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Bondage without pain, for me, is like a birthday party without cake — it just doesn’t feel complete. If you’re only into decorative bondage that feels like a hug, or having your wrists gently tied together with silk rope, you may want to skip this chapter. If the thought of gasping, moaning, crying, or begging for mercy turns you on, you’re in the right place.
What exactly is pain, for starters? The International Association for the Study of Pain defines it as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” But that doesn’t quite work for our purposes, does it? For one thing, are all you masochists snickering at “unpleasant”? And anyone who’s been in bondage knows that you don’t actually need to experience actual tissue damage or the thought of it to be in pain.
Rope bottoming isn’t simple, and neither is pain, so I think this multifaceted description from Margaret A. Caudill, MD, PhD, is better for our purposes:
- Biologically, pain is a signal that the body has been harmed.
- Psychologically, pain is experienced as emotional suffering.
- Behaviorally, pain alters the way a person moves and acts.
- Cognitively, pain calls for thinking about its meaning, its cause, and possible remedies. Spiritually, pain may be a reminder of mortality.
- Culturally, pain may be used to test people’s fortitude or to force their submission.
All of those aspects may come into play in a single rope session! So when we talk about pain processing for rope, were actually talking about a deeply complex process that goes well beyond the body. And the experience of pain is highly subjective. That subjectivity and those nonbody aspects are good news for rope bottoms, because while most of us can’t control our physical sensory reaction to a painful stimulus, we can change how we perceive that stimulus. How? The brain gives meaning to the pain messages it receives, and we can cause other messages to be sent simultaneously to the brain that affect the meaning. We can also affect the context in which we experience the pain - setting up our environment, drawing on a supportive partner connection, and so on - to change how we perceive it.
Unlike those people who use meditation, breath-work, a hypnotic trance, or whatever else to put their entire body in a state where it doesn’t register pain at all (like for having their chest cut open on an operating table without being “put under” by anesthesia), we actually need to stay aware of pain on some level. Why? Because monitoring pain and other sensations can help us avoid nerve damage and other kinds of injuries and issues. Plus, being completely outside the body would pretty much defeat the whole purpose of why we do rope, right?
As for why we might actually want pain at all in a rope scene, that’s also highly subjective. I like it in part because it helps put me into a trancy ropespace and because it makes me feel more connected to my partner, like we’re going through something deep and intimate together. Pain can also help us feel a sense of accomplishment - overcoming a challenge - or it can be cathartic, helping us release emotions we’ve been storing up. And for some people, pain is directly associated with pleasure, so it’s reason enough all by itself.
Cat. Bondage by -EM-. Photo by iambic9
“How Do I Know Whether the Pain Is Good or Injury-Causing?”
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? And it’s definitely important to learn to distinguish between pain that indicates current or impending injury and pain that’s to be expected for the tie and your body. Although some warning signs of nerve damage include numbness, tingling, a zapping feeling, burning, and coldness, sometimes those indicate less worrisome circulatory issues instead. And it’s possible to get nerve damage without any warning signs. I’ve gotten sensory nerve damage (no feeling on a surface area of skin) several times on my thighs and not realized it until I was putting my pants back on.
So how do you tell the difference? There’s no hard and fast answer. Every body is different, and even the same body doesn’t necessarily experience pain the same way from day to day. You’ll just have to learn over time—gaining knowledge of how your body reacts as well as knowledge of how ties work. If you’re suspended by a single leg in a super-tight futomomo, for example, and your entire foot gets tingly, cold, or numb, it’s more likely a circulatory issue (because the blood supply is being actively impeded and because you’re upside down) than impending nerve damage.
Jay Wiseman does offer this nugget of wisdom, however, and it’s easy to remember even during those times when your brain feels short-circuited:
“Good pain good; bad pain bad.”
If it feels wrong, it’s wrong, and you should tell your rope partner.
Ojipan and goodmosttimes. Bondage by goodmosttimes.
A Little Background
First, I have no professional medical training or training in pain management. Everything here is based on my research and experience as related to rope bottoming. Te ideas may or may not work for you, but they’ll at least serve as a basis for your own exploration. Please do not do anything that isn’t right for you! Especially regarding pain, I urge you to be cautious in your explorations, as pain can obviously be a sign of impending or occuring damage.
