Embracing Pain: Lessons from Stoic Philosophy and the Way of Bushido

by Donavon L Riley


Pain, an ever-present companion in the human experience, often busts through our door when we least expect it. But what if, instead of recoiling in fear or resentment, we could learn to embrace it as a formidable teacher, employing principles from Stoic philosophy and the Bushido ethos? 

The Stoic’s Grasp on Pain

The Stoics, ancient philosophers who believed in cultivating virtue and wisdom to achieve inner tranquility, had much to say about pain. They taught that pain, be it physical or emotional, is an inevitable part of life. So, instead of avoiding or denying it, the Stoic chose to confront it head-on.

Epictetus, for example, was one of the foremost Stoic philosophers. He likened pain to a challenging sparring partner in the arena of life. He emphasized that it’s not the pain itself that matters, but our perception of it. Our judgments and attitudes, he argued, determine whether pain will defeat us or become a source of growth and resilience.

So, for Epictetus, that best way to approach to pain involves acknowledging it, accepting it as an integral part of existence, and then using it as a tool for self-improvement. It’s like steel being tempered in the fiery forge, emerging stronger and more resilient.

Bushido: Pain as a Path to Mastery

The Bushido code, on the other hand, followed by the samurai of ancient Japan, similarly emphasizes the value of pain as a teacher. For the samurai, pain was not something to be avoided but embraced as a means of spiritual and martial growth. It was an essential component of their path to mastery.

Miyamoto Musashi, a legendary swordsman and author of “The Book of Five Rings,” understood this concept well. He wrote about the importance of “embracing pain as a teacher.” To him, every cut, every bruise, and every injury in training was a lesson, a chance to improve and refine his skills.

In Bushido, pain was not viewed as an enemy but as a friend. It was seen as the blacksmith’s forge through which a warrior’s character and abilities were tested and refined. The more one endured and learned from pain, the closer they came to mastery.

The Stoic and Bushido Connection: Turning Pain into Strength

The Stoic and Bushido philosophies share a deep connection in their approach to pain. Both advocate for embracing it rather than avoiding or denying it. They teach us to transform pain from an adversary into an ally, a source of inner strength, and a catalyst for growth.

Seneca, another prominent Stoic philosopher, famously said, “Fire tests gold, suffering tests brave men.” This sentiment is echoed in Bushido’s emphasis on suffering as a means of testing and refining one’s character. Both philosophies recognize that it’s through adversity and pain that individuals can reveal their true nature and potential.

Strategies for Dealing with Pain: Stoic Wisdom

Let’s explore some practical strategies inspired by Stoic wisdom for dealing with pain:

  • Acceptance: The first step is to acknowledge and accept the presence of pain. By doing so, we avoid unnecessary resistance and suffering.
  • Perception Shift: Practice changing your perception of pain. Instead of viewing it as an enemy, see it as a teacher, a sparring partner, or an opportunity for growth.
  • Mindfulness: Use mindfulness techniques to observe your pain without judgment. This can help you detach from the immediate discomfort and gain a broader perspective.
  • Focus on What You Can Control: The Stoics emphasized the importance of focusing on what is within our control. While we can’t always control the pain itself, we can control our response to it and how we use it to grow.
  • Virtue as a Shield: Cultivate virtues like courage, resilience, and wisdom. These virtues act as shields against the impact of pain and help us navigate it with grace.

Strategies for Dealing with Pain: Bushido Principles

Now, let’s delve into some strategies inspired by Bushido principles for dealing with pain:

  • Embrace Training: Approach life’s challenges and pain as training opportunities. Just as a samurai trains tirelessly to master their craft, see pain as a chance to refine your character and skills.
  • Commitment to Mastery: Adopt an unwavering commitment to mastery. Dedicate yourself to learning from every experience, whether pleasant or painful, and use it to become a better version of yourself.
  • Respect for the Path: Show respect for the path you’re on. Just as a samurai respects their sword, respect your particular discipline, including the pain it entails. Honor your struggles as a part of your growth.
  • Meditation and Reflection: Engage in regular meditation and reflection. These practices can help you gain insights from your experiences and pain, guiding you towards greater self-awareness and wisdom.
  • Perseverance: Develop unyielding perseverance. The samurai’s commitment to their mission, despite pain and adversity, is a powerful example. Let pain strengthen your resolve, not weaken it.

Embracing Pain as a Path to Strength

In the union of Stoic philosophy and the Bushido way, we discover a profound truth: Pain, though often unwelcome, can be a profound, life-changing interaction. It can forge us into stronger, wiser, and more resilient individuals if we choose to embrace it as a teacher rather than a tormentor.

So whether you draw inspiration from the Stoics’ emphasis on rationality and virtue or the Bushido code’s commitment to mastery and honor, the message is clear: Pain is an inevitable part of the human experience. By confronting it with courage, wisdom, and a commitment to growth, we can turn adversity into a path to strength, and pain into a catalyst for our own flourishing.

By Donovan Riley

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, and contributing writer for 1517. He is also a co-host of Banned Books and Warrior Priest podcasts. He is the author of the book, "Crucifying Religion” and “The Withertongue Emails.” He is also a contributing author to "The Sinner/Saint Devotional: 60 Days in the Psalms" and "Theology of the Cross".

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