American Institute of Vedic Studies

Suffering and Awakening


It is not necessarily sad that we suffer, that we experience pain, disease or death, which are an inherent part of life. The real sadness is that we have lost consciousness of our true nature in which we can find enduring peace even in the midst of pain, misfortune or iniquity. This loss of Self-awareness is the real cause of emotional suffering, which in turn makes physical suffering harder to endure.


Nor is it necessarily good that we experience personal happiness, health and longevity – getting what we want along with abundance of the material world. These external gains may only afford us a greater bondage to the outer world if we don’t use them for a higher purpose of spiritual practice and Self-realization.


Our human creaturely drama is ultimately transient and will pass away with the inevitable movement of time. Our personal and social identities are short term masks from the standpoint of eternity. Our joys and sorrows are not ultimately different from those of dream creatures. We must recognize our insignificance and no longer be taken in by appearances. It is the separate self or ego, caught in its self-projected drama of gain and loss, from which we need release, which is the basis of ignorance (avidya) abdb spiritual (adhyatmik) suffering.


Similarly, our great collective dramas—whether social and technological changes, wars, revolutions, great social progress or religious revivals—are also not real in an ultimate sense, though they may have strong karmic energies and consequences. Groups of people, like individuals, come and go in the nature of creation like waves on the sea. Each one of us is but a wave, yet each one of us contains the entire ocean as our support in the movement of life. Yet that ocean has no name or form.

Suffering and Self-Inquiry

Yet suffering can have a great inner value, if we approach it with a higher awareness.

Suffering contains an energy to awaken us to our higher truth, to get us to question who we really are – what is our true eternal identity in this false transient world? Suffering can connect us to a special purifying form of Agni or the yogic fire, the Agni Pavaka of the Vedas.


The sad thing is that the sufferings which are inevitable in life seldom awaken us to the falseness of our personal seeking in the outer world. The material world inherently contains a component of suffering because it is the limited by time and space, bound by inertia and necessity, duality and conflict. To truly experience suffering is to face the inherent limitation of material existence and physical life. We should not try to flee suffering but to understand it, to discover the truth of life that it reflects. Then suffering can liberate us into a lasting joy. It is like a fire. We must experience pain if we put our hand into a fire because that pain is showing us the limitations of material forces. There is no punishment involved but simply the boundaries of the laws of time-bound nature that we must navigate through.


The truth is simple: Only when we allow our suffering to liberate us can we become liberated from suffering. Suffering can be the breaking of the boundaries of the known and the familiar, if we use it to recognize the limitations of our outer lives. If we are open to the truth of suffering, suffering can cleanse and transform the mind and heart.


May Our Suffering Help us Awaken to the Eternal Truth


My prayer is not that we do not suffer, as suffering is inevitable and forms an integral part of life. My prayer is that we learn from our suffering, which is to learn to become aware of what suffering is showing us about the transience of life. Then suffering aids in our liberation from time and desire. This is the essence of psychological healing that clears out our karmas and samskaras and takes us to the highest truth of immortality.


Once someone asked the great sage Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi why God does not ordain universal God Realization and put an end to all suffering for everyone. Ramana, with his usual deep wisdom replied – Because suffering is the way to the realization of the Divine. 


Here we must  remember the role of tapas or self-discipline practices in Yoga Sadhana, which form the first part of Kriya Yoga to purify the mind. Disease is said to be one of the most important forms of tapas if we approach it with patient awareness. That tapas can overcome all sorrow.

Vamadeva Shastri

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