Let’s talk about pain

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated April 27, 2014 – 12:00am

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Illustration by REY RIVERA

Pain is part of the human condition, something we have to go through from time to time. Some go through a lot more of it than others. It could be easy or hard, but pain is there. It is an inevitable part of life.

Still, we wish to avoid it as much as we can. Civilization is all about making things easier and avoiding pain. It is the purpose of all development to overcome inconvenience, discomfort, hardship and pain. We want life to be as pain-free as possible.

And yet, pain still happens, and sometimes we see so much of it that we are shaken to the core. When we watch the news, war, violence, tragedy, racism, discrimination, hunger, alienation, social inequity and emotional trauma shove pain into our faces. It is hard to fathom how people who actually experience these firsthand can cope. Those of us who are far from such events may feel the pain less, but we can’t really escape it.

Pain comes with being alive in the world. When you think about it, all our attempts at maturity, religion, wealth creation, economic, social, medical progress, governmental efforts, etc. are created and evolving to control pain somehow and make a “better world” for everyone.

But do you see that, ironically, the ways to avoid pain still require that we undergo some pain?

Of course. But the difference is, the pain we must go through to improve the world is necessary pain, not the mindless type that only creates havoc and tragedy.

Here are some examples.

To be educated is to feel far less pain than to remain ignorant, at least in theory. To be healthy is far less painful than being sick. To be mature helps us deal with pain without losing our composure.

But in order to be educated, healthy and mature, we need to undergo the pain of discipline, delayed gratification, emotional control, overcoming laziness and keeping ourselves challenged and motivated. Doing all this can be painful, but it is better to tolerate the “good” pain than allow unnecessary pain to keep happening.

We relate to pain in many ways. Some of us can take it for what it is, while others may offer it to God as a form of sacrifice, and still others see it as way to shape their character. We may turn to religion and meditation to help us understand pain and suffering. But for those who are otherwise inclined, there are painkillers to help them cope better.

Spiritual teachers and some religions tell us that one way of freeing ourselves from pain is to embrace it. When we do, we remove the power of fear that threatens to overwhelm us and we end up melting the pain. That’s what it means when they say, “What you resist, persists.” We must go with the flow.

This actually works for me. Another thing that helps me is objectifying pain. Though I feel physical, emotional or spiritual pain, I try not to identify with it, or allow it to define who I am. Instead of saying, “I am sad,” it helps when I say, “I feel sad.” There is a big difference there. The first refers to an identity, the second is a feeling. And we all know that feelings come and go.

Physical pain is a bit more difficult to handle. But I can still ease my suffering by reframing the experience and telling myself that it is “my body” that is feeling the pain. It’s a way of looking at my body as an object that is in pain, separate from the “me.”

Some people, and even entire societies, can see themselves as “pained.” They can completely identify with what they have gone through and adopt trauma, pain and suffering as their identity. Pain is who they have become.

They have reframed their personal and social narratives as, primarily, stories of pain and suffering. In the world they inhabit, they are fearful, and see life as mostly about suffering. While they may look at themselves as being somewhat heroic for enduring the pain, sooner or later, they will go through self-examination and consciously decide to shake off what has become a victimhood identity.

I am not belittling other people’s suffering. All I am doing is putting it in a different perspective.

Ken Wilber, one of my favorite writers, says that man is, first and foremost, “spirit.” Instead of thinking that we are inhabiting a body, a room, a building, a town, a country, earth and the universe, we must be aware that these are not “out there” but all inside “spirit” which knows no boundaries. In his view, only the ego thinks the opposite and believes it is man who inhabits them all and so he feels all the pain of living in the world. But how can spirit be pain when it can witness pain happening?

“If I rest as Witness, the formless I-I, it becomes obvious that, right now, I am not in my body, my body is in my awareness. I am aware of my body, therefore I am not my body. I am the pure Witness in which my body is now arising. I am not in my body, my body is in my consciousness…

“The ego adopts the viewpoint of matter, and therefore is constantly trapped by matter — trapped and tortured by the physics of pain. But pain, too, arises in your consciousness, and you can either be in pain, or find pain in you, so that you surround pain, are bigger than pain, transcend pain, as you rest in the vast expanse of pure Emptiness that you deeply and truly are.”

This is no play on words. There is a lot of truth to what Wilber has said. He has been meditating for decades. People who do a lot of inner work can process pain much better than people who do not. Yes, we will still feel the pain of the world but will suffer less if we understand this.