Adi Shankaracharya in the Adhyasa Bhashya of the Brahmasutras draws a similarity between the behaviour of animals and human beings. When you hold a bunch of grass, the cow comes towards you. When the cow notices a person approaching it with a raised stick, it begins to run away, thinking ‘This one wants to hurt me.’ The point of this example is not that you are a cow or you are like a cow. It is true that like animals we move towards pleasure and move away from pain. But human beings are a lot more complicated. We also think about the purpose of life and often wonder about who we really are, which requires other means of knowledge.
Even in the pursuit of pleasure we often put up with pain. Let’s look at our pursuits of Artha, wealth and Kama, pleasure.
The 24 year old founder of the start-up works 18 hour days, stops socialising with his friends, eats just two meals as he is in the midst of the product launch. It is a small price to pay as he dreams of being the first entrepreneur in the family.
The trekker experiences aching shoulders from the weight of the backpack, soreness in the muscles, and still keeps walking because of the stunning sights across the mountains and wading through chilled waters. Her pain does not matter in the light of the overall experience of travel.
The 58 year old government employee puts up with going to work every day although there is not much work to do as his department is winding up. The boredom he experiences is a small price to pay for the handsome pension coming his way soon.
The pregnant woman goes through nausea and vomiting, discomfort in walking, sleeping and the pain of childbirth all in service of her child. The pain pales into insignificance in the delight of the child.
Pain is a part of everyday living.
The maid who washes the dirty dishes and sweeps the houses of 4 families in a day does not because she has passion for the job but because of the salary at the end of the month. She shrugs off her drudgery in the light of the essentials that the money provides.
The therapist who works with different clients going through trauma, experiences some pain herself but does so because of her value for healing of the client. She sees that pain is inevitable and clients can be taught to cope with pain.
The idea that pain is an inevitable part of any pursuit may seem demotivating at first but it is a part of our every day reality.
Whether we are talking about physical pain or emotional pain or both, any pursuit involves some hardship, stress and difficulty.
So then how do we have a healthy relationship to pain such that we do what is to be done despite the pain and difficulty –
1.Recognise that pain and difficulty is there in every aspect of life. The degree differs. Bhagavan Krishna teaches us through the Gita –
यं हि न व्यथयन्त्येते पुरुषं पुरुषर्षभ।
समदुःखसुखं धीरं सोऽमृतत्वाय कल्पते।।2.15।।
Kaunteya (Arjuna)! The contacts of the sense organs with the sensory world that gives rises to cold and heat, pleasure and pain which have the nature of coming and going, are not constant. Endure them, Bharata(Arjuna).
In the physical area of life, anyone who pushes the boundaries of the body through any form of exercise knows that it is not always comfortable or easy. Muscles ache, joints are strained and injuries may occur. But the reward of a fit body and high energy far outweighs the discomfort of the exercise.
In the intellectual area of life, the writer who spends hours struggling to find the right words, the artist who battles self doubt and criticism and the researcher who faces repeated failures in the laboratory know that the road to success is paved with setbacks. But they persevere through this for the sake of groundbreaking work.
In our personal relationships too, we experience pain during a conflict or misunderstanding. And yet we trust, not because there is any guarantee that the person will not hurt us again.
We trust and relate because we know that even if there is hurt, we will come together to heal and grow.
We can have a healthy relationship to pain when we cultivate a gracious acceptance –
योगस्थः कुरु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा धनञ्जय।
सिद्ध्यसिद्ध्योः समो भूत्वा समत्वं योग उच्यते।।2.48।।
Remaining steadfast in yoga, Dhananjaya (Arjuna) perform actions abandoning attaching and remaining the same to success and failure, This evenness of mind is called yoga
Nowhere does Bhagavan Krishna say please accept that which goes against Dharma. Knowing that pain is inevitable in any experience itself helps us accept the experience as well as continuing in our many pursuits.
We can have a healthy relationship to pain when We say ‘Yes’ to something greater than pain – Very often, we are so focused on the goal that we don’t pay adequate attention to the process which invariably involves some discomfort or pain.
Millions of people in the medical profession – doctors, nurses, paramedical staff experienced so much loss and suffering through the pandemic but kept going because they said ‘Yes’ to something greater that is the value for saving a life, curing of a disease.
The father who has paid up for her nine year old child ‘s first vacation abroad is dreading the budget cuts for his daily Uber rides to work, after they are back. But, he is willing to go through the discomfort because he has said yes for his child to have new travel experiences and build fond family memories.
And so the question worth asking is – What kind of pain am I willing to accept in my life?
We can have a healthy relationship to pain when we work for mastery of the self by becoming a friend to oneself-
बन्धुरात्माऽत्मनस्तस्य येनात्मैवात्मना जितः।
अनात्मनस्तु शत्रुत्वे वर्तेतात्मैव शत्रुवत्।।6.6।।
For that (self) who has mastered oneself by oneself, the self alone is a friend of oneself. Whereas, for the self who has not mastered oneself, the self alone would remain in the status of an enemy, like an enemy.
And how is the mind of such a mastered person?
जितात्मनः प्रशान्तस्य परमात्मा समाहितः।
शीतोष्णसुखदुःखेषु तथा मानापमानयोः।।6.7।।
For the one who has mastery over oneself, whose mind is tranquil with reference to heat and cold, pleasure and pain, and praise and criticism, the mind is always in a state of composure.
The yoga student practices aasanas and pranayama several times over months and years to not only gain flexibility and strength but to also gain mastery of mind, while doing them.
Any learning involves an acceptance of the fact that you don’t know something.
Any growth involves a change in state of possible discomfort.
Mastery is not a denial of any experience.
In Self mastery you see yourself as the experiencer of all experiences – good, bad or ugly and stop defining yourself by any experience. What is the reality of the experiencer through all the sadhanas that one does?
We can have a healthy relationship to pain when we shift our attention to the one who is greater than the body and mind.