There are two kinds of pain: instinctive and reflective.
Instinctive pain happens in a flash of a second before it can be controlled. Bodily pain is like this – stubbing one’s foot, breaking a leg, a headache. So is a lot of pain related to social identity: feeling ugly, being yelled at, put down, being low on the status totem pole, not measuring up to someone else. Instinctive pain is just there. It can’t be eliminated altogether. It comes with having a body, with being a social being.
Reflective pain is the magnification of instinctive pain through one’s misguided reactions to instinctive pain. Reflective pain is the meaning one imposes onto the instinctive pain.
A headache is a headache. It is instinctive pain. The narrative that the neighbor’s music is to be blamed for my headache, the sense that the neighbor is the culprit who has to be taught a lesson is reflective pain.
Instinctive pain is part of being in the world. Reflective pain is the superimposed self-understanding of our being in the world.
Normally we fail to distinguish between instinctive and reflective pain. The root pain and the self-understanding of the pain are experienced together, as if there was only one thing: the pain with its intrinsic meaning.
Normally we experience our pain teleologically, with the meaning of the pain as a part of the phenomenology of the pain. As if the instinctive pain and the reflective pain are two sides of the same coin, two names of the same thing.
This means normally we experience pain through our own magnification of the pain, even as we are unaware of our own reflective contribution to the pain. As if all the pain is created outside my control. As if the only way to reduce the pain is to alter the world out there. Change the environment or other people.
Wisdom is the skill of distinguishing, in a given instance, the two kinds of pain. To see one’s own contribution to the pain. To be aware of which pain is instinctive and which is reflective.
Simply marking the distinction in a given instance is enough to lessen the overall, telologically-infused experience of pain in that instance. One doesn’t have to do anything with that awareness. The awareness of the distinction in the event at hand is itself the laser which cuts through the overall pain, leaving only the instinctive pain as a natural occurrence with natural causes and nothing more. What remains is painful, yes. Soul destroying, no.
A unwise person can contribute much to the world. They can help to ease and lessen their own and others instinctive pain. The creation of Advil doesn’t require wisdom. It requires knowledge, a great deal of it. The kind of knowledge which is wonderful and we can’t do without.
Knowledge by itself, or its creations, can only lessen instinctive pain. It cannot by itself lessen reflective pain. An unwise person, having taken Advil to lessen the headache, moves on to another pain infused with both instinct and reflection. The unwise person moves from one telologically-infused pain to another teleologically-infused pain. Seeking overall relief only by dulling the mind as a way to thwart reflective pain.
Wisdom is the cleansing of the overall person so as to separate in awareness the two kinds of pain. Bliss is the experience of instinctive pain – the condition of being in the world – without reflective pain.
The only way to achieve wisdom, as with any skill, is to practice it instance after instance, and to keep on practicing. Until it becomes second nature to be able to distinguish in the moment the two kinds of pain.