Coping With Pain
One subject that is what, we all are familiar with, none of us is a stranger to pain and pain is not a stranger to us. And in our own ways we try to cope with it, all through our lives. From childhood on, I used to be a very mischievous child. When I recollect, down the memory lanes, the sufferings,which my mother had because of me. I must have been a real pain in the neck for everyone. I used to be pretty tough and hyperactive, had pretty good tolerance towards pain. We grew up learning to cope up with pain, being brave about-facing pain.
About fifty-one years ago, I had met with a serious accident, on my Royal Enfield motorbike. Half of my left leg, below the knee was chopped off, was lying a few feet ahead of me. It was a case of almost resulting into an amputation. But, the Divine Mother, Supreme Divinity, as ever came and save me.
Subsequent years of my life in the Indian Air Force (IAF) and till date,must have been much more numbers of experiences, I had to taste, than generally other good brothers, sisters, friends and relatives of mine. It appeared to me that I had to face pain, on numerous occasions and also sadly pickled with series of accidents. It is true that I had a way of leading a different kind of adventurous life. What you would generally call, accident-prone. All along, I had recognized, however, known pain and had learned to live with it.
I had an opportunity to do a little bit of research on this subject and I have come back to this topic, again and again, over the years because, this is something that needs, a lot of reflection and a lot of understanding; since it is something that we have to deal with it, almost, on a daily basis.
If we ask, which is the most common reason, for seeing a doctor? The answer is ‘Pain’. Which is the number one reason, why people take medication? The answer is again ‘Pain’. What disables or severely affects more people, than even cancer and heart disease, all over the world? The answer is again ‘Pain’. What is it that has made people consider, even suicide, as an alternative? The answer is again ‘Pain’.
Albert Schweitzer, once famously said, that pain is a more terrible lord of mankind, than even ‘death’ himself. Pain is democratic. It makes no distinctions. Irrespective of the other realities of life, the other things, that distinguish us, one from another; pain makes no distinction. It comes to everyone. The beggar also suffers from pain and the King too does suffer from pain. The householder suffers from pain, as does the monk who undergoes the process of renunciation. The villain suffers from pain, so does the saint. No one is free from it and we learn about pain, interestingly enough, from our earliest nursery rhymes. So, one rhyme that we all are familiar with,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again’.
And the American poet, Robert Benwerrin, pens this line, this is what he wrote,
So let us name the truth like men.
That joy may become pain.
We are born to hope,
That hope may become pain.
We are born to love,
That love may become pain.
We are born to pain,
That pain, may become more pain’.
It is the ‘Pain’
We are born to joy,
So pain is really something that needs to be taken more seriously, than any of the other illnesses. Until the 1980’s, pain was a neglected subject. Even in modern medicine, a 1983 survey, so it is a pretty old survey, it showed that, at that time, 17 standard textbooks on surgery, medicine and cancer, had only 54 pages out of 22,000 pages, providing information on pain. So hardly anything.
More than half the books, did not mention, did not discuss pain at all. Now at that time, certainly not to long ago, even say 40 or 50 years ago, there were relatively few known facts about pain to discuss. Another problem modern medicine had at that time, was it wasn’t decided to which branch of medicine, the research on pain, really belonged. It belonged to anaestheology, neurology or psychiatry. And that’s why the research remained neglected and unfunded for a long time. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case.
How much work is being done on pain today?
In ancient times, pain was attributed to evil influences. Egyptians thought in the early days, believed that pain was caused by angry God’s and spirits of the dead. And so the only way to overcome pain in those days was to propitiate, these beings.
In India, lot of people attributed pain to just Karma and generally didn’t seem much to do about it, other than pray.
By 16th century, it was discovered that pain could be dealt with opium. Earlier, it was thought that the heart was the locus of the pain. But, Greek philosophers, specifically, Plato and Democrates, concluded that it was not the heart, but the brain, which perceived the pain. That was a right conclusion. But even at that time, the details about it remained quite unknown.
