“Let neither pains nor pleasures interfere with the pursuit of your purpose.”
Over the past 48 years, I have spent tens of thousands of hours researching human behavior including research on the topics of pain and pleasure – their origins, how they have been perceived and managed throughout the ages, how they have been interpreted and preached or taught about by different religious leaders, philosophers and scientists and the variety of ways that men and women around the globe have responded to them.
One particular quote that has influenced my thinking is that of an ancient Greek philosopher named Anaxagoras, who said, in essence, that pain and pleasure are contained within each other and represent lopsided perceptions.
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Pain and Pain Receptors
Think of a time when you have bashed your shin against a table. In doing so, you created a stimulus on little nerve endings called nociceptors, also known as “pain receptors” – sensory neurons that respond to damaging stimuli by sending “possible threat” signals to the spinal cord and the brain.
Once these signals have made their way up the spinal cord and reached the thalamus, they are met with a type of gating mechanism that either allows you to experience that pain stimulus or not.
In other words, you can take that nerve or cell damaging stimulus and associate it with many different things.
Let’s look at an example of this. Imagine I was to take your thumb, place it on a table and slam it with a sledgehammer. In many instances, you would likely respond by shouting, cussing and feeling angry.
Now imagine I were to take your thumb, place it on the table in front of me and say: “Here’s the deal. I’m going to give you a billion dollars in cash, tax-free; a week’s vacation with the supermodel or superstar that you would most like to meet; travel via private jets; and a brand new mansion in any city and country of your choice and a perfect, surgically repaired thumb in two weeks. You will get all of that if you simply allow me to hit your thumb with this sledgehammer.”
Would your perception of that pain change when stacked up against the many perceived benefits that would result from it?
If you perceive more advantages than disadvantages to all those things, you may readily agree to experiencing the pain or now advantaged pleasure. You may even celebrate the resulting pain because of how it transformed your life.
Pain and ratios of perception
About sixty years ago, researchers Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall proposed what is now known as “Gate Control Theory” – that the spinal cord has a neurological “gate” that either blocks pain signals or allows them to continue to the brain.
This research team proposed that this was a reason behind our tendency to rub injuries after they happen. Think back to my earlier example of bashing your shin against a table leg – you may find that you immediately rub the affected area for a few moments. In doing so, your body sends a message via the neurons up the spinal cord into the thalamus to close the sensory perception of pain and shut it off so you don’t perceive the pain.
Should you then cuss or say words that you ordinarily wouldn’t use in public, your body responds by releasing endorphins and enkephalins to shut down and modulate the pain. So, you will likely keep rubbing the injured area and maybe say a few more cuss words.
You may not know that both those actions – rubbing and cussing – result in a change in the ratios of the transmitters. This is because all your regulators, transmitters, hormones, et cetera, are all based on ratios of perceptions, not just pain perception, but many perceptions.
Your ratios of perception have a lot to do with the ratios of the neurohormones, neurotransmitters-neuropeptides, and neuroregulators in the brain and the ratios of what nerves are activated.
While you have many nerve endings for pain, there are no nerve endings for pleasure that have been found to date. So instead, you have modulators from the areas of the brain based on association to determine whether or not that pain will be perceived as pain or modulated as pleasure.
If, for example, your husband arrived home with lipstick stains on his collar, you might immediately jump to the painful and disrespectful conclusion that he was having an affair. You might then find out that he was late because he had stopped on his way home to help people involved in a traffic accident and had helped to save people’s lives, which received a gracious hug at the end. That new information may then result in feelings of pleasure and respect.
In that way, the same assumed stimulus can result in different associations.
Pain and the Desire Center of the Brain
You have an area of the brain called the amygdala. It has nucleus accumbens, which is active when perceiving pleasure and the pallidum that is stimulated by or associated with pain. So the amygdala acts as a desire center that generates a desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and avoid a predator and seek prey.
What is interesting is that:
- If you perceive something that supports your values, that can change your pain threshold.
- Suppose you perceive that your values are being strongly challenged, which is likened to being attacked by a predator; then pain can be heightened. You can take any challenging stimulus and heighten it.
You have probably had little ulcers in your mouth. If you suddenly find something else that is stressing you, the pain might be more aggravated. However, if you focus on something that invigorates, inspires or supports you, the pain may then feel alleviated slightly.
As Anaxagoras said, your feelings of pain and pleasure are based on lopsided perceptions or ratios of perception. Change your perceptions and their associations, and you can change your levels of pain or pleasure.
You also have many different layers of the brain that act to modulate and govern your responses to pleasure and pain. Depending on the associations in the brain, you can modulate a response and calm it down or accentuate it. You can dramatize or polarize it further, and you can completely neutralize it and turn it into pleasure if you stack up enough associations.
Think back to the example of slamming your thumb with a sledgehammer in return for a billion dollars – you are far more likely to endure pain if you can stack up enough associations that offer more benefits than drawbacks.
We, therefore, have the capacity to transform our perceptions of pain and pleasure.
I have been teaching my signature seminar program the Breakthrough Experience for over 32 years. I am certain that I can help you change your perceptions by asking quality questions to make you conscious of the unconscious information that you may not be aware of and by stacking up new associations with a stimulus and balancing the incomplete and lopsided equation.
When you bring your perceptions into balance, you have the ability to transcend pain and pleasure and to experience love, which represents their synthesis. The second you bring your perceptions into perfect balance, there is a feeling of order, appreciation and love. The brain continually tries to modulate and homeostate your perceptions of pain or pleasure to try to bring them back into balance so you can be authentic and centered.
