Reflections on Inner Strength – Part Three
The aversion to pain seems hardwired in all living beings. Even something as primitive as a worm, observed Swami Kriyananda, when pricked with a sharp object, will wiggle away. If suffering is so universally loathed, why, then, is a hedonistic life often such a ruinous one? Why did the enormously affluent Howard Hughes, after finding success in countless business ventures, fail to find, by his own admission, happiness?
The spiritual path called to me in a world seemingly made of pain. My Buddhist background stressed that much of life is about suffering; so if hardship was inevitable, then the most responsible thing to do, I reasoned, was to expect tragedy to strike at any time.
When I would get a new job, I would promptly start polishing my resume. At the breakfast table, my mind was already on lunch. By being prepared, I would outrun all possibilities for pain, from a disagreeable boss to a lackluster meal.
This perpetual attempt to flee even the most minor disturbances, wore me out and I, along with my cohort of young urban friends, saw nothing wrong with turning to alcohol and drugs for relief. Eventually, though, the pain caught up. While some got physically ill, my struggle was one of mental agony. Something was missing; I didn’t know what, but I was becoming more desperate by the minute.
I received initiation into Kriya yoga in a little more than a year after discovering Ananda. “That is rather fast,” a teacher said, as I was asking about where to receive initiation. “There’s no rush.”
I couldn’t have disagreed more. My father had a stroke and I unexpectedly found myself as his primary caregiver. I did not have the easiest time with him as a child, and although our relationship largely improved when I became an adult, I never thought that I would be taking care of him on this level. I had been a workaholic, but now my career was in a tailspin.There seems to be no shortage of pain in my life and I was counting on Kriya to make everything better.
My father died about a month before I received Kriya and I quit my job soon after. I was now a spiritual being and had no need for all that came before. I relocated from the capital to a small town and opened a center dedicated to Yogananda’s teachings. I played Swami Kriyanada’s song, “Go On Alone,” on repeat. I wanted nothing more to do with the transient, terrible world. The rest of my life was going to be dedicated to God alone.
But before long, I found myself back in the metropolis, visiting familiar hangouts. I would return to the center on Mondays to offer classes (in other words, ‘to work’) and the weekends were for play. At least I was spending most of the week serving Divine Mother, I weakly reasoned, so what’s the harm in claiming the weekend for myself? I settled into this rhythm, trying not to notice its resemblance to the same anguishing lifestyle that had driven me to leave the city in the first place.
Then, all of a sudden, the pandemic sent Thailand into lockdown. Nothing was open, no reason to go anywhere and, finally, no more excuses: I was going use this time to seriously practice and perhaps, I mused, enlightenment would be just around the corner. I was nervous, but oddly thrilled.
The excitement that I felt, morphed into a dull disappointment when I realized that my maximum meditation lasted minutes, not days. My best was a pale comparison to what I thought a sincere devotee could easily do. There were occasional meditations when I would go very deep, but most shook me with distractions, doubts, and even pain. I often rushed online after meditating to check if the world had imploded. I was staying informed in case of emergencies, I told myself, totally oblivious that I was snuffing out any post-meditative glow with a painful, obsessive fog. Disappointed with my progress, I sought assuagement with tragedies so readily available on the web. Misery indeed loves company.
But all was not lost. Kriyabans were meeting up regularly online to meditate, pray and attend Q& A sessions with senior teachers. Who knew that the internet could be a place of comfort and healing? Instead of feasting on virtual negativity, I now had a much more real, satiating choice.
I discovered that not being a perfect disciple is a perfect reason to keep on trying. With this new perspective, I aimed for a regular, more sustainable practice than an all-out war against my ego. I did not have to figure out how to immediately arrive to freedom in God. Rather, it’s so much more important to observe the direction of travel and correct the course as needed, in order not to fall off the path.
I came to appreciate that this steady effort is best done with a dedicated, yet relaxed, heart. When asked how to make the right decision under pressing circumstances, Swami Kriyananda said that the only way to do so was to have practiced when things were easier. If long meditations were difficult, were there other less taxing elements of the teachings to practice?
The Energization Exercises, a prerequisite to Kriya initiation, have always had a special place in my heart. I found the series pleasant and soothing, so I decided to deepen this practice by fine-tuning the instructions in Thai, making sure that I was staying true to the original instructions, and preparing to vibrantly teach the method when the lockdowns were lifted. When I was unwilling to meditate, I would make a deal with myself that I would just energize; afterward, more often than not, the thought of meditating wasn’t so burdensome. If all great journeys start with just a step, then why should the path to Self-Realization be any different?
While most students did not come back when the country reopened, I still found myself at peace. It was as if the pain felt during shutdown, of failure and isolation, strengthened me for a new, serene outlook. Whereas, before, my mood depended on how many people I could attract, now I take great comfort in the handful of souls that regularly return. When new students show up, instead of trying my best to impress, I now approach them with an unattached, yet hopeful, attitude: if this is the first and last time that I will see them, what does Divine Mother want to communicate through me?
I am sure that, at one time or another, we have all wished to be free from pain. But upon deeper reflection, is pain really such a bad thing? Consider those with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis (CIPA), which the National Library of Medicine (USA) described as:
“…a very rare and extremely dangerous condition. People with CIPA cannot feel pain. Pain-sensing nerves in these patients are not properly connected in parts of brain that receive the pain messages. CIPA is extremely dangerous, and in most cases the patient doesn’t live over age of 25. Although some of them can live a fairly normal life, they must constantly check for cuts, bruises, self-mutilations, and other possible unfelt injuries. Self-mutilation is an almost invariable feature of this disorder, most often involving the teeth, lips, tongue, ears, eyes, nose, and fingers.”
I’ve come to realize that pain is an expression of God’s unconditional love. While there is, without a doubt, intense suffering that exists in the world, one becomes truly free from pain when one embraces it as a gift from God. However, given how the colorful poppy blooms eventually to evolve into heroin, which then gave rise to synthetic opioids currently annihilating countless lives, the subtle call to transcend pain seems inaudible to a culture devoted to deafening pleasure.
But if we begin to practice when things are easier, bravely facing each unpleasant incident with God in our hearts, we will clearly see that God is trying to strengthen us though pain. Pain is a call to rise to the occasion. Pain is, very much, a blessing in disguise.