Your Greatest Wound Is Your Greatest Gift
Meditation saved my life when I was a teenager. I was bullied for six years for being perceived as queer in my small mountain town in Colorado. I wasn’t out yet, even to myself, but I was taunted, physically harassed, teased, and manipulated by peers who perceived something different about me. Beginning meditation in high school taught me focus, revealed an inherent goodness in me regardless of what was happening around me or being said about me, and showed me a spaciousness inside that could never be taken from me.
Of course, meditation didn’t make all my pain go away. Living as queer, gender nonconforming, and trans people in the world is difficult. We are blessed by our bodies but don’t always realize it, nor does society around us. When I came out as trans in the early 2000s, I was confused, angry, and depressed, a reasonable response to living in a transphobic world. Wells of anger and grief emerged: grief from childhood trauma, rage at my ancestors, fear about climate change, exhaustion from a society prioritizing profit over people, and a well of sadness at the impact of systems of oppression in my queer community.
Yet as many teachers before me have said, our greatest wound is often our greatest gift.
I first encountered this teaching from Suzanne Sterling, Seane Corn, and Hala Khouri, teachers at Off the Mat, Into the World, a collective bridging yoga and meditation with community action. I am sharing it with you here because it has allowed me to turn toward my pain with compassion and inquiry, to work with it, sit with it, and gather insight from it, rather than deny, avoid, resist, or fight it. This teaching has expanded my awareness, implying that everyone is wounded and that that is not a bad thing after all. I am not disposable because of the ways I’ve been harmed or enacted harm, and neither is anyone else.
All of us have hurt someone, and all of us have been hurt by someone. This is something that connects us to all of humanity. My suffering may be different than my mother’s, but it is suffering just the same. Since all human beings suffer, turning toward my own suffering turns me toward all of humanity. When I do the work to see my own wounds, along with the shame and guilt that accompany them, it gives me the courage to see others’ pain as well.
In the last few decades, scientific research by Kelly McGonigal and others has validated this wisdom. Having had stressful or painful experiences can actually be beneficial, if we understand that they can be helpful to us. If we hold on to grief, rage, sadness, fury, disappointment, and betrayal, telling the stories again and again, we strengthen those neural pathways. If we repress them, they grow stronger. But if we let emotions move through us, respond to them with compassion, and draw insight and direction from our experiences, we are healthier individually and collectively.
What thrills me about this research is that it directly confronts the notion that our wounds make us “broken” or “damaged.” That belief, not the brokenness, is what is destructive. On the contrary, like the Japanese kintsugi tradition of mending cracked or broken pottery with gold, meditation can illuminate the “damage” as a beautiful manifestation of humanity. We can draw from our experiences of suffering to create more empathy for other people, asking ourselves “what do I want and need, and how can I create that for others?”
As McGonigal has also shown, we do this collectively. A pertinent term arising out of neurobiology is vicarious resilience, which means that one’s individual resilience contributes to that of the collective. I have experienced this many times in queer communities. Queer people gather and find strength in one another; we are stronger with one another, and the more we recognize each other’s success, joys, and pleasures, the more they arise and manifest in our lives. We can place our attention in a way that recognizes the human capacity to thrive, rather than just focusing on the tragedies we have endured. Vicarious resilience is a way of creating the next moment afresh, anew.
Of course, this teaching does not excuse or dismiss injustice or oppression. I want to be careful not to use spiritual wisdom to justify hatred in the world. I am not saying that injustice is good; I am talking about where we place our attention. If we don’t pay attention to the injustice in the world, and don’t modify our own thoughts, words, and actions accordingly, then we are living in a fantasy that can harm others. But if we only place attention on everything that is wrong, we limit our capacity to thrive. We need balance. We need both.
You can try this in your own meditation practice. In cultivating compassion, allow yourself to feel any sorrow present in your heart, following Ruby Sales’s invitation, “Where does it hurt?” Offer phrases of compassion to yourself or to someone you love who is suffering, such as “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I turn toward this pain with compassion.” Try to remain present to whatever arises – perhaps rage, grief, or empathy. Allow your intuitive wisdom to recognize that this suffering is also a gift, that you have survived, that you are here, and that this gift makes you more open to others.
And remember that you are not alone. Draw vicarious resilience from those who have diligently worked to open their hearts alongside, before, and after you. Perhaps place your hands over your heart, honoring the teachings and the ancestors of the teachings.
Jacoby Ballard teaches yoga and dharma as it intersects with social justice and leads trainings around the country on diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a yoga teacher with 20 years of experience, he leads workshops, retreats, teacher trainings, teaches at conferences, and runs the Resonance Mentorship Program for certified yoga teachers to find their niche and calling. Jacoby is the author of A Queer Dharma: Yoga and Meditations for Liberation.