I have written before of the beauty of Eros—the divine life force—and how our sexuality models the greater movement of Eros in our lives. By Eros, I mean the fullness of presence, inner space, participating in the yearning force of being and the experience of wholeness when we realize the truth of our interconnectivity. I have written how sex can open us to Eros and teach us to understand Eros and live from her full and passionate source.
But, there is another side to Eros. In this aspect, Eros shows herself to be a more ferocious ally. While the sexual does model the pleasure and beauty of Eros, it also models the pain that inevitably comes from our loving—the pain of Eros.
Eros manifests in full display only if we are willing to revel in the Pain as well as the Pleasure.
Sexuality creates wounds—sometimes mortal ones. So much pain comes from that which is supposed to be the source of so much pleasure. We will only be healed when we are prepared to let the fierceness of our pain be seduced by the beauty where we worship. It is only then that we might fall awake in each other’s ache.
Some glimmering about what that might mean and how to do that, is the content of the dharma in this article.
We are confused about sexuality, as we are confused about loving. And that confusion is the source of much of our pain. To see love clearly is to recognize the truth that the Persian poet Hafiz described:
Love is grabbing hold of the Great Lion’s mane
And wrestling and rolling deep into Existence
While the Beloved gets rough
And begins to maul you alive.
Like so many of us, I once believed it possible to find a way out of the pain of Eros. Perhaps I didn’t try hard enough; certainly I didn’t succeed. But I can tell you that I believed in a version of love that is fulfilled through commitment to the fullness of the moment, through loving gestures, clearly stated intentions and a heart that stayed open even when it hurt. I believed in love that was passionate and wild even as it was broad, inclusive and forgiving. I thought it possible to create a private world where the integrity of love and honest desire trumped convention. I thought that the dilemmas that love presents to us were solvable if I was earnest enough, authentic enough, and honest enough. Honest enough in communicating the truth of who I was and the fullness of my delight in another’s being.
There was a quiet untruth in this approach – not only because I lied to others, but because I deluded myself that if I got it right, I would not have to feel pain in loving. I didn’t take into account the ruthless side of Eros – the aspect of Eros that does not let us cut this kind of a deal. Eros at its heart is wildly uncompromising. Eros insists that we live a fully embodied life, one that includes pain, loss, confusion and bewilderment. Eros is fierce and unrelenting. It won’t be captured, cajoled, or confined to the realm of the comfortable, particularly when the ego is trying to settle into an untrue version of Love.
“True Love, my dear,
Is putting an ironclad grip upon
The sore, swollen balls of a Divine Rogue Elephant
And not having the good fortune to Die!
In Zen, there is a famous koan about a master who teaches by giving student a thorough beating. No matter what question the student asks, the beating comes just the same. When the student attempts to answer the question, he receives a beating. When the student remains silent, he gets a beating. When the student attempts to escape or withdraw, he still gets a beating. Eros often teaches like that Zen master, giving a complete knock-out, foot-to-groin, nose-smashed-against-asphalt pummeling. It demands that we experience pain, injury, and the collapse of self,–even that we recognize suffering itself as its loving touch.
Our sexual and romantic lives are filled with an array of agonies not easily borne by the ego, by the body, or by the sense of (limited) self. There is the pain of not being seen or desired, and the pain of being seen starkly, in all our most shame-inducing imperfections. There is the pain of not getting the affection we seek, or the pain of having it for a time, then losing it. There is the startling pain of realizing we were not our beloved’s only one- that our beloved shared his love with others may cut into our desperately human need to be special. There is the pain of being asked for more than we are able to give, and the pain of trying to give and not being wanted. There is the pain of love which turns to hate, of affection which turns to contempt, and of the touch which, once desired, becomes repellent.
Then there is the pain of betrayal. Betrayal is uniquely excruciating because only someone whom you really trust–someone who could never, you thought, betray you– can deliver this particularly devastating blow.
