pain (n.) from PIE *kwei- “to pay, atone, compensate”.

If, as Alcoholics Anonymous tells us, pain is the touchstone of all spiritual growth, still we must admit we are loathe to touch the stone.  It is all about pain.

We are so much in pain and in so much pain that we simply cannot distinguish the pain itself, like fish in so much water.  What do you mean “water”?  What do you mean “pain”?

Yet just as the water brought forth the fish and sustains the fish, without requiring that the fish know anything of all this, we are born out of pain and into pain and we are sustained by pain without even being able to grasp that which has always been holding us.

We are in pain like the fish is in water.


If the fish were seeking to get out of the water, the way we seek to get out of pain, we would think that nature had certainly gone awry.

Pain is our deus absconditus, our hidden God, concealed by our very certainty that god is good and pain is bad.

“I will multiply your pain in childbirth, in great pain will you bring forth your children.”  God the mother, feminine pain.

“Accursed be the soil because of you!  Painfully will you get your food from it as long as you live.”  God the father, masculine pain.

This is certainly not “good news” but it is at the virtual beginning, the genesis, of the Good Book.

I have heard it said that we are no longer sinners—now we have issues, now suffering is a mistake, and if our children suffer we ask ourselves what we have done wrong.  We can change the names: for Nietzsche it was ressentiment which accounted for the desire to deaden a tormenting secret pain by seeking a cause. “I suffer, someone must be to blame.”  Still he said, “As deeply as we look into life, we look into suffering.”   And even Sigmund Freud, father of the pleasure principle, (who was compelled to stop reading Nietzsche,) was forced to admit that psychoanalysis proves it that we are all miserable sinners.   Freud’s errant disciple, Carl Jung, said, “All neurosis is a substitute for legitimate suffering.”

So far, what goes without saying is that our fundamental orientation towards pain is antipathetic, we just want to get away from it, unless of course it promises a greater gain.  We are clearly on the pleasure principle: minimize pain, maximize pleasure.

It doesn’t even occur to us to accept the pain and deconstruct the principle.

The thing that is going to make the difference is a transformed relationship to pain.

If it is true that pain is the touchstone of all spiritual growth then the point must become to touch the stone.  What could be simpler.  Every day, in every way the stone is there to be touched.  And I suspect each of us can validate that our proudest or most transformative moments are related to situations and times when we stopped running away from some pain.  This touchstone must surely be the proverbial corner stone that nobody sees as valuable—petrified, petrifying pain.  Let’s go get stoned!

Does anyone know that the root meaning of ‘pain’ is payment?  So according to the pleasure principle we are designed to avoid or defer payment.

pain (n.)  from PIE *kwei- “to pay, atone, compensate”.

Does anyone know that one of the root meanings of ‘pain’ is atonement?  So according to the pleasure principle we are designed to avoid or defer at-one-ment. Our Amygdalas operate on the pleasure principle.  Buy now, enjoy now—pay (atone) later, medicate now, meditate later.

So we sell our souls for a cookie, or a beer or a mindless television show.  We sell our souls, one day at a time, for internet porn or romantic fantasies and a promise to do better tomorrow.  We don’t even sell them; we just don’t even notice them.  When it comes to the spiritual marketplace we are bad traders and horrible investors.  We are children exchanging anything for the bigger package or the smaller price or the immediate payback or the lesser pain. And we might as well admit it—we cannot help ourselves.  Yet the joke or the paradox is that at the same time we actually think we are in control and hence must be constantly dissatisfied with our performance.  We are absolutely sure we could have done better and perhaps we will next time.

So my constant point is to get our eyes on this phenomenon of avoiding pain.   

We are doing it all the time.  We avoid the painful conversations, the very ones that would make a difference. We avoid the unpleasant sensations, who among us can endure an entire evening without a snack?  We no longer even eat our vegetables first, we go straight for dessert.  We are no longer under parental guidance and neither are our children.

And yet we can no more avoid the pain than the fish can avoid the water.

(Originally Posted March 12, 2013)