Artwork by Edel Rodriguez

The great Sufi poet Rumi teaches, “This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes As an unexpected visitor.

But of all the visitors who arrive unbidden on our doorstep, pain is perhaps the least welcome. It can show up suddenly, debilitating us physically as well as energetically, sapping our ability to attend to anything else—and it can be dogged in its determination to never leave. For the person in pain, there is nothing more immediate. Pain can feel malevolent as it holds you hostage. In extreme cases, like the biblical suffering of Job, a person can even feel tortured by some punishing upper hand.

Many will counsel you that there is a reason for your pain and that if you could only heal your underlying emotional wounds, pain would leave you alone. But the body is not an abstraction, and pain laughs at the over-simplicity of this way of thinking.

The body is the first gate of belonging. And though so many people struggle to feel at home in their own bodies, I am amazed at how rarely it is mentioned in the many conversations I have on belonging with others. Its absence in our consideration speaks volumes. There are many contributing factors to humanity’s body-soul disconnection, but the Western medical model is a huge proponent of detachment in that pain and discomfort are considered unacceptable and ubiquitously controlled with medication.

If we can lessen the suffering of those who need it, then of course it must be a good thing. But modern medicine has been so consummately estranged from its sacred origins that it no longer sees how pain can be viewed as meaningful or even beneficial. This paradigm makes us not only intolerant of our own pain, but intolerant of those who suffer with chronic pain. 

We are so fixated on curing illness and eradicating pain that we’re unable to consider people living in pain as leading intact lives. But perhaps more insidious is how this estranges us from our own pain and wretched illness. We are so driven to ‘get well’ that we rarely show any welcoming kindness to this unexpected guest in our lives.

Rumi says that to cry out in weakness is what invites healing to pour in towards it. He writes, “All medicine wants is pain to cure.” How strong one must be to allow themselves to be seen in their weakness. And how brave the other to be unwaveringly helpless. Pain took me into the practice of showing up empty-handed and still being loveable. Pain and injury and illness ask us to consider that our lives are worthy without justification.

True healing is an unglamorous process of living into the long lengths of pain. Forging forward in the darkness. Holding the tension between hoping to get well and the acceptance of what is happening. Tendering a devotion to the impossible task of recovery, while being willing to live with the permanence of a wound; befriending it with an earnest tenacity to meet it where it lives without pushing our agenda upon it. But here’s the paradox: you must accept what is happening while also keeping the heart pulsing towards your becoming, however slow and whispering it may be.

For all the times someone has asked you how you are, and you felt pressured to say “I am well” when well wasn’t your whole truth, I offer you this wish: that this finds you not just well, but all the things that being human asks of us. And to remind you that your being alive, in all its magnificent and complicated colours, is more than enough for love. Rather than endlessly seeking to get well, or yearning for ‘how things used to be’ or ‘may be one day again,’ we must be willing to walk with our pain. Or at least be willing to be willing to say, “This too is welcome. This too belongs.”

Excerpt from “Belonging” by Toko-pa Turner