A popular cartoon shows an ascetic sitting on a bed of nails; “it only hurts when I exist,” the man tells a puzzled onlooker. This sentence summarizes a principle shared by various South Asian traditions: the true origin of pain is the belief that all we are is our finite body and the ego that animates it.
You may not be ready yet to accept the Vedantic claim that all we are is a mere illusion—and neither am I. However, consider this: you, me, and all we are experiencing is not an illusion, but rather just a fraction of all that is. There is much going on in our consciousness that our physical senses are not trained to perceive and our mind would struggle to understand. This ignorance keeps us tied to the belief that our existence is a one-shot chance in which we stand to lose everything (which, eventually, we will).
When we embrace the belief in our finite nature, fear and pain become constant companions. If we take our existence too seriously, we may become afraid of losing our health, our loved ones, our belongings, etc.—the list is long and dreadful, and it arises from the ego and its attachments. By prodding us to identify with the material circumstances of our current experience, our ego is, in fact, the ultimate source of ignorance. In turn, this ignorance begets suffering.
You do not need to be an ascetic on a bed of nails to find out that your true essence transcends your experience on the physical plane. This realization does not have to be a matter of belief, either; instead, it becomes experientially available to those who are willing to explore. “Sapere aude, dare to know!”, the ancient Romans would say. Find out for yourself, and the rewards will be immense.
If you have ever had an out-of-body experience, for example, you will know beyond any doubt that your consciousness thrives outside of its physical shell, and therefore will not be affected by the transition we call death. Experiment with past life regressions, and you will see yourself die and be born time and again, cycling through a dizzying array of genders and ethnicities. First-hand experiences such as these cast a doubt on the nature of what we identify as our self: the “I” to which we hold on as if there were no tomorrow.
As a matter of fact, there is always a tomorrow. “Nobody is born and nobody dies,” argued Nisargadatta Maharaj: your consciousness is infinite and will never cease to exist; instead, it will keep taking on new forms in its endless process of manifestation. What you are experiencing is just one of the many flavors your consciousness is exploring at this time. Buckle up for the ride: things can get rough! However, as you do so, be aware that you—your true immortal essence–will always walk away unharmed.
“It only hurts if I exist,” claims the ascetic on the bed of nails. What hurts is the temporary abode we call our body and the ego that claims center stage in the unenlightened life. This bundle of (mis)perceptions will keep harming you as long as you identify with them. If, on the other hand, you realize that you are infinite consciousness, the mundane challenges of the physical world will start releasing their grasp. Put things in perspective, and you will attain freedom from the pain of ignorance.
Image by Raimond Klavins via Unsplash