Swiss psychologist Carl Jung observed that, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” Jung’s insight may initially offend or cause us woe, but it accurately reflects a truth stated in every spiritual tradition. In this world, the seed must be split in order for the plant to sprout, and the decomposing hull of the seed inevitably fertilizes new growth.
To understand why pain and stress are such powerful catalysts in our evolutionary journey toward Self-realization, remember the Law of Karma: every thought, word and deed is followed by a consequence, and each consequence leads either toward unbounded happiness and freedom or toward dis-ease and pain. As spiritual aspirants, we learn to act skillfully in the world so that pain and stress can be ended and the true purpose of life fulfilled. In my own personal experience, the practice of Yoga Science has proven to be the key to this essential process.
Pain is an important messenger. Unfortunately, it is often misperceived as an enemy to be eliminated rather than as an ally to be consulted. Instead of welcoming and learning from the lessons of pain, our culture has developed a wide variety of avoidance techniques including reliance on drugs, surgery and even consumerism. But pain presents invaluable guidance. As the Greek playwright Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) so profoundly and dramatically declared, “Pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Pain, from the yogic perspective, is the shadow of the outstretched hand of the Supreme Reality. Pain is like the warning signs posted along the highway: “Falling Rock Zone, Slow—Curve, Wrong Way—Do Not Enter.” Pain provides essential direction to assure you a safe journey. Acting as your personal Global Positioning System (GPS), pain advises you when a mid-course correction is necessary. Pain lets you know when there’s friction in your life between self-willed attachment to ego or sense gratifications (preya) and the Perfection of Divine grace, trying to lead you toward unbounded happiness (shreya).
Even in seemingly inconsequential experiences, this yogic way of seeing and acting in the world is available to us. In 1969, for example, when Neil Armstrong was hurtling toward the surface of the moon in the tiny lunar module, on-board computers were continuously reading bits of flight information and transmitting the data back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Almost instantaneously, the powerful computers at the command center analyzed the data and radioed instructions back to astronaut Armstrong. “Fire your first retro rocket .2 seconds. Fire your second retro rocket .75 seconds, and fire your third retro rocket one complete second—and not 1/1000th of a second more or less.” Why all the precision? Perhaps astronaut Armstrong’s eyes, ego and personal imagination could have provided him a more visually stimulating pathway to the moon’s surface, but as a professional, Neil Armstrong knew that his journey to the moon would be far less dangerous if he relied exclusively on the computer-driven directions provided by the Houston Space Center. Choosing this wise perspective, Armstrong was able to make a comfortable and enjoyable soft landing.
Yoga Science advises you to heed the whispers of stress and pain at low decibel levels in your own life. If you don’t, the decibel levels will only get louder and louder and louder––until your dis-ease turns into a full-fledged, painful disease.
Pleasure can never have the same instructive effect as pain. An experience based solely on pleasure just keeps you headed in the same external direction: away from the advice of your intuitive, discriminative GPS called buddhi (or conscience), and toward the next relationship you mistakenly believe will bring you happiness or eliminate your dis-ease.
Pain, on the other hand, emphatically redirects your attention toward your own inner wisdom so you can begin to consider a change in your life––a change that can eliminate the cause of the pain, not just ease its symptoms. Yoga means swimming against the tide of our culture and the habits of a lifetime to rely on the power of the love and eternal wisdom that already reside within you.
Because the overriding philosophy of our culture is based on commerce, messages selling the preya bombard us continually. Although no human being has ever been able to enjoy the short-term pleasure of the preya without eventually experiencing its unpleasantness, the messages from television, movies, radio, newspapers and magazines all suggest that the pleasant and the good are synonymous.
When advertising copywriters try to convince you to go for what appears as pleasant, their advertisements often resemble the sign that flashes in big, red neon letters over the entrance to the local bar and grill: Free Beer! Free Beer! Free Beer! But just as you walk into that bar to claim your free beer, you spot a small, handwritten sign hanging beneath the neon. It simply says: “Tomorrow.” There is no free beer today. That’s the real message. No matter what day you arrive for free beer, it’s always going to be served “tomorrow.”
It’s really quite amazing. The human spirit is so fundamentally optimistic that we continually pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and reach for the next brass ring. But is that next brass ring you strive for the preya or the shreya? That’s basically the only question you have to answer, and the buddhi, your personal Global Positioning System, will always guide you to the right choice.
Your discriminating, purified buddhi is always working, but its voice is often overwhelmed by the noise of the senses, the memories of the past, imaginations of the future, the self-serving advice of the ego and the culture. This can mean that the conscience ends up bound and gagged in the closet, attic or basement of your mind––while the ego and senses party on. Most of the time when you have an overwhelming desire to pursue the pleasure of preya, you’d prefer not to listen to your discrimination.
Have you ever visited a favorite restaurant to take advantage of an all-you-can-eat special? You’re encouraged to consume two or three meals for the price of one. As one national restaurant chain’s advertising slogan directed, “Go overboard!” But the motivation behind this suggestion is hardly a lasting benefit. Quite the contrary.
After you consume the huge meal and experience the pain of indigestion, bloating, heartburn and acid reflux, you’re probably eager to buy another product––that little white antacid pill that effectively shoots the messenger of pain. Sure, the damage to the body will continue, but Madison Avenue gurus cheerfully promise that within sixty seconds or so, you won’t feel discomfort. And, should you experience a twinge of guilt for not having followed the advice of your conscience, advertising executives have yet another ingenious antidote. The manufacturers use calcium in their antacid recipe, and you are carefully reminded that, “Everyone needs calcium.” This perverse logic would suggest that overeating could lead to strong bones. But with your innate powers of discrimination, you know differently.
