Receiving gifts from pain

“We are pain and what cures pain, both. We are the sweet cold water and the jar that pours. I want to hold you close like a lute, so that we can cry out with loving. Would you rather throw stones at a mirror? I am your mirror and here are the stones.” Attributed to Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi, Sufi poet& mystic

Pain and pleasure, like the two sides of a coin, one we want to hold and keep for ever, and the other we often put a plaster on and hope it will go away. We also tend to appreciate pleasure more when we have known the pain.

It is a humane tendency to wish away any kind of pain, especially when it is so closely facing you that the confusion seems inevitable: sometimes it is hard to know which is which because it feels as if you are in it and it is in you. This is how we can become identified with the pain.

From a perspective of mindfulness meditation, a common metaphor used to describe the workings of the mind is the substance of water. When the mind is calm like clear waters, and self-reflection is possible, it can be easier to see in reflection the mental patterns and beliefs that are feeding the pain.

A simple experiment involving water and fire introduces this topic below.

You need a stainless steel pot with a clear, polished bottom. Place it on a cooker ring underneath the cooker light bulb that is switched on, so that the light can reflect on the bottom of the pot. The space around the cooker needs to be dark enough so you can focus on the pot. Pour some water in the pot and wait until the surface of the water settles. Take a few moments to look at the water surface. What do you see? Then look into the light reflected in the water for some time. What do you see now? What is it like to switch your focus from the water surface to the reflected light, as if changing the lenses in your glasses?

Turn on the cooker ring that the pot sits on, with the cooker light still on, and watch what happens to the water. As it begins to heat up, bubble up and boil, can you still see the light reflection in the water? What do you actually see and feel, as you are watching it? Turning the heat off, allowing the water to return to its naturally calm state. What do you see now?

When the water reaches the boiling point, it naturally starts bubbling up and evaporating. It lets off steam. Minds, too, can let off steam, when becoming too hot. There we have different degrees of the water and fire elements working together.

But, when the water temperature drops below zero degrees, it freezes. Minds and bodies, too, freeze, making the abilities to think and feel very difficult to access, especially where experiences of trauma are involved. When the conditions are right for the water surface to become clear and calm again, it can reflect everything from above and below. No freezing and no boiling off, just being in a state of calm. Water behaves depending on how it is impacted by other elements. It becomes the medium through which pain, pleasure or numbness are made possible mentally and physically.

The deep wish to heal pain, or at least to decrease it is an old and new preoccupation of all those who have experienced pain and those working in the helping and healing professions. Each of us has experienced pain at some point in our lives. Physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional pain; relationship pain, parenting pain, family or generational pain, environmental pain, inner pain, and identity pain; the list can go on. If it is excessive fear and worrying, or feeling stuck, not getting what you want from life or relationships, or the inability to help yourself or somebody else, all these may lead to some kind of pain.

Sometimes running away from pain is an easy way out, yet a sure sign that it will catch up with us later. Taking a tablet, a remedy, or having somebody else soothe it for you, may help temporarily. It could be anything like chatting with a friend, playing with your pet or standing in awe in front of an autumn tree. You surely have your own way of finding relief. But unless a deeper source of the suffering, is addressed, too, the symptoms will come back in a different shape or form sooner or later.

A more unusual, although not new approach to dealing with pain suggests the complete opposite of what common logic would expect. Who would think that allowing oneself to be with the pain differently may lead to new discoveries?

For example, a person is experiencing pain in some part of the body. If that part of the body is taken care of or treated and the symptom goes away completely, it is an ideal situation. However, sometimes the pain arises somewhere else later. We get pains and aches throughout life, as well as pleasurable moments hopefully, the pleasant-unpleasant combination is unavoidable.

The body, in constant collaboration and feedback with the mental, emotional and spiritual parts of the person, form together a system that does its very best to stay in balance through the ups and downs of everyday life. What do we do when there is not a reasonable balance between pain and pleasure?  

The water experiment described above can be used for the area of the mind. The experiment is about looking at what the mind is showing you about your emotional or mental pain in two different contexts, each time asking the same question: how do you see what you see?

First context: being with the pain when, metaphorically speaking, the water is stirred up, boiling or frozen, for example when you feel restless, tired, angry or numb.

Second context: being with the pain when the water is clear and steady, for example when the mind feels more at home and peaceful.

I am curious about what the experiment will show you in both instances.

It goes without saying that as the mind oscillates between the “hot” and “cold” ends of the spectrum, in the process we learn to seek a more stable mental balance.

On one hand, we all know what it is like to feel stressed and the ways to arrive there. On the other hand, a more peaceful state of mind can be found by practicing meditation, resting, being in silence, going for a stroll, being with other people, or whatever makes your nervous system feel more relaxed.

When the mind is clearer, it may be possible to see the same mental experience as if with different eyes. Is it the different way of looking that makes the difference in perceiving, who knows? You will find out by trying it.

A good place to start is when the pain is present and there is also a wish to seek clarity. Beginning to look into the light of the mind without judgement, and not just on the surface of the mind, can bring gifts. Then, allowing the gifts to show themselves.

If we did not just focus solely on the experiences of mental or emotional suffering, but also considered looking for patterns that connect in our individual thinking and beliefs, in relationship to ourselves, somebody or something else, then there may be a release, an understanding; bitter-sweet like dark chocolate, maybe not so tasty as chocolate 🙂 but with a release of a little sweetness after all. And, who knows, it may help clear the path a little going forward.

“There is a secret medicine given only to those who hurt so hard they can’t hope.
The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.” Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi, The Essential Rumi

For another perspective on suffering inspired by various sources including Jungian psychology, you might like to read the article in the link below, entitled “The Gift of Suffering” from the Jungian Center for the Spiritual Sciences in the US:

Wishing you a wondrous Halloween!