Thursday, 25 November 2010

Suffering and Spiritual Progress

I have noticed that the experience of suffering makes us kind and indulgent toward others because it is suffering that draws us near to God. - Saint Therese

We all have our own buttons, and if you look closely at your life, you can see patterns in the situations that cause you to react with fear, anger and grief. I've personally always been too sensitive, particularly to unkind words from others, and by the time I reached adolescence, I was living in an inner hell, completely lost and confused in my own grief and anger. This great weight of suffering was the grace that drove me to look inward and observe my mental and emotional processes dispassionately, without identification.

We live in a world that runs from suffering. We run from it into sex, alcohol, drugs, entertainment, work... in some cases suicide. For most people, without periodic escape, whether that be into mindless television or heroin injections, I think it would be hard to retain sanity. There is such tragedy in the world, and in the heart of each person, the only thing most people can do is try to shut down, not feel it, not think about it, forget it.

“You see it, Igby? I feel this great, great pressure coming down on me. It's constantly coming down on me. It's crushing me.” - Jason, Igby’s Father, who is having a psychological breakdown. From the movie “Igby Goes Down”.

When we are forced to suffer, unwillingly, it can beget a cynical attitude to life, or worse - mental breakdown or suicide. However if we look at the lives of many saints, we see people who turned around and embraced suffering, who willingly underwent suffering. People who were filled with love of god and compassion for others, who suffered but were not cynical because of it. Look at Jesus, Saint Therese, Ghandi… I asked myself, what does this mean?

“Suffering cheerfully endured, ceases to be suffering and is transmuted into an ineffable joy.” - Ghandi

A while ago, some years before I discovered AYP, I read and implemented what I learned from a book called The Presence Process. It taught me how to suffer willingly. It was agony. My life became unbearable as I opened the inner floodgates and allowed suffering to consume me. However looking back, the suffering, willingly embraced, transformed me. In many places within my heart, where once there was personal pain, there is now stillness, a stillness that is full of compassion for others due to the knowledge of how it feels to suffer. Compassion seems to me to be like “suffering felt for others joyfully with intent to help”.

Furthermore, it put a kind of strength or determination inside me, which has given me the motivation toward spiritual progress, enlightenment.

So this post is really on a practical note, sorry to bore you with the life story, but I felt like it put things in context. Yogani touches on this in the bhakti lesson (, to continue from what he says, I find it really helpful to pray when I suffer, and/or self inquire. For me, it’s my most important spiritual practice outside of meditation and spinal breathing, to use my suffering constructively.

This post is for anyone who might stumble across it, feeling depressed, or hurt, or angry or upset.

Here are a few practical techniques to make a good use of unavoidable suffering:

1 - Just feel. I begin with closing my eyes, breathing in and out, deeply and slowly into my stomach, and just allowing myself to feel the suffering. Notice everything about what is being felt inside. Is there a feeling of suffering AND a feeling of resistance to suffering? A feeling of not wanting to suffer? Allow yourself to easily notice what is taking place, without resistance, give it the full attention of your heart, and allow your mind to be silent. Drop the stories, the accusations, just feel.

Emotional pain, resulting from unkindness from others can be, paradoxically, one of the greatest fuels on the planet for spiritual progress. There’s the Western/Christian concept of humility bringing one closer to God - “The meek shall inherit the earth’, then there’s the Eastern/Hindu/Buddhist concept of no-self and the ego. It seems to me that there’s a link between these two concepts. When we watch our own suffering with our quiet awareness, without retaliating or saying anything at all, we just quietly bear it and take it to a private place so we can willingly experience it fully, the ego is gradually melted away, and we increase in humility. You find where once there was a concept of a Self to defend, a concept of a Self who is being hurt by the other person/or life's misfortunes, there is now just quiet, compassionate awareness. I hope that one day I may reach the point where even if someone says the cruelest thing to me they can imagine, their words just fall on quiet, compassionate, attentive awareness - and cause not a stir of concern for myself.

2 - Prayer. I use something like “Dear Lord, allow me to make use of this suffering. Help me willingly feel it, even though there is desire not to feel it. Allow it to purify me. Allow it to humble me. Let me suffer this for you.” Whatever feels right for you. Often energy will shoot up my spine and I feel joy after this. The suffering continues when I’m still resistant to it, if I’m trying to use prayer as a method to control it, and to shut down. If that’s the case for you, it’s ok. Just gently return to feeling it again, and to feeling your resistance. Don’t struggle with it. If it’s just too much to take, read a book, or go for a run, whatever, come back to it later.

3 - Self Inquiry. Most of our suffering is in the sense of being a separate self. We believe “something is being done to us”. I’ve been reading the AYP Self-Inquiry book and there are some very good guidelines in here for self inquiry. When I feel myself getting angry with or judging others, I like to ask “is this anger rooted in truth?” (i.e. am I really separate from them? Who is judging and who is being judged?).

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