Searching for Pain
There is an urgency to evolve beyond our current understanding if civilisation is to stand a chance. I experience this as an overwhelming sense of time running out, so I let change guide me.
Some would call the pursuit of pain masochistic, but I prefer to think of it as fast-tracking my psychospiritual education. I don’t want to wait for pain to show up as loss or illness that “I never saw coming” because waiting can become unconscious fear which inhibits growth, and also, we’re running out of time.
Kalil Gibran writes in The Prophet,
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
Those who experience an emotionally traumatic event, whether it be the death of someone close or life-threatening cancer, rarely remain unchanged by the process. The pain and grief seem overwhelming as hearts and minds are thrown into the furnace, but this is where the alchemy occurs. I find the overused Nietzsche quote, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”, a bit trite and incomplete at best. Grief rarely kills us, but it often softens us and introduces us to impermanence. These things strengthen our connection to meaning and each other but not with the donning of armour, as the aphorism suggests.
A New Zealand television series called My God was screened between 2007 and 2011 and explored the experience of various people’s concepts of god. A well-known writer, during one episode, talked about the invitation to pain that was present in their life. Through the conscious action of putting themselves in pain’s way, they experienced what god meant to them. I recalled this recently as it dawned on me that I have always done this, usually by forcing pivotal, ground-shifting change into my life, and pain is always there to meet me when I do. There are many moments when I think, “what the fuck have I done?” But the well-spring of insight that accompanies the agony always pushes me beyond the confines of my current understanding. I leave the fire pit a new version of myself, and as a result, I feel like I have lived many lifetimes in one.
Much of your pain is self-chosen. It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. Therefore trust the physician, and drink [their] remedy in silence and tranquillity: For [their] hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender heart of the Unseen. And the cup [they] bring, though it burns your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with [Their] own sacred tears.
I have removed the gender suggestion from this passage because the default male reference when discussing god has got us into the bloody religious mess we face globally. Gibran seems to be talking about a god (they/the Unseen) that exists to help extend us through “self-chosen” pain and, within that, an insinuation that “self-chosen” means we have subconsciously asked for it even if we haven’t actively sought it. Ultimately that is a conversation we can only have with ourselves, no one else can explain our reality to us, but I raise my hand high amongst those who consciously seek pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy; And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
I am continually surprised and, at times, frustrated by people’s fear of sadness. As Gibran says, it is a season as necessary as all the others, yet we build fortresses against it. We avoid anything that might be emotionally challenging, preferring to use ‘toxic positivity’ rather than commune with melancholy. Driven by a desire to understand her lifelong love of sad music Susan Cain has dedicated much of her life to researching and understanding the necessity of sorrow and longing. She explores these concepts in her book Bittersweet,
It’s hard to put into words what I experience when I hear this kind of music. It’s technically sad, but I really feel love: a great tidal outpouring of it. A deep kinship with all the other souls in the world who know the sorrow the music strains to express. Awe at the musician’s ability to transform pain into beauty.
We view sadness as the enemy or a sign of failure when it is the very thing we need to move into a greater understanding of what needs to happen next. People often apologise to me for crying when seeking my professional support, and it floors me every time because it is then that I start to celebrate. I know we are close to what matters when the tears arrive and, therefore, closer to their own “breaking of the shell”, and I feel a quickening in my heart. Intuition resides at this breaking point, and those moments are so full of healing potential that I can feel the expansion in my body. Not all opportunities are taken, far from it, but the possibility is worth the celebration.
The resistance usually starts with an attempt to halt the grief by apologising or self-admonishment, and we all know that shame is the antithesis of enlightenment. My sole purpose in those moments is to make space for the sadness to come, and I am still practising and figuring out the best way to do this. I never offer tissues! Unless the person seems genuinely burdened by the quantity of snot that accompanies their tears. What appears to be most helpful is that I am not afraid of tears or the sadness that causes them. In a way, I am inviting sadness to the conversation because its contribution to healing and growth is invaluable and therefore is a friend, not an enemy.
Solitude is my current method of pain invocation, and loneliness is the presiding member, challenging me to quit. Intentionally giving up everything familiar and forcing myself to be adrift and uncomfortable is excruciating. I am immobilised by waves of pain that, again, make me wonder what the fuck I am doing. But after each one subsides, there is a new clarity, I understand more than I did before, and I am afraid of less.
I guess many would find my search for pain indulgent, and while I appreciate the urge to describe another person’s process lest it challenges, I would say it is the opposite. It’s not as dramatic as meditating in a cave for thirteen years or as brave as single-handedly circumnavigating the globe in a sailboat, but it’s how I’m choosing to get ahead of the approaching storm. We have to be more conscious and reside in the present more than ever before if we’re going to contribute to humanity’s survival. Indian mystic Osho describes the present, “…now and here are two sides of the same coin. And that’s the only thing that is real; all else is either imagination or memory.” If we embrace it, pain enables us to be present, shows us the truth and what is important and helps us take one intuitive step at a time.