Eucatastrophe is a word coined around 1937 by J. R. R. Tolkien, author of “Lord of the Rings.” The term refers to a sudden and apparently disastrous turn of events that, despite initial appearances, results in the hero’s well-being. Best of all, this stunningly positive resolution comes not from some outside intervention, but from within the existing elements of the disaster! Tolkien formed the word by adding the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, meaning momentous misfortune. The implications are profound and practical and in perfect harmony with the teaching of Yoga Science that instructs us to include all and exclude none.
Tolkien has given a name to a perennial, and yet perennially doubted, truth: even events that seem unacceptable always hold the potential for benefit. Realizing this can embolden us to let go of and transform the negativity of our perceptions. It can free us to employ detachment, discrimination and clarity to see nurturing and health-affirming possibilities.
Welcoming and examining the unpleasant, however, is not without its challenges. The ego becomes extremely defensive when confronted with this practice because it recognizes a threat to its authority and “wisdom”. To avoid the issue, the ego usually employs one of two favorite techniques. It may dwell on the pain and worry excessively, or, in concert with the senses and unconscious mind, the ego may project the memory or imagination of pleasure into the conscious mind. When we have no philosophy of life to guide us, the temptation of pleasure is usually attractive enough to catapult our consciousness into the future or back into the past where our consternation is masked for a brief time. The ego might also suggest a little self-medication––food, sex, sleep, drugs or anger––just enough to keep us from investigating a higher Truth that undercuts the ego’s influence.
To let the ego’s prejudices go unchallenged, however, keeps us enslaved to the personality’s physical, mental and emotional addictions to pleasure and its aversion to pain. In that quagmire of likes and dislikes, the personality fears losing the comfort of the familiar. So we stay where we are and we suffer.
But that need not be the case. In his “Commentary on ‘Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence’,” Swami Nijananda teaches that when something injurious or unpleasant comes to us, we can choose to remember what the yogic sages knew: every circumstance––no matter how disturbing at the time––is a manifestation of the Supreme Reality (a.k.a. God), and provides us the perfect opportunity to let go of some limiting attachment so that we might fulfill the unforeseen purpose of our lives. “In that case,” Swami Nijananda reminds us, “We must look at our circumstance from the perspective that it has to be good.” No matter what we are dealing with––a thought, an emotion, a person, an illness, old age or any other “catastrophic problem”, every situation contains the seed of some special blessing.
One of the most challenging aspects of dealing with unwanted events is the fact that the ego and unconscious mind immediately give us an opinionated color commentary based on their limited perspectives. “I was walking down the street and he pushed me,” they say, “therefore, he must have intended to hurt me. He’s never liked me, and besides, he’s a bully.” Rather than simply responding to the act, we find ourselves responding to the mind’s limited conceptions and perceptions of the act. We forsake discrimination and reinforce our ignorance.
Through the practice of meditation, however, we develop skills that enable us to see that (in this particular case) B does not follow A and C does not follow B, in spite of what we are programmed to believe. In fact, with the skills of detachment and discrimination, you might actually come to another realization altogether: that the man did not push you out of malice at all, but rather only to move you out of the path of an out-of-control automobile veering over the curb and onto the sidewalk.
Eucatastrophes take many forms but always carry great gifts, not only for their heroes, but for others as well. One familiar eucatastrophe is recounted in the Biblical story of Joseph. As you might remember, Joseph’s jealous brothers sold him into slavery. Years later, after Joseph had become governor of Egypt, the brothers came petitioning for grain during a time of widespread famine. Upon discovering that the governor of Egypt was actually their long-lost brother, they began to cry and beg for Joseph’s forgiveness. Joseph’s response was not vengeful. Rather, it reflected a profound understanding of the yogic philosophy of trustful surrender to Divine Providence. In modern vernacular, Joseph told them, “There is no need to forgive you, my brothers, for it was not you who sold me into slavery. It was the Lord who sold me into slavery––using you as instruments––so that I could be here today to feed you and all who are hungry.”
Another story, closer to home, also underscores the Truth that even tragedy can be the vehicle for grace.
On September 10, 2001, one of our meditation students was working as an elementary school bus driver. That afternoon, as Roger drove through the winding streets of a suburban neighborhood, a small terrier darted under the wheels of the bus and was killed instantly. As you can imagine, pandemonium ensued. The dog had belonged to one of the boys on the bus. When the child realized what had happened, he began to wail inconsolably. His mother, who had been waiting with the family dog at the bus stop, became hysterical as she tried unsuccessfully to comfort her distraught son. In an emotional exchange with Roger, she was angry and abusive. Roger tried to explain that it had been impossible to avoid hitting the dog, but the woman could not hear him. “Look at all the pain and misery you’ve caused,” the woman shrieked. “You killed our dog! My son is hysterical, and my husband’s away. Now he’ll have to cancel the rest of his business trip and come home.”
A few days later Roger received a visit from the child’s father. The man told Roger that because the dog was killed, he did indeed have to cancel his business meeting, which was scheduled for 9AM at the World Trade Center on September 11th. Had he not been called home, he would have been inside one of the Towers destroyed on the morning of the infamous terrorist attack. With gratitude, the man apologized to Roger for the family’s insensitivity and thanked him for being part of the divine plan that had saved his life.
