Dancing With our Pain
So where do we go from here?
The details and dramatics aside, the fundamental answer is: from here to here. Or from here to a deeper here. Of course, the particulars have to be deeply considered, ideally without losing touch with the core reality that underlies and pervades it all.
When it comes down to crunch time, it’s all essentially the same opportunity, already perishing and yet never-ending, already shattered and yet still whole, ever inviting us to step out of our minds and into what we never really left but only dreamt we did. This is a dance we easily forget and yet know by heart, even as we play wallflower, lose ourselves in the audience, staple ourselves to our crutches, or otherwise blind and bind ourselves.
To know without thinking, to see without eyes, to fly without wings, to die without leaving, to love without expecting to be loved back — such are the primordial yet everfresh chords weaving through our living chambers, perhaps muted, perhaps unheard, but nevertheless still here, like wildblue sky behind a churning sea of clouds.
Everything — everything! — is the dancefloor.
But we may not yet have the legs nor the ripeness for it, or at least for certain zones/levels of it. More quality time in psychospiritual bootcamp’s obstacle courses may be needed. A deeper immersion in the crucibles of intimate relationship and various healing arts may be needed. If we’re not ready for a particular step but assume that we should be, self-castigation might arise, leaving us with guilt implants. Better to learn to recognize what we actually are ready for, and to not hold ourselves back from or above it, just because we think it’s not sufficiently spiritual or befitting for us.
Fixating on or trying to go toward spiritually exalted states may only further endarken us, estranging us from that in us which is subterranean, wounded, misshapen, wretched, or otherwise unwanted.
What we won’t dance with, what we refuse intimacy with, what we’re so ambitious to shed or transcend, is precisely the dance-partner we need — or at least need to approach — drawing forth from us the very aversion, tension, and pain that’s crying out for illumination and love.
Consider, for example, loneliness — which, not surprisingly, usually gets left all alone on the dancefloor — and turn toward it. Move toward it, one step at a time, keeping your eyes open, becoming more sensitive to it, feeling its desperation, its craving for release from itself, its deeply branded ache, its investment in playing/dramatizing the unwanted or unloved one. Notice the intensity and appeal of your pull to get away from your loneliness, to turn in a more pleasurable direction — anything to provide some relief or escape from the characteristic sensations of your loneliness.
But what if we were to just sit there, sit with our loneliness, not doing a damn thing other than giving it our undivided attention and care? We might then come to see that in our loneliness — especially in its self-contractedness — we are sufficiently closed off so as to be unavailable to what we really are aching for: love.
And we might also recognize our loneliness as a frightened, neglected child that has grown accustomed to being treated as a problem or embarrassment — a painfully troubled, ultra-sensitive softness that we distort and semi-petrify by treating as an inconvenience. The more it cries, the more we tend to push it away or try to silence it. The more it contracts, the more we are inclined to isolate it. However, we could instead turn off the TV or computer, stop drugging or overbusying ourselves, and simply sit with our loneliness, letting it settle and rest in our lap, listening to it with an opening heart and curious mind, noticing its shape and breath, its bodily terminals, its tones, its textures, its shifts.
And shift it does, as we continue to give it undivided, compassionate attention, slowly perhaps, but surely, like an abused child entering the steady, well-grounded presence of genuine love and kindness. We can thus hold our loneliness and let it thaw in warm-armed awakened embrace, holding it close but not so close that it cannot breathe freely. Letting go of our desire to be elsewhere — somewhere seemingly “better” — we let our loneliness pervade us. Not invade, but pervade. Letting the desperation go, letting the compulsion to seek elsewhere go, letting the ambition to let go — a spiritual “should” so easy to should-er — also go. No more turning away.
Then our loneliness is not a rejected child, a loser, a misfit, a bog of neediness, but a vulnerable, exquisitely tender presence warming us, a far from dysfunctional catalyst for helping us to remember what truly matters.
And so we settle more and more deeply into our sitting, feeling our loneliness transmuting into aloneness — we may still be physically alone, but we are nonetheless palpably connected, especially at the heart, with so many others. Alone we are then, alone enough to be vividly and impactfully intimate with the bare reality of Being, appreciating and savoring our solitude, realizing that only when we are capable of genuinely enjoying being alone are we capable of really being in relationship.