Sex models life in that it hurts like hell. It’s no wonder that in so much popular eroticism contains a sado-masochistic tinge, twinning sex and pain, domination and submission. In sex, even with the best of intentions, we often seem bound to inflict injury, and bound to receive it. We’re sure to be hurt in love, and we’re sure to hurt. We are subjected to injury against our will, and no matter how hard we fight against it, we injure others all the time. I don’t say this to be released of responsibility to others; ignorance, hubris, and grasping demand reckoning, and all transgressions against others must be known for what they are. (And who among us is without transgression.)
What I’m saying is that even genuine sensitivity, even a radical willingness to take responsibility, even a vow to end suffering, does not take away pain. As the Irish mystic rock singer Bono sings,
We’re one, but we’re not the same,
You see, we hurt each other,
then we do it again!
Entering the Temple of Pain
So even though a stiff drink of good Irish whisky might seem like the best response to the pain of eros, medicating our suffering never works for long. In the end, we have to be willing to look into pain deeply and directly. We need to know it first-hand, entering the interior of pain as we enter the interior of sex – with full presence, with a yearning to see, feel, and know it, and with a mind and heart expanded enough to embrace the whole catastrophe at once.
How does the hurt feel? What are its qualities? How do we engage the interiority of pain without violating our wholeness? How do we remain fully present to what is actually happening inside of us? How do we stay open in the midst of the pain, even stay connected to the yearning that once animated our hearts? What is our pain telling us? If we could hear pain’s voice, what sacred wisdom might she whisper in our ear.
Before pain reveals her secrets, we need to become her lover. As with a lover, we need to attend to our responses to pain with the same care and discrimination that we give our pleasure. What is our response to the feelings? What strategies arise to protect us against the experience of pain? Do we withdraw, attack and go to war, do we dull ourselves, do we immediately seek another love-fix, like the addicts we are?
What exactly is going on here?
Pain is a state of being. From a cognitive perspective, how we relate to the pain born of erotic or sexual betrayal is a decision. We choose the interpretive prism through which we will understand our pain, and that becomes the basis for our response to it. Sadly, we often we use the prism of “I’m so hurt” to justify vengeful malice, either verbal or actual. We use our wounds as an excuse for hating an ex-lover or spouse, for seeking unwarranted financial or legal redress, for blackening their reputation. We twist the law to align with the twisted valves of our heart. Hurt becomes a free pass, a get-out-of-jail free card that we believe gives someone the right to take revenge. And of course, since malice cannot reveal it’s true motivations, it must plead false ones, hiding behind masks of piety and noble intention.
Yes, all beings are hurt. We all carry some untransformed wound. But in the end we all must choose whether our wounds are to be allowed to fester in us, converted to malevolence, or transmuted into compassion. Suffering can lead us deeper into love or deeper into separation and hatred. It is always a choice. We each choose the prism for our pain, and the lens we choose is ultimately the mark of our level of consciousness. For a young child or a person at a certain level of consciousness, rage and pain can seem like reason to kill. The great revelation of the Axial Age lawgivers is that wounded honor is not to be personally avenged in spilled blood—and as the Talmud reminds us, there are many ways to spill a person’s blood. Some of them are so subtle that the person doesn’t know he’s been stabbed. Others may drain the blood from a person’s face in such a way that it takes years to set things right.
To avoid translating pain into violence– whether physical, verbal, or imaginary– we need to pay close and unflinching attention to our interiority.
We are required to clarify our pain through what a kabbalist might call the ten questions of Berur, the Clarification of Desire.
What thoughts arise regarding our pain?
What beliefs do we hold about this moment?
Are they true?
How does that belief serve our agenda in this moment?
What deeper truth does it cover up?
What or who would we be—or how would we feel—if we told ourselves a different story about our pain?
Are we blaming someone for our pain?
What if we turned it all around and made ourselves a responsible party instead of the victims in the story?
How does taking some responsibility help us loosen the weight of our anger and take some of the projection back?
How does it help us move from a blame frame to recognizing that everyone has a a share in contributing to realities that created the pain?
What gain to we receive from our pain- what profit is there for us, what social capital do we earn in telling and re-telling the story of our pain?
