Gratitude for Pain.
If you currently are, or ever have been alive, then you have undoubtedly experienced pain.
I’m yet to meet the lucky soul who has successfully traversed this life free from pain. From minor cuts to missing limbs, from gentle letdowns to devastating heartbreaks, and from single episodes to lifetimes made of hurt, pain is a constant here on Earth. There is no getting around it.
“To grow is the sole purpose of existence on this planet Earth. You will not grow if you sit in a beautiful flower garden and somebody brings you gorgeous food on a silver platter. But you will grow if you are sick, if you are in pain, if you experience losses and still don’t put your head in the sand, but take the pain and learn to accept it, not as a curse or a punishment, but as a gift to you with a very, very specific purpose.” ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
If you are alive, you will experience pain.
There are different types of pain: physical, emotional, mental, and even spiritual. Pain can be the result of external or internal events. It can be sharp, deep, mild, fleeting, chronic and debilitating.
As a burn nurse, I have witnessed, and even perpetrated, some of the most intense physical pain a human could be made to endure. While I would never wish the pain I’ve seen in these instances upon another, when I caused it, it was for a purpose. The painful procedures were always meant to preserve and protect life itself, and ultimately to promote healing.
Pain can be extremely diverse, and is experienced in multitude of ways. At the physical level, our pain receptors can continue to function long after the causation ends, and even when the originating injuries are absent. Some of the most persistent and debilitating pain I’ve witnessed was in men and women who still felt their scathing, searing limbs and appendages even after they were removed, and in quadriplegics who, despite being completely paralyzed from the neck down, reported intense pain within their bodies.
How is this possible? Why and how can physical pain be so persistent, even when the insult is gone? And how do we go for years feeling the intense pain of loss, especially of loved ones, even decades after the life we knew has ended?
The hows and whys of pain are endless.
Which leads me to a thought I’ve had so many times before: What does it say about those of us who actually seek out pain, willingly, eagerly and even as a means for pleasure?
As soon as my youngest sister died, my living sister immediately got a tattoo in memorial, and I followed her lead within days. We consciously sought out pain during our time of grief and heartache, and seared it into our wrists with purple ink.
That pain felt good, freeing, cathartic and purposeful. There are thousands upon thousands who do the same thing everyday, for pure enjoyment and pleasure. I, myself, remember the intoxicating feeling of getting my first tattoo, the needle coursing and humming and making contact with the bones of my foot, challenging my every nerve to remain still when all my better instincts shouted at me to run.
Oh, that self-inflicted pain, just intense enough to make me sweat and breathe heavily as I reached that pinnacle of adrenaline incited corporeal response that occurs at the moment just before transcendence into otherworldly bliss.
This pain, this intensely ecstatic suffering that is sought willingly, what purpose does it serve?
“Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself and know that everything in this life has a purpose, there are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from.” ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
I was in for a massage not long ago — the first I’d had in over a year. My body was tight and rigid all over, every muscle and tendon holding a hard year’s worth of tension within its cells. As I lay there, allowing my healer to knead and unknot each sore spot, I could feel my body try to recoil at the pain. I stiffened with each touch, and in doing so, created a self-reinforcing tension that made the work of release even harder.
As the minutes progressed, and I realized what I was doing and feeling, I decided to focus on the pain without resisting it. I consciously chose to go into the pain and to allow myself to experience it exactly for what it was. I mindfully experienced the sting, the burn, the pressure and the discomfort of each point of contact because I realized it was beneficial for me.
My body needed this pain. This pain had a purpose.
As I lay awash in the small rushes of toxins and tensions escaping from my muscles and into my lymph system, I thought about how grateful I was for this pain. About how this pain really was a gift. And I realized how lucky I was to be able to experience this beneficial discomfort. And then my mind started to wander, and returned to the pain that haunts me all the time.
The pain of loss. The pain of regret. The pain of guilt. The pain of self-flagellation and self-imposed isolation. The pain of apathy and self-loathing and failure. The pain of not being enough, not doing enough, not giving enough. The pain of failing to rise above.
These are emotional pains, spiritual pains, that I feel every day. Every single day. I found harbor in these self-imposed realms of agony and despair, and I’ve anchored myself there. But why? What purpose does this pain serve? Is this, too, a gift?
What in my life is so out of balance that I’ve done this to myself? I think of the burn patients I’ve treated, and try to apply the same principles of preservation and survival to the suffering I cause myself. But I can’t. My life does not depend upon this pain. But maybe my lessons do.
“When you learn your lessons, the pain goes away.” ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Perhaps it’s not my life, but my spiritual health and emotional survival, that depends upon this pain as a set of lessons which must be learned in order to grow into the woman who can actually sit in the flower garden of life again.
