PRINCIPLES OF SUFFERING
I sometimes come across teachers who make it their goal to end suffering in the world. That is a wonderfully compassionate and noble aim. The irony for me is that those who dedicate their lives to this mission have typically been in the depths of hell like few other humans have. Most have spent years in the depths of despair, anxiety, fear and depression. Most of them have been suicidal, addicted to something or someone, in and out of institutions (hospitals, treatment centers, jails, courts, asylums) or had excruciating near death experiences. But once they came to their senses, or experienced some sort of an awakening, they sometimes think that they can spare others the same painful trip by giving them ten principles or five steps to stop suffering.
Here are my principles:
1. The Cosmos is constructed through and for meaningful suffering.
2. Suffering is necessary to make souls, sometimes called character.
3. No one else can ultimately suffer for another.
4. There are no principles to end suffering on this planet.
5. Personal suffering transforms selves into Soul.
BE WARY OF PROMISES
Yes, there are teachers who can provide teachings that guide us through suffering toward the making of our own Soul; but be wary of those who state directly, or imply that they can teach you to avoid suffering altogether. And I don’t care if they make the distinction between ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’.
You see, some might say, “Well, we can’t stop pain in this life, but we need not suffer.”
The principle is sound enough, but the practice doesn’t pan out in real life. This idea must be learned via a certain amount of suffering. I have seen this belief that suffering can be ended cause some people deep depression, and some eventually to chuck the whole spiritual enterprise. Some come to believe themselves to be failures or faithless because they can’t “apply” the principles to end suffering to their daily lives. Others will see the failures of their esteemed teachers, call them hypocrites and also forsake the so called spiritual life altogether. The fact is, soul-making requires a certain amount of suffering and you can’t avoid it!
THINKING MY WAY OUT OF NEGATIVITY AND PAIN
There will always be those optimists who will say they can mentally deny their way out of suffering by affirming calmness, turning away from negative darkness and toward the light of Spirit, reuniting with the Source of Love. They will tell you that you can short circuit suffering with positive thinking. Yes, I agree, we can…for a short time. But these folks, and I have been one of these too, will be right back in gossip, resentment, frustration, lust, greed, jealousy, anger, guilt and immeasurable suffering - sometimes within minutes of reuniting with the Source. Don’t get me wrong, I am for good tools and techniques to get one back to God, but they rarely last. They are great for a respite from mental and emotional turmoil, but they are not long term solutions. They may postpone the suffering, but they never end it. Suffering will return until it has done its work. As Sri Aurobindo says, "The discords of the world are God's discords and it is only by accepting and proceeding through them that we can arrive at the greater concords of his supreme harmony…"
THROUGH DEATH VALLEY
All of the great healers of pain have had to go through their suffering to get to the other side. Even the Hebrew Psalmist said, “Yes, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” He didn’t say he would walk around or over the painful valley, or go through a different valley; he said he would go through it and not be afraid of the tribulation found in death valley.
Jesus said, “In the world you shall suffer tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome (gone through) the world.” One can take that saying in one of two ways:
1. Jesus suffered, and if we trust him, we won’t have to suffer.
2. Jesus suffered and made it to the other side, so can I.
Given the fact that Jesus constantly told his disciples to take up their crosses and be prepared to give their lives for their brothers, I suspect that number 2 is what he meant – Jesus himself made it through the necessary suffering, so can you.
THE NECESSITY OF SUFFERING IN THE GREAT TEACHERS
Think of all the great teachers who actually practice what they preach. I am not talking about some of those those you see on TV, or read about in books, or listen to on tapes, or see at a retreat, church or conference. I am talking about those who really have something to say about healing and suffering, those who exhibit a genuine calm in the midst of life’s tempests. Without exception, if you hear their whole story, they went to Hell and back, probably more than once. Or they are the very rare soul that enters this life with most of their work completed.
Look at the life of Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha. Most see him as the compassionate, enlightened teacher who shows the way out of suffering – symbolized by chubby statues with a smiling or blissful countenance. Few people stop to look at the early years of his life. As a young man he spent many sleepless nights agonizing over poverty, old age, disease and death; he made a heart wrenching decision to leave his beautiful young wife and sweet child; he left his palatial life of wealth and ease and nearly starved to death mastering meditation techniques. Legend has it that he was nursed back to health by a young woman who fed him a single grain of rice at a time. Purportedly, in his own words, he said he could press his finger into his stomach and feel his backbone. The skeletal Buddha is a common work of art. After years of depression, anorexia, worry, stressful seeking, failure and near death - he came to an awakening. It was not in the palace, or a class on meditation, but through much personal suffering and seeking.
