In my years of work with chronic pain patients, I have been surprised to see how certain creative people grow spiritually from their chronic pain experience. From observing their adaptation to chronic pain, I have witnessed spiritual transformations in them. It is easiest to present this as an allegory:
Pretend you find an oyster on the beach that has a large beautiful pearl in it. Pearls, as you know, are created when a grain of sand irritates the pain-sensitive mucus membranes of the oyster. The oyster defends itself by enveloping the grain of sand with layer upon layer of mother-of-pearl…its own hard, shiny, shimmering inner shell substance. In awe of its creation, you remark to the oyster…”My, but that’s a beautiful pearl you have made there! Aren’t you proud of your achievement?” The oyster answers sharply “Pearl, shmearl…take the damn thing out of my house. I could care less for pearls. They make me miserable”. You happily remove it, but wonder why the oyster doesn’t appreciate its own beautiful creation.
I have seen profound changes in some of my patients who have, over the years of coping with chronic pain, created gorgeous pearls. By this I mean, they have become sweeter, kinder, gentler, and radiate a soulful beauty from their hearts. When I first discovererd this, I asked them “Do you like yourself better now than before you acquired chronic pain?” “Yes” they answered. Do you know who your real friends are?” “Yes…those who have left me weren’t really my friends. The ones whom I have now really like me for who I really am, rather than for what I can do for them”. “Do you appreciate things you used to take for granted?” “Yes…many of the little things that I overlooked have become much more important”. “When you go to the grocery store, can you tell who there is also in pain?” “Yes…I can recognize them by their guarded movements, facial grimaces, need to lean on the grocery cart, slow movement down the aisle, and difficulty reaching for items on the shelves”. “And how do you respond when you see them suffering like that?” “My heart goes out to them because I know how it must feel for them?” “Do you know what is really important to you now?” “Yes…I realize I have a new system of values.”
Can you see the pearls these people have created? These pearls are what I call Soul values as opposed to Ego values. I use the term Soul to mean the part of our Being that deeply appreciates eternal human values or virtues that are often spelled with capital letters…like Love, Truth, Honesty, Beauty, Charity, Compassion, Peace, Joy, Strength, Faith, Hope to name a few. They are qualities appreciated by the heart. I use the term Ego to mean the sense of self we all have. It is the consciousness between our eyes…in our heads. It is that sense of our identity called “me”.
When chronic pain is effectively managed, the Ego who experiences it is like the oyster that works at creating the mother-of-pearl that eventually results in a beautiful pearl. The Ego’s desire is to cure the painful condition in order to get back to living the same life before the pain started. The pearls, of course, are the Soul values that gradually replace the Ego values that used to be paramount. These soulful patients are usually pleasantly surprised when they realize they are creating pearls from their suffering. Their Egos often had the identity of the Victim until I pointed out the spiritual transformation that had taken place in their hearts. They are no longer victims, but spiritual travelers whereby the chronic pain has served as a catalyst for their spiritual transformations. What an amazing mystery is this!!
These patients then embrace their pain and suffering as part of the “great opus” or work of individuation they are here to do. There are few spiritual paths that get you as quickly to this spiritual place as much as chronic pain…provided it is managed effectively.
Here another analogy is helpful. When you cook food to eat, you need heat. Without any heat, nothing cooks. With too much heat, the food burns and is inedible. Finding the right amount of heat is crucial to cooking food that is edible and nutritious. In the same way, chronic pain is like the heat that cooks the spiritual food. Without pain (including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pain and suffering), there may be little motivation to make the spiritual transformation. It is much easier, and from the Ego’s perspective, more desirable to avoid pain and live life on the surface. The Ego seeks security and pleasure, usually in that order. Although you can live a meaningful life without chronic pain, there usually needs to be some other source of inspiration or drive to adapt to adverse circumstances to find one’s spiritual path.
If one cannot modulate pain at all, the heat is too hot and nothing gets accomplished. You are stuck in bed, filled with feelings of despair, self-loathing, regret, envy of others, and misery. With effective pain management, that is by being able to lower pain levels so they are somewhere between a 2/10 to 7/10 most of the time, most people can begin to get their lives back. By performing some tasks of self-care, finding creative projects to complete, participating in social activities, and enjoying some simple pleasures, the heat is in the optimal range for the spiritual transformation to occur. It is the role of pain management specialists and associated professional caretakers to assist the patient to begin his/her spiritual growth by assisting on the levels of body, mind, and spirit.
Every religion in the world regards the experience of Compassion as one of the most virtuous of spiritual qualities. It is one of the largest pearls one can obtain. It is of great import that the development of Compassion is one of the crowning achievements of the Pain Path. The gradual subordination of the Ego to the Soul, or spiritual Self, is the sacred process that I have the honor of witnessing in those who walk this Path, those who can partially control and humbly accept their chronic pain. The emergence of the soulful presence of a person who radiates love, compassion, and joy despite the presence of pain is one of the ultimate accomplishments to which chronic pain patients can aspire.