Pain, Fear, and Bravery

The first “Noble Truth” of Buddhism is that all life is suffering; anyone with an Associates Degree in Armchair Philosophy knows this. But (s)he also has enough grounding in Internet kitschy truisms to know that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” And if you haven’t been living under a rock for the last 27 years, you’ve been told by the Dread Pirate Roberts that life is pain (your highness) and that anyone who says differently is selling something.

There’s no scientific or empirical way to evaluate any of these statements. They are non-falsifiable claims. In service of a high quality of life, is it useful to hold one or the other? Or somehow more than one? Is it even worth asking?

My experience has been that simply declaring, “Pain is just a sensation,” makes it easier to bear. It’s almost like it weakens the pain, but not really. I’m not quite sure how to describe it. Go put two ounces of mouthwash in your mouth, and tell yourself that pain is just a sensation while you’re swishing it around. Make sure you go a full 30 seconds, or it won’t kill enough germs. I think you’ll find this mantra more empowering than “life is suffering.” Acknowledging the sensation, and its inevitability, and your choice to act without regard to the sensation, makes it much easier.

The same is true of fear. Last year, as part of a recording project, I hung a couple of microphones from a very high rafter in a church with a steep roof. The extension ladder we used was, I’m guessing, 24′ tall, and had to be fully extended. It took a few tries to get up to the top–not because the ladder was unstable, but because I wussed out on the first attempts. The higher up I went, the wobblier it seemed to get. Watching someone else climb to the top cured me of that. “Fear is just a sensation,” I realized, like pain. And you know what I found out when I tried again? The ladder doesn’t get more wobbly as you go up. Once you get past the middle, it gets more solid, and by the time you reach the top, it’s just as sturdy as standing on the ground. (Much hotter, though. Those steep roofs really keep the heat in.)

By the way, if someone sees you putting mouthwash in a shot glass, they might suddenly develop a concern for your well-being. Have an explanation ready. I got a serious cut on my finger once, in a public setting, so I walked into the kitchen, past a mother and son (the son looked about 7)–“pardon me,” I said, blood on my shirt–and poured a shot of rubbing alcohol. I could hear her about to ask, so I looked her right in the eyes, said “pain is just a sensation,” inhaled deeply, and inserted my bleeding finger into the shot glass. My eyes closed; I saw stars; my expression probably looked like a box of crayons on a hot stove. No sound came out.

“What’s he doing?” the boy asked.

“He’s being very brave.” Exhale.

Bravery, I’ve decided, works for pain and for fear.

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