain experienced during the process of tattooing can be considered as important as the final image itself, rather than simply a means to an end. Joan Golden-Alexis, clinical psychologist and Jungian analyst, discusses this factor within her essay “Written in Flesh – The Transformational Magic of the Tattoo.” She states, “[t]hrough this powerful and embodied engagement, involving the sacred element of blood, the tattooed image has the potential to become a living symbol for the psychic process evoked in the healing process.”
It is through this blood pact ritual experience that millions of pagans, and non-pagans alike, have chosen to commemorate, heal, or pay tribute to important aspects of their lives. Golden-Alexis describes, “[E]ach wounding mark takes both a visceral and a symbolic form,” harnessing the phoenix like quality to transform pain into art, but also solidifies the potential for internal development.
Switching to more cerebral gears, we also have shadow work, or a type of personal healing work coined by psychiatrist Carl Jung. This work focuses on stepping into what we have attributed as our own “shadow”, or darker psyche, to heal and become our most unified, authentic selves. This work doesn’t involve physical wounding like tattoos, but it may be as painful. Think of it as pouring peroxide on a cut, it’s the necessary medicine to make sure those soul wounds heal but it stings the whole time. It calls for diving into self, exploring perceived faults, and finding the guide within ourselves.
Despite being around for quite a few years, this practice is taking spiritual self-help circles by storm and slipping more and more into mainstream consciousness. The weight of 2022 is heavy to bear but more and more pagans are listing this pain practice within their mental health tool kits.
Hidden Pain Magics
Just under the surface of pain magic, we step into the taboo realm of BDSM. Past the obvious possibilities of sex magic, we find the flogging community. Though another element of sexual spell work, flogging can be a solo offering that isn’t sexual, or somewhere in-between. Author of “Out of the Shadows- An Exploration of Dark Paganism and Magick,” John J. Coughlin, describes this type of pain magic as “the ultimate act of sacrifice, for the offering being made is oneself.” Although the method is different, the healing potential is the same. Coughlin puts it best when he states, “In fact, the cathartic effect such interactions can produce is not unlike that of shadow integration…”
If we dive even deeper down the spiritual taboo rabbit hole, there’s the psychedelic path that has the potential to rip you from your ego and into clarity. Sometimes painful, sometimes not, yet Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers have substantiated these beneficial claims. Johns Hopkins Medicine claims, “The researchers reported that psilocybin treatment in both groups produced large decreases in depression, and that depression severity remained low one, three, six and 12 months after treatment.”
This is astounding news for more varied and accessible mental health treatment options in the future, but I digress. Why are any of these pain practices still hanging on at all? What more do they offer for us today?
Why the Pain Path?
The book, “Sacred Pain – Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul,” gives us some answers. Author and Georgetown University professor, Ariel Glucklich, separates spiritually painful paths into two possible motifs. Disintegrative pain is described as “pain that weakens or destroys the ego.” Integrative pain is, “Such a pain is more likely to be described as healing or transforming than punitive.”
To get past obstacles, whether medicinally or not, pain magic reasoning varies as greatly as tattoo explanations. It’s prevalent inside and outside of paganism, and holds space throughout global history. Although forever shifting in method and motivation, pain and spirituality are still intertwined within the modern era. It exists everywhere, despite carrying an image equating its practice to a kink, cloaked self-harm, or masochism.
While the method of the delivery varies, pain magic holds within it a type of lucidity according to Glucklich, “Pain does not eradicate experience, it makes the experiencer transparent.” However, despite all the evidence of the effectiveness and wide varying practice options, the pain path is often dismissed. It is an unclaimed path that remains along the fringe, no matter how many methods turn to fad. There are profound healing and spell work capabilities to be found here. Given the current world climate, it is worthy of a wider discussion.
Now more than ever, these unfair characterizations are a great disservice to such a varied and open resource. The world is hurting. The pandemic, mass shootings, the racism epidemic, the war; if not directly effected by these things, the constant processing of them can still be overwhelming and painful. From a pagan perspective, if you carry around any heaviness, offer it to nature or to the Gods as tribute.
It’s a valid and honest offering if you carry it in abundance with you. At its core, pain magic is a path utilizing a challenging resource as opposed to drowning in it. As a society, our collective shadow has grown quite toxic. The evolution from that state begins with each of us acknowledging we aren’t going to be free of these obstacles anytime soon. We each need to heal internally, so we have a hope of healing externally as a whole. In troubling times, we may need some unique resources.
With that in mind, I hope this article inspires further research into what lessons the pain path might hold for you.
– Mel D.
“Written in the Flesh – The Transformational Magic of the Tattoo” by Joan Golden-Alexis:
Coughlin, John J., et al. Out of the Shadows : An Exploration of Dark Paganism and Magick. 1Stbooks Library, 2001.
Martinez, Marisol. “Psilocybin Treatment for Major Depression Effective for up to a Year for Most Patients, Study Shows.” Johns Hopkins Medicine Newsroom, 15 Feb. 2022, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/newsroom/news-releases/psilocybin-treatment-for-major-depression-effective-for-up-to-a-year-for-most-patients-study-shows.
Glucklich, Ariel. Sacred Pain : Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. Oxford University Press, 2001.