When I was pregnant with my son, my husband and I decided to hire a doula. A doula is a supportive woman who helps take care of the laboring mother by providing her with emotional, physical, and spiritual support. One of the doulas I interviewed asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks. She asked, “Lindsay, how do you deal with pain?”
I, like anyone, had experienced a spectrum of different kinds of pain, but the question took me by surprise. I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer it. There were certainly many times when my head pounded, and without much thought, I reached for an Advil. She prompted me further asking if I turned inward when I was in discomfort or if I distracted myself with music or TV. Did I prefer to numb myself altogether?
The question brought back memories of a dear friend, Phyllis, who taught me one of the most invaluable lessons I have learned about dealing with pain. While living in Santa Barbara, I volunteered with the local hospice agency as a patient-family volunteer and massage therapist. The first day I met Phyllis, the contrast of her white hair and blue eyes startled me. Her crystal clear eyes were as brilliant as the sky. I fell in love with her immediately.
I had the good fortune of being with her for over a year, and she became a good friend and a great spiritual teacher. There is so much I could say about how this dear soul changed my life. One day when I walked in to give her a massage she was laying in bed and appeared to be in great discomfort. She was in an advanced stage of her illness at that point.
The pain medication was hugely helpful, but sometimes it would make her more sleepy than she liked. What she shared with me then seemed other-worldly at the time, like I was not in the presence of a human being but in fact was sitting with an angel. She told me in moments such as these that she would often dedicate her pain to heal the suffering of others. She turned her pain into prayer.
Phyllis taught me that healing was different than curing. Though she would not live much longer, in many ways she was, in fact, healed.
Perhaps there are times when it is helpful to soften into our pain. And maybe then we too will birth something new, something miraculous, transformative, and healing.
Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying says this about pain:
"Recently one of my students came to me and said: "My friend is in pain, and dying of leukemia. He is already frighteningly bitter; I'm terrified that he'll drown in bitterness. He keeps asking me: 'What can I do with all this useless, horrible suffering?'" My heart went out to her and her friend. Perhaps nothing is as painful as believing that there is no use to the pain you are going through. I told my student that there was a way that her friend could transform his death even now, and even in the great pain he was enduring: to dedicate, with all his heart, the suffering of his dying, and his death itself, to the benefit and ultimate happiness of others. I told her to tell him: "Imagine all the others in the world who are in a pain like yours. Fill your heart with compassion for them. And pray to whomever you believe in and ask that your suffering should help alleviate theirs. Again and again dedicate your pain to the alleviation of their pain. And you will quickly discover in yourself a new source of strength, a compassion you'll hardly be able now to imagine, and a certainty, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that your suffering is not only not being wasted, but has now a marvelous meaning.”