Pain: Stumbling Block or Stepping Stone?


Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses. And all the king’s men. Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Pain is as inevitable as it is unavoidable. We enter the world with a cry, and for most of us that cry will reverberate throughout our lives. Even our nursery rhymes witness its abiding reality. And despite the fact that we ought to know better, much of our energy is spent in trying to put Humpty together again.

Pain is so deeply woven into the fabric of life that Buddha acknowledged it as the first noble truth: Dukkham ariyassaccam. “And this is the noble truth of sorrow. Birth is sorrow, age is sorrow, disease is sorrow, death is sorrow; contact with the unpleasant is sorrow, separation from the pleasant is sorrow, every unfulfilled wish is sorrow.”

Pain is so deeply woven into the fabric of life that Buddha acknowledged it as the first noble truth: Dukkham ariyassaccam.

If pain is a given, an inevitable reality which glides in with embodiment, why then does it come as such a surprise? If pain is unavoidable, why does it seem so unfair when it touches us personally?

We live in a world of contradictions, crazily juxtaposed. We know what goes up must come down; we know that if there is heat there must also be cold. But we balk at the proposition that where there is pleasure there must also be pain. Our reason tells us that pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin: if we take one side, the other side is stamped along with it. Yet more often than not we can’t accept what reason allows. Closing our eyes we stumble along, hoping that if we’re careful enough or lucky enough, we’ll somehow escape the ills that afflict everyone else.

Albert Camus found the human condition analogous to that of Sisyphus in Greek mythology. Condemned by the gods to eternal punishment in Hades, Sisyphus’ peculiar torment was to roll a huge boulder up a hill only to have it roll back again. This absurd, frustrating process will continue until the end of time.

Why does Sisyphus roll the boulder up the hill? To avoid the greater pain of the hellfires below him and to seek freedom from the staggering weight of the boulder. His actions are pointless and ineffectual, but he is trapped, unable to act any other way. The stone will inevitably roll back down the hill and, just as inevitably, Sisyphus will laboriously push it up again.

In the view of many current Western philosophers—from yesterday’s existentialists to today’s postmodern deconstructionists—the human situation is as meaningless as Sisyphus’ struggle. We desire freedom and autonomy; we want to escape pain and life’s dead-end streets. But we are trapped by the contradictions inherent in being human: We are limited beings encumbered by unlimited longings. We roll the boulder up the hill only to watch it roll down again.

There are plenty of reasons to make an assessment as bleak as Camus’: To be human is to suffer the pangs of limitation. All embodied beings are subject to sickness, loss, grief, frustration, and humiliation. If we live long enough, we must endure the indignities of old age, and the result of all our efforts is the crowning affront of death.

Vedanta offers another perspective. Vedanta is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It simply tells us to observe the world and to know it for what it is. To misunderstand the nature of the world is to add more suffering to our existing supply.

The world we perceive through our senses is only a shadow reality, says Vedanta. This shadow world is composed of pleasure and pain, and one cannot be extricated from the other. Even pleasurable experiences are grounded in pain: they are temporary, so even in the midst of enjoying them we fear their inevitable loss. “Earth’s sweetest joy,” the poet Drummond observed, “is but disguised pain.”

True, Vedanta says, but don’t stop there. Look further, go deeper. Underlying this shallow world of fleeting pleasures and recurring pain is an unchanging Reality. That Reality is the very core of our being and that Reality is eternal and infinite. Its very nature is absolute joy and freedom. This Reality is our real Self, the Atman. The insipid external pleasures we seek are only a pale reflection of the bliss that lies undiscovered within our own hearts.

The Benefits of Pain

Sweet are the uses of adversity, Which like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

So said Shakespeare, who faced adversity and used it to create some real jewels. If pain is the “ugly and venomous toad,” then what is the “precious jewel” in his head? Discrimination between the eternal and the transitory.

Pain is a shock to which, thankfully, we never manage to become accustomed. Pain forces us to stop, to think, to reappraise. Suddenly we realize—with the conviction that can come only from personal experience—that the body and the mind are here only for a short time. Pain grants us the visceral understanding that human life is transitory and fragile. Many times it is only after a devastating blow that we realize the truth of what Buddha taught: everything in this world is fraught with pain. Pain puts our life into a larger perspective. But if we can accept it in the right spirit, pain can work for our spiritual growth. As Fénelon wrote: “I pray the Lord that we may none of us fall into that torpid state in which our crosses do us no good.”

Pain forces us to stop, to think, to reappraise.

All our crosses, in fact, do us good. Sometimes we learn from them quickly, and sometimes we have to bear the same cross over and over again until we “get it” and learn to discriminate between the real and the unreal, the eternal and the transitory.

