Pain clarifies our relationship with life. It reminds us that the experience of being alive was never intended to be painless. There is no pain-free existence to be claimed. For some people, the experience of pain in life is modest; that is, it can be alleviated and accommodated without major upheaval in life. For others, pain is overwhelming and imposes a threshold forever severing the life that once was from the life that has yet to reveal itself.
Pain conjures the experience of suffering. In one sense, pain forces you to confront the here and now. In a different sense, our pain creates a desire to be released from the present moment so that it can be something other than what it is However, we often orient ourselves to suffering as a desire to be released from the here and now so that it can be something other than what it is. The tension between the acceptance and denial of pain is the frontier for a struggle to find meaning within suffering. Pain is a trusted harsh mentor revealing the essence of human fragility, vulnerability, and humility.
Pain is an agile creature. It thrives across all five frontiers of the human experience. The inner life of pain moves fluidly throughout body, mind, and spirit. Physical pain disrupts our ability to participate in the world. Mental illness emerges when the mind becomes mired in emotional pain that overwhelms our ability to accommodate it. Spiritual pain makes itself known as existential angst and losing conversation with the animating forces of life. In the outer world, culture, that mercurial experiment in how to live together, sometimes conjures austere collective pain and suffering. Finally, the austere pain of our arrogance and separation from the natural world generates suffering that is felt everywhere all at once.
Pain is an agile presence. Physical pain is an intimate and private expression of suffering in our body. It signals that there is a problem within that needs to attention. Sometimes, the body can heal itself and eliminate the source of pain on its own. Other times, the body needs assistance through medical intervention and lifestyle improvements. As we become older, we eventually encounter the challenge of chronic pain and new experiences of physical suffering that refuse to leave us alone.
Mental pain conjures varying states of suffering in the mind. It agitates and generates discord in our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. The clarification, adaptation, and integration of suffering is the essence of the struggle to reclaim mental health; that is, the avoidance and denial of suffering inhibits wellbeing. Attempting to deny, avoid, or eliminate emotional pain intensifies suffering. The journey toward mental health is discovered in acceptance, integration, and, most importantly, finding meaning within the directly felt experience of suffering. In this sense, wellbeing is the lifelong and lifewide process of making yourself large enough to accommodate experience from which there is no release.
Spirituality is how we orient ourselves to the mystery and shock of being alive. It is the energetic space in which we confront our angst, dread, and anguish. It is also the space in which we honour the privilege of being alive with gratitude, reverence, and love. Spiritual pain and suffering is highly volatile and mercurial. The Dark Night of the Soul symbolizes the outer reaches of spiritual suffering. Inside a dark night, we are trapped within a dense liminal space that renders us powerless. Nothing has prepared us to navigate it. None of our knowledge or skill is of use here. It is the frightening terrain on which we question the value of being alive.
All forms of culture are experiments in how to live. Many of these experiments are conducted by imposing pain and suffering on the other. This desire is the hallmark of evil. No one desires the experience pain and suffering. The history of the human drama is, however, inexorably linked to the confinement, conversion, or annihilation of another. In Canada today, our culture must come to terms with the truth of its history and find ways to reconcile with the genocide of Indigenous culture. The pain and suffering emerging from this will envelope the nation in a collective trauma. And it is only by going into the trauma and understanding its lines of force that the possibility for recovery and renewal will emerge.
In nature, we witness that pain and suffering is part of the natural order. Nature is beautiful; it is also wild and feral. In a sense, nature eats itself with complete indifference. We have been conditioned to think of this as theatre for survival of the fittest, which is a facile and arid metaphor for the mystery and creativity of nature. But there are storm clouds on the horizon fast approaching humankind. The rapidly evolving climate crisis will impose individual and collective pain and suffering throughout humankind that will permeate body, mind, spirit, and culture; that is, there is no escape from the pain and suffering we have created for ourselves.
The primary frontiers of pain are physical, mental, spiritual, cultural or environmental. No one wants to experience pain. It is a harsh mentor that exposes our vulnerabilities and weakens our resolve. Learning from the experience of pain and consequent suffering is a fundamental discipline in life. No matter how well we prepare ourselves, we will all be forced to endure painful situations that impose uncertainty, disrupt our expectations, and force unexpected change. How we inhabit our pain matters; that is, what we learn through the experience of pain and suffering is fundamental to our recovery and renewal. Exploring pain across the five frontiers of experiences is essential to the cultivation of wellbeing.