Second, “pain processing” seems to imply an internal process: visualization, breathwork, and so on. But here we'll also cover more external methods of affecting the experience of pain, such as being caressed by a partner and listening to music. So really this chapter is about pain management in rope, but a) that sounds too medical and negative, like dealing with a chronic bad back, and b) “pain processing” is the standard term used for BDSM scenes.
Third, here is a whole series of helpful articles on pain processing. Some of the ideas here and there overlap, but I’ve found pain processing in rope play to be quite different from pain processing in kinky impact play (like flogging, caning, whipping). In many impact scenes, the pain is localized and comes in bursts, and there can be time to process between the bursts - like, you shriek and your leg curls up, and your top stops to caress you. There's also often a warm-up in impact play that in creases the body’s ability to take pain, and you can often move at least somewhat, like wiggling or stamping your foot.
In rope, the pain can be localized, in multiple areas, or even all over, and it can happen slowly or in one fell swoop. I here’s often a higher degree of sustainability required in rope - especially in suspensions, even if there are transitions. And your movement may be completely restricted. Plus, a partner with an impact toy can stop giving pain on a moments notice, whereas a rope bottom may have to keep enduring pain during untying. Lastly, some rope bottoms don’t actually identity as submissive.
So the methods here are ones that I and other bottoms have found useful specifically for being in rope, with and without being submissive.
OK, now lets dig in! Assuming you’re dealing with the good kind of pain, how do you process it to go deeper into your rope experience instead of begging to get out?
Breath is life. In the simplest terms, we breathe to get oxygen to our cells on the inhalation, which then create the energy that keeps us alive, and to rid our body of waste products like carbon dioxide on the exhalation. Oxygen deprivation can cause brain damage after about three minutes in most cases and, not too long after that, death. So until scientists perfect the technology for injectable oxygen-filled microparticles, we'll have to keep breathing the old-fashioned way to live.
But there’s way more we can do with the breath than just using it to, you know, stay alive. Deep, slow breathing is well known to activate the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system, lowering our blood pressure and heart rate. Yoga Journal goes so far as to say that “deep, slow, rhythmic breathing can reduce anxiety, fear, pain, and depression; activate your immune system; increase your ability to concentrate; and release healing and ‘feel-good’ hormones, such as serotonin and oxytocin.” And sex and intimacy coach Xanet Pailet even says females can learn to breathe themselves to orgasm - no genital touching required.“
So let’s make use of some of those amazing powers of the breath! We’ll start with some simple breath-work techniques.
Before Rope Play: Alternate Nostril Breathing
Yogis have been using this breathing technique for thousands of years to calm the mind and create balance in the body. If you practice it before rope play, it can help you be more present and in a clearer state of mind to be receptive to the pain processing techniques we’ll discuss later. Te Sanskrit name for Alternate Nostril Breathing is Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (nadi = energy channel; shodana = cleansing or purifcation; pranayama = breathing technique). Here’s why it works, on a basic level:
At any given moment, we breathe mostly through one dominant nostril, left or right. (See for yourself:
Evie Vane. Bondage and photo by Te Silence.
Close each nostril alternately with a finger and see which one you can breathe through more easily.) I he dominant nostril switches every few hours in most people. And which nostril is dominant affects whether our sympathetic (fight-or-flight) or parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) system is dominant. For instance, there is “evidence that right nostril breathing increases the generalized sympathetic tone of the body.” When you practice Alternate Nostril Breathing, you’re counteracting the dominance of one side, thus equalizing the systems and creating balance.
You can also experiment with single nostril breathing to change your energetic and mental state (search online for techniques and cautions). But here we'll just focus on Alternate Nostril Breathing.Warning: Approach all breathing practices with caution, especially if you have a respiratory condition, high blood pressure, or any other medical condition that could be negatively affected. Its best to work in person with someone trained in breathwork until you gain experience, but at the very least, work within your abilities and stop if you feel dizzy or faint.
I here are plenty of videos online that can show you how to do Alternate Nostril Breathing, and you’ll find some variations. It's super easy once you do it a few times. Here’s my preferred technique:
1. Sit in a comfortable position with your shoulders relaxed and your spine straight. You can sit cross-legged on the floor (on a pillow if you like) or in a chair. Relax your face or smile softly.
2. Rest your left hand, palm up, on your left knee, with the tips of your index finger and thumb touching (Chin Mudra in yoga).
3. With your right hand, rest the tips of your index finger and middle finger between your eyebrows.
Put your ring fnger and little fnger lightly on the left nostril and the thumb lightly on the right nostril.
