Stop chasing Happiness. Embrace Suffering.
It is deeply ingrained in human beings to seek comfort and avoid pain. This is true from the evolutionary standpoint, as the body is designed to ward off diseases and the mind wired to solve problems.
This is also relevant from the perspective of societal conditioning where we are told, “don’t cry, stay strong, move on, be happy”.
But, this is an incomplete way of perceiving life, as life is a mixed bag of joy-sorrow, pleasure-pain, success-failure.
Have you ever met anyone happy unconditionally? Someone calm in every situation? Someone who feels strong despite everything? Someone who is stoic and unperturbed by the ups and downs in life?
We might come across a few people whose persona reflects these traits at the surface level. But, unless one is self-realised or enlightened, our thoughts, emotions, and perception are always fluctuating in evident and subtle ways.
When we look around, everyone seems to be wearing a mask of being happy and calm. But, this is often the case only as long as there is comfort in life.
When we remove the people, places, objects, and experiences which offer us familiarity and security - can we still be happy and calm?
I believe the answer is an unsettling NO and reflects the truth of our current situation - the pandemic. While it has become the need of the hour to be happy and stay calm, we need a practical approach to life rather than a one-sided view of false optimism.
Ancient Wisdom on Suffering
Through the history of mankind, many realised masters have shared their wisdom on navigating life and becoming free of suffering. But, this starts by acknowledging that suffering is a part of existence.
An extract from Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, who could be deemed the world's first psychologist, highlights this truth lucidly.
परिणामतापसंस्कारदुःखैर्गुणवृत्तिविरोधाच्च दुःखमेव सर्वं विवेकिनः || YS 2.15 ||
pariṇāma-tāpa-saṁskāra-duḥkhaiḥ guṇa-vṛtti-virodhāt-ca duḥkham-eva sarvaṁ vivekinaḥ
The wise person understands that suffering occurs in all living things due to constant change, a desire to repeat past experiences, a conditioned mindset, and the quality of the ever-changing nature.
The philosophy of Yoga, Buddhism, and other traditions say that suffering is inevitable. There are external forms of suffering from accidents, disease, old age, and death. There are also subtle forms of suffering such as fear, hatred, anxiety, depression, insecurity, envy.
This doctrine also teaches that there is a cause to every suffering. All forms of pain have a root cause, which is often due to a lack of awareness of the real source of happiness.
We feel that a relationship, work project, travelling, financial growth, social status, and luxury in life bring us happiness. Yes, these experiences trigger a feel-good factor to help us feel a sense of belonging and euphoria. But, they are only an external means to what is within us.
The feeling of happiness is within us and external situations invoke that emotion. It is also interesting to note how the same experience can trigger a feeling of pain.
Conflict with a loved one, failure in business, harsh criticism, and isolation can drive one into despair. But, if the very person, project, or experience made us happy - how can we feel sad by the same aspect in a different manifestation?
This is why the sages have given a gem of wisdom by offering practices to help access the root cause of happiness and misery. When we work at the causal level, the effect or outcome of suffering is naturally eased.
For instance, one is stressed due to the pressure at work and insecurity of losing a job. So, he/she uses forms of entertainment and social media to unwind, relax, and divert the mind.
Using these platforms in itself is not an unhealthy behaviour. The problem arises when we become dependent on these external aids and use them obsessively or compulsively as a coping mechanism.
These outlets serve a temporary purpose of distraction from underlying pain, but the root cause of the suffering remains.
This is where the approach of Yoga, mindfulness, and self-enquiry advocates to look inward and experience the thoughts, feeling, and sensations - rather than running away from them.
The Modern Mind
The modern physique might seem chiselled and strong. Aesthetics are pleasing to the eye, but it is immunity that plays a key role in wellbeing and healing from disease.
But, what about the mind? The human mind has unlimited potential in the deeper realms. But, modern conditioning has rendered it weak by being overly dependent on the comforts of urban life, convenience of digital distractions, and shortcuts of instant gratification.
The body has to undergo pain with the disease either way. But, it is the mind which aggravates the suffering due to victimising, self-pity, negative thinking, and fear.
