Why Do Millions Suffer Back Pain?


Hello, i hope you can please help me to understand karma. Millions suffer from say horrible back pain for 30, 40, years. What could all of those people have done to all suffer the same mass karma, from debilitating back pain for so many years. I understand that some people did something bad sometime in a past life that they have karma to work out. But to suffer for many, many years?

—Frank, USA


Dear Frank,

Thank you for your question born of sympathy and compassion. Hmmm, well: we all will die, too, right? What did we do to deserve that?

The great ones, saints and sages down through ages, attempt to share with us that life is an unceasing flux of opposites: ups and downs. If it isn’t back pain, then it’s cancer; or stomach problems; or abuse; or violence. Then there’s the tenderness of love, the pleasures of friendship, the beauties of nature, the thrill of success, and the aesthetics of artistry.

The back is one of those human bodily features that distinguish us from other beings in that we walk erect and have the advanced spine that forms the basis for the process of spiritual awakening (the yogis tell us).

Given the mechanical functions of the back and given, perhaps, that we “millions” spend our days sitting in chairs with too little or too unbalanced forms of exercise, it should be no surprise that millions have chronic back pain.

Yet in prior generations especially during the industrial era, I suppose back problems appeared with repetitious factory-type or warehouse-type movements; or digging trenches every day; laying down rails; carrying logs or timbers. (Imagine building the pyramids or other megalithic structures with stones weighing many tons each!)

I suppose, therefore, chronic back pain fits our civilization. This too is “karma” in the general sense that “karma” actually only means action and the results of action. (Too often we assume that “karma” is necessarily unwanted, i.e. “bad,” but that isn’t technically true.)

I know from personal experience how debilitating back pain is and that it can become chronic. Whether it comes from lifting or just appears on its own, your question is an interesting one. I prefer not to read too much metaphysics into things that can more easily be explained in tangible ways, but our problems do come to us as opportunities to learn and grow. It is less helpful to imagine, as did the “friends” of Job in the Old Testament, what I or you did wrong to deserve this suffering. It is more helpful to approach the vicissitudes of life with as much faith and even-minded cheerfulness (and ingenuity) as we can bring to bear.

There is also the karma of nations; races; and other groups. Consider for example the Holocaust or those who die in an airplane crash. Surely each and every person cannot have had the specific, exact same karma! Some people do not have enough strength of magnetism to resist the karma of their tribe or those who they are around, even temporarily, as in an airplane. What about those who inexplicably failed to show up for work to the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001? Or those who canceled that plane reservation; or moved out of Germany before 1940?

Until we are as wise as a saint we will not likely know the answers to such questions. That such things occur serves as a reminder to us that we never know our future, and we will probably never know the details as to “why.” It’s probably for the best that we don’t know either one, however. “Sufficient unto the day” Jesus counseled “are the troubles thereof!” If we knew the past and the future we might be emotionally crushed by the burden. Until we become sufficiently non-identified with the present body and personality, we do not even begin to see through the veil of time.

I wish I could peer into my crystal ball for you and give the “Aha answer,” but perhaps the answers to some of life’s big questions must await our need and courage to know.

Live in freedom; life in joy!
Nayaswami Hriman