Accepting Pain

In our day-to-day lives we are constantly having to make the choice of either accepting pain, or rejecting it. In the first case we settle up our bills, in the second case we evade payment. Evading takes many forms, and it can also go to any sort of extreme, from pleading for a bit more time to pay off the bill, to moving to a different address. If I am desperate enough, I might change my name – get a new identity – and then move to a different country. I might even get plastic surgery, or undergo a sex-change!

But why should we pay a ‘pain tax,’ for heaven’s sake? What kind of twisted, masochistic philosophy would require us to choose pain over ‘not-pain’? Why can’t we just have a nice time, isn’t that a valid option in life? There is great scope for confusion here, so we will have to tread carefully. Firstly, we could say that we aren’t talking about deliberately involving ourselves in painful situations, the ‘pain’ that we are referring to is the pain of facing difficulties head-on when they arise – when it really is necessary to face them. We don’t go looking for hardship, but when it is inevitable, we deal with it, then and there. In other words, then, what we are talking about is the choice between taking responsibility when that responsibility is ours to take, and handing it over, i.e. pretending that it isn’t ours. One option is hard, the other easy. As we all know, doing the hard thing makes us feel good about ourselves, taking the easy way out makes us feel bad. Needless to say, knowing this doesn’t really help very much when it comes down to it, but we do know it, all the same.

Another question arises here: How do we know when pain is inevitable, and when it may be legitimately avoided? How do I know when it is my responsibility, and when it is not? We can look at some simple examples. If I am weeding the garden, and I see a nettle growing there, I can avoid touching it and save myself the pain of being stung. If I only have a few pints in the pub, instead of fifteen, I save myself the pain of having a terrible hang-over in the morning. If I avoid getting involved with someone who I know is bad news, then I save myself from getting stuck in an abusive relationship. All of these are clearly instances of what we might call ‘legitimate pain-avoidance’. It is of course a fact that life is rarely as clear-cut as this, but we have to start off somewhere, so we will now try to find examples of ‘illegitimate pain-avoidance’. This is easy: we could say that once I have touched the nettle, or drunk the fifteen pints, or got involved in an abusive relationship, then the pain is rightfully mine. Once I make my bed, then I must lie in it! It is a fact that not everyone will agree with this conclusion. After all, someone might say, I could go and find some dock-leaves to rub on the nettle-sting (assuming that it works, that is); I could swallow a handful of Anadin for the hangover, and I can go and see a counsellor for my relationship problems. Either that or quit the relationship. Who says that I have to have pain? This is actually the key question, and it is one that we will come back to a number of times. What we are going to suggest is that ‘getting rid of pain’ doesn’t actually work in the long term, and that our determined (if not desperate) attempts to rid ourselves of pain actually create more pain than we would have been the case if we had simply ‘taken it on the chin’ to start off with.

This idea is a difficult one because the society we live in actively promotes the belief that pain can be effectively eradicated from our lives, or that it is at least possible for us to eradicate pain, in principle, anyway. And if it is not possible today, then it ought surely to be feasible tomorrow, when we have better drugs, better pain-killers, better anti-depressants, etc. It is this ideal of ‘total control’ that we see ourselves evolving towards. This reliance on our own power to manipulate away those aspects of life that we don’t like has resulted in us becoming what sociologist Ivan Illich calls ‘the anaesthetic society’. The problem with an attitude that says we can run away from pain if we want to is not hard to see once we think about it – having an ingrained attitude like this takes away our spirit, our courage, our belief in our ability to get through hardship on our own, i.e. without any crutches to help us. It is also an act of psychological denial.

