A student once asked Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche,
“Have you ever been to hell?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“How did you get out?”
“I tried to stay there.”
I am the eternal optimist and have even been accused of being annoyingly chipper.
I was once described as a “cheerleader” by a co-worker who clearly did not appreciate that characteristic in me.
The truth, however, is that I have woken up most mornings for the past 30 years into what Eckhart Tolle terms “the pain body.”
The pain body is almost like an entity that takes over you, according to Tolle. It feeds on pain, provokes it in others and takes over your thinking.
For a while, we just want to see and feel everything that’s bad and wrong about others, the world and ourselves.
We seek out pain, invite it, cultivate it, stew in it and suffer from it—and that’s a pretty good description of being in hell.
I often wake up with a sense of dread, anxiety or self-blame. It started as young as I can remember—finally becoming full blown as a teenager—and is still with me now.
There is a waking scream that starts inside saying something like,
“I don’t want to!”
I don’t want to wake up. I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to be alive.
Thoughts careen around inside, tearing me down, shaming me and telling me how I will never make it.
I am not, and never have been, suicidal and yet most mornings I visit this place.
It’s like a nightmare that ambushes me when I’m at my weakest—during that liminal moment of waking up. I know from my work with clients over the past decades that it is a place many people live or visit as well.
Once I finally rise, the pain is quickly shaken off, but what is interesting is that in those moments of hellish awakening I actually don’t want to get out of bed or be free at all.
I want to stay in this miserable, depressed or terrified state. That, to me, is a telltale sign of the pain body.
In that place, the pain wants to feed on misery and more pain for a long while.
I have meditated for months at a time.
I have delved deeply into psychology, Buddhism and Inquiry—and wow, I have dwelled for extended periods in true bliss and life-changing transformation that took hold—yet still, after decades, I often still wake up in hell.
For a long time, I thought that if I just did enough work, became aware enough or was somehow good enough then peace would come to me and it would stay for good, but the answer turned out to be entirely different.
I finally found a solution—it just wasn’t the one I wanted to find.
Instead of solving it, I welcomed it.
I saw the pain like a child coming to me, mid-nightmare, wanting comfort. Utterly defeated by the relentlessness of it, I just gave in and started listening—and yes, at first, I also hoped that maybe that would make it go away.
It didn’t. I just wake up each morning with a scared, baby-mind screaming, “Help!”
And so each morning I help.
Our relationship has become more and more nuanced over time. Fundamentally, though, it’s no different than when I learned to get up to pee three times a night when I was pregnant, or awakened in the night more times than that when I had a newborn.
Pain wakes up in me and I meet it.
Usually, I feel it viscerally such that it jars me out of sleep. Next, I feel the constriction, panic, dread or intense desire to turn away.
All I want is to go back to sleep in order to get away from it. Finally, slowly, words come, and they are always unfiltered, accusatory and intense like “I hate you.”
When this thought finally emerges into consciousness my response is now, “Ah, there you are!” and I emotionally roll into a ball, cradling my scared, angry, hurting self and hold her.
The strange answer to awakening in hell is to welcome it—just be warned that it doesn’t mean that it hurts any less.
I don’t mean that you should try to be artificially or insincerely happy about it, but rather don’t resist what is already happening.
We are open, sensitive beings, so complex that it far exceeds our ability to understand what that means or how far and deep it reaches.
Who knows why we are transmuting pain, or how long it might take? Who even cares?
By welcoming the pain body into my bed each morning, I lost any fear or resistance to it and then, on some mornings, I notice that it doesn’t even visit. I wake up content, at peace and refreshed, but I’m more than fine if I don’t.
I look forward to meeting the pain each day. We are deep friends now.
The thing I really didn’t expect was that by cherishing my own pain I could then meet the pain of others with the same level of non-resistance, acceptance and yes, love.
It is not that I enjoy others being in pain, or wish it on anyone—quite the opposite—and yet, for example, I loved being there for my daughter when she was in the emergency room having her finger stitched up even as the anesthesia wasn’t working.
I loved being there to meet her fear and pain, just as I meet my own.
My lover came to me today, full and tangled, deep in his experience of a trigger of past pain, and even the worst—shame. It was more beautiful than I can tell you, and he seemed stunned, confused and maybe even a little wary of my loving him in this place.
Loving and caring for the parts in us that haven’t known care, and maybe even haven’t thought it possible that we could be loved here—in our aggression, our hurt, our humiliation—seems to bring the deepest level of healing and connection.
It breaks us open, exposing everything—even the anger, shame and unworthiness are now ready to be seen and fully loved.
When we are genuinely loved up right there, in that place, something unspeakably good happens.
What I have seen is that it starts by meeting myself in just the same way. My waking up in hell has, in the end, been a kind of initiation.
The way out of hell is to stay there. It’s also the way to reach out a hand and a tender heart to someone else who is in hell.
If there is anything that makes this whole, unbelievably difficult path worth it, it’s that.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Kristin Luce
Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Travis May