By Brianna Wiest
Pleasure cannot cure pain. This is one of the largest psychological misconceptions out there. Pleasure cannot cure pain because they exist on opposite ends of the same spectrum. Biologically, both our pleasure and pain responses are headquartered in the same part of the brain. The “pleasure chemical” that brings us joy is involved in the pain response as well. Philosopher Alan Watts says that this is the price we pay for increasing our consciousness. Simply: we cannot be more sensitive to one emotion and not also then experience the others to the same degree.
You know how people say that if you didn’t have rainy days, you wouldn’t be able to appreciate the sunny ones? The truth is that if you didn’t have rainy days, the sunny ones wouldn’t exist. This is called duality. We live in duality. We exist because of duality. That sounds like a buzzword, but this a very important thing to understand. Our bodies exist in duality: our lungs, hearts, gonads, they all function because they have an opposite and equal half. The same is true of nature, it sustains itself through a cycle of creation and destruction, as does human life. It’s important to understand that we are not separate from the anatomy of the universe. There is no good without bad, high without low or life without pain. The problem is not the presence of pain. It’s the inability to see the purpose of it.
We believe that “happiness” is the sustained state of feeling “good.” It is because of this belief that we are not happy. Happy people are not people who “feel good” all the time, they are the people who are able to be guided by their negative emotions, rather than paralyzed by them.
Happiness is not about “how good you feel,” but why you feel it. A life built on meaning and purpose feels good, though so does a life built on greed and selfishness. Yet, one is better than the other. Why? Greed and selfishness are quintessential traits of someone seeking a high to eliminate pain. Meaning and purpose-driven work or ideologies are traits of people who have accepted their pain, and have chosen to work with – not against – it. The former is destructive and unfulfilling. The latter is more difficult, but worthwhile.
Our pain serves us. It is a crucial, guiding force. Suffering begins to thrive when we don’t listen to it. Imagine what happens when you place your hand on a burning stove. You feel pain because your body is signaling for you to move your hand before it disintegrates. Our emotional lives are no different, except for the fact that we understand the consequence of keeping our hand on the stove. We do not yet understand the consequence of what our emotional pain is guiding us from.
We see pain as being in opposition to our well-being, rather than a key component in creating it.
The first thing that’s required to fix this is understanding that we don’t inherently want to avoid pain. In fact, a lot of what we think we want is not what we want at all. (Some of the most emotionally empty and unfulfilled people are those we idolize for being rich, or “successful.”)
Next, it’s shifting our goals from wanting to transcend the pain to aiming for a more neutral emotional PH. Some call this “shifting the baseline.” We usually avoid the actual work of adjusting our mental/emotional receptivity because doing so eliminates the possibility of attaining the external “high.” We think we’re giving up on the dreams and hopes we assumed would make us feel incredible. In reality, what we are giving up is simply the illusion that those things will bring sustained happiness, in favor of a shift in perception, which actually will.
In the absolute simplest terms possible, we call this peace: when neither the desire for a high or the suppression of the low is present. When you’ve shifted your baseline from “survive” to “thrive,” and have detached from outcomes, you can enjoy what each day brings.
Once you step out from the endless race of chasing elusive happiness, you realize that you were never running toward something better, you were just trying to outrun yourself. You will also realize that it was only because of pain that you were able to understand this. Your pain lined the pathway, it was guiding you to that understanding all along.
Image: Franca Giminez