Never could I have predicted the severity of pain I’d experience in this life. I didn’t know I’d have five years of multi-day migraines, a massive brain tumor leaving 52 titanium staples in my head post-surgery, or 92 days of severe sciatica, some of the worst pain known to a human body. Yet sometimes humans need pain to grow, and I humbly count myself among them.
We’ve all felt pain, or will. These words are intended for those of you who’ve felt severe physical pain – cluster headaches, shingles, kidney stones, endometriosis and the like – and seek consolation from somebody who’s been there too. May these words help you see the silver linings of your pain.
One Year Pain Free
Today marks one year since severe pain left my body. On July 13, 2021, after 92 days of horrific pain shooting from my lower back down my left leg, the pain turned into a whisper. On the 14th, the whisper softened and by July 17th, it was gone.
Yes, I’d had brain surgery to remove a massive tumor. Yes, I’d had throbbing pain in my head lasting from five to 32 days at a time for five years, and I gave birth naturally at home… Sure, those things hurt. But at least with childbirth, I had a baby. And the pain only lasted a handful of hours. Severe sciatica was living hell. When I called a renowned Reiki Master one day, she told me I’d experienced more pain than most humans ever will.
What was all this other pain for? How could I make sense of it?
Complaining seemed insane, especially after a near death experience. For crying out loud, I was alive. In a way, I had lost the capacity to complain – everything was so tear-jerkingly beautiful after near death.
That’s when some blend of curiosity and humility took hold of me. I began asking God, Source, Love…
What is this pain for? What are the gifts I am receiving through this pain, that will help me love humanity better? Please help me see clearly. I am not a victim; I am a creator, creating this experience. Please help me see the perfect order that’s underway here. Please help me see through the eyes of Love.
And sure enough, my prayers were answered. Multiple gifts were shown to me, one at a time. Through severe pain and the choice to seek wisdom from the divine, I was shown ways of seeing that would make my days far more gratifying. I was shown how to strengthen emotional and spiritual muscles that made me a better friend and parent. Today marks one year free of pain and from here, the pain in my past looks like glimmering jewels. Nothing but an enormous gift – every split second of it.
When you’re in severe pain, your attention can’t be anywhere but right here now. Your capacity to focus on what you’ll do tomorrow or who’s saying what in the next room, is gone. All I could do when my sciatic nerve sent lightning down my leg was b-r-e-a-t-h-e. One deep inhale, one deep exhale at a time to be with the pain until it softened. Even a little. Pain level five felt galaxies better than pain level 10. All I could do was be here now. Breathing.
Does this sound familiar to those of you who’ve had appendicitis, fibromyalgia or a heart attack?
While our modern, albeit primitive society would tell us this is a limitation or disadvantage, it’s not. Being here now, being present, accepting that Now is all there is, is actually a gift. For years we can read books that tell us about the power of now, and listen to inspiring talks about the present. Yet until we intake this awareness with our whole intelligence – not just our mental brain, which is unwisely pedestalized in this society – we’ve not fully gotten the memo.
Pain helps get us there. It offers no escape from this, here, now.
Take it from Ram Dass, whose book Be Here Now will forever grace my bookshelf. Or Eckhart Tolle who wrote The Power of Now, or any other masterful human consciousness who sees with clarity. This moment is actually all there is. Now is where wonder is, and freedom. Now is the only time we can feel bliss.
Thank you, Pain, for the gift of presence.
In years past, I’ve been a generally caring person – sensitive, understanding, and kind enough to be empathetic. Yet living through extended, horrid pain left my empathy cup overflowing.
One day, I was on a call with my coach to explore the gifts pain might be bringing me. He said, “Jess, maybe one of pain’s gifts is empathy.” He talked about digestive issues he’s had since chemotherapy, and how his stomach pain has raised his empathy level for other people who go through this. “Maybe you can now more deeply connect with others who are in severe pain – in a way that most people can’t.”
For the many-thousandth time, he nailed it. Dozens of times in the past year, I’ve connected deeply with people much faster than I did before, and our connection noticeably deepened when I told them about the pain I’d been through. Suddenly, to them, their pain seemed smaller. Somehow, they felt seen after being reminded they weren’t alone. Someone understood them. They were in good company.
For three months with sciatica, I could stand but I couldn’t sit. Sitting caused a pinch of lightning in my lower back that would become a hurricane of pain if I didn’t stand back up. Often, a friend or my daughter would tie my shoes so I could go for a walk.
