Finding Pain

by Sarah Dittmore

A leap into the unknown India


The medicine man's instructions rang in my ears, "Find pain." I rubbed my hand over the patient's arm, but all I felt was rough skin and bulging veins. I released the arm in defeat. It was day one of my month learning the traditional Indian healing practice of Ayurveda and I already felt I was a failure. I wanted to ask questions, but "pain" and "hello" were the only words in our shared vocabulary. What could I ask? I shook my head, "no pain." His smile didn't falter. He took my index finger and placed it on the patient's forearm. "No pain," he said. He moved my finger up a few centimeters and nodded, "pain." He went back and forth, chanting "no pain," and, "pain," respectively. After ten rounds of this I nodded encouragingly. I wanted him to think I was getting it. I wasn't getting it. I decided I was a hopeless diagnostician, so I threw myself into the other tasks. I mixed herbal medicines with vigor and prepared every hot oil compress to perfection, but I hesitated whenever he told me to find pain. When I inevitably failed, he took my hand in his and guided me to the right spot. My last week came and I was still convinced I was hopeless. I went to take my lunch break, but he tapped my shoulder and led me into the backyard. He stood facing me and made strange writhing movements, followed by various kicks and punches. I recognized this as kalari, the ancient form of martial arts my host father practiced that is believed to help one connect to body and spirit. I attempted to mimic him, but he stopped me and gestured for me to close my eyes. "Again," he said. I closed my eyes and tried to recall the movements. Every time I finished he called, "again." Sweat oozed from my pores. My thighs shook and my biceps groaned. "Again!" He cried. Everything hurt. I couldn't remember what I was supposed to do, so I abandoned his instructions and just moved in any way that felt right. I swayed my body and punched my arms to the staggered rhythm of my breath. I finished my last kick and opened my eyes. With an especially-enthusiastic smile, he turned and walked inside. He spoke in Hindi to the next patient before placing my hand on her calf. "Find pain," he said. I closed my eyes and moved my hand around. This was pointless. I would never-only. what was that? I didn't understand what I was feeling, but I was feeling something. different. I kept my finger planted firmly on the spot and opened my eyes. "Pain?" I asked, doubtingly. He laughed and nodded. "Pain," he said.