Saturday, October 3, 2009

Is Pain a Bottomless Pit?

A few years ago, I had a dream that I was falling uncontrollably through a long, dark tunnel. I felt myself accelerating through the tunnel and instantaneously, the movement changed from falling to flying. Instead of feeling out of control, I realized that I could directly influence the direction and speed of my flight. My flying kept accelerating until I felt myself traveling at an unimaginable rate of speed. It actually felt as though I was traveling at the speed of light, or perhaps even faster. When my flight accelerated to maximum speed, I began to notice a bright light slowly emanating through the tunnel. In a matter of seconds, it didn’t seem dark anymore. The light was filled with warmth and acceptance and my journey through the tunnel transformed from a flight of fear to a flight of self-discovery. The tunnel began to fade away into the light until I couldn’t tell where the tunnel ended and the light began. The light initially surrounded me but then it began to seep slowly into my pours until I could no longer separate myself from the presence of the light. The light instantly dispelled all the darkness. The unity of my being with this light transformed from an image into an emotion, and I realized the emotion was love. Yet it wasn’t similar to any type of love I had experienced before. It was a love that was completely unconditional and non-judgmental. I was loved at the core of my being. As soon as I felt consumed by the unconditional love, I abruptly woke up and sat upright in bed. It took me another two hours to get back to sleep.

The dream was so powerful that I asked different psychologists to interpret its meaning. Some said it represented birth and others said it was a preview of death. In both cases, the explanation was identical. I had to wonder if those two experiences are really as different as they seem. If the experience feels identical, is it possible that death is just another form of birth or that birth is some form of death? Others asked if I had been in the hospital during the dream because it was possible that I might have had a near-death experience, and I might have physically died for a few moments. Progressive psychologists stated that I had left my body for a few moments because I was feeling the flight instead of observing it. They told me that I must have released myself from the physical body because I did not see myself flying; I felt the movement of the actual flight. Since most of us have only flown at 300 miles an hour in a plane, the ability to feel flight and movement at a tremendous rate of speed could not be a physical memory.

I suppose any explanation is possible. On a more simplistic level, the dream could have been symbolic of the darkness associated with pain. The difference between the dream and pain is that I quickly realized the tunnel could transform itself from darkness and solitude into love and acceptance. When we are consumed by pain, it’s hard to see light inside a dark tunnel, so some people believe that the darkness is just a bottomless pit that could never transcend to the highest level of pleasure or happiness.

The fear of experiencing pain is that its consumption will paralyze us indefinitely. We know that time heals all wounds, but how much time is required? An acquaintance who lost her husband to cancer described, “After the funeral, I thought I would never feel normal again. It took every ounce of energy I had just to get through the day. Even breathing felt difficult. I finally realized that it was a gift if I had only one minute of pleasure during the day. I tried to focus on the minute of pleasure, instead of the other 959 minutes of pain. I found that one minute eventually increased to five minutes and after about a month, I could actually experience an hour of pleasure each day. My only consolation was the recognition that each day offered more minutes of pleasure than the day before.”

Pain can be so devastating that many people build walls around their heart as a form of protection. If the expression of love is tightly controlled, then the pain that results from its loss is less destructive. That’s why many people say that the opposite of love is fear. The fear of being hurt can curtail the expression of love. Fear causes withdrawal and creates a barrier to expressing emotion, while love is the ultimate surrender to the power of the emotion. Some people go through life incapable of expressing deep, intense love because they need to be protected from the incapacitating pain that could result from its loss. This emotional trade-off is not usually recognized consciously. The barriers are built on a subconscious level so that these individuals probably don’t even know that the blockade has been constructed.

Building barriers is a natural defense mechanism to pain. It’s similar to the experience of learning not to touch a hot stove. The first time children touch a red-hot burner; they feel excruciating pain. The second time, the child knows not to get too close. The same analogy applies to love. If the pain of losing love is too overwhelming, the simple cure is curb the intensity of the emotion in the future. If you love less, you hurt less. Subconsciously, we all do our own cost-benefit analysis. If we believe the cost of the pain is too great, we can just minimize the benefit received from the emotion.

