Why Suffering and Spirituality Go Hand-in-Hand
SPIRITUALITY, 23 Dec 2013
It’s quite natural for those of faith to turn towards God during difficult times. Even if one has a regular spiritual practice, their practice can increase and improve during times of difficulty. After the events of September 11 for example, churches in New York City had some of their largest attendance in quite some time. Why is it that a lot of us have to come to a point of utter hopelessness and desperation before we call out to God? Why is it that even if one doesn’t have faith, one may make a last ditch effort to call out to God as well?
When life is treating us good and all is going well, we often don’t feel a need for God in our lives. Our material acquisitions — money, property, friends and family — become our crutch. As long as we have these things in place, we feel comfortable and don’t have a strong need for a spiritual practice. However, when these things start to fade, we feel a sense of fear and panic come over us.
As a society, we have become so dependent on material things for our happiness that our lives would become completely disrupted without them. When things are on shaky ground, we pray to God to protect what we have. We reach out to God and expect Him to keep things as they are or fix them and make everything all right. God becomes our plumber who’s supposed to fix things when they go wrong. This need-based spirituality is all right, but it’s a bit superficial.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna (God) lists four basic types of people that turn towards Him. Number one on the list is the “distressed.” In case you’re wondering, the other three are those that need money, the philosophically inquisitive, and the wise or those who don’t want anything from God, except a loving relationship. In the Gita Krishna explains that He welcomes all four types that approach Him, but the one who approaches Him without material motivation is the most dear.
We can tend to use spirituality like medicine or a hospital. We utilize it only when things aren’t going right or when we’re suffering financially, emotionally or relationally. Our pain and suffering, however, can be a path to transcending this selfish conception of spirituality into something more. It can make us ask the questions we normally wouldn’t ask, and can lead us to bigger and broader questions, such “what’s really the purpose of life?” and “how can we avoid suffering?”
Unless one starts to ask these questions, one can never truly understand the purpose of life. Even if one does understand philosophically that there’s a higher purpose to life, without some suffering, one may not feel the impetus to implement some spiritual practice into their life.
Suffering doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It can help us grow and mature in ways we can’t even imagine. It can give us realizations about life which otherwise would be difficult to acquire. I’m not suggesting we go out and look for suffering. Rest assured, it will find its way into our life.
There’s a beautiful verse in the Gita, chapter 2 verse 14:
“…the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons…and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.”
Difficulties teach us patience, tolerance, acceptance, and ultimately that we’re not in complete control of our lives. We can do everything perfectly and things might still not go our way. Some of the greatest teachers within Hinduism demonstrated by their own example that our soul can experience the greatest spiritual growth during challenging times, and they also demonstrated that we can actually thank God for the difficulty.
While undergoing a difficulty one may not be able to fully understand how this is supposed to be beneficial. However, as Steve Jobs said in his commencement speech, you can only connect the dots looking back.
The Vedic texts explain that the soul is a part and parcel of the Supreme. It is qualitatively one but quantitatively different from God, like a spark of fire which has similar qualities to the larger fire, but is insignificant in size compared to the actual fire. Because the soul has this eternal connection to God, it has a natural tendency to reach out to God during difficult times. These opportunities provide the soul, which is stuck in a material body, to again reach out to God and rekindle that relationship.
The help will definitely come, but not always in the ways we expect it to. If the soul can remain faithful even if it appears that God isn’t sending the help one is asking for, the soul’s union with God is almost guaranteed even within this life.
Gadadhara Pandit dasa is a lecturer and the first-ever Hindu chaplain for Columbia University and New York University. He has spoken at a recent TED Talks and was featured in the PBS Documentary on the Bhagavad-gita, as well as the New York Times. His life is chronicled in his autogiography, Urban Monk: Exploring Karma, Consciousness, and the Divine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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