June 25, 2023 - The Stoic Gym Blog
Tag(s): Pain || Seneca ||

9 Ways to Deal with Bodily Pain: Part 1

Chuck Chakrapani

This blog is first in a series of two discussing the ancient Stoics’ view on how to live a life in which experiencing pain doesn’t automatically mean we must live a life of suffering. 

Main ideas covered in the series.

The ancient Stoics, especially Seneca, had some very specific ideas about the nature of pain and how to deal with it. Here are their suggestions on how to cope with bodily pain. 

  1. Know that pain is manageable. Pain is either sharp or chronic. Sharp pain doesn’t last too long, and we get used to chronic pain. So, both are manageable.
  2. Do not add your opinion to the pain. Pain is bearable until we add our opinion to it – “this is terrible!” So, we should stop thinking that pain is terrible. It is something we will have from time to time as long as we have a body.
  3. Don’t relive the past or be afraid of the future. Memories of past pain and fear of future pain make our current pain much worse than it is. We should avoid adding to our pain this way.
  4. Distract yourself. We can also distract ourselves. Instead of thinking about our pain, we can think of other things.
  5. Cultivate mental pleasures. We should remember that our mind is unaffected by our body’s illness. So, cultivate pleasures of the mind rather than of the body.
  6. Heed advance warnings. Recurring pains also give us warning. We can take precautions against them, including taking preventive medications.
  7. Stand up to your pain. We should not be too quick to give in to our illness. When we stay strong our pain is decreased.
  8. Think positively. When we have bodily pain, let us remind ourselves that we have bodily pain because we have a body. We can be glad about that. (Discourses, Epictetus).
  9. Think of pain as normal. When we treat pain as something as normal rather than as something terrible, we are unlikely to be bothered too much by it. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations).

When we are in pain, we are bothered by three things: we are bothered by bodily pain, we are afraid that we might die, and we are worried that when our body is in pain, we cannot enjoy our sensory pleasures. Today, let’s focus on the first – bodily pain.

1. Bodily pain

Two types of bodily pain

There are two types of bodily pain: pain that lasts for a short time and pain that lasts a long time.

Severe pains occur more frequently in the slender parts of our bodies such as nerves, joints, and other narrow parts. Human beings cannot endure sharp pain for too long. Because of that, nature made it such that sharp pains do not last long. Extreme pains are frequently interrupted. Eventually, they become numb and go away. This may be because our life force is stopped from following its natural course and loses its power to warn us by sending pain signals. Or it could be because the by-products of illness clog up our system, and as result, numbness sets in.

As for pains that endure, at first they cause problems. But pains that last for long periods lose their sharpness over time. Even pains that were severe at the beginning lose their sharpness as time goes by and our bodies get used to long-term pain. So this is our consolation for severe pain: When the pain is too severe, it doesn’t last long. Pains that last long become less severe as time goes on. Either way, pain is manageable.

Your mind is powerful

We are bothered by bodily discomfort because our minds are untrained. We are so preoccupied with our bodies that have not learned how to be happy with our mind. Therefore, we need to separate the body from the mind and concern ourselves with our mind, our divine and better part. We should pay attention to the frail and complaining part only when we are forced to do so.

At the beginning, it is hard to stay away from sensory pleasures. But, if you persist, the desires go away because your urges get tired and give up. The stomach gets so annoyed and the food we previously desired becomes undesirable. Once this happens, there is no problem in doing without the things you don’t want anymore.

Pain is trivial if you don’t add your opinion to it

Don’t make it hard on yourself by adding the burden of complaining. Pain is trivial if you don’t add your opinion to it. Try saying to yourself “It’s nothing. A small thing at best. Be strong and it will go away soon.” By thinking it is trivial, you make it trivial. As the Buddhist saying goes, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” It is our opinions that create the suffering.

