The Gift Inside Our Pain

What do you know about hormesis? It’s the phenomenon that (kind of) explains the expression “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Technically, hormesis refers to biological processes in which a certain amount of exposure to a stress or toxin stimulates a favorable response, even when other amounts are deadly. For instance, while a high dose of radiation is often fatal, small doses have in some cases been shown to stimulate a positive adaptation leading to lower than average rates of cancer. A hormetic response to certain adverse influences sometimes leads to an evolution. 

Last week I wrote about suffering and our complicated relationship with it. Perhaps we could see it as a hormetic relationship. In low to moderate doses, suffering is purely degrading. We tolerate it but it erodes our presence, our performance, and our patience. In extreme doses it kills us. But sometimes there’s a sweet spot in between where it’s bad enough that it can’t be tolerated in the usual way, something cracks open, and a breakthrough occurs. 

One of the key ingredients in a favorable response to suffering is consciousness. I could never say it as well as Eckhart Tolle, so here’s a quote (slightly abridged) from his book, A New Earth

Humanity is destined to go beyond suffering, but not in the way the ego thinks. One of the ego’s many erroneous assumptions is “I should not have to suffer.” That thought itself lies at the root of suffering. Suffering has a noble purpose: the evolution of consciousness and the burning up of the ego. As long as you resist suffering, it is a slow process. When you accept suffering, however, there is an acceleration of that process which is brought about by the fact that you suffer consciously. In the midst of conscious suffering, there is already the transmutation. The fire of suffering becomes the light of consciousness. The truth is that you need to say yes to suffering before you can transcend it.

Suffering isn’t intrinsically useful or noble. When we suffer “unconsciously” – resisting it and turning away from it – it just becomes part of the tragic degradation of life that Buddhism speaks to when it says the nature of the world is to suffer (dukkha). Bringing consciousness, acceptance, and curiosity to it makes it something entirely different. 

In her book, Loving What Is, Byron Katie shares an exchange she had with a client who is incessantly angry at big corporations that pollute the planet. On examining the client’s psychology, we see that she is conducting a campaign of violence against these corporations and their faceless leaders in her mind. Katie asks the client if this suffering is necessary in order to feel that she’s doing something about the situation. Through some digging they get down to a troublesome belief at the heart of it: If I don’t suffer, I won’t care.

This is a big one for many of us. Is it true? If we didn’t suffer would we be complacent? Is it suffering that makes us care to be productive or helpful?  

This is a question that can only be answered for oneself. 

I believe we have a natural, transpersonal inclination toward serving, loving, and awakening. It doesn’t need to be prompted by suffering. But as we see, it’s common for humans to stifle or undermine this inclination. And so, suffering, it turns out, may sometimes be what gets us to recognize it and prioritize it.

When you meet suffering consciously, you may find that it dissolves. You may find that it’s been perpetuated by untrue beliefs, like “I should suffer for my sins,” or “I don’t deserve to be happy.” You may find that the suffering is generated by a part of you that’s just trying to get you to feel. You may find that it’s trying to draw your attention to something, to show you there’s a better, freer way to operate. You may find that the suffering is coming from the last part of you that’s afraid to embody your power, and that with trust it disappears. You may find that the suffering is the feeling that arises from being afraid of suffering. You may find that the suffering is actually an invitation to pass through a gate to a new way of being.

The only way to know is to visit with it. There’s nothing in any book, no teaching from any guru that lets you bypass the need to directly encounter what’s stirring in YOU.  

I always love to hear what you think of these “deep” ideas, and hope that we can make such depth part of our everyday conversations and experiences. 

Be well,


10 thoughts on “The Gift Inside Our Pain

  1. I love this essay. So important for right now.

    1. Thanks Elizabeth

  2. Thank you Peter. I love this invitation to inquire into our own direct experience.

    1. You’re welcome!

  3. As I read this, a couple random thoughts came to mind. One, I grew up Catholic, so suffering was an expected part of life. We were told to “offer it up” as a way to shorten our afterlife in purgatory. I still use the phrase in difficult times. Two, my late father-in-law was a rather renegade immunologist. His pioneering treatment for allergies involve exposing the patient to the allergen in small doses, generally administered through drops taken orally. Through minute doses of “suffering,” the patient developed an immunity to the allergen. Interesting.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, John. I, too, sometimes “offer up” my suffering & I think Catholics were onto something there. I’m not sure the concept of purgatory has a divine source, but the notion of surrendering our suffering, to “let go and let God,” makes sense to me. It’s an act of relinquishing the inner conflict, of asking for help, and of opening the lines of communication to a higher power. Every time I’ve done it, something has shifted for the better.

      And I’m fascinated by this practice by your late father in law and other progressive doctors and alchemists through the ages – taking small amounts of “poison” to become more resilient. Most definitely a form of hormesis and, in my opinion, much better than a lifetime of antihistamines.

  4. I really connected with this statement, “You may find that the suffering is coming from the last part of you that’s afraid to embody your power, and that with trust it disappears.” When I was in my 20’s, I felt very connected and trusting of my higher self. Since then I had been in an abusive relationship for a decade. I finally found my way out of the situation but my relationship with my higher self has since been damaged. I lost the trust because it was trusting my higher self that got me into the mess in the first place. My current suffering is due to a lack of trust. The statement above helped me to connect that idea and now I know to work on forgiveness and trust in my higher self.

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Christine. It’s a story that seems to be begging for exploration. I can’t help wondering… How do you know it was your higher self that directed you to that relationship? Were you prompted by Love? Or something “lower” like approval, security, etc.? If your higher self directed you to that relationship, what was your PURPOSE? Was it for your benefit or the other person’s? Did you keep listening to the guidance of your higher self once you were in the relationship? Did it tell you to stay? Or were you in some way “possessed” by the other’s domineering energy and/or a part of yourself that subscribed to some sort of victimhood? When you finally left the relationship, what was it that changed in you to enable you to make that move? Looking back, can you find some way in which the abuse you suffered prompted the emergence of some hidden power in you? or clarified for you the true path you need to be on? Maybe these questions – and whatever others come up in the inquiry process – will help elucidate what exactly happened and facilitate a return to trusting your higher self. In my opinion, the small self is not always trustworthy – that trust can wax and wane, and depends significantly on personal integrity and honoring our inner agreements – but the higher self is always trustworthy. It’s beyond guile, greed, fear, and the other forces that lead us astray.
      Anyway, I wish you luck in reestablishing this connection. You might check out my wife Briana’s free intuition guide, as it contains a lot more help for making the relationship with ones highest self more tangible and reliable.

  5. Hi Peter,
    What resonated with me is “If I don’t suffer that means I don’t care”. I know this is not true my higher self knows. However, I feel that if I’m not showing that I’m suffering as others are that I will be judged.
    Thank you for this definitely food for thought.

    1. Hi Joanne,
      Yes, suffering is definitely considered a virtue by many, and as you say, a sign that you care & that you’re sympathetic. But do we really provide the best support when we’re suffering?
      Thanks for sharing.

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