The Science News’ article Hurt Blocker got me thinking about pain and all the ways we deal with it. While this research is really about physical pain, the principle applies to all pain. How we deal with discomfort and pain results in numerous unintended consequences. We could avoid these consequences if we knew at what point in our avoidance of discomfort, we start shooting ourselves in the foot.
First, consider this excerpt:
Typically, pain is protective; it alerts you to impending or actual damage. Nociceptive pain (from the Latin nocere: to hurt or injure) delivers a red alert when you touch something dangerously sharp or hot. Nerve cells that sense this type of pain have a pretty high threshold, but once activated, the response is instantaneous: Your withdrawal reflex kicks in and you pull your hand away. Inflammatory pain, stimulated by immune system cells, occurs in response to injury. This pain warns you not to move a broken arm, giving the bone time to heal.
There’s potential danger that comes with the promise of a superior pain drug. Total pain blockers with few side effects could be abused by athletes or others who want to ignore an injury, allowing them to do even more damage. Such drugs might also quiet warnings of a new and serious condition, such as an intestinal obstruction or a stroke. As with the Pakistani children, living pain-free might even result in severe trauma and early death. “If we have a really effective block, it could be dangerous,” Halegoua says. “We need pain.”
The first question that comes to my mind is, where does discomfort end and pain begin? For the pain this article addresses, it depends on how hot the pan is or how sharp the needle, for example. However, we all encounter discomfort throughout life in innumerable ways that aren’t in themselves unhealthy, let alone dangerous. Yet, it seems we do all we can to avoid any and all discomfort that ‘gets in our way’. This parallels the worry expressed in the article above about the athletes circumventing any discomfort that ‘gets in their way’. And, as the researcher said at the end of the article, “If we have a really effective block, it could be dangerous,” Halegoua says. “We need pain.”
Isn’t our unbridled unquestioned quest for “really effective” ways to circumvent discomfort the underlying cause for much of our difficulty? Our instinctive attraction to pleasure drives us to make the living-of-life as comfortable and easy as possible. By itself, that’s not a problem. Pleasure pulls in and pain pushes away in all animals. However, humans are uniquely able to control this natural process to the point of imbalance. Ironically, this loss of balance results in pain, sorrow, and suffering! This easily turns into a neurotic vicious circle.
And Buddha puts the problem this way… The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering. The cause of suffering is lust. The surrounding world affects sensation and begets a craving thirst that clamors for immediate satisfaction. The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things. The desire to live for the enjoyment of self entangles us in a net of sorrows. Pleasures are the bait and the result is pain.
A prime objective of civilization is circumventing nature’s uncomfortable aspects; aspects that all animals in the wild experience. I find incorporating some voluntary discomfort into my daily life helps counterbalance the ensuing imbalances civilization brings about.
Certainly, I’m a normal pleasure loving, pain hating animal just like everyone else. However, I’ve learned that letting the natural pleasure—pain instinct dominate my civilized life often backfires. As Buddha pointed out, “pleasures are the bait, the result is pain”. Sustaining an awareness of this innate vulnerability gives me at least some ‘pseudo free will’ to manage life better. (See, A case for ‘pseudo-free will’ at the end of Free Will: Fact or Wishful Thinking?)
Such sustaining awareness is essential. The hitch here lies in how fear quickly over-rides awareness! The override often begins in subtle sub-awareness and gains momentum until we finally ‘notice’. By then, it is often too late. All we notice then is the fear. Therefore, nipping this in the bud is crucial. As chapter 64 puts it, Its peace easily manages, Its presence easily plans, Its fragility easily melts, Its timeliness easily scatters… Or to put it more practically, ‘A stitch in time saves nine’.
Chapter 16 sums up the whole awareness issue beautifully…
Devote effort to emptiness, sincerely watch stillness.
Everything ‘out there’ rises up together, and I watch again.
Everything ‘out there’, one and all, return again to their root cause.
Returning to the root cause is called stillness,
this means answering to one’s destiny;
Answering to one’s destiny is called the constant,
knowing the constant is called honest.
Not knowing the constant, rash actions lead to ominous results.
Knowing the constant allows, allowing therefore impartial,
Impartial therefore whole, whole therefore natural,
Natural therefore the way.
The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself.