Pleasure and Pain

  • Dr. Rajesh Bhola
  • India
  • Mar 20, 2015

Religions tell us that we should not seek either of the two conditions of pain or pleasure…and yet not be afraid of them either. We must learn from both pleasure and pain. The belief is that we are forever chasing pleasure in this material world. Everyone is trying to be sensually happy, chasing an illusion, but the result is often unhappiness and frustration. The Self, being unlimited by nature, is ever pressing against any boundaries that seek to limit it. When these limitations give way a little, we feel pleasure; and when they resist or contract, we feel pain. Buddha  understood well the nature of material pleasure…and was thus able to renounce it all. He gave up his kingdom to demonstrate that sensual attachment does not help in the attainment of salvation. Salvation, the goal of Buddhism, comes from freeing oneself from the clutches of the pleasures and pains of this world. In Hinduism we believe that we cannot put an end to pain, and neither do we need to seek happiness. That is already ours, for it is the essence of our nature. The Upanishads say: ‘The Self is Bliss’. Happiness exists perennially within you - it is your normal state, you do not have to seek it. You will necessarily be happy if you get rid of the obstacles called pain, which are in the modes of the mind. Pain is but transitory. It has no permanent place in the Self, the all-permeating life of the universe. The foremost function of pain in the universe is to arouse the Self to turn itself to the outer world…to evoke activity.

There is another very interesting view of pain and pleasure – of how a physiologist views and studies them as objects of medical analysis. As constructions of the brain, neither pleasure nor pain really ‘exists’ in a conventional sense. A striking example of the brain’s construction of pain is the experience of ‘phantom pain’, which is felt in an amputated limb. Pleasure and pain are central to consciousness, and to many if not all of our actions. The mechanisms that regulate our perception of pleasure and pain, and which thus bring forth our feelings and sensations, are essential to the formation of our memories and our behaviour. They enrich our memory and motivate our actions. They influence us on how we recall the past and view the present. Pleasure and pain give a shape or coherence to the many and varied stimuli that an organism is exposed to from the environment and from the body. Pleasure and pain attach value to our complex perceptions of the environment. This process takes place in a ‘control center’ of the brain, which observes and preserves our body state (how we feel) and body context (what is going on around us). When we experience a positive body state (especially an unanticipated one), we feel bold. Neuronal activity that drives our musculature then traverses the brain, and we act accordingly. The brain is a machine whose neurons, synapses and circuits respond to our environment by orchestrating muscle movements, which generate our actions. In many ways, pleasure and pain create and control a balance between the brain and the body – a balance that includes bodily necessities and the creation of motives and desires that govern our actions in the real world. We make sense of the real world in part through our notions of pleasure and pain. Rather than performing a logical analysis of all our options each time an action is required, the brain relies on the memories of the pleasures and pains associated with past actions. From the physiologist’s perspective, our memories of pleasure and pain are incorporated into the connects by strengthening or weakening synaptic connections and by pruning existing synapses and adding new ones. The brain has extraordinary means for extracting the salient features of this context - be they visual, acoustic, odour-based or tactile; pleasurable or painful. The memory of past pleasure makes me reach for the coffee mug every morning, while the memory of past pain makes me start with a small sip. 

In pleasure all the vehicles of the self are made harmonious - they all vibrate together, rhythmically (in pain they are jangled). These vibrations permit the expansion of the Self and thus lead to illumination - the knowledge of the Self. Pleasure plays an immense part in Nature, being the nature of the Self. In pleasure, when we experience bliss and the glory of the Self is made manifest, we see the face of God. Pain leaves unpleasant indelible marks. However, all the best lessons of life come from pain, not from pleasure. Pain is the teacher of wisdom. The wise welcome pain, for they understand and then utilise it. Pleasure and pain should be equally welcome. Identified with neither, the wise man takes either as it comes, knowing its purpose. When we understand the places of pleasure and pain, then both lose their power to bind us or make us upset. Often when we experience something pleasurable, we tend to cling to the supposed source of the pleasure. Of course, since all sources of pleasure are impermanent, we end up causing ourselves more pain. Often when we encounter pain, we tend to think and act such that we end up suffering more. We whine, get upset and then indulge in blame and criticism. A wiser course of action is to simply experience discomfort without reacting to it. We can do this by being mindful - cultivating a patient, non-reactive, curious and welcoming attitude towards anything that seems unpleasant. We can also adopt this attitude towards anything that is pleasurable. We call this ‘attitude equanimity’. Equanimity is not a state of non-feeling; it is a state of freedom from habitual patterns of thought and emotion that lead to further pain. When we experience this freedom we become happier. There is a very fine line between pleasure and pain. They are also two sides of the same coin - one cannot exist without the other.

Dr. Rajesh Bhola is President of Spastic Society of Gurgaon and is working for the cause of children with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, mental retardation and multiple disabilities for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at



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