We long for certainty. But are we ever really certain of the correctness of our ideas about how the world should be? In moments of hurt and blame, if we can step out of our frame and go deeper, we might identify that behind our need to blame someone—even ourselves—for our pain is a feeling of being alone, of being cut off and isolated from the rest of reality. As we look into that deeper place then we might – often for the first time- be able to watch how the mechanism of ego works.
And we might also notice how we quickly–almost desperately–move to cover over that isolated feeling. If we look closely, we might realize that when we feel cut off, separate diminished or abandoned, we often move to secure our version of how we would like the world to be.
Sometimes simply seeing the ego at work, relaxing the struggle, and opening to the truth of the moment liberates our awareness. But in order for this to happen, we need the courage to be present with our own emotional and physical pain. In bioenergetics, and in certain traditions of tantric yoga, we are shown how to free pain through the body by breathing into the fullness of sensation, and feeling the alive quality in the sensation of pain itself. A yogini friend of mine once said, “Because you say “ow” instead of “ah”-because the sensation appears as a menace instead of a friend- doesn’t mean it’s not from the same source”. All phenomena arise from this same source, and the body itself is made of the substance of God.
To recognize the divine substance in pain allows us to be present to it rather than resisting or fearing it. Normally (and naturally) we seek to assuage and heal pain—the body itself produces hormones whose very purpose is to make pain bearable. To heal the pain of an other is the sacred joy and obligation of every individual. Even so, we sometimes need to be careful not to numb our pain so quickly that it cannot give us it’s teaching. According to the mystics this was the meaning of Job’s teaching when he defiantly asserted, “Through my Body I Vision God.” Job– the archetypal sufferer– teaches the Yoga of entering the body in order to walk through, not around, our pain. “I am in your pain” cries out the divine, through the lips of Isaiah. The words of the prophet resonate with particular poignancy regarding emotional pain–the pain of eros. There is a divinity to be realized in staying open to the pain of Eros. We need to resist the seduction of closing off into the easy certainties of psychological dogma, explaining how some demonized other is the source of our pain. If the skew of earlier times was to close our heart by blaming the victim, then the sin of our times is in the assuaging of our own guilt through the deification of the alleged victim’s pain. Does our heart become so hardened that all counter narratives are reviled, crushed or simply ignored? Do we allow the powerful to masquerade as the powerless, and unjust pain beyond all measure is meted out simply because we refuse to challenge the idolatry of hurt.
We need the capacity to sustain uncertainty without being psychologically seduced to adopt any dogmatic certainty about the way things are or ought to be, without choosing sides by asserting that someone is bad and someone else good. The capacity to hold open awareness within uncertainty, resisting the subtle but powerful impulse to close into one version of reality, is the gateway to enlightenment.
All the great traditions of spirit, in their own way, show us that everything is one thing. Everything is one beautiful, radical, unknowable, ungraspable, vast, empty gorgeousness. Nothing, absolutely nothing needs to be rejected. But only a lover is willing to look directly into the eyes of reality, and see things exactly as they are. When we talk about spiritual courage – this is what we mean. When we talk about being a lover – this is what we mean. We do our best to embrace everything exactly as it is – in excruciating, gorgeous detail. We pay attention to all the ways we hide, slink away, or build up a solid story of breach and betrayal to assuage our feelings. Yet it is only when we give up our insistence on being right that we can begin to be alive and aligned. There is a time to wield Gabriel’s sword and demand justice. And there is a moment when our spiritual training instructs us to surrender instead, to let go, to relinquish our ideas, and to breathe into the unwanted sensations. Much as we would like to simply transcend devastating erotic experience, love tells us that the only way out is through. We cannot transcend painful experiences without going through them, without becoming them. Hafiz says that:
Love is the funeral pyre
Where the heart must lay
How do we walk through the pain of Eros?
There are three steps that I have been able to discern in my own pain. They are the three steps to God. And in each step you are already there.
The first step is surrender.
The Second step is to meet your brother and sister in the pain.
The Third step is to meet God in the pain.
The First Step
To often we resist pain. But extreme pain insists that we accept it. “Do not imagine” pain says to us, “that it should be different then this. Forget your ideas of how it should be. Surrender to me. Settle into me. Prostrate yourself in the most deeply humbling way before me.”