Okay – so it’s not a big deal really if I want to pop a few Anadin. I have a headache, I swallow some pills, and the headache is gone. Big deal. Who said I had to suffer that hangover? The problem is a bit more subtle than that, though; I can indeed get rid of pain in the short-term, but there is a way in which that pain comes back later. Consider – suppose that I have this attitude that I can always press a button to zapp any suffering that I am having. Obviously, I am not going to squish my suffering just once in a while; one I get into the habit of it, I am going to resort to my anaesthetic zapp-gun every time. After all, pain is (supposedly) meaningless, and therefore I don’t have to go through it, and so why the hell would I bother? This is our attitude. But then, one day, along comes some suffering that I can’t zapp. It always does in the end – accidents, sickness, loss of one sort or another. So when something major comes along, what do I, with my acquired habit of pain-avoidance, actually do? The answer is simple, I crack up, big time. I go to pieces – I have an incredibly awful time of it. If I had faced up to all the little hardships, each one that I had successfully survived through would have helped me to grow a bit as a person – each episode of ‘pain-acceptance’ would have deepened my belief in my ability to deal with hardship, and, in addition to this, each time would have taught me that it is possible to grow through pain, to become more than I thought I was. When something major comes along, I wouldn’t panic, I’d simply get on with it, without making a fuss. This doesn’t mean I’d like it, but at least I wouldn’t undermine myself by saying “I can’t go through this….” over and over again in my head until I thoroughly believed it. As Richard Bach says: “Argue enough for your limitations, and, sure enough, they will be yours”.

Of course, there is still the counsellor, or the psychotherapist. Okay, I say, so I crack under the strain of some life-event. I’ll get over it – I’ll go and hand myself over to the experts to sort out. They will fix me up. This is another major delusion that society fosters! Any honest psychotherapist will be happy to put you straight on this one – there are no short-cuts to mental health. Mental health is about having an attitude where we don’t want to hand over our responsibility for ourselves all the time, it is about realizing that, at the end of the day, it is us that is going to have to feel the pain, and do the work, not the doctor or the therapist!
There is one final point which we have still to cover: Are there not times when I should simply walk out of trouble, if it is still possible to do so, as in for example the relationship that turns bad? There is no universally true answer to this question – whilst there are times when this would be the best course of action, there are also times when it wouldn’t be. It can be very hard to know what one should do in individual cases, but the principle that we are talking about applies to general trends and tendencies, not particular instances: if I have a habit of cutting and running when difficulties come up, then I will never discover the inner strength that was hidden in me all along, and if I never discover this, then I will never be of much use either to myself, or anyone else. It sounds very harsh to say this, but there is a psychological law here that none can escape. This ‘law’ says that I am only able to receive happiness to the extent that I am able to receive pain. As Kahlil Gibran says in The Prophet (1926, p 36):

……Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter
rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very
cup that that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the
very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart
and you shall find that it is only that which has given
you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful, look again in your
heart and you shall see that in truth you are
weeping for that which has been your delight. …….


So far we have talked about accepting pain (or responsibility) when it is ours to accept, but this doesn’t really answer the question as to when the responsibility is mine, and when it is not mine. It is obviously not such a simple matter as we have been making out so far – for example, some catastrophe might come along that was in no way the result of anything I did. Maybe my partner runs away with my best friend. Maybe I get involved in a car accident that was not my fault at all, and I get seriously hurt. Or maybe I suffer a stroke, and become confined to a wheel-chair. Each one of these constitutes a misfortune which has been ‘unfairly’ visited upon me, and yet the suffering involved is rightfully mine. It happened to me, so I have to accept it – that doesn’t mean I have to give up, far from it, it just means that I have to face the fact that it has happened.

Of course, I don’t have to accept the reality of what has happened, I can try to evade it. I will probably protest against the unfairness of it all, and ask “Why did it have to happen?” That is not accepting. I might get angry. I might get bitter. I might get resentful towards those who didn’t have to put up with a blow like the one I am suffering from. All of these are attempts to pass on the pain, to ‘redirect’ it like a letter that has come to the wrong address. If I shout and say that it is all your fault, then that is a really basic way of passing on suffering. I want you to feel bad! I might go into denial, I might start using alcohol or tranquilizers to block out the realization of what is happening. ‘Evading’ pain is also ‘passing it on’ – I am passing it on to myself in the future! We have talked about refusing the experience by being really negative about it, curiously, I can do the same thing by being really positive – I might pin all my hopes on some means of rectifying the situation, of making everything right again. I distract myself with lots of positive purposeful behaviour, and this is another way of postponing pain. As we have already implied, the unconditional act of accepting pain is neither positive or negative because it is not based upon expectations, or ‘jumping to conclusions’ – it means witnessing what is there, acknowledging it, but not judging it as good or bad. Now, we are not saying that it is morally wrong for me to attempt to avoid pain that is legitimately mine. That is not the point at all. All that we are saying is that, in the end, my attempts will not work. They might seem to work in the short-term, but they will not work in the long-term. In the long-term they will prove counter-productive, they will involve me in more suffering than ever. If I want to carry on trying to evade reality I can, that is a choice that is open to me. I am free to believe that I can escape from pain, and I am free to learn (eventually) that I can’t.

