Suffering and Self Development


Is suffering necessary for our self-improvement or does it hinder our progress? How often do we suffer unnecessarily because of our own mind, and how we can learn and progress, despite periods of unavoidable suffering? These are some thoughts on suffering.

Don’t Invite Suffering

Most of our mental problems are self imposed. When we examine our own mind we realise how many unnecessary fears and anxieties we hold onto. It is these thoughts that are our real source of suffering; but, there is no need to cherish them at all. Make a conscious effort to let go of those thoughts which cause only internal suffering; look upon these thoughts as a dark spot on your own heart. Try to cultivate the opposite of suffering which is happiness. When we are inwardly sincerely happy we will make more progress, we will also be able to share our inner wealth with others. How can we uplift others, when we ourselves are thoroughly miserable?

Suffering Lowers Our Consciousness

Sometime we feel that if we have many crosses to bear we will make tremendous progress. But, often when we suffer what happens is that we feel miserable and unhappy; when we are unhappy we subconsciously seek to blame the world and inevitably we share our suffering with others. On the other hand sometimes when we have many problems we also feel proud and important that we have so many difficulties to deal with. It is because of emotions like this that we cling onto our negative emotions.

Progress Through Suffering

When life is easy and problem free we coast along with little concern for our self improvement; life is pleasurable so we are content to remain as we are. However, difficult experiences often force us to re-evaluate our approach and attitude to life. Perhaps our pride has been hurt or we feel guilty for having made a mistake. It is these shocks to the system that create the motivation to aim for higher ideals and be less self absorbed. When we look back, at what felt like a period of unfair suffering, we later feel that it was completely necessary and actually the start of a fresh beginning.

Learn From Every Experience

Whilst we will never invite suffering, inevitably there will be times when we suffer either physically or emotionally. We cannot avoid these experiences, nor should we make the mistake of expecting life to be trouble free. What is important is our inner and outer attitude to these problems; if we approach difficulties with the right attitude we can turn suffering into a learning experience. In some cases we can even turn experiences of suffering into an unexpected feeling of illumination and joy.

Physical Suffering and Mental Suffering

The pain of the body is often bearable.
Not so is the pain of the heart.

– Sri Chinmoy
When we are ill it is more difficult to be in a good consciousness. If our body is in pain it is more difficult to meditate because our mind rests on the physical pain, rather than transcending the physical consciousness. However, just because it is more difficult doesn’t mean it is impossible. We should see it as an opportunity to strengthen our practice. If we can remain in a good consciousness even with pain, we will become stronger and more resilient. When we are in pain try to think about it as little as possible and avoid feeling sorry for yourself; find something else to focus on.

Suffering and the Saints

It seems that many of the great saints and spiritual Masters suffered in some way, even if they never invited the suffering into their lives. As Sri Aurobindo remarks in Savitri.

None can reach heaven
Who has not
Passed through hell.

Especially in the Christian traditions suffering seems to be an intrinsic part of their sadhana. To give but a few examples, St John of the Cross, Bernadette Soubirous, all suffered in some form. Yet, a great Saint can transform suffering – what seems like outer suffering can inwardly be transformed. As John of the Cross was being tortured in a cramped cell, he frequently felt the inner ecstasy of God. – see “I cobbled their boots” by John of the Cross

Yet, whilst their example is of great inspiration, we would not seek to emulate their experiences. There is no guarantee we would be able to similarly transform our fate from suffering to joy. The best approach is to avoid unnecessary suffering. Especially we should remember that suffering is often in the mind and self created. However, when suffering does unavoidably come, we need to learn how to approach it with an attitude of detachment and equanimity. Through the right attitude we can easily transform pain into joy, suffering into progress. Always remember suffering is not the goal, but a temporary experience necessary for our own self improvement and self discovery.

Photo By: Ranjit Swanson, Sri Chinmoy Centre galleries

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