Escaping pain

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Freedom comes from looking beyond ourselves, and understanding the emptiness of thought.  Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash

There is a biological purpose to pain.  Essentially, beings survive better if they recoil when exposed to risk.  And beings recoil better if they experience an immediate unpleasant sensation.  Therefore, a nerve network which provides unpleasant sensations is helpful to survival.  Furthermore, why wait to be exposed to risk?  A nerve network that experiences pain in anticipation of risk is even more likely to help with survival.

YOUR BIOLOGICAL HERITAGE

This gives individual beings a problem.  It makes life inherently painful.  The very nerve network that kept your ancestors out of trouble for so long, is the same nerve network that makes you over-watchful, and has a tendency to experience life as painful.

When you wake up in the morning with a sense of dread, it could be that same self-protective ancestry trying to look after you.  Why doesn’t your body ease off on the immediacy of its pain response, now that human life is safer?  Because the selection process born of survival takes a while to adjust.  And, given that humans are getting better at helping everyone to survive, there are fewer and fewer adjustments being made to our survival mechanisms.  We all feel pain acutely, and, because we are all surviving, this ability to feel pain acutely isn’t going away.

ADAPTING YOUR MIND

Your body, therefore, is unlikely to adapt of its own accord.  There is a limited way in which it calms down when it is in safe surroundings, but the bodily watchfulness will probably not leave your system of its own accord.

You could, if you want, use drugs to damp down your natural pain response.  There is a whole industry of painkillers, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety chemicals which aims to do just that, for a price.  This is an extremely helpful industry if you have the support or resources to acquire the chemicals, and if the side effects are not too bad.

An alternative is to find a way of adapting your mind so that you are less susceptible to the natural suffering that comes from this bred-in pain.

THE USE OF MEDITATION

Meditation is really a technique, developed over hundreds of years, which seems to be effective in disciplining our minds and bodies, through contemplation and ritual, to quieten down.  Under its influence, we seem to be able to stay aware of what is around us, but also to protect ourselves from fear and anxiety.

There is a cognitive side to meditation, and a ritualised side.  On the cognitive side, it uses two main lines of attack on the fear system.

  1. Firstly, we persuade our minds to get interested in other people’s welfare.  This outward focus is the foundation of good mind-body flow, and allows our system to collect itself in other people’s interest, and to forget its own fear.
  2. Secondly, we persuade our minds that the bodily world is empty of ultimate reality.  This ability to see the ultimate emptiness of our cognitions releases their power over us, and frees us to be peaceful again.

These are really the two key aspects of meditation.  Most meditations, one way or another, seek to encourage us either to be compassionate (think of others), or to be wise (realise that all thought is essentially empty).  These two skills are like the wings of a bird: compassion without wisdom would get too upset at others’ suffering; wisdom without compassion would not care about others’ suffering.  Together, compassion and wisdom make for a highly-protected person, able to escape their own selfishness, and able not to take the world too seriously.

AN EXERCISE

Just for today, watch yourself for signs of fearful self-interest.  Remind yourself that this is only the legacy of your evolution.  It’s not your fault – you were made like that.

If you want to counteract the depressed side of pain, get interested in helping others, and see if it helps.  If you want to counteract the anxious side of pain, contemplate the emptiness of your own perspective, and realise that there are no logical arguments for getting over-excited.  If you want to have a balanced day, try to develop compassion on the one hand, and understand the ultimate emptiness of all thought on the other.

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SUMMARY

You feel pain because you are at the end of a long chain of being in which pain and fear survived.

Meditation is a long-developed technique to counteract this inherent suffering.  It works by encouraging you to stop thinking of yourself so much, and by giving you a sense of wisdom and humour about your own thinking.  A favourite friend might give you a cup of tea and gently share their life with you to soften your suffering.  Learning to meditate is learning to do, independently, what a good friend does.  You can get better at palliating your own pain.

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