How to use the mind to resist pain

Why do vel kavadi bearers feel no pain while being pierced by sharp skewers or hooks?

ONE of the amazing aspects about vel kavadi bearers during the Thaipusam celebrations is the lack of pain, infection and bleeding they experience.

The reason behind this is claimed to be the holy ash that is smeared on the parts of the body which are to be pierced by the vel skewers or hooks.

This holy ash is composed primarily of dried cow's dung, which has a long history of being used as an antiseptic in Indian traditional medicine.

Not many scientific studies have been done on this possible interesting property of cow dung, although a group of students at Perdana University's Graduate School of Medicine in Serdang, Selangor, are currently looking into it.

Assoc Prof Dr Andrew Mohanraj, who is one of their supervisors, does not overlook the possibility that this holy ash is indeed, the reason - in more ways than one - behind the lack of pain and infection vel kavadi bearers seem to experience.

However, the psychiatrist says: "To understand pain, one must realise that it is sensory and emotional."

The sensory component of pain is the actual physical pain felt, while emotional pain is perceived pain, without any physical stimulus.

Both components of pain are affected in the vel kavadi bearer, as they enter a state of trance during the ceremony and procession on Thaipusam.

Well prepared

Kavadi bearers are expected to undergo intense preparation for weeks before the actual act.

During this preparatory period - and as an act of penance, devotees usually fast by adopting a restricted vegetarian diet, practise celibacy, and meditate on God.

"In the process, it is my opinion that one gets more focused on the objective of the act," says Assoc Prof Dr Mohanraj.

"This required repetitive overloading of the mind with a single repeated thought (through meditation and fasting) allows an altered state of mind where the pain threshold is elevated."

He shares that it has been scientifically proven that the state of mind does affect the body.

"Devotees go into a state of trance, which is an altered state of consciousness where they are susceptible to suggestions, a condition commonly known as hypnosis," he says.

In this condition, they are open to input by family, friends and the priests, who would be encouraging and exhorting them on.

Psychologically speaking, the focus of the devotee on their God during the ceremony itself serves as a diversion from the thought of pain, which also results in a lowering of the distress or anxiety normally felt when you know a sharp object is about to be stuck into you.

"Not only are they not aware while they are being pierced, but they are also not aware of the cause of the pain, that is, the act of being pierced," says Assoc Prof Dr Mohanraj.

He shares that this mental diversion is a common technique used in other painful situations like, for example, childbirth.

"During labour, the mother is asked to concentrate on her breathing. It really doesn't have much connection with the pain, but it serves to divert her mind from it, resulting in lowered perception of pain," he explains.

The body's response

Physically speaking, the kavadi bearer's altered state of mind results in a sense of euphoria, a decreased sense of pain and an elevated immune response.

The decreased sense of pain comes from the release of certain hormones, which have an analgesic, or pain-numbing, effect on the body.

Meanwhile, the elevated immune response, as well as the usage of the holy ash, which most likely contains antiseptic properties, probably helps to prevent infection of the wounds afterward.

The blood vessels also constrict, resulting in less bleeding when the devotee is pierced. Assoc Prof Dr Mohanraj said: "There is likely to be interstitial bleeding (between the tissue), which cannot be seen, but probably, no obvious bleeding."

The technique of piercing also plays an important part in the lack of blood and pain experienced, he says.

"It's not too deep, doesn't cut into any major arteries or veins, and doesn't hit any nerves, which is quite difficult as the face has a lot of important nerves running through it."

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