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Some Painful Thoughts (or thoughts about pain)

OK, nobody wants to think about pain. So why write about it? Pain is something we all endure and yet our “frame of reference” regarding pain is hardly uniform or consistent. I am frequently reminded of this at the doctor’s office when I am asked to rate my pain on a scale from 1-10. Am I supposed to adjust this to what I perceive as other people’s frame of reference ? No, I am told to make “10” be the greatest amount of pain I can imagine. That makes me wonder – can I imagine more pain than others?

But let us start with some clarification: What exactly is pain? Well, I don’t have to tell you – we all know what pain is. But have you considered the many types and forms of pain? Sure, we immediately relate pain to physical suffering. We can easily recall emotional pain. Perhaps we have experienced spiritual pain. Are these all the same thing? Not hardly.

Physical pain comes in many forms. A headache is much different than a burn; a crushed bone is different than a kick to the gonads (you lucky ladies can’t relate to that one); and natural childbirth (lucky guys) has to transcend 99% of what else we typically experience. Systemic pain (as we commonly experience when ill) is different than local pain and perceived pain can be far different than what is likely to be real (the more you expect pain, the more you’re likely to feel). And there are other odd and rare forms of pain whether from nervous dysfunction, specific diseases, or “mental disorder”. Of course, all of these forms of pain have the core cause – the brain perceiving signals from nerves saying “OW!”

Emotional pain is equally diverse. A “broken heart” is different than systemic depression which is different than personal failure. Betrayal is different than loss which is different than disappointment. The loss of a loved one may create a lifelong scar of emotional pain. And emotional pain can be great enough to cause suicide (especially since we cannot mediate emotional pain with medication like we can physical pain). There are also mental disorders which can lead to emotional pain and emotional pain can lead to massive dysfunction. Of course, all these forms of pain have a core cause – the mind perceiving something as hurtful.

Spiritual pain is less diverse, but equally powerful. Some may think of it as a special form of emotional pain – unless they have actually suffered it. Because spiritual pain often leads to emotional pain, we tend to confuse them.   As with all things ethereal, it is harder to assign words to a vague conception, but we merely need a little introspection to grasp spiritual pain. Consider the difference between happiness and joy[1], view depression as the opposite of happiness and then consider what the opposite of joyfulness is… Joylessness is a painful state of being-ness causing a lack of will[2].

Now we must examine “suffering” because we can only fully understand the different types of pain if we fully understand suffering. If we view suffering as the manner in which we experience pain, then we can also see that suffering is directly associated with the perception of harm. We know that pain and suffering are related, but they are not the same because we can experience physical and emotional pain without suffering. In the case of spiritual pain, we can suffer without experiencing pain. Hmm.

If you’re following closely, you have already perceived my direction: pain and suffering have much to do with expectation, perception, and experience. Pain is directly linked to both our state of mind and our state of being. This is how an athlete can break a bone and not even know it until after the game. It is how children can seem happy under terrible conditions. It is how we suffer spiritual pain without feeling hurt. If we expect pain, it is amplified. If our perception changes, so does our suffering. If we ignore pain, is it really there?

Again, for the physical and emotional, pain is a state of mind. For the spiritual, it is a state of being. Let us first discuss the more familiar – physical and emotional suffering. There is truth to the adage: no pain, no gain. If one never loves, then one can never lose a loved one. If we experience no physical hardship, we have no means of appreciating such. Our problem is that we tend to place pain in the wrong context – pain is good. It is suffering that is bad. Physical pain is a signal to warn us and an indicator of our state. There are many people who have great physical pain and who suffer little (even without medication) simply because they choose not to suffer. For such people, they first choose to endure and then they adjust their expectations and perceptions. Perhaps they are sufficiently distracted that their signals simply don’t register. But from such people and their experiences, we know that pain does NOT inherently lead to suffering. Medication may deaden the pain signals or alter how our brains process those signals, but there are always adverse side effects. It would make more sense to change the state of mind which leads to suffering. That takes will.

