According to stories about the Buddha, born a prince in India or Nepal approximately 2,500 years ago, he was sheltered in his father’s palace to protect him from the knowledge of human suffering. As the king learned, however, no matter how hard we try, we cannot protect our loved ones or ourselves from hurt. Turn on the radio, open a newspaper, scroll through your Facebook feed—tragedy and heartbreak are everywhere. My teacher often quotes one of the commentaries on the Yoga Sutras, which says that to a yogin, who is as sensitive as an eyeball, the world is painful.
For the sensitive, one danger is compassion fatigue, when cumulative stress and suffering leads to numbness or exhaustion. Another danger is wallowing, when suffering approaches self-pity. As yogis, how can we stay soft and open without being overcome by painful emotions? The answer, of course, is to keep practicing yoga. Though our practices make us more sensitive to suffering, they also help us cultivate equanimity. Many yoga practitioners find this state of equilibrium during meditation and asana, practices that help us disengage the ego mind and get beyond the small self. Others may find svadhyaya (self-study) helpful, choosing contemplation or consulting spiritual texts for guidance.
When we achieve equanimity—the deep inner calm the Bible describes as “the peace that passeth understanding”—we experience suffering (dukha) and pleasure (sukha) as two sides of the same coin. Both are a form of avidya (ignorance), the veil that keeps us from clearly seeing our true nature. The mystic Christian poet Kahlil Gibran phrases this beautifully: “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
Seen this way, suffering has a higher purpose. Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna counsels Arjuna, who is reluctant to step onto the battleground where he will face family members and friends. “If you will not fight the battle of life,” Eknath Easwaran translates (BG, 18:60), “your own karma will drive you into it.” As Easwaran explains, we cannot always walk with the wind comfortably at our backs. Sometimes, in order to make progress on the journey, we need to turn around and face into the wind.
Only one type of suffering can be avoided, the Yoga Sutras (2.16) tell us, and that is the pain yet to come. In other words, we cannot change the past, and the present is already occurring. But when we achieve equanimity and make choices from a higher-mind state, we do not accumulate karma. In this way, we can we avoid future pains.
In the meantime, all this philosophizing may seem like cold comfort when we are in the midst of physical, mental, or emotional pain. During those times, I feel a long way from equanimity—or as the Bible describes it, being “in the world but not of the world.” This—the practice of non-attachment that Patanjali describes throughout the Yoga Sutras—doesn’t mean closing ourselves off or running away, nor does it mean drowning in tears. It means stepping back onto the battleground of life, returning to the practices, and getting down to the nitty-gritty (discipline or abhyasa) of yoga.
Until then, it may be helpful to remember that suffering connects us as human beings. It is birth to compassion and humility. And, as Kahlil Gibran says, “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
How has practicing yoga helped you cope with suffering?