by Meenakshi Suri and Suma Varughese
If life on the path is meant to be effortless, why do we face so much struggle? Here we look at the basic struggles in a seeker’s life and how it gets transmuted into freedom and growth.
Is life a struggle? What could be a greater struggle than placing a soul into a human body? Of the soul agreeing to almost forget its origin? And then, through the suffering and joys of countless human lives, to return to the reality of its own divinity? Before becoming the Buddha, Prince Gautama struggled to find a way to end human suffering. Finally, after realizing that austerities did not work, and repelling the seductions of Mara, he was able to attain enlightenment. If our struggles bring us closer to that goal, is there anything to complain about?
On the other hand, the Buddha taught that right effort involves no struggle. It is to accept and work with things as they are, without struggle or strife. Did he mean that there is nothing to struggle against, or that we have to develop an inner non-struggle response? But how can we learn to do that? And could it be that the goal of the spiritual journey is to reach that stage of no struggle? Are we supposed to evolve from our stance of struggle and resistance to the calm acceptance of surrender in which all that confronts us has our active consent and becomes an instrument of our growth?
Taking this as the trajectory of the spiritual journey resolves many of the contradictions that the word struggle conjures. On the one hand, there is the New Age notion that life on the spiritual path is an effortless flow and that the term struggle arises out of a sense of scarcity and resistance and must not be recognized. On the other hand, there is the indisputable evidence that the spiritual journey requires the most strenuous of efforts. To transform our lower nature into an abode of bliss and peace is deeply effortful. ‘The lower Sophia…struggles in her alienated condition. She grieves and rages; she sorrows and longs for her original estate.’ – Hoellers in Gnosticism.
To shine the light of consciousness unrelentingly within ourselves, face the darkness within and endure the period of transition from darkness to light calls for an uncommon level of courage, acceptance and patience. Above all, to endure the huge gulf between what one is and what one can be is pain of such an exquisite nature that only the diehard seeker can succeed in it. Understanding that struggle exists and that it can be used to reach the stage of no struggle, helps us to straddle this contradiction and also see the journey as a process.
To begin with, then, there is the struggle. Says Swami Vivekananda, ‘It is the tragedies, the hurts, the fears, the arguments that remain unresolved, that goad the young souls onward. The intermediate souls struggle with their emotions; they hurt themselves more than others. The older souls: their supreme test is to balance their inner and their outer life.’
‘It’s funny how we always hate the struggle, until it reveals something to us that makes us wiser about ourselves an about life,’ muses William Super, reiki practitioner, whose struggles against cancer’s debilitating effects have brought wisdom beyond his years.
Struck with cancer while in his 20s, he describes his own efforts to grow through the experience: ‘My cancer has disabled me and made ‘normal life’ impossible. One of the things that got more difficult growing up was accepting that normal life was not going to be possible. My disease has brought me a lot of insight and I have learned a lot from my struggles. I would not trade this insight for my health…
‘As I have grown, what has become infinitely easier, and is valued much greater by me, is faith, and patience, and love. I have no lack of faith, as God has blessed me very much with patience, and an ability to love myself and others. That has also made it easier to be happy.
‘I’ve always been blessed with a mind that doesn’t worry, but on the occasions that it does start to worry, I will do breathing exercises to calm down; I will channel reiki into myself; and pray for guidance or help.
‘I believe that struggle and triumph bring you opportunity to learn in life, and that is greatly important to your being able to understand how to flow with life. And even if you come to understand how to flow with life, it does not mean that all troubles will disappear. You will have changed, though, and you will be better equipped to deal with them.’
Hilary Starke, reiki master and energy practitioner, describes her intense experience: ‘I’d absorbed from an early age that life was supposed to be a struggle … and went on to replicate that flawlessly in my own life. There were a lot of times I had to give up what I wanted, because what others wanted was more important. The stresses I chose to put myself under were as addictive as any drug. When I first heard my spiritual teacher affirm that the purpose of my life is joy rather than hard, unremitting toil – it was a bit of a shock.
‘Fortunately I had enough innate wisdom to realize that nobody could keep doing what I was doing to my body and expect to live a long life. [Now] I just want to grow! I want to expand – to stretch my mind and my heart and my soul, to stretch my understanding and my wisdom, to stretch my expectations and my yearnings for so many things that seem to me desirable and lovely. I want to enlarge the contribution I make to the world. We all make a massive contribution simply by existing, my master teaches us. It’s the intention that’s key.’
For both these people, struggle was transmuted into wisdom and acceptance.
Karma and Struggle
One might ask, why is there so much struggle in a seeker’s life? Great ones answer that those the gods wish to purify must consent to endure much. They point out to the struggles in the lives of saints like Tukaram, for instance, who endured a constant battle between society and himself. Mahatma Gandhi, too, went through monumental struggles in the course of which he purified and refined his commitment to non-violence, truth and satyagraha. Nisargadatta Maharaj had to endure mouth cancer and Ramakrishna Paramahansa throat cancer.
