Somatosensory cortex.

We risk hurting ourselves at every turn. But it’s how you feel about the element of risk that matters. As I scratch the surface of Eastern philosophy, I am learning about the concept of groundlessness, emptiness, observation of the mind – in the almost infuriating simplicity of these ideas, risk is absolutely a matter of perception.

In groundlessness the idea of risk falls away, leaving only the possibility of this moment just as it is.

All of this is useful in my life now, whether my day is full of ordinary things made noteworthy by the absence of my long-time partner and best friend, or whether I’ve signed myself up for some high-risk activity involving sharp objects and height and speed.

There’s a new study out showing that our perception of the pain caused by social rejection may be identical to our perception of physical pain. The study is not the first of its kind, but it is possibly one of the more conclusive.

So, despite the fact that pain receptors are in our brains, we can almost literally claim heartbreak as an ailment. I am relieved, and I will admit that I have considered calling in sick more than once in recent months.

Suffering is the result of a momentary fixation on something past or future; these high-risk activities require that I focus only on the present.


A few weeks ago I booked a day of rock climbing with a good friend who is also a professional guide. As we wound our way through the canyons of Ventura County and the Los Padres National Forest to the climbing site, we talked about the current of life, how it suddenly changes direction, and how the outcome is ever-evolving.

Once we arrived at the site, wriggled into harnesses and helmets and futuristic shoes, I focused on sandstone, my fingers gripping the tiniest seams in the rock, my feet magically sticking to the slightest indentation in the rock face and holding me hundreds of feet above the ground.

(Along with some rope and gear, an exceptional guide and well-placed bolts. But still.)

I focused on listening to instructions, bird calls, the sound of water running in the creek below, the rough scraping of sandstone against my palms and fingertips as I felt my way along route after route.

I didn’t question whether I had the strength or skill to get through the day. I didn’t doubt my ability to interpret sensory information and make decisions. Why is that so much easier with my cheek smashed against a rock face a few hundred feet up in the air than it is in my living room?

In the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers asked 40 people to think about their unwanted romantic break-ups while an MRI scanned their brains. Then they asked them to hold a hot beverage in their hands while they scanned them again. Both experiences triggered responses in the same areas of the brain, the somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula. Previous surveys of emotional responses don’t show activation of these pain receptors during exercises where participants are asked to think happy, neutral and angry thoughts, so the hypothesis is that rejection is a distinct emotional experience.

Of course, if you’ve ever been rejected you already know that.

And if you’ve ever seen an MRI of your own gray matter, you know it’s a little creepy.  It looks like an ant farm in your skull, and within that ant farm, undeniably, is your entire sense of who you are in the world. It makes you feel incredibly self-conscious.

What would the MRI technician see if the MRI machine could actually translate all these little neurons into an image as they’re firing away? Would you see that long-discussed trip to Europe that’s now impossible? Dinners at the greasy Italian place a few blocks away that we imagine, down to the last detail, will never happen again. Ordinary dog walks. Riding in the car, listening to a favorite song too loud. All the exquisite banalities of love?

And what would the rejection-induced despair look like? I picture a black funnel cloud bearing down on a pale naked body, slick with rain and stumbling through a charred field of last season’s corn stubble.

Anti-matter traveling at the speed of light toward your every dream.

I was very careful to think of none of this while climbing. In fact, I pretty much tried to not think at all because overthinking is one of my strengths, and it’s generally counterproductive during physical challenges.

That’s because, as any athlete can tell you, you have to feel your way. When there are no visible places to put your fingers or toes, and nothing appears substantial enough to bear your weight as you pull your body up, thinking does you no good at all. You have to learn how to leverage the dozens of tiny muscles in your fingers, how pressing a thumb over a forefinger increases your gripping power, how holding your heel at a right angle to the surface of the rock creates enough friction and force to hold you in place.

To some extent, you learn to define faith for yourself.

Which must be what I’m doing now. Living in this strange town, interpreting the sensory data as it flows to me and through me, positioning myself in just the right angle to bear the weight of it all. Dodging the antimatter. Ignoring the tornado over my shoulder.

A few days after my climbing trip, I take inventory of my minor injuries. Bruised knees, a scrape on my shin from the creek crossing, a purple bed under the nail of one big toe. A few yellowing bruises on my arms, a rough patch on my shoulders where the straps of my backpack rubbed against my uncalloused skin.

A quick search online tells me it can take six months to a year to regrow a nail.

I am not religious, but part of me prays that I will be able to so easily catalog the injuries incurred by this break-up. I pray that maybe I will lose something like a toenail, and maybe whatever grows up in its place will never be the same as what was, but it will be whole and solid. It will be strong enough to get me where I’m going, and to hold me in place once I arrive.


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