While pain has infinite shapes and dimensions, we can nevertheless divide it into three main categories: physical pain, mental pain, and spiritual pain. We should remember, though, that these categories are not sealed containers. Our physical body affects our mental well-being, and vice versa. And, unless we’re a highly evolved spiritual soul, our spiritual health is powerfully affected by the claims of the other two.

Physical Pain

Do not try to drive pain away by pretending that it is not real; Pain, if you seek serenity in oneness, will vanish of its own accord.

So said the third Chan patriarch, Seng-Ts’an. But as anyone who has ever experienced physical pain knows, it’s difficult to even think about oneness when the body is contending with pain.

In some ways, physical pain is the easiest pain to cope with, because it’s unmistakable. When we suffer physical pain, we know it. It is the most universal form of suffering—animals and even plants are repelled by pain.

Obviously, physical pain is easiest to deal with when it goes away quickly, leaving no trace. When we have a headache, we swallow some aspirin and hope for the best. If the illness is more serious, we go to a doctor and still hope for the best. But when physical pain becomes intractable, we have no choice but to try and endure it patiently—assuming, that is, we wish to maintain some degree of mental equanimity.

While we may not be able to suppress the pain in the body, we can choose not to be mentally shaken by it. As the French philosopher Montaigne wrote: “It is in us, if not to annihilate it, at least to lessen it by patience, and, even should the body be disturbed by it, to maintain nevertheless our soul and reason in good trim.”

While we may not be able to suppress the pain in the body, we can choose not to be mentally shaken by it.

This doesn’t mean that we should deny physical pain when we are actually experiencing it. Ramakrishna said, “Suppose I see my hand cut by a thorn and blood gushing out; then it is not right for me to say, ‘Why, my hand is not cut by the thorn! I am all right.’ In order to be able to say that, I must first of all burn the thorn itself in the fire of Knowledge.”

When we’ve attained samadhi, union with the divine, we will no longer have body consciousness; then we can say with authority that my hand doesn’t hurt because there’s no thorn, no cut, no hand, no body, no “me” in the normal sense. There’s only the freedom of infinite being, consciousness, and joy. Until then, we must deal honestly with ground-level realities such as pain if our spiritual life is to develop.

For a spiritual seeker the greatest pitfall of physical pain is that it can intensify our body consciousness. It’s extremely difficult to believe that our real nature is neither the body nor the mind while in the grip of physical pain.

Two responses are essential here: cheerfulness and a certain detachment. Cheerfulness, sadly, has acquired an icky reputation in the West because it’s often confused with being artificial or saccharine. But Vedanta has long recognized cheerfulness, anavasada, as an important requirement for leading a healthy spiritual life. “Despondency is not religion, whatever else it may be,” Swami Vivekananda said. “By being pleasant always and smiling, it takes you nearer to God, nearer than any prayer…the person who always feels miserable will never come to God. It is not religion, it is diabolism to say, ‘I am so miserable.’ Every person has his own burden to bear. If you are miserable, try to be happy, try to conquer it.”

Further, dwelling on our physical ills deepens our body consciousness, and harping upon them to others intensifies our attachment all the more. This is not only a setback for our spiritual life, it’s also deadly boring for anyone having the misfortune to be around us.

If we are sincere in our practice, we will eventually realize that the body is separate from the Self within. Until we reach that stage we can look upon our suffering as either the will of God or the result of our karma: our own actions have created the suffering which we must now endure. In either case, the pain has not arrived at our doorstep willy-nilly. Either God in his infinite, inscrutable wisdom has sent it to us or we have sent it to ourselves, special delivery.

Mental Pain

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

So said Gerard Manley Hopkins in his wrenching poem “No Worst, There Is None.” He knew plenty about those mental cliffs: despite his brilliant, soaring poetry, much of his life was spent battling profound depression.

Mental pain is much more difficult to alleviate than physical pain. Its symptoms are more subtle; its cure must be found within our own minds. To a great extent mental pain is self-diagnosed and self-remedied. Its manifestations are clothed in various forms: depression, anxiety, grief, fear, and despair.

When mental pain is only a passing mood, maintaining at least an appearance of cheerfulness is—as always—the best policy. Most mental pain is short-lived: if we patiently wait, the shadow of despondency will pass over us. We can hasten its departure by refusing to cave in to negative thoughts and by using the higher mind to lift the lower mind. The Bhagavad Gita says: “One should uplift the lower self by the higher self; one should not weaken the self. For this self is indeed the friend of the self, and this self alone is the enemy of the self.” (6.5)

We become enemies to ourselves by succumbing to weakness, allowing our fears and anxieties to tyrannize us. When we carefully—and kindly—scrutinize the mind, we can generally locate the source of our emotional pain. Many times simply understanding why we reacted negatively to a particular situation will in itself mitigate depression and anxiety.