The other reason for the seeker’s sufferings hinges on karma. In order to win enlightenment, one must void one’s prarabdha, or the karma that we are meant to experience in this lifetime. Experts say that the enlightenment experience burns our stock of accumulated karma, or sanchita, but prarabdha must be voided. Therefore, it is, that extreme situations face and confront the seeker. However, they also offer an invaluable opportunity of growth. It is not enough to merely endure the slings and arrows of karma. We are called upon to look for and actualize its hidden potential for growth.
One seeker, for instance, was suddenly struck down with asthma. Worse, the allopathic medicine administered to her did not work. In facing the extreme fear raised by having a condition that did not respond to treatment, she learnt to move into surrender, towards accepting that her health or lack of it was God’s business and not her own and that all she had to do was focus on healing herself, while recognizing that the outcome was in God’s hands.
Thus it is that our afflictions and sorrows become the source of our happiness and joy. And thus it is that we move step by painful step into the realm of no struggle.
One of the steps towards achieving this shift is to rephrase the way we see struggle. When we recognize its innate potential for expansion and growth, we become willing to rechristen it challenge. ‘I would like to change ‘struggle’ to ‘challenge’, as that is how I view the daily ebbs and flows of life,’ says Kane Deuel, artist and healing touch practitioner.
Struggling Through the Chakras
An interesting way of seeing the movement of the struggle the seeker or the individual faces, is to correlate it with the seven principle chakras in our energy network. Each of the chakras, starting from the mooladhara or root chakra, and going up to the sahasrara, or the crown chakra, is connected with certain issues. Only when we crest these, can we go to the next level or the higher chakra. In a way, then, our ascent from chakra to chakra parallels our spiritual evolution.
For the seeker, the survival struggles of the root chakra involves handling what s/he believes are base instincts, and yet something a human life cannot do without, the reservoir of kundalini energy, from which we need to dip again and again. The struggle of the mooladhara chakra is to raise the energy needed for work in the other chakras. ‘I feel as if I am floating in timelessness. I have done all that I need to do in this world, and can accept it as it is,’ felt Tara, till she realized she still needed to be involved in her children’s life. It was time to once again dip into the root chakra energy, to understand that salvation does not come with ignoring earthly responsibilities.
Relationship struggles involve the sacral and heart chakras, and possibly others as well. Finding power and strength, struggling against ego or materiality involve the solar plexus and root chakras; searching for one’s life purpose involves the crown and perhaps the solar plexus chakra as well. Understanding the issues behind events, or our purpose in life involve the third eye, and finding one’s connection to God is a crown chakra issue.
What defines us, perhaps, is what we are struggling for: whether these are root chakra issues of survival, or heart chakra issues of relationships or crown chakra issues of closeness to divinity.
As we move along the spiritual path, voiding our karmas and using every situation in our life for growth, life gradually becomes easier. The gulf between our ideal self and our real self begins to narrow down. Instead of writhing and cringing over our behavior and reactions, we find ourselves liking who we are, appreciating our responses, and trusting that we will do what is right. A gradual alignment forms between our various selves and the inner discord quietens down. Along with our newfound self-esteem and appreciation, there grows an increasing capacity to like others. The two are intimately linked. The more at ease we are with ourselves, the greater is the ease we have with others. And as our psychological and emotional needs reduce with our growing self-acceptance, we find that we are more available to others, and have greater compassion for their situation and state of mind. Above all, we stop contending against life and its relentless challenges. Our increasing recognition of the growth these challenges bring us, equips us with resilience and a growing acceptance. Taveta Grant, founder of Special Light Healing, feels that as she has grown, what has become simpler is ‘letting go and seeing the greater dimensional picture; accepting others and their journey; detaching with love and understanding. Learning that sometimes love comes in standing up for one’s self with exactly how one feels no matter what; walking one’s talk.’
Seeker Carmel Standen says, ‘As I’ve grown, most of life has become simpler. Things are only as hard as you choose to make them. I choose easy and that’s what the universe provides. Sure, I have my ‘problems.’ Who doesn’t? But it’s the way you deal with them that counts! The best way to live without worry is to choose to be worry-free!’
‘It was a great freedom when I realized that I don’t have to please everyone or need their approval. It has been difficult for me to accept that I can’t rescue people – and that is ok,’ says Troy Barnett.
When does the struggle come to an end? When a full-hearted surrender happens. At this stage, we hand over the entire burden of our life to the Supreme Power. We recognize how little control we have over it, but even more importantly, the futility of taking responsibility for aspects that do not belong to us. None of it, we realize, is our business. Our thoughts are not our business and neither are our feelings. Our words and actions too, belong to God and not to us. In one fell swoop, we pass over the entire content of our mindstuff to the Higher Power and rest in bliss. No matter what happens, we focus purely on the moment, directing our entire energies on what we can do about the situation but wasting not a whit of it on worry, speculation, guilt, anger, fear and other mental stuff. Stripped of everything but the moment, our life is honed to its barest essence, which is sat-chit-ananda.
There is no space here for struggle. The very word is banned from our vocabulary for that too is surrendered. And so we flow into the silken smoothness of the life divine. There is no conflict here between what we want and what the Divine wants for us. Each flows into the other and each only gives us rich dividends of growth, learning, acceptance and peace. Our tryst with struggle has brought us to journey’s end.