When you are in pain, you can justify your aggression. When you are in pleasure, you can justify your passiveness. These are two expressions of repression. Some philosophers have proposed that pain and pleasure are just expressions and repressions of perception, which I believe to be true.
For example, if I were to ask you to identify and list the drawbacks to someone you are infatuated with, your fear of their loss will go down. If I take someone you resent and show you the upsides, your fear of their gain into your life will decrease.
This means that you can ask quality questions and answer them in a way that makes new associations in the brain and changes the neurotransmitters. In other words, the perception of pain in the brain itself can be modulated and even completely overruled.
What is the purpose of pain and pleasure?
I believe that pain and pleasure, support and challenge, ease and difficulty, are all necessary for growth.
Imagine that you had nothing but prey or food that was pleasurable to eat, but that there was no such thing as a predator. As a result, you may end up following an excessive and hedonistic path of gluttony. Eventually, you would likely begin to have symptoms in your body to alert you to the fact that you have too much pleasure. You would also become even more of a target to a predator if they suddenly emerged.
You could also have a situation where you had a predator without prey, which would result in emaciation and starvation.
What has been shown on the food chain of biology is that you need both pleasure and pain, support and challenge, hedonistic and anhedonistic, prey and predator to result in maximum fitness, maximum productivity and maximum fulfillment.
The meaning, the mean between the pairs of opposites, is the center. I have defined love as being the synthesis and synchronicity of all complementary opposites. I have shown people for almost four decades now how they can balance out their perception by applying the steps in my Demartini Method. The moment they balance it, they often come to a point where they have tears of gratitude and love for something that prior was perceived to be painful.
I believe that the purpose of pain and pleasure is to train you to be authentic, appreciate, love, moderate your behavior, have wisdom, and allow you to see things as they are and not as you have subjectively biased them to be.
Imagine you are out in the wild and you see prey that you desire to eat; you are likely to accelerate your seeking response with a false positive, subjective bias that heightens an adrenaline rush to run after that animal and catch it.
If you see a predator, you are likely to accelerate the adrenaline stimulation to run away from it. So, in survival mode, you automatically skew things in your amygdala into pleasures and pains to capture food and avoid being eaten.
You, therefore, can moderate and calm down these survival distractions, things you infatuate with and seek, and things you avoid and resent.
When you live congruently with your true highest values, do what is truly meaningful and inspiring to you, you activate the executive center in your forebrain and you are then able to calm down your degrees of pleasure and pain and center yourself objectively.
When you experience pain, you can wisely ask, “How specifically is this pain helping me fulfill what is most important and meaningful to me?” By answering that question, your levels of perceived pain will drop.
In the same way, if you have pleasure, you can also wisely ask, “What is the downside of this pleasure?” In doing so, you can neutralize the pleasure. Perceptions of pain without pleasure (fantasy) can result in compensatory perception of pain without pleasure (nightmares).
Your intuition is constantly trying to make you conscious of the unconscious information that is trying to moderate and neutralize your perceptions so you can maximize your fitness and your fulfillment.
I believe that your perceptions pain and pleasure are feedback mechanisms guiding you towards your most authentic, inspired, and purposeful life so you can do something you love with the people you love.
Your brain, physiology and nervous system are set up in such a way that you have the capacity to transform your life.
It is not what happens to you on the outside; it is how you perceive, what you decide to do, and how you act upon it.
It is wise not to let your outer world run your life but instead to listen to the voice and the vision on the inside. Let the wisdom that you gain on the inside moderate the extremes on the outside so that you are in command.
Pain can be your friend and not your enemy if you put it into context.
- You have the capacity to transform your perceptions of pain and pleasure.
- When you bring your perceptions into perfect balance, it will result in feelings of order, appreciation and love.
- Your brain continually tries to modulate and homeostate your perceptions of pain or pleasure in an effort to bring them back into balance so you can be authentically centered.
- I believe that the purpose of pain and pleasure is to train you to be authentic, to appreciate, and to love, and to make sure that you are moderated in your behavior and have wisdom to see things as they are and not as you have subjectively biased them to be.
- When you live congruently with your highest values, doing what is most meaningful – something you love doing, and that inspires you, you are likely to reduce the extremes of pleasure and pain, as well as the fantasies and nightmares of life.
- When you have pain and ask, “How specifically is this pain helping me fulfill what is most meaningful to me?” and answer that question, you will tend to see an immediate reduction in your level of pain.
- I believe that pain and pleasure are feedback mechanisms guiding you towards the most authentic, inspired, purposeful life so you can do something you really love with the people you really love.
- Your brain, physiology and nervous system are set up in such a way that you have the capacity to transform your life.
- It is not what happens to you on the outside; it is how you perceive, what you decide to do with it, and how you act upon it.
Pain can actually be your friend and not your enemy if you put it into context
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About Dr John Demartini:
Dr. John Demartini, is a human behavior specialist, a polymath, philosopher, international speaker and published author. He has recently been awarded the IAOTP Top Human Behavior Specialist of the Year as well as the IAOTP Lifetime Achievement Award.
His work is a summation of over 299 different disciplines synthesized from the greatest minds in most fields of study today. His extensive curriculum focuses on helping purpose driven individuals master their lives so that they are able to more extensively serve humanity with their inspired vision and mission.