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It is not easy to stay positive when we are faced with news of another mass shooting, another rape, continuing war, inequality and injustice, abuse, and man-made environmental disasters. As yogis we are taught to develop compassion, but often it is less painful to simply turn the news off, to take a break from the realization that there is so much suffering happening on our planet at any given moment.
While we have to move at our own pace, and listen to how much sadness our hearts can bear, the yogis say that suffering is actually our friend and teacher. Be assured, this does not mean reveling in misfortune—and it certainly does not mean welcoming suffering either. Rather it is that moments of tragedy—either in our own lives or our awareness of tragedy in the lives of others—can help us uncover parts of ourselves we have pushed aside. Contemplating suffering can motivate us to stay firm on our yogic path. It can summon gratitude for our own life experience, and, above all, it can increase our compassion for others and our desire to help.
Getting in Touch With Our Pain
The first step in letting suffering be our teacher is to observe how our minds react when we hear of another’s tragedy. Are we angry? Are we fearful? Do we feel hopeless? Perhaps we just feel numb. And if we want to turn away from the upsetting news, why can’t we bear witness to the suffering of others? And if we have become so consumed by pain, why is that?
Suffering is a calling for us to help, and we have to make ourselves available to hear it.
Here we practice the Yamas of satya, deep honesty, and asteya, non-stealing, by letting others have their experience without adding our emotions. Through observing how we are with other people’s pain we can also gain insight into how we react to our own painful experiences—hopefully helping us to move through them with greater ease.
Only by starting to observe suffering can we begin to develop compassion. If we believed everyone to be happy, then there would simply be no need for concern about their welfare. Nor would there be a desire to help anyone. Going through life as if no one is in pain can seem like a more joyful way to be, but in the long run it is neither joyful nor helpful.
When we are prepared to see another being in pain, then we will always want to help alleviate that pain. And when we realize just how much suffering there is, then we become inclined to make our whole lives an offer of selfless service, Karma yoga. We help bring about positive change, and in doing so, joy follows. Suffering is a calling for us to help, and we have to make ourselves available to hear it.
Setting Aside Judgment
When we contemplate some of the violent acts in the world without judgment, we can also uncover a deep sense of gratitude. Several years ago I was walking my dog along a New York City street when a teenage boy picked up a brick and hurled it at her, barely grazing her nose before it smashed into a tree behind us. The anger that rose up inside me was so strong and so immediate that later upon reflection I knew that had my life been different up to that point, I could easily have picked up the brick and thrown it right back.
And when we realize just how much suffering there is, then we become inclined to make our whole lives an offer of selfless service, Karma yoga.
It’s not easy to look at the violent side that lurks in our own psyche. Often what causes the anger or fear we experience when we hear of world tragedies is unconsciously directed to the part of us that could be the perpetrator. When have you become so angry you have wanted to hurt another? Was there a time when you were so afraid that you would have harmed others for your survival? Now imagine if your life experience up to that point had been supportive of violence. Or if you had had a life that had made you incredibly fearful or untrusting of others. Can you imagine what you would have been capable of in those moments with that mindset?
With this frame of reference, when we think about any tragic event, we might begin to see that we too could have been the perpetrator if our situations had been exchanged. In this way, we are not condoning what has happened, but we can begin to feel compassion rather than judgment, and also incredibly grateful for our own life experience. We also feel grateful for those who have been our teachers and who have supported us throughout our lives. And suddenly we understand how important it is for us to provide that support for others as well. What if the perpetrator had had a compassionate ear to hear them? Would that crime have been committed? Once again we are encouraged to serve.
Inspiring Our Yogic Path
Finally for the yogis, acknowledging—rather than denying—suffering is regarded as motivation for spiritual practice. In the Yoga Vasistha it advises the yogi to “carefully investigate sorrow,” and to understand that all sorrow and suffering comes from believing that we are separate from one another. As yogi Nisargadatta Maharaj echoed: “Your first task is to see the sorrow in you and around you; your next is to long intensely for liberation.”
On a selfish level, just consider your own lifetimes of suffering ahead if you don’t awaken now. In yogic philosophy reincarnation is inevitable if we are not awakened. That means even if we have a good life with relatively little upset, we may well have billions more lives where we experience war, disease, poverty, and suffering.
Imagine if we were to truly experience all the pain felt right now by every human and animal on the planet… We would be so overwhelmed and heartbroken that we would commit with our whole hearts to a path of yoga.
But it is often considering the suffering of all that inspires us to do the work. Imagine if we were to truly experience all the pain felt right now by every human and animal on the planet… We would be so overwhelmed and heartbroken that we would commit with our whole hearts to a path of yoga.
And this is how we stay positive in the face of so much suffering. We rest in the comfort that when we witness suffering we become stronger, more committed, and more compassionate as yogis. We welcome, not suffering, but the teachings and opportunities it affords us to become of greater service on the path to alleviating it.
Helen Avery is a senior writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie, residing in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her on her website, Life as Love.