Illusion provides opportunities for humans to explore what love is not. Pain is a precious tool, prying our hearts open and pointing us toward our destiny. Childhood trauma and/or the absence of love foster illusions of separateness, abandonment and/or isolation, and are quite difficult to overcome. Pain can either cause us to recycle illusions and increase our suffering or speed up our emotional maturation process. Becoming aware of our primary love templates and victim/perpetrator paradigms will liberate us from suffering and help us discover what love is.

Basic human nature categorizes things as good or bad, right or wrong, positive or negative. Love is considered a noble, sweet or sublime experience, while pain—which may actually be the catalyst that initiates events that ultimately expand our ability to love—is judged to be problematic, a curse, punishment or at least something to be avoided. If someone said to you, “There, there…Don’t worry, your pain and suffering have good purpose! Just find your positive intention, learn your lesson and you’ll understand why this hurts and learn from the experience,” would you feel comforted by such a response? To say that there is a “good” purpose for pain sounds hollow when our heart is breaking.

People recoil from suffering, yet pain has a destiny. As much as we may desire to ignore it or hide it, pain illuminates our illusions hidden in the shadows. Illusion is the creative force motivating us to create love from its opposition. Once we recognize that the form of illusion serves a good purpose by pointing out poor coping strategies and mistaken belief systems, we can sort out the source of our suffering. Real change takes time however, as Aristotle observed, “For as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”[i]

Happiness was an ongoing stable dynamic to Aristotle, which, using our terminology today, occurs during the maturing process of self-realization. Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952) moved from India to the United States and founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1920, which introduced meditation, yoga and the art of balancing one’s body, mind and soul, or self-realization, to the West. Believing in the unity of all religions, Yogananda defined self-realization as follows: “the knowing—in body, mind, and soul—that we are one with the omnipresence of God; that we do not have topray that it come to us, that we are not merely near it at all times, but that God’s omnipresence is our omnipresence; that we are just as much a part of Him now as we ever will be. All we have to do is improve our knowing.”[ii] From a Western perspective self-realization is the fulfillment of one’s own potential (talents and abilities), but the Eastern definition includes an incorruptible knowledge of our true self (our divinity) beyond delusions of paradox and duality. By cherishing ourselves in every circumstance and accepting our divinity, we can experience the enduring happiness related to self-realization.

Pain and suffering provide opportunities for us to discern love from illusion. Bookshelves today are filled with books about manifesting principles and how like attracts like. These books say all we must do is focus on positive intentions and desired outcomes. If we just visualize what we want coming to us, we’ll heal, be happier, love more, get that great job, become amazingly wealthy or find the perfect mate. Just ignore the bad stuff and it will go away. Envision success and it will be yours. Positive thinking is beneficial, but this strategy fails to take into account that we were designed to experience duality. The most primal part of our brain is designed to alert us about what may cause harm or kill us to ensure survival.

Duality is a paradox, suspended in the tension created by its opposition; its true nature is fluid and complex. Pain activates desire and inspired actions create love and reduce suffering. Like does attract like, but unified polarities have purpose. For example we have a pleasure/pain continuum, a unity/indifference continuum, and a love/hate continuum, etc. Points within a continuum are perceived as separate entities, but these divisions are aspects of a singular continuous divine whole designed to teach us about reciprocity. Complications arise when we desire to experience a preferred point within a continuum without acknowledging the purpose of contrast, opposition and the multiplicity within unity. This dynamic is confusing and paradoxical to most of us—and the definition of a paradox is a situation, person or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities. Physical experience has tension and opposition in contrast to the actuality of our soul constantly residing in oneness. Our human challenge revolves around understanding why the divine created so much pain and diversity within divinity. The protagonist and antagonist oppose one another, but both are necessary parts of a reciprocal relationship within a greater story about wholeness.

In his Sallatha Sutta (teaching) Buddha describes pain and suffering as two arrows. Life offers pleasure, pain and neutral feelings to everyone. Physical pain is the first arrow no one can avoid. Those mired in illusion often become distraught, sorrowful and irate when pain arrives. Desiring something different than what has occurred and wanting more, less, or a preferred state is a feeling. Mental obsessions about blame, retribution or seeking pleasure instead is the second arrow we can avoid. Buddha said: The well-informed (self-actualized) person, when stress arises, has no resistance. With no resistance, no resistance obsession is formed. They feel one pain—physical—but not mental. Just as if they were shot with and arrow but not another, they would feel only one pain—the physical pain. Craving and aversion no longer distract the mind or continue ignorance (their illusion). Approval and rejection are dismissed, no longer in existence. Now, no dust remains, or sorrow or regret either.

On the topic of self-realization, Buddha added the following perspective in his Loka Sutta (teaching): The world is aflame. Rooted in ignorance (illusion) the world is afflicted by sensory contact and perceives suffering as ‘self.’ Rooted in ignorance (illusion), it misunderstands ‘self’ and becomes anything other than ‘self.’ When we understand pain and suffering as two arrows, then mindfully remove every illusion that perpetuates our suffering…the second arrow misses its mark, no dust will remain in our eye and self-realization blossoms. Pain is what the world does to us. Suffering is what we do to our self by the way we think of the ‘pain’ we receive. A self-realized soul knows his or her pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

In the passage below I added the word pain and self-realization to the quotes below to make this article’s message about pain, suffering and self-realization consistent without altering Viktor Frankl’s message.

But on a philosophical note, let’s explore what Viktor Frankl (1905–1997) meant, who, after surviving the Holocaust wrote in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering (pain).”[iii] That meaning is found when we reach a state of incorruptible equanimity beyond the trenches of reciprocal chaos and divine retribution. Incorruptible people are fierce and powerful…undeterred by darkness. Illusion is transformed and transcended because their heart accesses love and its unlimited potential. When our body, heart and mind align with a soulful purpose to serve something greater, mountains move. When circumstances are unmovable, the freedom to choose our response and reduce our suffering always remains.

The choices made in the aftermath of a tragedy, the meaning of our existence and the principles we use to guide our life is what Frankl thought mattered most. The freedom to choose how we respond or react to victimization and terrorism always rests within. His observations about human nature, when people are subjected to inhumane treatment are timeless and eternal. According to Frankl, Dostoevsky once said, “There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings (pain).” Victor went on to say, “These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in the concentration camp, whose suffering (pain) and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings (pain)—the way they bore their suffering (pain) was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom (self-realization)—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”[iv]

[i] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Vol. 19, trans. H. Rackman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934), 1098a16.

[ii] Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship Glossary section of website,

[iii] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning (Washington Square Press, 1959), 88.

[iv] Ibid., 87.