Transforming Pain to Power and Peace. It's quite a title, isn't it. My ego gave me hard time on this one: “Wow, aren’t you the enlightened one? Going to tell them how to transform pain into power and peace. I suppose you are Mr powerful and peaceful now.”
Maybe. We'll see. I'm feeling pretty good at the moment. But my confidence doesn’t come from having it all figured out.
Our church doesn’t ask us to have it all figured out. If you go to the hospital you don't expect the patients to be well. Presumably, they go there to get well. Likewise, the religious community offers us opportunities and invitations to heal our hearts and minds. It is an ongoing invitation that must be accepted repeatedly.
Otherwise, we are likely participating in church in order to be seen as good. In the gospels, Jesus speaks repeatedly on this theme. In Mathew 6:5, Jesus said “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.”
Generally, when we put our effort into looking good, we are not actually learning. When we try to appear to be perfected souls, or when we become attached to an idea of an idealized self, it blocks us from learning from pain. It keeps us suffering. To learn to transform suffering into peace and power, we must be willing to learn. When we make sincere efforts to grow soulfully, it bestows precious gifts upon all those about us.
When we consider it possible to transform the suffering into peace and power, our attitude towards our pain begins to shift. The minute we set an intention to learn from pain, we stop being victims and we begin to live in a new way. If we decide to do this, and stay focused upon it we will find ways to achieve our goal.
Now, I am not suggesting that there is a magic wand we can use to end suffering with the swipe of our hand. And it's not something we can buy for 19.95 plus shipping and handling by calling the number on the TV screen. And I’m not saying we will have perfect peace. I am saying that peace is an option and a tool for any life situation.
Perhaps it may come in a flash of blinding light. Some people say that peace came to them in a moment of revelation, or sudden drastic change of consciousness. But for most of us, the ability to transform suffering to powerful peace... comes gradually if at all.
The thing that I am probably most grateful for is the unmistakeble upward trend in my life. Given where I used to be, and where I could have ended up, where I am is paradise. I have been so fortunate to have found teachers and traditions that shine light on a path that is primarily an inner journey. I am grateful that I can sing that Beatles song “I must admit its getting better, a little better all the time.” and mean it.
Now I probably don’t have to tell you that I’m not the enlightened guru of peace. I am amazed at the insanity that has repeatedly and recently returned to my head. One of the benefits of preparing a sermon is that I get to delve into the subject matter. However, one of the dangers of preparing for a sermon is that I get to delve into the subject matter. Apparently I thought I needed to explore pain and suffering so that I could remember how to transform it.
Author Eckhard Tolle refers to this kind of intermittant insanity as the activation of “the pain body.” The pain body is something like baggage. We've been talking about baggage the last few weeks, especially the baggage we accumulated about religion and God. I like the baggage metaphor because it implies that all we have to do is set our burden down, let the past go and we will be free. I also like the metaphor because there is a reason we carry baggage. When we travel, we take our baggage because we imagine we will need it. Similarly, we hold on to the past because we imagine that we need it.
It is our resentment of what happened in the past that keeps us burdened. This is where the concept of pain body is useful. When events remind us of the pain that we are carrying, unhealed pain from the past, then we haul out a whole constellation of beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. We become determined that it's not going to happen to us again.
The insanity is activated when we can't distinguish the present from the past. When situations remind us too much of painful past events, we may overreact. We defend against monsters that do not really exist. We argue and fight many things because we perceive them as suggesting that we are “bad” or “wrong.”
I believe that every person or virtually every person on this planet is suffering in one degree or another from a belief that they are not enough. You might think such problems exist only for “the mentally ill.”
Well you know my definition of normal, don’t you? A normal person is someone who you don’t know very well. When you get to know someone well, you find that they struggle and suffer unnecessarily, that they have habits that cause pain and suffering, that they have blind spots.
At the base of our misery is usually a belief such as “I am not enough,” or a variation on that theme. Ego doesn’t allow us to recognize this as the cause of our misery. It tells us that the problem is out there in the world. “ This shouldn't be happening, If only I had more time, money, connections. This won’t do.” … and we rail against what is.
Underneath our reactions may be a belief that we are not okay, that we don't have what we need, ultimately that there is something wrong with us.
We think we are afraid of what other people might say or do to us, but our deeper fear is often of what we will do or say to ourselves in response to them doing or saying what we fear they will do or say. From insecurity we set out to defend against things happening that would “make us believe” that we are not okay. We struggle to build empires to prove to ourselves and the world that we are okay, that we are good enough.
The ego is based in the illusion and insecurity of separateness. It tells us that we can't trust, that it’s us vs. the world, that the world is against us. This is the collective insanity that plagues humanity. It operates, at times in each of us. The good news is that when we see the role that fear has played in our life, when we become aware of the ego's effect, it begins to lose its power over us, and we begin to have new choices.
When we remember that we are enough, that we are blessed, that we are beautiful, then we will live new lives. Big spiritual shifts occur when instead of thinking of ourself as a separate, vulnerable mortal little organism, we begin to identify with the formless and eternal flow of life that is in all things. When we have even a glimpse of this reality, we begin to act with faith, with peace and with power.
