Pain is part of life. Of happiness too.
I’m not a masochist, a stoic or a martyr. Not even remotely. But I’ve learned over the years the power and the wisdom of pain – whether emotional or physical. I would even say that my happiness and success come, for the most part, from understanding the role of pain in life – and leveraging off it.
I am always surprised how little we talk about pain. It is one of the greatest taboos of Western cultures. Socialized to think that physical pain is weakness and emotional pain is failure, we generally keep those experiences private. After all, we have everything available to us to avoid unpleasant sensations: from pills to entertainment to anything that gives us instant gratification.
Growing up, I was taught, like everyone else, the three basic ways to deal with my pain: numb it so that I wouldn’t feel it, distract myself until it would go away, and generally avoid it when possible. But pain has so much more to teach us if we accept the idea that it is an essential part of life.
Pain and happiness
If you ask around what people define as happiness, you will get predictable answers such as a fulfilling job, financial independence, a loving and supporting family, a great home is a stimulating community, a thousand friends and travels around the world.
These answers, however, completely miss the point of happiness.
Because in the end, everyone tells the same story: they want to reap the rewards of life without putting in the efforts. In other words, they want the prize without the pain.
But here’s the truth no one has been telling you: happiness is not pain free.
Pain is an inevitable part of life, and it certainly plays a role in the pursuit of happiness. A happy life can be full of adversity. What characterizes happy people is not that their lives are exempt of negativity, but that they have the ability to deal with it and use it to their advantage.
There’s another problem with this common definition of a happiness: it captures a moment of perfect contentment and suspends it for eternity. But happiness does not feed of inertness, and its worse enemy is complacency. As Mark Manson aptly put it: “…the quicker we accept that the point of life is progress and not perfection, the sooner we can all order a pizza and go home.”
Sitting with the pain
For me, life started rough. My entire childhood was held hostage of a collapsing marriage where emotional resources were scarce. Home was a desolated battlefield. The joy and innocence of the child I was were casualties of the war that was raging at home. A war I didn’t even understand.
Those early years of conflict and neglect shaped the young person I would become.
By the end of my teens, my soul was in pain. Having grown up without guidance, I had lost my way. Confused about my values and left without an ounce of self-worth in me, the world around felt like a constant aggression. I was struggling with depression, anxiety and a general sense of hopelessness, unfortunate attitudes I was taught by example.
I was 19 when my life collapsed before my eyes. Desperation had won over my fragile soul and I hit rock bottom. I was so useless and lonely that even my own life threatened to leave me.
I am forever grateful for having gone through this personal crisis at a young age, for it taught me the art of living. Somehow miraculously, it is at the lowest point of my life that I made the best decision for myself: that I, too, had a right to happiness. Despite my upbringing. Despite everything I wasn’t given.
Since decades of pain avoidance and numbing had gotten me nowhere but to his dead end, it was time to try something different. It was time to face the pain and wrestle with it. So I signed up to a meditation retreat, took a leave from school and fled to the woods.
The schedule was strict but simple: wake up at 4:30 am and meditate in complete silence until 9:00 pm. 10 hours a day. For 10 days.
What followed was an excruciating journey inside. A powerful one too.
I remember walking into the meditation hall on the first day, so nervous that I had a knot in my stomach. I placed my cushion next to my nametag, sat with crossed legs and closed my eyes. Now, there was no way back: I could no longer flee my unpleasant emotions.
From the outside, I probably looked like I was blissfully pondering over the meaning of life. But what I experienced inside felt more like a solo cross-country skiing trip across Antarctica.
It took me three days to disconnect from the outside world and find some sense of inner peace. Then, the hard work started: learning a meditation technique that teaches how to maintain a neutral and objective mind – i.e., an equanimous mind – in the face of the most unpleasant experiences.
Sitting in discomfort for long hours, I finally allowed myself to learn about the nature of pain – to feel it, to observe it, to understand it. I had only one task at hand: observe the sensations in my body with equinamity. Including the burning pain in my knees and the migraine that would come and go. Just observe.
As if coping with physical pain wasn’t hard enough, emotional pain joined the party. Fear arose: “Are my knees going to blow up? I will never be able to walk again. I can’t take this pain anymore!” Then, anger joined: “I can’t do this right. I’m so useless. I can’t focus for a minute – my mind is so agitated. No, this technique is useless!” All the while, sadness lamented: “I’m so lonely. I’ll never be happy. My life is doomed.”
I could have given in to those defeating thoughts, but I was willing to give this technique a real try. Anyway, I didn’t have much other choices. So I kept practicing. I showed up bright and early and I sat all the meditations. I took advantage of every minute I had to hone in my skills. Because I knew that the real challenge wasn’t to get through the 10 days, but to go home and pick up my life where I left it.
My hard work paid off and the technique delivered its results. Day after day, I could feel my mind was becoming sharper. Pain became something I could face and conquer. I wasn’t afraid of it anymore.
I wish I could tell you everything that I learned during this meditation retreat, and all the other ones I did over the years. Unfortunately, the wisdom of pain is something that can only be acquired experientially. There is nothing I can write or say that will give you the depth of knowledge I gained through those dedicated hours of mindfulness meditation. Wisdom is like push-ups: you can’t hire someone to put in the effort for you.
I have been meditating for 15 years now, and saying that meditation saved my life is not an overstatement. Because it taught me not to be afraid of pain, and rather use it to my advantage. Today, not only I embrace the uncomfortable life challenges that are put on my path, but I also strategically choose areas of my life where I push myself outside my comfort zone, because I know that the efforts invested will yield big rewards. I leverage off good pain to become stronger and smarter.
And for me, each increment of growth is where I find happiness.