Most people are certain that they haven’t built defense mechanisms that inhibit the expression of love; but how would they know? The process happens very slowly. It begins in childhood and is affected by every rejection, betrayal or emotional withdrawal. Individuals who have developed psychological barriers are still able to love. They just don’t realize that the heart has spent years building an invisible fortress that guards them from grief.

The problem is not solved by trying to love more intensely; the solution is to be less fearful of pain. We all know the saying, “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.” We also know the saying that no one has died of a broken heart. If heartbreak doesn’t kill us, how does it make us stronger? To some, the strength comes in the form of walls and barriers, but for others it comes from recognizing the value of pain. Pain and growth are highly correlated. For example, when baby teeth grow, the child feels pain and when a weight builder develops muscles, he experiences weeks of pain. Spiritual growth results from emotional pain. During periods of pleasure, there is no reason to be introspective. Enjoyment offers its own reward. When someone experiences emotional pain, however, the soul is naked and exposed. A person can either avoid the pain by refusing to accept it, or it can be used as a powerful tool for growth and self-exploration.

In the book, The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck says, “It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn. As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘Those things that hurt, instruct.’ It is for this reason that wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and actually to welcome the pain of problems.” He also states, “It is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life finds its meaning. Problems call forth our courage and wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually… Most people attempt to skirt problems rather than meet them head-on. We attempt to get out of them rather than suffer through them. Indeed, the tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all psychological illness.”

We think that suffering is a punishment. We wonder what we did to deserve the pain. Yet, perhaps our judgment about suffering is wrong. We naturally assume that suffering is bad, but what if we are wrong? What if suffering is actually a gift? If the primary objective in life is to evolve spiritually, how could we accomplish this goal without suffering? How can we appreciate beauty if we never know ugliness? How can we appreciate peace and contentment if we’ve never experienced the brutal struggle of transcending pain?

Someone once told me a story about Matthew, who was a man that had accomplished everything he wanted in life. He had a great job, lots of money, a beautiful house and a gorgeous girlfriend. One day Matthew lost his job, which caused him to lose his money and his beautiful house. After these losses, his girlfriend broke up with him. A few days before Matthew moved out of the house, his friend, Chris, came over to offer some compassion and emotional support. Chris had always been moderately successful, with a wife and three children. He had a steady job and hadn’t suffered much in life. When Chris arrived, Matthew was sitting in his house, surrounded by boxes, dirty ashtrays and beer bottles. It appeared that he hadn’t washed, shaved or even changed his clothes. He was completely broken and devastated. Chris looked at Matthew with a slight smile and said, “I really envy you.” Matthew was completely shocked by the comment. “How can you envy me when I have lost everything? I don’t even know how I am going to get through the day. Emotionally, I am completely paralyzed! How could you possibly say that you envy me?” Chris sat on one of the few chairs still left in the house, and answered, “Because you will learn more in the next 10 days than I have learned in the last 10 years.”

The willingness to feel pain is often tied to significant transformation. In Dante’s Inferno, paradise was reached by first going through hell. It is also interesting that this path to Paradise was a straight line. Paradise was reached by traveling first to the center of the earth (which was hell) and then by resurfacing on the other side. Joseph Campbell found a similar analogy in mythology. In an interview with Bill Moyers, he said, “One thing that comes out in myths, for example, is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” Joseph Campbell also tells the story of Igjugarjuk, who was the shaman of a Caribou Eskimo tribe in northern Canada. He is the one “who told European visitors that the only true wisdom lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone open the mind to all that is hidden to others.” I once saw an image in a dream that I have never forgotten. It was the face of man who had one tear slowly descending down his cheek. His eyes sparkled and the tear seemed to radiate and glow. Bright sparks of light were reflected by the tear. The dream’s powerful image has always reminded me of the beauty of pain.

We search for a reason for our pain but may find that the reason cannot be understood. We know that we don’t deserve this pain, so how can it have a purpose? In Thorton Wilder’s novel, The Eighth Day, he compares life to a beautiful tapestry. When one views the tapestry on the right side, it is an intricately woven work of art that combines threads of different lengths and colors. However, on the other side, the tapestry is a conglomeration of many threads. Some threads are short and others are long. Some threads are smooth and other threads are cut. The direction of the threads seems meaningless. Wilder concludes that by being able to see the beautiful tapestry, we can see that our lives are part of a complicated design that is in fact, beautiful, even though each thread may not understand the role it played in creating the exquisite tapestry.

