I wanted to write about “pain” for some time now, both physical and emotional pain, but it was not the right time for it. I wasn’t inspired or perhaps I didn’t have enough experience of pain to write about it
It is somewhat odd for me to say this aloud as I firmly believed until recently that I have generally been a tormented soul since the day my father gave me the Russian classics to read over the summer holidays (I have always blamed him for that). Not that I have been exposed to vicissitudes of life any more than others. On the contrary, I have been quite lucky most of the times, with more ups than downs. So I am, and have always been, aware of the role of agency in the experience of pain, subjectively speaking.
Perhaps I got wiser, and became more immune to my mind’s tricks; or external conditions have changed, to such an extent that the pain and suffering I had experienced in the past have started to appear unimportant, even trivial, compared to what I have to live through in the present moment. This has not altered my “relationship” with agency. Running out of scientific options to appease my mind’s lust for suffering, i.e. therapy, (increasing doses of) medication, I have turned to spirituality, exploring the world of meditation and mindfulness under the wise guidance of mamma. From the work of Byron Katie to the teachings of Eckhart Tolle.
To be frank, and fair to my guide, I have never mastered the art of spirituality as much as others for I have not been immersed in it long enough. Chances are I am still not committed enough. But it helped; it gave me a different perspective on life, and more importantly on my understanding of time. I have learned to enjoy the present moment a little more – a giant step forward for someone as obsessed with the past and the future as me; and I have certainly become more skilled in dodging the tricks of my mind which has never stopped playing the role of sirens luring the sailors.
A series of related incidents or processes, all taking place within the last few months, culminated in probably the worst “present moment” of my life and fundamentally reshaped my relationship with pain and suffering, or better put, the way I see the role of agency in the experience of pain and suffering.
I was listening to a podcast on Very Ape, which is described as “a cosmic conversation about psychedelic healing, consciousness expansion, revolutionary politics, sex and art” by its hosts, the documentary filmmakers Sean Dunne, Cass Greener and Maura McNamara. It was a conversation with Aella, my recent Twitter discovery and obsession, on acid tripping (LSD, mushrooms and all). One of the hosts, Cass, gave me the quote I was searching to begin writing, in reply to Aella who was describing one of her “trips”. “Pain is just is; suffering is optional”. “Suffering is saying no to pain”, confirmed Aella.
The contexts were completely different of course; so were the experiences that were talked about. And yet, there was still something that rang true, something that seemed to fit with my own experience of pain and suffering.
On the one hand, they were, generally speaking, right. Suffering is optional; we have the power to define our relationship with pain, what we make out of pain. We may accept it as it is (that’s what the gurus of mindfulness would tell you too); or we may accentuate it, aggrandize it, by turning the ephemeral into the perpetual, the microscopic into something monumental.
On the other hand, this did not sit well with the experience of physical pain, especially pain which is not one’s own choosing. Like that of a small child – who happens to be your own – who has to undergo a very painful treatment to beat an almost invincible cancer. Having no alternatives – since there is no such thing as painless, “peaceful” death – or having the choices made for him by his parents who have no clue as to what is best for him.
Once the choice is made, and the moment of reckoning comes, you feel physical pain too, in anticipation of his pain, on top of the emotional pain, of having made the choice, a choice which would lead him to suffer. You watch three nurses and a doctor preparing syringes upon syringes of morphine and other painkillers. The doctor explains to you that the pain he will have to endure will be excruciating, hitting around the 15th minute of the injection, peaking at the 18th, then hopefully dying down. You try to picture it; you can’t. And no wonder you can’t, for the pain is indescribable, almost ineffable. He stops doing what he is doing; his body is crawling, taking the proverbial fetal position which has come to symbolize, ironically, both physical and emotional pain; the nurses rush to the syringes which disappear one after another; and the little one starts experiencing something that is not so dissimilar to that described in the podcast. He becomes high, drugged, still in pain, mixed with nausea, to the point that the two become identical, and yet “still” in pain. So tangible that you could almost touch it.
The pain subsides; yet the “trip” is not over – not for him, not for you. As he passes out, your physical pain turns or merges into a consuming emotional pain. And tears.
At that fateful moment, yes that particular “present moment”, you ask yourself “what did he do to deserve this?”. What did we do to deserve this? What did I do to deserve this? Can I use the power of agency to lessen my suffering caused by his suffering? The suffering that is caused by a very real, palpable, physical pain? Does he have the option to say no to pain? Do I?
Just a string of meaningless rhetorical questions…