The Hidden Grace of Pain and Suffering

The Hidden Grace of Pain and Suffering

A long time ago, my talented best friend and spoken word artist Cory Russo wrote a poem about the power of pain and how it can change us entirely. For me, one of the most meaningful lines from this poem was, “I can make an atheist drop to his knees and pray — I AM PAIN.” (Click here to listen to her entire poem!).

This line is meaningful on many levels. For me, it has only become more relevant and meaningful over time, as I relate it to my journey of life’s experiences kicking my ass and deepening my character in the meantime.

It is my journey of a dominating skeptical attitude into openness, as I became more aware that this skepticism was primarily due to my own lack of awareness and knowledge, which in turn led me to believe that I was knowledgeable enough to assert my opinion on things I didn’t know enough about.

Like most people at one time of our lives or another, I was more aware of popular opinion regarding certain topics that seemed “illogical” and this is the stance I would take, without actually having proper experience regarding that topic.

Skepticism obviously isn’t necessarily bad — as everything should be examined properly and skepticism often exists for a reason.

However at the same time, it has the great potential to keep us closed, and doesn’t always allow us to actually examine from a neutral and open mind state. We don’t have to believe, but we don’t necessarily have to be skeptical, either.

Being open is ultimately about getting to a point in life where you have enough humility to understand that our levels of knowledge are always relative and life truly is a much more multi-dimensional place than we can fathom or experience easily here on Earth.

After 34 years on this Earth, I’m at a point now where I look back and see how much openness has given me vs. how much skepticism did. There is no comparison.

For example, if I had allowed skepticism to dominate what was happening to me during any consciousness-expanding experiences I had at a very young age (without knowing what the F was going on with me), I wouldn’t have learned from it the way I did.

During that sensitive time, I had to completely shut out the noise from the external world and really pay attention to what my own self was telling me about this experience. If I had listened to some others, I might have believed instead that I needed to be reeled in with some medication.

Now, to elaborate on pain and suffering.

Many of us that are trying to understand the mystery of our existence often wonder why, if there’s some sort of higher power, that pain and suffering are allowed to exist to the extent that they do. What is their purpose? Why would a higher power make us suffer seemingly needlessly at times, if there is one?

It is something I had pondered on some occasions myself, but as I grow in awareness I feel I’m starting to understand it a bit more.

There is not necessarily one easy answer, as there are multiple reasons why pain and suffering occurs. Sometimes we cause our own, from our own lack of awareness. In those cases it is just simply cause and effect.

For whatever reason, from a young age I had multiple consciousness-expanding experiences that shattered my reality as I knew it.

My entire life felt like an illusion as I had discovered new inner worlds on another consciousness plane, not produced by thought and conception, but as a literal direct experience.

While I learned certain things in the moment of those experiences, it has taken me years to process each one of them and really understand them more over time.

These experiences did not come from a firmly held belief in anything. They were simply something that happened as a result of listening to myself and following these “feelings” I was getting from my intuition.

I was always very eager to share them with people, but with these not being common or well-understood phenomena, I was usually met with responses like, “are you SURE you weren’t on any drugs?”. Thankfully, this did not make me question the validity of my experiences. They had shaken my world in a way that was unlike anything I could have imagined, and I felt like I needed to share what I saw with the entire world. I felt I had a very important message.

But, people learn things at their own rate and in their own due time. It was not my place to control that, as much as my ego desired people to understand. All I could do is tell my story and leave it at that.

After the first experience, I still did have many unanswered questions about life and existence (and still do). There are many things I simply can’t know yet and am not going to pretend to. Each subsequent experience would show me a little more context, but generally what they gave me was more insight into the nature of our true selves, or our essence.

They led me to understand that there is more to our selves than what we experience here on Earth.

Yet as significant as these experiences were, the insights gained from them felt very obvious and clear. This knowledge is something that is with us all the time! It is just blocked by so many elements of our humanly experience. All of it was completely familiar. It was just finding something so essential that I had just long forgotten.

The best way I can explain it is that it was literally like waking up from a dream (the dream in this case being your current understanding and experience of your entire existence) into a completely new “world” where you suddenly meet your “real” self and you directly experience that you had merely been playing this human role your entire life, thinking that the role itself was you.

