How to Overcome Suffering
Swami Kriyananda frequently tells the story of how Sister Gyanamata, Paramhansa Yogananda’s most advanced woman disciple, underwent great physical suffering for twenty years. Yet, no matter how intense her physical pain, Sister Gyanamata radiated light and joy to all who knew her. At death, she became completely liberated, a free soul. Her last words were, “Such joy, too much joy.”
How do we reach the point when we too can transcend all suffering —physical, mental or emotional? What are the causes of our pain, and what are some effective ways of dealing with it?
Much of the suffering we experience derives from two sources: 1) the force of delusion, and 2) our own bad karma, the effects of our past wrong actions.
Separate yourself mentally
The force of delusion is what makes us identify with our physical bodies rather than with our souls. We are misled into believing that we are our bodies, which are incredibly vulnerable. When Shakespeare in Hamlet speaks of “The thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to,” he is in no way overstating the case.
Although our bodies are susceptible to physical pain, there are things we can do to transcend it. A first step is to learn to live in our bodies without thinking of them as ourselves. For example, when you are feeling tired, don’t think to yourself, “I’m tired.” Rather think, “This body is tired.” Similarly, if you’re not feeling well, don’t announce it to others; simply acknowledge to yourself that your body needs some care, but that you are fine. In other words, try to separate yourself mentally from physical discomfort.
If a specific part of your body is injured, there are techniques you can use to reduce the pain. One is to try to sit very quietly, calm the mind, and then mentally send light and energy to that part. Do this repeatedly with a focused mind, and you will find healing energy flowing to that body part.
We had a friend who badly sprained his ankle while snow hiking alone on a glacier in Canada. He knew he had two choices: to die of exposure on the glacier, or to try to overcome the pain of the ankle so that he could walk out. For one solid hour he visualized energy and light flowing to his painfully swollen ankle, and at the end of this time he was able to walk the several miles back to civilization.
Our natural state of soul joy
A second technique to separate yourself from both mental and physical pain is to concentrate the mind strongly at the point between the eyebrows, the center of soul-awareness. By concentrating there, we can change our consciousness from an awareness of suffering to an awareness of our natural state of soul joy.
Swami Kriyananda often tells the story of the time, as a young disciple, he suddenly found himself plunged into a dark mood. Trying to reason himself out of the mood did not work. Finally, in desperation, he concentrated with all his will power at the point between the eyebrows. After only five minutes, his depression lifted, and what had before seemed a cruel and indifferent world now seemed a place of wonderful possibilities. Through this simple technique, he transmuted his personal suffering into an expanded vision of reality.
“Don’t expect the world to be fair”
So much of our suffering comes from self-preoccupation and false expectations. Worrying about our problems or feeling sorry for ourselves only increases our pain. A friend of ours recently told his teenage son, who was complaining about the unfairness of life, “Don’t expect the world to be fair. If it appears to be fair, that’s just an accident.”
A rather strong statement, but one that will surely help the boy avoid future suffering. When we expect others to conform to our expectations of what is right or fair, we inevitably set ourselves up for disappointment. Always try to live more in the thought of your eternal soul nature. If someone wrongs you, try to forget it. When appropriate, also pray for that person.
Once a group of us were going on a skiing trip with Swami Kriyananda to Lake Tahoe. As we drove up into the higher mountains, a snowstorm suddenly descended; before we could stop to put on chains, we hit an icy patch and headed straight for the side of a Greyhound Bus parked alongside the road. No one was hurt, but our car was demolished.
As we got out of the car to survey the damage, we saw that the Greyhound Bus was headed for our destination. Leaving word with the police and the tow truck of our whereabouts, we grabbed our bags and boarded the bus. The other passengers were commiserating with us, but Kriyananda replied joyfully to them, “You know, in a week I’d feel just fine about all of this. Why waste a whole week dwelling on our misfortunes?” We went on to have a delightful skiing trip.
Dissolve the bonds of bad karma
The other major cause of our suffering is our own bad karma. When seemingly undeserved suffering comes into our lives, it is because at some time in the past we have, through our own actions, set into motion the events that have brought our painful circumstances. We cannot undo past mistakes—but we can deal with present misfortune in a way that will expiate our wrong actions with a minimum of suffering, and without incurring more bad karma.
First we must accept responsibility for everything that comes to us. If we put the blame on others, we will never understand the attitudes and tendencies that caused us to err in the first place. Try to have the attitude, “I have created this bad karma, and I can destroy it.” Steel your mind to deal unflinchingly with whatever comes. No matter what happens, always feel that you have the ability to rise above it. If you give up, or get discouraged, then the bonds of karma will triumph over you. If, however, you determinedly resolve to keep trying until you have succeeded, then even if you fail temporarily, you will ultimately win the battle of life.
Our own bad karma allows the entry of darkness and suffering into our lives, but with our will and determination we can overcome its power. One of our favorite statements by Paramhansa Yogananda is, “Life is a struggle for joy all along the way. May I fight to win the battle on the very spot where I now am.”
Karmic testing and a deep depression
Some years ago, I (Nayaswami Devi) went through a period of karmic testing that led me into a deep depression. Every morning when I woke up, I was discouraged to find that my mental state was worse than the day before. This pattern went on for weeks, until finally one morning I awoke with the thought, “I think I’m breaking into new territory here. I can’t remember ever feeling this bad.” I knew it was time to do something about it, before the depression really took control of me.
I found a beautiful card with the simple word “JOY” on it, and taped this on my window. Throughout the day, I kept looking at that card and affirming “JOY” with relentless determination. Whenever my thoughts turned back toward the darkness, I drove them forward toward the light.
This battle went on for days, but slowly I felt myself moving forward out of the depression. Then something really wonderful began happening. The momentum of positive affirmation that I’d built up to lift me out of the depression began carrying me towards greater and greater upliftment. I no longer was merely affirming “JOY,” I was experiencing it as a powerful living force within me. A period of deep and fulfilling joy, more intense than the suffering that preceded it, continued for several weeks.
Such is the law of karma. I had accepted that for reasons unknown to me, I had drawn this period of suffering. But by determining not to be overcome by it, and by putting out intense positive thoughts, I was able to draw to myself the happiness that had been so painfully eluding me.
Sometimes we need to escape
We can’t be warriors all of the time. Sometimes in the midst of trials, all we can do is to escape through sleep. This is fair, too, but try to see such periods as part of an overall strategy. Think to yourself, “All right, I’m going to escape into the subconscious realm for awhile, but only to renew my energy and determination to take up the battle again.”
Finally, the worst effect of our bad karma is to make us forget that we are all children of God. But when we regularly meditate and practice the presence of God, delusion and karma no longer have a hold on us. Faith and devotion to God enable us to overcome suffering because they lift us to the level of the eternal. As St. Theresa of Avila so beautifully said, “Let nothing disturb thee, nothing afright thee. All things are passing, but God never changes.”
Nayaswamis Jyotish and Devi are the Spiritual Directors of Ananda Worldwide. An earlier version of this article appeared in Clarity Magazine in the 1980s.
Other Clarity articles by Nayaswamis Jyotish and Devi are listed under “Jyotish and Devi Novak.”
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