Reassessing the Value of Pain

Rina Trevi • Mar 31, 2021 • 9 min read
Why pain? I hear people ask various versions of this same question. I often catch myself asking it too when I’m in emotional or physical pain. We tend to see pain as an enemy, perhaps as a sign of failure, a sign of an error having been made. It shouldn’t be this way, we think. Why me? Why now?

We rarely give much thought to such assessments because it seems so obvious to us that pain is unwelcome and unwanted and that no other interpretation is possible. Pain is wrong because it’s unpleasant! We are satisfied with this rationale and we go on living, taking this conclusion for granted as an inarguable fact. Pain is wrong. Pain is to be avoided. We pity those who are in pain. We judge harshly those who seek out pain, whether directly or in roundabout ways. We call them ‘abnormal’ and worse. We judge pain, but perhaps what we should be judging instead are our judgements about it.

Given the nature of my past work as a dominatrix, I have heard these unequivocal judgments loudly and often. If other aspects of my work left room for disagreement or seemed too sensitive to broach in polite company, the infliction of pain was taken to be a topic ripe for discussion. My ‘mainstream’ friends were quick to dismiss my BDSM clients as weird perverts who came looking for pain. They pitied them. They assumed without hesitation that this proclivity was wrong and its practitioners were somehow sick. Some were disturbed or disgusted by the idea of someone seeking out physical or psychological discomfort. Understandably so: even official psychiatry had taken BDSM practitioners to be pathologically ill, until as recently as 2013. After all, why would a healthy person go looking for something so uncomfortable and so pointless? And so, having failed to find any obvious advantage in receiving pain, conventional wisdom has deemed it to be plain wrong.
Even the less conventional, that is, my clients who came to me looking for pain, often reacted to it in the habitual manner they react to it in life, that is, negatively. This was because many of them had not come seeking pain as an end in itself, but rather as a means of getting out of their comfort zone, a way of obtaining some kind of emotional or psychological breakthrough. Even those who now come to me for my rope suspension journeys often find themselves questioning their own wisdom during this process of sometimes painful struggles. Why did I get myself into this? Why did I choose to submit to pain? What’s wrong with me, why am I paying someone to hurt me? I don’t like any of this! Maybe I should call my safeword and stop? It’s so pointlessly painful!

It’s true: during my shibari suspension journeys, some pain is inevitable. It might be physical or mostly emotional. Either way, one tends to feel trapped, which triggers uncomfortable feelings. While suspended, one also feels the ropes pinching the skin and the attendant physical discomfort. The combination of these two sources of discomfort, physical and psychological, creates a complex journey inward where things become intertwined and it becomes difficult to distinguish where exactly it hurts. Is it your physical body? A deep emotional response? Or just your so-called monkey mind’s shallow panic?

We want a breakthrough, we want a solution to our problems, we want a way out of our daily struggle, and yet we refuse to believe that the way out might entail some pain. We hate pain. We want pain to disappear, never to return. We want control, we want a happy pill, we want Mommy who will make it all go away, we want mercy from our dominatrix, we want to run and hide…. We are so eager to find a solution that we fail to study the problem itself. But what if the solution is actually to be found in the problem? As someone whose work has revolved around the infliction of pain, and as someone who has gone on her own explorations of pain, I have come to see that, without a doubt, pain has a great deal of wisdom to impart. When one chooses consciously to welcome all painful experiences, and to explore them with curiosity, pain reveals itself as a gift full of treasures.

Pain has depth. You might have noticed that people who live lives of total indulgence tend to be rather shallow. That’s because they have lived only on the surface, chasing one pleasure after another. They are always in search of another high, avoiding lows with all the means at their disposal. It grows boring to be around them after a bit. Whereas those who have gone through major ordeals and have overcome them, tend to be the ones with interesting stories to share, amazing learning experiences, wisdom gained, unshakable strength, courage, and the belief that, having gone through that, they can get through anything.

I hope that, by now, you are getting a glimmer that pain might be no more than a negative label that we give to something that is, in actuality, multidimensional. When we accept this proposition, when we choose to go beyond the instinctive thought “I don’t like pain and I want it to go away” we stand to find out what’s beneath it. And what’s beneath it, generally speaking, is the present moment: step into it and discover what it’s made of. By this I mean, become as sensitive as possible. Let the pain and its arrow penetrate you to your very core. Observe what happens when you meet pain from the core of your being. What kind of person are you when you consciously welcome pain, instead of running away from it?

