Pain, a sensation often resulting out of fear, intense sensory stimuli, or danger, is wildly misunderstood.
Physical pain ensues when the body senses it is in a situation that is not conducive to the sustainable health of that system. It is a symptom that suggests a fundamental misalignment. It demands to be felt.
When you place your hand on a flame or other hot surface, the message sent to your brain is one of tissue damage caused by excessive heat. Your brain then responds by creating a corresponding message of physical pain: an appropriate neurological response in the body, which prompts your hand to move away from that source of self-harm. It is the system's way of maintaining alignment to an ideal state of homeostasis, vital to your very survival.
Emotional pain is another essential systemic response. It is a symptom acting as an important compass point to acknowledge, via your intuition, that whatever situation you are experiencing at that time is not conducive to the highest good.
Instead of being a crisis, pain can be recognized as a tremendous gift. The pain, whether it be in the form of anxiety and depression, crippling fear, massive resistance, or overwhelming sadness, has an important message for you: you are no longer living in alignment with your highest truth. Will you choose to experience pain as an excuse for attention, for pity, or for wallowing in your Ego? Or will you choose to experience pain as a gift and a sign to step into your wild soul?
Here are the five ways pain can be your greatest gift...
1. Pain is an appropriate response in a system that harbors dis-ease.
Approximately 1 in 10 Americans is now prescribed a daily pharmaceutical antidepressant: a 400% increase in the past twenty years. Not only are we experiencing more emotional pain, we’re also seeking to conveniently and quickly numb that pain.
Now, think again to that hand on the flame. When you cover up your pain with pharmaceutical antidepressants, it is like you have numbed your hand and can no longer feel that it is burning off. So instead of responding appropriately to your pain, you keep your hand there because you are unable to effectively receive and interpret its message. The hand is soon destroyed, which compromises the health of the entire system.
There are those who think we should really “just get over it,” “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps," “suck it up,” and “move on” with our lives when facing emotional pain. Like a quick-fix pharmaceutical option, we are urged to cover the symptoms and completely turn away from the pain we are experiencing.
Emotional pain must not be ignored. It is an appropriate symptom and incredibly powerful response that reflects a system out of alignment with ease, a system harboring a dis-ease.
There is NOTHING inherently wrong with you if you are experiencing pain. At your essence, you are innately perfect, whole, and complete. Pain is simply an appropriate response to let you know that there is a dis-ease of harmony that has crept within the system. It is your response-ability to acknowledge and explore what that block or stagnation may be.
2. Pain is an incredible teacher.
Mythopoetic philosopher, scholar, and writer Joseph Campbell introduced us to the hero's journey. This symbolic and cyclical exploration is embedded in your own unique journey throughout the course of your lifetime. It may even repeat its cycle several times throughout. The hero's journey involves a passage through a "dark night of the soul" or spiritual "abyss," which requires you to leave your known existence and travel into the underworld to experience a necessary death and rebirth.
Pain can be an principal character in this great mythological journey into embodiment of the Self. It can serve as a teacher sent from beyond, from the unconscious, from within. It can be an invaluable ingredient in the seasoning of the Self.
In the poem "Chickpea to Cook," Sufi mystic Rumi writes:
Experiencing great pain can promote systemic resiliency. Find your Self in the pain. Like a healthy stress to the system, pain can invoke strength, and power, and potent wisdom. Pain can begin to launch you towards a deeper trust in your own unique experience of the world.
As Winston Churchill said, "If you're going through hell, keep going." Your capacity to authentically experience your feelings of pain is your chance to journey into the immense energy that exists within the shadows, to become acquainted with those dark corners of yourself and the difficult emotions that reside there. To know yourself is to know the world. Your pain has great learnings for you, so be open to its teachings.
3. Pain can be an important catalyst for change.
Pain can really SUCK. I get it. I've been there. Deciding to make peace with your pain is the first step towards addressing it as a symptom of a larger issue. What's more, pain actually brings you back into the present moment. So breathe into it. It is your guide and an important impetus for action.
Remember that your pain is a message that something is out of alignment with the health of the system. Pay attention to those signals. Begin to explore where it is you have given away your power, where it is you have compromised your truth, where it is you have become disconnected and fallen out of balance.
As the great Taoist teacher and reputed author of the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu says, "New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings." I think of the caterpillar who must completely liquify in its cocoon before emerging as a butterfly. I would imagine that process as being more than slightly uncomfortable and rather disconcerting. But it is a process that requires complete destruction before any transformation can take place.
Perhaps pain is present because of your resistance to change, to allowing the natural process of death and rebirth to flow in your life. Surrender and be willing to look at your pain as a herald for a new chapter. Pain may be your call to stop unconsciously living... to wake up! It can be your chance to turn towards the shadow, lean into the darkness, and discover where you have lost touch with your unique gifts and soul purpose. The experience of pain may be an opportunity for you to finally release that which you are not and step into your awakened Self.
