Dec 152013
Illustration by Ken Wong

Illustration by Ken Wong

“Pain is the doorway to the here and now. Physical or emotional pain is the ultimate form of ground, saying, to each of us, in effect, there is no other place than this place, no other body than this body, no other limb or joint or pang or sharpness but this searing presence. Pain asks us to heal by focusing on the very center of the actual torment and the very way the pain is felt.

Pain is an introduction and then an apprenticeship to alertness and particularity. Through the radical undoing and debilitation of repeated pain we are reacquainted with the essentialities of place and time and existence itself. In deep pain we have energy only for what we can do wholeheartedly and then, only within a narrow range of motion, metaphorically or physically, from tying our shoe-lace to holding the essential core conversations that are reciprocal and reinforcing within the close-in circle of those we love. Pain teaches us a fine economy, in movement, in what we choose to do, in the heart’s affections, in what we ask of our selves and eventually in what we ask of others.

Pain’s beautiful humiliations followed fully make us naturally and sincerely humble and force us to put aside the guise of pretence. In real pain we have no other choice but to learn to ask for help on a daily basis. Pain tells us we belong and cannot live forever alone or in isolation. Pain makes us understand reciprocation. In real pain we often have nothing to give back other than our own gratitude, a smile that looks half way to a grimace or the passing friendship of the thankful moment to a helpful stranger, and pain is an introduction to real friendship, it tests those friends we think we already have but also introduces us to those who newly and surprisingly come to our aid.

Pain is the first proper step to real compassion; it can be a foundation for understanding all those who struggle with their existence. Experiencing real pain ourselves, our moral superiority comes to an end; we stop urging others to get with the program, to get their act together or to sharpen up, and start to look for the particular form of debilitation, visible or invisible that every person struggles to overcome. We suddenly find instead, our understanding and compassion engaged as to why others may find it hard to fully participate.

Strangely, the narrow focus that is the central and most difficult aspect of bodily pain, calls for the greater perspective, for a bigger, more generous sense of humor. With the grand perspective real pain is never far from real laughter – at our self or for another watching that self –laughter at the predicament or the physical absurdity that has become a daily experience. Pain makes drama of an everyday life with our body and our presence firmly caught on stage and in the spotlight: we are visible to others in a way over which we have no choice, limping here or leaning there.

Lastly, pain is appreciation; above all for the simple possibility and gift of a pain free life- all the rest is a bonus. Others do not know the gift in simply being healthy, of being unconsciously free to move or walk or run. Pain is a lonely road, no one can know the measure of our particular agonies, but through pain we have the possibility, just the possibility, of coming to know others as we have, with so much difficulty, come to know ourselves.”

Find out more about David Whyte’s writing and events here.

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A writer, artist and tender of dreams, Toko-pa has been interviewed by CNN News & BBC Radio and her writing has appeared in publications around the world. Thanks to Skype, she works with dreamers internationally in her Private Dreamwork practice, based on Salt Spring Island in Canada. You can find Toko-pa on Facebook or sign up for her mailing list to receive news about upcoming events.

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  7 Responses to “On Pain, by David Whyte”

  1. Today is the 16th anniversary of a second that changed my life: I became a paraplegic, and have lived in pain ever since. Sure there are medications that help cover but the pain is still there, underneath, waiting to surface if I forget to take my meds. So many thoughts in this article touched me and resonated especially the need to reach out: I was stuck in snow last night taking my dog out and could not get myself to call anybody and get them out of bed. Thankfully someone looked out the window and rescued me.
    Other things that pain teaches which David did not mention are patience and forgiveness. Patience that I am so damn slow at doing anything, and forgiving myself for being so damn slow.
    This was just the reading I needed today. Thank you!

    • I am not a paraplegic but I’m a senior who is able to do less and less each day, whether physically or mentally. More important, I live with elderly seniors who are mostly more incapacitated than I. I’m not a poet, and I’ve not been able to write with the depth of discernment that David Whyte has, but every phrase in what he says resonates with me. Thank you, David. But I also would add what “wondering and wandering” says about patience and forgiveness. Trying to live each moment as you suggest is a daily discipline is something where I both succeed and fail!

  2. Thanks!!! Today I learned from pain and from all of you!!!

  3. Forgiving
    Thank you

  4. That was very touching, Wondering. Still have a lump in my throat. Gald someone spotted you and came to your rescue!

  5. I’ve learned this year that pain only serves as a signal that some part of our body needs attention. Although pain is often unpleasant, there is no intention to cause distress, it just IS. When I bedridden with some pretty bad back pain, I came to understand that judging the pain is pointless. As soon as I accepted the situation as it is, without judging it, I stopped feeling any pain! What I do with pain now is that I pull it closer, thank it for it’s service, give it love, then release it with my breath.

  6. I am 66 years old and have lived with some type of pain all my life, emotional and physical. I have pushed it away, numbed it with alcohol and pain medication, soothed it with yoga and relaxation, allowed it to be, and even welcomed pain through meditation. Most of these methods are temporary at best. Breathing and visualization are more effective when I focus on a painful area. I gently inflate and nourish the area on an inhalation and allow it to soften with a long slow exhalation. I continue the process until I feel relaxed, calm and free of pain.

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