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Illusions about Pain

Culture teaches us some distorted notions about pain

Avoidance

People avoid pain; that's natural. But we also need ways to deal with it; because we can't avoid it forever. There isn't much help in mainstream culture, for dealing with it and a lot of encouragement to avoid it. People don’t want to hear about it. Pain is a major part of my life; the fact that others mainly want to avoid it means I can't share my deepest experiences. I don’t feel met, encountered, heard. I am a sort of pariah.

People give advice. Have I tried this or that form of healing or medical technique? If people feel they can do something to fix me, they don’t have to feel my pain.

The macho or "stiff-upper-lip" attitude toward pain is popular. I get a lot of encouragement from others to “try to live a normal life." But since the brain can be damaged by pain, trying to tough it out can make the problem worse.

The “think positive” school believes that I can cure myself if I have the right attitude. The evidence for faith healing is persuasive, I agree. Unfortunately, most people espousing it seem also to think that if I don’t get better, that means I must be doing something wrong. This neo-Puritanism seems particularly popular among the more enthusiastic New Agers.

Glamor

One can be attached to pain; it can be important to a concept of self, just as being a victim can. In addition there is a strong tendency in religious traditions to romanticize pain. It’s more obvious in the encouragement Christianity gives (especially women) toward self-sacrifice. But one friend asked me if I thought pain is "more compelling to one's practice than pleasurable experience which tends to dull the mind." And I’m suspicious of the strength of the tradition of painful sitting, in meditation.

Our culture needs to stop hiding from pain, but romanticizing it is hiding, too. It's just as easy to avoid compassion by thinking about the spiritual benefits of someone else's pain, as it is by encouraging the person in pain to "think positive." I don't buy this.

If pain is romantic, it is in its power to obsess us with its destructiveness, to preoccupy us with real, vivid tragedy. Pain too dulls the mind (even without drugs); pain makes people depressed. I have known one man with chronic pain who lived in almost complete despair. It has made me more defensive and self-protective, as well as isolated and alienated from ordinary life. In addition, I indulge myself more than I used to (in the few pleasures I have left, such as reading and gardening), and it's really hard for me to judge to what extent this is wise use of my limited energy and health, and to what extent selfishness and avoidance. But mostly I think pain is not romantic: it's just plain ugly, and we need to let it be ugly.

The heroic fallacy

Our culture's fascination with violence encourages a bizarre combination of avoidance and glamor about pain. Look at an "action" movie: in exciting and dangerous situations, the hero overcomes the dangers by these two means

  1. violent, explosive eradication of the villain
  2. enduring mind-boggling, teeth-gritting pain.

We are taught not only that with determination and will power we can bear great pain, but that this is admirable, virtuous. I think of this attitude as the "heroic fallacy," and I think it encourages us to be violent to ourselves. The glamorous presentation of heroic endurance of pain is no more physically possible than most of the rest of an "action" movie. In that kind of pain there is very little functionality left to either mind or body.

It is important to see this tendency to push ourselves too far; to speak up naming it violence. I don't think the heroic fallacy is only characteristic of our culture; I think it's endemic to patriarchal culture worldwide, including most of Buddhism as we in the West know it.

It is important to cultivate will in nonviolence, in conscious nurturing, in compassion and kindness toward ourselves. To practice metta toward ourselves as the basis on which we can practice it to all others. (Other techniques I think are useful for practicing with pain are here.)

© copyright Catherine Holmes Clark, 2001; last updated 27 November 2000