Self-Understanding Resolves Suffering

Swami Vedamurti Saraswati, U.K.

In most philosophies and religions of the world, pain and suffering has become an important topic of consideration. This is because suffering is an experience which is common to all life forms. From inch worm to emperor no one is free from the pains of birth, disease, old age and death. Even if you are not suffering right now, you are certain to be inflicted with some form of suffering in future. This is the law of life and no one can escape it.

The term pain and suffering is not only associated with the gross level, but with our day to day problems and conflicts within ourselves and expressed in relationship with the situation and people around us. Suffering is a topic of extreme importance to all of us today who wish to experience a life free of fear and frustration in a world of mounting tension and pain.

Yoga and suffering

According to the science of yoga all the unnecessary pain and suffering in life can be completely eliminated by the development of awareness and self-understanding. One of the determining factors is the intensity and intelligence of the application of the practice. To whatever degree one applies oneself, a definite progression of mental development is accorded. From this higher level of awareness or expansion of consciousness, the problems of suffering can be managed more successfully.

Pain and suffering as defined here are definitely strong motivating factors in the search for another dimension of our lives. It is important to realize that if you wish to alleviate the problems, to raise the quality of your life, you must be prepared to apply all the techniques which are embodied in yoga.

The basic text Yoga Sutras of Patanjali gives all the necessary background to the science of yoga, and explains the mental as well as the spiritual dimensions of our being. Pain and suffering are an important aspect of the whole treatise.

Patanjali explains the nature of consciousness manifesting in the realm of prakriti or nature. It is the same consciousness which extends through the conscious, subconscious, unconscious to the super-conscious state. Our ordinary waking consciousness is an involution of the higher super-consciousness.

Evolution starts from the physical level, as perceived by the senses, and extends up to the highest level of vibration within prakriti. It moves from gross to fine, the coming together of time and space, the expansion of awareness. Devolution proceeds in the opposite direction, towards grosser matter.

Through the practice of yoga, evolution can be accelerated, and the rounds of pain and suffering in daily life thereby decreased. Patanjali states that one of the main purposes of yoga is to eliminate the basic cause of all pain and suffering which is rooted in the five kleshas: ignorance, 'I' sense, likes, dislikes and the fear of death. The suffering we undergo is a result of these five kleshas. Thus the process of involution can be seen here, commencing from ignorance and culminating in the fear of death. Evolution is in the reverse order. So, ignorance is the primal cause of our suffering, being the prime mover of the five kleshas.

What is ignorance?

Patanjali talks about 'chitta' which is a term translatable at different levels. In its expansive sense it encompasses the farthest reaches of the mind and the limits of prakriti or nature in its very self. As long as we are bound by the limitations of prakriti, we are using the mind, the chitta, and we are still in the domain of ignorance.

When the mind itself is transcended and we are able to experience it as object, we also experience our true essence. Beyond this stage another state of consciousness takes over. To attain this state, we not only have to still the vrittis or modifications of the conscious mind, but also to stop the unconscious flow which is the thread through all our incarnations, the very essence of prakriti. The mind is not just a conscious vehicle, it extends all the way through the subconscious and unconscious realms and can carry us to the limits of prakriti. Beyond this is vidya, knowledge, the end of avidya or ignorance.

The text further explains that at the beginning of the evolutionary cycle, when prakriti is brought into being, the essence of manifestation is the three gunas or primal tendencies of nature. It is the interplay of the gunas which determines the positive and negative aspects, the whole ebb and flow of creation. Accordingly it is said that as the mental tendencies come into conflict with the changing flow of the gunas, more suffering ensues. This is a difficult aspect of the science to comprehend. Yogic insight into the working of the mind is necessary in order to realize the deeper aspects of the interaction of the gunas.

Transcendence of suffering

What does Patanjali say then about yoga as a means to transcend pain and suffering? The whole text is an exposition on the development of the mental and transcendental experience, but there are a few sutras which are particularly pertinent.

In chapter II, sutra 28, Patanjali states that by perfection of the eight limbs of yoga, all impurities of the mind diminish and spiritual knowledge arises, culminating in the awareness of reality. Here he is referring to the development of inner knowledge through yogic practices, right up to the point where ignorance, the source of our suffering, can finally be dissociated, and where at higher stages, even prakriti itself is dissolved.

In sutras 46-48 of the same chapter, it is said that the correct method of meditation results in transcendence of duality, pain and pleasure, love and hate, etc. Transcendence of duality does not imply the advent of a dulled awareness as many people may suppose. The conflict of opposites is always replaced by inner joy and stability in the evolutionary process.

The wisdom contained in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras should impress upon any student the necessity of learning the yogic practices from the most advanced source. Even if the student only wishes to increase his joy and fulfilment in life and decrease his daily suffering, he can still find new avenues opening to greater awareness and will come to appreciate the benefits of a teacher who is able to lead him higher on the ladder of self-understanding and transcendence.