What is pain? What is its purpose? Why do we experience it?
When you think of pain, what does it stir up inside of you? What thoughts come to your mind? What are the sensations you feel in your body? Do you tense up, contract, hold your breath? Perhaps you feel fear, gloom, exhaustion, anger, hopelessness.
There are many different kinds of pain. Physical pain, such as from an injury or chronic illness. Emotional pain, like that first heartbreak you still feel the echoes of years later, or the pain of losing a loved one. Mental pain, such as endless, frightening thoughts of self-loathing and negativity. There is even spiritual pain, a pain I believe we are all deeply familiar with, even if not fully conscious of it, that often manifests as a longing to go back to a home you’ve never known. Or a yearning to know that you are not alone. Or perhaps a deep knowing you can’t explain that tells you that you are not living in alignment with your true purpose.
All of these are examples of real pain. There are so many more examples than these, but hopefully you get the idea that pain exists across an infinite spectrum, greeting us in many different forms.
I spent many years trying to run from pain. I am intimately familiar with many forms of pain, whether it be physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. For a long time, I looked for every opportunity to suppress, numb, and distract myself from it. It felt too big, and I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. And after many years of running, I came to realize something profound.
The only true escape is into our pain.
I think I eventually just became too tired to keep running. So finally, I sat down, and greeted my pain. And what happened next, utterly shocked me.
I felt relief.
Who would have thought that after years of trying and trying to escape the pain I felt inside, true relief would only come when I finally faced it? And then what came next, was even more profound.
As I slowly learned to trust myself and my ability to hold the emotions and sensations that wanted to flow through me, I saw that there were other feelings that were also being suppressed, like laughter, playfulness, and deeper states of joy. I came to realize we cannot pick and choose what emotions we get to filter. The fullness of joy can only be experienced through our willingness to also enter into the fullness of pain and sorrow.
Wilma Mankiller, the famous Native American activist and community builder, taught us to “be the buffalo.” There is something peculiar and profound that is observed in buffalo. In the face of a prairie storm, cattle will turn and run, often getting separated from their herd and lost. But unlike the cattle, when the storm comes (and they always do), buffalo will huddle together and then run full force right into the storm. Buffalo (more accurately, North American bison) understand that the fastest and safest way out of a storm is right through it. I think the bison have something important to teach us here.
Since that initial realization, I have pondered much about the nature of pain. Why am I afraid of it? What is our culture teaching me to believe about pain? How have I been taught to navigate pain or discomfort? What do I believe about my capacity to sit with pain? How would things be different if we all lived in a culture that embraced and leaned into the experience of pain and discomfort instead of suppressing, numbing out, and distracting ourselves from it?
Many of us have been taught that pain is unsafe, and that has resulted in a deep societal fear of the experience of pain. But what if we believed something different? What if we became curious, drew closer, and allowed the discomfort to unfold its true nature to us? Instead of letting pain turn us bitter and cold, because we believe there is something inherently wrong and unfair about this experience, what if we allowed it to soften us? By allowing ourselves to relax into the experience a bit more, we can begin to uncover the true purpose of discomfort. But first, it’s going to require real vulnerability. (Oh, the terror!)
I’ve come to find that at the center of all pain is a precious pearl called The Teaching. I believe it is the true purpose of pain and discomfort. In fact, these pearls are not limited to just pain, but can be found at the core of every human experience! Though it tends to take a bit more digging to discover the pearls of pain, I’ve found they also tend to be the more precious and rare types of pearls. You know, like the ones you can only find in mermaid caves and treasure troves.
When we embrace this truth, we begin to approach pain as our teacher, with the true humility of a student. Instead of turning away from it, we peer into it with curiosity, awaiting the unveiling of the lesson. With this mindset, much of the tension begins to ease as we realize that all experience — yes, including even our most excruciating afflictions — are here in service to us; to teach us, shape us, and help us eventually realize our destiny. Much of what pain teaches us is about the strength and power already inside of us; strength that we would never know of unless we had reason to call upon it. Perhaps one of the most precious gifts pain offers us is a greater capacity to love and hold another person through their pain.
When we try to damn the incoming flow of human experience that is trying to move through us, we sever our connection to life itself. When we sever that connection, we limit or altogether shut off our ability to connect with others who are also going through their own painful experiences that are familiar, yet completely unique. This connection is not only severed from the humans around us, but with the Divine. We become numb to the inherent sacredness of life—the Divine Nature. If we do not allow ourselves to feel the very tangible and physical experiences of humanity, how can we expect to feel the softer subtleties and nuances of the spirit that require deeper sensitivity and perceptivity?
The Divine calls us to surrender. To release the illusion of control we desperately cling to so that it can move through us and shape us into what we were always destined to become. There is a place where one meets God face to face. It can only be found through journeying into the depths of our vulnerability, the truth of all that we are in this moment. The more we reject the truth of who we are and what is presently alive in us, the further we wander from all Truth (yes, I’m talking Truth with the capital T).
In this way, pain can become a portal into deeper connection to yourself, to others, and to the Divine.
I have learned, Truth tends to move towards greater Truth, and fullness towards greater Fullness. We are beckoned to journey further, to experience more. There is only ever one way out of the experience, and that is straight in.
What would happen if you were to befriend your pain? I invite you to try. Talk to it, ask it questions, learn of its nature. Where does pain come from? Where it is going, and why it is here? You might be surprised how readily available those answers are.
You might ask, “Pain, what do you need from me in this moment?”
Pain might answer, “I need space to move and breath. I need to scream and shout, to weep and wail. To express and transform. I need a hand to hold. I need your presence. I need your forgiveness.”
As we begin to develop this relationship with our pain, a mutual trust will naturally begin to grow. We will begin to feel less afraid, and more confident, as we approach pain. Fear is a natural response to pain. But we can learn that even fear itself is safe to feel and is often an invitation to bring more love into the situation.
As we gift ourselves more experiences of running into, instead of away from, the storms of life, we will begin to find that they are not as horrible and scary as we anticipated. Even more so, we will discover our capacity to hold these experiences expanding. Instead of seeing pain as something that weakens and tears us down, we can feel strengthened and empowered by pain.
It is easy to feel afraid in this world. To feel like a victim, or a failure. To feel hopeless. But when we begin to realize that everything we experience is here to teach and serve us in some way, we can feel less afraid. Even in the depths of our suffering, we can feel hope. We can find meaning and purpose. If you think back to some of your darkest hours, I’m sure you will find that in some way, these experiences made you stronger. They are part of your story. They led you to where you are now. Perhaps your experiences with pain have enabled you to hold deeper empathy and understanding for others who suffer. There is a reason, there always is. If you cannot find that reason now, I promise, it will come.