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Consciousness and the Problem of Pain
All my life I used to wonder what I would become when grew up. Then, about seven years ago, I realized that I never was going to grow up that growing is an ever ongoing process. So I asked myself, "Well, Scotty, what is it that you've become thus far?" And as soon as I asked that question, I realized, to my absolute horror, that what I have become is an evangelist. An evangelist is the last thing on earth I ever thought I would become. And it's probably the last thing on earth you ever wanted to encounter.
The word "evangelist" carries the worst possible associations and probably brings to your mind the image of a manicured and coiffed preacher in a two-thousand-dollar suit, his gold-ringed fingers gripping a leatherette-covered Bible as he shouts at the top of his lungs: "Save me, Jee-sus!"
Fear not. I don't mean to suggest that I have become that kind of evangelist. I am using the word "evangelist" in its original sense the bringer of good news. But I must warn you, I am also the bringer of bad news. I am an evangelist who brings good news and bad news.
If you are anything like me, you are into delaying gratification, so when you are asked, "Which do you want first, the good news or the bad news?" you answer, "Well, the bad news first, please." So let me get the bad news over with: I don't know anything.
It might seem odd that an evangelist, a "bringer of truth," would confess so readily that he doesn't know anything. But the real truth of the matter is that you don't know anything either. None of us does. We dwell in a profoundly mysterious universe.
Evangelists are also supposed to bring "glad tidings of comfort and joy." The other piece of bad news is that I am going to be talking about the journey through life, and in so doing I cannot avoid talking about pain. Pain is simply a part of being human and it has been so since the Garden of Eden.
The story of the Garden of Eden is, of course, a myth. But like other myths, it is an embodiment of truth. And among the many truthful things the myth of the Garden of Eden tells us is how we human beings evolved into consciousness.
When we ate the apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we became conscious, and having become conscious, we immediately became self-conscious. That was how Cod recognized that we had eaten the apple we were suddenly modest and shy. So one of the things this myth tells us is that it is human to be shy.
I have had the opportunity, through my career as a psychiatrist and more recently as an author and lecturer, to meet a great number of wonderful, deep-thinking people, and I have never met such a person who was not basically shy. A few of them had not thought of themselves as shy, but as we talked about it, they came to realize that they were in fact shy. And the very few people I have met who were not shy were people who had been damaged in some way, who had lost some of their humanity.
It is human to be shy, and we became shy in the Garden of Eden when we became self-conscious. When this happened to us, we became conscious of ourselves as separate entities. We lost that sense of oneness with nature, with the rest of the universe. And this loss of the sense of oneness with the rest of creation is symbolized by our banishment from Paradise.
GROWING UP PAINFULLY
When we were banished from Paradise, we were banished forever. We can never go back to Eden. If you remember the story, the way is barred by cherubims and a flaming sword.
We cannot go back. We can only go forward.
To go back to Eden would be like trying to return to our mother's womb, to infancy. Since we cannot go back to the womb or infancy, we must grow up. We can only go forward through the desert of life, making our way painfully over parched and barren ground into increasingly deeper levels of consciousness.
This is an extremely important truth because a great deal of human psychopathology, including the abuse of drugs, arises out of the attempt to get back to Eden. At cocktail parties we tend to need at least that one drink to help diminish our self-consciousness, to diminish our shyness. It works, right? And if we get Just the right amount of alcohol or Just the right amount of pot or coke or some combination thereof, for a few minutes or a few hours we may regain temporarily that lost sense of oneness with the universe. We may recapture that deliciously warm and fuzzy sense of being one with nature once again.
Of course, the feeling never lasts very long and the price usually isn't worth it. So the myth is true. We really cannot go back to Eden. We must go forward through the desert. But that journey is hard and consciousness often painful. And so most people stop their journey as quickly as they can. They find what looks like a safe place, burrow into the sand, and stay there rather than go forward through the painful desert, which is filled with cactuses and thorns and sharp rocks.
Even if most people have been taught at one time or another that "those things that hurt, instruct" (to borrow Benjamin Franklin's phrase), the education of the desert is so painful that they discontinue it as early as they can.
