There is nothing worse than the feeling of pain. It stings. It burns. It penetrates. It hurts. Pain is the bitter end of a faded sweetness. It is a remnant of a decision that influences all future decisions of the like. It is a signal, and like all signals, it is meant to guide. Where and how we left pain guide us is completely our choice.
On a physical level, pain is a sign to stop doing something. Get your hand out of the fire. Don’t walk barefoot on broken glass. Get away from that beehive. Pain is the body’s recourse for conscious decision-making; it is a physical action that is translated into a mental activity. Neurons react to exterior stimuli, sending messages to the brain that implement positive change. On a physical level, the necessity of pain is blatantly obvious: survival.
It is less obvious to see the purpose behind pain in the mind, or suffering through emotions. Much like physical pain, mental pain is also a necessity to living a healthy life, but the difference between the two is that mental pain comes in forms of emotion. These less tangible—but often more painful—forms of suffering can include general sadness, anxiety, depression, and anger. These “negative” emotions cause varying levels of stress, and this stress is the signal that tells the mind something needs to change. (I keep negative in quotations because every emotion is positively relevant in the pursuit of experience and therefor cannot be condemned to a positive or negative judgment). Just like physical pain, mental pain is attempting to teach the mind a lesson.
As hinted to earlier, the main difference between physical and mental pain is tangibility. Physical pain is much easier to spot and—subsequently—fix. If I am stepping on a rock, I understand that that rock is causing infliction and removing it solves the problem. It is more difficult to identify and solve mental pain.
A good example is the all to common problem of missing someone. Everyone at some point has to say goodbye to someone they care about. It could be a lover, a friend, a family member, or even a pet. When we walk along our individual paths and have to leave something important behind, it hurts. Identifying this type of pain is very easy, but understanding why it’s there is difficult. Many reasons seem plausible. In the case of longing questions like: Am I missing this thing because I need it? because I want it? because I am accustom to it? because I am afraid of not finding it again? etc, car arise. Here, the “rock” is identifiable, but the reason for its infliction is buried. This makes solving the problem ever more challenging. Yet, solving the puzzle of pain is only the first part, learning from it is entirely another challenge.
As mentioned, the point of pain is to learn. Learning from pain points us in the direction of not having to feel that pain again. In order to learn from pain, we must understand everything about it: what hurt me? why did I get hurt? how can I stop the pain? In emotional pain, the answers may not be so transparent, but they do exist. Reaching them requires patience, a willingness to feel the extent of the pain, and an open mind to understand what choices led to these consequences.
We so often repeat the same mistakes, only to be brought back to the same problem, the same pain. Many denounce pain and run from it. Often times I fail to understand that my suffering is the greatest teacher I have. It is a stern instructor that does not bend under the suffering of its students. It is a consistent reminder that there is a better way to live life. Pain’s ultimate goal is to provide its subject with an evolved way of being. Pain is the path to self-evolution.
Although I hate feeling pain, I know deep down that whenever I feel it I have the chance to grow. Pain makes us feel alive because it threatens our stagnation; our comfortability. It gets us moving when we have become still. It pushes us to expand the limits of our selves. Whenever I feel pain and can pull my ego out of self-pity, I know that I am on the verge of doing great work.
A yogi friend of mine once told me, “The depth of our pain carves out our ability to feel empathy.” I understood this as “the more pain I feel, the more I can relate to the pain of others,” which is correct. What I was missing was the empathetic knowledge of the self: the more pain I feel, the more I understand myself. Becoming intimate with aversion brings one closer to knowing affection. And through pain I understand more about who I am and how deep I can become.