In the last month I have been struggling with various negative emotions, including flaring pain from sciatica and general despondency at the thought of more lonely lockdown in the dark autumn/winter days ahead. The situation was probably not helped by weeks of rain, lack of sunlight, and lack of real life interaction. All of these elements added to depression and weeks of living with the ‘black dog’.
I discussed the problem of creating with the ‘black dog’ with my online creative coaching group. The black dog seemed to cause a little confusion for coach Laurence Shorter and he quizzed me about describing this further. I wondered later if this is perhaps more a known visual metaphor in Comics Studies with work like Lucy Sullivan’s graphic novel on depression ‘Barking’ (2020), but comics scholar, Nicola Streeton pointed out that Churchill used this metaphor too. In any case, Shorter reframed the black dog into the ‘pain-body’ which is an idea from spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle’s (1997) ’The Power of Now.’ The rough idea is that the ‘pain-body’ is an accumulation of various experiences of ‘pain’ on a spectrum from actual physical pain to negative emotions from guilt to heart-break. This ‘pain-body’ supposedly continues because this ‘pain’ was not faced and dealt with at the time. To some extent, this makes sense in my context, as both sciatica and depression take me back to previous experiences and this seems to add the further weight of remembered misery.
Everyone in the coaching group seemed to know about the concept of the ‘pain-body’ (and accept this as existent) and they described aspects to help me understand. Elizabeth Klyne, therapist and shadow worker, explained that the best approach to the pain-body is to notice it, accept it, and give it quiet space. Ignoring or resisting the pain-body apparently accentuates it, and the experience ultimately becomes more exhausting. The noted biggest problem with the ‘pain-body’ is mistaking it as identity, so depression or grief becomes an all consuming self-identity. Elizabeth remarked that her clients are often fearful of being overwhelmed by ‘pain’ and never being able to return to normal functioning life, however in her experience, negative emotion/pain is finite and it is better to address this than avoid it. This avoidance resonates with my tendency to avoid and distract myself from ‘pain’ – in the past I could do this with a combination of overworking at the university and then crashing into the familiar trio of food/drink, TV and sleep. In lockdown, the distractions changed to news, social media, and the same old crashing trio. During difficult times, avoidance includes temporarily stopping creating and in the last 6 weeks the comics diary stopped altogether.
I am not entirely convinced that this ‘pain-body’ exists, other than as a useful metaphor that helps express the complexity of human emotion and experience. I talked to cartoonist Simone Lia on Zoom (05.10.2020) about this notion and she quickly understood the idea and described the ‘pain-body’ for her as a little charred child with eyes that are popping out – ‘a little child that just needs a hug’. My pain-body is more like a black monster of varying sizes; it is behind me and fills all the space in the room on bad days, so that I am afraid to turn around. It is understandably difficult to create with this hanging around, but there must be ways to do this for my research. Particularly as the human condition and humour explores all emotional states on a spectrum in constant opposition. Happiness only has meaning, because of misery, dark because of light and so on. The problem is not so much the darker states, but the avoidance of these dark states for expression, yet I remain nervous about dealing with the ‘pain-body’ directly for ‘funnies’ research and creativity.
I discussed related ideas with Nicola Streeten on Zoom (21.10.2020), including what we felt was the false assumption that there is ‘recovery’ from pain such as trauma of bereavement and loss (following Freud’s notions of catharsis). Nicola is an academic expert on humour and trauma theory and has explored these ideas in her writing and autobiographical graphic novel ‘Billy, Me and You – A Memoir of Grief and Recovery’ (2011) which documents the loss of her little son. Despite (or perhaps because of) her own traumatic experience, she asked me ‘why would you want to recover from these experiences anyway?’ I agree that not only is complete recovery impossible, it is also undesirable. These experiences are significant, they may break us, but they can also make us (or remake us) into richer and more compassionate people. It is okay to carry these wounds and scars, because they connect us to significant experiences and people, and form an important part of the people we become. Yet this contention requires an acceptance of the ‘pain-body’ as a necessary part of the human condition and the bravery to learn to manage this better without avoidance, fear and escapist distractions.
