Pain is man's oldest and most relentless enemy and at the same time his greatest friend. Though we purposely try to avoid pain, we cannot survive without it, for pain is the inbuilt mechanism which warns us about internal disease and external danger. Without pain there would be no stimulus for survival or growth.
Since the first living cells swam in the original, primordial seas, life has been balanced between the duality of pleasure and pain, like and dislike. The smallest animals sought to avoid the pain of noxious chemicals in their environment and avidly swam towards the pleasure of food. As life evolved, pain continued to be the stimulus for change and growth.
As man developed into a rational being the pleasure/pain principle influenced almost all of science, art, architecture, law, philosophy and technology. Pain was also the stimulus for man's most sublime spiritual sciences which aimed to transcend pure sensory existence, with its inherent suffering, in order to experience the bliss and wisdom of enlightened, transcendent consciousness.
Pain, although a common, everyday occurrence, is a very complex affair with many overlapping physical, emotional and mental components. Science has just scratched the surface in terms of understanding pain and how and why it occurs. For example, science still does not understand how emotional pain can cause sudden death, such as cardiac arrest, nor why fakirs can push metal skewers through their bodies, feel no pain, and stop loss of blood, or why yogis can undergo operations for cancer without anaesthetic, simply by using the power of the mind.
To understand more about pain, we should understand what happens in the body. Physical pain is mediated by special receptors in skin, internal organs, membranes of bones, the cornea of eyes and the pulp of teeth. Signals leave these receptors and travel up the spinal cord into the brain. In the brain several things happen. The cerebral cortex tells us where the pain is occurring. The limbic system, at the core of the brain, appears to mediate the emotional component, and this system is tied up with the endocrine and nervous system responses in the body. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is also involved in pain perception. When surgical severing of this part of the brain was performed for chronic pain patients, the subjects reported that they still had pain but no longer cared about it. They also suffered severe personality damage after the operation in the form of loss of spontaneity, reduced intelligence and lowered responsiveness. The cure was more terrible than the disease.
Though the brain is the mediator of pain and pleasure, it is itself totally devoid of any pain sensations and can be cut or burned without causing any discomfort. At the same time, the brain has been found to contain naturally occurring substances which are thought to be at the basis of pain relief. These chemicals, called endorphins and enkephalins, which are also found in the limbic, emotional controlling system, hold the promise for deeper understanding of how pain works.
It is thought that these substances are released with stress hormones and may therefore explain why athletes in the midst of competition and soldiers in battle can sustain severe injuries and only after the event is over become aware that they have been hurt. Montaigne in the seventeenth century wrote, 'One feels a single cut from a surgeon's scalpel more than ten strokes of the sword in the heat of battle'.
It is thought that all methods of pain relief work through endorphins and enkephalins, and this includes meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis and other successful forms. Scientists are, therefore, keen to research chemicals and techniques which stimulate natural release of these potent chemicals rather than use synthetic drugs, risking serious side effects, habituation and other dangers.
Ultimately, no drug, machine or external method can eliminate the root cause of pain and suffering. These methods are merely temporary means to cope with pain. The situation has been beautifully summed up by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. He stated that as long as man is not established in his own essential nature and identifies with the mind and the body, he lives in ignorance. This causes him to create feelings of separateness. likes and dislikes, and ultimately fear of dissolution of the imaginary 'I' which he thinks he is.
As long as we are hypnotized by the mind, senses, and external life, we will be caught in the sensory experience of pleasure and pain. Freedom from pain only occurs when we realize our true nature. The painful aspects of life serve to make us search for methods to avoid pain, ultimately delivering us back to the Self.
When we realize the futility of searching for happiness, security and peace in the external world, rather than within ourselves, we understand that we must change our attitude and direction of mind. We see that we have been caught in un-fulfillable desires and ambitions, anxieties and frustrations, moving further and further from our peaceful centre. This realization is painful in itself, for it shows us that everything we have worked for in life has only served to increase our sufferings. It is this realization of hopelessness and despair which leads initially to the yogic path. However, when it occurs without the buffer of meditative or spiritual discipline, it takes away all reason for living and is said to be the cause of cancer and many other diseases.
Meditative discipline is the essence of all systems Which aim to take us back to our centre, to enlighten our nervous system and mind to the truth of our existence, and radically alter our lives. The essence of meditation is sense withdrawal, and this serves to bring us closer to the inner reality. When we can perform sense withdrawal nothing can hurt us. We develop such control of mind that no external experience can affect our inner equilibrium. At the same time, of course, we practice asana, pranayama, hatha yoga and relaxation in order to reduce tension, quieten the overactive nervous system, remove impurities and maintain a healthy body and mind. We live a disciplined, simple life externally so that we remain healthy and have few external distractions which might interfere with the inner process. These practices are no doubt beneficial for the brain's hormones and may even release endorphins and enkephalins.
The spiritual path is not all pain and suffering. There is much joy also. However, it is a path of acceptance and pain is part of this. We accept our ignorance and foolishness and also our good points. At the same time spiritual wisdom dawns and we realize that all of life is temporary. We cease running in endless circles vainly seeking dreams and illusions, like a dog running after its tail. We have learned our lessons, perhaps painfully, perhaps with joy, but anyhow we realize that pain and pleasure are temporary and so we view the whole process of life in a different, higher light.
On the meditative path we think of pain, not as the Latins saw it, as poena, divine punishment, but rather in its original sense, as derived from the Sanskrit pu, meaning purification. We learn that we have been taught to fear pain needlessly and that in life there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Instead of the hurt and soreness of disease, we suffer the bitter-sweet pain of separation on the path of bhakti yoga. We develop an attitude of titiksha (endurance) and vairagya (dispassion) on the path of jnana yoga so that we can laugh at the things which once caused us pain. Instead of fearing pain we treat it as our friend, which awakens us to the pain of our ignorance and forces us to learn and grow. We use pain to remove pain just as a doctor uses a needle to remove a thorn.
Dante aptly described the process of spiritual growth, the inner path, in his Divine Comedy. His inferno is the hell which portrays the mental and physical anguish of pure material, sensory existence. As man tries to shake off this spiritual ignorance, he enters purgatory where he performs penance in order to enter the supreme joy of paradise.