These pains that you feel are messengers. Listen to them.
As human beings, we’re wired to seek pleasure. Our lives are ultimately the pursuit of understanding who we are, and connecting with the people, things, and experiences that make us happy.
Pain, however, is an inevitable and significant part of our time here. We identify it in sensations of discomfort, sorrow, and hurt. We describe it as acute or chronic, sharp or shooting. It can appear anywhere in our bodies or manifest as sadness, fear, anger, and grief.
An important concept in Buddhism, dukkha is often translated as suffering, as well as anxiety or frustration. Perhaps another way to think of pain is dislocation: Like your arm being pulled out of its shoulder socket, it’s a distortion of your true nature, be it physical or emotional.
In many cultures, we’re taught to escape from or ignore it — we hope our pursuit of happiness will take us in the exact opposite direction. But no matter how well we live, how hard we work, or how careful we are, pain is impossible to avoid.
Other cultures have a different philosophy, and that is to accept, embrace, and even seek out difficult experiences. They view suffering as a tool or a teacher, an instrument of or a pathway toward enlightenment.
Think about it: When things go well, we rarely stop to ask questions about our lives. We get comfortable, even bored or forgetful.
But when something hurts us, we are pushed out of that mindlessness, forced to reflect on ourselves and our experiences. Pain doesn’t arrive to vex or deprive us, but rather to mature and change us.
There are so many lessons that accompany it. We may start to develop empathy and compassion, gaining new understanding of others’ troubles by experiencing them ourselves. Oh, and humility? It encourages us to be kinder and less judgmental, which has a direct influence on how we perceive the world, as well as how the world perceives us.
Pain builds fortitude and nourishes confidence. We can’t know how brave or strong we are when only good things happen to us. We discover that we can experience tough times and come out on the other side tougher and with wisdom we didn’t have before.
In the late 1800s, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Out of life’s school of war — what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” And then Kelly Clarkson got us all to sing along.
Our relationship with reality shifts when we encounter pain, giving us a new respect for both our existence and limitations. We’re reminded of our aliveness, with a clearer lens on the wonders of the world. We often find gratitude for things once overlooked, and novel meaning in what once seemed small or simple.
Once we accept the inevitability of suffering and embrace it as necessity, we begin to understand that, like life itself, it is temporary. We can start to pay attention and become aware of the cycle: We hurt; we heal. We mourn; we mature.
Because along with anguish comes both learning and joy: the bittersweet cutting of first teeth; the ups and downs of first steps and first times; the exhausting final mile of a race and the finish line it hurt to reach; the heartache of endings and last times; the searing pain of losing something or someone we love, which bears some lesson or purpose we may not know in the moment.
Again, the great Persian Sufi mystic and poet Rumi described it better than I ever could:
My hope is that we all look at pain with this perspective, make peace with it, and even open the door to it. Because, in time, we will move through it, or it will move through us, and be gone.
But it was there, catalyzing growth and serving as a motivating force: a wind that opened us up for more — the acknowledgment and evidence of our existence.
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