Your work at OPIS (Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering) aims at promoting access to effective relief to those in severe pain. Could you define intense suffering and tell us about the importance of prioritizing the prevention of severe pain?
I would define intense suffering as simply a highly unpleasant subjective experience that the individual strongly wants to end. It can be severe physical pain or emotional anguish, or a combination. The importance of preventing or alleviating it is intimately tied to the experience – there is an inherent urgency when such experiences arise. And this urgency requires urgent attention – it cries out for relief.
Compassion – the desire to relieve suffering – is a natural response based on empathy, and also a rational one, based on the realisation that others’ suffering is objectively as important as our own.
Much of your work in 2020 has focused on cluster “suicide” headaches, one of the most excruciating conditions known to medicine. Could you tell us more about it?
It’s a horrible condition where people get attacks that feel like they’re being stabbed in the eye. The attacks can last an hour or longer and recur several times a day and during the night, for months at a time or even years.
The term “headache” really doesn’t communicate the severity of this condition. People are often driven to suicide to escape the pain. Certain psychoactive substances, including psilocybin, which is found in some kinds of mushrooms, have been found to be enormously helpful for many patients, allowing them to abort their cycles or prevent them. But current drug laws represent a huge barrier to access. This situation is ethically unjustifiable, and we are working to change this.
For the first time in modern history the entire world is experiencing simultaneously a tremendous collective trauma due to the sanitary crisis. What are the most efficient ways to overcome this traumatic condition according to you?
The current health crisis and the many others we face are the consequences of a complex human system that seems largely beyond the control of any one individual, where relatively few people have an obvious means to radically shift the entire trajectory. But each of us can still aim to apply as much leverage as we can in improving things, and this may vary a lot from one person to another, depending on their skills and influence. The broader answer is to model in one’s own life, and communicate to others, ideas about how to live that would reduce as much needless suffering as possible if universally applied.
At its most essential, this means living according to the Golden Rule, and treating all sentient beings – not just humans, but animals as well – how we would want to be treated. If this simple well-known principle were widely followed, the coronavirus wouldn’t even have emerged because we wouldn’t be abusing animals by keeping them confined to cages so that we could consume them. The simplicity of the principle belies its great power.
But in terms of getting over the current collective trauma, I really think that we need to change the way our society is governed and the way decisions are made. As long as we prioritise wealth generation and consumption over wellbeing and human connection, we will continue to find ourselves in such situations, even worse ones.
I think there is a need for new movements that can lead to a more harmonious society based on ethical principles, on preventing suffering and nurturing happiness, rather than sticking to old paradigms of increasing shareholder value and maintaining the economic and political status quo.
And on the personal level, people need to be encouraged to practice stillness and presence, to focus on one’s breath, to try to avoid feelings of blame, but also to seek out connection with others. The most traumatic aspect of the present, aside from the tragic deaths themselves, is the way in which people feel disconnected from one another due to forced isolation. We need each other and we must never accept the current situation as “normal”.