Ruby Sales, civil rights-era luminary and leading theologian, once asked a young sex worker who was battling out her daily survival on the margins of segregation-era America: ‘Where does it hurt?’. Into gently listening ears, the young woman’s story flooded forth: a personal chronicle of family abuse and intimate violation, transposed upon the history of entrenched social injustice. These co-occurring hurts lived in the same territory of pain.
Where is the pain, and what does it tell us?
With my yoga students, we enter these questions anatomically: to work through collapsing spines and exhausted minds, I offer postures and sequences aimed to strengthen and to ease. With my university students, we enter these questions analytically: to understand political economies of inequality, we consider how global, historically entrenched practices of material consumption are driven through (explicit and invisible) patterns of systemic violence.
Our pain tells such eloquent stories, and sometimes they converge:
Sixteen-year-old Ibrahim has an inspiring capacity to easily integrate the teachings of yoga alignment that have taken me decades to learn. He balances on his hands with a lightness and grace that evoke something like awe in me. But usually it’s the simplest postures that cause him pain. One day he brought me the x-ray image showing that his humerus bone is fractured close to the shoulder joint. I asked him how it happened.
‘I was still in Libya then. One day I was trying to escape a beating, but I fell as I was running away. I raised my hands to protect myself from their batons. That’s when my arm was broken.’
Is it in our pain that we realize how much the same we all are?
Tibetan Buddhist scholar Pema Chödron writes: ‘Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals.’ Perhaps this is why equality feels like an ache as well? That it is in its absence that the possibility of equality hurts so much?
‘I cannot feel the last three fingers of my right hand,’ another young yoga student explained one day as I guided the class into Adho Mukha Svanasana. We knelt together on his mat to examine his open palm: deeply scarred, irreversibly wounded. ‘They set dogs on me as I climbed the fence at Ceuta. But somehow I managed to get over to the other side.’
This is raw, shared pain and it is profoundly troubling. So I anticipate the first question: ‘What should we do with it?’ There are endless ways to begin healing such pain, but before we start, the hurt must first be acknowledged.