I have no idea why I tend to feel moved to write when I’m sick. The whole idea of this blog started after I spent several days banished to the confines of my bed through the weakness of my body. This time I got some bloody inflammation in my elbow, caused by a random tropical bite or perhaps by a ruthless entry of several hundred of microbes under the surface of my skin. Is it just me, but how come so many people report that suffering seems to be the driving force behind creativity? All of you must have a friend who draws, paints or plays an instrument when grappling with the pain of life. Is it suffering or pain? Are they equivalent? Are they both necessary and inevitable flavours of existence? According to Buddhist psychology, pain is inescapable. Life hurts! Shit, I thought I could seek pleasure and avoid pain! Not possible. This attitude falls into the category of hedonic wellbeing. I mean, it’s also important to have a jolly good Friday night hanging out with your friends. Nonetheless, this does not provide enough meaning that would be ultimately satisfying. We also need eudaimonic wellbeing, a life that is engaged, purposeful and geared to expand our potential. That’s how we get rooted deeply in the fabric of humanity. So escaping pain and seeking pleasure, while pretty good in the short term, are not the ultimate recipe for fulfilment and long-lasting joy. How does one weave the threads of meaning through the pain, the bliss, the suffering and the pleasures of life? One thing is clear here. Suffering is the product of the ego clinging to illusions such as permanence or separateness. Buddhist psychology urges us to ditch these and see human nature as impermanent and unified. You and I are one! Come on, that sounds way too airy-fairy and probably taken from an existential episode of a telenovela or a cheap self-help book. However, our world is plagued at the moment by movements that assert that some human beings are better than others. We desperately need to acknowledge the value of every single person in the world, regardless of their geographical location, ethnicity, ability, sexuality and so on… I hope that our collective awareness of the illusions of the ego will eventually eliminate suffering and promote greater connectedness.
awareness of our true nature creates interconnectedness
All of it sounds good in theory. It still does not eradicate pain though! Here’s where Buddhists say that pain is simply part of being alive. I find it somehow liberating to know that it’s OK to be in pain. It doesn’t mean I am more or less than anyone else. Mainstream culture either glorifies pain turning everyone into a superhero or marginalises it as something we need to get rid of. Sometimes it’s impossible and the best thing we can offer to ourselves and others is to fully witness the pain, without having to fix it. We should not see it, though, as a factor that reduces our capacity for connection. At times, pain becomes an opportunity to nurture helplessness or to manipulate others to take pity on us. Both of these ways will not create meaningful connections. There are also those people that pretend that everything is fine. They suppress their awareness of pain and almost enjoy suffering quietly in silence. Not a good idea either. I am not trying to suggest that there exists a Holy Grail concept, a sort of manual for dealing with pain. It’s so personal and intimate, only you can know what your darkest moments feel like. Therefore, the answers lie in your contact with yourself.
To what extent are you in contact with your inner world?
The more you are in touch with what is happening, the more tuned in your responses will become. Mark Epstein talks about it in his book ‘The trauma of everyday life’. He prompts us to develop an inner environment that is both attuned and responsive. That can only happen if you’re in real contact with yourself. It sounds abstract, right? What the hell do these therapists mean by deeper contact? Imagine, you’re eating your favourite meal. You take the first mouthful and you notice as you salivate. If you can stop and notice, rather than devouring the meal, you’re on the right way. Or when you say ‘I love you’ and you feel fuzzy in your tummy and keep exploring what it’s like is to love this person. These are fleeting moments of diving into the essence of your feelings and thoughts. That’s deep contact.
inner contact creates space to deal with pain
There is another idea that Buddhist and Positive Psychology agree on – the importance of compassion. Kristin D Neff sees compassion as three components, each one of them on a scale:
self-kindness vs self-judgment
a sense of common humanity vs isolation
mindfulness vs over-identification
First of all, compassion for yourself and others means developing a gentle, supportive and understanding attitude. Common humanity refers to the fact that all of us experience pain and suffering, we are not alone, other people share our plight. We all live imperfect lives, unlike the rare species of people who exist through their idealised versions of themselves on Instagram. Finally, we also need mindful awareness so that we can fully recognise the pain and let go of the suffering created by the illusions of the ego. Self-compassion does not mean escaping pain, it is an acknowledgement of it. Well, many people say that if they start displaying self-compassion, they will become lazy and self-indulgent. The research of Neff, Kirkpatrick and Rude (2007), clearly indicates that “self-compassionate people used as many negative self-descriptors as those low in self-compassion when describing their weaknesses.” Therefore, you have scientific evidence that proves that you will not become a narcissist who sees themselves as a gift to humanity. If anything, you are less likely to develop anxiety and depression and more likely to experience “feelings of autonomy, competence, relatedness, and self-determination” (Neff & Costigan, 2014). This suggests that everyone who motivates themselves through negative self-talk and believes that this will make them achieve more is just simply in the wrong.
self-compassion has many benefits
In summary, I am sorry to announce that pain is part of existence. This sounds phony and is somewhat reminiscent of the feeling of waiting in the rain on a late November afternoon for a delayed London Underground train. Everyone seems to go into their shell, just waiting as the raindrops dance through the air. Oscar Wild puts it quite poetically “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. Let’s all look at the stars, embrace pain and show compassion towards ourselves and others.
Mark Epstein. (2013). The Trauma of Everyday Life. Published by Penguin Press, New York
Karen Kissel Wegela. (2010) The Courage to Be Present: Buddhism, Psychotherapy and the Awakening of Natural Wisdom
NEFF, K. D., KIRKPATRICK, K. & RUDE, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and its link to adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139-154.
Kristin D. Neff & Andrew P. Costigan (2014). Self-Compassion, Wellbeing, and Happiness – you can access the paper below