September 5, 2020

Brokenhearted? Make Pain your Superpower.


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One of the most satisfying things about being a songwriter is that there is no comments section after a song is over.

Can you imagine what it would be like for Cardi B to have to read from “Crystal S. in Paducah, KY” that she wouldn’t have such a wet-a** pussy if she carried more absorbent wipes with her? This is the sort of thing that writers contend with quite often.

Readers tend to think we’re sending a letter to an advice column instead of deliberately exploring a subject matter. I’ll let you in on a secret: writers do not go through the trouble of crafting a well-orchestrated essay, submitting it to a publication, and having it perfected by a professional editor because they are looking for advice on how not to have anything to write about anymore. Most writers I know love their problems—sometimes go out of their way to create problems—to have material to write about.

The point of all of it is the writing. The catharsis.

In my own personal life, I have suffered through some horrific breakups and heartbreaks that have caused the people around me to wince with empathetic pain—none of them having the slightest idea that, in my mind, I’m rubbing my hands together thinking, “This is going to make some great copy.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? All anyone really wants is to be happy. There is nothing that makes a writer happier than writing and being of benefit to others.

I suppose I can understand what causes people to leave these diatribes at the end of blog posts. It is that same part of the brain that causes people to screech at the movie screen during a horror film, “Don’t go in that room!” But it is there in that room where the sweet fruit of creativity is born. As Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote, “Grief is a force of energy that can not be controlled or predicted…Grief does not obey your plans or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with love.”

So the connection from pain to love is not my own invention, but it is something I have learned to indulge in for creative fire. This, of course, only after I stopped trying to hide from it. It helped when I discovered Ram Dass in early sobriety.

For those interested in Buddhism, there are more treasures to be had in the wake of loss. Even someone with the most pedestrian understanding of Buddhism knows of the First Noble Truth: all of life is suffering. We really have no choice about that. What we do have a choice in is whether we accept the suffering in a healthy way or try to escape from it with addiction or denial. It was when I discovered Thich Nhat Hanh that I read, “The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.”

Or, you will never be happy.

One of my earliest memories as a small child was riding in my mom’s Buick Riviera and hearing Jackson Browne’s “Song For Adam” the first time. My little nine-year-old consciousness could not even fathom the sorrow Browne was evoking, but it kicked off something inside of me. I wanted to feel something that heavy. The pain in that song was delicious.

This is not a morbid confession. My pilgrimage to profound and complicated emotion as a young man paved the way for me to experience joy and love that was just as rich. Unfortunately, just as a tree will sometimes begin to grow crooked after too many violent storms, so too will a man (and woman). My drug experimentation as a young adult seduced me into avoiding all the unpleasant emotions I faced as a matter of course. I have no regrets. My reintroduction to the raw emotion I hid from for so long made it more clear to me how to not only embrace pain but to use it as a superpower.

I’m fairly certain that this was what Pema Chödrön refers to when she talks about “leaning into” uncomfortable emotions—the opposite of running away from them. As she has said, “Instead of blaming our discomfort on outer circumstances or on our own weakness, we can choose to stay present and awake to our experience…”


1. Use it for creativity (of course). As I have said since the beginning of this article, pain is nothing if not creative fuel. Learn to use it. Learn to love it.

2. Be discerning about who you share your pain with. Not only do you need to be cautious about sharing your innermost hurts with those who lack the bandwidth to deal with it, but you also need to avoid overly accommodating codependents. They’ll actually take you down faster than someone who will outwardly reject your needs. Use your gut and steer clear of anything that gives you that “icky” feeling we all know so well.

3. Practice revolutionary self-care. Take a bath with some candles and listen to music that makes you cry (look up that Jackson Browne song on Spotify). Read sad poetry. Watch a tragic French movie. Ask your partner for a massage. There are so many ways to do this; let your conscience be your guide.

4. Meditate. Not the easiest option, but definitely the most effective if you can manage to get your brain to quiet down long enough. When I had trouble with this initially, I downloaded the free version of the Calm app. I chose the sound called “City Rain,” which, of course, sounds like heavy rain and faint city noises. It always puts me in the right frame of mind.

Remember this: learning to carry on a love affair with our own pain is not some strange masochistic tendency. If all of life is indeed suffering, then you are doing nothing more than developing a radical acceptance of what is.

And there is nothing healthier than that.


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