I have been preoccupied with questions about pain lately. This didn’t start as an intellectual endeavor, but rather as the result of a few significant losses–both my own and of those I love. In particular, I have been walking beside two dear friends who experienced devastating losses in the past few months. One friend suffered one of the deepest, most painful losses a human can endure, the loss of a child, her 17-year-old son. Another lost her brother with whom she was very close in a tragic accident. I have been in awe watching my friends face their grief and have wondered how we find the strength to go on in the face of individual and collective pain. With that, another question has troubled me and led me to further explore: How is pain useful?
When I struggle, I find myself paying careful attention to the world around me to help me understand how to meet my most difficult challenges. In the case of pain, I wanted to make sense of it because I had moments where I felt I could not go on given the intensity of the experience. I kept wondering, how is pain serving me? What is it about this experience of pain that contributes to growth and wholeness? I know that when we come through the most excruciating experiences we grow and change and become more resilient.
But my question was different. I yearned to understand the benefits of pain in the moment and to feel the gift it offered now, not as a future outcome for which I had to wait. I wanted to know how to sit with it as it was happening–without wavering, pushing it away, or rejecting it–knowing that this is the path to greater freedom.
Pain is so often debilitating, immobilizing, and crippling. It paralyzes us so we are not functioning at our full capacity. It isolates us to the point of feeling all alone in the world and separate from everything. It is no wonder, then, that we avoid pain, distract ourselves from it, move away from it, or numb out to it.
I came to see that I was polarizing the experience of pain: One either has pain, which causes suffering, or one doesn’t have pain and is free of suffering. I knew I was missing something that each moment and breath offer, something to hold the pain while it is throbbing within. The non-dual mindset shows us that there is pain and something else–let’s say an equal or opposing force–that might complement it and be an antidote. There is pain and there is something else we can hold to tolerate and transform the pain and ourselves.
I walked through my days with the pain I carried, curious about what might present itself as a way to bear it and go deeper with it. I felt the ways I was disconnecting from myself in order to tolerate it and function day-to-day.
Amid this exploration, I was facilitating a training. To open the day, each participant shared how they were doing. One of the participants, a woman dear to my heart, described her dream from the previous night. She wept as she described a nightmare, set in an unexplained world, where she could not reach and save her daughter. As I listened to her describe the pain and fear she experienced from the dream, I felt constriction in my own chest, and tears welled up. Her crying grew stronger as she tried to interpret her dream but couldn’t quite understand it. She described how much she loves her daughter and told of her worry that her daughter is leaving home next year. As she spoke of this love, I felt something in me shift and open. I felt ease and a sense of comfort and for a moment I was startled that, as she cried, I felt a sense of something vital happening. I breathed and opened to her descriptions and was flooded by how much she loves her daughter and how beautiful and precious their relationship is. I recognized that her immense love for her daughter is inviting in the fear of loss and is coming through her dreams.
What became clear to me in that moment was that pain is a doorway to the love we’re capable of experiencing. If you dare to follow the path your pain is laying out for you, you will find a doorway to what it is you truly love. The pain this wonderful mom felt as a result of her dream moved her into a profound experience of love for her daughter. It is in the pain and fear of loss that we can find the truth of how fully we can love.
“You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.” Rumi
I went through a painful time when my marriage and life as I had known it for 23 years fell apart. I didn’t see it coming, and it caused devastation in my world and in that of my kids, who were 12 and 17 at the time. I found myself in a place I never imagined I would be, a full-time single mom with little warning. There were many hell realms I passed through in the process of building a new life from the broken pieces. As I reflect on that time, I see that with each turn, my kids and I were presented with the opportunity to choose how to meet our uncertainty and hardship. My kids, a son and a daughter never had much interest in each other before our life fell apart but, as it crumbled, their love for each other deepened and strengthened. This deep connection grew hand in hand with the deepening wound of their circumstances. Their pain kept yielding to love and today they seek each other out as a main source of support and comfort.
We have all heard that out of adversity we are offered gifts –“there is a silver lining” — a saying I never felt comfortable with. This message doesn’t speak to what is possible now, in the moment, as we feel pain. It asks us to wait the pain out until we arrive at a future point where the benefits of the pain we endured will be revealed. What I now understand is that each moment of pain presents us with a choice in that moment. We can choose to feel pain as all that is possible, or we can stretch ourselves to delve deeper. By delving deeper, it is possible to follow pain as a guide through a doorway to find our full capacity for love. Each moment offers us this gift, and with this gift we can tolerate deeper experiences of pain and more profound expressions of love.
“The wound is the place where light enters.” Rumi
With this understanding, we can welcome pain as the path to finding our undefended heart. It might seem counterintuitive yet, as we allow in the full spectrum of pain, our capacity for receiving and giving love becomes deeper and more profound. Holding pain while letting in love is expansive and transformative, spacious and freeing. We can allow pain to change us, to include all that we are and all that is offered, and to shift and reshape our hearts. The invitation to live a whole life is here for us in each moment.
Dedicated to Marianna and Deborah