At this point, it would be natural to challenge what is being asserted above. It has been asserted that it will prove impossible (in the end) to escape pain. As well as this, we have said that no one can know happiness unless they also know sorrow. Is this really true? How can anyone make such statements – isn’t that being arrogant, or dogmatic? After all, has anyone ever proved it? It is certainly true that many people would disagree with the suggestion that pain is unavoidable, but what we are doing here is putting forward the idea for examination. Actually, we don’t really want anyone to agree, or disagree. To react in either way would be to miss the point. This might seem confusing, but it is straightforward enough really: If I make an assertion and you deny it, there is security in that. If I make an assertion and you agree with it, there is security in that too. Either way, no work is required. What we are saying is that the inherent demand in the question “Is that really true?” is the demand for the security of not having to experience the pain of uncertainty. Basically, wanting to have ‘the truth’ given to us on a plate is pain avoidance, we want to avoid going through the uncertainty of ‘not knowing,’ and get quickly to a nice safe destination where everything is sorted out. Therefore, if you want to know what is ‘really true’ it is important not to take any short-cuts such as believing your own automatic reaction, or believing what someone else says. ‘Wanting to know the answer’ is usually yet another attempt to hand over responsibility. I don’t want to have to go through the painful process of working out by myself what I need to do, I want a guide-book to tell me.

Because the demand is there, there is, naturally enough, a big business in selling such guide-books. Most book-shops have shelves that are full of books on self-development, self-help, positive thinking, all sorts of psychological recipes to help you change your life for the better. If I go to see a therapist, it is probably because I want someone who ‘really knows’ to tell me what I am doing wrong, and how I can fix it. Yet, how can anyone tell us how to live life? If this was possible, then I would never have to go through the adventure of learning wisdom for myself – my own journey of discovery would not be necessary. “Sure – I’ll just buy the self-development package,” the man says, “I don’t need to go through all that messy business of finding out for myself. Who knows how long that might take, anyway?

A short-cut like this, if it existed, would be dreadful news, because it would rob us of the experience of making our own way in life. Someone else, an expert, who knows all about it, tells us about it, and then we just have to follow instructions. If I happen to be feeling scared by the responsibility of finding out for myself ‘what its all about’ then a short-cut sounds really good, but actually, it represents a threat to our own autonomy. If I stop thinking for myself, then I have handed over my freedom to someone else, or to some idea or theory. You can’t do my thinking for me! Realizing that there are no easy answers has got to rank as one of the most painful discoveries that it is possible to make, but when we have actually got on with it, then the ‘slap-in-the-face’ of finding out that I can’t hand over responsibility turns out to be a crucial turning point in my attitude to life. From here on, once avoidance ends, the real adventure begins.