What an illusion! And what incredibly immense JOY it was to encounter my “real” entire self again! To see that there really IS more than this human drama we are playing out; that all of our sorrows, our worries, our pain, would someday be put in perspective. It feels like such an insane relief.

I had never known joy like what I felt in that experience. I literally cried for days out of happiness in meeting this part of myself. There is no way I could respond except by just an endless release of emotion. In attempting to explain it to my mom, I’m sure she thought I was nuts. I had no words.

There is no comparison between way that I see and understand life after these experiences versus my perspective prior  — i.e., the “me” at that time that thought, “I have no reason to believe there is any form of existence after death or let alone any higher power. Why would I?”

And honestly, at that time, I was right — I didn’t have a reason to believe it. I had no personal experiences or insight into any other mode of existence, and I was never the type to blindly believe things like this. I was never religious, never believed in God (especially not in the traditional sense), and I had been a self-professed atheist or agnostic. I was once actually almost prideful to proclaim that I thought we entirely cease to exist after death.

That being said, words never fully do an experience like this justice. Unless you’ve had a similar experience, it’s easy to underestimate how much this can shift your entire psychological landscape.

It’s not just, “oh I didn’t know this and now I do,” the way typical knowledge acquisition works. No. It felt like I got a whole new operating system — and it mentally opened up door after door to new realizations. My beliefs didn’t change; I was just simply awake.

Occasionally I would casually ponder as to why this knowledge regarding our selves is as uncommon as it is. Why is it for the majority of us that our consciousness levels are lowered to the point that we have no recollection of these things unless we have some sort of consciousness-expanding experience?

I have learned over time that there is a VERY good reason why we aren’t able to easily remember our existence outside the Earth realm. Continuing to play the “human role” after meeting the “essence” or “soul” of ourselves and seeing that it’s so much more massive than this and not confined to this body, can feel very odd at times to say the least. It can make it incredibly more difficult to focus on just having a normal human experience if we are not ready to properly integrate the knowledge with our existence here.

Regardless, I understood that we are here on Earth to have an experience, no matter what that experience entails. Within the experience will be many trials and lessons.

So, any pain and suffering we may go through — it may be seem needless or unjust, but it’s not us or even close to our entire story.

However, suffering WILL ALWAYS deepen our characters and give us perspectives we may not have been able to have had otherwise. It rounds out our character and strengthens our spirit.

Ram Dass speaks on this all the time. He is a former Harvard Psychology professor who turned Hindu spiritual teacher and later in his life suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body.

I’ll take this passage from one of his most recent articles:

“There is a line from a letter that I wrote to the parents of a young girl who was raped and murdered that I would like to share with you. It said, ‘Something in you dies when you bear the unbearable. In other words, you go beyond just the horror and pain of it because it takes you beyond it. You can’t bear it and it is only in the dark night of the soul that you’re prepared to see as God sees and to love as God loves.’

It’s the horrible beauty of the Universe and to realize that there is a wisdom inherent in it, and that wisdom includes suffering and that all suffering is not an error. Until you are resting in a place that understands that, it’s quite presumptuous to think you know best. I have watched in the work I do with people that are dying, where they suffer and suffer and suffer and if I could, as a human emotional heart, I would do everything I could to take away their suffering. It breaks my heart that they’re suffering and I watch as the suffering burns its way until they finally give up because the suffering is so great. I’ve watched as they give up, something emerges in their being that is so beautiful and so radiant and so spiritually innocent, that it’s like they meet a part of their being that has been hidden all their lives. It’s like an egg being cracked open.”

He also talks at length about what suffering through his stroke has given him, and that he wishes that all people could experience the grace that the suffering gave him, but without the unfortunate experience of the stroke itself.

It is from people like Ram Dass and my own consciousness-expanding experiences I was able to have that I feel compelled to share this message:

The experiences we have here on Earth are all for a purpose and there is hidden beauty in them that we will eventually be able to see. The greatest part is that it is not our entire story, so we must have hope that one day we will be able to see the greater context for why we are going through what we are going through.

My wish is that you may retain a glimmer of hope and that every minute, every second that you fight a battle you are strengthening your own spirit (even if it feels like the opposite) and the end result will be something beautiful.

