Why physical and mental pain is priceless

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.

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9 Comments »

  1. kristy said,

    September 9, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

    what if you have a mental illness like bipolar and u cant stop yourself from falling into yuor head!!!! know matter how much you fight it .and then u have guilt about being in that state and then u start the self loathing so bad that u want to hurt yourself! what do u do then? I am a strong and loving person that cant stop the pain no matter what I do ! I am out of opptions .

  2. bill said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 5:37 am

    yes, I have to agree with kristy on this one, although I applaud your efforts at cultivating gratitude for useful pain, not all pain is useful. There reaches a point where pain stops being an action signal & actually takes away your ability to act.

  3. jay said,

    March 28, 2011 @ 7:31 pm

    to the author,

    Why do you write most learnedly about stuff that you don’t understand or just brush against partially ? You think you have figured out pain and pleasure etc.. There is no rational reason for pain. But there is a cause for every pain. And this cause has nothing to do with any grandiose purpose of alerting you to lead a noble life etc.. But yes, it’s up to you to alter your attitude towards the pain and thereby ascend to sublime and more skillful ways of accepting the pain. The pain by itself has no ulterior motives intended for you to learn. It’s just the effect of a certain cause that you set in motion perhaps sometime in the distant past. Now it’s again up to you to deal with it but this time you should not REACT to it , with aversion etc..(which will become the cause of another round of future effect). So when you don’t react to it this time and instead face it squarely and wholly, completely, totally, with complete acceptance, acknowledging it but not swayed by it’s effects, witnessing it objectively, in choice less awareness, equanimously, with balance and composure knowing fully well, that ‘this too will pass’ , everything is impermanent and in a state of flux and the only constant is change. But don’t be impatient for it to pass. Let it pass now , in 2 seconds or in 2 Yugas (aeons), be with a heroic attitude. be patient and enjoy watching it. learn from it. embrace it. accept it. be one with it. since it is your present. And it is all there is now… be whole. In the whole being, there is equal room for both high reason and pure madness. It’s all strewn together, sometimes orderly and sometimes messy. It’s all the same.. so dance away and enjoy and observe and witness this drama that is being played out…don’t be indifferent and don’t wish you would rather not be playing THIS game but some other fantasy game but rather identify completely with the real game that is played out RIGHT NOW (however much aversion though it might seem at first). Stay inside the ring and be a participant in the play, the play of the madmen.. For in here, only the mad are wise and everyone else is sane mad…

  4. Ramesh said,

    April 1, 2011 @ 6:56 am

    All the above three are incomplete because with pain comes emotional insight of Truth .Bipolar pain is because of no wisdom and learning from pain that happened due to past karma as genes too are an expression of Higher intelligence of Truth.and jay even though u are closer to realization u r not yet free of judgements that can affect ur own emotions sometimes subconsciously.yes with wisdom and emotional insight the clarity of judgement has no effect on ones own emotions at any cost.

  5. Sherman Alvero said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 5:33 am

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  6. Patrick Hart said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 5:48 am

    I lost my mother on Oct.2,2011 and its been the hardest time in my life. I know she is in a better place. But for the first time in my life im truly scared. I feel so alone even though i shouldnt. I know jesus died on the cross for are sins. But even at my age. I want my mommy back. I now miss those little things like her hugs, the kiss on my side of my face. Her telling me right from wrong. It seems all i can do is sit and cry.
    If your mother is living. Tell her every chance you get that you love her and give lots of hugs.

  7. Paul said,

    July 21, 2012 @ 8:11 pm

    My mental pain will not cease. It seems the only way to allow it to pass is to fight it. Giving in to the pain is like constantly being reminded of my own lack of ability and that I am crazy. I must fight all negative beliefs about myself, even if it feels like my head is being crushed.

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  9. Jay said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

    Patrick Hart, I wish I had read your comment a lot earlier but you know time was on it’s own relentless and inexorable journey. hope you are feeling well. Yes, you are right and she is in a better place. And you also walk along Jesus’s footsteps and turn away from sin and love God with all your heart and soul and do his will, then you will get back every joy and happiness and a life filled with blessedness.

    Paul, have you tried breathing technique called ‘Vipassana’ ? It’s really a very ancient form of meditation. There is a 10 day retreat courses being offered for free or a small donation at various centers in USA. Google it. I can give you a small intro to it.
    All you do is ‘observe’ the incoming breath and the outgoing breath constantly even when your mind tries to draw you away from the breath. each time you bring your awareness back to the breath. in breath and out breath. just observe it, don’t try to control it in any way whatsoever. if its shallow then notice that. If its deep then notice that too. if its more through a particular nostril notice that. if you feel breath slightly warmer notice that. cold ok. any sensation around nostrils? observe that. try to observe the minutest of sensation anywhere by scanning the entire body part by part. remain aware of any and every subtle body sensations but do not react. just remain equanimous and observe objectively. see, you are slowly training your mind to be an impartial observer and not react impulsively, as your current untrained state of mind is opt to do thus drawing you into a cobweb of thoughts. Which is precisely what you don’t wanna get into. you wanna give yourself space and room for yourself with minimal or no thoughts. but you can’t forcibly push your thoughts away. the more you ‘try’ to push them out, the more you are keeping them active. So, continue to observe the in breath and out breath and continue to be aware of the subtle sensations and whenever you start being aware of those thoughts arising, instead of reacting in this way as of old, simply bring your awareness back to the breath. The incoming breath and the outgoing breath… Breath is a supreme friend that is hard to gain….
    And so on it must go for many months and perhaps years. But a few months of practice will surely put you on track. But one thing is a given. The proven track record of this timeless and age old technique is 100%.

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