On Pain

by Stuart Hollyoak

Before I was a Buddhist I was a Stoic. What attracted me to Stoicism was that it promised invulnerability. It was a great prospect to experience no pain and go about life without any fear of losing control. To avoid pain is a desire common to all sentient beings so why not shield myself from pain?

It’s only now several years later that I can articulate what drew me away from Stoicism. Life was static. Alan Watts says ‘The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless.’

In Stoicism only what is in our control is good or evil. What isn’t in our control is either a preferred or dispreferred indifferent. My grandfather died during that dispassionate time and I intellectualized his death away. I thought it was a triumph to face death and be unaffected. At what cost do I block out pain?

Buddhism resonated with me because it acknowledged suffering as a mark of existence and took an active stance to it. I was elated because I felt I could at last escape pain. However it became clear over time that Buddhism offered no such solution.

There’s a saying that accords with Buddhism: ‘Pain is inevitable; Suffering is optional.’ I didn’t take this to heart at first because I had hope that pain could be removed from my life. There had to be some idea that could turn pain into pleasure or eliminate it permanently. There is none. An idea loses its relevance over time and with that my seeming protection from pain.

Hopelessness in the Buddhist sense is not nihilistic but realistic. It is hopelessness in the sense that I cannot stop pain from being painful no matter what I do. To be sure, plenty can be done to reduce suffering.

To separate pleasure from pain is sometimes problematic. I create a schism in reality. Because I think it’s possible to live a life consisting only of pleasure I’m thwarted and frustrated time and time again. Pain is inseparable from life and essential to it.

When I experience hardship or trauma I find that my old tricks don’t work so well and I have to develop new ways to cope. It never seems so cut and dry at first and that’s part of it. If I knew what to do there would be no need to change.

The irony seems to be the more I avoid pain the less I live. Pain will always hurt and I will always try to reduce it. Yet pain can have its use. I can grow from it. Without aversion there is no adversity; without adversity there is no growth.