Let yourself feel the next moment of pain, then breathe another step into surrender.
Sometimes we are called to enter so deeply into the interiority of the pain- of erotic betrayal or the loss of a lover- that all our old certainties are completely destroyed. All of our constructs collapse, all of our idealized shrines to love fall apart. At these moments it hurts so much that there are no words to speak about it. The only thing we are able to do is let ourselves into the feeling, to live on the inside of the pain as it shifts and changes and ultimately, with grace, resolves.
The Second Step
Surrendering so deeply and unconditionally into the pain reveals another radical truth.
Everyone is present within it. We are all hurt. In the brotherhoods and sisterhoods of pain we realize the invisible lines of connection that weave us into an indestructible whole. It is the wholeness itself that has within it the erotic power to transmute and heal pain. Our suffering itself is born of the alienation that derives from the part and partial nature of our persons. Meeting the other in pain, receiving the dignity of another’s story is a movement towards redemption. The mute, silent and dumb experience of pain is redeemed and embraced through the felt experience of one’s word spoken, heard and received. In the recognition that our pain is part of the larger Pain, something softens and opens with the healing power of Wholeness. In the invitation of Wholeness we catch a glimmer of the enlightenment born of pain—a radically democratizing enlightenment.
The Third Step
Some things are just bigger then we are. Just as sex compels us beyond ordinary boundaries of self, so Eros in the guise of pain overcomes ego. When the hurt is so large all separative bets are off. When there’s no keeping pain at bay, when it hurts so much that explanations and stories won’t hold, when emotional escape isn’t possible, the dharma gate blows open and realization of all and everything becomes possible. There is no time, no past nor future. There is nothing at all- no hurt and no hurting, no transgression, nor betrayal. Everything is forgiven in the truth of complete surrender.
If we are willing to feel into the pain so deeply that we as separate self no longer exist, there we will meet God. There we will be privileged to participate in the pain of the exiled Shekinah, the feminine face of God. In the Buddhist tradition, the divine feminine is called Kuan Yin, or Kanzeon Bodhisattva, hearer of the cries of the world. In Kabbalah, she is the Shekinah, God’s feminine face. We meet Shekinah in our pain.
“Love is the funeral pyre where the heart must lay its body.”
Here is the embrace of the Shekinah of Eros, the blessing of the divine feminine. She holds us in the deepest core of our being, rocking us, listening to our sobs, even as she caresses our head. Solomon wrote in The Song of Songs, “Her left hand is under my head even as her right hand embraces me”. The Shekinah holds us in our pain, and in pain itself she is present waiting to embrace, comfort and heal. We meet her there. In the comfort of her arms, with the soothing sounds of her voice, we realize that pain is none other than divine compassion herself.
“In all of their pain, I am in pain…”
cries out the Hebrew mystic Isaiah
and we feel her caress.
There is a deep heart within all of us which knows how to hold others in their pain. That deep knowing is our birthright. It is the Shekina who lives in us, yet is only realized when our own overwhelming hurt is transposed into overwhelming compassion. This is what the Hebrew mystics in the Zohar referred to when they spoke of “the Shekinah which is called I”. In our evolved realization we are, each of us, none other then the unique faces of divine compassion herself.
So, complete Surrender enfolds us into the feminine face of the divine– the most expansive, compassionate and full lover a being could hope for. Shekinah holds us in infinity. In the redemption of her arms, pain is none other then compassion itself.
Most people us not know how to make love because they do not know how to truly open to emotional and physical pleasure. In the same way, most people do not know the felt experience of true compassion because they will not allow themselves to enter so deeply into hurt that pain itself gives way to the sweetness of the Shekina’s embrace. Whenever you truly collapse into your soul’s pain, the pain itself collapses into the infinite goodness of existence itself. This is its mystery.
The pain of sexual and romantic heartbreak is an intense and exacting model for how we can engage pain in every facet of being. The sexual models the erotic. In the sexual, whether in her pain or pleasure, all the sacred secrets are held. It is only in opening ourselves to her wisdom that we can resist the temptation to turn secrets sacred into secrets sordid.