Now, the recent pain research and I am sure when I say recent, its to my information is back dated, so some of you may have more up to date information on it. But some of the basic facts about pain are this. That what exactly happens when a beetle collides with a large solid object? The pain message originates at the point of contact, beginning with the release of a few potent chemicals. That are normally stored in and around all the nerve endings. Among these chemicals are just the several names, most of them, it doesn’t make any sense to me, as I would imagine and would make any sense to you. But one of the chemicals, were the mysterious thing, they just called it ‘P’, in those early days. Meaning that was something, they did not what the ‘P’ stood for pain. Now these chemicals sensitized the nerve endings. And help transmit the pain message, as an electrochemical message. Electrochemical impulse from the injured region to the dots of the spinal cord. And from the spinal cord then it is relayed as a chemical message to the brain with a sensation first becomes conscious. So, only then we really become aware of the pain. So before that this is the way the pain message gets conveyed. And it is that time, that they intensity and the location of the pain becomes known. Now it was also discovered that only a limited amount of information about pain can pass through these nerves. The nerves are capable of processing this data, only limited amount of data, at a given time. And so when too much information passed, many of the nerves, just kind of that stop that. Stop that flow of information. So that became known as the gate control theory and then that is often described to show why massaging or patting a sore area, gives some relief.
In other words, if there is any other information, which is more powerful than this pain information, then that information will get precedence over the brain information. So this gate control theory is what explains, why sometimes, we may not feel the pain from a very obvious source. When we are engaged in an activity, which is more engrossing. Sometimes you will see,busy reading a book or watching a movie, which is, we are so deeply engrossed in it, you may not be aware that, of a mosquito bite. But, if the movie is not so interesting, then every little pain, it is like when you are listening to a lecture, some times the seat are fairly comfortable. But sometimes, the seats may not be so comfortable. And but if you are so engrossed in a lecture, you may not realize that discomfort at all. But if the lecture is boring, every little pain will distract us. So by seeing the reactions, I know, how much of this write up is boring?
One example, is given of, and often times, the soccer player, for instance, who is so absorbed in the play, that the player may not notice, until the game is over that perhaps a shoulder is dislocated. Or the ankle is swollen. Because that time, just the excitement of the game, was so engrossed into the game, that some of this pain, you may not notice while playing. That is explained through this pain gate theory.
In 1975, scientists discovered that, what that mysterious chemical, like just named ‘P’ earlier, which they just, which the scientists called is simply ‘P’, is around 1975, they discovered, what that chemical might be? And those powerful pain blocking chemicals, they became known of, was what most of us most are familiar with as endomorphins.
And these are that something, which switched off the pain alarm in the body. So opium drug like morphine and heroin also have this capacity, to activate the bodies pain relief system. Now, pain is not simply physical. As I said, a lot of researches being done currently on pain and the researchers admit that the experience of pain is a very, very complex experience. It involves emotions, previous experiences with pain and what the pain means to us at any given time.
Therefore, its very difficult to pinpoint, because all though, so far, wehave discussed the physiological aspects of pain. But where do this physiology and the psychology of pain begins?
Now that takes us to a field, where even modern medicine is groping. Because, it is easy to understand that when your big toe hits against a solid surface, there are the nerve endings and then you feel the hurt and how those messages are transmitted; first, the spinal cord and then to the brain.
But what about the pain we feel, when we are insulted? When we are betrayed? When we are deserted? What about the pain when a dear one passes away? Or a feared one knocks at our door? Now where does kind of pain originate? There is nothing hitting against anything. Does it also follow the same route, as a psychological pain? Now modern medicine clearly has no satisfactory answer to this question. What the researchers have found that both, physiological pain and psychological pain, both are interrelated. What pain signifies to a person, makes a big difference to how it is perceived?
For instance, fear, anxiety, stress and the experience of disaster, can make pain seen worse than it actually is. Sometimes, the pain continues because the patient has something material or psychological to gain from it.
Studies have shown that those people with pending law suits, seeking compensation for injuries, rarely get better, until the suit is settled. Pain may sometimes make a mysterious appearance, when some one wants to avoid certain obligations or duties. In one seminary every member of that, every monastic noviate. Novices had to undergo a two month duty, in the kitchen and the dining hall. Now among all the duties these young novices had, this kitchen and dining hall duty were the most severe one. And especially because, you needed to lift these heavy utensils and serve food and so in one seminary it was discovered invariably, when some one’s duty came, for that dining hall duty appeared, many people developed backaches. And when that period of duty was over, they mysteriously became well.
