Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Art of happiness 18

The Importance of Pain

Clouds over Baldoyle last Sunday
It would seem to be patently obvious that pain serves a vital function in our everyday lives.  We all withdraw our hands rather quickly if we touch something hot like an iron, a boiling kettle or a hot pot.  In this sense pain serves the function of letting us know of imminent danger to some part or indeed all of our body.  If we did not pain we simply would not know that X or Y or Z possible injury is about to happen (or has happened) to our bodies.  Hence, pain plays an important protective role within our human physiological structure.  Also, it is worth bearing in mind that physical pain and suffering would seem to belong to different categories of experience - the former is essentially a physiological process while the latter is a psychological one insofar as it is essentially our mental and emotional response to pain.

Dr. Howard Cutler adds some very interesting facts from the world of research into pain which I will summarize here.  He quotes the rather insightful research of Dr Paul Brand.  This researcher is a world-renowned hand surgeon and leprosy specialist.  In the words of Cutler, we read:

[Dr Paul Brand] found that the ravages of leprosy were not due to the disease organism directly causing the rotting of the flesh, but rather it was because the disease caused loss of pain sensation in the limbs.  Without the protection of pain, the leprosy patients lacked the system to warn them of tissue damage... Without pain, sometimes they would even stick their hands into a fire to retrieve something.  He noticed an utter nonchalance towards self-destruction.  (The Art of Happiness, p. 174)

The conclusion that Dr Brand came up with at the end of his study and research was that pain is not the universal enemy that we believe it to be in the West.  On the contrary, pain is a remarkable, even an elegant and very sophisticated biological system that warns us of damage to our body.  It is, he argues, very unpleasant with the distinct purpose of drawing our immediate attention to danger or injury.  We are literally forced to notice what is happening or going to happen to our bodies.  Dr. Brand argues cogently and reasonably that by using the insights he has garnered over years of research into pain and suffering that we can prepare for pain and suffering ahead of time, and in so doing we can begin to change our attitude to these two realities.  Cutler, once again quotes the learned doctor as being "convinced that the attitude we cultivate in advance may well determine how suffering will affect us when it does strike." (Quoted ibid., p. 175)  In such a way both he and Cutler argue that we can even learn to develop a sense of gratitude in the face of pain.  The pain itself may be excruciating, but when we gradually come to terms with what pain as a functioning system is about, we may learn some deeper appreciation which in itself lessens the mental pain, which is another term for suffering.  This research, indeed, fits in with a lot of Buddhist thought and practice.

Indeed, Cutler invites us to do a thought experiment.  Let us imagine we were at different times a construction worker and a concert pianist who have received the same injury to our fingers.  While the physical pain would be exactly the same for both, there would be little mental anguish on the part of the construction worker or builder while that of the concert pianist would be far more extreme.

There is a distinct difference between the pain as pain and the pain of pain.  The former is purely physiological while the latter is essentially psychological or mental.  In short we convert pain into suffering in our minds.  Therefore, if we know how to control our minds, as indeed all Buddhist practices aim at, we have a considerable chance of lessening and alleviating or diminishing suffering, though we will probably never totally eradicate it.

Pavlov managed to train his dogs to overcome the pain of shocks to get to their food, while a researcher named Ronald Melzak managed to raise Scottish terrier pups who could feel no pain by raising them in a totally padded environment.  Much of what we call pain, therefore, he concluded was learned rather than instinctive.  Even different ethnic groups show different responses to pain. 

Another interesting conclusion that Dr Brand arrived at is that pain helps to unify the individual or give him or her a sense of their bodies as a whole.  Those individuals who had reduced pain-awareness or none at all simply had little or no sense of their bodies as a whole unified system.  Leprosy sufferers simply saw their limbs as mere tools which could be worn down and broken.  In one sense, then, pain serves a function of unifying us as distinct entities or units.  In another sense, also, pain and our experience of it helps us to gain a sense of our unity with others.

In conclusion, let me quote once again Dr. Cutler's own words:

Perhaps that is the ultimate meaning behind our suffering.  It is our suffering that is the most basic element that we share with others, the factors that unify us with all living creatures. (Ibid., p.177)    

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