The first words that Swami Muktananda — in whose ashram in Ganeshpuri, India, I grew up — used to pronounce when addressing us were :
"I welcome you all, with all my heart."
It took me many years to understand how profound this welcome is, and all that it implies.
To welcome someone completely we must be capable of accepting them as they are — and the path to acceptance is wrought with pain and suffering.
We have desires, and therefore meet with fear, disappointment, and darker emotions still. It is only by letting go of attachment to said desires that we find peace, through acceptance that we have no control over things — and that this is okay.
Things happen, and we evaluate them as good or bad, we claim credit and blame. We believe there must be a winner and a loser, one who is right and one who is wrong.
But does this actually matter? I've always held that Good and Evil are human notions, judgments based upon their association with pleasure and pain. Is a volcano erupting an evil thing? It is destructive, it can cause pain — but is it fundamentally evil? Is the sun a good thing? It allows for life on Earth to exist, but if we get too close, it will also annihilate us.
My point is that things are the way they are, and it is our interpretation of them which causes us to suffer. Once we accept this Truth, our life changes for the better.
This concept is easy enough to accept, but a lot harder to put into practice in our daily lives, especially when we are in distress. When a storm comes, all we can do is try to survive it any way we can. We can hardly breathe, let alone think. We are caught in an act of surviving by any means possible.
However, every storm passes. We are left worn out, raw and panting, trying to figure out what just happened and how are we going to pick ourselves up. THIS is the turning point.
This is when we decide to label things and people as being good or bad. We assign culpability — either we label ourselves as a victim or generously slather ourselves with guilt. Think of something you did that you're ashamed of. Could you have acted in another way? Really?
With more insight, perhaps. But did you have that insight at the time?
Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is Optional
Here is a step-by-step guide to acceptance of how things are without labeling them. It is a simple process but scary, as it removes notions of "victim" and "culpable," thereby confronting us to ourselves, our deepest wounds and fears.
Step 1 : Cease feeling guilty about "not having been (whatever) enough." Guilt is useless, we could not have acted any differently or we would have.
Step 2 : Cease resenting others for "what they did." In the same way we couldn't have acted any differently, so couldn't they.
Step 3 : Things are always better once a storm has come and gone. For new and better things to come into our lives, we need to let go of what is no longer useful.
No longer a victim of life, we become aware of the difference between pain (inevitable, neutral) and suffering (self-inflicted, personal).
All life is about growth and evolution. We hit the same walls again and again until we evolve. This hurts, and we've all experienced it. But every challenge comes with a message, and once we've understood this message, we grow and find ourselves in a better place.
The purpose of pain, as I understand it, is to help us LET GO of the beliefs that keep us in a pattern. For something new to replace the old, we need to first get rid of the old... without pain making us let go, being creatures of habit we cling on to situations, people and things that are no longer needed.
The side effects of pain are compassion and empathy : having lived through the storm, we understand when others are caught in it. We can relate, and hold each other's hand when walking through scary places.
Suffering, however, serves no purpose — in what way does it assist growth? Suffering is ego clinging to victimhood, because ego needs to control and freaks out when it cannot.
Ego's purpose is to help us survive : it is like a big dog trying to protect us. Ego is not our enemy — it is our watchdog. Ego growls and barks as soon as it perceives potential danger. Please thank your ego for the good job it's done so far, give it a pat on the head. Feel gratitude for this part of yourself that's kept you alive until today.
However, due to its nature, ego never trusts... as long as we let it be our guide, we feel alone.
The Cycle of Transformation
The oldest scriptures of Hinduism, the Vedas, teach us that all is One, indivisible and absolute. Yet this One manifests itself in an infinity of forms, seemingly different : this illusion of division and duality is called Maya, the great illusion.
This One — playing with form — divides itself into three fundamental principles, each represented as a god : Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
There are many stories and complex mythologies surrounding them and the myriad gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, illustrating various phases of life and helping us navigate them.
Brahma is the Creator of the universe and all that is in it. He is accompanied by Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. Once his work of creation is done, he relaxes and lets the others take over during a period of time called a Day of Brahma.
Vishnu, the Sustainer, comes next : his job is to take care of creation as long as it is meant to last. His consort is Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. He incarnates every once in a while to reestablish balance in creation when things get messy — among his many avatars are Rama, Krishna and Buddha.
But when the time comes for creation to end, Shiva the Transformer steps out of his mountain abode in the Himalayas and starts to dance the Tandava, his Cosmic Dance. This wild and lethal dance sends tremors through creation, cracking, crumbling and finally destroying Brahma's masterpiece.
Follows a Night of Brahma, a period of time of equal length to his Day. Then Brahma wakes up again and starts creating... and this cycle goes on and on, for as long as Time is needed.
Akin to the rhythms of nature — Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter — this sequence also represents our own Cycle of Transformation. When we are caught in a storm, we are in the hands of Shiva, dancing away. Rest assured, this is a good thing!
He dances to destroy the false beliefs that separate us from our true nature, which is naught but Love (his consort is Parvati, the goddess of love).
Once Shiva has caused our world to crumble apart, comes a Night of Brahma during which, stunned, we slowly recover.
Then new opportunities come our way — surprise, surprise, who would have thought? Brahma is doing his thing. Receptive to new possibilities, we see unexpected doors open.
Follows a long period during which we develop and explore our newfound abilities, our new identity.
Vishnu is the one we look to during this phase, and turn to his avatars for guidance — I recommend reading the Ramayana (story of Rama) and the Bhagavad Gita (philosophical text on spirituality and life) for practical help in negotiating the complexities of existence.
Eventually, Shiva is called to dance again. And thus we grow, cycle after cycle.