Pain puts us on a journey back to ourselves. After all, why would someone living a life of pleasure question any aspect of their existence? Why would such a person let themselves be distracted from pleasure to go pray, or to do some selfless deed? Why would they bother starting a creative project, if they are busy with comforts and pleasures? Pleasure is distracting. Pleasure dulls. It engulfs you. Pleasure is forgetfulness. In pleasure we forget ourselves and the world: everything is going so well, why bother? It is when we’re in pain that we begin to contemplate the possibility that more might exist than meets the eye. In pain, we reach out to higher power: pain can become prayer, it can become meditation, and it can become awareness.

Pain is a gateway from our monkey-mind’s conditioned reality into vulnerability and compassion. It removes our protective armor and reveals to us what we’re really made of. It exposes our raw, fragile humanness, with its fears, hopes, desires, doubts, along with its beauty, innocence, and divine essence. It lets us see ourselves as we really are. And not just ourselves, others too. When we intentionally meet the deep wounds within--the wounds we cannot outsmart with any tricks of our mind, the wounds that drive us mad and might even lead us to consider ending this life just to stop feeling this meatgrinder crushing us--that’s when we realize what pains might have driven others to ignorant or evil acts. That’s when we feel what it’s like to be them and no longer judge them as harshly.

So long as we avoid pain, we remain emotionally closed-off. The corollary to this is that we also avoid being vulnerable. The absence of vulnerability is the absence of intimacy. Pain connects us to one another. Pain, experienced honestly and consciously, has the power to make us sensitive to other people's pain. Pleasure doesn’t connect us as well as pain does. We come to understand and connect with people in painful or poignant moments. That’s when we can feel the tenderness of their hearts and see how their pain drives their beliefs and actions. Rather than idealize them, as we do when basking in the bliss of love, through the sharing of pain we deepen our understanding and create space for true love to grow.

Pain exists because pleasure exists. A valley is nothing but a situation in which a peak is possible. Similarly, pleasure cannot exist without pain: they are part and parcel of the same duality. Those who constantly chase pleasure rarely obtain it, they merely settle into a rather dull comfort zone. The powerful secret that I have seen confirmed by my own experience, and that of my clients, is that deep, meaningful, profound, divinely-ascending pleasure is only possible when one is willing and able to also descend deeply into the underworld of pain. Unbearable, inconceivable, devastating though it might be. I have seen, over and over, that If one can fully venture into their pain and meet it, they will also be able to touch heaven as a reward. Pain liberates.

If, on the contrary, we have spent our life avoiding a thousand and one emotional aches, having buried them deep, we can rest assured that this pain did not go away just because we have ignored it, it has merely accumulated somewhere within us. This means that when we finally choose to grow and face ourselves, we must also face all the pain we have repressed. Rather, expectedly, this process of growth is not always smooth. It can be, and often is, intermittently explosive. Catharsis, or emotional purging, is the process of eliminating long-accumulated aches, such as fear, anger, shame. During catharsis, we release the pent-up energy that we have kept percolating inside. We should not, therefore, be too shocked to see it intensify and become worse (especially if we allow our monkey-mind to judge it as “negative”) before it gets better. Once the storm is over, however, the feeling of freshness and innocence is indescribable. In place of the old pain, one is left with so much inner space for a now-uncontaminated interaction with the world.

Pain can also be a creative force. We often hear of someone to whom something bad has happened, after which a painful struggle ensued, until the person surrendered to it and used it as fuel for creating something magnificent. Pain has often served as artists’ muse. Many artists thrive and feed on emotional energy. And while artists have historically transmuted their feelings into art, Tantra teaches the alchemy of sublimating gross energy into spirituality. It too offers a way of transforming the energy of raw pain into sublime forms full of creative potential.

Examined in this way, pain no longer appears as straightforward as we are used to regarding it. We come to see that pain is largely a judgement of the mind. Underneath it, lies a world of possibilities. Pain can also be beautiful. Pain does not always need to be taken in the spirit of suffering. That being said, I am not advocating we seek pain. This would be as silly as constantly seeking pleasure, and probably equally fruitless. There is no need to go looking for it, as pain is inevitable. But whenever it appears, it is best not to reject it. We stand to benefit greatly if, instead, we accept it, welcome it, feel it with every cell of our being, and explore it on every level of perception available to us. Whatever existence gives to us, it behooves us to try and find a way to use it such that it becomes an adventure of its own or an opportunity for creative growth. Pain and pleasure are both intrinsic parts of life, and life exists between these two polarities. When we fail to maintain a balance between pain and pleasure and to value them both, we stand to miss out on life itself.


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