Now they were not pretending, that the backpain they experienced was very real. But it was also associated with their distaste and a desire to avoid that kind of duty. So, its pain, as can you see, its pretty complex. It’s not simply physical. What we see is that, the mind plays a very powerful role, in the experience of pain that we have. We also see, those with tremendous will power, can tolerate much higher level of pain; than the other people around her could?
On one hand, it would be a big mistake, to think that every pain is psychological. Every pain is not psychological. To distinguish between physiological pain, and psychological pain is not always easy. And if we are lucky, to fall into the hands of a doctor, who can identify, which is psychological pain, which is physiological pain, then it is good. Otherwise, the patient can be confused. You go to a doctor, and the doctor says, now this is psychological. And you go to a doctor, and the doctor says, go check your head. And you to a psychiatrist, now everything is fine, something psychological and can kind of, go back and forth. This is the kind of not exactly dealing with pain, but a similar kind of dilemma can come in other spheres as well.
About a couple of years ago, I had discussion meeting with the Harvard Health Services, for instance. The chaplain and the religious professionals who are in the campus, are there to help students and people on the campus with their spiritual and religious difficulties and problems.
And so how do we distinguish, when someone comes with need for help, either to the health services, on a campus or to the chaplains, whether it’s a religious issue or it’s a psychological issue? Whether it is a spiritual problem or a physiological problem? Again similar kind of, it’s a very thin line.
Sometimes, we ourselves may not be able to identify what kind of a problem we have? And continuing with that instance that I mentioned sometime we might think it is a spiritual problem, but it could be a psychological one. Or we might think, it is psychological, but it could be spiritual.
In the same way, the pain that we experience, how much of that pain is psychological, how much of that is physiological; it is not always easy to know that. And when that kind of a confusion occurs, then we are not sure, then often times, people turn to some alternative methods, alternative ways of dealing with it. And some of these other remedies, have found, have been found useful. Whether it is Caro practice or exercise, whirlpool massage, some people have been benefitted by that. Surgery has helped in some cases and also music therapy. Now different methods of relieving pain have been tried all over the world.
Now why a particular method should work in one case and not in another case? Really no one really knows. And that’s a mysterious part. Pain researchers realized that ultimately every one of us will have to look within, in our own, to our own innate mental power to deal with pain.
Dr. John Bonica, Founder of the International Society for the study of pain, and is a World renowned leader, in pain research, he says, “I do not think it takes too much scientific license to say that we will discover mental activities, that can produce specific analgesia”. And he said this way back in the 1980’s. In 10 or 15 years perhaps, we can begin to teach people, to control their own pain. Now what sort of mental activities, Dr. Bonica, had in mind was not very clear. But he has reported to have referred to, a form of self-hypnosis. Long used in India to conquer pain.
Now that’s Dr. Bonica little bit, of topsy turvy in understanding, because it is not to difficult to realize that he most probably, was referring to what we study here, fairly regularly in Vedanta. On what Bonica calls as self-hypnosis, is really just the opposite. Once some one asked Swami Vivekananda that when we say about the self is, you are the self, you are the Atman and the Atman is infinite, free from pain, free, pure. Are we not trying to hypnotize ourselves? Because this understanding of the self, is so different, so contrary to our present experience.
So we experience pain, we feel vulnerable, we feel we are plagued by our mortality and then we are told, no, no, you are not mortal. You are free. You are immortal. Are we not trying to hypnotize ourselves with that? And Swami Vivekananda’s answer to that was, “No, we are already hypnotized”.
So the Vedanta says, is that our present experience, is really, is a result of hypnosis. That, we have begun to so strongly believe, on our present identity. That when, what is our true identity, according to Vedanta, is pointed out towards, that appears like some kind of an exotic way of dealing with it.
