Is Suffering necessary in the Spiritual life?

Many spiritual seekers in the past have felt that suffering and spiritual progress are inexorably linked. There are numerous examples of great saints who went through tremendous physical suffering during their life. For example St Teresa of Avila, St Francis of Assisi and many others suffered with painful illnesses throughout their life. In the Mahabharata we come across Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas. She used to pray to Lord Krishna that she would always suffer so that she would be inclined to always think of him. When she was happy she said she would forget about Sri Krishna.

It seems a paradox that a God who embodies infinite love, and inner ecstasy should require a seeker to suffer in order to realise him.

However although some saints have made great progress despite physical suffering it would be wrong to think that suffering is necessary or even desirable. As Sri Chinmoy says:

?If suffering comes, we have to face it; we have to accept it as an experience on our way. But we do not have to add to our suffering in order to make further progress. We do not have to glorify suffering in order to make higher progress. I don’t have to cut off my arms or my nose in order to go to my Eternal Father. I don’t have to prove to Him how much I have suffered in order to reach Him. He is my all-loving Father and I have to approach Him with all my love. [1].

To get closer to God we need to raise our consciousness from our ordinary human consciousness to the divine consciousness. In the highest transcendental consciousness we aspire to there is no thought or emotion only a divinely fulfilling peace. If we are encumbered with negative thoughts and feel miserable because of an illness we will not be able to access this sublime consciousness. We should view suffering as an obstacle rather than something to be welcomed.

?We can easily do without it. If it comes, of course, we shall try to transform it with our inner light so that it can eventually be an added strength. But we shall not invoke it.? [2]

If suffering comes then it is the right approach to try to alleviate our suffering where possible. However although it is good to prayer for good health there is an even higher prayer, which is to accept our fate with equanimity. We shall pray for healing but if it is God?s will that we suffer then we should not be depressed by this experience. The great Saints were able to make progress because they were able to transform suffering into ecstasy. St John of the Cross recounts how even though he was suffering physical torture his divine experiences left him in an inner state of bliss. If we are able to identify with the soul rather than just the body we will be able to transcend our experiences of suffering. However when we are a beginner to the spiritual life this may be difficult. It is only advanced saints and mystics who are able to transform suffering into ecstasy.

When Sri Ramakrishna was suffering with throat cancer his disciples asked him,

?Why do you not pray to the Divine Mother for the cure of your illness??

Sri Ramakrishna replied:

?When I think of my Mother, the physical body vanishes, and I am entirely out of it. So it is impossible for me to pray for anything concerning the body…."

"The Mother has brought this illness on me in order to teach man how to think of the Spirit and how to live in God-consciousness, even when there is extreme pain in the body. When he body is suffering from excruciating pain and starvation, and when it is beyond all human power to give any relief, even then the Mother shows me that Spirit is the Master of the body.? [3]

However for aspiring seekers the most important thing to remember is that if we wish to experience realisation of our Source cherishing unhappiness and suffering will not help in any way. When we are unhappy we are far from a divine consciousness.


[1] `Is suffering necessary for spiritual progress?>`__
[2] Is Suffering Necessary by Sri Chinmoy
[3] Article on Sri Aurobindo and Ramakrishna

Article by R.Pettinger

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