When we can trust that everything comes to lead us for our highest and greatest good, we still may experience the personality’s likes and dislikes (raga/dveshas), anger and resentments, but we no longer have to be enslaved to those restrictive forces. Instead, in the midst of would-be catastrophes we can choose to remain free, calm, content and centered in knowing that the challenging relationship at hand is not beyond our means to creatively deal with, and that it is providing us exactly what we need.
Our inability to trust the intrinsic value of a eucatastrophe rests in the fact that we are thoroughly identified with the body and the limited perspective of the mind. We habitually invest our consciousness in the sense of lack. The notion that “I lack something” is our basic problem, and the more we act on that non-truth, the more insecure and unhappy we feel and the more desperately we seek objects and relationships we hope will make us secure and happy.
Of course those imagined solutions will not work––in part because whenever we fulfill a desire we immediately fear we might lose what we have. We expend our energy chasing rainbows and we inevitably wind up where we started: insecure and unhappy.
Swallowed up again by the sense of lack, we seek compensation. Food, sex, sleep, shopping, the internet, television, gossip, travel, alcohol, drugs, depression, overwork and worry are all employed to hold reality at bay. Is it any wonder that in addition to feeling insecure and unhappy, we’re also exhausted?
To understand what led to our present condition and to begin reversing that process, imagine for a moment that you and I are sitting in your living room watching “Gone with the Wind” on television. Once the movie begins, we get caught up in the action and before we know it, we’re lost in the imagery, romance and horror of the Civil War. We’re so involved in the movie that we identify with Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara completely. We feel their emotions and react physiologically to the circumstances portrayed on the screen.
When a commercial breaks the imagery, we recall immediately that it was all just a movie. Now, not only is the imagery of the movie broken, so too is the emotional bond that held us. The power of the imagery fades away into nothing.
Similarly, when you identify with the mind’s habitual loop of thoughts and emotions, you can see nothing but the movie that’s projected through the lenses of fear, anger and self-willed desire. As a result, you re-imagine the same “catastrophe” again and again. Your thoughts and desires sweep you into one “tragedy” after another––keeping you confused, weak and dependent. As Shakespeare observed, “Thinking makes it so.”
But through the practice of Yoga Science as mind-body medicine, you purify the lenses through which you view the world. Slowly, slowly you realize that even though you have a body and mind, you are not the body and you are not the mind. In the Bhagavad Gita, Shri Krishna (our higher Self) reassures Arjuna (the human personality) that “There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist. The same person inhabits the body through childhood, youth and old age. The wise are not deluded by these changes.”
To underscore this Truth and to help us eliminate our ignorance, the Compassionate Buddha presented us with the Five Remembrances. Earnest contemplation of the Buddha’s words can motivate us to disassociate from the transitory nature of the body and mind, and can prepare us to make discriminating choices that lead us to the summum bonum of life. “Wake up!” the Buddha exhorts us. You lack nothing. You are not insecure, nor are you unhappy. You are essentially spirit having a human experience. You are eternal consciousness, wisdom and bliss (Sat, Chit, Ananda). You do not lack. You are fullness. You are not insecure. You are secure. You are not unhappy. You are happiness Itself. Now, remaining centered in that Truth, go forth and base your outer actions on your own inner intuitive wisdom reflected by the buddhi (conscience). Then you will become the Compassionate Buddha.
The Five Remembrances are:
1. The body is certain to become old. There is no way for it to escape growing old.
2. The body is certain to become ill. There is no way for it to escape ill health.
3. The body is certain to die. There is no way for it to escape death.
4. Everything and everyone I love is subject to change and death. There is no way to escape separation from them.
5. My actions are my only true belongings. I am the heir of my actions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand and the reality which I experience.
Following the Five Remembrances, the Buddha concludes with these words:
“Birth will end in death. Youth will end in old age. Wealth will end in loss. Meetings will end in separation. All things in the material world are impermanent. The Buddhas cannot wash our sins with water. They cannot remove our suffering with their hands. They cannot transfer their insights to us. All they can do is teach the Dharma. I am my own protector.”
If we can take these words of the Compassionate Buddha to heart, we’ll realize that we are the architects of our own lives and we determine our destinies––no one else has that power. If we choose to remain coupled to the limited perspective of the personality there will always be problems. But when we willingly forsake old, unreliable habits and yoke ourselves to the perfect wisdom of the higher Self––regardless of whether we call It Christ, Buddha, Allah, HaShem, Atman, Ahura Mazda or Great Spirit––“problems” do not arise. In the fullness and security of our new clarity, a catastrophe is simply transformed into what it really always was: a eucatastrophe.
Does all this sound too far fetched to believe? No problem. Don’t believe. Just experiment––as a Yoga scientist. The next time the personality thinks itself into a catastrophe, employ a little detachment and examine the situation carefully. Then, base your outer actions on your intuitive inner wisdom and see if you don’t experience the trustworthy silver lining of a eucatastrophe. I’m betting you will.