Thoughts on Suffering and Spiritual Practice

In the Garden of Gethsemane

In the Garden of Gethsemane

For as long as I have undertaken systematic spiritual practice, my sadhana has gone hand in hand with sorrow. There are periods of respite, of relative happiness, when I look forward to meditation, when I feel that the Lord hears my prayers, and when I feel part of a larger, dynamic unity of devotees, of children of God, of beings longing for enlightenment. The good times have been weeks, months, even many months, same as the challenging times, but the division has been far from equal. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I have to say that the periods of spiritual darkness have been disproportionately longer, more frequent, and more profound than the times of joyful striving.

There’s much in the media these days about the physical and mental health benefits of meditation. Research suggests that regular attendance of religious services offers significant protection against clinical depression. And, of course, the ultimate goal of spiritual practice is the cessation of suffering, the attainment of a happiness that does not end. My experience, then, would seem more than a little contrary. In fact, this has been a significant struggle for me, often leading to intense doubt in myself, in God, in my spiritual teacher, in the efficacy of spiritual practices. Indeed, as much as I would like to say that I’ve found the solution to my dilemma, that my spiritual life is uplifting and predominantly joyful, I can only say that, yes, I have found answers, I have found solutions, but they are difficult, sometimes confusing, often mysterious, and, at least at this point in my sadhana, they are usually of little comfort.

Be that as it may, the answers — the experiences of holy persons culled from their own spiritual lives — are available to those who suffer from spiritual depression. These are examples of patience, purity, and perseverance — especially perseverance! — in action. In dark times, we can only look for their light, then follow it as best we can.

Eknath Easwaran wrote that none suffer like the lovers of God. It’s logical to ask why that should be. The answer — as best someone like me can give an answer to that question — is also logical. The world is the playground of Maya, created by this inscrutable power through no detectable means and for no discernable purpose. Despite the theories of science and religion, they can only remain theories. As science delves deeper into the mysteries of the universe it finds not answers but more questions. Religions posit various ideas not as ultimate truths but as workable hypotheses to allow adherents to get on with everyday life, reasonably secure that they have a clue about what the universe is and what they’re doing in it. But, as Swami Vivekananda said, the only really sensible answer to the question of why human life is such a bloody mess is, “‘I do not know. I do not know how the perfect being, the soul, came to think of itself as imperfect, as joined to and conditioned by matter.’ But the fact is a fact for all that.” So here we are, at the mercy of causality, destined to live, grow, suffer, enjoy, decay, and die. If I analyze this situation critically, I can only call it a tragedy. And the sages of all the religions throughout all the ages of humankind have cried out that we need not accept the world as it is, that we need not remain players in the tragedy. We have put on these costumes to perform in this drama and we have become identified with our roles, forgetting our true identities. And we complain that we’re suffering in these costumes, that our roles are too difficult, that it’s a bad play and we just want to get out of it, all the while clinging as tightly as we can to our ugly, tattered masks.

Why don’t we just let go?

Easwaran said, “the lovers of God,” but he may as well have said the pious, the devout, the stalwart of every faith. God is every good thing, everything that is truly beautiful and wholesome, everything that is awe-inspiring and heart-warming. God is truth for the sake of truth, love that seeks no return, service that looks for no recognition. God is the path of enlightenment as well as the goal of the path. God is our true and perfect Self. God is not the world of enjoyment, of pleasure, of lust and greed, of selfishness and egoism. So the lovers of God are those who, however humble, are not content with a fine house and car, a beautiful husband or wife, academic achievements or career success. There is nothing sinful or wrong about any of these things, but the clinging that they inspire, and their empty, transient nature, translate not to real happiness, but to tiny, blissful moments between desires, when one has been fulfilled for a time and a new one has not arisen. This is not joy. This is slavery. The lovers of God long for freedom, freedom from their own pettiness and greed.

It is perhaps seemingly counter-intuitive that deep, heart-wrenching sadness over one’s spiritual practice, particularly over the lack of success therein, can be among the most effective motivators for sustained, enthusiastic — and, thus, effective — practice. It was just such longing, taken to an almost insane intensity, that led to Sri Ramakrishna’s first awakening when he was serving as a priest at the Dakshineswar Kali Temple. According to Swami Nikhilananda’s introduction to The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna:

He felt the pangs of a child separated from its mother. Sometimes, in agony, he would rub his face against the ground and weep so bitterly that people, thinking he had lost his earthly mother, would sympathize with him in his grief. Sometimes, in moments of scepticism, he would cry: “Art Thou true, Mother, or is it all fiction — mere poetry without any reality? If Thou dost exist, why do I not see Thee? Is religion a mere fantasy and art Thou only a figment of man’s imagination?” Sometimes he would sit on the prayer carpet for two hours like an inert object. He began to behave in an abnormal manner, most of the time unconscious of the world. He almost gave up food; and sleep left him altogether.

Sri Ramakrishna was beset by an almost terrible longing to realize God. He thought about his Divine Mother, Kali, night and day, spent long hours in meditation, and performed intense austerities in an effort to commune with the Divine. His sadhana was marked not by the peace, serenity, and joy that we modern people usually hope to gain from spirituality, but by soul-deep emptiness, a burden of doubt, and almost hopeless desperation.

But he did not have to wait very long. He has thus described his first vision of the Mother: “I felt as if my heart were being squeezed like a wet towel. I was overpowered with a great restlessness and a fear that it might not be my lot to realize Her in this life. I could not bear the separation from Her any longer. Life seemed to be not worth living. Suddenly my glance fell on the sword that was kept in the Mother’s temple. I determined to put an end to my life. When I jumped up like a madman and seized it, suddenly the blessed Mother revealed Herself. The buildings with their different parts, the temple, and everything else vanished from my sight, leaving no trace whatsoever, and in their stead I saw a limitless, infinite, effulgent Ocean of Consciousness. As far as the eye could see, the shining billows were madly rushing at me from all sides with a terrific noise, to swallow me up! I was panting for breath. I was caught in the rush and collapsed, unconscious. What was happening in the outside world I did not know; but within me there was a steady flow of undiluted bliss, altogether new, and I felt the presence of the Divine Mother.” On his lips when he regained consciousness of the world was the word “Mother”.

This restless longing, accompanied by depression, sadness, and often desperation, is not unique to Sri Ramakrishna, though the intensity of his desire for God may be unparalleled. His young disciples experienced the same desperation, particularly Swami Vivekananda and Swami Brahmananda, both of whom wondered India for some time, absorbed in austerities, long frustrated in their quest for realization. We see many of these traits in the lives of such saints as Thérèse of Lisieux and Mother Theresa, the Buddha, and the hints of Jesus’s forty-day ordeal in the desert after his baptism by John the Baptist. An example which brings the point home to me is Swami Atulananda, the first Westerner to commit to and maintain a life of sannyasa under the Ramakrishna Order. The Swami was blessed with a glimpse of enlightenment fairly early in his spiritual life, but then endured a long life beset with many illnesses arising from his attempts to live in India, and serious health problems that plagued him until death. Not long before he died, he seems to have finally become established in the realization he had glimpsed decades before.

This, then, is the path of the “lovers of God.” We choose not to be enraptured by the pleasures of the world. Though we backslide and fail countless times, we know that the illusion of worldly happiness will never fulfil us. We are no longer babies, resting in our mothers’ arms, relishing no more than food, sleep, and comfort. We have found our legs and put our weight upon them, praying they will hold. They need a lot of exercise, a lot of effort, and more than a few falls, if we are to stand upright, the goal in our sights, and walk, clinging not to the crib blanket or the pacifier, but only to the hand of our father, our mother.



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