It’s extremely important to avoid lacerating ourselves for our faults and shortcomings. Self-condemnation is weakening and debasing. It can drag us into a vortex of despair where we lose faith in ourselves. This state of mind is extremely dangerous, because once we fall into it, it’s difficult to pull ourselves out again. Succumbing to despair is a form of spiritual suicide: we’re snuffing out the voice of the higher self.

We may fall far short of perfection, but we must never forget our birthright: divinity lies within us. “The nature of the soul is eternal bliss,” Swami Vivekananda said. “What can make it sorrowful except ignorance, hallucination, delusion? All pain of the soul is simply delusion.” We should acknowledge our faults, learn from them, and sincerely attempt to never repeat them.

Spiritual Pain

O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, clearly had first-hand knowledge of spiritual pain. In this condition we feel unable to tap into the deepest source of meaning and joy. Our spiritual roots feel desiccated; our life seems fallow and barren. Spiritual pain is the most subtle form of pain, and for that reason, the most difficult to diagnose. It reflects a profound dissatisfaction with our inner life, and its particular danger is that it can easily degenerate into restlessness and boredom.

Spiritual pain is the most subtle form of pain.

When we do not recognize spiritual pain for what it is we try to relieve our restlessness by increasing our external activities. By trying to correct an internal problem through the distraction of external stimuli, we make our lives counterfeit. We become increasingly out of touch with ourselves.

It may happen that after leading a spiritual life for some time, we reach what appears to be a dead end. We embarked on our spiritual journey with great enthusiasm, and now we discover that our interest has waned. We’re just plain bored.

A little self-observation will likely reveal that we’re doing our spiritual practice by rote. Our heart isn’t really in it. The burning zeal that marked our entry into spiritual life has been replaced by a ho-hum, “someday something will happen” attitude. Worse, this attitude can become habitual without our having noticed it. Like the listlessness that accompanies anemia, spiritual listlessness is a telling symptom of an inner malaise.

This malaise is not bad in itself, if we continue with our spiritual practices. Spiritual pain is a sign that something is, in fact, happening. Swami Aseshananda, a disciple of Sarada Devi who lived and taught Vedanta in America for more than forty years, said that it was his conviction that spiritual dryness occurs when samskaras—deep mental impressions which form spiritual obstacles—are being burnt. But in order to survive the dry spell, we need to develop faith, intensify our practice, and seek the company of other sincere spiritual seekers.

Faith is essential when we face spiritual suffering. Faith is a spiritual anchor: if we lose our faith, there is every possibility that we will give up our spiritual practices and perhaps abandon spiritual life altogether. No matter how tasteless it may seem, we must continue our spiritual routine with faith that eventually the tedious period will pass. And, after we have passed through that spiritual desert, we’ll find that we have more strength, more faith, and more genuine interest in spiritual life than before.

Sincere prayer is an unfailing cure for spiritual pain. Ramakrishna repeatedly said that we should “cry to the Lord with a yearning heart.” Those who yearn for God, opening their hearts to Him in prayer, “will surely find Him.” Ramakrishna’s great disciple Swami Brahmananda said: “Pray to Him, ‘Lord, reveal yourself to me!’ God cannot remain unmoved by the pleas of such a devotee. He hastens to him and takes him in his arms.”

When we suffer from a physical disease we seek the help of a doctor. When we suffer from a spiritual malady, we need to seek the help of other spiritual seekers. By associating with men and women who are already firmly established in their spiritual life and practice, our faith and spiritual understanding can grow and develop. When asked by a devotee, “What is the good of holy company?” Ramakrishna replied, “It begets yearning for God. It begets love of God. Nothing whatsoever is achieved in spiritual life without yearning. By constantly living in the company of holy people, the soul becomes restless for God.”

When we suffer from a spiritual malady, we need to seek the help of other spiritual seekers.

The End of Pain

Pain is indeed inevitable and unavoidable. We face it with every twist and turn our lives take. Since we cannot escape it, we should try to use it as an opportunity for spiritual growth. Pain can be, and for spiritual seekers needs to be, a stepping-stone on our path to union with the divine.

When our spiritual lives advance to the point where we know we are neither the body nor the mind, where we know our real nature is pure, eternal, and blissful, where we know with every fiber of our being that we are the Atman, free and perfect, then “pain” will have no more meaning for us. That pain was associated with the small, frail being who saw herself or himself as a helpless mortal circumscribed by limitations in every direction. Only when we identify with that limited being can we suffer pain. When we identify with our true divine nature, we are free—free from limitations, free from pain—free from our burdens, our mistakes and our sorrows.

The bad news is that most of us will walk a thorny, painful path to reach the point where we’ll want that state of freedom more than anything else in the world. And only when we want it that intensely will we have it.

The good news is, we’ll all get there. Every single one of us.

This article originally appeared in the March 2001 issue of Yoga International.

About the Teacher

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Pravrajika Vrajaprana
Pravrajika Vrajaprana has been a nun of the Vedanta Society of Southern California in Santa Barbara since... Read more