Are You Brave Enough to Go Through Hell?


“Sometimes you gotta go through hell to get to heaven.” That’s what Rocky said. Countless writers and philosophers agree with him.

Kahlil Gibran writes this about pain in his classic, “The Prophet”:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

What, exactly, is hell?

I like the definition that renowned spiritual teacher Gangaji offers in her new book, “Hidden Treasure: Uncovering the Truth in Your Life Story”:

Hell is a hopeless desert of the soul, even while external functioning may keep hell’s deeply personal suffering from the general view. A nightmare surely, but each day reveals that the nightmare is waking as well as sleeping. A depression, a psychotic episode, a spiritual emergency, a dark night of the soul, or simply reality? Whatever label is placed on this experience is limited and finally of no use.

Good stuff, man.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Both Gangaji and Henri Nouwen, the spiritual author who has camped out inside my head for years, say that true transcendence happens when you no longer question why the hell is happening or who is to blame, or figure out ways to bypass it next time … when you resist the urge to go anywhere, but simply to sit still … you begin to learn the great wisdom that it has to offer.

Gangaji writes:

For purpose of deep inquiry and investigation, it is in the inner realms of hell that we discover the most essential truths. For fight our inner hell as we might, it is relentless with its internal lashings that are all the more brutalizing in their invisibility.

Hell is the most dangerous of inner realms because we can be tempted to give up our souls here just for the possibility of release. Or we can learn to dully survive in hell without receiving the ruthless teaching that hell has to offer. We can attempt bribing our notions of a god with promises of being a better person, we can swear to ourselves that we have learned our lessons, we can grovel before some inner Satan to try and get at least a better position on some rung of hell, but to truly receive the teaching of hell, we have to be still in the midst of its misery.

We have to stop squirming or screaming or sobbing or fighting long enough to consider what hell could have to offer besides more suffering. That question is our point of inquiry.

When there is some degree of willingness to look into the maw of hell rather than to follow the natural instinct to flee, there is the capacity to discover the deepest teachings. The deepest teachings, by their very nature of being the deepest, must be able to be found anywhere. Hell is where we don’t want to have to look.

Hell is where we don’t want to have to look. That coincides with what Henri Nouwen writes in his classic, “The Inner Voice of Love,” about putting the head away – stopping the efforts to try to understand the pain – long enough to access the heart: to feel the pain in all of its intensity, versus engaging in a kind of cerebral acrobatics where we jump hurdle after hurdle in an attempt to understand every source of discomfort. He writes:

The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than to talk about them. The choice you face constantly is whether you are taking your hurts to your head or to your heart. In your head you can analyze them, find their causes and consequences, and coin words to speak and write about them. But no final healing is likely to come from that source. You need to let your wounds go down into your heart. Then you can live them through and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds….You have to let go of the need to stay in control of your pain and trust in the healing power of your heart.

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Originally published on Beyond Blue at

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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