“Wisdom is nothing more than healed pain.” – Robert Gary Lee
“Ouch! That hurt.”
We’ve all uttered those words in our lives. Maybe you said it right after a fall, feeling the pinch of an injection, or if someone said something hurtful. Whatever the cause of your pain, it produced discomfort , and you wanted it to stop.
Pain is a universal experience. No creature on the planet is exempt from feeling it. It’s a biological mechanism that maintains balance in our system, and like an indicator on a dashboard of a car, it lets us know when something isn’t right.
However, many of us don’t see pain this way. Instead, we see it as an inconvenience. In the past, when religion and superstition reigned supreme, pain was seen as a punishment, meted out by the Gods in response to immoral behavior. Today we see it as some kind of defect that needs to be fixed or cured.
We’re naturally drawn to seek pleasure and avoid pain. It’s encoded in our our reptilian brain. We can all agree that touching a hot stove or brushing against a sharp object is going to hurt however, there are some forms of pain that are subjective. Pain can be interpreted differently on an individual level both due to different pain thresholds, and what we personally consider to be pleasure or pain.
The majority of us have a low tolerance for pain, and the forces of capitalism are glad to offer us solutions. Our culture of ‘painkillers’ offers a plethora of choices to numb our pain such as antidepressants, alcohol, recreational drugs, sugar and social media. We douse our systems with these instruments of pleasure to escape reality.
In her book, When Things Fall Apart, Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön says, “Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape — all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.”
While quick-fixes work on a temporary basis, it’s detrimental to our transition into conscious and evolved beings. When we avoid pain, we are missing the deeper and enriching experience that’s on offer. The more we resist and push away pain, the more that we are inviting it to stay.
Like a persistent cosmic postman, it won’t go away until we understand the root cause. Just as light cannot exist without the dark, the human experience is not complete without moments of sadness. In fact, I think that life would be rather drab and predictable if we constantly lived in a utopia, never encountering bends on our path.
The first noble truth of Buddhism is that ,even though pain is an inevitable part of human existence, suffering is optional. The suffering can be minimized if we develop perspective, and we focus on the lessons instead of the hurt. When adversity befalls us we should try highlighting the positive aspects instead of playing the victim and looking for a cause or culprit.
Pain is our body’s way of telling us that we’re out of sync. When you’re sick with a cold or injured, you pay a visit to the doctor to get a diagnosis and receive the appropriate medication. We need to take the same approach when we experience emotional pain. Ignoring our pain will cause it to snowball.
It isn’t easy to come to terms with our wounds. I have needed a lot of courage and direction to come out of some acutely painful times in my life. What helped me was reading seminal stories of resilience and courage, such as those of Nelson Mandela or Viktor Frankl who used their pain as an opportunity for inner excavation and personal inquisition.
Pain pushed them to view life with an entirely different outlook and adopt an attitude of humility. They took a step back to look at the bigger picture and figure out what’s really important. They weren’t afraid to ask tough questions: “Why is this hurting me?”, “How is this causing me to lose power?”, “What is this trying to teach me about myself and my approach towards life?”.
Even though pain is unavoidable it can be a great teacher. It can be the impetus for our evolution into conscious individuals. All we need to do is to transform our relationship with pain and keep our minds and hearts open to the wisdom from every painful experience that we endure.
Here are five valuable lessons that I’ve been able to learn from pain that have helped me see it in a more positive light:
1. We understand ourselves better: Pain has the power to break us open and expose the vulnerable parts of ourselves, thereby giving us opportunity to get intimate with them. Pain will test your character and make it necessary to tap into your strengths. It will expose your weaknesses, allowing you to improve. Each test is like a rung on a ladder that we can climb to higher elevations of consciousness. Self-knowledge, coupled with a belief in our ability to survive, promotes self-esteem and personal growth.
2. We realize our strengths and resilience: All unpleasant experiences throw us out of our comfort zone and urge us to stretch into unknown territory. This is a good thing because we tend to underestimate ourselves and our capacity to withstand the storms in our life. If we’re open to the learning, tough incidents will make us tougher and leave us feeling braver. Like a warrior who’s been through battle, you can charge ahead knowing that you’re strong and you have what it takes to overcome any obstacle. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.
3. Pain pushes us to grow and love ourselves: Pain compels us to get unstuck and move towards a more meaningful and purposeful existence. It reminds us to be sensitive to our needs so that we can recover from the hurt and feel better. We need to love ourselves through the pain and do whatever it takes to heal and get back on our feet. Whether that means taking a warm bath, speaking to someone you trust, going on a short vacation or journaling. Pain reminds us of the importance of self-care.
4. The pain helps us experience a deeper sense of connection: Every time we experience pain we become aware that it’s something we all share. We can draw wisdom and understanding from our trials and tribulations, which, in turn, can help others who are dealing with similar issues. You cannot fully understand the suffering of others until you have gone through what they’ve experienced. For example, if you’ve never been through a breakup you won’t be able to empathize with your friend who is going through one. Pain connects you to your being. The visceral sensations of pain activate a primal part of you that reveals your humanity.
5. We realize who and what really matters: Anyone who’s been through intense periods of despair will remember how it recalibrated their life path and triggered a shift in their identity and their worldview. All the superficialities and materially-driven desires fall by the wayside as you realize that money, fame and other symbols of wealth are ineffective when it comes to fulfilling the desires of your heart and soul. Your ego and pride are obliterated and are replaced by a sense of reverence and gratitude for the gift of life. You realize who you can really count on because it’s during your times of strife that you’ll come to know who will be there to offer you their unconditional support.
Just as we can’t have the rainbow without the rain, we can’t capture the complete beauty of our life’s journey without dealing with painful events. We need to embrace the entire spectrum of emotions to appreciate the variegated shades of the human experience and to celebrate the wonderful and messy affair that is life.
All my best on your journey,
Question: What lessons have you learned from the pain you’ve experience in life? How did it change you?
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