June 28, 2023 - The Stoic Gym Blog
Tag(s): Pain || Seneca ||

9 Ways to Deal with Bodily Pain: Part 2

Chuck Chakrapani

This blog is second 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.  

Recap of main 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. We’ve discussed bodily pain previously; today, let’s focus on the second two things – fear of death and loss of sensory pleasures.

2. Fear of Death

Pain reminds us of our vulnerability. For most of us the ultimate vulnerability is death. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that people who are in pain moan, “I’m dying!”.  The fear of death is a larger topic. For now, it is enough to know that we don’t die because of pain. Even if we are cured of our illness and free of pain we will still die. We die because we are alive, not because we are ill. Pain may remind us of death, but pain seldom causes death. So let us set this aside for now.

3. Fear of Losing Sensory Pleasures

Cultivate pleasures of the mind

There are two types of pleasures: pleasures of the body and pleasures of the mind. Illness slows down the pleasures of the body, but it does not remove them completely. In fact, if you think about it, it stimulates pleasure. The thirstier you are, the more you enjoy the drink; the hungrier you are, the more you enjoy the food. You receive with greater delight anything you have been deprived of. 

The second type is the pleasures of the mind which are better and more reliable. No doctor would advise you against them. Those who understand and seek these pleasures don’t care for the pleasures that stimulate the senses.

Get a different perspective on life

You can put up with all these things easily – liquid diet, warm water, and anything else that seems intolerable. Once we understand what is good and what is not, then – only then – life will not tire us. Neither will death frighten us. Boredom cannot take over our life when we survey such a varied and great divine theme. Even if death comes early in our prime, we have already reaped the benefits of ripe old age. We have come to understand the universe for the most part. We know that honourable things do not depend on time for their growth. Any life will seem short if you measure it by empty pleasures, which are unlimited. Renew yourself with thoughts like these. 

Don’t give in

Hold steadily to this thought and grip it close: Don’t give in to adversity; don’t trust prosperity; be fully aware of fortune’s power, as if it would definitely do whatever is in its power.  When you long expect something, it comes gently.

Encouragement From Marcus, Epictetus, And Epicurus

The suggestions on how to handle pain we discussed so far have mostly come from Seneca. Although the other Stoics did not write much about pain (except perhaps to say it is an ‘external’), they did occasionally talk about it. Here are some of their ideas.

Think of what you have rather than what you lack 

Epictetus has an interesting way of looking at pain. You have a headache? Yes, because you have a head to begin with. He says, "I have pain in my head." Why? Because … we only have pain over the things we possess. (Discourses 1.18). So instead of feeling sorry for ourselves when we have a headache, we can be happy that we have an otherwise functioning head. Yes, I have headache. Isn’t it wonderful that I have a head that serves well in so many ways? The pain is a small price to pay for this gift. As the old Persian proverb goes, “I had the blues because I had no shoes, until upon the street, I met a man who had no feet.” So think how fortunate you are to have a head, even though it may mean you will have a headache occasionally.

Bodily pain is temporary, and it doesn’t affect the mind

Marcus Aurelius points out that bodily pain is temporary. Even when it affects your body, it leaves your mind untouched. “Unendurable pain brings its own end with it. Chronic pain is always endurable: the intelligence maintains serenity by cutting itself off from the body, the mind remains undiminished.” (Meditations 7.33) and “Stop perceiving the pain you imagine, and you’ll remain completely unaffected.” (Meditations 8.40).

Epicurus’ thoughts on pain

Epicurus (who definitely was not a Stoic, offered a four-part remedy or tetrapharmakos) for a happy life, three of which deal with pain and death. They support what Seneca says. (Seneca was influenced by Epicurus and quotes him in every one of his early letters.)

  1. Continuous pain does not last long in the body; on the contrary, pain, if extreme, is present a short time, and even that degree of pain which barely outweighs pleasure in the body does not last for many days together. Illnesses of long duration even permit an excess of pleasure over pain in the body.
  2. The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.
  3. Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing to us.

(The Four Part Remedy by Epicurus, Principal Doctrines. This translation is from Wikipedia)

A brief summary

In short, this is the Stoic approach to pain. Pain is normal. If we accept it as temporary, it will pass, especially if it is severe. If the pain continues, its intensity will get lower as time passes. Pain has no effect on the mind unless we add our opinion that it is something awful. We make pain unbearable by remembering our past pains and imagining a future where we will suffer. An effective way to lessen suffering is to avoid dwelling on our pain but instead distract ourselves with thoughts that elevate us. Since chronic pain gives us some advance warning, we can also prepare ourselves with proper medications. When we stand up to pain instead of giving in to it, the pain has less hold on us. We can also look at it from a totally different perspective: If we have any bodily pain, it is because we have a body. Shouldn’t we be glad we do?

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