We know that disease is an obstacle on the path to God. It is very hard to find God when the body is aching and we feel all kinds of physical disharmony. Disease, further-more, is of a threefold nature, just as man is a triune being. Man has a body; man has a mind; and man has a soul. Disease of the body is the most apparent to us, but we have disease of a more subtle nature – jealousy, greed, anger, moods – all these are diseases of the mind. And finally we have one supreme disease of the soul, which is ignorance of God.
These various obstacles stand in the way between ourselves and God. Yet it remains a question whether obstacles are entirely bad. Actually, they have many good points. A person who encounters no opposition seldom develops his potentialities to any worthwhile extent. As the Master Paramahansa Yogananda put it, when a man wants to become a wrestler, he doesn’t go out and wrestle with Pygmies; he wrestles with people who are stronger than he. If we want to become strong in anything we must wrestle with the difficult circumstances that are likely to attend our endeavors. Master also used to say, “Bite off more than you can chew and then chew it.” This is how we achieve the highest goals. Crushed by the weight of temporary unfavorable circumstances – perhaps physical disease – some seekers think, “Oh dear, the roof has fallen in on my life. Now I cannot find God.” They forget that others have found God despite, and perhaps even because of disease. Consider the great suffering that Theresa of Avila went through for years and years. Yet she attained sainthood. On the other hand, there are people who, as soon as there is a little physical discomfort in the body, start thinking, “Oh, I didn’t get my avocados today, and I am so worried about my physical condition.” How silly! If the physical body is in good health, fine. And if it is in poor health, try to overcome the condition, but always use trials and difficulties as a springboard to higher and deeper realizations on the path.
If we didn’t have any obstacles we would never discover our latent strength; we would be very weak, very poor in consciousness. Without the stimulation of problems and difficulties we would drift along, spineless, without any gumption at all, giving in to whatever comes. We must not be like that. We must combat and rise above difficulties. Thus we become worthy of the Kingdom of God. Many people think of the divine path as a way for weaklings. Far from it! To find God requires a great deal of strength, a great deal of will power, perseverance, and “stick-to-it-iveness.”
Ignorance of God – The Greatest Disease
Suffering is part and parcel of disease. Disease means that we have a disharmony, that we are out of tune with God on the physical, or mental, or the spiritual plane, although we may not even be conscious of it. Some people are not conscious of painful disease because they have become used to it over a long period of time; they become identified with it, and they no longer consciously feel pain. Others suffer from jealousy and other mental inharmonies, yet they are not aware of this inharmony as such; they are not conscious of the fact that it is interposing itself between them and their God.
There are still others – and they constitute perhaps the majority of mankind – who are ignorant of God; yet, being unaware of their ignorance they feel quite content! Someone I knew used to say to his wife, “You’re not happy; none of us is happy; how can we be happy without God?” And she said, “That’s ridiculous; I’m perfectly happy.” She was very fed up and I don’t blame her, but she was emphasizing a rather negative side of happiness, for it is true that most of us do suffer, albeit unknowingly, from the greatest of all diseases, ignorance of God. We must overcome that disease in order to realize God.
But the disease is separate from the suffering that attends it. If there is no suffering then there is no impetus to go deeper into the consciousness of God and thus overcome the disease. If we had a body eaten up by cancer and it didn’t hurt us, we wouldn’t care. If we were able to drink and eat the wrong things all the time, and it didn’t bother us at all, we wouldn’t care. The body might be loaded with toxins, dragging down the mind with heavy thoughts and making it more difficult to concentrate and meditate on God; yet if we felt no suffering because of this – and most people don’t – we would be all right insofar as we are concerned. But it is because we have the suffering that we long to overcome that suffering. We long for release.
When we were out working on the Lake Shrine, trying to get it ready for the opening in 1950, there were swarms of little flies, the kind that always try to get around the eyes and the ears and the nostrils, horrible things in groups of 20 to 50 all around our heads. It was rather annoying when we were trying to work, and I said to Master, “Sir, why does God permit such things to go on?” He gave a very beautiful answer: “That’s what keeps us moving back toward Him.”
Suffering is a Blessing to Overcome Disease
God does not intend that his world be all happiness and laughter. This world is imperfect – it does not reveal the whole perfection of God. If there is a beautiful painting, of which we can see only a little flower in one corner – is that perfect? No, because there is the whole painting to see, and we are missing most of it. And so in this world, which is away from God, so long as we are in mortal consciousness we are unable to feel that great bliss of God that is within the soul in God-communion. If we were to be content with living and eating and working and procreating and having a good time at the movies, and finally dying – if this were all there is to life, and we loved it, there would be no impetus to find that something which could give us much greater happiness – God. He gave us suffering as a result of our mistakes. If we make a mistake we have to pay the consequences. A person who drinks a great deal will suffer in time from terrible ill health. Each little item of suffering is the direct result of an error we have made. Error takes us away from that which will give us true happiness – God. Any time that we do something that takes us away from our attunement with God, that takes us away from the inner bliss, we are bound sooner or later to reap painful results from that action.
