Two Kinds of Pain

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.

2 thoughts on “Two Kinds of Pain

  1. Dylan

    I was wondering what you might have to say about the connection between the ability to separate in awareness the two kinds of pain and the stillness you referred to a few posts ago. In place of “cleansing of the overall person” in this post, I’d be inclined to substitute “achieving stillness”; self-cleansing seems close to a kind of self-aggression. But then there is the question of the relationship between stillness and the ability to discriminate.


  2. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    The stillness is the same as the ability to distinguish in practice the two kinds of pain. Experiencing the two pains together, which is how pain is normally experienced, is to get carried along with the meaning we associate with the pain.

    Example: I say something seemingly socially strange, people around me give me a funny look, my mind then races from the funny look to the thought that they don’t like me, and then to the worry that I might be unlikeable, and then to the memory when someone I cared about didn’t seem to like me — and on and on it goes. There is a reflective narrative we carry with us of what is good and what is bad, and that narrative is part of the essence of our experiences. Using Kantian language, we might say: the form and the content are inseparable, with the reflective narrative being the form.

    Our experiences are a fusion of the two kinds of pain. Can be avoid the fusion altogether? No. But then what is freedom? How can stillness be achieved?

    Stillness is the transition from one fusion to another. It is not possible to be still without recognizing that the old reflective narrative is false or outdated, and without thereby also having a sense for what a better narrative is that is to be created or constructed. At the same time, the better, newer narrative doesn’t by itself free one of the grip of the old narrative. One has to go through the process of being still in the face of the habits guided by the old narrative.

    Analogy: a person has to be drink to live. Imagine someone who is used to only drinking Pepsi. It feels good in the moment, but binds one into an overall life that is not fully flourishing. To change this, one has to have a sense for what else one might drink that is better, say, water. But habits being what they are, one can’t just replace Pepsi with water, and that’s that. The power of habit is that thirst got identified in the past with what only Pepsi can satisfy, and so it seems like water doesn’t really satisfy thirst! To get past this illusion, one can’t will and think one’s way past the Pepsi urges. The way to get past the urges is to simply be aware of them as urges, while cutting off the Pepsi and starting the habit of drinking water. In this transition, most of the time the person has to simply be with the urges for drinking Pepsi, since one can’t drink water all the time.

    This transition is a cleansing of the body of its dependence on Pepsi. I think of wisdom as a similar kind of cleansing, just at a much more ingrained level than what one drinks, including one’s overall orientation in life. Cleansing in this sense isn’t self-agression. It could be depending on how one does it, but it need not be.



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