Embracing the Mysteries of Pain
This piece relates to a basic existential problem, which is how we can respond to the sufferings of life so that me may know life’s beauty and bliss more fully. The word “mysteries” in the title is used in the intiatic sense, denoting a path that promises to reveal that which is ordinarily concealed except to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. These mysteries are relevant not only to Masonry, but also to Rosicrucianism and many other esoteric traditions. The issues connect with the problems of good and evil, theodicy, the illusion of separation, and, in alchemical language, the resolution of contraries. I don’t plan to dive into any of these things in a comprehensive way, but rather to share some relevant stories and personal reflections, leaving it to you to further contemplate their philosophical implications and possible significance in your own life.
Recently, I was talking with Brother Doug Russell, who just had surgery that involved serious pain. Doug is a long-time practitioner and teacher of meditation and a cherished colleague in the movement to reinvigorate the contemplative dimension of Freemasonry. He described how he would meditate in his hospital bed after the procedure, including observations about his relationship with the pain. At one point, he reflected on how he had tuned his consciousness directly into the pain, to simply be with it without fleeing or resisting, but just allowing it to be what it was in the moment. That act naturally facilitated a transcendence of the pain, not exactly an elimination of it, but an acceptance that allowed it to fade into the background much like any other distraction. Doug was then able to align his attention with his original intention for meditation. That isn’t all he had to say, but it’s what I want to focus on for now.
We agreed that there are some great lessons in such an experience, including that our avoidance of pain often only produces more misery. For me this realization has value beyond the context of physical pain; it includes all the different kinds of mental and emotional suffering as well. In fact, many industries are driven by facilitating such avoidance and providing us with distractions and temporary escapes. They make billions of dollars by leading us into all sorts of diversions, which also often include inflating our egos, encouraging self-indulgence and self-absorption, desensitizing us, and driving wedges between us and others. Some of these ersatz solutions are even presented as keys to “the good life,” wellbeing, or prosperity. Nevertheless, in countless ways they add more complexity to the basic problems of life than they help us know real joy and peace.
As Doug shared his story with me, I was reminded of one of my own contemplative moments during a time of extreme agony. He listened as I described being sick once in the late 1990s, running a high fever, and with searing pain in my muscles and joints that even seemed to reach into the marrow of my bones. Shivers racked my body, stirring the physical pain each time, and I was also feeling very sorry for myself. It was the kind of self-sorrow in which one feels isolated and alone, which multiplies the physical pain with emotional pain. In that moment I had no escape, no distraction, and all I could do was to be present with my suffering.
Suddenly, I received an epiphany in which it was revealed to me that there were countless people in this world who would, if they could, freely choose to give me, a complete stranger, relief by taking my pain upon themselves. In my mind’s eye were images of persons all around the globe offering prayers to that effect. I was instantly overcome by a wave of gratitude flowing through my soul that was far more powerful than the pain. As I wept at the beauty of that realization, the gratitude transformed my self-sorrow into a compassion in which both my discomfort and my joy connected with that of others. I knew there were many other people on the planet in a similar condition to mine, and many more whose pains were even more severe, some of whom were also feeling gratitude for human compassion in that moment. I wished that everyone could consciously share in the beauty that can come through lovingly embracing the suffering of ourselves and others.
One of the lasting effects from that epiphany is a clearer awareness that many of us have cultivated avoidant attitudes about pain that lead us deeper into existential isolation. That movement in turn impairs our openness to receiving the compassion of others, and it also diminishes our capacity to be actively compassionate toward others. This twofold impairment further results in less appreciation and actualization of the great depths of gratitude, joy, and peace available to us, which only magnifies our sense of aloneness. It is this deep, often submerged, feeling of separation from others that drives so much of our fear, distrust, and hatred toward each other. These feelings in turn twist our thoughts toward rationalizing vices like gluttony and greed, and toward self-righteously excusing, even normalizing and legitimizing, a multitude of indignities and injustices, including the dehumanization and exploitation of others.
Many leaders, systems, institutions, and ideologies (from all over our economic, political, and religious maps) encourage us to ignore and even attack the reality of our interconnectedness, often ironically claiming that such hostility is necessary to protect, preserve, and promote all that we hold dear. But these efforts are ill fated; they beget a tragically vicious cycle, descending deeper and deeper into darkness, despair, and discord, further and further from the faith, hope, and caritas of Masonic light. Thankfully, we can break that cycle with the courage to face our pain and that of others, opening our hearts and minds to our interconnectedness and thus to the gratitude, compassion, joy, and peace that are always within reach.
On that note, I want to speak of another dear friend and brother, Don Barrier, who is likewise a Mason interested in the operations and power of consciousness. Don has also shared with me some of his contemplations on pain. A few years ago, Don was in a horrible automobile accident that left him with injuries requiring multiple surgeries, physical therapy, and pain management, all of which he met with amazing courage (although I know he wouldn’t boast of that). Along the way, Don had several spiritual experiences and noteworthy insights. Perhaps most notable for the present context, Don was moved by his gratitude and compassion to volunteer to help with other patients having suffered traumatic injuries, which he has done by caringly sitting with them in their pain. I find his service to be truly touching and inspirational. If only we all would manifest such virtue in every aspect of our lives, private and public.
In these accounts, I trust that Masonic readers can make connections with many of the lessons in our rituals. The Principal Tenets of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth are certainly relevant. For example, part of the truth at the foundation of all our virtues is that suffering is a universal experience of humanity. We each not only experience pain in very personal ways, but also participate in it and share in it with all others, no matter how distant and indirect the connections may seem. It follows that our experiences of relief and brotherly love must also be thoroughly interconnected with that of others, and that when we deny them for anyone, including for ourselves, we are automatically denying them in some measure for everyone. By the same token, whenever we freely share them with anyone, it benefits us all. Those who identify with the Rosicrucian movement might at least consider how these observations pertain to the Rosicrucian vow to “heal the sick, and that gratis.”
So, in closing, I invite you to join me in continuing to contemplate the mysteries of pain, allowing those mysteries to lead us further into the light of our oneness with each other and the Divine, further into that Most Holy Temple in which love is experienced and expressed as the supreme virtue and ultimate meaning in our personal and collective existence.