Based on our limited view of the “big picture,” it is difficult for us to judge what is good or bad. An example of this conundrum was accurately portrayed in an old fable. In the fable, a farmer had a horse that ran away. His neighbor immediately came over to express his condolences and the farmer said, “Who is to say what is good or bad?” The next day, the horse returned with five other horses. The neighbor stopped by to express his joy and the farmer said, “Who is to say what is good or bad?” The next day, the farmer’s son rode one of the new five horses and he fell off and broke his leg. The neighbor came over to express his condolences and once again, the farmer said, “Who is to say what is good or bad?” The next day the army came to the farmer’s house to recruit people for battle but the officers could not take the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. The neighbor came over to express his joy and again, the farmer said, “Who is to say what is good or bad?”

The same is true with success and failure. We may believe that failures cause pain and successes bring happiness. Yet, the line between success and failure is not black or white; it is gray. If a failure brings about spiritual growth, it is actually a success and if a success leads to an exaggerated self-worth, it is actually a failure. John F. Kennedy said, ”It’s hard to make a determination that some things are successes and some are failures because each success brings with it the potential for failure and each failure, the potential for success.”

Pain goes away as soon as a wound starts to heal. A cut or scrape takes longer to heal if it is not treated. Sometimes the cut is minor and it heals fastest by being exposed to the environment. Yet if the cut is severe, it needs temporary stitches so that the skin can heal without leaving a scar. Emotional wounds are no different from physical ones. Focusing on work or social activities (or the external environment) can eliminate minor pain, but severe pain requires treatment. The treatment needs to be administered through introspection, self-discovery and growth. If we don’t learn from our pain, we may be creating emotional scars that permanently affect our future relationships. Physical scars damage the beauty of the skin in the same way that emotional scars damage the beauty of the soul.

If pain is ignored or avoided, we miss a valuable opportunity for growth. Pain medication alone can never heal a wound. It only dulls the senses by covering up the symptoms of the problem. If a leg breaks, a few Percosets may ease the pain, but the leg will get worse without proper treatment. Emotional pain also appears to be appeased with medication, such as alcohol or drugs. However, if the psychological issues that rise to the surface are not addressed, the pain never goes away. It simply resurfaces with different disguises until the problem is solved.

Peck further states, “Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems. We procrastinate, hoping that they will go away. We ignore them, forget them, pretend they do not exist. We even take drugs to assist us in ignoring them, so that by deadening ourselves to the pain we can forget the problems that cause the pain. We attempt to skirt around problems rather than meet them head on. We attempt to get out of them rather than suffer through them.”

In the book, The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama concurs, “Trying to avoid our problems or simply not thinking about them may provide temporary relief, but I think that there is a better approach. If you directly confront your suffering, you will be in a better position to appreciate depth and the nature of the problem. If you are in a battle, as long as you remain ignorant of the status and combat capability of your enemy, you will be totally unprepared and paralyzed by fear. However, if you know the fighting capability of your opponents, what sort of weapons they have and so on, then you’re in a much better position when you engage in the war. In the same way, if you confront your problems rather than avoid them, you will be in a better position to deal with them.” The Dalai Lama further states, “We have an array of internal mechanisms, often unconscious, that buffer us from feeling too much emotional pain and anguish when we are confronted with problems. Sometimes these defense mechanisms can be quite primitive, such as simply refusing to recognize that a problem exists. At other times, we may vaguely recognize that we have a problem but immerse ourselves in a million distractions or entertainments to avoid thinking about it… Suffering can be avoided temporarily. But like a disease that’s left untreated (or perhaps superficially treated with a medication that just masks the symptoms but doesn’t cure the underlying condition), the disease invariably festers and worsens…The internal psychological defenses like denial or repression may shield and protect us from feeling the pain a bit longer, but it still doesn’t make the suffering disappear.”