In an effort to examine and let the pain work its magic on the tense spots in my spirit, the neglected emotions in my heart and the recurring suffering in my life, I think it’s time to acknowledge exactly what I’m suffering, and extract the lesson. Because frankly, I’m really fucking tired of suffering. I’m ready to let it go.
I’m tired because I cried for hours and hours and hours last night, tears streaming and soaking my pillow, and I woke with swollen eyes, still feeling sorry for myself, missing my partner, lamenting my children’s misfortune, and feeling the depths of depression that have characterized my life over the last six years. Six years of doubt. Six years of attempted denial. Six years of self-imposed misery. Six years of repeated mistakes, made knowingly and willingly each time. Six years of holding on to suffering, for suffering’s sake.
Six very swift and extremely prolonged years of acting as if pain is my purpose now.
It’s all bullshit. But it’s hard to let it go. You see, attachment is a powerful bitch, and I made her mine a long time ago. I called out my own kryptonite, and named it attachment to one man. One mortal man. And it set me up for the lesson of a lifetime. And for every lesson since, which have all been inextricably connected to my loss of him.
As I focused on my pain last night, trying to let it bring release, I thought back to what I had learned decades ago about the Four Noble Truths. They resonated so loudly when I first encountered them that I wrote them on my refrigerator in bold black marker as a visual reminder each and every day.
Simply put, in laymen’s terms, the Four Noble Truths are as follows:
- Life is characterized by suffering.
- Suffering is rooted in attachment.
- The cessation of suffering is possible.
- The end of suffering is found in the Eightfold Path.
Over a decade ago, when I started exploring the second truth and the link between suffering and attachment, I set myself up for this pain I’ve been living in the last six years. My kryptonite was named Nathan. Although I could fathom letting go of my attachment to things, places and most people (especially in theory or thought exercise) I knew I would never be able to let go of my attachment to my best friend and lover.
It was a deal-breaker for me, as I continued to investigate Buddhist philosophy, and I remember thinking multiple times that his was the only otherness I could not do without.
Funny how life teaches you the one lesson you need to learn the most…
So my pain, my suffering, each little piece and lesson, have been little more than self-fulfilling prophecy as I make my way in this world of samsara. And instead of remaining attached to the love of my life, who is dead and gone, I simply held on to my loss of him.
At some point, I forgot the lessons, and I attached myself firmly and directly to the suffering.
In clinging to my suffering, I misconstrued the reality of the gift I have been given. So many gifts, in fact.
I’ve learned that each step on the Eightfold Path really is the route to the cessation of suffering. And here the purpose of paying attention to my pain as a gift becomes clear. I’ll start with one of the simplest and most painful tension points for me. Because these lessons truly are gifts, and I’ve got to go into the pain in order to release it.
The Lesson of Right Speech: Do not speak words in anger, for they may be your last words to the one you love most.
The fact that I know this to be true in the most literal sense is like a huge knot beneath my skin, so festered and hardened that there is little chance that any massage therapist would touch it. So it’s up to me. This is my lesson, my gift, and by paying direct attention to it, I can wear it down and heal the wound before it takes over my entire body. It’s almost taken over my entire being already, and I’m ready to be done with it. And it’s only one of the gifts of pain I have received.
I’m ready to be thankful for that painful knot, because it represents knowing.
And there are few gifts more powerful than knowledge.
So as the world around me seems to crumble more and more each day, each week, each year, I know it’s time to focus on my pain and let my attention to it finally work to dissolve it. I am so lucky in this life — I have a home, a family, a peaceful town. I see no benefit in remaining attached to my suffering while there are so many others suffering much greater losses than I.
I see my fellow men and women losing homes, countries and families to war. I see my sisters and brothers run down, shut out and gunned down all across world. My pain is a drop in the bucket comparatively, and if you know me at all, you understand that all I’ve ever wanted to do is change the world… so it’s time to change my focus.
There is much too much to be done, and I’ve got three lives to guide through the fires that are rising. I can’t always protect them from the flames, but I can help them learn to heal the burns they may sustain, whether physical, emotional or spiritual. I have suffered my losses so that I can learn from them and pass my knowledge on.
I will finally acknowledge that I was given the most important lesson of my life at thirty-three, and I will not put my head in the sand to that fact any longer. Life is precious and fleeting, and it can be full of suffering if we fail to recognize the gifts on the path we traverse.
I choose now, to recognize my many gifts, to let go of my attachments, and to simply find gratitude –especially for the pain.
“Pain is just a mistake. It’s okay to make mistakes. I am not the mistake, I am the beautiful stuff.” ~ Catherine Holmes Clark