By Suma Varughese
To qualify for unalloyed happiness and freedom, the aspirant must purify herself in the crucible of pain.
Consider this supreme irony: the seeker after happiness, bliss, love and compassion, is quite frequently immersed in the depths of misery. Trials and troubles ambush her. Her own emotions well up and cause her anguish. Introspection flushes out her shadow self and she recoils in horror. Courage and faith often desert her. At other times, confusion confounds her, bringing her to a standstill. The principle is clear. In order to qualify for happiness one must demonstrate a capacity for full-fledged unflinching suffering. A complete immersion in the waters of reality. Nothing less will do. Transformation happens through the crucible of pain.
The start of the journey itself is often riddled with pain. Either a restlessness that will not abate or a crisis that compels you to look for answers. Here, for instance, is an account from The Varieties of Religious Experiences by William James in which the anonymous narrator suddenly discovers that life has no guarantees. Having lately seen an epileptic reduced to idiocy in an asylum, the fear comes to him that there is nothing to guarantee he would not become like him:
‘That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him…something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this, the universe changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before…I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life.’
The veils of maya had parted and for a moment he glimpsed the yawning chasm of the unknown.
Such an experience immediately propels you to a different level. You have seen through the surface of life and nothing can ever be the same again. You must either forge ahead to find answers that will contain life’s uncertainty or condemn yourself to a lifetime of unhappiness. Dilemmas such as these confront the seeker at every turn and force him to make choices. Choices upon which his future growth rests.
Assuming that he does pick up the gauntlet and venture forth, the screw tightens. The discomfort increases. For he is now different. Set apart from others. Their ways are not his ways. Like Ruth standing among the alien corn, he is now an exile. Says Uday Acharya, a teacher of Vedanta, ‘No one understands his choices. And he feels misunderstood. Often lonely and lost. And he wonders if he could possibly be wrong.’
All seekers will identify with this feeling. That sense of being at odds with everyone around you. The awful fear that you will never find someone who thinks like you. There is too the deeper discord of having surrendered the manipulations and power tactics of worldly life while having to contend with those who continue to use them. Many seekers go through a disorienting phase of separation from their earlier comrades without finding new ones yet. Says Acharya, ‘These issues usually dissolve or at any rate abate when you find someone who understands what you are going through. You feel acknowledged and validated.’
Finding one’s sangha fulfills a deep soul thirst. You discover that you are no freak. That others too are on the quest. And that you have a safe space in which to be vulnerable and open without inviting derision or exploitation. The connection that follows occurs at a deep level (far deeper than your secular ones) and is often the beleaguered seeker’s greatest source of comfort and support as he stumbles along his turbulent road.
As he moves deeper into his sadhana, tests and challenges issue their bugle cry.
Says Bharti Nirmal, an electronic engineer and entrepreneur, who retired from her business some years back to devote herself to spirituality, ‘When you get into your path, your karma is fast-forwarded. Therefore, you experience what appears as trouble, but are merely the lessons you need to learn to grow spiritually. We need to break the crystallized patterns of behavior that trap us in conflict.’
She recalls her early married life. ‘I came from the liberated atmosphere of an engineering college straight into an extremely conservative Kutchi family where women were not encouraged to pursue higher studies. So high was the possibility of conflict that an astrologer actually predicted that either my mother-in-law or I would commit suicide. However, I decided that if God has put me in this situation, I am meant to learn from it. When I encountered something I didn’t like, I took it as a sign that I must change. As my learning deepened, the whole family began to change. Recently, they even sent one of the ladies in the family abroad to study!’
Karma apart, the greatest source of the seeker’s suffering comes from the imperative to become conscious. Where once we bumbled along without much awareness of our inner states of mind, we must now tune in to these zones, and the experience can be excruciating.
The light of consciousness is ruthless and shows us as we are. We quail as we recognize our greed, envy, and manipulations. We wince at the vanity and self-interest that drive our actions. We cringe at the fear and cowardice behind our caution and decorum. We writhe at our lethargy and laziness. We examine our lives and find that we are the cause of our failures and problems. No one else was to blame, ever. Recalls Behroze Khajotia, a body-mind therapist, ‘When I first began to be aware of my feelings and thoughts, I discovered how hugely inadequate I felt. I used to read books about realized souls and although I knew that they too had gone through bad phases, my own problems seemed insurmountable.’