And so you can kind of understand based on what we have discussed time and again here. How Vedanta would deal with this problem of pain? The reason is this. While there are several remedies available to deal with pain, both psychological and physiological, none of those remedies are able to relieve pain forever. Sure some of them work like magic. But we know that they come again. And then we have to deal with that again. So one of the dangers that we can fall to, that we can become so dependent, on the external help, whether it is medication or anything, something else that we are never able to keep pain away forever.
One way would be to say, is that it can never happen. That it is there, all that we can do is deal with it, every time it comes. What Vedanta proposes, is to give us a method of being free from pain, forever. And by ever, is by Vedanta’s timeline, is much bigger than what most of us deal with. That even we speak about future, it is not about until, the time we die. Because, our existence is larger than this, interval between birth and death. So in future, it would mean, every time we appear, where ever on this, as living beings, and are encased in some body and in some mind, we will never be free from pain; because of those limitations.
So what Vedanta proposes to do, is to find a way, as a freedom from pain forever. And when you begin to think about it in this way, it suddenly appears to be so simple, the way, so and that we begin to wonder why we didn’t even think about it before; because it is just pure common sense in some ways. It is like this. Think about all the problems you have had? Think about all the kinds of pain you have had? And one thing is very obvious, that all of the pain that we have had has either affected us physically, psychologically, affected our body or affected our mind. And we know that our body and mind are connected, because lot of times, when the body is not doing well and that state of not doing well continues, for a sustained amount of time, the mind is affected by it. Or the mind, is not doing well, for a long time, it also tells on our physical health. So body and mind are connected. And all of our pain is either related with the body and with the mind. Also, from our present experience, we know, that when we are disconnected, even if temporarily from our body and mind, we are free from that pain. It is like this. Let’s say I have a severe headache. And while when you have a severe headache, it might be difficult to fall asleep. But if you are really at some point, how long can you stay without sleep? At some point sheer exhaustion, if nothing else, will put you to sleep. Well, you will go to sleep. When we are asleep and as long as we are asleep, you are not going to feel the headache. The body is still there, the body hasn’t disappeared, but temporarily as long as you are asleep, you are disconnected from the body. So the body’s pain continues, but because you are disconnected from the body, as long as you are asleep, you do not feel the pain. Same thing is with regard to the mind.
Depending of the kind of dream we have, again it is not that all the dreams are wonderful; it is not that all the dreams are nightmares; dreams are, as much a mixed pair, as our daily life is. Some of the dreams are great, bring us great joy, some of the dreams bring us great pain. Even the pain that we experience in our painful dreams, that pain is different from, or can be different from the pain, we experience in our waking state.
So our dreams sell mind. May bring about the different kind of pain. But the waking pain may not necessarily show itself in the dream pain. Then in that small period of time, in a 24 hours cycle, where every one of us go, called that deep sleep, when we are not even dreaming. That is the time, when we are disconnected from both, body and mind. Again the body and mind don’t disappear. But they are there, but we are not connected with it. And because we are not connected with it, the pain and problems connected with them, do not affect us. So in a state of deep sleep again, no matter what age group we belong to, no matter what other distinctions we may have, in a state of deep sleep everyone and not just human beings, every living creature, even cats and dogs, every one is experiencing that deep bliss. Because you are free from the limitations, the problems, the pain associated with the body and mind. And of course, as soon as we wake up in the morning, they come back again, because we are again connected with the body and mind, which itself is defective.
What Vedanta points out is this, that we cannot separate pain from the body, we cannot separate pain from the mind permanently. No one can do it. We can do it temporarily, but not permanently. So the wise alternative that we have, is that if we cannot separate pain from the body, we cannot separate pain from the mind. One thing that we can do, is we can separate ourselves from the body and mind. Why remain connected with this defective product?
Now does this separation mean, we have to die. No, because infact, death doesn’t mean that you are free from the body and mind. First of all, death as we normally understand it, is not freedom from the mind at all. The mind that we have now is the mind that we have had in all of our past lives. We don’t get a fresh mind in every birth. The mind is a repository of all the impressions, the sanskaras, the experiences, so everything is there, the mind is carried over from one life to another. So first of all, the mind is not destroyed. Even the body, even if we get a new body, a different body in a different birth, that body is as much limited, as much defective, as a present body is. It will be new, but its not essential characteristics, it is not different from this one. And therefore, simply elimination or disconnecting ourselves from body and mind does not mean death.