4. Close your eyes and breathe in deeply through both nostrils. Press your thumb on the right nostril and gently breathe out through the left nostril.
5. Without moving your fingers, breathe in through that same (left) nostril. I hen press the left nostril closed with your ring finger and little finger, lift up your thumb, and breathe out through the right nostril.
6. Breathe in through that same (right) nostril, press the right nostril closed, lift up your ring finger and little finger, and breathe out through the left nostril. That's one complete round, because you’re back where you started.
Most sources recommend doing five to 10 cycles, or about three to five minutes.
Since you don’t need your hands for this one, you can use it to help you process pain while in bondage, in addition to calming and centering yourself beforehand. Te very act of focusing on your breath will help take your attention away from the pain (which your body may adjust to while you’re doing it), plus you’ll be getting the relaxation benefts of controlled breathing. I frst heard about box breathing from Graydancer; it’s also called square breathing or four-square breathing. Here’s how to do it:
1. If you’re not tied up, sit cross-legged or on a chair with your spine straight and your shoulders and face relaxed. If you’re tied up, skip to Step 2.
2. Close your eyes and your mouth, then breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for four seconds.
3. Open your mouth slightly and exhale for the same count of four. Then hold for another four seconds. Repeat for up to a few minutes if you like.
Tips: On the inhalation, expand your belly if it's available to you. If it's not, expand into whatever body-part isn’t restricted. If your mouth is blocked (by a gag, say), inhale and exhale through your nose. Even if you don’t follow the exact method above, you'll still be drawing on the benefits.
This may be the simplest of the three breathing practices to use when you’re in that bondaged state where you can barely remember your own name. Like the box breath, it can help take your attention away from pain while calming your mind.
1. Inhale while thinking “1.” Exhale while thinking “1.”
2. Inhale while thinking “2.” Exhale while thinking “2.” And so on. Repeat for up to a few minutes if you like.
Tip: Don’t worry if you get distracted. Just notice the thought and go back to counting where you left of.
Breathing Into Diferent Parts of the Body
Abdominal breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, comes naturally to infants and even young children. As we get older, this generally gets replaced by chest breathing. Tere are a number of possible reasons for the switch (the way our bodies develop, stress, societal pressure to have a fat stomach, and so on), but we can still consciously choose which places to breathe into.
kitteninlimbo. Bondage and photo by Sean Grey; MrSeanGrey.com
This is good news for rope bottoms, since many ties (notably the takate-kote) constrict the chest. The more practice you have breathing into different body parts, the more options will be at your disposal when you’re in a tie that restricts the breath.
Myth: If You Can Talk, You Can Breathe
I’ve been told more than once in bondage that if you can talk you can breathe, but it just isn’t true. In a well-publicized case in 2014, Eric Garner reportedly yelled “I can’t breathe” 11 times while in a chokehold by a New York police ofcer before losing consciousness and dying. (Asthma was reportedly a contributng factor.)9 And in 2013, Jorge Azucena died in police custody in Los Angeles, reportedly after his repeated pleas for help—“I can’t breathe,” “I have asthma,” and “help me” — went unheeded, and he stopped breathing.
In terms of asthma, the Mayo Clinic advises seeking emergency medical treatment if you have signs or symptoms including “the inability to speak more than short phrases due to shortness of breath.” That seems like a reasonable guideline for bondage that restricts your breath, either through direct rope pressure on the chest or through the body’s being torqued or contorted. If you feel like you can’t breathe and you can’t speak more than short phrases, communicate that to your partner so they can alleviate the restriction—another point in support of having nonverbal signals even if the mouth is available.
Upper-chest (thoracic) breathing. You probably don’t need to practice this, because it’s the way most grown-ups naturally breathe. Place a hand on your chest and watch it rise and fall as you breathe into the upper chest.
Abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing. You can dothis sitting in a chair, but if you’ve never tried it before, lying down is easier. Lie on your back with your head supported and your knees bent. Put a bolster or a pillow or two under your knees if you want more support. Place one hand below your rib cage and the other on your midchest. Breathe in slowly so that the hand under your rib cage rises while the hand on your chest stays still.
Proteus_AKT1. Bondage by Heidi. Photo by Sir_Kraska/Matthew Kraska, Branded Skull Photography
Clavicular breathing. If there’s rope constricting your diaphragm as well as your chest (and one strand on each is all it takes), your breathing will have to take place in the top one-third of the lungs, meaning it's very shallow. Place your hand on your clavicle (collarbone) and try to breathe into only this area. You may find your shoulders rising too.
