When we suffer from pain–whether it’s physical or emotional pain — all we want is some relief. It makes sense that we want the pain to go away, and it also makes sense for us to take steps to free ourselves from the pain, even if only briefly.

Many people, however, retreat from pain in ways that provide only fleeting relief, allowing the pain to come back over and over again, often stronger than it was, to begin with. Their strategies for making the pain stop provide only a temporary escape, and often those escapist strategies create new kinds of pain that demand even more aggressive kinds of escape. It’s a cycle of pain that never ends.

Some people, though, find ways to confront the root causes of their pain and give themselves relief that lasts. Ultimately, their strategies lessen the pain rather than perpetuating it. They find ways to bring joy into their lives, and joy is a formidable pain reliever.

The Cycle of Pain

Harvard psychologist Jim Hopper theorizes that our behavior is guided by six different “key circuitries” in our brains, areas of brain activity that work together to help us respond to our environments.

The six key circuitries are:

  • Fear Circuitry – the parts of our brain that alerts us to danger and trigger us to respond to threats.
  • Seeking Circuity – which pushes us to pursue our goals, both large and small.
  • Satisfaction Circuitry – which rewards us with feelings of contentment when we meet our goals.
  • Embodiment Circuitry – monitors our body’s feelings and helps to tell the other circuitries how to respond.
  • Executive Circuitry – allows us to think, plan, solve problems, and focus on thoughts consciously.
  • Default Circuitry – controls where our minds wander when we’re not consciously focused on something else.

Hopper suggests that a cycle of suffering often begins when the brain’s key circuitries interact in unhealthy ways. Often, the fear circuitry is triggered by something that threatens us–physical pain, emotional distress, relationship tension, anxiety, etc.–and the seeking circuitry begins to look for ways to avoid the threat. But because the seeking is motivated by fear, the solutions are often quick fixes–drugs or alcohol, destructive behaviors that don’t get to the heart of the problem. The threat returns quickly, but we become addicted to the temporary relief and don’t look beyond it for a more permanent solution.

Hopper also suggests another kind of cycle of suffering that’s triggered by depression. In this case, the embodiment circuitry is overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness, and it suppresses the seeking circuitry because there seems to be no escape from the bad feelings. The suppressed seeking circuitry looks for low-effort solutions–sleep, substance abuse, etc.–which provide no real satisfaction and very often make the feelings of hopelessness even worse.

The Cycle of Joy

The theory of key circuitries allows for cycles of happiness, contentment, and joy, just as it explains cycles of pain and suffering. The positive cycles of joy involve the embodiment and satisfaction circuitries, and they require conscious action and effort on the part of the sufferer to work. They’re not easy to achieve, but people who work at them are very often able to find long-term relief from pain.

Hopper suggests that engaging the embodiment circuitry is a way to break the fear-triggered cycle of pain. This approach involves actively working to be aware of the source of your pain so that you can understand and respond to it in a more effective way. This will lead you to something better than the quick-fix solutions in the cycle of pain.

In practical terms, that means finding ways to deal with your pain on a conscious level. There are many ways to do this, including:

  • Undergoing cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Following a program of meditation or mindfulness training
  • Seeking out a support group
  • Engaging with a spiritual or religious community

This strategy is challenging because confronting your pain head-on is usually unpleasant, but it gives you a much better chance of finding long-term relief. It teaches you how to treat the pain instead of just escaping from it.

Another way to break the cycle of pain is to use the embodiment and satisfaction circuitries to replace the pain with something (or many somethings) that will bring true joy to your life. This approach takes advantage of the seeking circuitry, but it requires us to look for deeper solutions than the escapism that fear and hopelessness drive us toward.

This approach also takes a lot of work. You’ll need to learn how to recognize which things make you truly, deeply happy, and you’ll also have to learn to recognize how you feel physically when you are truly content. When you can do that, you can spend more time pursuing the things that bring you joy; that will make you more content overall, and a new cycle of happiness will begin.

Hopper suggests several ways to explore this path to joy, including:

Moving from Pain to Joy

Regardless of the path, you take to finding joy, the most important thing is that you step onto the path. Cycles of pain and suffering keep going because they’re reflexive and easy; your body and brain are focused only on quick escape, not seeking out real solutions. Moving from a cycle of pain to a cycle of joy takes effort, mindfulness, and courage, but it is the only way to find lasting relief and contentment.

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