As we have just said, although no one can make it easy for me, simply seeing that no one can make it easy for me is in itself a tremendous break-through. Unless we see this, we can’t even start getting out of the mess we’re in. And although there are no hard and fast rules to ‘tell us what to do’, it is at least possible for us to understand what lies at the root of our confusion. In essence, what lies at the root of our confusion is the belief that there is a short-cut, a method which we can cling to make life manageable and safe. We want to neutralise the pain, uncertainty and risk inherent in life, and it is through trying to do this that we mire ourselves in misery and pointlessness. In refusing pain and uncertainty we are refusing to grow; our attempt manage life is actually the attempt to reject life. We suffer from our defences, in other words. Another way to explain this point is to say that where we go wrong is that we believe too strongly in our own descriptions of what is happening. There is security in living in a world of definite descriptions, but the problem is that the world of certainties which we create with our thoughts and beliefs is not actually real. If we didn’t rush so much to describe reality, if we didn’t jump to premature conclusions the whole time, then we would stand a chance of seeing what is really going on. ‘Describing’ is very closely linked with ‘fixing’ – if I can describe the world, then I can fix, or manage it. That is the whole idea, really. Knowledge is power, knowledge means we don’t have to be vulnerable any more, it means we can defend ourselves against stuff that we don’t like. Suppose there is a problem, but I happen to have a method of dealing with that problem. Therefore, there is no problem: the problem comes along, I look in my guide-book and find the method for dealing with the problem in question, I follow the steps [A], [B], [[C] etc, and…….. and Hey Presto! – the problem is zapped. “Great news,” we all say, “absolutely marvellous. We licked it!”
Now, if we lived in a universe that could be ‘solved’ by the application of a book of rules, this would be the end of the matter. If we lived in the type of universe where it is possible to neutralize the pain of uncertainty by finding the right description, then investing everything in an all-out attempt to describe the world to ourselves would be the best course of action. But that, most emphatically, IS NOT the type of universe which we live in. In THIS universe life is not like a computer game which we can win or lose: there is no right set of moves that will sort everything out, there is no ideal manipulatory sequence which we can initiate as we sit safely at our console. The fact of the matter is that we have to jump in and get dirty, we have to immerse ourselves in a world where there are no hard-and-fast rules to live by. In the universe which we actually live in, the ‘right way’ is to realize that there are no ‘right ways’. Here, what counts is the courage to throw away the rule-book and get stuck into uncertainty of it all, to jump off the tractor and wade into the mud. There is a kind of a rule in the Universe of Change, and that is the rule which says we have to periodically go beyond our own descriptions of what life is about; in other words, from time to time, it is necessary to grow beyond our established boundaries, to move beyond the security of the known. This is a painful process in a particular type of way – it involves a sense of loss, a sense of insecurity, and, as psychiatrist M. Scott Peck says, the fearful anticipation of the work that has to be done in order to function in a totally different world. It is like your first day at school all over again – the only thing you know for sure is that you know nothing, that you are vulnerable and unprotected and not at all ‘the expert’.

If we could always rely on solving life’s problems, then we would never need to learn anything new. We would have already ‘cracked it,’ we would have ‘knocked it on the head,’ we would have it all ‘sorted’. That way we get to be the expert all the time, nothing can surprise us and nothing can render us vulnerable. But, as we have repeatedly said, ‘solving’ life amounts to ‘dodging’ life – ‘solving’ equals ‘avoiding,’ and our ‘need to solve’ is driven by nothing other than fear. Psychologist Abraham Maslow explained neurosis as being due to fear of novelty, which is to say, fear of anything that is truly NEW. This amounts to fear of change, i.e. a fear of growth. Zen Buddhist Steven Hagen approaches the matter in a different way, he says that our problem is not that we have problems, our problem is that we don’t want to have problems. The problem isn’t the problem, it’s our attitude to the problem that is the problem…..


As a final example of the idea of ‘acceptance’, we might relate what we have been saying to the act of ‘facing fear’. It sounds very much as if, in order to accept pain, one needs to be a very strong and courageous person. That is fine if you happen to be very strong and courageous, but what about the rest of us? After all, if we already had that attitude, then we wouldn’t be in the situation that we are now! Well, its true that courage is needed and therefore that courage needs to come from somewhere. It certainly isn’t there all the time. On the other hand, we are not talking about special people, people who do not feel fear. Courage is not about being immune to fear, courage means that I acknowledge my fear, I don’t try to get rid of it, or fool myself into thinking that I am not afraid. Once I do this simple thing, of accepting what is already true, to be true, then the situation immediately turns around: if I am not using up my energy in denying fear, or trying to run away from it, then I find that actually staying with my fear comes naturally. After all, accepting means that I see that I am afraid, and in seeing this there is, strangely enough, peace of mind. I am no longer struggling, or fighting it, I am just witnessing it. The cure for suffering is not to reject suffering, but to see that you are, indeed, suffering. This is all that is required. Then, I feel bad, but I do not feel bad about feeling bad. I am not trapped in feeling bad – the situation can evolve, in other words. Therefore, facing fear doesn’t mean being specially brave, it just means seeing how scared you really are! Acknowledging the truth of the situation is the key, and when we do this we find that we had the strength to see the truth all along, we only thought that we didn’t. Strength isn’t about having the power to change things because we are angry or scared, it is about allowing things to be what they already are.


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