The Pain that Reconnects

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By Karina Lutz

Recorded by author

Brain food on honoring our pain

Buddhist practice is the water Joanna Macy swims in: often in Work that Reconnects trainings it seems she presumes we have “trained in the preliminaries” as the Tibetan lojong precept prescribes. After training in simpler breath meditations, the deeper compassion practices make more sense: we have experienced how feelings transform on the breath; under the gaze of non-judgemental awareness, we have practiced neither pushing away nor clinging to the difficult or the pleasant. 

I don’t honor our pain well if I haven’t been practicing.

For those of us blessed to have been trained as facilitators by Joanna, the preliminaries aren’t something she explicitly taught much: she starts the trainings and workshops with some breathing, and recommends a vow to daily practice at the end, but mostly she embodies the fruits of a meditation practice. Now, I think, most of us facilitators ought to be more explicit about the preliminary practices, as we move generations beyond our root teacher. I know I don’t embody it as she does, and I don’t honor our pain well if I haven’t been practicing. 

However, she always teaches the compassion meditation “Breathing Through,” also known as the ribbon breath or compassion breath, as a key part of the Work. The teachings can be found in this video of Joanna, Coming Back to Life, or the website.

This breaking down of false ego boundaries may happen when we fully feel our difficult emotions.

The Work also makes explicit that so-called “negative” feelings often obscure their roots in qualities it may be much easier to value: passion for justice burns inside anger, only love feels sorrow, courage to protect informs fear, and generative emptiness rests at the heart of numbness. If these aren’t spiritual qualities, what are? Experientially, in honoring our pain we also connect with those we care for: the people, the species, the Earth Itself. This breaking down of false ego boundaries may happen when we fully feel our difficult emotions, not just those feelings more typically associated with mystical states: love, ecstasy, rapture, communion.

Compassion is the feeling of others’ difficult feelings.

Honoring our pain taps our vast reserves of compassion, for those in our workshop circles and for those the participants express their care for. Compassion is the inverse of that other brahmavihara, sympathetic joy. With sympathetic joy, others’ gratitude or bliss is contagious. Compassion is the feeling of others’ difficult feelings. Both can “bring us to the other shore” as the brahmavihara-s are intended to do, of recognizing the world as self, of recognizing that there is no separate other.

Truly all the parts of the spiral can do that: certainly gratitude, when open-hearted receiving is acknowledged, can do it, and certainly going forth—when we open-heartedly give from the deepest knowing of our belonging in the web of life. Seeing with new and ancient eyes of interbeing, well, that’s the point. 

If we evade the truths of loss, threat, injustice, and how we are shut down, we are attempting a spiritual bypass that will not work.

But if we skip compassion, if we evade the truths of loss, threat, injustice, and how we are shut down, we are attempting a spiritual bypass that will not work. It will not work for ourselves in the body (which knows) or our larger Gaian body (which needs our whole selves to show up). Christians might call that ecological self  the body of Christ–our communion with all creation. And in Christianity, too, we don’t get to communion without facing the difficult feelings of guilt and shame, redemptive suffering. 

For Buddhists, it is the first noble truth. No way around suffering. It’s there. It’s here. Yet we can breathe through it and watch it transform, as it is impermanent. Not unimportant, but something wanting transformation. We must face suffering, be with it, breathe it in, for that transformation to happen, right in our bodies as it is happening simultaneously in all breathing bodies, in all life. When we skip, bypass, evade, suppress, or ignore, we block the life force, we arrest the process of healing, of growth, of attunement. 

It is a sacred pain we honor.

It is a sacred pain we honor. It is the bud of a flower, the rot of compost in the soil; it is an essential part of the cycle of life and the Spiral of the Work. When the tears flow through, we know a liberation we could not have reached another way. There is a path to liberation, and it leads through all of the above.

I worry, as a facilitator who had an established Buddhist practice before encountering the Work, about the participants who haven’t trained in accepting the reality of suffering, or who have been using spirituality to bypass the “negative.” So depending on the group I’m working with, I’ll often elongate the Breathing Through exercise. I’ll do a longer centering upon arrival at the workshop, spend more time introducing Breathing Through, and practice it again at the beginning of honoring our pain, as well as reminding folks during and after that part of the spiral to resource their fortitude in being with the stuff that comes up. 

I’m curious what other facilitators have developed to help in the transmission of this critical part of the Work’s spirituality.


Karina Lutz is a poet, mostly, constantly looking for more practical things to do, like making peace on earth or reversing global warming through permaculture or taking down the patriarchy, one relationship at a time. She facilitates the Work That Reconnects, teaches ecologic, yoga, and writing. Milks sheep, mends clothes, etc.



Recorded by Rebecca Selove

2 thoughts on “The Pain that Reconnects

  1. Karina,
    What a thoughtful and deeply nourishing article.

    I agree with your thoughts, and have seen the gentle shift when we acknowledge our grief and breath through.

    Thank you so much!

  2. I notice sometimes that those of us raised in Christian based cultures see suffering as our “cross to bear”, even I who was raised with Jewish heritage. It feels like a burden in this framework to acknowledge pain for the world.
    One of the teachings in some Buddhist traditions that I appreciate, is to recognize negative emotions as friends or teachers. As I have learned it, dhukka often translated as sorrow or suffering, has a more subtle layer of the sense that there will always be a sense of imperfection, as if the wheels on a cart are not round, so that each rotation is bumpy. When I embrace that view, I can find compassion for my self and others experience of suffering more readily.
    I feel the life force flowing even in the hardest times when I hold anger, sorrow , despair close to me. When I am in that flow, I can be in and share WTR authentically and directly.

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