Tag Archives: pain

The Pain of Joy

Shadows and Light - Grand Canyon, 2007

I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy lately, which keeps me mindful of sensory experience, the fleeting nature of thoughts, interbeing and the simultaneous possibilities of suffering and joy.  Our animal nature instinctively wants to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and so the idea that we might accept both of these in order to reach joy takes some getting used to.

Parenthood has taught me a lot about accepting the paradox of opposites emerging from the same situation, existing in the same space and time.  Among other mind-blowing revelations surrounding my first child’s appearance on this planet, it occurred to me that as I gave birth, I also gave death.  We cannot bring a person into the world without simultaneously condemning them to face their last breath someday.  The pain of joy!

So philosophically I’ve understood the idea of the connection between pain and pleasure, but my body finally truly got it the other evening.  I was driving to teach my Spanish class and mentally reviewing the events of the day, which included some wonderful news from several members of my family.  I began to feel proud, relieved, excited, happy.  Instead of judging these feelings as “good” or “pleasurable,” I just felt them as they welled up.  I quietly watched how my body was responding to these emotional thoughts.  (Somehow I kept driving too… not the best situation to get distracted by an awareness exercise, but that’s about the only quiet time I get these days.)  My eyes were tearing up, my chest was squeezing tightly, my breath was shallow and strained, my head felt like it was going to explode.  From my removed perspective, I realized that it felt exactly like grief.  This overwhelming wave of happiness resembled exactly my recent experiences with crushing sorrow over the loss of my Grandma, except that normally I would have labeled it “good” and so it would have felt amazing.  When it is about something “bad” then it feels awful.

I’m not sure what to do with this new physical awareness. Does “good” become tainted with “bad”?  Having seen the man behind that curtain, do they both become irrelevant?  Is there no longer pleasure or pain?  Can we trick ourselves into thinking “it’s all good!” and avoid pain forever?

The Overlook - Grand Canyon, 2007

Is there a new place to dwell, a mountaintop above these paradoxical dualities, where we can see something more true and real than animal emotions and senses which flash hard and random like lightening through our conscious minds?

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Using the Negative

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” — Kenji Miyazawa

Lao Tzu says that we must feed the good and the bad will wither and die.  This approach feels right to me, as I see so many people stuck in the “bad,” whether it is being trapped by worry or feeding negative fantasies until they come true or even talking obsessively about the “devil” and what he is trying to get them to do.  If we pour our energy into the positive, we cultivate the positive, and the negative has nothing to feed on.  (Why the “devil”-obsessed folks don’t just turn their attention to their faith in Jesus I cannot understand.)

So the negative withers and dies.  Compost!  It is still usable.  The idea of turning to the positive is a helpful reminder, but to turn our backs on the negative permanently encourages a dangerous denial; we don’t have to be afraid to look the dark side in the face and use it for good.

I think I have resisted optimism for so long because it seemed pathetically passive, to be a weak pawn clinging desperately to happy thoughts against the raging storms of chaos that toss us all around.  I could never understand how it could be better to be clueless about how bad things really are and to pretend that everything is okay.

But to be optimistic in the face of the suffering, the horrors, the pain of life, what courage and strength!  True optimism does not deny the negative, it simply acknowledges it, refuses to feed it, and converts it to positive energy to move forward along the path.

Cynicism and pessimism, which I used to think demonstrated a brave, bold acceptance of reality, I now believe are signs of defeat, of allowing the negative to swamp you and take over your life.  It is a cowardly surrender to despair.

There is suffering.  The negative does exist, and you will meet it on the path with alarming regularity.  But it is not the Way.  If we keep to the Wise Way, we will find love even in the midst of pain and sorrow, and our hearts, minds and wills can follow that light through any darkness.