While this may be so hard to do without rope on that you feel like it’s only an energetic practice (like trying to feel the space behind your eyeballs expand), your lungs are actually working. They do extend above the clavicle, though there are differences of opinion as to how far. Very shallow clavicular breathing can happen during panic attacks, shock, and hyperventilation, among other conditions, and you may have to consciously override the mental association - for instance, you may have to remind yourself that you’re not panicking just because you’re breathing so shallowly.
Also, if you do find your shoulders rising when you’re breathing at the clavicle, be extra cautious about nerve damage, because you could be compressing nerves in the brachial plexus. Those nerves run all the way down the arms to the hands, so compressing them could cause things like wrist drop or other loss of motor function.
Back breathing. This is another one that may feel only energetic at first but is physically possible. I love this description from Sonia Connolly of Sundown Healing Arts:
“Shallow chest breathing takes up as little space as possible. Deeper belly breathing pushes out into the world. Back breathing claims the space that is already yours, the three-dimensional cathedral arch of ribs, spine, and sternum waiting to be filled and emptied and filled again by your own breath.”
Here’s her description of how to practice it for yourself:
“Put your hands on your waist, thumbs to the back, and then move your hands as far up and back as you comfortably can. Let the bones of your thumbs connect with the bones of your ribs with light pressure. As your breath fows in, allow those back rib bones to push your thumbs apart.”
Can you feel your back expand with the breath? If not, don’t give up. Just keep practicing, or maybe try it with a partner putting their thumbs on your back, and eventually you may be able to feel it.
Other body parts. Here’s where we get into the energetic stuff, requiring visualization. Depending on how in tune you are with your energy body, you may find that visualization works or you may think it’s total hog-wash. One idea is just to send your breath to whatever body part is in pain, creating a feeling of more space there. Another is to imagine that you’re inhaling pure white light into the body part to create lightness and ease, and exhaling all the muck of tension or pain.
These techniques are just for pain processing and not actual breathing, of course. No amount of practice will allow you to literally breathe using your eyeballs or your feet - or any other body part not involved in the respiratory system.
Now that you’re nice and relaxed thanks to all of these breathing practices, let’s move on to the pain processing portion.
As mentioned above, there are internal and external ways to help change your experience of pain. Tere are also factors that afect your experience of pain that you may or not be able to do anything about. Let’s start with the latter.
Bodily and Environmental Factors
Certain medications and hormonal factors can make you more or less sensitive to pain—females may feel pain more intensely right before their period, for instance. Being short on sleep or hungry or thirsty can have an effect too. Then there’s the space you’re tying in: Is it too warm or too cold, too light or too dark, too quiet or too noisy? Does the music set your teeth on edge? All of those factors can affect your pain perception. Consider keeping a log of your experiences in various settings, noting any bodily or environmental factors that came into play and how the)' affected your experience of pain. Then you can possibly figure out ways to mitigate them in the future.
While we’re on the subject of medications...drinking alcohol or taking drugs can certainly reduce the feeling of pain in the short term. But they’re a really bad idea with rope, because 1. They affect your judgment and your perception, which can be highly dangerous in rope bondage, and 2. You run the risk of missing signs of impending injury. Make the smart choice.
Be aware of the body’s own chemicals too. Endorphins, which are hormones released in response to pain (among other things), act as natural opioids, meaning they reduce the feeling of pain and increase the feeling of pleasure—even to the point of euphoria. It’s worth keeping that in mind as you monitor your body for potential nerve damage or other injury.
Taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acet-aminophin (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), or naproxen sodium (Aleve), before a scene is a personal decision. But it’s worth researching them and learning about the side effects (such as stomach upset, increased blood pressure, and mild blood thinning) and contraindicated medicines (such as blood thinners) to make an educated decision about your use of them for rope play.
Now let’s look at some factors you may have more control over.
External Pain Modifers
Music. I can’t get the story out of my mind of a guy, Vijay Welch-Young, who had his chest cut open and his ribs pulled apart without anesthesia and without “leaving” his body through any tranceinduced state. He said one of the things that helped him was music, and he mentioned a study of patients after open-heart surgery that “showed music to signifcantly reduce pain intensity.” Tose patients got to choose their own music, which is one reason it may have worked, while that elevator music being piped in at the dentist’s chair might not.
