Suffering as Sadhana

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

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 trouble accepting it, for nobody wants to suffer pain, mental agonies, physical afflictions or discomforts. Whenever one is amidst the pleasantries of life, the mind regresses into a tamasic state, for there is no conflict in it. The conflicts are resolved or at least subdued as everything is pleasant. When one gains pleasure and solace from friendships and establishes oneself in comfortable situations, it puts an end to the physical, mental and emotional evolution. The key to evolution is conflict.

The role of conflict

The mind evolves from the tamasic to the rajasic state and from the rajasic to the sattwic 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 for it has no conflict, desires, frustrations or agony. If it obtains things it is alright and if it doesn't it is also alright. This mind constantly compromises so that it can avoid having to take action, either to attain something or to cope with disappointment. That is precisely the reason why yoga begins with disappointment, mental depression and frustration.

Everybody has expectations, whether they are married or single, a businessman or a swami, a family man with a steady job or a homeless vagabond. People are expecting something from life. With these expectations they are evolving in a particular direction. If the expectation is fulfilled, the direction does not meet with a challenge. When people obtain what they want, whether it is money, love, friendship, power, peace or cooperation, they enjoy it, but it doesn't help them to develop another realm of awareness.

Supposing one has been working towards some goal for many years and finally one finds that it can't be attained. What happens? An extra awareness develops within the mind and takes the form of frustration, mental agony, worry, anxiety or conflict. This means one has started fighting.

If there is frustration or depression in the mind, but no conflict, one loses the battle. However, if there is frustration and conflict, the challenge is accepted. Once one accepts the challenge, the conflict is followed by struggle.

Struggle is never without conflict, but conflict can be without struggle. From time to time, the ideas and evaluations of life undergo changes for the person who is undecided about what has to be done. The mind is made to confront two ideas, which gives momentum to the development of awareness and the mind.

The purpose of suffering

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

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

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

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

For some time they renounce the comforts, such as tasty food, nice clothes, a beautiful home, and live a simple life. This is not the permanent structure of their lives; but they do undergo a training period. At this time, reorientation of the mind takes place. The bad habits, false values of life and dependent tendencies of the mind are completely eradicated, and they develop confidence. If a person can tolerate every form of suffering, so much confidence will be developed.

History talks about people who have undergone suffering. They have enacted deeds of confidence which have gone down in history and are remembered to this day. Sadhakas, yogis, swamis and householders should remember that a period of life must be devoted to self-imposed suffering. It is one of the most important parts of yoga.

Eliminating karma

When one lives in a pleasant environment, with loving parents and friends, a darling wife or husband, and when one is cosy, one's karma is not being exhausted. The karma is being protected, however, and at some stage it will have to be confronted. One may not wish to face the tiger either now or later, but face it one must. One cannot bypass karma.

In order to exhaust karma, one must design suffering according to one's physical capacities. This can help to exhaust the karmas, so they do not come into the mind anymore. When one practices antar mouna, one goes through the experiences of the past, the subconscious, unconscious, sounds, meetings, love, hatred, neurosis, psychosis or schizophrenia. One relives these experiences and it eases the situation, but to completely eliminate the seeds of karma, one must practice tapasya. Then, although one might remember past experiences in detail, they have no bearing on the processes of the mind. They will not affect the personality, behaviour or the course of events in one's life.

The path of suffering

There are many ways to practice tapasya. Sannyasa life in the beginning is a mild form of austerity. Fasting and observance of vigil is austerity. Vigil means to go without sleep for one night and maintain constant awareness. It is easy to go to the pub and drink the whole night or party, but that is not a vigil. Vigil means to maintain non-dual awareness for a prolonged period. That is not something one does every month, but it can be practiced once or twice a year. However, one should not sleep the whole day so one won't feel sleepy at night. Sleepiness should be experienced during vigil, for by controlling sleep, one comes nearer to an experience.

Mouna, silence, is also a form of tapasya. It can be practiced quite a few times every year. From dawn one day till dawn the next day, there is no talking to anyone. Writing messages on paper or using signals should also be avoided. One remains alone and feels that nobody else is existing. This will help not only to intensify the awareness, but also to make one more aware of the awareness. One begins to know more about oneself, as the awareness of the sensual impulses, the movements of the mind and the motion of the inner experiences increases.

Behind the external consciousness, behind the thoughts that one observes in antar mouna, behind the sensations and feelings that one has, there is something else. It is called awareness. Although it has no form and cannot be classified, sometimes one can feel it like lightning. It is just there. If that awareness can be made constant, it is called an experience, and it comes to most people. That awareness is the basis of the mind. By choosing, accepting and following the path of suffering, one can definitely come closer to the inner self.

However, there are rules and regulations that must be observed when one chooses the path of suffering. Through a training period, reorientation of the mind takes place. However, one must be sensible and cautious and go according to one's capacity, step by step.

—26 April 1982, Denmark, printed in YOGA, Vol. 20, No. 11 (November 1982)