In Greek mythology, Psyche (soul) was one of a few mortals to be deified on Mount Olympus, but she had to go to Hades and back. Even Jesus is said to have spent three days in the underworld before his resurrection.
No one can suffer for you. One gets the impression from some westerners who think they are Buddhists that one can transcend suffering by reading a few books or by going to a Buddhist retreat, or by learning a few meditation techniques. Some teachers and gurus would have you believe that for only $199.99 you can buy their program or book and end your suffering.
Some Christians preach a gospel which says outright that God’s son suffered vicariously for their sins, putting an end to all suffering for those who trust Him. “By His stripes you are healed.” They say that if we accept Jesus and trust in him, we don’t need to suffer any longer. Unquestionably the Gospel of Christ provides an entrance into the life of Spirit, but neither Jesus nor any of the other New Testament authors taught that Christians would avoid suffering in this life.
I was once among those ranks, yet I could not figure out why it never really worked. I trusted Jesus’ death and resurrection for me. I shared the gospel with others. I prayed, read the Bible, wept for my sins and mustered up every ounce of faith I had – still I got angry, jealous, lustful and depressed. Every Christian I knew had no better luck than I did avoiding the usual litany of painful sins and failures. Those who were most vocal about the Savior and His Gospel were often the most cranky, vicious, back stabbing, gossiping and mean spirited of the bunch. They were in chronic pain and misery. But they excused it as 'suffering for Christ'.
SUFFERING IS NECESSARY
You cannot learn to stop suffering by another person's suffering. The theory is appealing and I wish it worked, but it’s about as logical as saying you can lose weight by reading about someone who has successfully lost weight. No one can do it for us.
Hear this well – suffering is necessary for soul-making. I am not suggesting that you go out and seek suffering or become one of those religious masochists who glorifies suffering and persecution. I am not advocating that you affirm, attract or intend suffering. We don’t need to seek it. The universe is so constructed that it will find us no matter where we hide or how often we medicate. It is part of the curriculum in the Cosmic University. Again I quote Sri Aurobindo:
"We have to look courageously in the face of the reality and see that it is God and none else who has made this world in His being and that so He has made it ... The discords of the world are God's discords and it is only by accepting and proceeding through them that we can arrive at the greater concords of his supreme harmony, the summits and thrilled vastnesses of his transcendent and his cosmic Ananda (Divine Joy).”
The Adventure of Consciousness, p. 163
SPIRITUALITY OF DENIAL
There are those who will call me a pessimist and traitor to New Thought principles. I disagree. Real positive thinking affirms that we get through our suffering into greater God consciousness. Most often those who practice a spirituality of denial have become almost blissfully unaware of their own chronic suffering. Some have learned the proper metaphysical terminology and techniques to avoid or ignore their suffering which pops up like a Jack-in-the-Box all week long. I have been one of these too. They drink, overeat, stay busy with religious tasks, spend money, stuff their chronic anxiety, study books on suffering, take prescription drugs, practice avoidance meditation, memorize sacred texts, and keep the spring tightly wound - sometimes for years. Some are really unaware of the disconnect between their pretend spirituality and the amount of pain they have stuffed under the religious lid. They so want to appear pain free, and have so perfected the act of public spiritual euphoria that they aren't even aware how unhappy they are. This is the spirituality of denial. It is a very lonely place to live. I recently heard such a woman tell me that her counselor told her she was done with therapy because she seemed so happy. This woman was shocked because she was depressed and miserable. She went home and looked in the mirror and she was smiling. She said she suddenly realized that she had learned to act happy externally, but internally was filled with doubt, loneliness and sadness.
I remember studying the life of one of my favorite metaphysical New Thought teachers, the brilliant Emma Curtis Hopkins. She worked with another famous spiritual teacher, Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, who fired Emma out of jealousy. Emma left and became a very successful Christian Science teacher on her own, later calling her movement New Thought. She couldn't continue using the title 'Christian Science' because Mary Baker Eddy put a copyright claim on it. Emma eventually started a seminary in Chicago. The school was in a house with about 20 women living and studying together. After a very short time, Emma closed the seminary and moved to New York to live alone. When asked why, she confessed that she couldn’t stand being around the negativity and noise of all those students. I remember feeling disappointed that Emma couldn’t seem to apply her own teachings and deny away the negativity. I realized that suffering was not an intruder or obstacle to spirituality as she had taught, but a necessary aspect that she was trying to deny away or escape. Perhaps Emma had some lessons to learn, or a soul to make by facing her irritations in the socially upsetting situation.
