Pain – Bane of Our Life or Catalyst for Transformation? Part I

by Leatrice Asher

What is it that has such power over us that we cower before it, would trade all of our wealth to have it banished from our lives, plead and bargain that it be removed? What is it that we struggle so valiantly or hopelessly with, sometimes against seemingly incredible odds? What is it that can drive us to harm and violate one another, and ourselves, beyond all reason and compassion?

Simply this: Pain.

For some people, pain seems omnipresent, like a very obtrusive and demanding guest; others seem capable of living their lives and pushing pain into a corner, where it can apparently be ignored. But pain has a central message―that it is transformative. Pain is transformative because it can take us to the core of our pain, whatever form that pain may take. When we discover this core, we also discover ourselves—the sources of our motivations, fears, avoidances, and preferences—as well as our patterns of illness, how we hold our body, the scripts we enact with others and in our own lives, why people and circumstances affect us so strongly in certain ways, and the type of thinking that reinforces these perceptions. These discoveries transform us at every level, not merely at the level of our relationship to pain.

Pain is a subject of great interest. But interesting as pain is, one of its two most valuable purposes has been largely ignored in all the literature and discussion about pain. The most immediate purpose of pain is well acknowledged―it tells us that there is something in our body (or our relationships, or our lifestyle) that needs attending to. But there is a second―and broader―purpose of pain and discomfort that has been largely overlooked and that is its vast, even primary, contribution to Self-Knowledge. Pain is in fact a wise teacher, not merely a “warning signal” in our brain and nervous system; as such, it has an amazing range of purpose and function in our lives. Primary among these is that it shows how, through the nature of our thinking and desiring, we “conspire” to make pain show up in the ways it does. And it gives us the tools to release pain’s hold on us by helping us to understand that we are not, at the core of our being, identified with (or implicated by) the pain we feel.

Pain is a sensation and we, the inhabiter of the body, feel these sensations, but we are not the sensation. This statement seems deceptively simple on the surface, yet many of us have difficulty applying this understanding to everyday life situations. And it is important to grasp this distinction so that we can release pain into its proper domain—as something observed and simply noticed, as one would notice a passing sound, rather than as an all-controlling force in our lives. If we understand this profound distinction, and the true nature of sensations, we can use this information in a very practical and effective way. By changing the way we think about our pains and discomforts we will tend to relate to them differently. With this understanding, our pain will become more fluid, break up into component sensations, even disappear altogether. You can perform your own “reality tests” regarding this. The next time you burn your finger or bump your elbow you can use the event as an opportunity to practice separating out the sensation (sharp, dull, throbbing…) from you who feels the sensation but is not actually the sensation because you are not the body. In this way, we stand in witness to the sensation.

So if we already have the necessary material to understand pain, why don’t we? Because our desire to know the self isn’t strong enough to trust that the painful events of our lives can lead us to this knowledge and because we are inundated with inaccurate information about pain. When we’re told that pain is problematic and should be avoided we’re more likely to be seduced by whatever promises to dispose of our problems and give us pleasure. But the search for pleasure only serves to set up a struggle against its opposite response—pain—because if we don’t get what we want that is going to be painful. But it is this very pain that forces us right up against ourselves as nothing else can. Pain is the fire underneath us because it can rouse us out of our complacency. Do we really want to dispose of this? Don’t we all secretly desire that which stirs our heart, our inner passion? Nothing can touch that place more acutely than our own sorrow; all we need do is be willing to be still enough to feel what it is trying to tell us.

Actually, there is no dividing line between pleasure and pain. Pain contains the greatest of pleasures—it shows us ourselves. And pleasure will most assuredly lead to pain if we want to hold onto it and inevitably find out that’s not in the nature of things. Pain is the one thing that is uniquely ours. No one can experience it for us. It has our imprint on it and will respond only to our work and attention to it. There is something provocative about this—a place so near to us, not even a breath away, which can reveal to us how we have executed and shaped every angle and aspect of our life. This is real happiness; understanding relationships, interpreting connections, transforming ourselves into the powerful and splendid creatures we are capable of being, making life bloom out of our bog.

How do we normally relate to pain? Perhaps the term for pharmaceuticals designed to treat pain―“painkillers”―is revelatory. We in effect do attempt to “kill” pain, to do anything to make pain disappear. From prescription and over-the-counter medications to alcohol and drugs to hypnosis to compulsive eating to addiction to the “tube,” we seem to be in a state of chronic escape from pain, whether the pain is physical or some kind of uncomfortable revelation about ourselves and the world. Pain management is one of society’s major concerns. Probably very few of us get through a typical day without resorting to multiple strategies to escape from a sense of discomfort. It may be as benign as calling a friend to counter a sense of loneliness, or numbing out in front of the television after a stressful day at work. It may be as understandable as taking an aspirin for a migraine. Or it may be as self-destructive as the attempt to suppress an almost constant sense of failure, loneliness, or anxiety with food, sex, drugs or alcohol. When pain does not respond to our attempt to mask or smother it, it is still often denied, leading to further abusive behaviors of self, as well as others.