Senility is not just a biological disorder. It can also be a manifestation of a refusal to grow up, a psychological disorder preventable by anyone who embarks on a lifetime pattern of psychospiritual growth. Those who stop learning and growing early in their lives and stop changing and become fixed often lapse into what is sometimes called their "second childhood." They become whiny and demanding and self-centered. But this isn't because they have entered their second childhood. They have never left their first, and the veneer of adulthood is worn thin, revealing the emotional child that lurks underneath.
We psychotherapists know that most people who look like adults are actually emotional children walking around in adult's clothing. And we know this not because the people that come to us are more immature than most. On the contrary, those who come to psychotherapy with genuine intent to grow are those relative few who are called out of immaturity, who are no longer willing to tolerate their own childishness, although they may not yet see the way out. The rest of the population never manages to fully grow up, and perhaps it is for this reason that they hate so to talk about growing old.
Back in January of 1980, soon after I wrote The Road Less Traveled, which in many ways is a book about growing up, I was being driven around to a number of TV and radio stations on a promotional tour by a cabdriver in Washington, D.C. After the second or third station, he said, "Hey man, whatja doin'?"
So I told him that I was promoting a book, and he asked, "What's it about?"
I went into this intellectual bit about how it was an integration of psychiatry and religion. After about thirty seconds he commented, "Well, it sounds to me like it's about getting your shit together."
0 That man had the gift of discernment. So at the next TV talk show I went to, I asked if I could tell that story.
They said no. Thinking that they objected to the word "shit," I offered to say "stuff" instead. But they still said no.
People just don't want to talk about real maturation. It is too painful.
If I am willing to talk about pain, it does not mean I am some kind of masochist. On the contrary. I see absolutely no virtue whatsoever in unconstructive suffering. If I have a headache, the very first thing I do is go to the kitchen and get myself two superstrength, uncapsulized Tylenols. I see absolutely no virtue in an ordinary tension headache.
But there is such a thing as constructive suffering. And the difference between unconstructive suffering and constructive suffering is one of the most important things to learn in dealing with the pain of growing up. Unconstructive suffering, like headaches, is something you ought to get rid of. Constructive suffering you ought to bear and work through.
I prefer to use the terms "neurotic suffering" and "existential suffering," and here is an example of how I make that distinction. You may remember that about forty years ago, when Freud's theories first filtered down to the intelligentsia and were misinterpreted as so often happens there was a whole bunch of avant-garde parents who, having learned that guilt feelings could have something to do with neuroses, resolved that they were going to raise guilt-free children. What an awful thing to try to do to a child!
Our jails are filled with people who are there precisely because they do not have any guilt, or do not have enough guilt. We need a certain amount of guilt in order to exist in society. And that's what I call existential guilt.
I hasten to stress, however, that too much guilt, rather than enhancing our existence, impedes it. This is neurotic guilt. It is like walking around a golf course with eighty-seven clubs in your bag instead of fourteen, which is the number needed to play optimal golf. It's just so much excess baggage, and you ought to get rid of it as quickly as possible. If that means going into psychotherapy, then you should do that. Neurotic guilt is unnecessary, and it only impedes your journey through the desert.
This is true not only of guilt, but also of other forms of emotional suffering, like anxiety, for example, which can be either existential or neurotic. And the trick is to determine which is which.
There is a very simple albeit brutal rule for dealing with the emotional pain and suffering of life. It's a three-step process.
First, whenever you are suffering emotionally, ask yourself: "Is my suffering my anxiety or my guilt existential or is it neurotic? Is this pain enhancing my existence or is it limiting iff" Now perhaps about ten percent of the time, you really won't be able to answer that question. But about ninety percent of the time, if you can think to ask it, the answer will be very clear. If, for example, you are anxious about filing your income taxes on time because you once got hit with a big late-payment penalty, I can assure you that the anxiety you feel is existential. It's appropriate. Go with your anxiety and file on time. On the other hand, if you determine that the suffering you are experiencing is neurotic and is impeding your existence, then the second step is to ask yourself: "How would I behave if I did not have this anxiety or guilt?"