If you’re currently suffering from anything at all, hang in there and know that you are not alone, and there is a bigger picture that you will see one day that will bring you a peace and understanding like you could never imagine.

The wound is the place where the light enters you.” —Rumi

My First Spiritual Experience (in 2002): You Are Limitless

My First Spiritual Experience (in 2002): You Are Limitless

The other night I was on the phone with my mom, and she recalled a spiritual experience I had in 2005 (but this isn’t the exact experience I’m going to talk about in depth today. Stay tuned for part 2 for that one). She said, “tell me what you saw again exactly? And, how did you even get there to begin with?” She had been coming across more and more accounts of people from all different backgrounds and life experiences that were experiencing these remarkable things in regards to evolution of their mind and consciousness. She noted that so many of these people seemed so different, but were coming to the same conclusions as each other and as I have.

Similarly, what I’m seeing now the longer I’m alive, is that more and more people are become “spiritually” aware (which in my mind is something I’d normally just term “awareness” in general). Though we still have a gaping lack of this spirituality (or awareness) in this day and age, I feel like I see more people around me that get it. It could just be me noticing it more, too. Regardless, I always knew it was something inherent in all of us. But many times, what people do and what they believe actually turns them away from their own guiding light.

My mom had began to become more and more curious…with herself wanting to see what others have seen. This conversation with her led me to decide I would write a bit about how my own spiritual experiences happened and how they have affected me today for any others who might have this same wonder; or for those who might be curious about how their own experiences are similar to mine. It’s been a while since I’ve thought about them much and recounted them, so I’ll take you with me on my journey:

My Journey Into a Higher Awareness: The First Experience

First of all, I’ll start by saying…I’ve always been a “spiritual” person. And by that I don’t mean I was ever into church, religion, or even doing anything that represented the typical concept of spirituality. I can just say I have always been introspective, and I’ve always listened to my intuition. Aside from that, I wish I could recall every important detail about what was going on in my mind at the time of my actual spiritual experiences. But there was a lot, and it was a long time ago.

The first one started when I was about 18. I became more withdrawn…preferring to be alone most of the time. As mentioned, I was always introspective and somewhat introverted. But this felt like a strong pull. I really don’t remember what specific things were going on in my head except for a few moments that stuck out to me forever. Like how every night I would go to bed and I would feel like I was somehow getting closer to myself, my essence. I was also a big runner back then, and while running I’d often imagine myself running through a forest path with parrots flying alongside me and being completely and totally free. Attached to nothing…just running, just living, just experiencing.

I then somehow came across 101 Zen Stories from some online forum, and I began reading them. I didn’t know much about Buddhism or Zen Buddhism at the time, but I noticed a particular sense of deep calmness that came over me when I read them. I thought, “hmm, that’s weird…I just feel so at peace from these.” That clued me on to the fact that there was something deep within me that resonated with these stories.

Many times other thoughts, concepts, and images would come to me that felt strong, but I had no idea where they were coming from or even the full picture of what they meant. This was my intuition working for me. I became inspired to write poems at this time that tried to express concepts that were coming to my head…but I didn’t even fully understand their significance at the time.

No Value Judgments

I remember walking around Portland, OR, where I lived, and at this time a feeling overpowered my mind about an idea of a world without value judgments. Where nothing is judged as good or bad by anybody or anything, but is seen completely free of these value judgments. Try to imagine that. A world where people just see things, and don’t apply values to them as one way or another. Things just exist as they are and there is no attachment to things. Complete neutrality. At this time, this theme was really strong during this first spiritual experience. When it came to me strongly at this moment while walking around, it seemed to actually alter my vision of what I was seeing. Everything started to blur together. Everything felt strange. And I knew that what people spent so much time doing, worrying and thinking about was essentially meaningless.

I think what was really happening here that made me feel so strange is that our world is of course based on value judgments. We’ve built up a world based on shoulds and shouldn’ts, on rules, on definitions, on concepts. We interpret the world through concepts that we’ve learned and accumulated over time. What’s behind the concepts? What is our perception made of if we erase the attachment we have about the ideas of what things mean and are? My intuition began to allow me to loosen up this meaning that myself, society, and individuals had attributed to things and my own self.

