I've got a few tattoos and by and large the most common question after "how many tattoos do you have?" is "did it hurt?".
I've always struggled with how to explain the way I conceptualize the whole notion of "pain". Even using that word is complicated for me because I think as soon as we label something as "painful" we start a whole chain reaction of events that takes us out of the driver's seat of our experience.
I'm working with the idea that our experience of, and reaction to, pain is usually just a conditioned response to an expected outcome.
Here's what I mean.
Have you ever stubbed your toe and cried out before realizing that you didn't stub it very hard and it didn't actually hurt? The reaction is the same either way.
What about when you anticipate being welcomed home after a long day at work with a warm hug and a nice dinner, and you're upset when your mate is sullen and grumpy? Do you stop and ask if your partner had a bad day, or is your first reaction to be angry or sad? What's the cause of your pain?
Of course, real physical pain is undeniable and can cause some extreme reactions, but even this can be overcome in a lot of situations. When we are able to gain a little distance from the bodily sensation we can start to negate the pain response. This is what I work with when I get a tattoo.
I can feel the sensation—often uncomfortable or even acute—and I'm able observe my body's reaction to it with varying levels of detachment by focusing on my breath and relaxing the parts of my body that become tense in response to the sensation. It's one of the most interesting aspects of being tattooed, and every location presents a vastly different experience.
A tattoo artist friend of mine once explained to me that the most painful areas to get tattooed are those in proximity to the major organs—the heart, liver, etc. I imagine this is because the body is subconsciously reacting to the invasive sensation at the skin level and provoking a flight response.
Is it any different than when we feel let down by our lover who, for whatever reason, doesn't live up to our expectations? Isn't that anger and upset just a subconscious conditioned response to a past experience where our heart was wounded? When we imagine the heart under attack once again, our body tenses, our breath shortens and we might cry out in pain. The response might be "how could you?" instead of "ouch!", but it's all the same.
So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that yes, tattoos can hurt or be uncomfortable, but it's not so overwhelming that you don't have a choice in how to react to them. Truth is, if they didn't hurt, they wouldn't be cool.
It's just like love. If it wasn't so painful when our heart gets broken, love wouldn't mean a thing. The key is to have some awareness around your reaction when someone starts getting close to your heart. Are you tensing up? Are you pushing them away? Are you running away? Notice where you're feeling that tightness. Acknowledge the sensation. Honour the memory of that old pain. Breathe into it, and let it go.