Anecdotally, I can tell you that the music Kanso plays at our BARE (Bay Area Rope Exchange) parties defnitely allows me to go through more challenging ties than if I were doing them in a perfectly quiet or even chatter-flled room. Te music is sexy and there’s something trance-like about it, although it doesn’t all fall in the genre of trance. It puts me in another world in rope, one where the experience of pain is less something to endure and more a path to transcendence.
Sexual pleasure. This is such a well-known one that I’m surprised Welch-Young didn’t try to have someone give him a BJ during that surgery (maybe it would have distracted the surgeon too much). Anyone who’s ever had a vibrator applied to the right place while undergoing something painful knows that it can easily take your mind off whatever s hurting. For this reason, it’s a good idea to be extremely careful about mixing sexual stimulation with rope play, to avoid nerve damage and other injury.
Changing your stance. Harvard Business School professor and researcher Amy Cuddy gave a TED talk on how “power posing”—standing in a posi- tion of confdence—can change other people’s perceptions of us, our own self-perception, and even our body chemistry. She started by talking about nonverbal signs of power: how becoming expansive (spreading arms and wings, for example) is a sign of dominance in the animal kingdom, and how people who win physical competitions tend to raise their arms in an outward V shape and lift their chin. In contrast, when we’re feeling powerless, we close in on ouselves and make ourselves small.
Interestingly, her research showed that adopting a power pose of expansiveness can actually increase our feeling of power - more than “faking it till you make it,” it’s actually faking it to make it - and can both raise testosterone and lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
“But hey,” submissive types might be thinking, “what does this have to do with me? I don’t want to get all up in my partner’s face with a power pose and be acting all dominant.” Here’s the thing: I’ve been subconsciously using this technique in rope for years, and I can tell you that what you’re actually doing is showing the pain—not your partner—who’s boss. You’re adopting a position of strength to face your rope challenges and any pain head-on, as opposed to cringing and cowering and letting them get the better of you.
The power poses Cuddy shows would probably feel silly in bondage even if your arms are free. Instead, I lift my head, jut my chin out, lift my chest, and maybe even move my shoulders back. I also try to expand into a pose, radiating my energy outward, as opposed to sinking down into it. You might be surprised how subtle bodily and energetic shifts like this can affect your experience of pain in rope.
This is not to be confused with “powering through” a pose when your instinct is telling you it’s bad for you, by the way. Powering through when you really think you need a transition or to come out is a good way to get injured.
Pressure or rubbing. Some sensory nerves carry pain messages, and some sensory nerves carry other messages. Rubbing, pressing, or caressing near the painful area can send information to the brain that competes with the pain information, and depending on the level of pain, that other info can “win out.” If you’ve ever had a bikini wax and the waxer rubbed your inner thigh right after ripping out the hair, now you know why.
Usually you don’t have the ability to rub yourself in bondage, but it sure can be a nice thing to let your partner know about if they don’t already.
Trusting your partner. Fear and mistrust can both magnify our experience of pain. Imagine you need to get two teeth pulled. For one extraction, a friendly, professional-looking dentist with framed degrees on the wall and an assistant in a clean ofce explains the procedure (and maybe puts on some nice music of your choosing). For the other extraction, you’re shown into a sketchy-looking ofce where the dentist is wearing ripped jeans and has shaky hands, and the assistant looks like they moonlight as a drug dealer. Even if the procedure is exactly the same, you can guess which one you might actually perceive as more painful.
Clover is a world-renowned bondage educa- tor, performer, and model, and the author of “A Guide for Rope Bottoms & Bondage Mod- els.”
I love Kinbaku and often fnd myself in the conficting position of loving rope but hating pain. I do not identify as a masochist; I have to work to enjoy pain, but every moment is worth it. Enjoying rope and the sensations it offers, the psychology of my situation, and the fact that I regularly tie with someone I trust really help my brain translate those negative sensations into pleasure. We are all unique, and our bodies will perceive and interpret sensations diferently.
Everyone will have a diferent relationship to pain, and that relationship can change and develop over time. Tings I found difcult to sustain or even impossible to achieve years ago are often part of my favorite scenes today. Knowing that the pain my rigger puts me through is controlled and deliberate helps me to relax in rope and submit to the pain. While this is important, I have learned that trusting myself helps more with my pain processing: trusting my judgment of my limits in the moment, confdence in understanding I can communicate with my rigger, and feeling safe to explore my limits without fear.
