It’s difficult to avoid the notion that life consists of pain and misery with moments of ecstasy in between. After all, you would be hard pressed to find someone over 25 who hasn’t experienced catastrophe in their lives. If not in their own lives, then the lives of a loved one. Today I want to talk about the relationship between pain, fear, and suffering, and what to do about it.
A dark night of the soul
After I was enveloped in my own midnight of the soul two and a half years ago, I started to understand the world in a different way from before. I had been living in a sort of blissful ignorance of the pain of human existence. Although I definitely didn’t have an ideal childhood, I had never experienced anything like the physical pain, feelings of loneliness and worthlessness, and suicidal thoughts of the last two years.
My paradigm of being human was shattered and haphazardly rebuilt over the course of the last 30 months. I’ve been trying my best to make sense of what happened to me. To fit it into my new world view. It’s taken a lot of thought and contemplation, but I’m making progress.
I now understand that pain and suffering often go hand in hand, but aren’t remotely the same thing. Pain is inevitable in life, but I believe suffering can be overcome completely. That’s what all religions across the world have said, in one way or another. Notably, the Buddha said straight out that life was indeed suffering, but that there was a way out of it.
That brings us to the question of “why?”. Why are we here at all if suffering is the standard to which all human life must adhere to? It seems bleak and cruel. It can be hard to imagine a purpose to all the pain and misery in the world. However, there are many sides to this question. One of them is “what is the nature of pain?”. We must remember that pain is a signaling of the brain, indicating danger or damage. Pain in itself isn’t dangerous, it points out the danger. This doesn’t change the fact that damage to the body may be present, but it’s good to keep this in mind as we come to the next point.
Pain is an indicator of potential damage to the body or psyche. There are a few ways of reacting from here. The first is with fear. This is possibly the most common reaction to pain, and the simplest. This means avoiding the pain, if possible, without trying to fix it necessarily. The second is with drive, the drive to remove the pain if at all possible. This can mean change in diet to overcome gut issues, or to have a difficult talk in a relationship, or to care for a wound as best you can. The third, and most difficult way to react to pain, is to not react at all.
When all avenues of potential healing and caring to make the pain go away have been used, simply being with the pain, allowing yourself to experience it without trying to avoid or remove it, can change your perception of pain completely.
The most miserable aspect of pain
Think about it, how often in your life have you felt hurt and not tried to avoid it or fix it? I’m guessing not too often.
The fact is that the most miserable aspect of pain is fear. Fear is the root of all suffering. We fear death, we fear illness, we fear what pain means. Pain itself is just a sensation, quite meaningless when you think about it. When we’re ill and in pain, and we don’t know what’s wrong with us, we fear for the future. We fear for our body, for our future health, for having to change our plans for life. It’s at that point that the pain devolves into suffering.
All of us have felt pain without suffering. Like when somebody punched your shoulder too hard or gave you a nipple-twist when you were young, you felt pain, sure, but most likely you knew that you weren’t permanently damage. You may have felt sore for a day or two, and then you got better. This means that what truly causes fear is not knowing the future.
Fear is ignorance
Fear of the unknown is really a silly phrase. All fear is ignorance, in some sense. When we truly know what awaits us, we don’t feel fear. When we know, deep within us, that we’ll be okay, no matter what, there is no fear. We may be in a car accident and be afraid that we’re going to die. The fear doesn’t lie in the concept of death, it’s that we don’t know what death is in the first place.
Fear is to love what black is to white.
There are these two opposing forces in life, light and dark, yin and yang. Love and fear. Call them what you will. Many mistakenly believe hate to be the opposite of love. Not so. Hate is a manifestation of fear, sure, but there are many others. Jealousy, envy, disgust, anxiety and paranoia are all forms of fear. Fear is the underlying essence of all things that cause us suffering.
This is crucial to understanding suffering. Now that we understand what causes our suffering, it’s time to look back to the elusive “why?”.
The inherent darkness contains the light
There is only one way to find a “why” to life’s suffering, and that is through direct experience. Direct experience is the only way to wisdom. We may gather knowledge from books and thinking, but until anything is experienced directly, it remains an idea without being a truth.
It’s hard to know if my “why” will be the same as yours, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. What matters is to discover what the purpose of living is to you.
I’ve found in my own life that my suffering has a very salient purpose. It wasn’t obvious what that purpose was until I began to sit with my own pain and suffering, learned to distinguish the two, and contemplated what they meant. I did this in various ways, by journaling my experiences, by doing long strong determination sittings in meditation, and through taking psychedelics in silent darkness.
The purpose of my suffering is to forge a man of mithril. Suffering is to my soul as the furnace is to the damascus steel blade. Over and over again, hammered and smelted, beaten and burned, until out of the ashes there rises a phoenix. In order for this to happen it is imperative to avoid trying to escape the pain.
The great escape – Pain, fear, and suffering
I made the mistake of trying to escape my pain in the beginning. At first I was taking a lot of Ibufen, and later I switched to vaping weed every night in order to sleep. Apart from wreaking havoc on my cognitive functions, it took from me the most valuable aspects of my illness: the pain.
I was giving in to fear by trying to escape the pain. Pain is like a letter from god, and every time you take a pill to make it go away, it’s like throwing that letter into the fire.
I have no idea what you situation is, but I can tell you this: When my existence has been at its most painful and insufferable, just sitting down and being with the pain, without judging it, without wishing it would go away, has been the most incredibly enlightening thing I could possibly do. It takes time to get into this groove, and at first you’ll get a fraction of a second of true understanding at best, but as you continue to practice this, it will get better. You will get better. You’ll be calmer and more equipped to keep your chin up and not get absolutely overwhelmed by the seeming unfairness of it all.
Let pain be what it is, and see what it can teach you. It will be the best thing you ever did.