Bringing our loneliness into our heart reinforces and deepens our capacity for relational intimacy. When we are lonely for a partner, we would do well to date our loneliness.
What we’ve rejected in ourselves needs not to be put behind the driving wheel or upon the throne of self, but only within reach of our heart. What’s unwanted in us does not need to be swallowed whole, but rather only liberated from whatever is nonbeneficial or obsolete about its viewpoint, and liberated thus without necessarily robbing it of its passion and vitality, until it’s no longer an “it,” but only reclaimed us.
We need not empty ourselves of our undesired elements; we need not eroticize ourselves into a position where we can or “have to” sexually discharge the sensations of our suffering; we need not colonize our dread with lesser fears; we need not convert our anger into aggression, nor our helplessness into depression, nor our shame into guilt. Our darkness asks not to be kept in the shadows, nor to be given mere licence, but to be met in a manner as caring and vital as it is wakeful.
This, however, does not at all mean that we should just jump into our pain! Getting intimate with our pain is very different than fusing with it or getting overly immersed in it. What is called for, at least initially, is an up-close look at our relationship — and degree of attachment — to our pain.
At first, we may simply be committed, however unconsciously, to distracting ourselves from our pain — and especially the feeling of our pain — attaching or addicting ourselves to whatever most potently or pleasurably distracts us. Seeing this with unclouded eyes helps us get started. Our condition may remain much the same for a while, but our commitment to maintaining it is undermined.
Our struggle may then deepen; as we observe ourselves trying to get away from our pain, we begin to realize that such efforts only reinforce and amplify it. Our pain intensifies either until we find a superior distraction or a more powerful numbing agent — or until we shift from avoiding our pain to deliberately facing it. Deliberately.
This is where real healing begins.
When we no longer ostracize, condemn, neglect, or indulge in our pain, but instead invite it out onto the dancefloor with us, we are on track, however stumbling or sloppy our steps might be. Then we are relating to, instead of from, our pain — we are apart from it yet not cut off from it. Then it’s no longer just an unpleasantness to avoid, but something that we can communicate with, touch, penetrate, gaze into, bring closer.
When we move out onto the dancefloor with our pain, we begin to recognize in it many fractured or distorted countenances, the long-ago yet nonetheless still present faces — or presenting facets — of our distressed or injured selves. As our heart breaks — that is, breaks free of its “protective” encasing — the faces are no longer cracked or deformed, no longer held in poisonously framed cameo.
We are then broken enough to be significantly whole — and empty enough to be significantly open — making more and more room in ourselves for our pain. And, eventually, others’ pain. The dance continues, and we notice we are stumbling less, and that an appealing warmth is slowly arising, a fledgling feeling of well-being. There’s more room now, more courage, more love, more gratitude. And such rich intimations of a love beyond love.
Dancing with our pain allows a sobering joy to bloom. Flowers of love, flowers of disappointment, flowers of deepening arrival. Compassion, and a deeper compassion. We start to taste the nirvanic peace that is at the heart of real acceptance.
But sometimes it’s hell.
Sometimes the pain is just too much. Sometimes it hammers us so hard that we are knocked flat, broken down, stunned into paralysis, fragmented. The key at such times is not to try to force yourself onto the dancefloor — and nor to deny yourself pain relief — but to simply keep a spark of faith alive, the faith not only that this too will pass, but also that the dance you have begun will continue, regardless of who or what is on the dancefloor with you.
Remember to doubt your doubt. When you have your first experience of keeping your heart open in hell, however briefly, know that it will happen again. Don’t worry about when.
And also know that every time you turn toward and dance with your pain you are injecting strength, dignity, and integrity into your capacity to bear the unbearable. When we’re in hell and don’t forget what truly matters, we may find that even hell can be grace.
Genuine joy is not an alternative to pain, but is (among other things), the full flowering of unconditional, non-passive openness to pain — which renders it so transparent to Being that we begin to realize, right down to our toes, that becoming intimate with — and therefore fittingly accepting of — the painful and distressing elements of our lives serves us deeply.
Such acceptance is an act not of submission, but of surrender.
