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On Pain and Fear

“Men are born soft and supple; dead they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.” Lao Tzu

There is definitely strength in weakness. Unfortunately, we’re conditioned to believe that we’ll suffer less if we hold our feelings rigidly. We’re afraid of giving in to suffering – weeping and screaming. We’re ashamed of pain because we’re taught that giving in to pain is unmanly, sissy. While a woman in tears is a socially acceptable phenomenon, men are taught to always suppress their emotions, even during the most intense moments.

Let’s look more closely at pain and suffering. Where do they start? They start with fear. The very essence of suffering is the fear of suffering itself. As an extreme sports athlete, I’m very familiar with fear. The most common question I am asked is, Aren’t you scared of jumping off a cliff? Yes, of course I’m scared! I’m terrified every single time! How do I deal with it? I transform my fear into something beautiful.

Check this out: A careful observation of sensations accompanying being scared – creepy feeling up the spine, hollow feeling in the stomach and clammy hands. That’s about it. Interesting to notice: there are same sensations when we have a very positive emotion of excitement. Same sensations, but we’re interpreting them differently because of a different context.

We cry when we are sad and we cry when we’re overwhelmed with joy. Exactly the same tears, the same physical sensations, but what a difference context makes! In fact, if you were to see your face while you experience orgasm, you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were in pleasure or in pain.

What I’m driving at is that there is a point at which fear or pain, experienced without any negative interpretation, become converted into ecstasy. Such experience becomes a way of going through subtle or extraordinary sensations which have no meaning of their own.

The profound Buddhist solution to the problem of human pain, whether it is physical or emotional, is to delve right into it. The idea is to look at unadorned reality – free of any context and preconceptions. Stop resisting pain and go to the bottom of it. Drop the mind and see reality — direct, immediate, face to face. And there is no problem.

If you interpret pain as something that is destroying you, then it’s indeed terrifying. For example, let’s consider the most painful and frightening scenario – torture. The worst part of torture is the beginning. When the victim fears that something very bad is about to happen, like there is a darkness that will defeat the light…

However, as the torture progresses, the victim’s response to it slowly changes to a kind of drunken masochistic giving in, like it’s something he cooperates with. That’s when the torturer knows that there is no point in continuing.

In the context of a session, a big part of my work is assisting my clients to access their vulnerability and guiding them through pain. A classic scenario: a powerful corporate executive, naked and bent over in an uncomfortable and helpless position. Such an internal conflict when his socially-constructed image doesn’t match his present situation - completely stripped of his dignity!

I make sure he is restrained so there is no way he can protect himself. He’s scared. He is very humiliated and scared that it will hurt. What he needs is to truly believe he is not in control anymore, so he can finally surrender and fly.

It is the fear of pain that cripples him. Once he stops resisting pain and drops his preconceptions, there is no more fear. Once he finally surrenders, he is no longer resisting but on the contrary, welcoming any outcome.

My journeys into surrender is a psychodynamic psychotherapy where we live out all of our subconscious characters. With consent and awareness this kind of power exchange can lead us past our conditioning to a beautiful place of peace and serenity. This is where we find a paradox wherein weakness becomes power and vice versa. This is where profane and sacred intersect.

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