Stories & Reflections
By Paulo Coelho
The limit of pain
We are on the top of a mountain, beside a stone column with some inscriptions. From high up, I can make out a temple in the middle of the forest.
– That is one of the three sanctuaries the pilgrim must visit, and when he arrives here, he feels great joy at already being so close to one of them – says Katsura. – According to tradition, no woman may go beyond this point during her menstrual period. One time, a poet came this far, saw the temple, but because of her menstruation, could not go on. She understood that she would not have the strength to go four days without eating, and decided to return without reaching her objective. She wrote a poem of thanks for the days spent walking, got ready to return the following morning, and went to sleep.
“The Goddess then appeared in her dreams. She said she may go on, because her verses were beautiful; as you can see, fine words can even make the Gods change their opinion. The stone column bears the poem she wrote.”
Katsura and I set out on the five kilometers which separate us from the temple. Suddenly I recall the words of the biologist I met: “If the Goddess wants you to practice Shugendo, the way of the art of accumulating experience, she will tell you what to do.”
– I shall remove my shoes – I tell Katsura.
The ground is rocky, and bitterly cold, but Shugendo is the communion with nature in all its aspects, including that of physical pain. Katsura also removes her shoes; we set out.
The first step I take, a pointed rock pierces my foot, and I feel the deep gash. I stifle a cry, and continue. Ten minutes later I am walking at half the speed when we set out, my feet hurting more and more, and for a moment I think about how far I still have to travel, that I may get an infection, that my publishers await me in Tokyo, all the interviews and meetings which have been arranged. But the pain quickly pushes back these thoughts, I decide to take another step, and another, and to continue for as long as possible. I think about the many pilgrims who have come here practicing Shugendo, without eating for many weeks, without sleeping for many days. But the pain will not allow me to think profane or noble thoughts – it is simply pain, occupying all space, frightening me, forcing me to think of my limit, and that I won’t succeed.
Nevertheless, I can take another step, and another. The pain now seems to invade my soul, and weakens me spiritually, for I am not able to do that which many people have done before me. It is physical and spiritual pain at the same time, it doesn’t seem like a marriage with Mother Earth, but rather a punishment. I am disorientated, do not exchange a single word with Katsura, all that exists in my universe is the pain of treading on the small, sharp rocks of the path leading through the trees.
Then a very strange thing happens: my suffering is so great that, in a defense mechanism, I seem to float above myself, and ignore that which I am feeling. At the far boundary of pain there is a door to another level of consciousness, and there is no longer room for anything else but nature and myself.
Now I no longer feel pain, am in a lethargic state, my feet continue to follow the path automatically, and I understand that the boundary of pain is not my limit; I can go beyond. I think of all those who suffer without wishing it, and I feel ridiculous flagellating myself like this, but I have learned to live like this – trying out the majority of things before me.
When we finally stop, I take the courage to look at my feet, to see the open wounds. The pain, which was hidden, returns again with force; I consider the journey over now, I will not be able to walk for many days. Imagine my surprise when, the following day, everything has healed; Mother Earth knows how to take care of her children.
And the wounds go beyond the physical body; many wounds which had opened up on my soul were expelled by the pain I felt as I walked along the road to Kumano towards a temple who’s name escapes me. Certain suffering can only be forgotten when we manage to float above our pain.
(continued on Monday)
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