No matter how fast you run,
your shadow more than keeps up.
Sometimes it’s in front.
Only full, overhead sun
diminishes your shadow.
But that shadow has been serving you.
What hurts you blesses you.
Darkness is your candle.
Your boundaries are your quest.”
It’s impossible not to be struck by the duality of our existence as wars rage and climates
change. Life seems to be a pendulum between extremes and even if the disaster isn't within
the periphery of our own small lives, the vicarious, insidious trauma of others; feels to be
creeping ever closer. I am in awe of the polarity of the human experience, down to our very
physiology with the splitting of our brains and nervous systems between left and right. Did
you know that your right brain controls the left side of your body and vice versa? Our bodies
are run on exchanges between negative and positive charges. No matter how fast you run,
your shadow more than keeps up.
An ironic overlap in neuroscience is where pain and pleasure meet in the brain, a shared
network of experience in the body. Both the channels for communicating these feelings, and
the biochemical messengers to do so are shared. Dr Anna Lembke, author of Dopamine
Nation, describes the reciprocal relationship between these two experiences. Assuming that
humans are for the most part seeking pleasure or shying away from pain, understanding
these pathways is central to what drives us and perpetuates our behaviours. Dopamine is
the neurotransmitter best understood in this arena, responsible for what drives and
motivates us to behave and repeat those behaviours.
Dr Lembke explains that pain and pleasure might best be understood as a seesaw. What
follows a deeply gratifying pleasure is a reciprocal absence of that pleasure or a craving for
This is most notable after the use of a recreational drug that induces euphoria, inevitably
what goes up must come down and what follows is deeply uncomfortable. Conversely, the
experience of pain or hardship is often followed by the suffusion of a relief that could be
experienced as a pleasure.
The three main neurotransmitters at play here are dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.
Historically, it was thought that serotonin was only elevated in response to an hedonic
experience, we now know from rodent studies that it’s the intensity of an experience that
elevates serotonin levels and not the type of experience. A deep hardship or enduring
exercise, will also elevate serotonin. This makes so much sense when we think about people
who are hooked into a cycle of toxic experience. Anyone who has experienced grief and loss
intimately, is more likely to have a more sensitive appreciation of its opposites. There is
something inherently painful about being alive that is paired with all of our possibility,
expansiveness and capacity for joy.
The modern world view denounces this nuanced reciprocity and in so doing drives a
polarized appreciation of the world. Many experts are suggesting that our disconnection from
pain and our allegiance to comfort, is the route of our undoing. “With intermittent
exposure to pain, our natural hedonic set point gets weighted to the side of pleasure,
such that we become less vulnerable to pain and more able to feel pleasure over time.”
The greater the ease with which we can achieve our comforts, the greater our
experience of withdrawal, longing and emptiness.
Michael Easter writes that a radical new body of evidence shows that people are at their
best—physically harder, mentally tougher, and spiritually sounder—after experiencing the
same discomforts our early ancestors were exposed to every day. Scientists are finding that
certain discomforts protect us from physical and psychological problems like obesity, heart
disease, cancers, diabetes, depression, and anxiety, and even more fundamental issues like
feeling a lack of meaning and purpose.
We all know the satisfaction of an arduous challenge. And we all know the potential
ennui of people who have it all. Is our preoccupation with making our lives more
comfortable and convenient the route of our displeasure and collective undoing? It is
clear that if we rewind thousands of years to medi-evil times, raids, rapes, violence and
looting were the order of the day for survival and appropriation of resources. With the
evolution of the prefrontal cortex and the advent of civilisation and industry, we
observe a decrease in the powers of evil in the Western ideal where these kinds of
actions are put right by a prevailing, overarching moral fibre.
In spite of civilizations being less violent (for most of us) and resources being more
abundant ( for some of us), there is a prevailing sense that people are more miserable
than ever before. And our discomfort with anything uncomfortable or painful has led
25% of America to a daily psychiatric prescription drug. We have combined the seeking
of instant gratification with the numbing of any and all physical and psychological
discomfort. Has the absence of ardour culled our pleasure ethics? Have we forgotten
that pain is a voice the body uses to speak? Rumi reminds us, what hurts you blesses you.
The darkness is your candle. Your boundaries are your quest.
Even our ever increasing access to witnessing the cloak of anguish that shrouds so
much of the world, is dulled by the two dimensions of our screens. We are subdued by
disconnection, sugar, instagram, online porn, central heating and opioids. If we turn
our gaze inward, away from these distractions and pleasure pursuits, we might better
intuit the message that is there for us. Through the quiet and aloneness of that
discomfort, we might find ourselves more free.