Pain is an important evil.
What is it? How should it be managed or ameliorated?
Thinkers throughout the ages have been very indiscriminate in their uses of the words ‘pleasure’ and its opposites. The culmination of this is in how Mill makes some of his points-not necessarily the points themselves, but in the terribly confusing way he makes them.
Let’s avoid that error by regimenting our usage. Let ‘pain’ denote bodily discomforts only, in other words the whole range of unpleasant sensations caused solely by physical conditions.
Obviously, discomforts are mental objects in the sense that we are aware of them. There’s no such thing as an “unfelt” discomfort or a discomfort without consciousness of it. There’s no violation here of the dictum that all objects are singleoutable [see the post “Define Understanding”].
The critical distinction is between discomforts and suffering [see the post “Suffering: Its Nature and Cure”]. Discomforts are not sufferings. Discomfort is physical in the sense that it is caused only by physical conditions, whereas suffering is not physical in the sense that it is caused by psychological conditions.
Depending upon how we react to it, discomforts can be the occasions of suffering, but they need not be.
Pain is inevitable, whereas suffering is optional.
Here are some concrete examples of discomforts: the discomfort you had the last time you had a cold or the flu, how your forearm felt just after you broke both bones in it, how your face felt after he punched it, and how your chest felt when you had the rash from shingles.
Since nobody gets through life without illnesses or injuries, discomforts are inevitable.
What should you do about a discomfort when you have it?
I don’t know. Nobody knows [see the post “Knowing What To Do”].
What I am able to tell you is what I do with respect to discomfort. If the three-step procedure that I use makes sense to you, adopt it. (If you have a better procedure, please let me know!)
First, if possible, eliminate whatever physical condition is causing it.
If you are lying on the ground with a broken arm after having slipped and fallen, the cause [the fall] is over, but it’s time to deal with its effects by setting the bones, immobilizing them, and allowing them to mend.
If you are hurting from a bout of flu, there’s not much to be done. Take your physician’s advice to avoid making things worse and to enable you to endure it with as much good cheer as possible.
Reducing discomforts often depends upon the state and availability of medical and surgical care. This is one reason why those of us who live in First World countries are very fortunate, and another reason is that we live at a time centuries after the scientific revolution began.
Along with clinical depression and sleep disorders, chronic pain is a serious threat to happiness. Even acute, temporary discomforts undermine happiness. Even mild, temporary discomfort can be annoying! This is why discomfort is an important evil, and why it’s important to do whatever is possible to reduce or eliminate it.
Also, discomforts evolved to help us live better. Mother Nature doesn’t want you to use a broken bone until it heals. It’s foolish to try to live better by ignoring discomforts.
Second, don’t make it worse.
If you are ill and your physician recommends plenty of bed rest and clear fluids, stay in bed and drink lots of clear fluids! Since your immune system is already stressed, if you fail to “listen” to your body, you risk making your illness worse. That seems obvious, but my physician father had lots of stories about patients who failed to take their medication or otherwise do what he told them to do with bad consequences.
It also means not turning your discomforts into suffering. You never have to do this. This leads to my final suggestion.
Third, accept your pain.
Once you have done what is possible to reduce or eliminate it, let it go. Accept it and, as much as possible, get on with your life.
Do not play the victim and begin generating negative thoughts. That’s exactly how to turn your pain into suffering. As soon as you begin feeling sorry for yourself, realize what you are doing and let that train of thoughts go.
Avoid the perverse tendency to attach to your pain. It may seem to provide a handy excuse, an obviously justification for living poorly, which seems to be the reason why many people turn their pains into suffering. They create their own obstacles to living well and get stuck envying the lives of others. What a foolish waste of life!
The best way to accept pain and get on with your life is to have a daily breathing (spiritual) practice such as zazen meditation. [For more this topic, see the spiritual well-being section of this blog.]
In fact, as long as you don’t take it personally and resent it, pain can be the best spiritual teacher!