And the third step is to behave that way. As Alcoholics Anonymous teaches: "Act as if," or "Fake it to make it."
The way I first came to learn about this rule was in dealing with my own shyness. It is human to be shy, but we can deal with it in ways that are either neurotic or existential. In the audience, listening to famous speakers, I sometimes felt there was a question I should ask them, some piece of information I wanted to know, or some comment I wanted to make in public, or even in private after the speech. But I would hold back because I was too shy and afraid of being rejected or of looking like a fool.
After a while, I finally came to ask myself: "Is this way of dealing with your shyness which is holding you back from asking questions enhancing your existence or is it limiting it?" As soon as I asked that, it was clear that it was limiting my existence. And then I said to myself: "Well, Scotty, how would you behave if you weren't so shy? How would you behave if you were the Queen of England or President of the United States?" The answer was clear that I would approach the speaker and have my say. So then I told myself: "Okay, then, go ahead and behave that way. Fake it to make it. Act as if you weren't shy."
I admit that is a scary thing to do, but this is where courage comes in. One of the things that never cease to amaze me is how relatively few people understand what courage is. Most people think that courage is the absence of fear. The absence of fear is not courage; the absence of fear is some kind of brain damage. Courage is the capacity to go ahead in spite of the fear, or in spite of the pain. When you do that, you will find that overcoming that fear will not only make you stronger but will be a big step forward toward maturity.
Just what is maturity? When I wrote The Road Less Traveled, although I described a number of immature people, I never gave a definition of maturity. But it seems to me what characterizes most immature people is that they sit around complaining that life doesn't meet their demands. As Richard Bach wrote in Illusions, "Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they are yours." But what characterizes those relative few who are fully mature is that they regard it as their responsibility even as an opportunity to meet life's demands.
CONSCIOUSNESS AND HEALING
To proceed very far through the desert, you must be willing to meet existential suffering and work it through. In order to do that, if you are like most of us, you need to change your attitude toward pain in one way or another. And here is some good news. The quickest way to change your attitude toward pain is to accept the fact that everything that happens to us has been designed for our spiritual growth.
Donald Nichol, the author of Holiness, refers to it in his introduction as a how-to book. He says if you're caught carrying around a book on the subject of holiness and people ask you what you are doing with it, you're likely to tell them, "Well, I'm simply interested in what authorities have to say about the subject." Actually, Nichol points out, there's absolutely no reason for you to purchase or borrow, much less carry around a book on the subject of holiness unless you want to be holy. And so he calls it a how-to book, about how to be holy. Approximately two thirds of the way through that book there's a wonderful sentence where Nichol says, "We cannot lose once we realize that everything that happens to us has been designed to teach us holiness."
Now what better news can there be than that we cannot lose, we are bound to win? We are guaranteed winners once we simply realize that everything that happens to us has been designed to teach us what we need to know on our journey.
The problem, however, is that this realization requires a complete shift in our attitude toward pain and, I think, toward consciousness. Remember in the story of the Garden of Eden, we became conscious when we ate the apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Consciousness then became for us both the cause of our pain and the cause of our salvation, which is a word synonymous with healing.
Consciousness is the cause of our pain because, of course, were we not conscious, we would not feel pain. One of the things that we do for people to spare them unconstructive, unnecessary suffering physical suffering is to give them anesthesia so that they can lose consciousness and not feel the pain.
But while consciousness is the whole cause of pain, it is also the cause of our salvation, because salvation is the process of becoming increasingly conscious. When we become increasingly conscious, we go further and further into the desert instead of burrowing into a hole like the people who choose not to grow up. And as we travel onward, we bear more and more pain because of our very consciousness.
As I said above, the word salvation means "healing." It comes from the same word as salve, which you put on your skin in order to heal an area of irritation or infection. Salvation is the process of healing and the process of becoming whole. And health, wholeness, and holiness are all derived from the same root. They all mean virtually the same thing.
