01/22/2016 11:19 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2017

The Wound and the Gift

The Sanskrit word guru means "darkness to light." Anything that enlightens us is our guru. As we come to locate the strength in our weak parts, the gifts in our losses, the counterintuitive uplift of even the most difficult changes, we realize as well that our wounds are our teachers; that the wound, in fact, is the guru.

As all of us know, many watershed insight moments arise out of crisis of some kind, circumstances forcing us beyond our limits. We often have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, onto a serious spiritual path by uncertainty, trauma, changes to the body, and so on. In tenuous times, we recognize the danger of not waking up, of confronting life's scary contingencies without a foundation of wisdom. Spiritual practice is fueled by the urgency of impermanence and deepened by the awareness of death.

The same is true of finding the gift in the wound. As a survivor of life-threatening illness, I've learned that by tapping into the insight latent in fear and loss, I activate the guru inside the wound. When this happens, a kind of conversion takes place, a turnaround from darkness to light. The Greeks had a word for this, metanoia, which means having your point of view turned around, recognizing enemies as your friends, seeing the unity of so-called opposites, and benefitting from non-dual awareness. As one survivor told me years ago (a mother who'd lost her young daughter to cancer), this reversal comes down to understanding that no matter what is happening, something else is also true. Regardless of a wound's particular nature, the circumstances that have brought us to grief, there's a double side to all experience, a hidden face that isn't uncovered until we inquire beyond our pain to what the pain is trying to tell us.

This is not a parlor game, philosophical dos-y-dos to cheer ourselves up when times are tough, or placate ourselves with saccharine illusions. It's a hard fact attested to by individuals forced to live with (not in spite of) challenge and adversity. It reverses the primal impulse to fight, flee, or freeze, avoid our pain, and banish the past into amnesia, which only diminishes us both psychologically and spiritually. As Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen told me, "There's an extraordinary wisdom and clarity that emerges in people who genuinely meet their pain." "Confronted by enormous change," the renowned healer, teacher, and survivor continued, "we're faced with an important choice. Either we come to surrender, go into the loss, attend to our own responses, and listen to ourselves, or we attempt to put it behind us and get on with the rest of our lives. But does this really work? It's hasn't for me! When we try to avoid loss and plow through our pain, our lives are actually diminished."

In a culture where vulnerability is often viewed as weakness, and personal wounds as handicaps, such wisdom seems to fly in the face of common sense. We overlook the potential for initiation through (not in spite of) our own suffering. Traditional cultures have long understood the empowering aspects of wounding, however, the double-edged force of passage rites to galvanize and deepen the spirit, while we in so-called advanced societies are shielded from this secret knowledge. We forget that terror is fuel, wounding is power, and that darkness carries the seeds of redemption. Authentic strength isn't found in our armor but at the pit of the wounds each of us manages to survive. As Rachel explained, "True strength doesn't mean being able to stand up to anything. It means being able to crawl on your belly a long, long time until you can stand up again."

This anti-heroic view of strength is the antidote to pride and self-pity. I've used it a thousand times in my life when the lights went out, I couldn't get up, and wisdom was nowhere to be found. Remembering that something else is also true, that present darkness contains a doorway to freedom, proves to be a salvational blessing. Indeed, the French verb blesser means "to wound," pointing to the integral, sacred link between awakening and pain, guru and wounding. One cannot exist without the other. As Rumi reminds us, "The wound is where the light enters you." How else would we know we're illuminated?

I use this principle whenever teaching writing as a spiritual practice. Rather than begin with light and transcendence, I encourage students to start by exploring the places that scare them, the pain they avoid, the darkness, the damage, the base of their spiritual operations. By investigating the wounds they're hiding, writers access their own secret knowledge. Every wound has its own shape and voice. Listening to these voices, writing them down, tracing their messages and innuendoes, we discover a world of information within, a treasure house of wisdom and healing. If you try this at home, you'll see what I mean. First, ask yourself the following questions:

1. What is it that I'm most ashamed of?

2. What do I view as my greatest losses?

3. What secret(s) am I afraid to reveal?

Once you've answered these questions and recognized that each response points to a different wound, begin to explore their particular contours, the unique history, beliefs, conclusions, and assumptions associated with each one. If the wound had a voice, what would it tell you? What does it need for its own healing? What are its lessons, messages, benefits? What is also true about the wound that you have not dared to acknowledge before? When I share these exercises with writing students (or do them myself), their power always amazes me. The guru inside us is always waiting. We only have to ask the right questions.