But sometimes we need to make ourselves miserable one more time until we can become aware how that particular form of insanity crept back in to the way we were seeing and being in this world.
Here's how it looks like for me. Through grace I find greater fulfillment, love and gratitude. Then the next challenge presents itself. Suddenly I begin to think that I “have to” figure it all out, make the right choices, and push myself to work harder. Then I think the coercion is coming from the outside, and I get resentful. “How do you possibly expect me to get this all done?!” I conclude that God is unfair and the deck is stacked against me. Then I become desperate. I struggle and push myself onward. And beneath my urgency is an idea that I'm not enough. And I can't let this be seen.
Fortunately, I’ve become increasingly skilled at recognizing insanity, and pulling the plug on it more quickly than I used to. I have had increasing periods of delicious sanity in between periods of insanity.
Now I imagine some one saying: “He is crazy, I knew it. But I'm not insecure. I know I'm good enough. I'm not crazy. This doesn’t apply to me.
Okay well free pulpit, non creedal test for membership. Take what' s useful, leave the rest.
But I would ask you to resist the temptation to dismiss my unreasonable claims, and see if maybe some of this might apply to you- even a little.
With that said, I want to tell you a story of a vulnerable time that changed my life.
I was 17, I was sick of all the pain, injustice and evil I saw in the world. I was getting lost in substance abuse. Then my friend Erik killed himself. I had stayed over his house just one week before. After I heard the news, I withdrew into my own melancholy. I stopped partying, and started getting wasted. I needed to grieve but I didn't remember how. I began considering following my friend's lead.
Whatever I imagined I had to do, I didn’t believe I could do it. I believed that my parents had given all the good genetic stuff to my older brothers.
Fortunately, I was in the habit of talking with God now and then. “What do you want from me?” God’s answer came in the form of a memory. I remembered the night that I drove Jackie Lupichuck home. Jackie and I had been friends through 6 years and many school and teen theatre performances. In the show that we performed after Erik’s suicide, I had a lead and she was the lead dancer. I liked Jackie. I parked my car on the steep street near where she lived, and we talked. I never told Jackie that I was thinking about killing myself.
When I yelled “what do you want from me?,” I was telling God that there was no point in my living. When the memory came to me, I knew God had won the argument. I came to God armed with the complaint that there was too much suffering here. Jackie didn’t change that. She didn’t make it all better. I was still depressed, and would be for some time to come. But I had to admit that her being willing to sit and talk with me had made a difference.
“Ok, God I get your point. I'll do my time.”
I wasn't joyful. Life didn’t seem great. But right then I knew that if I stayed alive there would be many times when I would be asked to do for others what Jackie had done for me. There would be many times when I would meet people who were suffering, times when I couldn't fix their problem, but showing up with compassion would make a difference.
I believe that God's answer to my question, in not so many words, was “Just show up, that's all I'm asking. If God had said “you are enough. You have what it takes for this life, I wouldn't have been ready to hear it.
I continued to struggle with depression and substance abuse for another couple of years, but I had been given a reason for living. Eventually I remembered how to enjoy life for my own sake. But to this day I haven't found anything sweeter than getting to contribute to the quality of someone’s life.
When I am able to sit with a person without taking responsibility for their life, it is a gift to me. When I offer acceptance, I connect with a sense of inherent worth. I remember that our presence makes a difference. I have faith in the value of simply showing up with compassion.
Since that humble beginning, I've been learning what it means to show up with compassion. Every once in a while I actually do it. And when I do it, I notice that suffering is transformed to peace and power. Sometimes the shift is small or comes slowly. Often pain lingers. But instantly misery begins to dissolve and I come to life again -even if when it is painful.
Once again what I’ve given is at best a beginning. There are many ways to move from suffering to peace and power. All of the great religions and cultures have collected wisdom to offer.
From Buddhism: Realize the cause of suffering in the habit of seeking permanence in all of the forms of life which are impermanent and inevitably fall away or die.
From Judaism and Christianity:
Love God with all your heart and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Psychology tells us that emotional pain is an alarm system alerting us to something we need. Traditions of nonviolence tell us to connect with the beauty of human needing and values, that tuning in to life energy is turning in to power.
Each of these is a simple teaching, worthy of a lifetime’s devotion.
And there is one other simple teaching, worthy of a life's learning, that I wish to repeat:
You are enough. All you need to do is show up with compassion, and you will be able, in time to transform suffering into peace and power! You have everything you need to be alive, to learn what you need to learn. You are made perfectly for life. And you can show up for death too. You have enough. You are enough. All you need to do is show up.
It is a challenge, this showing up business. It's a challenge to show up for the times we call good times. It’s a bigger challenge to show up for what we judge as bad times. If you look inside yourself you will find interest for taking this challenge.
What will we find when we show up?
I pray that we will find out. I wish for us the best that life has to offer. And companionship for the journey.