Practices From the Inside Out: Transforming Pain Into Wisdom


Transforming Pain into Wisdom

Pain gets our attention and focuses our minds. I have experienced physical pain which made it impossible to think about anything else. We may face emotional pain which absorbs our full attention. How can we solve problems, including our pain, when we cannot reason our way out?

People tell us pain can make us a better person, that we can be stronger where we have been broken. Does that really work in a practical, everyday way? How can our pain be transformed into strength?

We are able to transform physical pain into strength through treatment and healing. Doctors have devised extensive therapies to build strength in injured parts of our bodies.

When we are in pain it takes serious effort to find the wisdom hiding there. It is as if the wisdom is deep in the pain, not on the surface where it would be easy for us to see.

I slipped on the snow and broke my arm when I was in the sixth grade. I could tell right away something was wrong. My arm was not working the way I expected and I was in pain. Soon there was a cast on my arm which was quite itchy and allowed my broken bones to mend. After my cast came off it took me quite a while to get my arm back into shape.

I can remember wondering at the time why these things always happened to me. Why did I have to wait so many painful, uncomfortable weeks to be free of that cast?

I did not really want my pain transformed, just taken away.

In the same way, spiritual life is at work in us revealing the truths hidden deep in our pain.

Experiencing Our Pain

Spiritual life transforms our pain into wisdom without necessarily taking it away.

As we give permission for spiritual life to work in us, or even cooperate with it, we are transformed. We often think about spiritual life in terms of growing or developing strength.

Spiritual life shares some similarities with physical life. We grow and become stronger physically, just as we do spiritually. Developing healthy practices builds our physical lives as well as spiritual life.

Spiritual life transforms our pain by showing us how to experience it in a different way.

Pain often comes to us as a surprise or a shock. We do not really expect to feel pain.

When pain catches us off guard we react at an immediate level. Pain hurts and we want it to stop. Please just make it stop!

It is usually only after we get some relief from the immediate pain that we begin to listen to it. Our pain is, in fact, communicating with us.

Pain is often one of the first ways we learn important lessons. We may have learned that stoves are hot through pain, or at least discomfort. The earliest lessons we learn about the world are experiential ones.

We also learn we do not like pain, that it is something to be avoided.

Pain is a very powerful tool to teach us what to avoid. Because pain is so powerful we decide we really want to avoid feeling it. It is as if we cannot hear the lessons pain is trying to teach us because pain is so powerful. Our experience of pain becomes what we remember more than the lessons.

The First Step in Transforming Our Pain

Some pain has lessons for us about what we eat and how we use our bodies. Other pain is trying to teach us about how love and joy work. Pain may be trying to communicate the problems with taking shortcuts or wasting time.

Transforming pain into wisdom takes time. When pain gets our attention we begin to reflect about it. We may deny it exists, or try to bargain it away. Some pain makes us feel angry or frustrated, or like we are getting old.

We may feel the pain of being betrayed or abandoned. The pain we cause other people can be reflected in their eyes.

Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of pain in and around us.

The first step in transforming pain into wisdom is paying attention to it. It may help us to gain a little distance, to feel some relief, and listen to what pain is telling us.

We may be too afraid of pain to really pay attention. Pain is a warning and we want to get out of there as quickly as we can. It may help us to ask a few questions.

Where does this pain originate for me?

What is this pain trying to tell me?

Who is sharing the pain we feel?

Why is this particular pain especially intense for us?

How have we caused our own pain?

When will we begin to feel better?

As we explore the pain in our world, trying to listen, we begin to gain insights about it. Our reflection may be painful in itself, but take us in a helpful direction.

Uncovering Wisdom in Our Pain

It takes time and effort for pain to be transformed into wisdom in our lives. As we lean into spiritual life, it leans into us bringing new parts of us into clearer focus.

We open our awareness to the pain we experience. Reflecting on the pain in our past, or in this present moment, opens its lessons to us. The meaning of our pain, its deeper purpose, helps us see from a new perspective.

Very few people want to experience more pain, more suffering. We do not intend to add to the pain we feel, but to understand what it means.

Pain focuses our minds and gets our attention. As we listen for what pain is trying to teach us, drop by drop, wisdom is distilled in our hearts.

How is spiritual life transforming pain into wisdom in us this week?

Who helps you with the work of transforming pain into wisdom?

[Image by ayustety]

Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor and leadership coach in Southern California. He is a recovering attorney and university professor, and a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is, and his email address is

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