We suffer because of our opinion

If you think you are miserable, you are miserable. Maybe you should do away with complaints about past sufferings and thoughts like, “Nobody ever had it worse. I have gone though such sufferings, such terrible things. No one ever imagined I would recover. Doctors gave up on me and my family despaired over me. No one has endured this type of agony!” Even if all these things are true, it is all over now and done with. What is to be gained in reliving past sufferings, being miserable now because you were miserable then? Besides, people deceive themselves by embellishing their troubles. And what is difficult to endure is pleasant, once you have endured it. It is natural for you to be happy once you have overcome your troubles.

There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us more than they can crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
–– Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, 78

Think about pain as normal

When pain strikes, it is easy to get alarmed and exaggerate its effects. So, another way to look at pain is to treat it as a normal occurrence, nothing to be alarmed about, no reason to feel sorry for yourself. Marcus Aurelius points out, “It’s normal to feel pain in your hands and feet, if you’re using your feet as feet and your hands as hands. And for a human being to feel stress is normal – if he’s living a normal human life. And if it’s normal, how can it be bad?” (Meditations 6.33). When we treat something as normal, we are unlikely to be bothered too much by it.

Two things you should get rid of

When we have pain, we tend to remember the painful situations we had in the past. We also imagine how badly off we will be in the future if the pain continues. As William Osler advised “The load of tomorrow, added to that of yesterday, carried today, makes the strongest falter. Shut off the future as tightly as the past.” So, you should completely get rid of two things: the fear of future pains and the reliving of past ones. Future pains do not concern us yet. Past pains are over and done with. When you are in the middle of a trouble you should say that perhaps one day this will be a memory and will even delight you. Fight against your troubles with all your strength. If you give in, you will be defeated. But if you persist, you will win. Your reward is excellence, firmness of mind, and peace of mind. We are given the strength to face anything. We need to exercise it. Every trouble attacks us harder if we give in and retreat. If your illness is long, it gives some relief, allowing you a period of rest, giving you a lot of time. As it arises, it also subsides. If short (and severe), it will do one of two things: it will end, or you will. In either case the pain ends. 

Two elements must therefore be rooted out once and for all, the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former hasn’t occurred.
–– Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, 78

Turn your thoughts away from pain

It also helps to turn your thoughts away from pain, toward other things. Think about the brave and honourable things you have done in your life. Think about the good side of your life. Remember the things you have particularly admired. Then think of all the courageous people who have overcome pain. Think of the person who continued to read while being operated upon for varicose veins. Think of the person who did not stop smiling, even when being tortured.

No matter what you suffer from – colds, violent coughing, fever, thirst, twisted limbs that make joints go in different directions – there have been people who have endured even more but never complained.

Diseases affect the body, not the mind

It is your body that is affected by ill health, not your mind. Ill health slows the legs of the runner. It will hinder the work of a cobbler or an artist. But if your mind is regularly trained, you will continue to teach, exhort, listen and learn, investigate, and meditate. Think of athletes who continue to perform even when they are in pain. Think of the artists who paint or write when their bodies are racked by pain. Realize that your spirit is stronger than your pain. 

What more do we need? Are we doing nothing if we have self-control while we are ill? We will be proving that an illness can be overcome, or at least endured. Excellence has a place even on the sickbed. It is not just the arms and battles that provide evidence of a mind undefeated by fear. Even someone wrapped in bedclothes can show courage. Our job is to wrestle bravely with the illness, with our pain. If it can force us to do nothing, if it can charm us into doing nothing, we will set a shining example. If only people saw us when we were sick, how much material they would have to celebrate! Be your own observer and applaud yourself.

You can also take precautions

As we mentioned earlier, all pain stops or becomes weak after a while. Often pain gives us advance warning, especially those that keep repeating. Yet we often ignore such warnings until the pain takes over. Instead of waiting for advance warning, we can take precautions against its coming back by using medications. If you look down upon the worst it can do, you can cope with it. Sometimes all that is needed is to take necessary precautions on a timely basis.
In our next blog, we will discuss the final two ideas about pain – fear that we might die and worry that pain precludes enjoyment of our sensory pleasures.

[This article is primarily based on Seneca’s Letter 78 of his Moral Letters to Lucilius and secondarily on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Epictetus’ Discourses.]