Your pain is urging you to use your life as your grand experiment. If you tweak this or do that differently, does the pain remain? My yoga teacher Eddie Modestini explains that he originally came to yoga because he was experiencing extreme physical pain. He recounts how he spent the first several years of his yoga practice "chasing the pain" around his body. He did not run from it. Instead, he learned to play its game and used it as a catalyst to change what wasn't working in his life.
What many also don’t realize is that our individual pain can be a visceral reflection of our collective pain, which connects us all. By denying our own personal pain, we feed the idea that our experience is isolated and unimportant, that that we as individuals are separate from the collective, that we are powerless to not only act for the benefit of ourselves, but for the benefit of all beings.
As brilliant deep ecologist Joanna Macy writes, “Only when we allow ourselves the space to experience our feelings of pain... can we free ourselves from the fear of that pain—including the fear of getting permanently mired in despair or shattered by grief. Only then can we discover the fluid, dynamic character of feelings. Only then can they reveal on a visceral level our mutual belonging to the web of life.”
Based on the way we treat the Earth, other species, and each other, I'm actually surprised there isn't MORE pain in the world. My personal dream is that we are able to awaken to this collective pain, and use its power to launch us forth in creating a life sustaining civilization. This begins by, as Macy suggests, allowing ourselves the space to fully experience our pain and the teachings it contains.
4. Pain is a part of the kaleidoscopic expression of love.
A message that I received in a powerful healing ceremony earlier this year told me that “to love unconditionally is to feel unconditionally.” As human beings we often associate love with feelings of bliss and happiness when, in fact, love is the culmination of all feelings and all emotions. Unconditional love is the purpose of your existence here on this planet, and is the driving force of your spiritual and psychic evolution. So, if you are to evolve towards the guidance of your higher Self, you must be open to feeling the pain as well as the joy.
We put so much pressure on ourselves. We tell boys and young men to “man up” if they show any hint of emotion. We give girls and young women little blue pills if they show any hint of sadness or symptom of depression. People thus develop a deep fear... of pain, of despair, of not fitting in, of guilt, of distressing loved ones, of being alone. Let us not forget that when we remove our lows, we lose our corresponding highs.
Denying yourself the space to feel whatever it is that is present for you creates a deadening effect within the heart and within the body. This deadening can manifest as emotional unavailability, insensitivity, general apathy, or worse, downright cruelty. Open your heart to the incredible range of love that unfolds in all its shapes and colors, even if that love is, at times, painful.
To be truly alive is to be vulnerable to experiencing pain. Tapping into our authentic selves and developing our humanity requires us to be split wide open, to break through the stone fortresses that encapsulate our hearts. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s risky. Yes, we may feel tremendous and raw unbridled emotion. But we might actually experience deep intimacy, unabashed joy, and true love. What amazing strength and courage that reveals… what liberation! Remember that experiencing pain is a part of the gift of experiencing the fullness of life.
5. Pain can fuel your passion for living.
Anger, grief, envy, and fear are healthy emotions. It is in the repression and unspoken expression of those energies where you can move towards unhealthy forms of these emotions, which are depression, rage, jealousy, and panic. Instead of contracting and closing in on the pain, use it as a chance to expand. Use it as fuel for passionate action, for soul-fired transformation. You have the power and you have the choice.
This past fall I had the opportunity to see Renee Airya speak. A cancer survivor and incredible inspiration, Renee travels around the world, sharing the power of "flipping your flaws." She asserts that those dark parts of ourselves, what she labels as "flaws," actually hold our unique contribution for the world.
Your pain may actually be your gold. It is like the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which embraces the art of imperfection. This ancient philosophy informs the practice of kintsukuroi, in which the cracks of broken pottery pieces are mended by being filled in with gold. Often these "imperfect pieces" are worth more than their unbroken counterparts. It is believed that when something has suffered damage and has a painful history, it becomes more beautiful. And may we remember that the great ancient alchemists had to know the nature of lead very intimately before they were ever able to transmute it to gold.
Your wild soul speaks to you in the form of feelings. It is constantly unfolding a blueprint of your desires, which reflect your highest calling. Honoring your pain may be your great opportunity to choose to step into who you really are, in this moment.
Trust the process of life to show you where to act. Trust yourself to know what is for the highest good for yourself and the highest good for all. And trust your pain to be a vehicle for your journey into embodying your wild soul.
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Can you accept your pain as a part of your heroic journey? How can you begin to actually cultivate gratitude for your pain? Will you greet pain as a great teacher, rather than a foe or an enemy to be subdued? How can you use the potent power of your pain towards transformative change for the greater good?