Enduring Pain (And Why We Shouldn’t Let It Affect Us)

The following post was inspired by a book that I am currently reading, Seneca: Letters from a Stoic, and deals with our perception of pain and how it affects our decisions. In it, I attempt to explain the lack of logic that accompanies or fear of pain.

Every decision we make is based on the avoidance of fear, or the pursuit of pleasure. The problem is that too often we make a decision to avoid pain rather than risk reward. But… what do we really have to fear when it comes to enduring pain?

If you’ve received Off the Mat emails before, you know about my interest in philosophy. The book that I’m currently reading, Seneca: Letters from a Stoic, covers a huge number of topics, some of them more interesting than others. The letter I read last night really struck a cord with me.

In it, Seneca talks about the nature of pain. He also talks about how we behave in the face of pain in the present, as well as when we think or worry about past or future pain. First, nature created pain as something temporary. It is endured intensely for a short amount of time. (For the sake of the argument, we cannot include long-term diseases or injuries. Here, Seneca instead recommends the acceptance of death if the disease is known to be incurable. Although, he doesn’t say anything about a recurring knee injury.) A broken bone or a strained muscle hurts tremendously, but temporarily. We know that, eventually, the pain will fade. We also know that pain is a signal that body tissue is being injured in some way; that our body is being injured. Does pain affect the mind? Or the soul? It doesn’t have to. Understanding the separation of these three things give you the ability to detach yourself from pain. My drive to accomplish my goals is not affected by the physical pain felt in the body. It is the fear of pain rather than pain itself that prevents me from acting.

What about pain in the past, though? Should we relive or retell the pain in order to assure others of our mental fortitude?  Do we recount the pain of an experience to gain sympathy? Basically, do we have a dick measuring contest about how much pain or how much crap we’ve endured? Instead of focusing on how much pain was endured, leave it behind. Bringing it up does no good. Move on from the experience of pain in the past and instead focus on the pursuit of pleasure in the present. The pain is gone, and there’s no need to relive it. Your ego will go on even if you don’t tell your friends that you broke your leg in three places and did not cry once.

How about pain in the future? Even though most of the time our worry of future pain is nothing but that – worry – we certainly experience real pain on occasion. But the future is just that – the future. You will never experience future pain, so why worry it? To quote When Breath Becomes Air, “life isn’t about avoiding suffering.” When, if, that pain comes, know that it is temporary and the pain only affects your body, and not your spirit or your mind.

My point here: Don’t fear pain. Logically, there isn’t a reason to do so. Don’t let the avoidance of suffering prevent you from making decisions that bring rewards. Chances are that getting up in that handstand and falling over isn’t going to hurt that much anyways. Your body is tough, and putting it through stress makes you stronger. Just remember that recovering from the stress is part of the strengthening process as well.

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3 thoughts on “Enduring Pain (And Why We Shouldn’t Let It Affect Us)”

  1. Two things occur to me. One, that Seneca was writing at a time when disease and the body were little understood, and operations almost invariably fatal or damaging, done quickly with no anesthetic or sterilisation techniques. Modern approaches change a lot of how we view pain, and handle it. (Regular dental check-ups, for example!). We also know far more now about how emotions and mental attitudes affect physical reactions and how stress, emotional or mental, can also result in physical stress, making your body respond differently at different times, compared to others.

    So to point two, that yoga has an underlying mantra, “listen to your body”. There is basic aching; there is initial pain which is not dangerous because the muscles and ligaments adapt and ease; and then there’s pain that warns of damage, possibly serious or chronic. With time, you learn to differentiate. At first, though, it’s all the same! So you naturally start cautiously, and see how it goes. And since every body is different, you learn about heeding your own signals, as you go. And that may change over time.

    I think you’re right to suggest that we face up to the fear of being hurt. But we also have to bear in mind our deeper attitudes to life, learned or inherited. I have realised over time, doing yoga, how not being a natural athlete has inclined me to automatically ‘stiffen’ or stress when I put my body into unnatural contortions, or risk my balance, and it’s fascinating to see how to unlearn some of that with time and repetition (a kind of internal monologue that goes something like this: “Yes, body, it’s OK, you’re safe, remember we did this before and you were OK? So trust me when we do this again, and change it a little, I’m not going to hurt you, I promise. We’ll stop as soon as you don’t like it, so don’t worry, just relax…”.).

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Richard. It is worth noting that this was written before modern medicine was… well, way before it existed. And learning to differentiate between pain and discomfort is part of doing yoga and fitness in general more and more.

  2. We remember that we felt pain, and we can recall our emotional reactions to pain, but we are unable to remember what pain actually feels like. If we could recall the actual sensation of pain, we would never again risk doing something that hurt but carried great potential reward, like hunting a mastodon, and no woman would voluntarily have more than one child.

    The best way to deal with pain is to look it in the eye. As Seneca writes, pain is something that our body experiences. Our aware mind does not experience pain, but we can choose to forget this, and lose our identity in the body.

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