Transforming Pain

The everyday self is a self which ‘reacts’ automatically whilst believing the whole time that it is perfectly free. This self is characterized by the fact that it cannot (of its own free will) endure pain; it can put up with a certain amount of discomfort if it knows that it will get something out of it, but this is strictly ‘conditional acceptance’. If at all possible the ‘reactional self’ will avoid any sort of discomfort and it is extremely clever at doing this. It can even pretend to accept discomfort, and fool itself that it wants to accept discomfort, simply as a ploy to avoid it. Actually, everything this reactive self does is conditioned by its need to avoid pain, and ‘pain’ can be understood to also include receiving information that it does not want to receive.


For this self (which we will from now on call the ‘false self’) finding out that everything it does is motivated by the need to avoid pain is itself pain, and so it will assiduously avoid this awareness. Similarly, the false self cannot endure to learn that it is in fact incapable of enduring pain, and so it will avoid learning this too, and persist in believing that it can do anything it wants. This self-deception constitutes the ‘false freedom’ of the false self.


Once we understand that everything the false self does is motivated by ‘self-interest’, then it becomes obvious why the false self must avoid pain. From its inevitably narrow and short-sighted point of view there can be no reason whatsoever to accept pain. In a fundamental way, accepting pain just doesn’t make sense to it, and its inability to understand why it should is, as we have said, the defining characteristic of its nature. To unconditionally accept pain is an irrational, unselfish and unpredictable act and the false self is always rational, always selfish, always predictable.


What we have said so far allows us to pinpoint the precise nature of our predicament and this understanding can be expressed in the form of two linked statements:

[1] We are faced with pain that we cannot evade.

[2] We are identified with (or trapped within) the false self that cannot do other than continually attempt to avoid pain.

Clearly, the only answer to this predicament is to disidentify with the false self, to free myself from it, and the only way for me to do this is stop refusing the legitimate pain of my situation. But this is exactly what I can’t do! How can I do this, when it goes so completely against the grain of the false self that I am trapped within?


This feels like an impossibility, but there is a way, all the same. The key to ‘switching over’ from the false to the true self is by allowing the difficult experience we are undergoing to connect us to others, rather than letting it isolate us in sterile self-concern. It is possible to do this simply by thinking of someone who we feel love or compassion for: as soon as I feel the spark of compassion for someone else, then instead of trapping me in myself, in my disconnectedness, the pain naturally has the effect of relating me to something that is outside of me. The moment this happens I find that my pain is no longer ‘my’ pain; it is simply pain – it is not special to me, or belonging only to me, rather it is the same pain that we all suffer from, it is universal pain, it is part of the universal experience of life that we all share.


At this point pain becomes interesting because it is relating me to life itself – from it I am learning about something real, something bigger than ‘me’. Because it has become interesting I do not have the automatic reaction of putting all my energy into trying to push it away, and when I am no longer try to fight it or push it away the pain no longer traps me in myself. The curious fact (that we never stop to discover) is that fighting pain creates a false self that cannot ever truly escape pain, and if there is no fighting, no attempt to stay in control, there is no self to be trapped in.


Feeling concern for someone other than myself instantly connects me to the True Self, and from the standpoint of the True Self (which is the absence of the ‘small’ or false self) pain is not something that has to be avoided at all costs. The True Self, which is the essence of who we are, is not afraid of pain and is not harmed by pain. The greater the difficulty, the greater the challenge, the more the True Self rises to meet it. This is because there are no limits to what it can bear and what it can do – the only limitations are those which arise due to our own lack of understanding regarding this fact.


When I relate to pain in a closed way (i.e. in an avoidance-type way), then the experience that I have as a result is ultimately meaningless and I am effectively cut off from Reality itself. This is a disastrous situation because when I am cut off from reality I am cut off from my own strength and intelligence and as a result I can bear nothing and understand nothing. All I can do is endlessly attempt to hide behind layer after layer of self-deception. When I relate to pain in an open way, then as we have said the experience is meaningful and I discover that I can bear more than I thought I could, and understand more than I thought I could. In fact, I become as the result of my experience more than I was.


By relating to my own pain, I become able to relate to the pain of others. By shouldering my own pain, I become able to shoulder the pain of others. This gives genuine meaning to my experience because not only am I changed by what I am going through, I am changed in such a way that I become more useful to others, more useful to life. This transforms my experience of pain from being a sad and futile attempt to escape the inevitable into a ‘noble venture’, an adventure which takes me deeper and deeper into Reality. The pain itself is being transformed into wisdom and compassion; by breaking out of the sterile bubble of my own self-concern I develop a keen appreciation of the situation of others, along with the motivation to use this awareness in the service of a higher cause.