Emotional suffering is different. There are real causes, but they arise within us from both internal and external triggers. Emotional suffering always arises from a state of mind. We all know that we can control our state of mind – if we have the will to do so. So, to avoid both physical and emotional suffering, we must create the will to change our state of mind. If we can’t, we are almost certainly suffering from spiritual pain.

If you have never given thought to how you create a thought, it is time to start doing so. If you have never given consideration to the manner in which and degree to which you create your state of mind, it is time to start doing so. If you have never consciously chosen to alter your state of mind then you are not a human being. It is our nature to self-reflect and the feedback from self-reflection is invariably used to change our thinking and our state of mind. But most of the time we do this on “auto-pilot”. Our brains come preset to produce suffering from physical and emotional pain. If we allow our brains to act on their own, we will suffer far more than necessary.

Conversely, our brains are preset to ignore spiritual pain. Thus, we can pass through life inflicting massive spiritual damage to our beings without seeming to suffer – except that we lose our most precious ability: self-will. Our living essence will generate will to live and other primordial self-will as long as we are beings. Other beings have this same mechanism they just don’t seem to recognize it. Not only can we recognize our self-will, we have the power to enhance and expand it. We all do so to some extent – often without direction, focus, or clear purpose. But as we accrue spiritual pain, we suffer because our ability to enhance and expand our will diminishes. With diminished will, we are less able to change our state of mind and we become more and more susceptible to physical and emotional suffering.

How then do we reduce our spiritual pain? It helps to have a sense of our spiritual nature or essence. While everyone has this sense, many work hard to ignore it. Others have developed methods to assist people in restoring their spiritual sense (such as Logotherapy, Creative Transformation, and Transcendental Meditation, with sources below). Some find religion helpful, but religion is generally overrated as a spiritual enhancer. Personally, I suggest that simply seeking your spiritual essence with an open mind and a bit of patience will probably work. If you don’t know what to look for, try analyzing those things which give you the most will. What feels meaningful? What stirs your thoughts? What makes you the best person? If your honest, you’ll invariably find that it is spiritual things that top your lists.

Spiritual pain does not produce suffering – it simply makes it harder to deal with physical and emotional pain. Spiritual pain creates a vicious cycle: you need will to deal with spiritual pain and the suffering of physical and emotional pain and yet spiritual pain deprives you of that will. As ones state of mind becomes enthralled in suffering, it becomes increasingly difficult to create the will to break the cycle. The only answer is to change your state of being.

Our state of being is simply complex or complexly simplistic. It is said that “we are who we are”, but we know that is not true. We are what we are unless we CHOOSE otherwise. We are essentially spiritual beings unless we choose otherwise. We are potentially very spiritual beings unless we choose to be less. Use the simple measures above to rate your state of being:

1.       How much real joy is there in your life? Joy is a state of being that empowers will and goodness. Joy results in loving-kindness. Don’t kid yourself; if you can’t muster loving-kindness, you’re lacking in joy.

2.       If you are free of spiritual pain, you have the disposition and power to intend, manifest, or act according to moral principle. Don’t kid yourself; if you don’t think about and act upon moral principles, you’re suffering spiritually.

Look in the mirror – really look at yourself. Are you happy with what you see? Assess your life as if there is a “God of Righteous Judgment” (regardless of your religious beliefs). What’s the verdict? If you believe that you’re not suffering from spiritual pain, then you’re delusional – we all are! But that doesn’t mean that we can’t choose to change our state of being.

So, this is not a “how-to” discussion; it merely suggests a “what’s wrong” possibility.  I am selling nothing and advocating nothing. Choose your own suffering. Find joy. Manifest will. If you need some loving-kindness, I may have some to spare.

[1] This may prove difficult for some since we use the terms poorly. In short (for our purposes here), happiness is a state of mind which arises from external satisfactions and pleasures. Joy is a state of being that empowers will and goodness. Joy results in loving-kindness.

[2] Here meaning: The disposition and power to intend, manifest, or act according to moral principle.




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