Most of us of a certain age have had our vacation detour to hell. We were on the plane headed to our tropical paradise when suddenly, the plane makes an emergency landing ..in hell. This is not what we had planned. We were just trying to have a nice vacation, we work so hard, I paid for extra leg room and now this happens! This isn’t fair, isn’t fun and I didn’t pack the right clothes! When can we get back up in the air and head back to the land of pina coladas with little umbrellas in them?

Sooner or later in your life something will not go as planned, or worse, it may go like your worst nightmare. Maybe your heart was broken as well as your trust, maybe you were betrayed, maybe you are facing financial ruin, maybe you lost someone you love, maybe you were violently assaulted, maybe you were diagnosed with a dreadful disease – unfortunately, there are many ways life can go wrong. Our natural reaction to this situation is to escape the pain and hurt we are feeling. How and how fast? Our mind starts looking for exit strategies from hell. Maybe we can hook a ride with?… maybe we can bargain with?.. maybe we can run for it! We want to be anywhere but here and we want out, now. But hell has a lot to teach us.

First, there is no quick or easy escape from hell. The only way out, is through. You must walk through it, look around, touch it, smell it and get used to it for awhile. Settle in and unpack for the time being. There are no shortcuts, escape routes or guided tour buses that won’t bring you right back to where you started. Of course, we want to push it all away, feel “normal”, look “normal”, be “normal” again but trying to avoid hell when you are there by denial or putting on a happy face, trying to numb the experience and pain with addictive substances, online shopping or watching endless tv while eating ice cream will only make things worse, much worse, later.

This is exactly what we are encouraged to do in Buddhism. To just look hell straight in the eye, recognize where you are, take a good look around, take in the sights and then, keep on walking. Of course, there is pain and we don’t like that there is pain but there is something about staying with your pain, staying with the negativity in whatever form, that has something to teach us about ourselves, about who and what we are, if you let it. Hell is a testing ground for sure but it is also a healing ground and this is what people don’t see when they are there. Hell like everything else in life, has its virtues. The problem for us is we have very little tolerance for pain or anything uncomfortable so we don’t stick around long enough or open ourselves up enough to what our pain can teach us. We just keep putting up more armour to protect ourselves from the flames, trying to not get burned. What we don’t realize is that we are already burned, life just threw us into the flames and pretending we aren’t on fire keeps us suffering longer – we first have to realize we are on fire before we start searching for a bucket of water.

Our tendency as humans is to avoid pain. That is clear. Everyone including yourself might have the tendency to “look on the bright side” of hell in order to deny you are there or in flames. This never works. When my husband died suddenly at age 44, people tried to soften the blow with the “it could be worse” syndrome or placating words which did nothing other than make me feel obligated to not feel my pain, or at least in front of them. When someone is in the mist of a deep personal suffering, “looking on the bright side” is the last thing you want to do. You want to feel free to feel your despair, fear, and utter sadness – feel the flames. Pushing it away causes hell to resurface again and again and creates new “hell’s” for yourself.

What we need to acknowledge is that pain and suffering is part of the human predictament. That “pain is not a punishment, pleasure is not a reward.” as Pema Chodron says. That “we aren’t feeling pain because of our personal inability to get things right” – these kinds of ideas lead to shame, shame that we haven’t been successful in warding off life’s misfortunes. We weren’t smart enough or strong enough or born to the right karmic situation. This is another reason we push off our negative feelings, we find them shameful to feel because as a society we have very little room for them.

What we want when we are suffering is empathy, we want to feel connected to others. That we aren’t alone and we alone aren’t the only ones suffering. We want to know that hell is a place we all visit. Pain can be a roadway to opening ourselves up to the human experience, to our connection with all our fellow human beings. Pain can be our link to all of humanity. It is an opportunity to open up rather than shut down. I know for me there were so many times when I remember thinking, “I can not handle this for one more moment. The pain of this should stop my heart.” I wanted to run away and find someone or something to make it all go away. I wanted an escape from hell. But staying with my pain, for as long as it needed to be felt, was what saved me. Having the courage to look straight at it, breathe it in when I just wanted it to go away, validated it, myself, my husband and my loss. If I cut off myself from my basic humanity, my basic empathy, my basic compassion and love in myself, than I would have cut myself from it to feeling it for others. Only what we can let live in us, what we give space in us to breathe can we give to others.

There is one trap we can fall into in hell once we accept we are there and that is staying way longer than we should. Tis a season for everything, even hell. Of course, we think, who in their right mind would linger in hell one day longer than necessary? But it happens. You’ve gotten those postcards from them. People can hide in hell forever. They buy a house and live there the rest of there lives sending Christmas cards, change of address notices, posting pictures on FB, setting up a foundation you can donate to, creating a new identity with their relocation. There is a fine line between finding positive ways to make it through hell and just staying stuck and wallowing there.

And so our roadtrips to hell, hopefully, are few and far between, but if and when you arrive I hope you remember my travel advice. Hell is a painful place to visit and no one wants to detour there but it is best to see what it is all about knowing you do have the strength and courage to make it through. The spiritual journey (and yes, we are all on a spiritual journey whether you are aware of it or not) is not always about heaven and getting to a place where everything is okey dokey all the time. That is Disney World, not the real world. When you relax and don’t make hell into an enemy, when you open up and become more friendly with it, your situation becomes more friendly. You allow the possibility of what it has to teach you, approach. Thinking that hell should never be a place you visit, always reaching for pleasure and avoiding pain, is what keeps us suffering and the longer our visit there will be. Understanding being human means to experience all of it, the good and the bad, is the journey of our species, humans. No one is immune.

Hell is a place of testing, but it is equally a place of healing. It can be a place of cultivating your compassion, your courage, and your wisdom. It’s a place where you learn to let go and surrender to the impermanance of everything in our world, even our existence and touch that achingly tender spot that we so want to protect. Our detour to hell can remind us that our whole lives lead us to these moments so that we can be healers of ourselves and our world. Only a kind and open heart can heal the world and there is no heart more open than one that has been hurt. You may get burned, but have faith those burns will heal. You may leave with scars but you will learn to cherish those scars because they will remind you of all you learned on your journey. Just keep walking and when you return home you might just end up with an amazing souvenir – living the rest of your life with more strength, peace and humanity than you ever could have imagined before you landed there.

xo, maeve