Return to main page
Return to Archives
Posted 3/4/08 (Posted by Travis)
Pain and Suffering
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
- James 1:2-5
When pain enters the consciousness the soul uplifts, the mind becomes joyful, and thanks and praise is given to God. What a wonderful opportunity, delivered by pure grace, sent by the wings of angels. Oh pain, oh suffering, oh teacher, lead me to the light and fill me with your blessings. How grateful am I for your coming.
- Swami Sivananda (paraphrasing)
Previously it was discussed that happiness does not arise from external events; life experience does not emerge from the set, but from the camera; our current perceptions, our very consciousness, arises entirely from within, and changing the processing, without exclusive focus on the input is the key to increasing our happiness and understanding.
If this premise is true, then pain and suffering must be viewed quite different from standard convention. Pain is a red flag, a blaring "fix me!", a lighthouse in a frothy sea of turbulent emotion and thought. Pain is our imperfections jumping out at us, allowing us to address them and increase our understandings.
In fact, should we not be as thankful for pain as we are for so-called 'gems' (vexing persons that appear to give us pain)? If not for pain how can we know we are walking in the wrong direction, with our habits, values, and ways of thinking askew? Look around, what it is that really gives us pain shall be our greatest uplifter if we open our hearts to it and act and address it in the proper way.
Of course, it is easiest to blame the outside world for pain in order to temporarily ignore or suppress these negative thoughts and feelings. These maneuvers are undertaken as true self revelation about the nature of the pain would cause much angst and violently shake our egos and worldviews, causing great further discomfort in the short term. It is not human nature to ponder and philosophize and think of long term happiness during a painful experience, rather we become emotionally fixed and attached to our immediate experience and seek to relieve it through any means necessary. It requires great concentration and strengthening of the higher thought processes to detach from the immediacy of painful sensual experience and emotion. Indeed, much of our conscious experiences could be said to revolve around this constant mental battle between short and long term pleasure. The simplest example is one we've all experienced: eating those chocolates and feeling immediate gratification vs long term tummy ache and accompanying mental cloudiness. The way we feel after such a sugary gorge tells us many things if we care to listen.
If viewed correctly and carefully pain could even become a central plank of spiritual and emotional development. It is sought out joyously (although not sadistically), for each new discovery means more eventual healing, greater enlightenment and increased emotional maturity. But these advances are only possible if pain is viewed as almost a form of pleasure, an apparent oxymoron except that one attempts to witness the pain as third party, to detach from suffering in order to appreciate beauty in its meaning. In other words, when the intellectual joy, the higher thought processes overcomes the natural emotional fixation of pain, true learning and permanent happiness unfold.
Phobias are the easiest pains to cure because they are obvious and blatant, as by definition we understand their nature. Most people with phobias understand their sufferings are irrational and so the higher mind already has a decent jumpstart. It is the deeper fears which are tricky enough to entice the logical reasoning part of our mind into believing we are justified in our fear (or that our fear comes from an external event). It is necessary to cure these phobias not because of the inconvenient avoidance of said phobia, but because the emotion of fear itself, our emotional wrong understanding of the world is rooted in our phobias. Better said, a phobia is worth eliminating because the very idea of fear in an external event is incorrect and strongly perpetuated (emotionally) by a phobia.
One proven method of curing phobias is by desensitization. What is your phobia? Heights? Force yourself to the tallest place you can tolerate and embrace the fear as it envelops you. Observe it as a scientist would observe electrical fear impulses in a brain on a machine. It will soon lessen. Bugs, insects, bees, wasps, spiders? Seek out these creatures and meditate upon them, observe the mind as it recoils in abject terror; think, 'silly mind, bless the fear in thee'; laugh at the mind as you would a young child. Such phobias are more disturbing and their effects more widespread then we realize. They invade even our dreams, unsettling the subconscious, enabling nighterrors, and ruining countless hours of sleep.
I recall a story by a lecturing psychologist about a woman who had been in a horrible car wreck and thereafter had a panic attack every time she sat behind the wheel. He put her in his car and said, "we're going to stay here until you can drive." She immediately had a panic attack, but didn't leave the car. She had another one when she started to drive. His response, "go ahead wreck it!". She pulled over and recovered and then drove and drove. It took them all afternoon, but she was cured. It felt as if a great weight had been lifted and her whole emotional state shifted, better sleep, and sense of well being ensued. That she is now able to drive is somewhat irrelevant, the improvement of her life and PTSD symptoms is the real story.
Dislikes are more insidious than phobias because there often appears to be some valid reasonings for them. In other words, the higher thinking mind will often concur with the lower emotional mind. When we smell putrid milk, we actually feel emotions of disgust. These emotions are painful (smelling putrid milk is not fun!), yet we reason this pain is natural and is there to tell us not to drink the milk. Now this is true, from an evolutionary perspective, but why can't we function without being consumed by these negative emotions arising? There is nothing intrinsically 'bad' or 'negative' about putrid milk. It simply is what it is. The qualities we assign it are false, arising from imperfections within us. In fact, could one not experience the beauty of spoiled milk, and still refrain from drinking it? Certainly there is something beautiful about the unique sensation of spoiled milk as it percolates through our consciousness. Indeed, there is something glorious about the very nature of consciousness itself, regardless of origin and flavor.
