Martin Laird has written several modern spiritual classics on the practice of contemplation: Into the Silent Land (2006), A Sunlit Absence (2011), and An Ocean of Light (2019). In the first of these, he describes how the practice of contemplation works in the midst of pain. He tells the story of Elizabeth who contracted an autoimmune disease which left with intense pain and bedridden much of the time.

Elizabeth’s pain was simply there. But her active mind could not let the pain be. Her mind would pick at it, lance it, scratch at it: “Why did this have to happen?” “Who is going to take care of me?” “How can I pay for this?” There were times of the day when the pain would intensify, and her thoughts ran: “Wouldn’t it be better to die,” “I don’t want to be a burden to others,” or “Why is God punishing me?” When the thoughts let up, she would soon be looking at the clock in anticipation of the next battle. “My thoughts are like a pack of hyenas. They make the pain unbearable.”

Elizabeth was familiar with contemplative practice but said it had been “more or less limited to airports, train journeys and enduring tedious sermons.” With the onset of this illness, however, her spiritual well-being became more of a concern to her, and so she established a regular discipline spaced through each day. Giving her attention to her prayer word and her breath instead of her torturing thoughts kept her in the present moment and gradually helped her distinguish the pain from the commentary on the pain.

Having discovered that the drama of the commenting mind adds to suffering, she learned several important things about pain. First: thoughts about pain are worse than pain by itself. “Suffering is what your mind does with your pain,” she said. “A silent mind knows no suffering.” Trying to push pain away increases suffering. In her case there was no question of pain going away. But suffering she could do something about. If she could be still before the pain and not wrestle with it, she felt alive and aware. Gradually she was able to let go of the demand that the pain be gone, if it didn’t happen to be gone.

By learning simply to be still before pain she learned to see into pain. Pain has a center. This center is silence. When her attention was not stolen by thoughts about the pain, she could be still before this silent center. In this silent center she felt closest to God.

But what brought definitive change for the remaining time before her death was the realization that in this very silence there was communion with all people, a loving solidarity with all humanity. The awareness of this was seamlessly united with her awareness of God. This realization expressed itself-—even while bedridden—as self-forgetful, loving attentiveness to all whom she met. Medical writer Steven Levine observes “true healing happens when we go into our pain so deeply that we see it, not just as our pain, but everyone’s pain. It is immensely moving and supportive to discover that my pain is not private to me.” If she could be silent within herself, in the midst of her pain, and not get caught up in commenting on the pain, she saw her isolation vanish and what she found, even in the midst of this pain, was communion with all people in the silence of God.

Elizabeth moved from being a victim of suffering to being a witness of pain by letting go of the demand that the pain be other than it happens to be at any given moment. She hurt. But she no longer suffered. What she once saw as an obstacle or something that isolated her from God, herself, and others, became a place of communion.