Eckhart Tolle’s concept of the pain body

We can become overly defensive when triggered. Photo by Afif Kusuma on Unsplash

Eckhart Tolle is a well-known spiritual teacher with a strong focus on the present moment.  One interesting concept he sometimes focuses on is what he calls the ‘pain body’, a kind of selfish appetite which feeds on perceived insults to our identity.


Anyone who has ever had an argument is familiar with the way our egos get prickly, and insist on having their own way.  Life becomes a battle in which our behaviour screams ‘what about me?’ at every opportunity.  When two pain bodies are fighting, then both people end up behaving in a hugely self-defensive way, appearing to appeal to a nominal ‘justice’, but actually trying everything in the book to take over the situation.


The opposite of the pain body is a quiet stillness, analogous to the ’emptiness’ Buddhists talk about, in which there is no need to fight for a fictional ‘self’.  We simply rest in simple awareness of the world around us, without needing to control it, or project our pain.

Eckhart Tolle describes this ‘pain body’ as a kind of greedy monster, making itself bigger by feeding on indignation.  It’s quite animalistic in nature, waiting, a bit like a temperamental dog, to bark at things that trigger it.


The art, he suggests, is to become aware of the pain body, acknowledge it perhaps, but not to feed it.  In nations, the pain body remembers past hurt, and cannot forgive.  In individuals, too, the pain body retains a latent energy born of bad experiences, and seeks to repeat reactive patterns time and time again.  The solution to the pain body, in both nations and individuals, is to gain a consciousness of the pattern that keeps repeating, but to avoid identifying with it.  If we identify with it too closely, we will keep repeating the drama it feeds on.

If we have ever met someone who seems to repeatedly live out the same drama with other people, time and time again, then we could interpret this as the pain body in action.  Everyone has their own particular sensitivities, born of their own experience, and their own psychological makeup.  Your dramas will be different to mine, but you may notice what makes you reactive, and what leads you down that wild spiral of anxiety or anger.


Gina was abused in childhood, but was extremely shy.  She reacted to the abuse, over the years, with avoidant eruptions, suddenly becoming anxious, confused, and uncooperative.  (In a way, this behaviour was strategically functional, as it was an alarm bell ringing, saying ‘I don’t want to repeat the experience of being controlled’.)  For her, the problem was that her behaviour in adulthood caused her almost as much suffering as the original childhood abuse.  She regularly lost control of herself, and had breakdowns.

From the ‘pain body’ perspective, this could be interpreted as a re-triggering of Gina’s inner memory of the abuse, particularly when she felt others were trying to control her.  She experienced herself, at those times, as uncontrollable, even by herself, taken over by anxiety and fear, which expressed itself in challenging and defensive behaviour.  Ironically, she began to recognise that she was, in some of her reactive behaviours, behaving like her original abusers.

Slowly, by her own initiative but with the help of counselling, she learned simply to watch her initial triggered reaction.  Instead of feeding it, she let it blow itself out, a bit like a parent allowing a child to express reactive behaviour, but not drawing attention to it.  She remained compassionate towards herself, but didn’t allow the toxic monster to take hold.

(It’s true that she also did a lot of work on understanding her past, her present experience of it, and management of her anxious behaviour. There were many strands to her therapy, but learning to watch her suffering, with compassion, and without acting out, was a significant feature of her recovery.)


If we are interested in mindfulness, then we will learn to be constantly watchful, checking ourselves regularly to see what is happening in our mind and body.  Sometimes the answer to ‘how am I feeling?’ will be that we notice irritation, anger, prickliness, indignation, reactivity, negative thoughts.

If we find it helpful, we can imagine that this is our pain body trying to get our attention and use up our energy.  It wants us to feel hard-done-by, and to spend time fighting old battles, which may not even be relevant to us any more.  If we react, then we can end up back in the anxious spiral of tension and conflict.  It’s difficult, but we can practice awareness and non-reactivity.

If we can learn the art of stillness in the face of triggers, then life can get much more peaceful.  The pain body, under certain conditions, may work hard to get us to lose our mind, to get us locked into a raised pulse, to have a sleepless night, to fall into a battle with another person.  Our challenge is to relax through that, and not to get drawn into feeding the monster.


A common accusation levelled against mindfulness, is that it encourages us to give up our own will, and instead to submit to whatever is happening around us.  In this way, although it gives us emotional peace, it could be said to limit our agency as humans – for instance if we fail to respond to, or call out, abuse.  Agency, and standing up for ourselves, is important, and I agree that it may not be a good thing to disempower ourselves, especially when faced with abusive behaviour from others.

But a mindful approach to the pain body can help us to respond appropriately, even to abusive behaviour.  It is usually better to give a wise and considered response, than a wild and angry one.  So we can deal with triggers in two stages.  Stage one is to learn to remain aware and peaceful.  After that, stage two can be to decide upon a wise action to challenge or prevent any abusive behaviour we notice in others.  We will then be acting, not from wild self-defensiveness, but from wise concern.

Further viewing/reading:

Eckhart Tolle – recognising the pain body in relationships (10 minutes – best part starts at 1:30)

Eckhart Tolle – The art of presence dissolving the pain body (1 hour 30 minutes)