On the Pain of Eros: Opening to the Wounds of Love

By Marc Gafni

by Marc Gafni & Diane Musho Hamilton

Rabbi Marc Gafni  and Zen teacher Diane Musho Hamilton explore the beauty of Eros—the divine life force—and how the pain that inevitably comes from our loving can only become our ally if we are willing to revel in that pain—as much as in the pleasure.

gafni_erosEros shows itself to be a ferocious ally. While the sexual does model the pleasure and beauty of Eros, it also models the pain that inevitably comes from our loving. Eros manifests fully only if we are willing to revel in its pain as well as its pleasure.

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 to Eros, teach us to understand Eros and to live from its full and passionate source.

But there is another side to Eros. In this aspect, Eros shows itself to be a ferocious ally. While the sexual does model the pleasure and beauty of Eros, it also models the pain that inevitably comes from our loving. Eros manifests fully only if we are willing to revel in its pain as well as its pleasure.

Confusion about sexuality and loving is the source of much of our pain. When we see love clearly, we recognize the truth 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. I believed in a version of love 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 the dilemmas love presents were solvable if I were earnest enough, authentic enough and honest enough in communicating the truth of who I was and the fullness of my delight in another’s being.

I didn’t take into account the ruthless side of Eros-the aspect of Eros that does not let us cut this kind of 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.

Hafiz writes:

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!

There is a famous Zen koan about a master who teaches by giving students 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. Eros 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 any limited sense of 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, and 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. 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 can deliver this particularly devastating blow.

It’s no wonder that so much popu_lar eroticism contains a sadomaso_chistic 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 cause hurt.

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

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 firsthand, entering the inter__ior of pain as we enter the inter_ior 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 catas_trophe at once.

Before pain reveals its secrets, we need to become its 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?

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 use the prism of “I’m so hurt” to justify vengeful malice, either verbal or actual. And of course, since malice cannot reveal its 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 to allow these wounds to fester in us, converted to malevolence, or to transmute them into compassion. Suffering can lead us deeper into love or deeper into separation and hatred.

To avoid translating pain into violence-whether physical, verbal or imaginary-we need to pay close and unflinching attention to our interiority. Here are 10 questions to ask ourselves.

The clarification of desire

1. What thoughts arise regarding our pain?

2. What beliefs do we hold about this moment? Are they true?

3. How does that belief serve our agenda in this moment?

4. What deeper truth does it cover up?

5. What or who would we be-or how would we feel-if we told ourselves a different story about our pain?

6. Are we blaming someone for our pain?

7. What if we turned it all around and made ourselves a responsible party instead of the victim in the story?

8. How does taking some responsibility help us loosen the weight of our anger and take some of the projection back?

9. How does it help us move from a blame frame to recognizing that everyone has a share in contributing to realities that created the pain?

10. What gain do we receive from our pain-what profit is there for us, what social capital do we earn in telling and retelling the story of our pain?

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, we might be able to watch how the mechanism of ego works.

Sometimes simply seeing the ego at work, relaxing the struggle and opening to the truth of the moment liberates our awareness. But 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 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 resist or fear 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 another is the sacred joy and obligation of every individual. Even so, we need to be careful not to numb our pain so quickly that it cannot give us its 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. Divinity can be realized in staying open to the pain of Eros. We need to resist the seduction of the easy certainties of psychological dogma, ex_plaining how some demonized other is the source of our pain. If the skew of earlier times was to close the heart by blaming the victim, then the sin of our times is in the assuaging of our own guilt through deifying the alleged victim’s pain. This can harden the heart until all other narratives are reviled, crushed or simply ignored.

When I talk about being a lover, what I mean is to 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 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 (paraphrased later by the Doors) says:

Love is the funeral pyre
Where the heart must lay Its body.

First step: Surrender

Extreme pain insists that we accept it. “Do not imagine,” pain says to us, “that it should be different than 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 betrayal or loss-that all our old certainties are destroyed. Our constructs collapse, our idealized shrines to love fall apart. When it hurts so much that there are no words to speak about it, the only thing 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.

Second step: Meet your brother and sister in the pain

Surrendering so deeply and uncon_ditionally into 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 that has within it the erotic power to trans_mute the pain and heal it. Meeting the other there, receiving the dignity of another’s story, is a movement toward redemption. In the recognition that our pain is part of the larger pain, something softens and opens with the healing power of wholeness. There, we catch a glimmer of a radically democratizing enlightenment.

Third step: Meet God there

Some things are bigger then we are. Eros as sex compels us beyond ordinary boundaries of self; Eros as pain overcomes ego. 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. There is no hurt and no hurting, no transgression, no betrayal. Everything is forgiven in the truth of complete surrender.

If we are willing to feel into the pain so deeply that we as a separate self no longer exist, here we will meet God. 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, caressing 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. Whenever we collapse into our soul’s pain, the pain collapses into the infinite goodness of existence itself. This is its mystery.

The paradoxical key to moving towards enlightenment through the door of pain is retaining a deep recognition of the importance of balance. Balance is the ultimate secret, by a thousand different names, of every great mystical tradition the world over-yin and yang, anima and animus, pathos and comedy, wisdom and foolishness. Balance as the portal to goodness and love is the spirit that animates all of these pairs. Even if we cannot evolve our pain to our enlightenment, we can at least hold the pain honestly without losing our balance.

Here’s a story: The Hassidic master Naftali of Rophsitz told his students of his being called to help the king. The king’s son was crying desperately. All of the wise men of the kingdom, the doctors, the magicians and shamans (the psychologists of the day) had been to see him and none could com_fort him or stop his crying. Indeed, every attempt at healing seemed to intensify the young prince’s woe.

It happened that an old woman from the hinterland of the kingdom was bringing milk to palace. She passed the boy as he wandered, sobbing, near the kitchen. She approached him, not realizing he was the king’s son, and whispered a few words in his ear. Lo and behold, he looked up at her, and his crying began to abate. In just a few minutes, he was not crying at all.

And here Naftali ended his tale. “Please, holy master,” the disciples pleaded with their teacher, “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 master smiled. “It was very simple,” he said. “She told the boy ‘you 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 of 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 each scar?
for you will not find me
until you do

Marc Gafni is the author of “Soul Prints,” “Mystery of Love” and other books. A former Modern Ortho_dox rabbi, he lives in Salt Lake City. Diane Musho Hamilton is a fully ordained Zen priest and a facilitator and mediator. Together, their writing has previously appeared in CATALYST under the byline “A Lover.”

This article was originally published on August 29, 2009.