A few times in my life I’ve been gifted with untreatable pain and now is one of them. These days I’m lying awake at night, unable to find a tolerable position, obsessing about what is wrong with me and how it might be getting worse. Promising to fix myself tomorrow with better diet, more meditation, increased self-awareness—bemoaning whatever failure of self-care led to the problem in the first place. Unable to concentrate during the day, experimenting with various combinations of food, drink and drugs to escape sensations that continue to demand my attention. Forced to acknowledge that I am getting older, decaying in my own skin. Fretting about how this makes me less of a companion, less of a teacher, less of a person.

Feeling I would give my eye-teeth—no, a limb—for a good night’s sleep.


This pain has become all my anxieties and regrets embodied, continuously generating new ones. It’s made me a querulous child again, begging the universe, “When will I get better?” I hate the very sight of my bed, the night table stocked with various nostrums and my pillows scattered, evidence of last night’s wrestling, with another night still to be faced.


I hasten to add that I am being treated (albeit not yet successfully) and this is a relatively minor ailment. But it can still be exhausting to the spirit. While I wait it out, what to do with this pain? Should I be like Prometheus or Loki whose sufferings shake the earth, taking this pain as punishment for having pissed off the wrong gods, eaten the wrong foods, ignored my demons? Should I rage against it? Or keep myself busy, distract myself, exhaust myself, dose myself?


This pain won’t yield to any of that. The only option left is to turn and face it, both the physical pain and the pain of pain, the judgments, worries and ragings it gives birth to. I need to know it in its entirety, piercing the defences I’ve raised against it. Only if I truly listen to it can I hear and respect my own suffering. And only if I cry out from the centre of my grief, and not the edge, can I reach out beyond my small self and rouse something deeper.


For this pain is not my pain but the world’s, inherent in the gift of life, and we can carry it with and for each other. To each some measure is entrusted, for us to feel and know, sharpening our appreciation of each living moment, opening us up to the necessity of compassion.


Like the Mother of the World,

Who carries the pain of the world in her heart,

Each one of us is part of her heart,

And therefore endowed

With a certain measure of cosmic pain.

—Pir Vilayat Khan


Nature supports every form of life. I have felt the kiss of the sun and the touch of the air every day of my life. If I allow myself to trust the rhythms of life, the compassion of Nature, perhaps I can also trust that this suffering has its place, has a meaning beyond itself if only I am willing to bear witness to it. Can I pray, not so much to be cured, but for my heart to be opened to myself and to the world?



Breathing in, I taste my pain without prejudice, without an agenda. I taste the pain of all the others suffering in this exact moment, in this exact same way. Breathing out, I find I can bathe the pain with compassion, surround it with space and tenderness, and let it take its place in the broader tapestry of my life, in which, truly, the good well outweighs the bad.


The bodhisattvas pray: “May this suffering give rise to compassion.” And so I pray. May this suffering sharpen my love of this one precious life. May this suffering keep me here in the present, awake to the sweetness of yearning and love that lives in every soul, tying us each to the other. May this suffering give rise to compassion, and may I find solace in its tender mercies.