I enjoy challenging my body and feel a sense of achievement when I can sustain a difcult predicament position or painful tie. My approach to pain processing is to focus on the pain itself, make a judgment if I am being harmed or it is just pain due to stress. Depending on the situation I will move against it, engaging the areas that hurt; not only does this check for any sensory damage, but it helps me to connect with the pain and make it more intense. At this point I imagine the pain is “white pain.” Ten I relax and submit to it—the pain feels less intense, and I imagine it is warm and spreading through my body. I manage my breathing; if it has quickened, I slow it right down or stop it altogether, starting again slowly. If the position I am in allows, I will breathe deeply, close my eyes, and imagine with each exhale the pain is leaving my body. By this point I am typically calm, riding the waves of warm, gentle pain.
If pain in rope is new to you, it can be easy to meet the “panic spiral.” Panicking in rope is often caused by fear, having doubts about your abilities, putting pressure on yourself to succeed in a challenging situation. When I have experienced this, I have asked my rigger to try something similar again another day. Sometimes experiencing something once makes the second attempt easier; knowing what sensations to expect can help you mentally prepare. Sometimes it works and other times it won’t. Try again—rope bottoms need practice and lab time too, and I am sure your rigger will be happy to tie again. Expand your objective knowledge by reading factual information on anatomy etc. Read articles on rope bottoming and see if they relate to you. Keep in mind that you may have a diferent view on subjective matters.
Keep trying, gain experience and body awareness, listen to what your body is telling you. If you can, discuss your experiences with your rigger and try diferent approaches to things you are struggling with. Diferent transitions, moods, and even just a diferent day can make a huge diference.
Have you ever noticed that tie you love but haven’t done in a long time feels diferent than the way you remember it and may even feel more intense? You will naturally build a tolerance to rope. I recall the frst time I was suspended in a futomomo tsuri (thigh suspension), I had bruises a few hours later; now I don’t bruise at all. Similarly, if you are out of practice, your body will lose that tolerance; however, it’s quite easy to develop it again.
Be patient with yourself and embrace pain on your terms. Have fun with rope as a well-educated, confdent rope bottom!
For rope play, talking with your partner thoroughly about their bondage education and experience, and negotiating thoughtfully so you know what to expect (good ideas even without any pain-management motives), can help you feel more trusting and relaxed, which in turn may positively afect your pain experience.
Knowing when it will end. One of the most challenging scenes I ever did involved bamboo and a number of transitions, in a “playformance” situation. I had never been tied with bamboo before, had never played with this partner before, and it was past my usual bedtime and also after doing rope with other people. It got harder and harder, and involved some screams, until “NononoIcantdoitIcantdoit!!” came out. My partner seemed entirely unrufed by this and said (possibly even with a note of humor in his voice) something like, “Hmm, really? Can you count to 30 for me? It will be better by then.”
It was actually better by 20, and we went on to do still- challenging things that still involved some screaming, and it was one of the best rope experiences of my life. Being “counted down” made all the diference, because I knew the pain would end within an exact amount of time. If he had said something like, “Can you stay in it just a little while longer?” I would have said no way. But knowing specifcally how long I had to endure, and having the counting to focus on instead of the pain, made it endurable.
It’s worth noting also that I had researched him and known him to be highly skillful. And when I told him I couldn’t do it, he stayed entirely calm. Both of those things increased my trust in him, which likely afected my pain experience as well.
Knowing what’s happening or coming. When you go to the doctor’s ofce to get a shot, the person doesn’t just sit you down and stick the needle in. Tey say something like, “You’re going to feel a sharp prick, and the area may feel a bit tender or achy afterward.” Knowing what’s happening to us allows us to process the pain better, and also to draw on similar previous experiences: “Ah, right, I remember getting a shot last year and it wasn’t so bad.” Te known is also less scary than the unknown, and less fear can mean a reduced pain perception.
For rope play that you expect to be especially painful, you could talk to your partner about what tie(s) you’ll be doing and how long you might be in each one. Or, if you’d rather be surprised, and there’s no music or vibrator around, you could try the following “internal” pain processing methods.
Internal Pain Processing
Sitting with the pain. Obviously you won’t always be sitting when you’re tied up—you might be standing, lying down, in the air, on your knees… “sitting” with the pain simply means allowing it to happen, not resisting it. BDSM and meditation expert Ian Snow leads an illuminating exercise in one of his classes that helps teach this: You take a clothespin and attach it in a reasonably but not unbearably painful location. (I put it on my tongue; others in the class did nipples, arms, thighs.) Ten for about fve minutes you just sit still and observe the sensation. Is it like heat? Pressure? Burning? Does it change? Does your consciousness of it ebb and fow, so that there are moments when you don’t even feel it? You’re just observing here, not trying to change anything or judge any part of the experience.