Life is a very tricky thing indeed. We patch it all up on one side and then it goes bad on the other side. Sankhya philosophy says that man must first of all overcome suffering – physical, mental, and spiritual – by destroying its roots. For instance, a person may suffer from poverty as a Karmic result of greed. He works hard and makes a lot of money in order to satisfy his greed, but if he does not destroy greed, the root-cause of his poverty, he may again become poor. He must destroy the covetousness that caused the poverty; he must learn to do that which will always bring him joy. Only by knowing God, by knowing Truth, by knowing himself as a reflection of God, can he do this. As soon as we understand whence we came, we don’t want to do anything that would take us farther away from the divine Source. But so long as we don’t know our real nature we aren’t going to know what takes us far away from it and what brings us closer to it. People want peace, yet in the hope of finding it, they do many things which directly cause the complete loss of peace. Why? They don’t know any better. They have to overcome the ignorance of where their true good lies and learn to align their actions with divine harmony and joy.
Suffering is an awareness of disease. There are people who aren’t aware of their jealousy, who aren’t aware of their greed, who aren’t even aware of physical pains because they are so accustomed to them that they identify them with a normal condition of being. A person may lose all his money and feel terrible about it for awhile. But if after many years he is still poor he forgets what it is like to be rich, and he doesn’t care as much. So it is with most pain, because the human consciousness can accustom itself to anything.
Suffering is a great blessing because in it is an awareness of the disease which we have. We have a certain amount of physical discomfort all the time. Many people are always tense without being aware of it. But as they learn the peace of relaxation and meditation, they become aware of tension and they feel suffering because of it. The other day I was in conference all day, continually having to talk. At the end of the day I felt such an acute suffering in my heart, because I just longed for the peace of God, longed for the peace of meditation. I could feel how the talking had ruffled the peace that I usually feel. That to me was suffering, because I was aware of something that was going wrong. And so I sat in meditation. I knew I had to talk again that evening till very late – I happened to be very busy that day – and I thought I must do it, but I just dread the ordeal of talking for another four or five hours when I feel so in need of the peace of God. And as I sat at meditation, all of a sudden that peace came to me, and it was just as if I had never talked all day, as if I had kept a complete day of silence. This is the value of suffering: the urge within to overcome the disease, the obstacle to attunement with God. This kind of suffering is wonderful. Having felt suffering, I felt the need for peace, and I sat there and I poured myself into meditation with all my heart. Now would I have poured myself into it with all my heart if I hadn’t felt the need for it? It is only when we feel the need for something that we get busy and do something about it.
Suffering is often an obstacle; but it is also a path to God. It is through suffering that God says, “Come home, child. It’s time to get back.” It is through suffering that we begin to see that this world will not give us the happiness that we want. We set out upon the path of life very confidently indeed. Young children playing with their toys think life is rosy Youths, young adults think the world is – as Emerson put it – their oyster: all the world of opportunity lies before them. But I heard through a friend about one such young girl in New York City. She was lying on the street: a girder had fallen over and crushed her chest. The police were there, and the ambulances. She knew that she was dying, and there was barely enough breath in her to sob, “I just came to the city, and all my life and all my hopes lay ahead of me. Now, within a week here, I have to leave everything behind.” So we often find ourselves faced with disappointments. Hers was extreme. But the youth setting out with such confidence, such buoyant expectancy and hope, finds that all of a sudden things go wrong. Worries come; there are bills to pay, and physical disease perhaps. Pretty soon life is not such a beautiful thing after all. He has something to learn about life, but he doesn’t know what it is. Then comes the desire to overcome, to rise above life’s suffering and to find something better.
God’s Purpose for Suffering
All the saints have a certain measure of suffering, whether physical or spiritual. But many people entering on the spiritual path think, “Boy! Now I’m living for God, so everything will go fine. I don’t have to worry. I’ll just meditate and everything will come to me.” Yes, God takes care of us; that is true. But He is not going to take care of us by continually dusting the path before us as we walk! God has but one purpose in mind, God has but one desire, and that its for our love – our unconditional, wholehearted love. God wants us. But do we want God? Even on the spiritual path there are lukewarm devotees who say, “Yes, I want God, but you know how it is, I have this and that to do.” Such a devotee may sit and meditate, but he doesn’t want God enough, and so God doesn’t come. It is because we don’t want Him badly enough that God wants to be convinced of our devotion before He will appear. God does not necessarily want us to find happiness in this world. As one devotee put it, “The masters and God aren’t so interested in cleaning the mud puddle here; they are interested in taking people out of the mud puddle.” Because the mud puddle is always going to get muddy again. It dries up, but after a rain it is dirty all over again. It is not the purpose of this earthly show to make the world perfect. It cannot be perfect, being only an outward manifestation of God. The lesson of the world to true children of God is that to seek perfection is to seek God alone. And so God doesn’t hesitate to send a certain amount of suffering to His devotees. God doesn’t hesitate to test His devotees, but He doesn’t do this in order to make them miserable. He does it to bring souls back to Him. Unfortunate is he to whom God gives much. Those who can say, “I can manifest this, I can manifest that; see what God is giving me” are not always the true devotees. God can see that they have material desires, that they have not the true desire for Him. They only manage to put some of his laws into effect to satisfy material desires. But those who want to find God alone may find all kinds of obstacles coming to them because God wants to make them strong. Does this mean something negative? Far from it. Some people enter the spiritual path and suddenly they see that everything goes wrong and they say, “Oh, this isn’t for me,” and they leave it. As soon as the devotee sets foot on the path to God, he finds certain subtle laws put into effect that act both for his testing and for his upliftment. On the one hand he finds that the satanic force, which had let him go along easily as long as he was in delusion and didn’t mind it, now tries consciously to bring him away from God, and in that he finds suffering. On the other hand, God is always trying to pull him back and he finds in this tug-of-war that there is great suffering.
