What is the purpose of pain? We spend our lives trying to avoid it, and yet we would be so much worse off without it. It is easy to see why physical pain is important. The sharp unpleasantness of this sensation is precisely what makes us remove our hand from a hot stove so quickly, saving us from being burnt. To see the alternative, we only need look to leprosy. In his autobiography Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants, leprosy surgeon Dr. Paul Brand recounts his discovery that people with leprosy do not actually have unhealthy flesh – their problem is that they cannot feel pain. The fingers and toes of people with leprosy do not fall off of their own accord. Instead, Dr. Brand discovered that they were being gnawed off by rats during the night, while the victim – unable to feel the pain – slept on obliviously. Similarly, Dr. Brand linked leprosy to blindness through his observation that people with leprosy do not blink, which is once again a result of their inability to feel pain. After reading his book, you will never again doubt the importance of physical pain.
So what about mental pain? Does this also serve as an important warning system in the same way as physical pain? I think that the analogy holds, with mental pain alerting us to the state of our thinking. As a general rule, when thinking becomes self-centred or anxious, mental pain will occur. When thinking is compassionate, positive and relaxed, our minds are light and at peace. Just as we should be grateful for physical pain for protecting our bodies, so we should also be grateful for mental pain, for providing important signals on the path to happiness and enlightenment.
However, there is one important difference with mental pain: the responses are not hard-coded. In the case of physical pain, responses are generally inbuilt: When you cut your finger, it hurts – this is true for me, it is true for you, it is true for a newborn baby. With mental pain, the responses are not so set in stone. A good example is when we do something malicious to an enemy. Some people will take joy in this action, whereas some people will feel shame. The former response is wrong. Because malice is a harmful state both for ourselves and for others, it should generate mental pain. However, for some people, this is not the case. Nevertheless, as our level of understanding increases, we become more aware of the harm resulting from malice and this state will then become associated with mental pain. In fact, it is only a question of delay. Malicious actions cause pain for everyone, the only variable is the length of time that it takes to feel this pain. The higher our level of understanding, the faster we feel the pain, and thus the easier it is for us to learn from our mistakes.
Hence, pain is essential for a healthy physical and mental life. Unpleasant though it may be, we should always be grateful for the experience. Furthermore, through introspection and experience, we can develop our understanding further and allow the system of mental pain to work more effectively.