Our modern obsession with pain relief—an obsession that, in effect, values comfort (even anesthetization) over the ability to feel―will not bring us any closer to understanding the true nature of pain. Pain is a provocateur because it can elicit our attention. We can choose to disregard its signals and remain safely on the surface of our lives, and we will get by, but it won’t be long before we will have to face ourselves again. Pain addresses those aspects of ourselves most in need of work or development, and those are precisely the areas that we have tended to avoid. There is truth in our pain. Once we experience this we will no longer feel helpless in the face of it because we will have a tool to work with the pain (sensation) on the level at which it was created – through our own thinking.

If we want to transform pain we have to do so at its source. We have to transform ourselves. Based on the recognition that we cannot rid ourselves of anything we do not fully understand—and see the reasons for in our own lives―we need to look deeper into the very thing that hurts in order to find relief from that hurt. From deep in that place, crucial questions may emerge: How do we participate in creating pain? What is pain there to teach us? And how do we become its willing students? When we begin to understand the fundamental purpose of pain and the way it operates, not just from a theoretical position but from our everyday life experiences, we can make sense of our pain and be released from it, rather than just regarding it as a nuisance to be conquered, destroyed or denied.

All we are about is growth. It is our purpose. Thinking and actions that do not support that purpose will be brought to our attention, and in a manner in which their departure from this purpose can best be revealed. For instance, if we are attached to having someone in our life, perhaps we need to feel the pain of not having that person there to teach us about that yearning. This is an educational process not a “quick fix”. It is about developing our ability to actually solve our problems. Nor is this something we will do once or twice a year. It is a full time job, and one we will gladly commit to once we realize how much can be revealed to us through this inquiry. We do not need to look in obscure places to find the meaning and significance of our lives; pain and suffering is the primary material and substance of our work on earth. As we allow pain we begin to have an understanding of its significance and a context in which to explore it further. Pain, when no longer viewed as a problem needing to be managed or eradicated, becomes an opportunity to go deeper in the understanding of what we are and why we are here, which makes us better functioning beings in this world we call home.

We are not used to thinking of pain as having this revolutionizing ability—to change the very condition of ourselves—so our experience of it stays moored in a calcified viewpoint that pain is unacceptable. But if pain is transformative then how can it be unacceptable? The freedom from pain that we desire is inherent in the very nature of pain! If pain holds the key to our freedom then the only way we can realize that freedom is to make a welcoming place for it.

Usually when we think of pain we associate it with some physical discomfort: stiff joints, a headache, toothache. Or we think of the despair or sadness of emotional pain. But there is another, deeper pain, that lies beneath all our suffering and that is the pain of feeling separated from our fundamental source. This may be experienced as a yearning, but what we yearn for is often not clear to us. This source has been called by many names: essence, higher power, oneness, divine light …some people refer to it as God. Sometimes the pain of this yearning becomes confused with the pain originating from our family environment, which is why we will oftentimes hold our parents to a god-like standard. We may then think this emptiness can be filled by establishing a connection with a parent, or another person whom we’ve projected that longing onto, such as a lover, teacher, or friend, when what we really want is to no longer feel our own separation from the source. This desire for wholeness (whatever name we put to it) underlies all aspects of our earthly odyssey, whether through relationships, illness, or anything else that produces enough agony and discontent to get our attention.

Pain is trying to attract our attention because it wants to tell us something. It does this by sending us a signal, notification that something requires our attention. Pain marks the exact place where we have separated ourselves from the present moment. When we are no longer making this separation—when there is no longer the moment and me, pain and me—there is only the moment, and that is peace. So if we wish to know the spirit of the moment we have to be willing to be indistinguishable from it. Our willingness to take risks and face the moments as they come, one after another, will transform pain into the great liberator that it is.

Pain is not the enemy but a dear and trustworthy friend inviting us to forge beneath ourselves into our rich and dark underbelly. Pain is a provocateur because it can elicit our attention. We can choose to disregard its signals and remain safely on the surface of our lives, and we will get by, but it won’t be long before we will have to face ourselves again because pain wants us to make use of it. So it continues until it corrects itself.

The many difficulties that we deal with daily, both personal and globally—feelings of disconnection and disassociation from the rest of humanity—arise from not regarding all the events, people, and situations that disturb us as reflections of some lesson before us. The sooner we can relate to disagreeable people and circumstances as such, the sooner we will earn the right to the particular life circumstances and associations we desire. If pain is present you will have to intentionally turn toward it. This is not a one-time realization and decision. Every time you encounter pain you are being asked to make that decision again. It may be helpful to actually say to yourself, each and every time you encounter pain, “All right, what is being asked of me now?” Eventually you will become so familiar with the territory, and uplifted by the benefits you experience from doing the work, that you will automatically “step up to the plate” whenever necessary. Once you see how readily information is forthcoming (if you would only ask for it!) and how quickly you are returned to equanimity and a sense of well-being by doing so, you will be spurred on to continue the effort. No longer will you have to long for peace. You will be it.

So much is at stake regarding this subject of pain, not just for each of us individually, but globally as well. Can anyone realistically think that a sane and balanced life on this planet can be had without going to the very root of this phenomenon we call pain? We have tried to avoid or battle with our pain at all costs, and that cost has become too high, both monetarily and in the toll it has taken on individuals and society. The social implications of how we deal with pain are enormous. People who are freed from their futile pain-avoidance strategies do not make war, destroy rainforests, molest children, murder their spouses or parents. Above all, they do not flee from their own truths, so they do not scapegoat or harm others. Ultimately, planetary healing depends on personal healing and on the insights that healed individuals can contribute.

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