The Late N Train

homeless_platform

The N train into Brooklyn was running late. I wasn’t rushing anywhere important, only running errands.  Nothing notably spectacular was going on.

I had just come from yoga and my head was clear. My mood was a very perceptive one and I was ready to share the good feelings. The train pulled up and I stood in front of the closed doors. I felt a slight breeze as they parted and I walked in. I gazed to my left and saw a homeless man sprawled out with his belongings; a few large rocks, torn magazine pages, and a couple half-smoked cigarettes. He took up the entire side of the cab. No one dared sit near.

I took a seat across the aisle, between two very doubtful subway riders. They gave up their positions as soon as the subway approached the next stop. I watched this man organize his belongings over and over. His eyes drooped with fatigued and his pupils dilated with inebriation. Every few moments he’d fumble his feet and slur some words, grabbing random railings to steady himself. He was contained in his solitude, not looking to escape. He was of no harm, nor meant any ill will. He was in pain. He was hurt.

The rest of the train scowled. As we approached new stops, passengers entered only to exit, leaving this car for the next. Some held their nose, others held back their stomachs. The man was filthy, but he was still a man. I kept my gaze on him, trying to see myself in his eyes, but the only thing I could see was the separation between myself and the crowd.

This man was on trial, for crimes he’d already commit and the verdict was guilty. He had no home, no job, no money. He smelled like trash and urine, looked like he rolled around in garbage all morning, and sounded like a madman. His actions were unfamiliar and made others uncomfortable. He was homeless. Less than human.

I started to feel bad. My sympathy was overwhelming, so much so that a deep valley of compassion was carved in me. I hoped there would be help to uplift the despair on this train. I sent love to the depths of the ignorant. I asked how I could help change the reality of it all. How could I be a beacon, an example of kindness, love, and empathy? And amidst the glares, judgements, and beckons of the other passengers, I sat firmly in my seat, smiling at this gentle, homeless man.

The people on the 2:34 N Train into Atlantic Avenue made my heart sink. Their disdain and utter disregard for another human being was so cold, so unyielding, that this man never had a chance to change. His position in this world was sealed by the reactions of his peers. His peers—yes, because we are all living on this Earth together—who were going about their days running from work to home, home to work, store to store, place to place, could not afford to give him a simple gesture of kindness. Not even a smile.

Not even an empathetic thought.

I felt bad for that people on that train. For each and every one of them. The only soul that escaped that late N train without an ounce of my worry, was that homeless man clutching his bag of half-smoked cigarettes and absurdly large rocks. He was safe in depths of his solitude from the follies of mankind.

But then again I wondered, how could I love the others? They were me, too.

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Pain.

There is nothing worse than the feeling of pain. It stings. It burns. It penetrates. It hurts. Pain is the bitter end of a faded sweetness. It is a remnant of a decision that influences all future decisions of the like. It is a signal, and like all signals, it is meant to guide. Where and how we left pain guide us is completely our choice.

On a physical level, pain is a sign to stop doing something. Get your hand out of the fire. Don’t walk barefoot on broken glass. Get away from that beehive. Pain is the body’s recourse for conscious decision-making; it is a physical action that is translated into a mental activity. Neurons react to exterior stimuli, sending messages to the brain that implement positive change. On a physical level, the necessity of pain is blatantly obvious: survival. 

It is less obvious to see the purpose behind pain in the mind, or suffering through emotions. Much like physical pain, mental pain is also a necessity to living a healthy life, but the difference between the two is that mental pain comes in forms of emotion. These less tangible—but often more painful—forms of suffering can include general sadness, anxiety, depression, and anger. These “negative” emotions cause varying levels of stress, and this stress is the signal that tells the mind something needs to change. (I keep negative in quotations because every emotion is positively relevant in the pursuit of experience and therefor cannot be condemned to a positive or negative judgment). Just like physical pain, mental pain is attempting to teach the mind a lesson.

