Dealing With Physical Pain

In various places, Sri Aurobindo describes the possibility of pain becoming for the spiritual practitioner an intense form of spiritual bliss, Ananda. He is describing the psychological experience of a realized soul who has separated himself from attachment to and identification with the physical body. This is intended to show that vibrations experienced can have a different result when the individual shifts the standpoint of the consciousness. It is not meant as a prescription to ‘enjoy pain’. If pain comes to one, and one has the ability to distance oneself from it through such means, as a realized soul, then it is psychologically neutralized, but the underlying cause of the pain is not resolved.

For those who still have substantial identification with the body consciousness, and who are attempting to live a life in the world, pain has both a purpose and a measure of usefulness. It alerts the individual to some issue, imbalance or acute injury that needs to be looked after; and it awakens the awareness to make some effort. Those who are fully satisfied and comfortable tend to be less likely to take steps to achieve radical change in their lives than those who feel pressure or pain at some level.

The Mother has another viewpoint that goes to the root of physical pain. Such pain is caused by injury, indisposition, illness or disease. The cause of the pain obviously needs to be addressed. Thereafter, the Mother points out, the pain no longer serves a useful purpose as it has already done its job of alerting the individual to the concern. One could feel that until the underlying cause is fixed, the pain remains as a constant reminder; yet it can be both distracting and counter-productive. Thus, one should find a way to ‘turn off’ the pain after it has provided the necessary feedback from the part of the body that is affected.

Of course, achieving such an ability to ‘turn off’ pain generally requires some amount of discipline and self-training; yet there are individuals who have undertaken such a step. The philosophical approach of stoicism is very much rooted in this idea. There are even popular examples of individuals, such as Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist, who systematically bathed in ice in order to accustom his body to dealing with what would ordinarily be an extremely painful experience. Many yogis and shaman have shown tremendous ability to dissociate from pain by walking on or sleeping on a bed of nails, or walking over hot coals, etc. Boxers learn to deal with the pain of taking blows. Other individuals learn how to accept and distance themselves from various insect or snake bites. We see numerous examples in the world of strategies to simply do away with the psychological connection of pain when the body is injured.

There are individuals who are known as ‘masochists’ who indeed take pleasure in painful experience–in this case however, there is a vital satisfaction they obtain through what is essentially a perverse calling upon oneself of pain to try to achieve some vital excitement or satisfaction.

A disciple once asked: “Sweet Mother, how can one transform pain into forms of pleasure?”

The Mother responded: “Ah! but that’s not something to be done, my children. I shall certainly not give you the method! It is a perversion. … The first thing and the most indispensable is to nullify the pain by cutting the connection. You see, one becomes conscious of the pain because it is there. … For example, you have cut your finger, there’s a nerve that has been affected, and so the nerve quickly goes to tell the brain, up there, that something has happened which is wrong, here. That is what gives you the pain to awaken your attention, to tell you: ‘You know, there’s something wrong.’ Then the thought immediately feels anxious: ‘What is wrong? Oh! how it hurts’, etc., etc. — then returns to the finger and tries to arrange what is not yet destroyed. Usually one puts a small bandage. But in order not to have the pain, if it hurts very much, you must quite simply cut the connection by thought, saying to the nerve, ‘Now remain quiet, you have done your work, you have warned me, you don’t need to say anything any longer; ploff! I am stopping you.’ And when you do it well you suffer no longer, it is finished, you stop the pain completely. That is the best thing. It is infinitely preferable to telling yourself that it is painful.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Disturbances of the Body and Physical Consciousness, Will, Discipline, Endurance, pp. 88-90

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