Pain, pain go away

November 30th, 2009

Elissa Elliott is an (imperfect) mother, (recovered) former high school teacher, and (happy) author of Eve: A Novel of the First Woman. She blogs (almost) every day at Living the Questions, and she’s the first of my daily guest bloggers this week.

Pain is a funny thing. We’ll do anything to make it disappear. Wouldn’t our lives be exceedingly better if we didn’t ache, pine, and grieve? Wouldn’t we be happier, for crying out loud?

Yet if you’re a reader (or a writer, for that matter), you’ll know that conflict in a story is the name of the game. Without it, the story limps along, boring and aimless.

Still, if we were to make a film of our lives, we’d edit out all the bad parts, the difficult parts, so our luckless viewers can have one continuous, happy viewing.


No story is good without conflict or tragedy. You need the lows to appreciate the highs. You need the winter doldrums to understand the summery successes.

Thus, today, I have a question for you and for me. Why do we wish a vital part of our life away? Why do we treat something as good or bad, simply because we can’t comprehend it . . . and don’t want to?

Here’s an idea taken from a book I’m reading called Living Zen, Loving God by Ruben L. F. Habito. Habito is a practicing Catholic and former Jesuit priest. He’s also a Zen teacher and a professor in the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Whatever your spiritual practice, you will find that he gives thoughtful and intelligent reflections on practicing Zen—to gain a more joyful and compassionate life. For him, the practice brings him closer to God.

Habito once joined a vipassana meditation session led by a Theravadan Buddhist monk at an international religious conference. The meditation theme was generating kindness toward others. Here is the experience in Habito’s words:

Our director-monk suggested we concentrate on some pain we may have, say a pain in the leg or in the back: just to be aware of that pain, without attaching any value judgments or desires such as “I want that pain to disappear.” After a while we will be able to accept the pain as simply pain, and be able to live with it and no longer consider it suffering, he explained. In other words, if one does not associate such ideas as “pain is undesirable” or “I want relief,” judgments already based on ego attachment, with the bare and neutral fact of the pain itself, then pain ceases to be suffering, and is revealed as mere experience.

“Mere experience.” Wow. Is it possible we could value every little adventure of our lives, without labeling it good or bad?

I think so.

Today, I offer you a small gift—a poem by one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. She illuminates this topic so much better than I in her gorgeous “Summer Morning”:


I implore you,

it’s time to come back

from the dark,

it’s morning,

the hills are pink

and the roses

whatever they felt

in the valley of night

are opening now

their soft dresses,

their leaves

are shining.

Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this

a thousand times,

which isn’t half enough.

Let the world

have its way with you,

luminous as it is

with mystery

and pain—

graced as it is

with the ordinary.

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  1. This is just beautiful. I love Mary Oliver and recently mused myself about how without great pain the joy would not mean as much – I questioned whether it' about capacity or contrast.
    My thoughts are here:

    Thank you for the poem – it is in my head now today, today's mantra and benediction.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Lindsey — November 30, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

  2. Oh my.. serendipity here for me. First.. i've been carrying around a weight of suffering regarding something for almost a year and have been going crazy the closer the anniversary approaches that i have not been able to get rid of it. There is something in this message just for me.

    Secondly, I live so close to SMU… will have to see if this author is ever speaking nearby.

    And thirdly… I have been trying to think of Mary Oliver's name for months! Wow.. thank you, thank you.

    Comment by Cori Lynn Berg — November 30, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

  3. A beautiful post. This is a truth that I've lived and learned the hard way.

    Comment by Mama Zen — November 30, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

  4. Lindsey,

    I've read your post, too, and I think you're on to something (about capacity AND contrast). Supposedly, we're never taxed more than we're able to handle…and of course the contrasts mean SOMETHING. I mean, think of how a vacation means so much more, juxtaposed to work that has somehow created WAY TOO MUCH stress. Or should I say that we've ALLOWED it to be stressful…?

    LOVE your thoughts on this…

    And may I say?…we're all in this together…trying to give tidbits of advice, because we've all made certain "mistakes" (which in the end, actually help us, I believe)…so it ALL WORKS OUT. LOL.

    Thank you.

    Comment by elissa.elliott — November 30, 2009 @ 9:31 pm

  5. Lovely Elissa. I missed hearing him speak here in Dallas at the Jung center just this past month. But learning to hold everything simply as experience, without judgment, is the journey of a lifetime – especially for us good Baptist girls raised in the South. Thank you for a post that reminds us why it's necessary work.

    We've just experienced a loss – and I've been mulling over how to blog about it. Your post may prompt me. Stay tuned.

    Comment by Renae c — November 30, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

  6. Friends, you can always find Ruben Habito at the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas where he teaches. That's where I met him several years ago. So I'm afraid all you have to do to find Ruben is look, and I hope you will. Zen people don't hide!

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — November 30, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

  7. i'm practicing not to judge my bursitis right now, but i'm going to take an advil first 🙂

    Comment by Wendy — December 1, 2009 @ 1:04 am

  8. I too am REALLY practicing not to judge and believe me, a lot of Advil is required. Advil is OK too.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — December 1, 2009 @ 2:01 am

  9. Wow, what a treasure of wisdom you are cultivating here, Karen! Elissa, I just love this. As a Christian currently puzzling over the fact that I feel so much more Christlike the more I learn and take babysteps at practicing zen….and much further away from the American church traditions I grew up with…I really, really love hearing about people further along this path. As Jena said in her post above, the teachers I need are appearing when I am ready. Thank you.

    Comment by Emme — December 2, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

  10. ooh, i do love that Elissa girl. 🙂

    Comment by Terri Fischer — December 3, 2009 @ 4:49 am

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