Existential Masochism: The Power of Transforming Pain into Wisdom

a pain1“The cure for pain is in the pain.” ~ Rumi

Most of us cringe at the idea of masochism. Pleasure in pain? Seriously?! What could anybody possibly get out of pain other than discomfort, negativity, and sadness? Well, in the sense that life is pain, masochism can actually be seen as an attempt at making life more tolerable. Especially when we look at it existentially. It’s just a matter of perspective.

Masochism is an eponym —a word named for a person. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was an Austrian writer in the nineteenth century who described the gratification he got from his own pain and humiliation.

Existentialism is a philosophical approach centering on the individual as a responsible agent determining their own development through acts of free will within and regarding an unfathomable universe.

Existential masochism is an approach toward pain as information while holding oneself personally responsible for using that information in ways that enhance life in healthy and meaningful ways.

Pain can be a tricky briar patch. It can be a precarious balancing act. So it is with life. On the one side, we’re wise to avoid pain. Since too much pain can overwhelm us, stress us out, or even kill us. On the other side, embracing pain in a certain way can make us stronger, more adaptable and more robust.

In the sense that pain is an inherent aspect of the human condition, it behooves us to discover a way to negotiate pain in a healthy way. There is pain in growth just as there can be growth in pain. Existential masochism is taking personal responsibility for both our experience of pain and our experience of growth. It’s not only finding pleasure in pain.

It is the pleasurable experience of transforming pain into strength, courage, sacred anger, knowledge, or even humor. It’s hands-on emotional intelligence. It’s proactive self-overcoming. It’s consciously seeking the elusive Phoenix Egg in a sea of ashes. As Marianne Williamson said, “It takes courage to endure the sharp pains of self-discovery rather than choose to take the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives.”

Pain should not be avoided at the expense of love:

“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” ~ Buddha
pain and suffering
The great thing about pleasure is that it’s closer to love than hate. The shitty part about pain is that it’s closer to hate than love. But if we’re somehow able to square this circle, we realize that there’s an existential imperative in discovering pleasure within pain. We make the probability of love higher and the probability of hate lower. Hence the vital importance of existential masochism.

But it’s an ontological magic trick of sorts, a high-wire act of emotional intelligence, a way of being a mind-body-soul that remaps the way the mind-body-soul moves through the labyrinth of the human condition. We’re hardwired to avoid pain. So it takes a certain amount of personal upheaval to soft-wire our preconditioning. It’s in this sense that existential masochism is a mind-hack par excellence. The key is embracing pain, not avoiding it. The secret is transforming that pain into healthy initiation instead of suppressing it into unhealthy exclusion.

It’s more than just finding pleasure within pain. It actually goes beyond pleasure and pain, launching us over the field of duality into a sacred state of self-overcoming, self-annihilation, and self-creation.

A place where unconditional love is made manifest, where a bone-deep understanding that everything is connected to everything else dwarfs pleasure and pain, magnifying both into a more focused, non-dual, and holistic approach toward being and becoming. Where we are free to use imagination to triumph over the harshness of reality by turning our lives into a work of art. As Pablo Picasso articulated, “Art is the lie that reveals the truth.”

Once we’ve returned from such a sacred state –bodies tuned, minds aware, souls sharp– we perceive reality in a whole new light. Pain is no longer a thing to be avoided, but embraced and tenderly wrestled if need be. Pain becomes a reason to love instead of an excuse to continue our avoidance.

Pain can now be seen as the necessary caterpillar that had to be annihilated and transformed within the cocoon of existential masochism in order to become the initiated butterfly of unconditional love. As Marcel Proust indirectly surmised, “My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.”

Love should be embraced at the risk of pain:

“My idea of the modern Stoic Sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” ~ Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragility

The secret of love is vulnerability, and the secret of vulnerability is courage. Love gives us courage. But in order to truly love, we must be capable of being vulnerable. And vulnerability can be excruciatingly painful. Vulnerability is being completely open to life, and thus completely open to pain. Insecurities rear their ugly heads. Past traumas are awoken from their suppressed slumbers. Our fears are exposed as snarling demons hiding in the darkest depths of the self.

Armed with the newfound tool of existential masochism, our ability to be more vulnerable becomes robust. We become better able at negotiating the pain that arises from our vulnerability. We’re able to turn the tables on pain and come at it with a sense of humor, rather than a sense of dread.

This is because pain becomes information that we can use to leverage meaning into our lives. The more meaning we’re able to create, the less painful meaninglessness itself becomes. As long as we’re able to learn from it, pain can be a steppingstone. Seen in this way, pain can be an initiation into wisdom.
a pain3
As we shine the klieg light of existential masochism over the shadowy depths of our insecurities, traumas, and fears disguised as demons, we reveal a path through the labyrinth of the human condition. Through the transformation of pain into wisdom, we create “ladders to freedom” and “ropes to god” and “elevators to nirvana.”

All of which are wide open vehicles ready to carry our insecurities, traumas, and demons out of the darkness of the unconscious and into the light of consciousness, where they are able to become a part of our team rather than heavy aspects weighing us down.

At the end of the day, existential masochism is a potent strategy for confronting life’s many vicissitudes. Faced with so much pain –physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual– it behooves us to learn how to embrace pain and then how to transform it into information that we can use to flourish. Learning how to do this can be extremely pleasurable, a transcendental pleasure that launches us straight through the worst that fate can dish out.

We’re able to transform heartache into humor, grief into growth, anguish into amusement, and discomfort into a reason to become stronger and more robust. We’re able to take full responsibility for our pain, and for our lives, realizing that the pain of the past can just as easily be used as fuel for the future. We gain the courage to stare death in the face, and laugh. As Carl Jung declared, “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”

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  • Gary Z McGee

    Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.

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