Pain As Meditation

June 27, 2012 in blog, Guatemala, Thailand, Travelogue


I wrote this over a year ago. I wrote it for myself, primarily. (I do a lot of that.) I never intended to share it with anyone but the friend, herein. But then, there was another friend who was suffering the death of his Momma and so I shared it with him too. He asked me to put it on his blog. I let him, but I didn’t tell anyone.

As you know, this month has been one surrounded by deaths in the traveling community, and in our larger circle as well. It has been a month for revisiting the very human themes of life, death and suffering through that long middle part. I dug this up today to share with another friend, who, mercifully, hasn’t suffered much in her life. She’s feeling the communal losses especially acutely. I re-read it, for me, and thought that maybe now was a good time to share it.

I warn you, it has nothing to do with travel and much to do with the inner lives we all live that I, for one, don’t share with more than about three people in my world. “Keep your own secrets,” wise words once given. So don’t ask, because I won’t tell you what any of it is about. It’s not your business, it’s mine. But perhaps you are suffering in your own way… aren’t we all? Perhaps some of this will resonate with you as well. Perhaps you’ll find comfort in some small way, or at least not feel quite as alone in the journey, that in the end, is the most solitary thing in the universe: life.

If you don’t like it, do me a kindness and don’t send me hate mail. I can’t take it right now.


So many people I know are suffering right now, with so many things:

  • serious illness
  • heartbreak
  • death
  • childhood hauntings
  • difficulty in family relationships
  • divorce
  • adultery
  • rejection
  • depression
  • mental illness


The list seems never ending

  • Some of them are our own fault, pain brought on at our own hands.
  • Some of them are someone else’s fault; loving others is not without risk.
  • Some we’re dealt by virtue of the family we’re born into.
  • Some grow slowly.
  • Some broadside us after work on a Tuesday afternoon.


Pain is universal. Suffering, part of the human condition.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this from the cocoon of my hammock last winter as I quietly slogged through the darkness of my own heart.

Some of my pain is of my own making, but not all of it.

I’ve learned a lot from suffering in the past few years, about myself (it hasn’t always been pretty) about just what can be borne through, about the futility of blame and the necessity of responsibility, about compassion and grace.

My whole life my instinct has been to flee pain, to do whatever necessary to erase it, ignore it, white wash it, medicate it or escape it. I don’t think I’m alone in that reaction. None of us like to suffer.

But what is a person to do when it comes like waves from the ocean and threatens to drown you over a period of days, months, years? What do we do when it can’t be fixed, it’s there forever, and our rational mind knows that there will be more even as our emotional selves swear we can’t take it?

I spent a lot of hours in the hammock, working out these questions; thinking.

I’m not sure I have the answers. In fact, I’m quite sure I have fewer answers than ever before. But I’m learning to make friends with the pain.

Instead of fleeing the pain, I’ve discovered that the pain itself can be used as a sort of meditation. A way to clear my mind, increase internal understanding and work my way back from the raw, emotional brink of destruction to a place of peace, a place where I can actually think coherently, and a place where logic can once again prevail.

I was talking about this with one of my oldest friends recently.

He too is suffering massively. He too wants the pain to stop, or at least ease to the point where every breath is not a struggle.

I mentioned to him what I’d found, that leaning into the pain, taking the time to feel it deeply, reaching into it and trying to find the bottom, or the source, and becoming okay with the fact that sometimes life just hurts more than we could ever have imagined, has helped me to let some of it go, or at least to allowed it to graft into my personal experience as a part of me in a way that doesn’t define me.

Well, that I can understand,” he replied.  “Have you ever listened to country music?  You always finish feeling better. By taking small controlled doses of sorrow.


I’ve never listened to much country music, so this made me laugh.


The day I turned the corner on the breakup,” he continued, “I had turned to a country station and heard a really sad song that I’ve always loved, and was relevant. I cried so hard I laughed. Then I was much better.”


That part I could relate to, crying so hard that you laugh at the absurdity.


You know, before the breakup, for years I only cried to music and poems. Now that I’m doing better I may be back to that point. I think it helps deal with real sorrow.”

 And that’s when it clicked for me:

People laugh at us when we cry over books, movies, music, poetry. No one ridicules someone else for laughing hard at something that’s funny, or having their hearts swell over something that’s romantic or beautiful; but culturally, we are mocked for showing sadness, for suffering visibly with someone, or something, or some idea.

We’re taught early that everything should be “okay” and if it’s not then we should keep quiet about it.

We’re taught to avoid the pain at all costs and squash it down to the bottom of our souls if we can’t. This cultural indoctrination is worse for men than it is for women.

Is this healthy? Is this a good idea? Should we be, unwittingly, perpetuating this to the next generation? I think not.

I already warned you that I have fewer answers than I have questions and so I don’t really know how to fix this.

What I do know, however, is that we, as fellow humans, MUST find a way to teach each other about pain, to help one another to suffer in a way that promotes healing and growth and not further destruction of body and spirit. We’ve got to let people cry. We’ve got to put away the plastic smiles and be able to say, “I’ve had better days,” when people ask how we are.

Do we need to air our dirty laundry, wear our suffering on our shirt sleeves and make it our life’s theme?

No, of course not. But we do need to acknowledge the pain, use it as a meditation for a time, and somehow use the little sorrows, the artistic sorrows of stories and songs and paintings as “controlled doses” that will help us to learn to deal with the epic sorrows that life is sure to bring.

This is my friend Lee, for those who haven’t met him… been buddies since we were 16.