”If we don’t find a way to transform our pain, we will always transmit it to those around us or turn it against ourselves… If your religion is not teaching you how to recognize, hold, and transform suffering, it is junk religion.”
—Fr. Richard Rohr
People are in pain all around us, all of the time. How can we be companions to those in pain, and bear witness, so that pain can be transformed into something less harmful?
Last week, the crowd on a New York City subway herded me into a corner against someone’s seat: a man in his 20s with red eyes, his face etched with grief.
When I’m around people in pain, sometimes the energy of their sadness rolls over me like an invisible ocean wave: if I remain passive, its force can knock me down. So as the subway rumbled us uptown, I tightened my grip on the bar overhead, closed my eyes, and held the stranger in loving kindness.
As I breathed in, I imagined absorbing the thick, oily smoke of his pain. I visualized the Great Glorious Tenderness as a cloud of light, above us at ground level. Each time I breathed out, I imagined myself as a conduit, drawing that Love down toward us and pooling it around the stranger. I matched his pain, breath for breath.
The subway screeched to a halt at my stop and as my eyes flew open they landed on the stranger, who was using his sweater to wipe tears off his cheek. Our eyes met. Before I could look away, he offered a half-smile. I smiled back.
Buddhists will recognize what I did as a practice called tonglen, but if you were to call it prayer, I wouldn’t argue with you. One of my friends often wonders out loud whether it’s ethical to pray for someone without their consent, but I’ve weathered rough patches where I felt myself flailing, sinking, in need of all of the ways — from concrete assistance to the mystical transmission of Love — that others might hold me up. You want to share your hope with me? I'll take it.
Pain is going to visit all of us — you, me, the guy on the subway — sporadically but unrelentingly, as long as life lasts. Ultimately, I believe, there's one thing as common and as powerful as pain: our capacity to be companions to one another. Both our genetic material and our holy spark compel us to reach for one another, as partners in hope and fellow meaning-makers, to help one another transform pain into something holdable.
You, Mercy Without End, are the sea of tenderness that holds us all, grieving alongside us in our moments of hurt. Hold me; gentle me; keep me afloat. When I see pain outside of myself, make me brave enough to move towards it, that I might lighten another person's burden — because the only way through is together.