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A Better Way To Escape Pain

“Wanting to get out of pain is the pain; it is not the “reaction” of an “I” distinct from the pain. When you discover this, the desire to escape “merges” into the pain itself and vanishes.”

When I read the above sentences recently in Alan Watts’ book The Wisdom of Insecurity, I had one of those moments when you stop and look up from the page because your brain needs a few seconds to process the input.

After mentally retracing the short passage a few times, I realized the part that hit me hardest was this:

Wanting to get out of pain is the pain.

These nine words stopped me in my tracks because their accuracy was eye-opening to me.

The words felt familiar and yet surprising; a precise description (I hadn’t previously considered) of every time I get anxious about what has happened in the past or what lies ahead.

At first glance, they may not seem revelatory words to you but if you’re someone who feels pain in the present about a bygone event or an event yet to come, then they may help you understand that pain better.

And understanding the source of a problem is a huge help in solving with it.

Here is my three-pronged interpretation of the statement:

Wanting to get out of pain is the pain.

  1.  Regretting the past or obsessing over the future comes with the desire to escape those two imaginary points in time and only serves to create pain in the present.
  2.  You have already escaped the past and the future because you exist in the present.
  3.  Most of the time the present moment itself is not painful.

So, armed with a better understanding of the source of the pain, what is the Stoic response to deal with it?

In short, it’s to accept.

Yes, simply accept.

Accept that the present moment is rarely unbearable. (You made it this far didn’t you?)

Accept that the past is gone and isn’t coming back. (You learned a lot of lessons from it though, right?)

Accept that the future hasn’t arrived and will always remain uncertain. (You can plan for the worst and still hope for the best can’t you?)

If that sounds like an apathetic attitude of resignation, remember: acceptance isn’t a slump into passivity.

It’s the acknowledgment of something that can’t be changed so that you can stop trying to change it.

It’s not standing still and absorbing difficulty, it’s looking reality in the eye and taking a step forward.

It’s a decision to stop creating pain by trying to get away from pain.

If you don’t run, it can’t chase you.

Amor Fati.