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The Nature of Pain

What is pain? Is it a release, a protective mechanism, a natural response of the body to danger, a psychosomatic projection, all of these, or something else altogether? Can we live without pain, or is it an integral part of our existence? Shall we suppress pain at all times?

The English word is derived from the Latin “poena” — meaning punishment, pain, or the Ancient Greek “poine” — a word related to penalty. Do we take it that pain is literally punishment, or is it penalty in the philosophical understanding of the term, like the repayment for wrong action, whatever that action was? If we accept that view, then painful experiences are self-generated, and we all are active participants in the pain we collectively produce, even if unaware of its consequences. It is needless to say that the universal computation makes sure to distinguish between the types and forms, before making us the receivers of physical or mental experience.

There are neurobiological reasons for the existence of pain, which is there to make sure we distinguish between our experiences of what gives us pleasure and that of its opposite. Pain marks the pathways of an illness, and often reveals the way for treatment. The renowned physician Avicenna, used to infect himself with terrible diseases, in order to undergo the symptoms which allowed him to experience the pain firsthand, and understand the nature of the illness in all its complexity. Pain of all kinds and physical pain in particular, is a natural response of the body toward conditions where pain acts as a signal of a complex safety net.

Throughout history the understanding of pain changed, inadvertently reflecting the existential attitudes towards the experience. Many cultures considered pain to be an important factor necessary for personal growth and maturity of a soul. In some, an initiation contained exposure to pain, and were seen as the rite of passage, the coming of age. It seems with the advance of science, coupled with the development of humanistic ideas, we do our utmost to suppress pain. Today 'painkilling' is an industry in its own right, and part of the overall orientation of our culture, with its emphasis on pleasure at all costs. After all, who in their right mind would prefer pain to its opposite? As living creatures, we all share that aspect, the unconscious desire to prolong pleasure, and stay away from pain.

Without drawing any conclusions, what if pain is an inseparable response of our localized consciousness to the environment we live in? We know that suppressed desire for pleasure erupts as an obsession, often in an ugly way. Suppressing pain without re-evaluating its cause is as detrimental to our overall health in the long term, as indulging in pleasure without fully understanding the binding nature of that experience.

Pleasure and pain are the two most important neurophysiological responses in the brain which mark our likes and dislikes, and wire the connection between the body, mind and environment. There is strong evidence for biological connections between the neurochemical pathways used for the perception of both pain and pleasure, which confirm the yogic view of both experiences being part of the same continuum.

The Samkhya doctrine recognizes that process as the inner mechanics behind worldliness. Attachment arises from pleasure. and pleasure is derived from attachment to the experience it produces. In turn, pain gives rise to aversion, and thus the circle of attachment and aversion strengthens the vasanas (psychic conditioning) of an individual psyche.

When we undergo pleasurable experiences, we take it for granted, for it’s a natural predisposition in our mind and needs no questioning as to the reasoning. One of the resultant states of awakening, is an increased awareness of the deep connectedness of all psychological states and physiological conditioning. Even if still automatically preferring pleasure to pain, the awakened mind is no longer bound by the attachment the experience of pleasure otherwise incurs.

That is because spontaneous realization rests on the knowledge that they (pain and pleasure) follow each other (like the dials of a clock), with the change in the alternating states with which Nature performs all actions. The gunas (sattva, rajas, tamas*) rotate and bring about changes in physical and psychological states of our system. Even the threshold of pain differs, according to the predominance of a particular guna in an individual.

Whatever is the case, the one who sets his/her mind on the path of yoga, tries his/her best to overcome the cycle of attachment and aversion born of the experience of pleasure and pain. Both experiences produce the subconscious latencies in the shape of the above mentioned vasanas. Attachment and aversion are rooted in misapprehension of reality, which firmly binds the soul to the body, by identification of the ''I'' (as a spectator) with the process of a spectacle.

To cut these circuits is to break free from the chains with which the ''I'' is (seemingly) bound. Seemingly? Well, the ''I'' is never affected by that which takes place on the level of cognitive (motor-sensory-mental) experiences, nor does it get affected by any fluctuations brought about by the superimposition of those experiences onto the ''I'' (as the perceiver), any more than the images projected onto the screen have an effect on the light which illumines the movie. So it is with our experiences in the world, as far as the motor-sensory-mental responses are concerned.


* According to Samkhya, one of the six systems of Indian philosophy, the gunas are primordial qualities which constitute Nature. On the cosmological level, sattva is the energy of equilibrium, rajas is the energy behind all motion, and tamas is the primal factor behind inertia. In terms of the psychological states of an individual, sattva balances all processes and stands for light, clarity and peace. Rajas is responsible for excitement, passion, desire, and consequently for all mental turmoil, including pain and misery. Tamas, as inertia, rules stagnation and the ignorance born of total identification with the physiology. Suffice to say, everyone is a mixture of all three energies with minute combinations/proportions of the three gunas, which form the basis of an individual psyche.

Igor Kufayev Tashkent, Uzbekistan.  February 2010

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