As hinted to earlier, the main difference between physical and mental pain is tangibility. Physical pain is much easier to spot and—subsequently—fix. If I am stepping on a rock, I understand that that rock is causing infliction and removing it solves the problem. It is more difficult to identify and solve mental pain.

A good example is the all to common problem of missing someone. Everyone at some point has to say goodbye to someone they care about. It could be a lover, a friend, a family member, or even a pet. When we walk along our individual paths and have to leave something important behind, it hurts. Identifying this type of pain is very easy, but understanding why it’s there is difficult. Many reasons seem plausible. In the case of longing questions like: Am I missing this thing because I need it? because I want it? because I am accustom to it? because I am afraid of not finding it again? etc, car arise. Here, the “rock” is identifiable, but the reason for its infliction is buried. This makes solving the problem ever more challenging. Yet, solving the puzzle of pain is only the first part, learning from it is entirely another challenge.

As mentioned, the point of pain is to learn. Learning from pain points us in the direction of not having to feel that pain again. In order to learn from pain, we must understand everything about it: what hurt me? why did I get hurt? how can I stop the pain? In emotional pain, the answers may not be so transparent, but they do exist. Reaching them requires patience, a willingness to feel the extent of the pain, and an open mind to understand what choices led to these consequences. 

We so often repeat the same mistakes, only to be brought back to the same problem, the same pain. Many denounce pain and run from it. Often times I fail to understand that my suffering is the greatest teacher I have. It is a stern instructor that does not bend under the suffering of its students. It is a consistent reminder that there is a better way to live life. Pain’s ultimate goal is to provide its subject with an evolved way of being. Pain is the path to self-evolution.

Although I hate feeling pain, I know deep down that whenever I feel it I have the chance to grow. Pain makes us feel alive because it threatens our stagnation; our comfortability. It gets us moving when we have become still. It pushes us to expand the limits of our selves. Whenever I feel pain and can pull my ego out of self-pity, I know that I am on the verge of doing great work.

A yogi friend of mine once told me, “The depth of our pain carves out our ability to feel empathy.” I understood this as “the more pain I feel, the more I can relate to the pain of others,” which is correct. What I was missing was the empathetic knowledge of the self: the more pain I feel, the more I understand myself. Becoming intimate with aversion brings one closer to knowing affection. And through pain I understand more about who I am and how deep I can become.

The Beauty of Pain

Photo: soulbounce

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, instead of buying flowers and making dinner reservations, I find myself feeling the pangs of a broken relationship. But even with this heartbreak, I’ve found more love than I could imagine. And it is all because of pain.

Sometimes, pain is the most important teacher in life.

It takes on many forms: physical, emotional, existential, spiritual, the list goes on. Yet regardless of the different shapes it takes, pain is always the same. It eats at the core and it sinks down low. It is blue and hollow, victimized and regretful. Pain is a horrible feeling that is relaying a message to the inflicted. At the most basic level it yells “STOP!” Take your hand off the kettle, take pressure off your ankle, release your grip of the thumbtack. It alerts us to safety when we are in danger. In physical form, the tangibility clearly denotes the necessity of pain. But what about the less palpable pains?

What about heartbreak? What about depression? What about fear and failure? These are all forms of pain and they all hurt—sometimes more than physical pain. What are the messages of these non-material sufferings? What is pain telling me when my heart is broken?

It is telling me the same message: “Stop!” Something in my life is causing me harm and I need to pay attention to it. This stress is taxing my energy and causing friction, so much friction that pain must speak up.

In all honesty, I am going through a lot of pain. Break ups are never easy, nor the ones you wish did not happen. As easy as some make it seem, separation is always tough. However, it is nothing new and the outcome will always be positive because, as they say, life goes on. What I would rather discuss is not the details of my situation, but the process of pain.  I find that too often I speed through the painful moments in order to reach happiness. This neglect of hurt has denied me valuable lessons. Lessons that one can only receive in true moments of despair.

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