As I said at the outset, there was a time when I believed that there was a way out of the pain of Eros. Some people may believe that I didn’t try hard enough; others are correct in ascertaining that I didn’t succeed. But I can tell you that I believe in a version of love that is fulfilled through commitment which includes betrayal, through loving gestures which disappoint, and through allowing for the fullness of the others expansion and uniquely weird complexity.
I am willing now to feel hurt. The deepest hurt for us all is the recognition of having hurt others. Even if unconsciously. We hurt each other and then we do it again.
The second most powerful hurt is being betrayed, devastated and even murdered by those we loved.
When the genuine hurt of a broken relationship, the hurt that so often accompanies intimate engagement, is seen by one of the parties through the lens of his or her own untransformed wounds, the hurt can morph into malice. In that malicious spirit, the wounded person inflicts pain on the former lover that is often wildly disproportionate to the pain they may have suffered. When we are not willing to enter into our own pain, we demand reparations in a spiraling escalation of hurt.
If we are going to allow pain to take us into love it is utterly necessary to let go of the drama of our pain. Either our pain will evolve us to the divine or it will devolve us into the depths of hell on earth.
We need to see clearly the mistake we so often make imagining that deeply feeling our pain means feeding our story about the pain.
Feeding our sense of being wrong.
Feeding our feeling of betrayal.
Feeding our anger and above all our hurt.
The paradoxical key to moving towards enlightenment through the door of pain is to retain a deep recognition of the importance of balance. Balance is the ultimate secret, by a thousand different name, of every great mystical tradition world over. Wether it is the Yin and Yang, Anima and Animus, pathos and comedy, wisdom and foolishness Shekina and her consort Tiferet, Astarte and El, balance as the portal to goodness and love is the spirit that animates all of these pairs. It was Edith Hamilton who reminded us that the ideal of the human being for the ancient Greeks was that the idea of utter proportion. It is only a deep felt sense of proportion and balance that can eliminate suffering. An understanding of what is sufficient and what is too much.
Even if cannot evolve our pain to our enlightenment we can at the very least hold the pain honestly without losing our balance.
And so when we look into the pain we suffer in love, it’s important to recognize that there are hierarchies of pain, and that there is a moment to move past our own pain.
Here I am moved to share with you the story of the Hassidic master Naftali of Rophsitz, who was called to help the King.
You see the King’s son was crying desperately. All of the wise men of the kingdom, the doctors, the psychologists such as they were at the time, the magicians and Shamans, and all rest-none of them could comfort him or stop his crying. Indeed it seemed to always intensify after each failed attempt at healing. Until a wise old simple woman from the hinterland of the Kingdom came along, who was bringing milk to the palace.
She happened past the boy who was wandering near the kitchen crying, as he was wont to do. Apparently hearing his tears she approached him, not realizing he was the son of the king. She whispered a few words in his ear. Lo and behold, he looks up, looks at her, and his crying little by little begins to abate. Until after a few minutes, he is not crying at all. The End.
The end, said the Hasidim, “Please, holy master, the disciples pleaded with their teacher,” to the ropshitzer rebbe, “You must tell us; what magic, what amulet, what secret did the old wise woman- who we know must have been the Shekinah herself, what did she say?” The rebbe smiled. It was very simple, he said. She told the boy, “ You must not cry more than it hurts.”
Sometimes we hurt someone in a relatively small way and they respond with a cruelty and vengeance that we never imagined existed in their heart.
I am always surprised by malice.
I am devastated and on my knees, for any pain which I have ever caused others. I am shattered by allowing others to hurt me. I am devastated to my core at having hurt others by participating in creating a situation in which others would have to bear the pain of their own great lie.
And yet, all of us must not cry, more than it hurts.
If we learn to live wide open even as we are hurt by love, then the divine wakes up to its own true nature. To be firm in your knowing of love, even when you are desperate, and to be strong in your heart with forgiveness, even when you are betrayed―this is what it means to be holy.
I turn to Rabia, the great Indian mystic, Shekinah incarnate, to guide us home.
My Body is covered with wounds
this world made
But I still long to kiss her, even when God said
Could you also kiss the hand that caused
for you will not find me
until you do?