We can run away from ourselves no more. To live on bad terms with ourselves and accept that we are faulty and imperfect can be severely demoralizing. If, in addition, the seeker is sensitive, or suffers from poor self-esteem, he can plunge into agony. Here, for instance, is John Bunyan’s (author of the famous allegory of seeking, Pilgrim’s Progress) anguished rantings from The Varieties of Religious Experiences, ‘But my original and inward pollution, that was my plague and my affliction. By reason of that, I was more loathsome in my own eyes than was a toad; and I thought I was so in God’s eyes too.’
Desiree Punwani, a housewife and spiritual aspirant, analyzes the seeker’s dilemma thus: ‘Your initial experiences in spirituality make you euphoric. However, when the actual issues surface, you start feeling very uncomfortable. If you can see this as the real work to be done then you can go through with it until an insight or a catharsis moves you to the next level. However, many people feel that catharsis is a one-time occurrence. But it isn’t. We can encounter the same issue several times before we are done with it. When the kettle starts to boil all over again, they can’t deal with it. Such people are spiritual shoppers, always looking for a new guru or a new technique, unwilling to stay anywhere long enough to make lasting change.’She hits the nail on the head when she says, ‘Such people want growth to be pleasant. What they are saying in effect is, ‘Don’t take me out of my shit. Just make the shit smell sweet!’ ‘
She adds, ‘Quantum leaps are the reward for those who can endure the cyclical nature of catharsis, but even they have to contend with increasing hurdles. There comes a time when we all have to take a leap of faith, perhaps let go of a job, a marriage or conversely take a job or a spouse. To take that leap, you need to shed baggage – doubts, fears, comfort zone – and secondly you need to have faith in yourself. I have noticed that those who are unable to muster the strength for this stop right there and begin to worship the guru or the path.’
Admits Behroze Khajotia, ‘At one time I would have liked to get married but I never did anything to make it happen. Today, I wonder if I was running away from the challenge.’
To muster the strength for ongoing and often massive change is excruciatingly hard and one’s heart goes out to all those who resist it. This is why all masters affirm that the most important quality for self-transformation is a deep and undying desire for enlightenment. It must simply be the most important thing in the world.
Not all seekers, however, face the same amount of pain. For some the conditioning is relatively mild and they seem to travel by the sunny side of the path. Conditioning apart, there is a kind of temperament that must experience the very bedrock of life. Such people must bore into the very heart of existence and experience both its sorrows and joys with total intensity. They demand to see the entire pattern of life; nothing less will do. Such aspirants drink very deeply of the draught of human misery. Not just theirs, but the whole world’s. The sorrow and suffering of the grieving world lacerates them, which too they must learn to contain. Thankfully, they usually emerge from the crucible with an acute ability to feel others’ misery and pain, and brim over with love, compassion and fellow feeling.
Because of their intense sensitivity and integrity, one of the deepest and most poignant sources of their suffering is the discordance between what they are and what they aspire to be.
Writes William James in The Varieties of Religious Experiences, ‘The higher and the lower feelings, the useful and the erring impulses, begin by being a comparative chaos…they must end by forming a stable system of function in right subordination. Unhappiness is apt to characterize the period of order-making and struggle. The unhappiness will take the form of moral remorse and compunction, of feeling inwardly vile and wrong, and of standing in false relation to the author of one’s being and appointer of one’s spiritual fate.’
He adds, and all of us who have fought intense inner conflicts will resonate with it, ‘The man’s interior is a battleground for what he feels to be two deadly hostile selves, one actual, the other ideal.’
Here is St Augustine’s superlative description of his own internal battleground: ‘The new will which I began to have was not yet strong enough to overcome that other will, strengthened by long indulgence. So these two wills, one old, one new, one carnal, the other spiritual, contended with each other and disturbed my soul.’ He writes about his battle with lust, ‘I all but did it, yet did I not do it. And I made another effort, and almost succeeded, yet I did not reach it, and did not grasp it, hesitating to die to death and live to life; and the evil to which I was so wonted, held me more than the better life I had not tried.’
Hard though it is, the seeker must simply endure the battle between the higher and the lower, until finally the higher wins. All waywardly impulses then die away; mind, intellect, emotion and senses surrender to the dictates of the soul.
The battle is won when the aspirant whole-heartedly accepts the presence of pain and uses it as an instrument for her own happiness, growth and freedom. All resistance falls away and she joyously opens herself to every state of mind within and every experience without. Every aspect and detail of life, she understands, is her teacher. When pain succeeds in helping her learn this last and most crucial lesson, it gently and lovingly takes its leave. The aspirant will know it no more.
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