Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Purifying Power of Pain

The Purifying Power of Pain

Pain purifies. The practice of self-mortification to gain salvation has been known to ascetics for ages. Some of their practices can be extremely morbid and self-destructive; which is why the Buddha advocates the Middle Way. The mind and body are instruments of salvation; if the vehicle itself is destroyed, then it defeats the purpose of the practice itself.

Self-mortification is also not exclusive to Eastern asceticism alone; medieval Christian monks practice self-whipping to punish themselves for the temptations of the flesh. Even today, certain "corporal mortification" practices are accepted by Catholic organizations such as Opus Dei. Even acts of penance themselves can also be seen as a mild form of self-mortification.

For some reason, there's a link between pain and divine salvation. The ultimate pain is death itself: to Christians, it is Christ's painful death by crucifixion that redeems the soul of all sinners.

Pain is certainly not a pleasant state of being. But why should there be a link between pain and spiritual salvation?

When we are in pain, we do not see anything else--it seizes us completely. There comes a point when the pain becomes so unbearably intense that the only avenue left for us to alleviate our suffering is to disengage from it. Doctors prescribe pain-killer drugs to disengage our minds from the source of physical pain. Ascetics train themselves to do this mentally. In doing so, they are using pain as an object of meditation to transcend the bondage of the body.

All suffering is due to the fact that we identify ourselves with the vehicle of pain itself--the mind and the body. But we are not of the mind or body; we are pure soul. The soul does not feel pain--its natural state is bliss, joy and love.

We identify with our minds and bodies because we have developed this thing called ego. The ego is nothing but a mental entity--an illusion--created by our need for selfish possession. It is this ego that binds us to our physical self and the material world. Because the ego is bound to the material world, it is always trying to control things that are beyond its control.

For instance, we care what other people think about us. We worry whether our new car will be scratched by vandals. We feel envious when other people get recognized for their achievements. All these are pains caused by attachment to things or outcomes that are beyond our control. If we are willing to let go of these, the pain would go too.

Pain is there to help us realise the futility of our attachments to the glorified images of ourselves and our material possessions. The soul is beyond all these things. When a person suffers from pain, he is made to realise his own imperfections. He begins to understand their root causes, which are nothing more than mental positions held by the ego-mind. He realises, that by holding on to these false positions, he has to suffer enormous pain for it. He slowly dissolves his ego and the pain dissolves along with it. Eventually, the pure light of his soul would shine through--a soul whose very essence is bliss, joy and love.

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