One afternoon I headed out for a walk and two blocks from home, my sneaker laces came untied but I couldn’t bend over to tie my shoe. Well, I’ll just ask someone to tie my shoe. No big deal. Up ahead, the big door to a bike shop was open and inside stood its owner, Tim, who I knew from college days, and a local guy named Araan who is an avid cyclist with a festive spirit. I said hi and a minute later, “Guys, I need to ask you something.”
Tears began cascading from my face. It was like a damn broke inside of me. It had just been too much. Too much pain for too long. I stood there sobbing and asked, “Will one of you please tie my shoe?”
Araan practically dove to my feet. He didn’t think; he simply served. Love led him, not judgment or other forms of fear. Clearly he had gotten the empathy memo in life.
I will never forget that day.
It’s almost as if pain lets us feel closer to each other. When we relate, we feel seen. Feeling for each other deepens intimacy – and I mean human closeness, not necessarily the romantic kind.
Somehow, I can now see that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Even when life feels awfully unkind and the pain hurts so, so, so bad… it is simply a matter of fact that freedom is a choice. Individually, we can accept this or not. It’s up to each and every one of us to choose to trust that this is possible, and lean into light to bring it into being. Having lived through my own version of this, I can now share it more.
Thank you, Pain, for the gift of empathy.
When we’re in the middle of awful pain, it’s hard to see or feel anything else. It can be especially tough to see the gifts we’re being given, the rainbow of beauty that awaits on the other side of pain, how this is all somehow in perfect order. Our perception can feel hazy, our thoughts worthless, our days lacking motivation because… it just. Hurts. So. bad.
For some of us, pain comes through cancer or migraines. For others, through injury. To own our power as creators, we must take responsibility for what we are experiencing rather than playing victim and blaming something outside ourselves.
From this place of empowerment, we ask God within ourselves, How did I create this pain? Then, we listen – and when we receive a clear response to our question, we choose to point ourselves toward healing. One action, one breath, at a time, we choose to heal.
Once we feel we’ve healed the cause of the pain we created, we’re still in a body with freedom to choose. Sometimes, we’ll choose mindfully and continue being pain free. Sometimes, we’ll slip and make choices that lead us back into pain. Does addiction, for example, ever totally subside? When we are tempted to outsource our needs – through alcohol, nicotine, shopping or screen time, for example – do we choose to listen to how our body feels about that through its impeccable communication and subtle cues, or do we wait until the pain gets worse, forcing our body to scream for help?
As for me, severe pain through sciatica was enough to never want to go back there again. Once when I began to slip, I called on friends and wrote in my journal to help me commit to feeling good again. Humbled by my humanity, I recovered within a couple days and felt great again. Even though a year has passed from severe pain, I am still so deeply imprinted by the strike of its ferociousness, that I’m motivated to keep feeling good.
We sometimes need horrific pain as a motivator to choose health. All the while, our bodies ask us: Are you willing to listen to my subtle cues and then follow my lead? Or do you need me to scream?
Thank you, Pain, for the gift of motivation. (Turns out, I really like anti-inflammatory superfoods like walnuts and blueberries. Thanks, Sciatica!)
We give things the meaning they have for us. You will take these thoughts, apply what’s helpful and toss what doesn’t. Choosing to see pain as a gift is one way we can find freedom.
Let all the criticisms take a back seat in your inner theater. “You’re vain” or “You're narcissistic” or “You're too focused on yourself” …
When you hear or feel those thoughts coming from other people, and you feel triggered, then that’s YOUR inner voice projecting its own self-loathing. Time to turn your attention toward Self and dose UP the Love, affection, sweetness, being, praise. Turn your attention toward acceptance of your choice to love yourself. It's brave in a culture that calls it selfish.
Just ask Buddha. Wink wink.
And goodness, let's look at the other side of the Self-Loathing and Self-Love spectrum!
If you feel at peace — or even enraptured — in your willingness to do the great work of loving yourself, keep SHINING! I'm doing 12 kartwheels beside you. What's your favorite song? The whole world is singing it to you right now. Your courageous inner Light is blazing new paths for a more Love-based humanity.
Ode to YOU, bright star.
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, writes with the divine pen in her pelvis. She is a lifelong letter writer, Love-based leader and fan of Mr. Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our conversations are devoted to her greatest passion: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.