In fact, it is something that brings us joy right now. Think about it this way. When you are engrossed reading in some, a good novel, or you are watching some great movie, or a television program, or playing some computer game, anything, anything that takes your whole being and makes you for that time, less aware of almost not aware of your body and mind; that’s a wonderful time, the pain associated with the body and mind, you forget. So you do not have to be asleep to do that. You can be also engaged in some activity to do that.
So what Vedanta encourages us to do, is to say, look deeply within and find whether your identity with the body, your identity with the mind, is it intrinsic to you. And one thing is obvious; it is not really intrinsic because if it were, we would never be able to switch it off. Even for a short time during the sleep, or during dream. So it is not really integral, to our existence, because if something is integral, you can never be without it. And so, if we can separate ourselves or dis-identify ourselves from the body and mind, in sleep, in dream,which really occurs in a natural course of our life; we do not have to do a lot of spiritual struggle for that.
Can we do it consciously?
And that is really what Vedantic Spiritual practice is all about. That consciously when I am awake, can I look deeply and say, sure you are not denying the body, you are not denying the mind, your are denying your experience; you acknowledge everything as they are.
But then ask yourself, is this really who I am?
And those who have done this kind of research. This is as much a research, as the research to that I referred to, at the beginning. But this is a research in the internal world; the laboratories inside. It needs a special kind of training, all kind of research needs training. If there is, you need, training to go out into a physics, or a chemistry laboratory and work; you need a different kind of training, to go inside and hear the laboratories once own mind. The deeper layers of our mind. The body is complex enough but the mind that we have, is even more complex. Much, a lot more complex than the body. To go within and do research there and then discover that sure the body and mind are there, but they are just layers. That the real me, is within. And that real me, is free from all problems. Free from all pain. Once I discover that, I have the right technology then to deal with pain. That doesn’t mean, that I will not feel pain. But what it does mean, is that I will have the freedom, to disassociate from that pain, whenever I want. Now these great enlightened ones, today the one’s we adore and worship and recognize as incarnations, as saviors, as prophets, sure they had a body, they had a mind, we also saw that they suffered and they suffered also looking at the suffering of other people. They were not pretending. The suffering they felt, at looking the other people suffering, the help they gave, came out of a real concern, a real compassion. But every one of them had that freedom, that at a moment’s notice, they could withdraw their being, from the body and mind. That is something that should become a part of our Spiritual practice. In fact, that’s really although sometimes the goal of Spiritual life, may be spelt out in terms as, may be you call it salvation, or nirvana, or moksha, you may have these different terms. The bottom line is this, which ever way theologically, that goal of life is explained, what we really want is, I do not want pain. And I do not want, if there is a way of getting rid of pain forever. If there a way to feel fulfilled and be happy and contended for ever. That’s what I want. And you can call this and cover with concepts and ideas and give different names to it; as the goal. But really that’s what we want. And Vedanta has this method that is put before us. That we have the technology, we have the capacity; we have the knowledge of how to become free.
Now, just having the knowledge doesn’t mean that we will automatically become free; unless we do something about it. Vivekananda’s that great poem, the song of the sansayin, he says,
‘Thy lonely is the hand, that holds the rope, that drags the arm’.
So here is the pain and I know all that I need to do, is let go that rope, which is dragging me. So there is no point, in clinging to that rope and saying, “Oh! I experience so much pain”. Just let go. And we know from our own, its so much more easier to say, let go. But we know from our own personal experience, how difficult it is. To let go off even mundane things. What to speak of things that are so, so very dear to our heart?
Now having said all this, it might appear, as if pain in something to be dreaded, pain is an enemy. Actually no, pain is actually or can be infact a blessing. I said that one way of understanding the goal of life, is being completely free from pain. And we might therefore think that being free from pain is a most wonderful thing that can happen to us. In the ultimate sense yes. But not quite now, there are some genetic disorders, extremely rare cases, where people become completely insensitive to pain. And that might seem like, what could be better than it, they need not do any Spiritual practice. They are already free from pain. But the results are really terrible. Being free from pain, due to a genetic defect, is not a blessing; it really could be a curse.
