By Nithya Rajendran
Only when we experience and feel pain, can we use it to grow in mind, body and spirit, says Nithya Rajendra
The word ‘pain’ is so all-encompassing. When we hear the word ‘pain’, it evokes in our minds a whole gamut of unpleasant associations, right from physical pain to the ‘existential angst’ of life. Whatever the association we choose at any point in time, it kindles in our minds and bodies, myriad uneasy sensations. Pain in any form, is something we would rather do without. Something we avoid like the plague. Yet, deep inside we know, it is a profound life reality we cannot wish away.
Many forms of pain
Our first exposure to pain happens when, as infants, we feel hunger and thirst. As we grow, pain morphs into subtler forms. The pain of losing the attention of our parents to a sibling, losing a school competition, the bewildering separation and pain experienced on the death of a grandparent, and many such. As we move along into early adulthood, the confusing pain of separation from parents, asserting itself as temper tantrums, rebelliousness and sexual curiosity, kicks in. Then, the gruelling pains of adult life start making their grand entry with the anxiety of finding our first job or starting our careers and surviving the pressures of competition and performance to earn our living. For some people, pain could enter earlier, with having to fend for ailing and poor parents or family. It could enter with having to deal with more complex problems like abuse or rape. In some unfortunate cases, pain can unfairly hit children in a manner that damages irreversibly their ability to lead normal lives. As life goes on, pain just keeps getting more and more complex and sometimes comes in power packed doses leaving us feeling completely sapped and drained, not to mention defeated, singled out, alone, helpless and vulnerable.
Coming to terms with pain
Most people deal with pain, either by trying their best to avoid it, and if they cannot, by drowning it in disproportionate and crude forms of pleasure. Unfortunately, these temporary solutions only bury pain. Buried pain festers inside and often manifests as neurosis or addictions. Ask members of the Alcoholics Anonymous or an ex-drug addict whether their addiction truly helped them. Ask people suffering from uncontrolled promiscuity whether they are deeply fulfilled or happy. In all these cases one thing is common; they have not dealt with pain, not really. They have avoided it or tried to suppress it. We all have this tendency. It is only a matter of degree that separates us.
So how does one understand and come to terms with pain? How does one make peace with the effect it has on us? Do we go about trying to minimise it, or is does the solution lie in looking at it differently?
Let me explore the answer with some personal experiences. Pain has come to me in forms less severe than what I sometimes see around. But since we are dealing with the nature of pain and not its intensity or form, I will use my example. The way pain first came into my life is quite paradoxical. I will start by saying that until early adulthood, I could never recall instances of having felt pain. It did not strike me as strange till much later. It was strange because it is impossible for a human being to not remember any painful episodes from childhood or early adulthood. It is impossible, because one cannot pass through life and get to adulthood without ever feeling the pinch of some form of difficulty or the other. Growing up is always painful. So why did I remember things differently? To find my answers I embarked on a quest. I began with exploring my childhood. With my parents’ help, I tried to get colour of how my childhood was. I wanted to see if I had had a particularly trouble-free childhood. But on digging, I realised that I had gone through the typical pains of childhood, physically for sure, with measles, mumps, typhoid and malaria doing their rounds interspersed with viral fevers and flus. So there was definitely physical pain. What about emotional? Well, I did seem to have been spared the pain of sibling difficulties being a single child, but other pains should have been there. I went to a competitive school with a lot of classmates and peers, so it cannot have been without its share of downs. My parents hailed from a typical middle-class economic background so there was a restraint on the finances. We lived in a modest home with the usual banes of middle class living. So, nothing there. My life seemed to have been a normal one, which must have meant normal pains of life and growing up. However, why didn’t I remember feeling anything?
The answer to this came to me much later in life. It was when marriage, relocation and career change brought me to a point where the experience of pain presented itself to me for the very first time. (Do notice I used the phrase ‘experience of pain’ rather than the word ‘pain’ itself.) I started to have severe bouts of anxiety and panic and developed agoraphobia (an extreme fear of exposure to the outside world). My career was shattered and my health became ruined. With some external help and a steely determination to not allow my life to go down this path, I began to put effort into understanding what I was going through. My introspection and exploration led me to a gold mine! I came to understand that my condition had occurred because of having avoided and turned away from the healthy pains of growing up. A powerful understanding of our reaction and response to pain dawned on me.
Living in denial
Since pain in any form is unpleasant, we do not like it and sometimes, as in my case, we do not allow ourselves to experience it or feel it. We live in denial of it and try to minimise any event or circumstance that might bring us close to it. It then ends up accumulating until it piles up so much that you cannot run away from it anymore. This tendency to avert pain, even constructive pain, is so common that you do not have to go very far from home to find it. In my eagerness to understand this better, I started to observe people closely. The more I looked, the more of this phenomenon I found.
It starts with simple things. People know exercise is good for the body but do not want to take the pain and effort to be healthy and end up with serious diseases later in life. Diabetics would much rather take dessert followed by an extra dose of medication than go through the effort and pain of restraint. People would much rather hold on to their ego rather than pursue compassion because giving up one’s ego is much too painful. We had much rather follow the herd than give vent to our individuality because we cannot risk the pain of judgment or rejection.
Pain actually, I have come to realise, unpleasant as it might be, usually masks an opportunity to grow in body, mind and spirit. It is an opportunity to overcome those obstacles that actually stand in the way of us finding a truly fulfilling and happy life. Even more serious forms of pain that visit us uninvited like a sickness, financial difficulty or emotional loss usually leave us wiser, humbled and thankful. We have heard copious stories of people who have come back from near-death experiences, more capable of genuinely living life than others. Peace, contentment and happiness cannot be found in the absence of pain. It is in fact learnt through pain. In facing, dealing with and learning from pain we become stronger, resilient, independent and creative. We become compassionate and centred and most importantly, happy.
We must start with,accepting and feeling pain when it enters our lives. Then keenly observe what it does. What feelings does it evoke? Anger, resentment, envy, helplessness or vulnerability? What is our pattern of dealing with these feelings when they surface? Do we use a subordinate, spouse or maid as a pin cushion or a projecting screen? How does our self-image change when we face pain? Do we see ourselves as weak, cowardly and helpless or do we hide behind a facade of perfection? Do we become hyper critical or cynical? The important thing through this process is not to judge but just observe and develop awareness. When we are aware, we are creating a filter between our feelings and ourselves and also between our feelings and our actions. As we become progressively more aware, we become more empowered and less helpless. We find the strength to use the objective part of our minds to find the best solution possible and we also develop the ability to feel a sense of control and stoic calm through the pain. As we achieve all this, slowly and surely, we start to see that our personality has gained new facets. Strength, resilience, self-control, will power, gratitude, humour, compassion and discipline. All ingredients we need in ourselves, to build a happy contented life.
The takeaway from all this is not to solicit pain and condemn oneself to a masochistic existence. Nevertheless, learning to welcome pain when it comes and knowing in our hearts, that experiencing it will leave us better off than before, is a skill we will definitely benefit from cultivating.
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