Embracing the pain is not enough

The Buddhists teach that the only way to escape pain is by embracing it. By fully immersing ourselves in it, we are led to realise that pain exists only in the present moment, and is thus, transient. The discipline of mindfulness has taken this teaching and ran with it. Feeling anxious, depressed, stressed, jealous, angry? The way to deal with such feelings, we are taught, is not to flee them, but to examine their foundations. The examination of the roots of these feelings reveals them to be frail, fragile, vulnerable to sober inspection. It all sounds alluring. And I won’t deny the utility of these practises. I myself attempt to practice vipissana meditation on a daily basis; it has brought me much clarity, composure and insight. But I do suspect that there are limits. 

In The Theory and Practice of Hell, Eugen Kogon describes the structures of the Nazi concentration camps and the methodologies used by the SS, first, to control, and second, to exterminate their captives. In one chapter he describes the ritual degradation of new inmates, a degradation that began as soon as the individuals marked for death stumbled out of the cramped boxcars that shuttled them to the site of their demise.

“The end of the admission formalities removed the prisoners for the time being from the clutches of the SS, and few prisoners survived without some damage to their personality. Many kept their bearings only by a kind of split personality. They surrendered their bodies resistlessly to the terror, while their inner being withdrew and held aloof.”

Inmates survived the ordeal of the concentration camps, Kogon says, not by embracing the inhumanity of their treatment, but by divorcing a part of their selves from it entirely. Such a survival strategy reminds me of the Stoic idea of an “inner citadel”, a retreat to a fortress whose walls the assaults of reality can never penetrate. 

When I came across the above passage, and recalled the Buddhist notions of inhabiting pain, the mindfulness exercises of sincere evaluation, and the Stoic cultivation of untouchable inner spaces, I realised that mindfulness is very much a fair-weather policy. It can get us through the ordinary trials of existence—fatigue, disillusion, frustration, interpersonal conflicts, and even ideological conflicts. But to endure the harshest, most unimaginable conditions and treatment? It doesn’t suffice. Embracing pain does not enable us to endure utter inhumanity. No. Another strategy is required: retreat, divorce, an agonising sundering of our very being.