Upon reflection, we might even find our sensation of the spoiled milk, negative though it may be, highly dynamic, with our given experience greatly dependent on our immediate mood. For example, if we are already stressed and late to work vs on the phone with a loved one sharing a happy moment, our discovery of the spoiled milk will manifest quite differently. If we could raise our base happiness to a certain bar, we might even find our experience of the spoiled milk not painful at all. In fact, we might find very little actual pain in life, a goal only achievable by the embrace of the very pain we seek to eliminate. In fact, theoretically, pain and suffering cannot truly cease and joy, knowledge, and understanding cannot permeate in everything we do until our desire to eliminate pain is extinguished, along with, finally, even our joyous desire for pain to show us the nature of ourselves.
Similar to phobias, taming our likes and dislikes involves some manner of desensitization technique, going against the grain, prodding our stubborn minds, until we realize our dislikes are also our own creations. People we dislike reflect things about ourselves we dislike. When we judge or insult or slander, we really judge, insult, and slander ourselves, and stain only our own character. Practically there exists much difficulty in how the mind processes an attempt down this path. For example, consider 'Dharma', an Hindi yogic term, which can be defined as a combination of individual fate, duty, and talents (and which will be subject of a future essay :)). We like what we are good at, are drawn to do our part in the world, and are naturally attracted to people who help us facilitate beneficial information exchange, ie aid us in accomplishing various physical and mental tasks. How one can walk this razors edge, this fine line, between discomforting the mind to awareness of its fallacious dislikes and the danger of straying from one's Dharma, really has no logical answer. Increased discernment and perceptions of the finer points in this balancing act will surely become clearer with judicious meditation and spiritual practice.
Some of those versed in western psychology and psychiatry have arrived at many of these conclusions independently of our friends to the east. For example, Dr Frattaroli in the previously reviewed 'Healing the Soul in the age of the Brain', describes depression as the body/subconscious telling the conscious mind something relevant and important. He describes cases where a change in job, relationship, or other major ( or even occasionally minor) life adjustment completely cured a patient's depressive state. In effect, listen to the pain, what is it telling you, where is it coming from? When the mind is calm, ideally after consistent meditation/prayer, or even purposeful sleep, the answers may be more perceptible.
Major depression and other more serious cases of mental illness are much more difficult. These cannot be cured simply by changing relatively superficial aspects of one's life. These states may indicate pathology of an entire worldview, emotional circuitry, and value system, notwithstanding possible biomedical components. Part of the mind has strayed so far from what leads to long term happiness and thus major depression, also described as self loathing, is the body's way of alerting the mind to these transgressions. Yet even this depression, horrible though it may be to experience, should be approached and appreciated in the same fashion as minor pain. It will be far more difficult to assess from whence and where the sufferings originate from and the mind will likely have to undergo major reprogramming over a long period of time before positive results are seen. Certainly anti-depressants along with major lifestyle changes can give one a temporary or permanent helpful crutch in these cases, especially if the cause is more organic, stemming from an underlying medical condition.
We often get caught up in futile intellectualization of the reasons for what we interpret as 'senseless pain': the death of a family member, a random car accident, a freak illness, the suffering of a young child. However, this line of reasoning starts with the premise that something is 'bad'. But is not this attempt at objectivity clouded by subconscious arrogance? How can we know every effect of a particular event which transpires? After all, even the most painful and horrendous events must have some benefits; perhaps hidden due to societal bias against analysis of human growths stemming from tragedy and suffering. Or, perhaps these gifts are selectively given to those who quietly view the event from the proper perspective.
If we are to travel down this path of skewed intellectualization, it may be best to instead start with the premise that the world and humanity are constantly evolving towards the positive. It is certainly true that humanity, as a collective, is spiraling towards ever greater and more positive economic, political, technological, social, and, most importantly, spiritual/religious development. Perhaps it is better to trust in this than dwell on the 'unfairness' of a particular event or causes behind our particular mental state or a mental shockwave ricocheting through a particular community.
Which brings us to a final point, our roll in this interacting network, this computing living biological matrix of humanity. When we face and learn from our pain, our discomfort, and our dislikes, we alleviate not only our own suffering, but also the sufferings of others. Consider, again, the case of 'gems', persons who we dislike, loathe, or are even treated badly by. If the higher mind is able to overcome the illusions of rising negative thoughts and emotions, we help not only ourselves but also our 'adversary'. By an 'unwarranted' gracious or generous act or manner the offending person is faced with a perfect mirror, and the nature of their own actions and thoughts suddenly loose camouflage and finally percolate into consciousness. In fact, circumstances permitting, great positive learning can transpire if one makes a special habit of forced interaction with people the mind perceives to dislike or disapprove of. A dark brooding person who lashes out at those around them is begging for this type of treatment from those more advanced souls floating around the network. Serving others in this way not only enlightens the self, it benefits the entire world. Aligning oneself with God's will in such a selfless manner will surely bring forth the greatest glory and happiness.
See also, 'In pursuit of Happiness'
Return to Archives
Return to main page