By Suma Varughese
Why is life hard and not easy? Why must we take the hard option?
While I was growing up, one of the most incomprehensible things about life was that the easy way never seemed to work. As an incorrigibly laidback kid, I was always looking for the easy way out, but it unfailingly put me into trouble.
I used to rebel against this perverse quality of life. Why couldn’t the easy way work? Why must we always take the hard way? Why did there have to be exams? Why could I not play before doing my homework? Why did I have to have a bath everyday? Why couldn’t I eat as many sweets as I wanted to without falling sick? And so on. Something in me never quite accepted the reality of a difficult life until I had a spiritual awakening. It was then that I understood that life was about growth. And growth only happens by taking the hard way. There was, I now understood, a reason behind the cussedness of life. I think that was when I grew up, stopped pining for an easy existence and accepted the truth that life was meant to be hard.
Each time we take the hard way, we flex and form our spiritual muscles. When we pass over the dessert and stick to our diet, a small deposit is being made in our spiritual bank. When we decide to give the other the larger slice of the cake, we grow incrementally. When we prioritize duty over pleasure, we build character.
When we decide to experiment with different menus or with our wardrobes, hairstyles and workstyles, we expand our skills and capabilities while introducing newness into life. Newness, or the unknown, is the womb of growth. The more at home we are in this domain, the more the growth. Learning a new language, computer skills, or how to dance or sing, taking on a new job or moving to a new country opens up our potential and expands our being.
As it becomes habitual to prefer the hard option to the soft, our growth and spiritual progress will be ongoing, constant. We begin to take pleasure in doing things the hard way. At this stage we actively strive for difficult goals and objectives for we discern their potential for growth. Like mountaineers seeking to scale fresh peaks, we gravitate towards difficult challenges.
When a colleague is unreasonable and demanding, we bite back the temptation to snap back and strive for understanding and support. When a crisis hits us, we don’t panic – we resolve to overcome it instead. We voluntarily forego sleep so we can take care of an invalid relative. We devote leisure hours to teach poor children English. We wake up early so as to find the time for a daily walk and meditation. We give our lunch to a starving child or old person.
Through our every act, we strive to reduce the hold of feelings, desires and personal needs and to place our focus on the outside world and on our growth. We refuse to pander to the self-indulgent mind, which seeks only to further its pleasure. Without being harsh or self-punitive, through our every act, we gradually and naturally release the hold of the self. We discern that at every moment we are given a choice. We can either take the growth choice or the status quo choice. What we choose will determine our life and destiny.
And so step by step, moment by moment, we solder and shape ourselves in the furnace of life.
It is on this foundation that greatness is born and great deeds are done. All the great sages and yogis are masters of the art of doing the difficult thing. Where did Mother Teresa’s oceanic love come from but from her mastery over the difficult thing? It is this that gave her the strength to emerge from the safety and security of the convent to pursue the difficult challenge of caring for the poor and dispossessed. Moment to moment she put the interests of those she took into her care, over her own need for rest, relaxation, good times and fun.
Or take Mahatma Gandhi. Anyone reading his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, will realize the vital role of discipline in shaping him. Gandhi was an adept at doing the difficult thing. Of taking a flying leap into the unknown, foregoing all notions of personal comfort and self-interest, if he was convinced that it was the right thing to do.
Take his reaction to John Ruskin’s great book on the evils of modern economics, Unto This Last. Gandhi was given the book to read on a journey between Johannesburg and Natal by his good friend Henry Polak in South Africa. As soon as he finished the book he made up his mind that he would henceforth live his life in accordance with its values, such as adopting a life of labor, correlating the good of the individual with the good of all, and valuing intellectual and manual work equally.
Within a week, he had bought a 20-acre farm in Phoenix and shifted the publishing unit of his newspaper, Indian Opinion, there.
The same is true of any realized sage or yogi. It is through the systematic practice of the difficult thing – and it is on this principle that most spiritual practices are based – that they discipline, curb and bridle the ego and finally bring it into the custody of the Self.
As seekers, we have no option but to embrace the difficult option. Only that will bring us close to our goal of enlightenment.
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