In any suffering, be it environmental, physical or psychological, the mind plays an integral role in adaptation and recovery.
As long as the mind is clinging to an idea of happiness and having an aversion to discomfort - there will always be suffering as both are a part of life. It is also helpful to acknowledge that both aspects are temporary and fleeting.
The crux of Yoga is to minimise seeking happiness in external aspects of life and find the source of joy within. To get to this source, there are many disciplines and paths.
One may access this space through devotion, service, contemplation, or energy-centric techniques. Yoga aims at creating strength in the mind’s structure by tapping into the vast potential within us, which is often clouded by insecurities and projections.
Role of Suffering in Evolution
One might wonder, why do we suffer? Why can’t life be a comfortable journey of wellbeing, gratitude, and happiness?
But, if we had to dig deep and ask ourselves - would that comfort help us truly evolve?
Suffering is a very important part of evolution. Without suffering, our growth stagnates.
Suffering wakes us up from the slumber of ignorance. It helps us stop taking life for granted. It motivates us to find a purpose and direction in life. It makes us humble and realise that everything we have is not ours, but a gift and blessing. It makes us more compassionate towards ourselves and other living beings.
A person who is overweight is suffering physically and emotionally. It is this suffering that enables them to overcome the condition by exercising and eating healthy.
A separation or loss of a loved one is tremendous suffering. But, it teaches us to be grateful every moment and appreciate our loved ones.
A mental health imbalance encourages one to look within and evaluate lifestyle choices. It can be a doorway to spiritual awakening when approached with the right mindset and guidance.
Any suffering we experience, be it an existential crisis, health disorder, loss of a dear one, failure at work, insecurity of future - are all aimed at teaching a lesson that is needed for our evolution.
We strive fiercely to seek control over external aspects of our lives but fail every time. When we begin to accept that suffering is a part of life and its role is to teach us something, to help evolve - we surrender to the higher power at play.
Surrender, although very difficult for the ego, soothes the wounds and eases the pain.
The suffering we are witnessing during the pandemic has been a sad state of affairs. But, it is a learning lesson for humanity to wake up and take responsibility for one's health, be grateful for every blessing, perform actions with integrity, have compassion, and respect nature to live in harmony.
Yogic Approach to Suffering
Yoga, in essence, is a discipline. It might start as a practice on the mat. But, it is more about the discipline it instils in the mind. To the lazy and rebellious mindset, this discipline will seem like rigidity and bondage.
But, self-discipline is the only way to find freedom and be free from the conditioning and limitations of the mind. It helps overcome doubt, fear, insecurity and cultivate the inherent qualities of faith, courage, perseverance.
This is the reason behind the element of hardship in lifestyle at the ashrams and monasteries. The discipline helps the mind stay elevated and doesn’t allow it to regress into a destructive state.
We don’t have to imbibe the ideals to that level of austerity, but we can be disciplined and apply them in a practical way relevant to life circumstances.
This can be practised by the means of fasting occasionally, taking cold showers, opting for breaks from social media, skipping morning coffee, switching off technology with digital detox, living without air-conditioners, sleeping on the floor, observing a vow of silence.
The point is not to deprive the senses and body of something, but to overcome the unhealthy dependency one has towards anything that is impermanent.
This creates tremendous strength and willpower in the mind, which makes it resilient to withstand suffering and obstacles in life.
A dissipated mind is constantly experiencing turbulent waves in the ocean of life, but a resilient mind reflects the calm and tranquil water.
To ponder - is the purpose of life to be happy? After all, don’t most life coaches, therapists, yoga teachers, healers, friends, family, and well-wishers tell us to be happy?
Perhaps it is. But, the true measure of happiness and peace is driven by the mind rather than external situations.
This starts by accepting life with its ebbs and flows. The acceptance leads to an insight which helps acknowledge suffering as a part of existence, to recognise its deeper meaning for purification and evolution.
"Everything comes from your mind, everything depends on the way you think. The heaviest suffering, what we call hell, comes from your own mind. The greatest happiness, what we call enlightenment, comes from your own mind." -Swami Satyananda Saraswati