In submission we abandon or collapse our boundaries, but in surrender we expand them — even to the point where they reach such transparency that they all but disappear. In submission, we deaden ourselves; in surrender, we are enlivened. In surrender we may lose face, but we do not lose touch. Submission flattens the ego; surrender outdances and outshines it.
Surrender is the unarmored heart expanded and brightened through radical acceptance of its aching, its longing, its bare yearning to open to all that is. Submission is passive, surrender dynamic. Submission is disempowering, surrender empowering. Submission shrinks us, surrender expands us. In submission, we are but doormats; in surrender, we are but open doors, uniquely sentient clearings for the Real.
Surrender asks for some uncommon stretching, stretching to birth our gifts, stretching until inside and outside are lovers, stretching to make room for all that we are, stretching until there’s no self left to birth. Stretching without thinning, stretching beyond imagination, all stretchmarks left in the dust. Stretching a little bit here, a little bit there, stretching beyond any need for applause, no longer reducing God to Santa Claus. Letting our pain stretch us, upend and extend us, showing us where we are refusing to look, or are only looking superficially.
Sooner or later, we start appreciating the chance we have to investigate where and how we’re being hooked.
We don’t graduate until we’ve learned our lessons by heart. Otherwise, we wouldn’t sufficiently appreciate the Real, not being prepared enough for making wise use out of the realization of who and what we actually are.
If we won’t dance with our pain, then we will likely become enslaved to the search to somehow be rid of its symptoms, to so thoroughly distract ourselves from it that it seems to no longer exist to any significantly troublesome degree. But being relieved of the sensations of our pain no more liberates us than does masturbation.
Pain can both obstruct and catalyze our needed purification. It all depends on how we use it.
We perhaps best ripen in the joint presence of awakened love and fitting challenge. Our pain, if well used, makes us more and more available to that presence — we just have to get out on the damned dancefloor with whatever potential partners are lingering in the places where we’d rather not look! Especially those who keep showing up day after day, night after night, their presence, to whatever degree, snaring our attention, reeling in our “I.” Forget your breath mints and your allegiance to your distancing strategies — go to these partners, strike up a conversation, get them out on the floor, invite them closer.
Do what is needed to continue the dance, including pausing. At times effort is called for, and at other times effortlessness needs to take the floor. Sometimes we dance, sometimes we are danced, sometimes we get stuck, freezing in our own headlights, and other times we flow, converting frozen yesterday into fluid now.
As we move from the periphery to the heartland of our pain, we start to encounter what exists both prior to and beyond all our pain. And again it is so obvious that everything is the dancefloor. Everything.
Everything that seems to be something other than us or not worthy of us — whether outer or inner — is our dance-partner, asking for more than just tolerance or a quick pity-spin on the floor. We pick this one or that one, but do we remember also to look for and dance with our preference-making capacity? Do we dance ourselves more awake? Do we dance ourselves, our myriad selves, into a liberating intimacy?
Let’s close this essay by remaining out on the dancefloor, turning the spotlight on an unpopular, common yet uncommonly rewarding dance partner: disappointment.
Lonely are the flowers of disappointment
Who picks them, loves them, cradles their scent?
Who sees their beauty, their shy petalling?
In our ordinary daily unsung grief
We come undone in so many tiny ways
Not seeing beneath the breakage
Bits of upstart green, minute missiles
Breathing open our too solid ground
So many upflung buddings, emerald lips faintly aquiver
Some become flowers of hope, some of disappointment
How easily seduced we are by hope’s bright flowers
Intoxicated with nostalgia for tomorrow
While turning away from disappointment’s flowers
Not letting their fragrance reach far enough
Yet it is that very scent that reminds us
Of a locale where entrapping dreams must shatter
A place where what really matters cannot help but matter
Disappointment, unrejected, embraces me
Its touch is cool, almost crystalline, sobering
But is it what I want?
That’s the wrong thing to ask
Disappointment’s gift is rooted not in questions
But in something much closer to home
Disappointment bleeds through our dreams
Humble and secretly green
Interrupting us, disrobing our trance
The torn fabric is not something to repair
But to see with undreaming eyes
Eyes for which disappointment
Is not disappointing