The Old Testament clearly warns that there is a price to be paid whenever we consciously or unconsciously serve desires that conflict with the Divine wisdom of our true Self: “Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them. Then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you; He will shut up the heaven, there will be no rain, the land will not yield her fruit, and you shall perish quickly from the good land which God had given you.”
In current terms, who are these “other gods” spoken of in the Bible? In the twenty-first century, Americans don’t pray to a golden calf. We are not idol worshippers. Or are we?
Human beings today may be far too sophisticated to succumb to pagan idolatry, but we easily fall prey to the seductive gods of fear, anger and desire that conflict with our intuitive inner wisdom. These mental forces motivate us to direct our attention—our love—away from the compassionate advice of the Supreme Reality. Remember, two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. When we take actions that conflict with the inner wisdom of the buddhi, we are certain to experience physical, mental and emotional dis-ease or pain. In other words, what Deuteronomy calls “the anger of the Lord” is simply the karmic consequence of cutting ourselves off from the flow of grace.
We have deep emotional attachments to the many gods that separate us from the One Absolute Reality. Trapped in the matrix of separateness, we have a misplaced faith that temporal relationships and material objects have the power to bring us happiness and eliminate our pain. Today, shopping centers have become our culture’s most hallowed cathedrals and we allow consumerism to erode our power to discriminate between what is needed and what is merely wanted.
Yoga Science teaches that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with consumption and enjoying sensory pleasures, but objects serve us well only when we use them with discrimination. The mantra, “namaha Shivaya” means “nothing is mine; everything is Thine.” Everything is here for me to use and to enjoy, but not to possess, nor to be possessed by. When the allure of the pleasant or unpleasant beckons in the form of a desire for a thing or a judgment about ourselves or another––Yoga Science suggests that before we mindlessly serve a particular attachment we ask these questions: “Will I truly benefit from what’s pleasant? Do I truly benefit by avoiding the unpleasant, or, am I merely habituated to wanting what my senses and ego promise me?” Then, let the buddhi guide your choice.
A student of St. Teresa once asked her, “Do you love the Lord our God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might as taught in the Bible?” St. Teresa answered humbly, “Yes, I do.” Then the student asked, “And don’t you hate the devil?” St. Teresa replied simply, “I don’t have time.”
Nisargadatta Maharaja, a twentieth century sage from Bombay, reminds us that, “Evil [for instance, extreme pain] is the shadow of inattention. When we forget our real nature, we become fearful, angry and selfish. Yet in the light of Self-awareness, evil withers and falls away.”
Stress and pain are superb teachers. They always offer us crucial information to contemplate so we can make the changes necessary to experience true happiness and fulfillment. Rather than shooting the messenger of pain, Yoga Science is simply asking us to examine the communication and benefit from it. Pleasure doesn’t benefit us in the same way because the fulfillment of every desire for pleasure only brings another desire, not freedom nor understanding. Desires are infinite in their expression.
But old habits are strong. To appreciate the difficulty in starting a new habit, try this experiment right now. Fold your arms comfortably in front of your chest. After five or ten seconds in this position, fold your arms the other way.
You probably noticed that the first time you folded your arms it was natural and easy––because you did it on the basis of habit. However, when you tried to fold your arms another way, it was probably more difficult. It may have taxed your brain to imagine how you were going to position your arms. Habits are difficult to break, but change can be a creative force that leads you beyond your present limitations.
I knew a man who suffered many years with lower back pain. Because the easy-gentle yoga exercises I teach had helped eliminate my own back pain, I offered to teach these stretches to my acquaintance. “If easy-gentle yoga has helped me so much,” I said to him, “the program might just help you, too.” Despite the sincere offer, he declined. “If I didn’t have the pain in my back,” he quipped, “how would I know who I am?” The man’s humorous, but very telling response, reflects a sentiment that many individuals rarely verbalize but privately harbor, either consciously or unconsciously. It reminds me of the riveting insight of 19th century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, “If you did not desire your present position, you would not be doing everything possible to maintain it.”
Even though it’s easier and more comfortable to do things by habit, many of our unexamined habits are actually the cause of our stress and pain. Habits, however, are not necessarily bad, and our ability to form them and to act on them consistently is very valuable. The same mechanism that formed your “bad” habit can be employed to form new, healthy habits. If you have a thorn in your foot, the traditional yoga story teaches, you may need to use another thorn to remove it. Then, both thorns can be thrown away. Just like habits that bring pain, healthy habits that are endorsed by our own inner intuitive wisdom can serve us as effective tools for realizing unbounded happiness.
Very simply, the choice is yours. Consciously or unconsciously, you’re always making decisions and taking actions that lead you either toward fulfillment or toward further stress and pain. When you learn to incorporate the practical wisdom of Yoga Science into your daily life, you will discover an essential and beneficial truth. Stress and pain only enter your life on a mission of mercy. They come to provide you the perfect opportunities to set aside the debilitating limitations of your unnecessary fears, anger and egoic desires so that you can fulfill the purpose of your life––without further pain, misery or bondage.
Painting credit: “The Prize” by Jenness Cortez Perlmutter ©2006