Suffering and Spiritual Evolution

Swami Prabodhananda Saraswati

Saint John of the Cross was a great mystic and poet who lived in Spain during the sixteenth century. His life is an example of how one can attain the spiritual heights of self-realization by following the way of asceticism and acceptance of pain and suffering. This is one method of tearing yourself away from the distractions of the outside world. By living a life fraught with difficulty and misery the ties of the ego and the senses are loosened and finally completely undone. Suffering as a sadhana serves to quicken the intensity of devotion and surrender. It is the intense devotion, love and surrender of the bhakta which draws the grace by which he ascends into the spiritual heights. However, the path of St. John is an extreme one. It is the path of pain and suffering combined with the practice of intense prayer and contemplation which leads to ecstasy.

A life of renunciation

St. John was no stranger to the path of poverty and hardship. He was born into a simple, peasant family and later because of his family's poverty, he was sent to an orphanage where he learned to read and write. After working for some years in a poor hospital he joined the Carmelite Order of monks where he applied himself zealously to his new life. By praying, studying, undertaking long fasts and even flogging himself daily, he sought to purify his soul.

Such was his zeal for an intense spiritual life, involving self-mortification and asceticism, that along with St. Theresa of Avila, he founded a monastery under a new rule. This group of monks soon became so well known for their spiritual enthusiasm that St. Theresa had to request them to restrict their passion for extreme austerity. However, other monks fearful of losing their own easy way of life managed to have the order dissolved and St. John put in prison. There he was locked in a closet for nine months, often receiving only bread to eat. His bed was a board, crawling with lice. Weekly floggings added to this grim ordeal and during the summer his tunic, clotted with blood, began putrefying and worms multiplied in his wounds. Such was his suffering at this time that he longed for death.

This period of isolation from his fellow monks, when he endured nothing but daily torment, is marked by a collection of writings which were the spiritual instructions for his order. In these he clearly writes from his own experience: 'The spiritual seeker has first to recognise and then limit the desires of the egoic self by not continually giving in to them,' Here he is echoing the wisdom of the guru throughout the centuries, 'If you want that your mind should give way to devotion and love of God, cleanse your self of every desire, attachment and pretension so that you do not care for anything.' When the flow of thought stops and the senses no longer covet external experiences, then the mind finds its rest. Along the way, intellect, memory and imagination will also have to be purified and laid to rest and, as the yogis of old discovered, mind itself has to be transcended as the soul approaches the source.

Enduring pain, not seeking attachment to the pleasures of life, and becoming aware of the depths of the Self, bring about a detached attitude. This leads to further purification of the mental sphere as we recognise the habits, attitudes and behaviour patterns which rule our lives when we are in the state of unawareness. By coping with difficulties and enduring hardship, we acquire willpower and spiritual strength. This also occurs during crises and stressful periods in ordinary life. So the suffering and pain which we experience in life teach us a valuable lesson and bring us closer to the beauty of our own soul.

However, it is not necessary to go around assaulting oneself, wearing rough garments and otherwise adopting practices of self-mortification. The practices of yoga and mental purification coupled with a harmonious lifestyle and training in mindfulness, will develop self-discipline and prepare one physically, mentally and spiritually for embarking on the higher stage of the journey. St. John says of this: 'The first purification of the senses and mind is bitter and frightening. But the dark night of the soul has no comparison. It is horrible and dreadful.'

Dark night of the soul

After initial spiritual experiences which include seeing lights and visions, hearing voices, entering trance-like states, developing psychic abilities and experiencing periods of deep calm and peace, one arrives at a point where the desires become increasingly more powerful. The mind is flooded with passions and visions as the gates to the unconscious are unlocked by intensive spiritual practice. The peace and tranquillity of the mind are completely rent asunder as the flood gates open. It is here that the seeker must apply all that he has learned since taking up the path. Now the necessity for preliminary mental purification becomes apparent, for the seeker is on his own. Much depends on his ability to remain detached from external and internal stimuli, so that he will not be diverted from his goal. Even the most terrible and obnoxious thoughts can be simply observed if the aspirant has learned detachment from the process.

St. John compares the divine work at this stage with the burning of a piece of wood. At first the fire begins to dry the wood and, as the moisture is expelled, it crackles as if it were crying with pain. Then the wood becomes black and charred. Slowly the fire dries the piece of wood and removes its distortions. Finally the fire transforms the wood so that it becomes fire itself in all its beauty. And so the darkness of the mind is transcended and the pure light of consciousness envelops the seeker.

Death of the ego

St. John taught that the preliminary practices of meditation, e.g. visualisations based on the life of Christ, involve the imagination. This is later superseded by contemplation where there is no active involvement of mind or ego. Ultimately the mind enters a state of total absorption or samadhi. This is a state of unconsciousness- the blindness experienced by St. John, where the meditator and the unknown merge. At this point the seeker has to die completely to himself, to his ego, to his desires, and to his own thinking. This is the dark night when the ego is completely disengaged and the soul rises up and out of the body into the clear light of spiritual awareness.

St. John also says of the dark night that the seeker receives knowledge of himself and of his suffering, and in this condition of complete helplessness he is better able to hear the divine words. God through this dark night super naturally instructs the soul in His divine wisdom. Through experiencing much misery, the soul begets love and esteem for others, where before there had only been criticism and judgement. This enables him to grow in patience, strength and purity, and eventually he longs to die rather than live without God:

'Listen. My life is in You. This life I do not want, for I am dying that I do not die.'

In the death of the ego, of the self, one attains immortality, moksha, or release of the soul's fetters. Although this great mystic undoubtedly experienced great physical pain and mental torment in his life, this inevitably brought about a deep sense of detachment for his external surroundings as well as his individual ego. While at prayer in the garden, his body would be raised into mid-air. Many were the times he was found in trance, dead to the world. Often when he sat in contemplation, bright lights were seen emanating from his cell along with the sweet scent of flowers and perfume. Nine months after the death of his body, it was exhumed and found to be free from decay. Such is the power of suffering. When practised correctly, it is said to be the fastest path of spiritual evolution.