Is Pain your Enemy?
When you Google for its meaning, whether it’s Google’s own dictionary definition or that from medical and scientific websites, ‘pain’ is described as something terrible and best avoided as much as possible. There is a vast amount of literature out there on how we can avoid pain or alleviate pain in those who are victims of it. Almost all of it treats pain as a formidable enemy. An enemy to be avoided, an enemy to be fought, and enemy to be defeated.
I am going to chat with you now about how I look at pain and how you can think about pain with a greater sense of peace and harmony. Peace and harmony? With pain? Yes, peace and harmony with pain. And then, we can think about how you can treat pain as an enabler to achieve more than you ever thought possible.
“Avoidance” should NOT be the Standard Approach to Pain
I’ve been married to a dental surgeon who often mentioned gadgets like ceiling mounted TV screens and special video goggles for patients to watch movies while undergoing treatment in private practice. More recently, a beautiful lady dentist whom I mentor (and is training to trek up to the Everest Base Camp in a few months) was exploring ways to distract herself from the pain and anguish that she experiences when she’s out on a training run. The voices that tell her to ‘stop running’ long before she has really hit her limits clearly needed addressing. She wanted to set herself up to be distracted away from that pain. Professionally, she is being exposed to pain (in others’ mouths) perhaps 10-20 times in a day. The general approach with those patients is to try to alleviate pain by distraction, or to remove the sensation of pain through the use of local anesthetic, or even general anesthesia. She was surprised, at first, when I told her that she needs to do exactly the opposite with her running experience – she needs to embrace the pain.
I do empathize with those who are actually suffering from disease, illness or accident. But, other than those sources of pain, how could you use pain for your benefit?
The Time Dimension of Pain
As with just about everything in life, (see examples regarding nutrition, discipline, fitness) I like to think about the dimension of time when it comes to pain too. Sometimes pain stays with us for a short period of time (medically termed ‘acute pain’) and sometimes it stays with us for a long period of time (‘chronic pain’).
Besides the time duration that pain stays with us, I also consciously think about pain more constructively as ‘pain that I can control the arrival of and pain that I cannot control the arrival time of’. Correspondingly, I also think of the departure time of pain, and being able to (fortunately) control when it leaves me. And, then there’s pain that (unfortunately) I cannot control the departure time of.
Two Types of Human Choices
Keeping the dimension of time very much in mind, let us think about human choices with regards to pain. Much like the marshmallow experiment which focused on human choice and delayed gratification, I see the world being made up of two types of human choices with regards to pain. There are contexts where we can see gratification as something we can delay, in order to obtain more after the proposed delay. The definition of financial investment is a good example – a deferral of consumption with the hope of consuming more later. Correspondingly, you can think of pain as being similar to gratification but its converse.
Pain = negative gratification, negative reward, negative return.
Instead of delaying pain, we can consciously bring it forward in time in a controlled manner. Eh, what? Bring pain forward? Why on earth? And, why is Puru making this odd connection?
Not just Physical Pain
If you look around you in any society, there will be those who try to avoid physical effort when it would benefit them. This effort is painful for them. The most common and beneficial form of perceived pain is exercise. (But you can also consider the example of avoiding unhealthy but tasty food.) For instance, the thought of going to the gym or for a cycle ride is one associated with pain. Well, you have a choice in life, and I state it very clearly here and now…
“You can go to pain regularly at various times of the week that YOU decide, welcome it, embrace it, make it your friend, and then thank it for staying with you for the short while you interacted with it…
YOU can try to stay away from pain, dislike it, be in fear of it, and be guaranteed of its arrival unwanted, unannounced, suffer its presence and perhaps never have it leave you, until you leave it forever.”
Perhaps all this sounds a bit abstract…. What do I really mean by this?
Pain Seekers and their Accidental Wisdom
My friends, mentees and others around the world who make time to exercise when their day-to-day lives are otherwise quite sedentary are the ‘pain seekers’ I refer to. If you too live an active healthy lifestyle, you are making that conscious decision to befriend pain so that the likelihood of pain becoming your enemy at any point in the future is much reduced. You might not specifically focus on the pain when you are making a plan to go out for a run tomorrow, or visit the gym in the evening. But, there is wisdom that you are expressing accidentally that will stand you in good stead. As an economist I call it the intertemporal substitution of pain.
You might have understood from seeing others around you that intelligence and wisdom are not strongly related so please do not expect that all your intelligent friends will have the wisdom to understand (implicitly or explicitly) this beautiful relationship that you can have with pain. The intelligent might want to keep their enemy, pain, away. The wise will want to keep their enemies closer.
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.