Fast forward to closer to the night before the actual direct experience. All I remember is that I was telling one of my friends, “I keep thinking of a world that has no value judgments… everything just is as it is…I can’t tell you how weird I feel right now, and I don’t know why.” The feeling I had was the key. I couldn’t put my finger on it. And why was it so strong? But I remember his response really clearly, which was, “Liz, utopia doesn’t exist.” There was more that he said, but that’s the part I really remember. I remember thinking too that his response was irrelevant. That what I felt didn’t have anything to do with trying to change what was existing currently, but rather that it was something more personal to me and what was going on with the framework of my mind.

Attuning My Mind to a Breakthrough

Also important to note during this time, I didn’t have a car so I took the bus to school. It was about a 45 minute ride from my house, through downtown Portland, and into SouthEast Portland where campus was. I would often naturally zone out on the ride there. My mind would automatically become mesmerized by the noises of my surroundings, and tune into something stronger, bigger, more massive than my own thoughts. This was basically meditation, but not only did I not consciously try to meditate, I didn’t even call it anything. It just was. It just happened.

I also had been reading books I had come across ever since the 101 Zen Stories (since that ended up affecting me in a positive way). The most important one I had encountered for me, was “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” by Dan Millman. This book was ridiculously funny (and by the way I’ve read it now 8 times or so and still find it hilarious), and it incorporated eastern philosophical concepts in a practical, easy to digest way. Especially the ever-so-commonly talked about concept of “I” in spiritual literature: when you use the concept of “I” — such as “I’m going to the gym” — who is the “I” in that statement? What ideas do you have about your own identity? It illuminates the fact that we conceptualize ourselves and attach ourselves to this idea of ourselves. And that this idea really just is a mental construct — it isn’t our true selves. Anyway, that whole subject could be a separate one or two blog posts. Or a whole dang book. The point is, I really marinated on these concepts in the book, and they only furthered the progress of what was already going on with me mentally.

The next day after speaking with my friend about a world with no value judgments, I ran on the treadmill at the gym. As mentioned, running was always a mental release for me too. I’d often automatically focus on the repetitive noise of my feet running on the treadmill, and it’d spur me out of my thoughts and focus just on the noise. My thoughts were being given less power, because I wasn’t putting energy into them. I was zoning into something else, a world that my thoughts didn’t dictate. A world where my mental constructs weren’t in the way. Weren’t dominating my perspectives.

Dollarphotoclub_74636346_webThe Direct Experience

After a few minutes of running, everything in my vision began to turn white. And, I could no longer feel my physical body while running, AT ALL. It’s almost as though I was dissolving. And I felt something open up in my mind…but it was just a few seconds of this (30 seconds or so) and I began to feel fear. Seriously — what in the hell is going on? What’s happening to me? But at the same time, I had the strongest urge to cry that I had ever had. Not out of sadness, but of pure relief and bliss. The strongest feeling I had at that time was that I felt like I finally found something I had been looking for for a long time. But I didn’t know from when, nor was I fully conscious that I was even looking for it. I’m not even sure I could define “it.” I also felt and saw that my entire life that I had lived felt like an illusion.

I went home and I cried that entire weekend, literally on and off crying nonstop. But I felt pure bliss, and a level of happiness that I hadn’t yet experienced in my life to date. I felt like my personal energy was glowing and overflowing from my physical body. I felt reborn. My mom was out of town that weekend, but when she came home, I tried to explain it to her. How do you explain something like that? What context do you give it?

This is what I said to her, when I could get the words out between tears: “The best way I can explain it is think about living on a planet that has a certain way of operating. It has certain characteristics about it that define it. You come to understand this planet, this world by the laws that you learn and perceive are defining it. You have an idea of what the world is by perception developed from experience and practical knowledge that you gain. It is the world as you know it. It’s life as you know it. Then, imagine suddenly waking up on a new planet (when you didn’t even know a new planet existed in the first place) that contained a whole new set of laws. It had a whole new set of definitions, or maybe a lack thereof, because it caused you to loosen up and dissolve your own definitions about your place in the world and the world itself. A part of your sense of identity dissolved away. You realized the perception you had of yourself and the world was extraordinarily limited and not relevant to the massiveness that it actually is. I directly experienced a glimpse of this massiveness. And it made my definitions, my framework of the world fall away. It shattered my life.”