Recently, I met coach Brigitte Nix by chance on a cafe terrace in Leamington (we both seem to have the same idea that we needed to get out of our solitary spaces for well-being on that day). We talked about our work and she responded surprisingly positively to my research (usually people find it frivolous) adding before she left that it was important that I ‘keep on humouring!’ (I love the double-meaning here and can see me using this directly in my work, as I ‘humour’ emotion states with new openness). Brigitte talked about the importance of being the ‘observer’ and just noticing and accepting emotions, noting that you are not your emotions (or indeed your pain-body). It occurs to me that the making of comics and cartoons could aid this observation, as the creator draws the experience and is able to step back and observe it. In my only cartooning of sciatica pain (08.09.2020) I moved from creator to observer,
Afterwards, I remember looking at the finished page with distance and feeling pleased and surprised to notice, ‘yes, that’s it’ with a certain relief. It lifted the experience from subjective to objective – from inside the pain to outside as the ‘observer’. From a therapeutic perspective, creativity could be useful to explore and deal with experiences that form the ‘pain-body.’ Dulcie Ball’s book ‘Sketch Appeal – The Art of Self Love’ (2020) potentially explores the ‘pain-body’ creatively as she describes her struggle with anorexia and her salvation through drawing self-portraits. She notes that ‘drawing didn’t just change my life – it saved it…I (quite literally) drew myself back to life’ (2020: 12). Dulcie’s experience is also an interesting example of becoming the ‘observer’. She was previously a model with the obvious focus on the outer impression of perfection, but perhaps with self-portraiture she could explore ‘inner’ versions of herself as imperfect but also more expansive and expressive. It is interesting to note that she still loves drawing with ‘non-dominant’ hand as relaxing with its imperfect uncontrollable lines. The example below is from a recent drawing with the left-hand from her Instagram feed,
(03.09.2020, Instagram @dulcimerball)
To my mind, her work address the ‘pain-body’ almost literally, as self-portraits explore self-representation and self-love, and build the importance of the ‘inner’ over the ‘outer’ with the literal help of the ‘observer’ observing emotions, mood states, and the ‘pain-body.’ I am wondering if creativity could be a way to work with difficult emotions both directly and indirectly. For example, initially creators could draw and write (or noodle-doodle) directly in response to the ‘pain-body’ and then through the act of drawing step back to a more objective outlook as observer. From this space of objectivity, it may be possible to work indirectly towards more liberated creativity. In my own case, I am interested in a liberated creativity that explores all forms of human experiences to arrive at shared universal experiences in humorous comics.
These ideas are beyond the aims of my PhD research ‘to find the funny with incongruity theory’, and roams into notions of therapy, which will not be explicitly addressed. Nevertheless, perhaps future research can explore this with articles on comics-making and ‘humouring the pain-body.’ I can picture therapeutic cartooning and drawing circles that support each other to bravely explore the pain-body. This is something worth discussing further with Dulcie who is already interested in researching ideas of developing therapeutic drawing in association with a university (but without doing graduate research), and with comics scholar Elisabeth El Refaie (as an expert on graphic medicine), and with Brigitte Nix who coaches on clients pain management (Nix 2020).
To conclude, the ‘pain-body’ appears to be a useful metaphor to explore in comics and cartooning. All human experience is potential material for funnies, because it draws on shared universals and the ultimate realisation of the ridiculousness of being human. We ‘are’ animal bodies, but we also ‘have’ our bodies with our conscious awareness. This dichotomy of ‘being’ and ‘having’ (or the physical and metaphysical) directly explores subjective and objective human experience (as with the ‘pain-body’) and could be adapted for humour creation. There appears to be ongoing tension between these opposites of subjective-objective experience that pose interesting questions on both the human condition and the workings of humour. Philosopher and humour scholar Critchley notes that this tension illustrates our absurdity as risible beings in our ongoing failure to coincide animals and conscious selves. This ultimate incongruity leads to humour as it topples us from the superior animal to the absurd. It is worth pondering on the dynamic tension between these counters for humour creation,
‘Humour functions by exploiting the gap between being a body and having a body, between…the physical and the metaphysical aspects of being human. What makes us laugh, I would wager, is the return of the physical into the metaphysical, where the pretended tragical sublimity of the human collapses into comic ridiculousness’ (Critchley 2002:43)
Ball, D (2020) Sketch Appeal – The Art of Self-Love. London: Hardie Grant.
Ball, D (2020) Instagram Feed available at:
@dulcimerball and @sketchappeal
Critchley, S (2002) On Humour. London: Routledge.
Nix, B (2020) available at:
https://www.brigittenix.co.uk/coaching-therapies/ (accessed 22.10.2020)
Streeten, N. (2011) Billy, Me and You.
Sullivan, L (2020) Barking
Tolle, E (1997) The Power of Now.