Suffering as a Sadhana

Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Denmark, 26.4.82

Physical pain strengthens the nervous system and mental agony strengthens the mind. Physical difficulties make the body strong. This is the principle, but most people have difficulty accepting it because nobody wants to suffer from pain, mental agonies, physical afflictions or discomforts. Whenever we are amidst the pleasantries of life, the mind regresses into a tamasic state because there is no conflict in it. More or less, the conflicts are resolved or at least subdued because everything is pleasant. When we gain pleasure and solace from our friendships and establish ourselves in comfortable situations, that puts an end to our physical, mental and emotional evolution. The key to evolution is conflict, equal and opposite.

The role of conflict

The mind evolves from the tamasic to the rajasic state and from the rajasic to the sattvic state. Its growth is divided into five stages: dull, dissipated, oscillating, one-pointed and controlled. These five stages of the mind range over three levels. The level of tamas is either predominantly or totally dull. It is dull because it has no conflict, no desires, no frustrations, no agony, nothing of the sort. If it gets things that's all right and if it doesn't that's also all right. It constantly compromises. That way it can avoid having to take action, either to attain something or to cope with the disappointment. That is precisely why yoga begins with disappointments, mental depressions and frustrations.

Everybody has expectations. Whether you are married or single, a businessman or a swami, a family man with a steady job or a homeless vagabond, you are expecting something from life. And when you are expecting something from life, you are evolving in one particular direction. If your expectation is fulfilled, then your direction does not meet with a challenge. When you get what you want, whether it is money, love, friendship, power, peace, co-operation or whatever, you just enjoy it, but it doesn't help you to develop another realm of awareness.

Supposing you have been working towards some goal for many years and finally you find you can't attain it. What happens? An extra awareness develops within your mind and takes the form of frustration, mental agony, worry, anxiety or conflict. This means you have started fighting.

If there is frustration or depression in your mind, but no conflict, you lose the battle. However, if there is frustration and conflict, then you are accepting the challenge. Once you accept the challenge, the conflict is followed by struggle.

Of course, struggle is never without conflict, but conflict can be without struggle. That struggle brings you back and forth and from point to point. From time to time your ideas and evaluations of life undergo changes because you are not decisive about what you are going to do. One moment you are going to do this and the next you are going to do that. This means you are putting your mind to confrontation between two ideas, and this direct confrontation gives momentum to the development of your awareness and mind.

The purpose of suffering

When the mind is torn between two ideas, there is definitely physical and mental suffering. But this is a positive experience because, not only are you trying to bring an end to the suffering, but you are trying to understand the meaning behind suffering or to transcend the experience of suffering. Therefore, if those people who are suffering mentally can accept it, they will have deeper, greater, and enduring spiritual, experiences.

However, most people have weak minds and they suffer from infirmity of will. They want their lives to pass pleasantly and smoothly. They wish for amiable friends, obedient children, loving parents, a friendly society, a luxurious centrally heated house and a lot of money. Why? Because they do not want to subject their mind to worries. This is called tamoguna or the dull state of mind.

When the mind becomes sattvic - almost one pointed or completely controlled, then it doesn't matter whether your circumstances in life are pleasant or unpleasant. It makes no difference so far as the evolution of the mind is concerned. The people who are prepared to suffer are the ones who survive through emotional accidents, sensual accidents, political accidents and all the catastrophes of nature. Such people have enabled mankind to survive for all these millions of years.

Precisely for the purpose of strengthening the endurance, yoga and similar sciences advise people to expose themselves to a little suffering. In fact, for those who have all the conveniences and luxuries of life, voluntary suffering, or what we call tapasya, penance or austerity, is an essential practice if progress is to be made in spiritual life.

For some time you renounce all the comforts, tasty food, nice clothes, beautiful home, etc., and live a simple life. Of course this cannot be the permanent structure of your life; you just put yourself through a training period. At this time, reorientation of the mind takes place. All the bad habits, false values of life and dependent tendencies of the mind are completely eradicated, and at the same time, you develop confidence. If a man can tolerate every form of suffering, just imagine how much confidence he will have.

In history books you can read about many people who have undergone suffering. They are the ones who have enacted deeds of confidence which have gone down in history and are remembered even to this day. Sadhakas, yogis, swamis and householders should remember that a period of life must be devoted to self-decided suffering. That is one of the most important parts of yoga.

Self-imposed suffering eliminates karma

In relation to karma, I must tell you, when you live in a pleasant environment, with loving parents and friends or a darling wife or husband, and when you have a cosy home and comfortable conditions, you are not exhausting your karma. You are protecting it, and at some stage you will have to confront it. You may not wish to face the tiger either now or later, but face it you must. You cannot bypass karma and you know it.

In order to exhaust karma, we must design sufferings for ourselves according to our physical capacities. They can help us in exhausting the karmas, then they do not come into our mind anymore. When you practise antar mouna you go through the experiences of past, subconscious, unconscious, sounds, meetings, love, hatred, neurosis, psychosis, schizophrenia, etc. You relive them and that eases the situation. But to completely eliminate the seeds of karma you must practise tapasya. Then, although you might remember past experiences in detail, they have no bearing on the processes of your mind. They will not affect your personality or behaviour and the course of events in your life.

The path of suffering

There are many ways to practise tapasya. Sannyasa life in the beginning is a mild form of tapasya or austerity. Fasting is an austerity and so is the observance of vigil. Vigil means to go without sleep for one night and to maintain one constant awareness. Well, its easy to go to the pub and drink the whole night or to go to an all night party, but that's not what I mean by vigil. Vigil means to maintain non-dual awareness for a prolonged period. Of course that's not something you can do every month. Just try it once or twice a year. If you decide to observe a vigil tonight, don't think you have to sleep all day so you won't feel sleepy at night. You should experience sleepiness during vigil because it is when you control sleep that you come nearer to an experience.

Mouna, silence, is also a form of tapasya. It can be practised quite a few times every year. From dawn one day till dawn the next day, do not talk to anyone. You should also avoid writing messages on paper or using signals. Be alone and feel that nobody else is existing. This will help, not only to intensify your awareness, but also to make you more aware of the awareness. You come to know more about yourself as you become more aware of your sensual impulses, the movements of your mind and the motion of the inner experiences.

Behind this external consciousness, behind the thoughts that you observe in antar mouna, behind the sensations and feelings that you get sometimes, there is something else. I call it awareness. Although it has no form and it can't be put under classification, sometimes you can feel it like lightning. It is just there. If you can make that awareness constant, that is called an experience, and that comes to most of us.

That awareness is the basis of the mind. By choosing, accepting and following the path of suffering, you can definitely get closer to your inner self.

However, there are rules and regulations that must be observed when you choose the path of suffering. You should never practise austerities in such a way or to such an extent that your body will fall ill. You must be sensible and cautious, otherwise you might develop pneumonia, hepatitis or some other sickness. Go according to your capacity, step by step.