What happened to these unfortunate people, what can happen and what has happened, to those rare few, who had this disorder is that their fingers were either crushed or burnt, because they did not pull their hand away from things that were hot or dangerous. You wouldn’t even know, if you are big toe hits against a wall or something. When there is pain right now, we know, but we wouldn’t even know. The bones of such people, the bones and joints were deformed because they pounded them too hard, when they walked or ran. Their knees had ulcerated because in their childhood, they had crawled over sharp objects, that they could not feel. Such was the insensitivity that were they to break a bone or dislocate a hip, they wouldn’t feel enough to cry out for help. So immunity from pain, will not be a blessings. So it is possible, it is infact necessary to see pain as a warning signal. Just like we have smoke detectors. It starts making sound and then it makes us know something is wrong, some where. So pain is actually a blessing, so whenever we feel pain in the body, whenever we feel pain in the mind, our body, our mind, are trying to tell us something. We must listen to them carefully. Because ignoring those pain signals, from body or mind, is not going to help. So pain is a friend, because it warns us in advance that something needs attention. Now, if we ignore that signal, and then there it can be an enemy. Then it can debilitate our life, it can take away our quality of life, it can really make our life hell. But if we heed that signal, then, its infact doing what a good friend does. So what I have said upto this point, does not mean that we should not take help of modern medicine, or help, its certainly helpful. It does not also mean that the Vedantic method can substitute, for all other methods of relieving pain. The reason is simply this. That when there is an excruciating pain, you wouldn’t have even the privilege to think about, the higher things. Sometimes, when we are extreme pain, we are not able to think of anything, at that moment. And so medicine does help. Even these alternative therapies, do help. And we must by all means take help of them. Recognizing the limitations of all these therapies. So by all means we can take help of these, recognize that they are limited, but once the pain is brought into a kind of a manageable limits, if we cannot eliminate it all together, then we need to look into the deeper causes. And it is then that the methods suggested by these great Spiritual traditions become helpful. So we can take help of every method known to us, to elevate pain. See that those methods work for us. Because as I said right now, its not known. Why certain methods work for some people, while certain other methods don’t. But we can try, often times, it is just a trial and error method, on what works for us.
So, follow any therapy that works for you. Recognize its usefulness.Recognize also its limitations. But ultimately, recognize that for a permanent solution, to the problem of pain, there is only a Spiritual solution.
One of the very elderly Swami Ji, a disciple of Swami Brahmananda Ji,used to say, that, ultimately there is only a Spiritual solution to all the problems. The word ultimately is important. So, this is not to, be little or ignore the other solutions that we may have. So do whatever as I sometimes say, do what ever works for you. But recognize that its limitations; see that it doesn’t weaken you in any way, physically, mentally, emotionally, morally, but ultimately recognize that we need to go to the root cause of all the difficulties we have. And that is then to know to our true nature. So some of these ideas may be helpful as we try to cope with pain, in our own lives. Clearly these are just a few ideas that I could share with you. I would encourage everyone to think about it deeply and you might come up with newer or different insights, based on your own experiences. And let’s learn; let’s learn from the things that happen in our lives, both the wonderful things that happen in our lives and the painful things that happen in our lives. And lets become stronger so that we can eliminate pain from our lives permanently.
May the Divine lead us from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality? May the Divine consciousness fill our heart, our humanly consciousness, guide us, protect us and take us step by step to our Supreme – Heavenly Father, Mother, Heavenly Friend; Our beloved God. May we be blessed with the infinite peace, bliss, harmony and joy. May we be blessed, by the Divine, for ‘Dyana’, ‘Samadhi’ in the life alone? May we blessed with ‘Madhur Vachan’, detachment from the material world and yet have an affluence of the material, in order to help out, God’s children, the Monks, the destitute and everyone who needs the help. May the infinite power of healing be activated through my prayers and heal the family members, the sincere seekers, for their suffering from Spiritual, physical and or mental sufferings.
Reflections by Swami Tyagananda, a monk of the Ramakrishna Order.
Reflections by Robbin Ghosh, President, Victorious Kidss Educares