A short while ago, I was having a conversation with my very good friend Grumpy Goat on the subject of pain, and in particular emotional pain. Grumps often disagrees with me about the amount of freedom and choice that we have in our lives, and he made the following assertion:
"Pain is a normal and essential stimulus. You may have been able to think you don't feel it but I happen to believe that all that happens when you try to ignore or cut off pain is you become numb."
I partly agree with Grumpy Goat. Pain is normal, but I am quite sure that is not essential. I think that emotional pain is a signal which is telling you to change either your thoughts or your behaviour. (Changing your thoughts usually automatically leads to changing your behaviour.) Once you stop engaging in the thoughts or behaviours that gave rise to the pain in the first place, the pain is no longer necessary.
Imagine that you put your hand in a fire. It hurts a great deal. This physical pain is a signal saying: 'stop putting your hand in the fire'. Would you ignore the pain? Would you choose to numb your hand with a strong anaesthetic and keep putting it in the fire? I doubt it. You would simply stop putting your hand in the fire. Emotional pain is there for the same reason as physical pain. All emotional pain is caused by your own thought patterns, which sometimes lead you to engage in behaviour that brings even more pain (sometimes physical as well as emotional). So what is the signal saying? It is saying clearly and simply: change your thought patterns. Like the irritating voice of a satellite navigation system, it is saying: you are heading the wrong way, change direction.
Once you stop putting your hand in the fire, there is no more pain. Once you stop engaging in painful thought patterns, there is no longer any reason to experience emotional pain. Even with events that are almost universally considered painful, such as bereavement, peace always comes in the end by changing your thought patterns about that traumatic event, eventually resting in acceptance.
Let me make it very clear that I am not suggesting at all that we should ignore pain. I am suggesting the exact opposite. Many people do ignore emotional pain by taking anaesthetic in the form of drink, illegal or prescription drugs, overeating or other addictions and disorders. These things will indeed cause you to become emotionally numb. We should always listen to emotional pain and always heed its message. We should change whatever we need to change until there is no longer any pain. You do not become numb because you stop putting your hand in the fire. You are still free to use your hand to touch many wonderful things which do not cause any pain. Likewise, there are an infinite number of very beautiful thought patterns which we can engage in that do not cause any pain at all. If we deliberately practice choosing some of those, then we can learn to lead a life which is mostly free of emotional pain and we can begin to experience sustained love and joy the majority of the time.
All pain is only an 'essential stimulus' while we are still choosing to engage in the thought patterns or behaviours which gave rise to the pain in the first place.
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