The Nature of Pain
When you ask anyone, “what is pain?” you will most likely get a variety of answers. From stubbing your toe to betrayal in business or the ending of an intimate relationship, pain appears to be a constant companion in our Lives. All these examples, though, are very different from each other as you can see. So why is it we lump them all together under the umbrella of “pain”? Pain can be classified as anything that interferes negatively with our human experience. It can be physical, when we hurt or injure our body, or when disease and illness strike us down. That obviously does interfere with our human experience quite a bit, depending on the severity of the situation. Pain can also be caused on a mental and emotional level, sometimes as a direct result of physical pain – like when receiving a terminal diagnosis, for example – but also totally on its own, when our Sense of Self and Ego are attacked, threatened, abandoned or hurt. This kind of pain can be as real and as devastating as physical pain, and sometimes even more so. So pain and suffering are therefore parts of Life that we cannot escape?
Meet the experts
About 2500 years ago, or so the story goes, there was a man living in northern India who came up with a set of principles on how to live a good Life – notably, a Life free from suffering. That man was Siddhartha Gautama, later known as The Buddha. His school of thought, buddhism, has survived for two and a half millennia and today is actually going stronger than ever before, gaining an increasing foothold in the secularized west. Buddhism was initially not a religion when Gautama set out to teach, but merely a set of principles and practices with a very honorable focus: The end of suffering.
Pain and suffering, the causes and how to end it, form a central pillar in buddhism, and there is one very important tenet in all this that is being emphasized again and again: Pain is not the same as suffering. Pain, according to buddhist doctrine, is an inevitable part of Life. It can neither be circumnavigated (at least not for long) nor completely avoided. Individual levels of pain may vary, but we all are at one point or another at the receiving end of disappointment, heartbreak, betrayal and disloyalty, to name but a few (and we are dishing it out as well!), as well as illness, disease, injury, aging and ultimately death. As spiritual beings living a human experience it simply cannot be any other way. It is woven into the very fabric of our existence.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional
Buddhist teachings believe that, while pain is unavoidable in our current existence, suffering isn’t, because it is entirely self-created. Pain turns into suffering due to the meanings and interpretations we give it, and the unresourceful thoughts and reactions this triggers. That’s why oftentimes our suffering is totally out of proportion to the actual pain received, and even if the painful event has long passed, we still continue to suffer, often for months and years. Let’s say your lover or significant other leaves you; this is rejection, and initially it can feel quite painful. Your Ego is triggered and your defenses flare up, strong feelings of perhaps being deficient in some way or lacking in another. But with awareness and introspection you will realize that his or her decision has probably less to do with your perceived shortcomings than with their own view of themselves and the world, their own needs that were not met by you – not because you are a substandard human being, but because the interwoven structure of existence sometimes simply isn’t compatible in a variety of ways. No victim here, no perpetrator. Unless you decide to make yourself one.
An even better example of the inevitability of pain is illness. No matter how well you look after your body, this is no guarantee that you will not die before your time due to contracting a disease or suffering a serious accident that may leave you severely impaired for the rest of your Life. You have absolutely no control over these things. Being presented with a terminal diagnosis will cause you pain. And you will feel that pain, guaranteed, but once it has taken hold it is your decision what to do with it. Very few people have the awareness, the mindfulness to actually experience pain and transmute it into something different, something that leaves suffering behind as a truly “optional” thing.
We are amazing creatures, and our Minds can do things nothing short of miracles. Pain itself is unpleasant enough. Is there really any need to exacerbate it by adding suffering on top? And if not, why do most of us continuously choose this option in things both big and small?
Freeing yourself from suffering is a process, nothing that can happen overnight. Buddhist principles on this have been incorporated into psychology, psychotherapy and coaching these days because they have stood the test of time, over and over again. No matter your religious affiliation, these principles work. If you would like to learn more about the possibilities of minimizing or eliminating your personal suffering, contact me and let’s have a chat.