Even old atheist Sigmund Freud recognized the relationship between healing and consciousness when he said that the purpose of psychotherapy healing of the psyche was to make the unconscious conscious; that is, to increase consciousness. Carl Jung further helped us understand the unconscious, ascribing evil to our refusal to meet our shadow, or that part of our personality that we like to deny, that we like not to think about, not to be conscious of, that we're continually trying to sweep under the rug of consciousness and keep unconscious.
Note that Jung ascribed human evil not to the shadow itself but to the refusal to meet this shadow. And refusal is a very active term. Those people who are evil are not lust passively unconscious or ignorant; they will go far out of their way to remain ignorant or unconscious; they will kill or start wars to do so.
I recognize, of course, that evil like Love or God or Truth is too large to submit to any single adequate definition. But one of the better definitions for evil is that it is "militant ignorance." Militant unconsciousness.
The Vietnam War is one of the best examples I know of this militant ignorance on a grand scale. When the evidence first began to accumulate in 1963 or 1964 that our policies in Indochina weren't working, our first response was to deny that anything was wrong. We said we just needed a couple more million dollars and a few more special forces. But then the evidence continued to accumulate our policies clearly weren't working. So what happened then? We sent in more troops, the body count began to escalate, and incidents of brutality became commonplace. It was the time of My Lai. Then as the evidence continued to pour in, we continued to ignore it. Instead, we bombed Cambodia and started talking about peace with honor.
Even today, despite all that we now know, some Americans continue to think that we succeeded in bargaining our way out of Vietnam. We didn't bargain our way out of Vietnam we were defeated. But somehow many still refuse to see this.
OASES IN THE DESERT
Consciousness brings more pain, but it also brings more joy. Because as you go further into the desert if you go far enough you will begin to discover little patches of green, little oases that you had never seen before. And if you go still further, you may even discover some streams of living water underneath the sand, or if you go still further, you may even be able to fulfill your own ultimate destiny.
Now if you doubt me, consider the example of a man who went on the journey far into the desert. He was the poet T. S. Eliot, who became famous early on in his career for writing poems of total aridity and despair. In the first, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." which he published in 1917 at age twenty-nine, he wrote:
I grow old....I grow old...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
It is important to keep in mind that J. Alfred Prufrock of the poem lived as did T. S. Eliot in a world of high society, the ultimate civilized world, yet he lived in a spiritual wasteland. Not surprisingly then, five years later, Eliot published a poem called "The Waste Land." And in this poem, he actually focused on the desert. It is also a poem that has in it a great deal of aridity and despair, but for the first time in Eliot's poetry there are little patches of green, little hints of vegetation here and there, images of water, and of shadow under rocks.
Then in his late forties and early fifties, Eliot wrote poems like "Four Quartets," the first of which opens with references to a rose garden, birds calling and children laughing. And he went on to write some of the richest and most luxuriously verdant, and mystical poetry that has ever been written, and, indeed, he is reputed to have ended his life very joyfully.
There is much solace we could take from Eliot's example as we ourselves struggle along with our rocky path and our pain. We need some comfort on our journey, but one of the things we don't need is quick fixes. I have seen a lot of people who literally murder each other with quick fixes in the name of healing.
They do this for very self-centered reasons. For example, let's say that Rick is my friend and he is in pain. Because he is my friend, that causes me pain, but I don't like to feel pain. So what I'd like to do is to heal Rick as quickly as I possibly can to get rid of my pain. I'd like to give him some kind of easy answer like: "Oh, I'm sorry your mother died but don't feel bad about it. She's gone to Heaven." Or: "Gee, I had that problem once and all you have to do is go running."
But more often than not, the most healing thing that we can do with someone who is in pain, rather than trying to get rid of that pain, is to sit there and be willing to share it. We have to learn to hear and to bear other people's pain. That is all part of becoming more conscious. And the more conscious we become, the more we see the games that other people play and their sins and manipulations, but we're also more conscious of their burdens and their sorrows.
As we grow spiritually, we can take on more and more of other people's pain, and then the most amazing thing happens. The more pain you are willing to take on, the more joy you will also begin to feel. And this is truly good news of what makes the journey ultimately so worthwhile.
Copyright © 1993 by M. Scott Peck