Befriending Pain In a Most Unlikely Place
Is pain necessarily a bad thing? Do you regard pain as some foe to be avoided or overcome? Or is it merely a poorly understood messenger of unwelcomed news?
When warning me of some trouble to attend, pain has been for me a good thing. Yes, albeit unpleasant. But nonetheless it is good when it empowers me to attend to some need to distance myself from some threat. Once acknowledge, and its message embraced, responding to the underlying threat has a way of dissolving its discomfort. Message received, threat denied, moving on.
In 2004, I learned to better appreciate pain from a traditional Native American perspective. For a year I engaged in an indigenous wisdom correspondence course, which included a lesson on appreciating the natural experience of pain. During this time I was also immersed in Native spirituality, as I participated again in the compound’s Native American sacred circle. The pain of prison is easier to endure when you don’t have to endure it alone.
The circle of “skins,” as we sometimes called ourselves, met each Sunday in the yard. We had our own physical circle, marked out with the four sacred lateral directions. We gathered there each week to connect with nature, including the nature within ourselves. Unless there was a blizzard, we gathered in this outdoor circle all year long. Any change in the weather helped us to connect with the diverse scope of nature, just as our ancestors who also learned to willingly adjust with natural weather conditions.
On the last Sunday in November 2004, we met at this circle as usual. This time there was an early cold snap. About an inch of snow was on the ground. The temperature that night had dipped into the single digits, with a subzero wind-chill factor. As I had learned about seasons having seasons within them, I understood this to be the winter inside that year’s autumn—which can sometimes be colder than the average temperature of winter proper.
As we made our way out to the circle area, we could see the guards remaining shielded from the wind in their little yard shacks. The trusted circle leader started to prepare the makinak megis, which translates “turtle shell” or medicine bowl. It holds the mashkiki, which translates “medicine.” This is a burning mixture of native tobacco, cedar leaves, mountain sage, and sweet grass. The sacred smoke it creates is called bagwene, translated “smudge.” On this exceptionally cold morning, its heat was especially inviting.
Before entering the circle, each of us is bathed in this smudge. Just as we have done on this continent we call Turtle Island for time immemorial. As the others patiently waited for the medicine fire to remain lit, they stood by the gymnasium building to shield themselves as much as possible from the jarring wind. But I stood back, shivering in the cold. The wind ripped around the gymnasium building nearby. Frosty air shot into my face, as it did to the others. The wind also found its way through our state issued blue “winter” jackets. They were more like cheap windbreakers.
My thoughts raced back to when I worked in the garment factory about five years earlier. This jacket was to be a replacement of an earlier poor design. Suits from Lansing approved this design as sufficient winter gear for the prison population. Of course, the one submitted for approval had more inner lining than the ones that were subsequently widely distributed by the quartermaster. But I digress, as I shiver.
Then I recall the wisdom teachings from the correspondence course. It’s only a cold wind. I relax, let the wind pass through me. Message received, threat denied, now continue. I cease shivering. I remind myself the cold is not as bad as it feels. My warning systems are merely on high alert. I am in no risk of literally freezing, so I let it go. I welcome the feeling of the cold, just as my ancestors have done on this continent for countless millennia.
The circle is prepared for entry by the circle’s trusted leader. As we queue up to enter, he smudges each one of us before entering the circle. But he is clearly feeling the cold by now. He repeatedly changes which hand he holds the smudge bowl as he smudges the first two entrants.
By the third guy he turns to his apprentice and his him take over. He too must remove his gloved hand to handle the smudge bowl, as he smudges the next two entrants. But then the apprentice is also unable to continue in this unforgiving cold. He glances to the trusted leader, who respectfully declines to take back the smudge bowl.
He suggests to his apprentice to ask me. I concede. With glove removed, my hand tightly grips the mishiike megis (turtle shell, the smudge bowl). The cold immediately wraps around my bare fingers. As the next entrant steps up, I start wafting the bagwene (smudge/smoke) around him, using the miigwaneg (feathers). I feel the biting cold gnaw around my fingers, but I relax as I finish smudging and start on the next entrant.
Now I am encountering a juxtaposition of pain. My fingertips gripping the burning bowl are starting to burn themselves. A centimeter away, my knuckles are starting to feel the bite of slowly being frostbitten. Perhaps it is time for me to also limit my skin’s exposure to just two entrants in need of smudging.
But then I relax again, let any displeasure flow through me. Message received, threat denied, and so I continue. After smudging a third entrant I then finish the queue smudging with the fourth and last guy. I hand the mishiike megis—the turtle shell smudge bowl—back to the trusted circle leader. And waste no time putting my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. I take a seat in the circle around the fire and become at one with the chilly air.
The next day I notice my knuckles turning black. But still I free myself from concern. By the next week my skin is restored. And to this day, now a decade later, I’ve never experienced any long-term consequences from enduring this feature of nature. In fact, it has done me much good.
It was perhaps the most physically painful thing I’ve ever willingly endured. And it had nothing to do with the pain of being in prison. This was as much of a spiritual experience for me as others I’ve encountered. “Whatever doesn’t kill me,” we’d say to encourage ourselves, “will make me stronger.” If I can intentionally endure such pain, surely I can endure more. Message received, threat denied, now moving on.