In the paradox that is Vedic philosophy two ideas emerge. The first, “suffering is not necessary,” is the lighthouse towards most followers fly. Like moths drawn to a lamp the journey is short and well-illumed but getting close is perilous. Such people are quick to spout, “Don’t have a judgement. Nothing is real. It’s all in your head. The world is an illusion” Or the particularly heinous, “No one can hurt you without your permission.” This is hard news to anyone born with a serious defect, or challenged by disease, or battered by traumatic injury. Advising the survivors at Dachau to “not have judgement” is obscene to the thinking person. What gives? That suffering is “not necessary” is only half the story. Like Siamese twins joined at the head, these two ideas can not be separated without killing the idea: suffering is necessary.
Suffering as both necessary and unnecessary. Yes.
Try this headspace on for size: necessary and unnecessary is suffering. Or better yet, some suffering is necessary and some is unnecessary. Why both? (Or how, both?) Let’s imagine having just one without the other. Imagine a life free of suffering. No pain. No discomfort. No itching. No scratching. No change. Like a white dot on a blank piece of paper, indistinguishable. People who strive for agony-free reality end up with empty lives. (If only they can achieve success.) I observe most people who hate negativity are comfortably far from erasing it. Easy for a drama queen to chant “don’t have a judgement” as her own personal mantra. Quite a bit harder for a coma victim.
The practice of yoga is not a path for making the mind blank.
If it were, a clonk on the head or a shot of heroine would be more expedient than asana. Apparently some suffering is necessary in order to create contrast, to create duality, passion verses dull, hot verses cold, sadness or euphoria. Ought we preach suffering is necessary? I.e. the gambler? The alcoholic? The drug addict? We hate to think this kind of suffering is necessary. We demand to deaf ears “Why can’t you just stop?” There’s no stopping in sight. For as long as addiction represents a better alternative than sober living, suffering continues. Necessary suffering cuts rough edges. Instead of wondering why there is suffering the more pruient question is why does suffering cease? The need for suffering is obvious. The need for joy less so.
Suffering and non-suffering? = “having a life.”
In Vedic philosophy any of the three interdependent modes or qualities of prakriti: sattva, rajas, or tamas characterize the moment. Sattva is potential energy, Tamas the energy of obstacles and rajas the energy that erases tamas. For example the desire for balanced, clean, sober living is sattvic. Tamas, however, holds me in place. I wish to change without changing (as so many people do.) Or more succinctly I wish to be exactly myself, just different. . . that is until the Rajasic energy of total melt-down or hitting bottom definitively obliterates my past life. I liked being married when I was married, except for the parts that sucked if ya know what I mean. I didn’t seek a divorce, I got left behind. In the aftermath everything about me changed. I could not have imagined my life now. But here it is.
My marriage was a prison I broke out of, but I had no idea at the time what limited me.
For those who are suffering, escape is a game, a chore or an inevitable consequence. We can spend our time searching for answers, banging our heads against the wall, or waiting for the warden to open the door. Any which way you play at life, nobody gets out alive. Why not make the most of the time available? Enjoy the experience of having a body in lieu of treating the body as an unwanted stepchild. If the body hurts, explore healing modalities. Don’t spiritualize pain. Seek to end suffering, not to prolong it. There’s no shame in pain, but no glory neither. Accept when suffering arises that suffering is no indictment. Suffering is a natural consequence of loving, or caring, or connection. Simply put, Pain is the cost of awareness.
The sutras teach that the experience exists that the experiencer may experience it.
My marriage is like the myth of Indra, the king of the gods. Indra incarnates as a pig. In his pig life he has pig friends, pig children, a pig wife. He is very happy in his pig world. The other gods are horrified. Why is the master of the universe content to live as a pig? They beg, demand, and cajole him to end his pig life. Indra refuses. The gods destroy his pig children. Indra is enraged. They murder his pig wife. Indra is bereft. He grieves. But in the end when he exits his pig body and resumes his life as a god he realizes his folly. His tamas held him down in pig world, rajasic events restore him to glory. Not all suffering is acute at the time it is experienced. However, once sattva is achieved we sense the difference between discomfort and pure potential.
Nice, but what does yoga philosophy have to do with “real” yoga?
Perhaps I am very relaxed in Downward facing dog. I’m the kind of a person who can fall asleep in this position. The other students may believe I am very advanced, but I feel nothing. Truth be told I’ve engaged no muscles, contracted no bandha, employed no ujjayii. My alignment is mysterious, even to me, because I can’t feel a thing. In order to progress in my practice I must exit my dreary, dull, tamasic comfort zone. Tapping into my energetic body requires contraction, engagement, deployment of muscles and breath, alignment of bones, agreement of joints, awareness of the whole self. The awareness is exhilarating, stimulating, spicy, heated, interesting. Not the old dog, but a new one.
What else is possible?
Conversely, perhaps I am very strained in Downward facing dog. I’m the kind of person who sweats in fear of detaching a hamstring from my ischial tuberosity. The other students believe I am very amateur, but my sensation is extremely highly tuned. Truth be told I’ve engaged every muscle, I can feel a millimeter differential, my calibration is professional level. Only my ujjayii breathing enables me to relax long enough to focus in the pose. In order to progress in my practice I must tone down my excitable, emphatic, rajasic comfort zone. Tapping into my energetic body requires intelligent conscious disengagement of over-contracted muscles, lighter unlabored breath, deep internal awareness i.e. relaxing at the pit of the stomach. This awareness is purely fascinating, enlightening, cooling. Not the old dog, but a brand new one.
Both dogs are working toward the end of suffering, restoring unalloyed energetic potential to the pose. To paraphrase Tagore, revealing infinity within bounds.
“In fact, imperfection is not a negation of perfectness; finitude is not contradictory to infinity: they are but completeness manifested in parts, infinity revealed within bounds.”
Tagore, Rabindranath (2012-05-12). Sadhana : the realisation of life (Kindle Locations 413-414). . Kindle Edition.
Now y’all play nice!