This is why the tears were streaming down my face. In that short time period on the treadmill, that experience had shattered my boundaries, my perceptions, my framework, what I knew to be life, for good. That’s why my life in that moment up to that day felt like an illusion. Because the concept I had about it and myself was the grand illusion. And it made me realize that the world and myself can’t be defined by me, or they can, but those definitions have to be seen for what they are. Maybe as temporary tools, but nothing with any significant meaning. And they are potentially, and likely, limited. In our true nature, we are boundless, we are infinite, and full of endless potential. So when other people say things like this, they aren’t just spewing empty positive bunk. It’s true. You just have to believe.

Death Isn’t the Only Release

Some people don’t experience a release like this until death. When we are near death, we begin to let go of our attachments to this world — through our senses, and through our mind. I believe this is why so many people feel at peace in the moments before death. Death begins the process of the dissolving of our bodies and minds into the massiveness of the universe. The truth is, we can take our minds there now, while we’re still alive. We just have to be open and learn to let go of our ideas of ourselves and the world.

Why did this all start to unfold and then finish in one single direct experience, in a way that ripped through my mental limits, instead of just loosening them up slowly over time? Partly I can say this is because it wasn’t an intellectual process. It was a direct experience of a higher level of consciousness. But other than that, I’m not entirely sure and that’s something I don’t think I can put in words. How I describe the experience doesn’t even come close to the experience itself.

“After ecstasy, the laundry” –Zen Proverb

Well so that was a fantastic experience, but what now? Back to everyday life. Am I supposed to do anything different now? Experiences like this are ground-breaking, but eventually the potency and feeling of them fade away into a memory. I can say about 13 years later that while my mind’s framework is less limited and more aware, it is still easy to fall into the holds that society, people, and life experiences place on you. It can be really difficult to escape certain situations and circumstances and live closer to your soul (for lack of a better term). Sometimes your soul can get covered back up, a little bit. Some things end up tying you down — financial troubles, or maybe it’s just fear — and they can feel nearly impossible to get out of. But if you have an experience like mine, it’s hard to forget it. It’s hard to forget its importance. It’s hard to put something like that on the backburner and just succumb to a limited life. Yes it’s mostly mental, but when you have so many circumstantial things (such as your job, or other people) constantly controlling your life, people imposing their ideas of how you should live your life on you, I won’t say it’s impossible — but it is very difficult to feel free, and not like a slave.

If you listen to your intuition (or learn to listen to it), you’ll notice when something in your life isn’t aligning with you. But you have to have an understanding of what you truly want, first. It doesn’t have to be an intellectual understanding. Just an inherent feeling. But if you have fashioned your idea of yourself and your life completely after what other people have dictated and aren’t very aware of what’s outside of this (or aware that you have even created your own limits), you may not feel a strong contrast between what you truly want and what you have now. You may need to uncover the bullcrap first, and lean into your potential. It’s up to you to take action and learn what a truly happy life means for you, to understand limitlessness in perception, and how to take the steps to live it. It takes a strong and courage soul to pursue this, because it usually isn’t easy, and it requires patience and a strong belief in yourself.

I feel the best advice I can give to anyone about this — including myself as a constant reminder — is to think about every day what you want out of your life. What you truly want. Don’t let go of it. Don’t doubt it! Doubt will dim your light. I’m guilty of doubt, too. And in this world, it’s so easy to become so covered up and so used to limited feelings of happiness. So many of us don’t know what true bliss or freedom of mind feels like, or that it’s even possible.

Just remember: there are people with different levels of awareness walking around on this earth. Some whose light has been dimmed, some who have discovered their light and are Dollarphotoclub_79255911_webfollowing its path. There are a myriad of mental dimensions (maybe physical ones too) and levels of consciousness and no one can know their true limit. You are not truly defined by anything.

Stay tuned for my next blog post on my second spiritual experience in 2005.

You cannot speak of ocean to a frog living in a well—a creature of a narrow sphere. You cannot speak of ice to a summer insect—a creature of a season. You cannot speak of the unvarying way to a pedagogue: his scope is too restricted. But now that you have emerged from your narrow sphere and have seen the great ocean, you know your own insignificance, and I can speak to you of great principles.” -Chuang Tzu

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