Mar 06 2013
by Kahlil Gibran
And a woman spoke, saying, Tell us of Pain.
And he said:
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
Much of your pain is self-chosen,
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.
— from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran
/ Photo by techn04life /
Monday’s poem sparked some fascinating discussions. Many of the notes and comments I received were responses to Rumi’s emphasis on suffering in that poem. Several people argued that suffering is not required for spiritual growth. Others found a certain comfort in the idea that suffering is part of the spiritual process, giving meaning to their own sometimes terrible struggles. So many wise, compassionate viewpoints.
I don’t want to suggest that I believe pain is necessary. I do believe, however, that suffering can be used. Difficult experiences can serve a profound purpose — when we approach them with awareness and with heart.
I would like to look at this question of suffering and spirituality from a slightly different angle today. What if the suffering is the suffering of the ego?
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
When we believe that we are that ego, then we experience the ego’s suffering as pain. We take it personally, and fear it could lead to death and, worse, nonexistence.
But– when we carefully, elegantly free ourselves from the notion that we are the ego, not merely as a philosophical idea but as a directly experienced reality, then what does the suffering of the ego mean to us? What is the ego exactly? When we come to see the ego as nothing more than a phantom, a mental construction, then the suffering itself becomes phantom-like. It is more like the unfolding drama of a movie being watched. It can be intense, heart-breaking, occasionally beautiful, but we no longer experience it as personal. It is no longer seen as an attack on our being.
Suffering, from that perspective, is not about pain or loss of being; instead it is seen as a form of alchemical pressure. When we keep our awareness engaged, we can use suffering as a form of transformational intensity, turning the crushed grape into wine…
Let’s also keep in mind that mystics often use the language of pain to describe spiritual opening, often in a shockingly positive light. They may refer to a “sweet pain” or a “healing pain.” This “pain” has a few levels of meaning and types of experience.
On one level, the pain can be quite literal and even physical. But it might be more accurate to refer to this as “intensity” rather than “pain.” It can be as if the senses and the perceptual mind’s ability to process it all gets overloaded. The mystic then experiences a searing, cleansing sort of intensity, that might be called pain.
Through profound opening, one feels everything more completely, a sort of universal empathy. There is a lot of hidden suffering in the world and, at a certain point, we feel it as our own. (Actually, we always feel it anyway, but the walls of denial fall away, and we become aware of it for the first time.) In a directly sentient way, we become aware of the interconnectedness of life. Initially, that flood of feeling is intense, even painful, but that is the pain of the heart breaking open. It becomes a sort of wound one carries, but it resolves itself to a beauty and sense of unity that manages to integrate even the most terrible suffering.
Other mystics speak of a wounding in a more metaphorical sense. The pain experienced is the perception of one’s separation from God. But that pain itself is the doorway to reunion. By allowing oneself to become completely vulnerable to that pain, to surrender to it, the mystic finds the pain transformed into the blissful touch of the Beloved.
In the past, I’ve written–
Your most secret wound
is the doorway.
Ultimately, all of these forms of pain are the pain of the pierced ego. For one with inner balance, where the protective but limiting shell of the ego is no longer necessary, that pain points the way to freedom.
For this reason, mystics and saints describe the pain as being sweet or joyful or beautiful. It is, in fact, the beginning of bliss.
Sending much love to everyone!
Kahlil Gibran was born to a Maronite Christian family in Besharri, Lebanon (then part of Syria and the Ottoman Empire).
His father, also named Kahlil Gibran, had drinking problems and accumulated many gambling debts. This led Gibran’s father to leave his job as assistant to his uncle who was a pharmacist, taking work as an ‘enforcer’ for the local Ottoman administrator. He eventually ended up in jail.
Because of the family’s poverty, Gibran did not receive a formal education as a young boy, but a local priest taught him Arabic and Syriac, as well as the stories of the Bible and infused in him an awareness of the mystical dimensions of Maronite Christianity.
When Gibran was eight, his mother took him, his older half-brother, and his two younger sisters to Boston. Although shy, Gibran quickly learned English and, thanks to a scholarship, started to receive more of a formal education.
The boy became fascinated by Boston’s world of art and music, visiting galleries and performances. At age 13, his artistic gifts came to the attention of cultural circles in Boston, where he was further introduced to artistic trends.
Despite this early success, Gibran was sent back to Lebanon to complete his education, where he excelled in poetry.
He returned to the United States in 1902 in the midst of a family crisis. His mother had cancer, and his older brother and his fourteen-year-old sister had tuberculosis. His sister soon died. The brother, who had been supporting the family with a small hardware store, moved to Cuba to try to recover his health, leaving the young Gibran in the frustrating position of having to take over the hardware business. A year later, his brother returned from Cuba, but later died. The same year, his mother also died.
In the aftermath of so much death, Gibran sold the family business and threw all of his energy into art and writing and perfecting his English. He also reconnected with the Boston cultural benefactors he had known before.
He began to write columns for an Arabic-language newspaper and later collected these writings into his first published books.
In 1909, Gibran went to Paris for two years to broaden his artistic training, and he was particularly influenced by the mystical artistic Symbolist movement.
Returning to America, he began to publish some of his first Arabic prose-poetry collections through a publisher in Egypt. He became active with Arab intellectual and artistic organizations, promoting the rich culture of the Arab-speaking world, while attempting to address its many problems under Western imperial rule.
In 1911, Gibran moved to New York. There he met and was influenced Abdul Baha, the leader of the Bahai Faith movement. He also met Carl Jung and was asked to paint the famous psychologist’s portrait, at which time Gibran became intrigued by Jungian philosophy.
Gibran began to write in his adopted language of English, writing The Madman, though it would be rejected by several publishing houses until a small publisher named Alfred Knopf would take a chance on the work.
When World War I broke out, he worked to free Syria from Ottoman rule, but was frustrated by the messy realities of war and international politics.
In the years following publication of his best know work, The Prophet, Gibran would gain international notoriety.
He died in 1931.