KEATS ON SUFFERING AND SOUL MAKING
The English poet John Keats was dying of tuberculosis at the age of twenty five. He was a brilliant writer who knew that he would not live long enough to complete the body of poetic work he longed to create. Extremely ill, financially broke and recently abandoned by his fiancé, he struggled to make sense of this thing called life and dying. In a letter written to his brother in February 0f 1819 Keats was seeking to understand a world that seemed cruel and unfair. He couldn't accept the usual Christian view which he described:
"The common label of this world among the misguided and superstitious is "a vale of tears" from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven…"
Keats suggested an alternative vale or valley:
"Call the world if you please, "The vale of Soul-making", then you will find out the use of the world."
He went on to explain soul-making as a process where the basic seed of divine intelligence which is in all humans goes through necessary experiences, especially suffering, in order to transform the intelligence into a unique Soul:
"I say "Soul making'', Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence - There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions--but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul! A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! - As various as the Lives of Men are--so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls…"
Keats recognized that this world was a place of difficulty of necessity. I am not talking about difficulties we bring on ourselves by foolish choices or pessimistic thinking, but of life as it presents itself with a plethora of trials and obstacles we all have in common - stubbed toes, tragic accidents, inexplicable diseases, the aging process, economic twists and turns, wars and rumors of wars, natural disasters and eventually death.
Some have questioned why I am so passionate about this topic of soul-making as it relates to suffering. They wonder whether or not I am just trying to rain on the positive thinking parade. Some call me a pessimist and cynic. Actually, I am a committed believer in positive thinking and the work of intention. I do affirmative prayer and guided visualizations for health, wealth and peace. These practices are part of the vale of soul-making as well. It has gotten lots of attention from Oprah, Depak Choprah, Wayne Dyer, Robert Schuller, Joyce Meyer and Joel Olstein – but little has really been said about the positive role of suffering as Soul-making. Eastern religions sometimes seem to imply that suffering is an illusion to be transcended, and western religion wants to be delivered from it by Jesus' sacrifice or right thinking. Might there not be an additional paradigm – not negating the others at all – but expanding our view of suffering? I think this is the paradigm that Jesus, Buddha, Aurobindo and Keats talk about – suffering as a necessary element in the school of soul making.
I am motivated from a desire to see people find a framework for living life free from the escapist religious philosophies or spiritualities of denial. Our spiritual paradigms must make room for more than the successful, western middle class American who thinks his way to perfect health and financial freedom.
Most of the world lives in what we would call poverty. Are these people living unspiritual lives because they are not healhty and wealthy? Our paradigms must account for tsunamis and the end of solar systems, cancer and war, old age and poverty, depression and death. We must account for the countless young men who have died in battle, young women who have died in childbirth, and countless others who have died seemingly senseless deaths if we live in a world where suffering can be avoided. Many western religious systems view suffering as the result of original sin, or humanly caused annoyances - humanly instigated hindrances to spiritual wholeness. The emphasis is on healing or eliminating the suffering rather than befriending it. We can do both in my opinion.
Christians come right out and say that suffering is because of our sin and that we deserve it. This doesn't explain a Cosmos rife with chaos and entropy. New Age folks often attribute pain to a sick and negative human consciousness. These folks imply that if we could all just think good thoughts and change our consciousness, the suffering would go away. This sort of approach reminds me of the school boy that said school was fun except for the reading, writing, arithmetic and homework! School is more than eternal recess; life is more than chronic happiness.
I close where I started. Remember that every enlightened spiritual teacher, let me call them teachers who have grown large souls, has suffered greatly. He or she has been to hell and back. Using Keats words, they have had their small human intelligence turned into a Soul. Such teachers may currently exude a rare peace, tranquility and calm demeanor in the face of all adversity. But they earned it. There was a time when they walked, collapsed and crawled through the valley of the shadow of death, or the vale of soul making, or the world of tribulation. It can be done. It takes work. It takes humility, patience, self reflection and surrender to a Higher Power.
You will not memorize their answers or gather the answers through osmosis. There is no technique to end suffering. You will not make soul just by reading their books or listening to their tapes. You will not arrive by the same route they did, or find a shortcut. You will be tempted to mimic them, to deify them, to vacillate between admiration and disappointment. These teachers often cause us as much pain as they give provide solutions. They disappoint us and leave us disillusioned…good for them. They are part of the vale of soul-making – proof that we have to go through it, not around it...even through our teachers.