If pain is a natural part of life, why would we be afraid of it? Why wouldn’t we welcome the experience as a chance for further development or as a route toward freedom or liberation of the soul? Nietzsche says, “The more challenging or threatening the situation or context to be assimilated and affirmed, the greater the stature of the person who can achieve it. The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.” When my life is running smoothly, I actually miss the periods when I faced hardship and difficulty. Standing at the threshold of survival can be exhilarating. Every day is a challenge that must be overcome. There is no greater feeling of joy than knowing that we can boldly face adversity and persevere.

Some people are so afraid of pain that they actually avoid being around others who are experiencing it. I’ve learned more about people’s attitude about life by paying attention to their attitude about pain. Do they see it as an opportunity for growth, or as something to be avoided? Do they believe that by ignoring pain, it will go away? Or do they believe that by treating pain, their soul can evolve? The ability to experience pain seems to be directly proportional to the ability to feel pleasure. If someone can reach the depths of depression without destruction, they can probably also reach the pinnacle of pleasure and happiness.

Sometimes we need to endure pain in the short term in order to ensure that greater pain is avoided in the long term. We may be hurt by a partner’s infidelity and it may cause us to end the relationship. Clearly, this is a painful scenario. However, more pain may be inflicted if we choose to ignore the infidelity. If we choose to stay with the partner, we may be continually hurt by further acts of betrayal. It may be better to suffer the pain over the loss of the relationship than to expose ourselves to continual pain from repeated acts of infidelity. Or as stated by Huston Smith, “Suppose a baby has a scalp disease. If the baby’s head is not shaved, there is a return of the malady; if a boil is not lanced, it will go on growing. But while such things are being done to it, though someone holds it close and soothes it and its own mother lovingly performs these operations, the child will nevertheless scream and howl the whole while, not understanding at all that the small pain to which it is being subjected will result in a great gain.”

Pain is always subjective. When a child scrapes a knee, it may be seen as a tragedy only because the child has limited experience with pain. Hunger is painful but starvation causes death. The end of a relationship can be devastating but the loss of a child is crippling. It’s difficult to view pain in its proper perspective because the pain is personal. Yet if you know that you can survive the fall through the tunnel, and if you realize that it’s not a bottomless pit, you will be able to benefit from the journey. It’s not scary to dive into the deep end of the pool if you know how to swim. If you have experienced devastating pain and know that you can survive, you can learn from painful experiences the rest of your life.

It is also helpful to remember a Buddhist philosophy that everything we face in life is temporary. It may appear that the pain will be here forever, but it will eventually go away. One day, we will rise above our suffering. When we are monopolized by pain, it may be difficult to remember the times when we were carefree; yet, we will be carefree again. A good visualization tactic is to imagine the future without the pain and then to look back at the current pain as a memory. The pain we feel in the present will allow us to be stronger and more grateful for the times when we are free of pain. For example, if someone is on the verge of losing his house due to financial difficulties, it can feel paralyzing. Yet these adverse financial conditions will not last forever. One day, this person will be able to look back and see himself as a survivor. In the future, this person will be grateful for the return to normalcy. We tend to take normal times for granted until we are faced with a condition of abnormality; but abnormality is the exception, rather than the rule. Inevitably, there will be times in our lives when everything is out of control. It may be difficult to survive these periods but we need to constantly remind ourselves that all things eventually pass. One day the pain, stress, fear and other incapacitating emotions will be gone -- even though it can be hard to believe this during the periods when we are consumed by emotions that cripple us.

We may not have control over all of the external factors that are causing havoc in our lives, but we do have control over our responses. We choose to become paralyzed or strong. We choose to take external events in stride (with a sense of detachment) or to internalize them and feel worse about ourselves.

I believe that my dream was symbolic of the “beauty” of pain. We don’t have to fall uncontrollably through darkness that we don’t understand; with a simple change in attitude, we can fly. Instead of feeling fear as we travel through the tunnel, we can feel exhilarated and alive. Feeling pain places us at the edge of our existence. Once we take control of the path, we can recognize that the light is not waiting at the end of the tunnel, it is a part of the journey. By accepting that darkness and light can coexist in the same space and time (and that the light immediately dispels the darkness), we can recognize that pain provides us with a significant opportunity for growth.

Renoir once said that “pain passes but beauty remains.” The irony of pain is that sometimes we have to endure a tremendous amount of suffering to finally feel free; and sometimes we need to live within the darkness of our soul until we are able to recognize the beauty of its transformation.

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