It seems not only that everyone is in pain, but that there’s an underlying assumption that we shouldn’t be, creating an extra layer of suffering on top of the pain itself.
I’ve been reading Brock Bastian’s The Other Side of Happiness: Embracing a More Fearless Approach to Living [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?). While I’m not entirely convinced by all his points, Bastian presents a plethora of fascinating pieces of psychology research to support his central thesis, that the ceaseless pursuit of a state of permanent pleasure, comfort and happiness by those in the world who can afford it, is actually counterproductive. Bastian argues that lives which are not oriented towards happiness as a central value, and lives which contain significant amounts of painful experience, are often experienced as more meaningful, which can bring a different kind of satisfaction and joy.
The use of painkillers and antidepressants is clearly on the rise. It seems not only that everyone is in pain, but that there’s an underlying assumption that we shouldn’t be — pain is conceptualised as something to be rid of at any cost. This leads the general threshold of tolerance to fall, and creates an extra layer of suffering on top of the pain itself, the sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong with us, that something unacceptable is occurring. In turn, this creates a constant, anxious need to escape, more tension, and more pain. This of course is not to denigrate progress in pain relief for people who are in severe and/or chronic pain, or to take any kind of moral high ground about suffering. It’s not the case that the more you suffer the better a person you are, or that people who are suffering chronic pain syndromes are exaggerating or making it up.
It does seem to be pretty reliably the case, though, that strong expectations lead to trouble — especially expectations which are totally unrealistic, such as never experiencing pain. Expectations like this can lead to a sense of entitlement, and if you feel entitled enough to a pain-free life, you will find pain and discomfort pretty much everywhere — both since things rarely go exactly to plan, and due to the aforementioned drop in tolerance levels. Another factor in estrangement from pain is that living so much of our lives online can lead to a strange sense of disconnection from ourselves as physical beings, as animals. The body then can come to be regarded as an object to be perfected, ideally to be made immortal, rather than a rich, orienting source of experience from the inside.
The gulf between affluent people who have the option to experience their lives in this strange, slightly disembodied trance, popping pills in order to maintain it, and people whose existences remain largely about physical survival, only widens.
It seems to me that Buddha had the best handle on the subject, many many years ago. According to the Four Noble Truths on which Buddhism is based, pain and suffering are the founding principles of life. Every living being goes through old age (if they’re lucky), sickness and death. This isn’t a state of affairs either to be tolerated or avoided. These pains make up life, they constitute a Noble Truth. The other truths point to a path out of suffering, but this is very different from evading it. The path leads through confronting the facts head on, through gaining detailed and unflinching awareness of our own experience.
Through this awareness we remain on a human level subject to old age, sickness and death. But we can also see through it: we do not create or maintain any expectations at all that things will remain unchanging or solid, including ourselves. At this level of awareness there is physical pain but not the extraneous suffering which comes when we try to avoid it, when we try to numb ourselves out. Energy is freed up for leading a joyful life, with purpose, once we give up the whole huge, futile effort of trying to make things different from how they are.
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