After decades of dealing with chronic pain, fatigue, and, well, life… I have developed a super power. I can sense pain in others.
Okay, so maybe it’s not really a super power, because there are few among us not dealing with some kind of pain. And I probably will never know the extent of the pain, but I can recognize it's there.
And perhaps you are good at hiding it, like I am.
We have perfected our façade so craftily, we sometimes have hidden our pain even from ourselves.
But pain lingers behind smiles, is lost in words unsaid. All kinds of pain.
The physical—the chronic that lives inside us every day. The mental—the true (not just-in-your-head) illnesses that cloud and thunderstorm the sunniest day. The emotional—the fears, self-doubts, anxieties.
When I hid my pain from myself—I’m fine, I can handle it. What did you need me to do? No problem—I found myself taking the role of helper for those who I could see were in need. Do you want me to help you? I can do that. This attitude worked in the short run, but I was not being truthful to myself. And it set up the dualism of me, the helper, and you, the needy.
By denying my own pain, I really wasn’t fully connecting with other’s pain. It’s only when I began to accept my limits, to be more compassionate to myself, and to let myself feel as bad as I felt, that I was more able to connect with those same feelings in others.
It took away the dualistic me-you, and became we/us.
Pema Chödrön, an American Tibetan Buddhist nun, says in her book
It starts with loving-kindness for oneself, which in turn becomes loving-kindness for others. As the barriers come down around our own hearts, we are less afraid of other people.
As a Quaker, I have always tried to use the sense of “that of God in every person,” to guide me as I dealt with people.
To see a sameness, a Light, a sacredness in everyone.
But now I am learning to breathe with my own woundedness, to open the dungeon doors and let myself feel the fullness of me, every bit of hurt and grief and sorrow and frustration. By doing this internal work, I can relate better to others.
Chödrön says, The basic ground of compassionate action is the importance of working with rather than struggling against, and what I mean by that is working with your own unwanted, unacceptable stuff, so that when the unacceptable and unwanted appears out there, you relate to it based on having worked with loving-kindness for yourself.
Rather than pushing away all the bad stuff and holding on to the good, Chödrön reminds us to breathe the undesirable in and breathe the desirable out.
I am doing my internal work, and becoming more honest with myself, but I still have a long way to go. Pieces of pain remain buried in the dungeon’s muck. So I will keep on breathing in, working on those bits, so I may better breathe out with true rejoicing and love.
When things are delightful and wonderful, we give our pleasure away on the outbreath, sharing it with others, Chödrön says. When we do this, all of our inner obstacles that keep us from connecting with our inherent freshness and openness begin to dissolve.
When we work with pain by leaning into it and with pleasure by giving it away, it doesn't mean that we "grin and bear it."
We realize that this separateness we feel is a funny kind of mistake.
We are mirror images of each other, she says, and that is the basis of compassion.
As I drive down Annapolis streets, I see him carrying groceries, his steps slow. Further along, I see her walking, her footsteps tender. Amongst others, I see one with questions, another with desperation, another with exhaustion. I see beyond the masks.
I cannot fix any of it. I will not even try. But I can be there. I drive along sending out loving-kindness to every person I see.
Whether close by, or even from a distance, I can sense your pain.
I am with you, side-by-side, hand-in-hand, heart-to-heart.