Beforehand, my pain was pure persecution – it was wholly against me, wholly negative and wholly ‘going nowhere’. Now, it helps me, it is PRO rather than ANTI, and it takes me somewhere real – it actually makes my life mean something. The important thing to understand about all this is that we can’t turn the experience around intentionally. We cannot transform pain on purpose because the ‘purpose’ in question always belongs to the false self; if there is purposefulness then there is a secret agenda behind that apparently positive purposefulness, and that secret agenda is always the same, i.e. it is the agenda of the false self to maintain itself at whatever cost. Transformation from unreal (or ‘theatrical’) to real (or ‘dramatic’) only occurs when the false self’s secret agenda is dropped, which is to say, when we give up, on a very deep level, the attempt to escape or control the pain.


As we have said, the key to the whole process is to dedicate the experience that we are going through to a ‘higher cause’. This makes the experience precious, rather than worthless, and this is a tremendous turnaround. This has nothing to do with rationalizing what is going on (i.e. saying “I am doing X because of Y”); it is not our head that we are relying on but our heart. Instead of a ‘shrewd calculation of ways and means’ (as Oscar Wilde puts it), we are trusting our heart, and we are tuning into the heart-felt desire to free others from their suffering, which springs naturally and spontaneously from the heart when the head does not get in the way.


Freedom is not obtained for selfish (or rational) reasons; it is not for myself that I go through what I am going through – if it were only for myself, then I would not be able to go through it. The strength and inspiration that I need in order to undertake the Internal Task of self-transformation comes from outside of the false self. There is never any shortage of strength and wisdom, only a shortage of faith. As a Buddhist text says – the harvest is abundant, but what is not abundant are workers who are willing to bring it in!


When we are identified with the false self we cannot avail of this ‘harvest’ since the false self has no faith in anything outside itself. Because of fear, it only trusts its own cleverness, and this is its downfall. The false self has a very simple behaviour pattern: it chases pleasure and it flees pain, and the result of this short-sighted motivation is that it goes forever around in circles. The circle it moves in is a circle of frustration since the whole endeavour is an exercise in unreality, an attempt to have one end of the stick without the other.


According to Alan Watts this circle of frustration comes into being because of our constant endeavour to be permanently ‘one-up on ourselves’, when the fact of the matter is that we can only be ‘up’ half the time, and must spend the other half ‘down’. The false self wants to be the winner of its game all the time, but what goes up must also come down, and so there is no winning without losing. No sooner does it obtain what it was craving for, than it has lost it, and must start the whole process over again. Overall, this is a self-frustrating circle of activity because whatever gains we may seem to have made at one point are inevitably lost later on, bringing us back to square one with nothing to show for our trouble.


If pain is not rejected, but used as fuel in the way that G.I. Gurdjieff speaks of to propel ourselves on the journey to freedom, then it takes us somewhere new, somewhere we could not even have imagined. This journey into the unknown is the journey of life itself, and the meaningfulness of the journey is the meaningfulness of life. It is the self-cancelling circularity which makes the ‘life’ of the false self essentially meaningless, and it is the movement out of this terrible circularity that gives us back the meaning of our lives.


Beforehand, I was isolated from life as a result of my insistence on acting only for myself, acting only out of blind selfishness. After the turnaround has taken place I find that I am acting in the service of life, instead of acting against it, and so everything that happens to me from now on goes on to have positive, helpful consequence. From then on everything that happens to me is equally beneficial, as Ram Dass says, it is all ‘grist for the mill’. Even if absolutely everything goes wrong for me, I can still work with it – the overall process of becoming increasingly free (and becoming increasingly ‘useful’ as a result) is not jeopardized.


The basic idea is that when difficult situations come along, we can go down one of two roads. The easiest road (the one we take by sheer reflex) is to identify with the false self. If we succumb to the temptation to do this, then all we have done is to dig an even deeper hole for ourselves than the one we were in to start off with. This is extreme short-sightedness; it is like the idea of the ostrich which was said to bury its head in sand when danger threatens. By identifying ourselves with the false self we alienate ourselves from the reality of what is going on, and at the same time we alienate ourselves from the only thing that can help us – the truth. What a wretched, miserable thing this is, to be stuck indefinitely in a situation that I dare not face.


If we take the other road, then as we have said, even the most dreadful circumstances are workable. The other road is where we use the pain of our situation as fuel to propel us beyond the deadly gravitational field of the false self. The rule here is simple: the worse the predicament, the more fuel we are given.







  1. doyourwork · August 31, 2017

    If I could consider the pain or any mental discomfort that I am trying to avoid, as the same pain a loved one would have to endure in the future (kind of using imagination in an inspiring way), and that when I could bear that pain now (perhaps, even merging their pain with my current experience), then there is a sense of meaningfulness in it. ”

    Thank You

  2. doyourwork · August 31, 2017

    Just read about ‘Tonglen’ by Pema Chodron–a way to connect with the pain of others and thereby going through our own pain

  3. zippypinhead1 · August 31, 2017

    That’s a great article. If we aren’t able to transform our pain in this way then the pain is literally unbearable and we have to retreat further and further into unreality. Which causes even more pain!