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Beyond Pleasure and Pain

By: Psychotherapist Alex Printzios

"Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a giant tree in the midst of them all".

- Buddha

For better or worse, it seems that both pleasure and pain are part of the human experience. One day we feel happy: our external circumstances are lining up, our friends shower us with love, we feel successful in our career. But then the next day we might receive some difficult news, make a mistake at work, or get into a fight with a loved one.

Although pain may be an inevitable part of the human experience, it is not necessarily a cause for despair according to Buddhist thinking. With a certain understanding and perspective of the human condition, one is able to move beyond the extremes of pleasure and pain to rest in a state of well-being that is simply not conditional on any circumstance.

The Buddhist path prescribes a series of practices that help us see past our limited self-identity and the thirst for security that drives it. Mindfulness meditation--a cornerstone of these practices--provides the opportunity to take a break from the project of “I” and connect to that which is beyond any concepts of the self. In this philosophy, pain is not a problem. Instead, it has a place as part of a larger perspective and is used as an invaluable tool to help connect with something more satisfying and profound than our individual identity.

Without a larger perspective, which offers a legitimate place for pain in our experience, we are left subject to the knee-jerk reaction of blindly avoiding pain and chasing pleasure without having a sense of the long-term effects of our actions. Anybody who’s had experience with addiction can tell you that this cycle doesn’t end well.

The whole-hearted acceptance of pain does not mean we need to resign ourselves to a miserable existence. On the contrary, the Buddhist teachings encourage us to fearlessly acknowledge the reality of pain while they simultaneously remind us that the nature of life is inherently joyful. In this system, pain and well-being can (and must) coexist.

The distinction between pain and suffering is an important one in this model. According to Buddhist thought, suffering occurs when we aggressively resist the inevitability of pain in pursuit of continuity and control, which the illusion of self-identity provides. The more we work to dismantle the illusion of the self and cultivate the understanding of the profound interconnectedness of all aspects of the universe, the more we can access our inherently joyful nature.

One thing seems clear: pain isn’t going anywhere so we better start developing a worldview that accepts it. Otherwise we will be locked in a process comparable to running away from our own shadow, a process which is futile and exhausting.

I ask you to consider the following:

Where does pain fit into your view of life? Does it have a place at all?

Is this view helpful or does it add to your suffering?

How might you adjust your view to make more room for pain without collapsing into victim mentality?

What would it be like if pain and wellbeing could coexist in your experience?

It’s a lifetime practice to constantly remember the bigger picture and integrate it into the minute details of our daily lives. Although it is no easy feat, finding a meaningful place for pain in life can allow us to move beyond the cyclical prison of hope and fear and recover our power to choose how we want to spend this precious human life.

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