PHYSICAL PAIN AS A SPIRITUAL TEACHER
“If we could learn to learn from pain
even as it grasps us…”
– Adrienne Rich
I was getting dressed to go out the other night and standing in front of the mirror in a short dress, I asked my girlfriend, “Do my knees look fat in this dress?” We both started laughing. My knees were swollen and full of fluid. Needless to say, I didn’t wear the dress and I definitely wasn’t dancing that night.
For the last eight years I have been dealing with some kind of autoimmune disease that causes my joints to swell up and my body to become stiff and full of pain. For some reason, no doctor (and trust me, I have been to A LOT of them) can tell me exactly which disease I have and I’ve been diagnosed with several different things over the years. Apparently there is a lot of mystery around autoimmune disorders. The medical world is not sure what causes them, though they seem to be brought on after something traumatic happens to the immune system. The tests that determine your diagnosis cannot always pinpoint which disease you have – like in my case I show markers that conclude I have an autoimmune disorder, but my symptoms don’t match up exactly with the disease I was diagnosed with. I find it puzzling that despite how many people are suffering from autoimmune diseases (according to The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, approximately 50 million Americans, 20 percent of the population or one in five people), there is not more information or treatment available.
“I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one.” – Maya Angelou
Physical pain is something most people dread, myself included. However, since I have been struggling with the presence of pain in my body for so long, I have developed a relationship with it. It is something you cannot ignore when it comes into your life – it demands your attention. It forces you to stop what you are doing and pay attention to yourself. We may be able to ignore spiritual, emotional, and mental pains to some degree, but when the pain manifests on a physical level, it must be addressed.
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
I will never forget the first time I realized the power of physical pain and how it could move me into another level of consciousness. Lying in my bed, unable to move, the intensity of my pain rose to a level that was beyond my comprehension. It overtook my body and I began to see lights instead of my room around me. Tears came down my face, but there was also a feeling of transcendence. I felt as if I was crossing a threshold, maybe the veil between this world and the other side, and the light became brighter and I was mesmerized by it. All I could do was surrender to it. I felt safe and knew I was with the Divine (what I call the Goddess, or others call God / Spirit / etc.). And though I am not a Christian, in that moment I thought of Job.
Here is my understanding of the bible story of Job… The devil made a bet with God. He said that God’s most faithful human, a man named Job, was faithful only because God had given him a beautiful, prosperous life. The devil claimed that Job would turn away from God if his perfect life was destroyed. God felt that Job’s faith was strong and told the devil to do whatever he wanted to Job, but do not kill him. The devil then attacked Job’s life – his loved ones died, his farm collapsed, his animals became diseased, and his body became covered in painful sores. No matter what happened, Job still praised God. In the end, God returned Job’s fortune to him.
“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
The Book of Job is one of the most analyzed books of the bible. For me, the message is that it is easy to be spiritual and have faith when things are good in our lives… but faith that is real and strong sustains when we are suffering. Do we curse the Divine or say ‘if there is a God, why do bad things happen’? My experience has taught me to move beyond these limited views. Begin to see a bigger picture. Take responsibility for how you may have created your situation – what beliefs you may have that need to be changed.
“You will not grow if you sit in a beautiful flower garden, but you will grow if you are sick, if you are in pain, if you experience losses, and if you do not put your head in the sand, but take the pain and learn to accept it, not as a curse or punishment but as a gift to you with a very, very specific purpose.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
We may dislike suffering, but can we also believe that it has a purpose? It is a fact that suffering exists on Earth. Entertain the idea that perhaps we chose to experience this and that is why we are here. Maybe it is something we planned to go through in this lifetime that is bringing growth to us on a soul level. Pain is humbling. Pain shows you what you believe and who you are. In the end, you can choose to hate it or you can accept it and grow from it. There is no reason to live in a state of constant suffering – even as we suffer, we can find joy, we can find something spiritual, and then we can move on.
“You don’t have to suffer continual chaos in order to grow.” – John C. Lilly
Some important information from The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (www.aarda.org):
Autoimmunity is a result of a misdirected immune system that causes one’s own immune system to attack the self. There are over eighty known autoimmune diseases; and unlike the many forms of cancer which are recognized as being part of the general term “cancer,” autoimmune diseases are recognized singularly rather than in the overall category of autoimmunity. The public in general is unaware of the autoimmune nature of these diseases. When most people hear one of these diseases referred to as an autoimmune disease, they incorrectly confuse the term autoimmune with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS); or they think it is a form of cancer.
This lack of knowledge and collaborative effort results in untold suffering for persons with autoimmune diseases due to misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis which may result in damage to vital organs. The need to bring a national focus to autoimmunity as the common factor in all autoimmune diseases is vital in order to bring a collaborative effort to research, funding, early detection, and eventually, prevention and cure for all autoimmune diseases.
Some of the over 80 autoimmune diseases are lupus, type I diabetes, scleroderma, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, chronic active hepatitis, rheumatoid arthritis, Graves’ disease, myasthenia gravis, myositis, antiphospholipid syndrome (APS), Sjogren’s syndrome, uveitis, polymyositis, Raynaud’s phenomenon, and demyelinating neuropathies.