God tries to test us. God does bring us suffering, but not to bring us misery, but to bring us ultimate reward. Through suffering we learn to cast ourselves at the feet of God. On the spiritual path when everything goes well we think, “Oh, I’m happy; why should I bother to meditate? I’m already feeling peaceful.” We just ride along on the peace; we don’t advance. But when we begin to feel dryness and a lack of attunement with God, we sense that our life isn’t what we want it to be, and then that greatest of all yearnings for something deeper, comes into the heart. We begin to make a real effort, and we say, “I can’t rest until I have something more. I can’t go along the way I’ve been going. I see other people that haven’t the peace of mind that I have. I see them always nervous, but they are not conscious of that disease, and therefore they aren’t suffering as I am. No, I want divine peace so badly that I can’t rest until I have it.: That’s the kind of suffering which takes us to God.
Suffering is not something negative; it is something positive. Suffering comes only when we begin to feel our lack of attunement with God, when we begin to feel the force of restlessness, the force of continuous activities, as I did that day when I had to talk all the time and I began to feel that it was taking me away from God’s peace, and that I had to do everything in my power to regain it.
Suffering – A Trigger for Right Action
But is suffering the sole purpose of the path of Yoga? Of course not. The whole thing is joy. We came for joy; we live for joy; we want to melt, through God’s grace, into that joy again. Christ is spoken of as a man of sorrows. I wish I had his sorrows! He was a man of most intense joy. Sometimes he wept, for the sake of others, but he was a man who knew God, and God is not a God of sorrow but a God of joy. Every time you feel even a little bit of happiness in God, emphasize that happiness. Keep dwelling on it. Never emphasize suffering. “Oh, I am going through so much.” God gives suffering simply as a warning. We feel a little pain in the body and we say, “Oh, oh, I’d better take care of that.”
We are not always so alert to eradicate psychological pain, a much more intense suffering, usually; that feeling of emptiness, that consciousness of our own errors, without any awareness of how to get over it. Some, feeling that suffering, get moody; they give in to the condition, dragging themselves down more and more into delusion. This is wrong. Suffering is meant to show you that something isn’t right, so that you can do something about it. Don’t hang on to your misery. Start to emphasize the fact that you have come from God, that you have everything to live for, and always try to transmute the power that you would get from feeling misery into positive effort to find God. As soon as our feeling becomes strong in any way there is a gathering of will power there, that power we feel when we think, “I could kick myself for being such a fool.” Are we going to use that will power simply to emphasize our mistakes, to further our delusions? No, we should use it rather to strengthen our attachment to God.
Finding God is the Funeral of All SufferingSwami Sri Yukteswar
Did we do something wrong? Do we feel bad about it? That means we feel strong enough to kick ourselves. To kick ourselves in the right way is to meditate more. “Well, here I see that I’m not getting enough meditation. I could be putting in a half-hour at noon. I could give more time at night. I could make an effort to be kind to people I’ve not been too thoughtful of – and these things will bring me back my peace.” So suffering should serve as the trigger for right action, for right positive thinking, not as a slough of despond in which one willingly wallows. Always yearn for God – always seek God. Suffering, the Master Paramhansaji used to say, is the prod God uses to turn our attention back to Him, and to intensify our hunger for Him, once it is aroused. For even devotees who love God very deeply must endure suffering – St. John of the Cross described it as the dark night of the soul. At these times the devotee experiences such great dryness inside, he suffers greatly through separation from the God he so much longs for. But that is not the time to give in to the misery of the spiritual hunger; the devotee should make it an impetus to go deeper, to meditate more, to meditate more intensely, to dedicate his whole life to God. Finding God, as Sri Yukteswar once said, is the funeral of all sorrows. That is why finding Him is the ultimate goal, not only of the religious, but of every man. The happiness that man seeks in a thousand misdirections is to be found in God alone.
Don’t wait to be prodded by suffering and disease to seek the divine Succor. If you have good health, use it to seek God more earnestly. And if your karmic lot has brought troubles and difficulties, turn them into blessings by using them as springboards to greater divine determination to seek God until you find Him. “Finding Him within you will find Him without, in all people and in all conditions.”