You might want to notice your emotions too. Fear? Anger? Resignation? Maybe even contentment? Again, you’re just observing, not judging or changing anything. If you have a thought that’s beyond observation, just notice it, let it foat by like a cloud, and resume noticing the sensations and emotions.
I found two things most interesting about this exercise:
1. Te pain became the meditation. Just like focusing on something external, such as a candle fame, focusing on my internal experience of pain shut out a lot of that annoying mental chatter. And when the fve minutes were up, I felt as calm, relaxed, and focused as if I’d been chanting or doing yoga.
2. After the first minute of “Ow, holy fuck, I’m not going to last five minutes!” my thoughts slowly settled into noticing, and the act of noticing changed the sensation into something less painful and even interesting. From there the pain came and went sporadically, but even when it was there, observing it instead of being consumed by it changed the nature of it into something more tolerable.
This kind of sitting with the pain is the internal method that works best for me in challenging ties. On a physical level, it keeps me focused and in my body, which in turn makes me feel completely present. But it also becomes a metaphor for life that has emotional effects. When life throws something challenging or painful at me, or I experience painful emotions, am I going to run and hide? Or am I going to accept the pain, face it, and not let it ruin me? Knowing I’ve sat with pain in a rope tie gives me the confidence and courage to feel and face discomfort and pain in the rest of my life, to accept them and move on.
Ian Snow’s exercise is enlightening whether you’re a novice or an experienced rope bottom. Try it and see for yourself.
Separating yourself from the pain. Phenomenalist philosophers believe that nothing actually exists outside of our perception of it (perception being the information presented to our senses). It’s one of those mind-blowing concepts, like life is all a dream, that dropping LSD makes easier to understand. It also has interesting applications for pain processing. If your laptop ceases to exist when no one is seeing it, then theoretically, pain should also cease to exist when no one is noticing it.
We’ve already talked about how music, sexual pleasure, and focusing on the breath can take your attention away from pain. Now here are three ways to actually visualize detaching your pain from yourself and putting it in a place where you won’t notice it unless you choose to.
1. Visualize gathering the pain into a ball and dropping it over a fence. You can reach over and pick it up again anytime you want, but for now, you’re separated from your pain by the fence.
2. Visualize gathering the pain up and placing it in a box. Put a lid on the box. Place the box in a closet and close the door. You can open the door and take the box and the pain out later.
3. Visualize the pain pouring from your body into a jar or bottle. Then put a cap on it and place it in a cabinet. You can open the cabinet and take the jar out later.
Spreading the pain out. This is another visualization technique. You locate the center of the pain and then feel the pain spreading out, like an ice cube melting or a pool of light dispersing. It doesn’t necessarily change the overall amount of pain you feel, but it makes it feel less intense because energetically the pain is being spread out over a greater area.
Letting it out. This is a mix of internal and external. There’s a reason martial artists shout (called a kiai) when they punch, chop, or kick something. It helps with proper breathing, but it also helps maximize the energy being directed at the opponent. Weight-lifters, tennis players, and other athletes also tend to grunt while exerting effort, and it isn’t just to sound badass. One study showed that yelling increased the force generated by 10 percent - meaning it actually makes you stronger.
Also, if you think of the pain as energy, then screaming, yelling, laughing, cursing, crying, and so on can help release that energy from your body. I now ask partners before a particularly challenging scene, “Do you mind if I yell at you that you’re a fucking mother-flicker?” So far, no one has minded.
Fantasizing. Pain can seem more tolerable if it’s an expected part of a fantasy or role-playing scenario. And your partner doesn’t even need to be in on it. Sometimes I’ll think, “Well I’ve been kidnapped and I’m totally at their mercy, so there’s nothing I can do about it.” (Of course something can be done about it in reality.) My partner doesn’t even know about that backstory, but it helps me process the pain more easily. Maybe your fantasy is that you’re being tortured for information or punished for driving your partner to utter distraction with your hotness.
Which of these external and internal pain processing methods is right for you? The only way to know is to try them out. Consider requesting lab time with a partner if you don’t want to experiment during actual scene time.