The Mystery of Suffering
Your soul–the essence of your being, consists of pure bliss (sat-chid-ananda), as the great Masters teach us. But do you feel this bliss right now? Probably not. Instead, we all suffer, go through hard times, and have lives that can be amazingly tough. Why is that? How can that be? It seems impossible, given the inherent bliss of our natures.
The cause of our suffering is astounding: We simply do not know who we are. We think that we are a tiny physical reality but in truth, we are limitless beings.
All of our troubles are caused by this deep-seated identification with something that we are not: the body, the mind, our personality, our feelings, our character, etc. All this is called ego, the little “I,” which Swami Kriyananda defines as “a bundle of self-definitions.” Yogananda describes it as “the distorted soul” because, by identifying with the body, your soul (the true “I”) becomes completely distorted. Subsequently, we may live distorted lives and the consequence is this: suffering.
The Bird of Paradise
There is a story of a magnificent colorful bird of paradise which alas, was caught one day, put into a cage, and kept inside a house. It happened that there the magnificent bird laid an egg. But soon after her little chick was born, she died.
The young bird of paradise grew up in that tiny cage and considered this life to be perfectly normal. After all, it was the only thing he had ever known. Nobody had even taught him how to fly. One bright day, however, another bird of paradise swooped down from heaven, saw him, and spoke strongly to him:
“Listen! You are a bird, born to soar freely in the sky. You are not meant to be in that cage.”
The young bird was completely surprised. “Really?”
With great effort, the older bird of paradise finally managed to open the door of the cage and the young one hopped out.
“Fly,” the older one cried, “Look at me, imitate me.”
It took some time but after much effort, the young bird of paradise soared up into the infinite sky. It was a joy never to be forgotten, a supreme liberation, an endless feeling of happiness. He had become himself again. He had found his true nature.
You, dear reader, will certainly have grasped the moral of the story: Every one of us is just like that bird of paradise. Majestic, colorful, and free, we find ourselves locked in the little cage of the body. In Yogananda’s words: “The bird of paradise has become the bird encaged behind the prison bars of flesh.”
The trouble is that for a long time we have no idea that we are actually in a cage. The body felt (and feels) so normal, so much like the ‘I’ we identify with. We look in the mirror and what we see is who we think we are.
We want to make the cage more beautiful and attractive. We try to keep the rust out and place it next to a similar cage containing another bird of paradise so at least we don’t feel isolated.
However, has this circumstance ever provided an altogether happy solution? Our colorful bird remains locked up and is entirely out of its element. Its nature is to spread its wings and FLY…
How do we get out of that cage? What we, the soul-birds, have to do is unlearn our false self-identification, realizing, not only intellectually, that our true life is formless, timeless, nameless, eternal laughter, without beginning and end. In short, we have to achieve Self-realization.
Does this formless goal sound inspiring and promising to you? Or does it perhaps feel a bit too transcendental, too unrealistic, too distant from your present reality? In fact, the bird that is born in a cage won’t easily accept that its true nature is to soar freely over brooks and meadows. Likewise, the human mind finds it difficult to imagine its natural freedom in omnipresence. Yet there alone will we finally find our homeland. But getting there, unfortunately, isn’t at all easy.
Freedom Is for Heroes
Isn’t it strange that it should take such an effort to return to our natural state? Actually, much more than effort is involved. Releasing our soul from ego-consciousness is, in truth, a task for heroes, which requires enormous courage as it brings about a radical change of identity. The ego is very afraid of losing its habitual sense of bodily identity and of expanding into something formless, limitless, unknown. Self-remembrance, in fact, can only be learned one little step at a time because we are so used to perceiving ourselves as mortal human beings.
Through daily meditation, the cage is gradually opened if we so want. Then the bird of paradise may hop outside a short distance. The beautiful bird immediately thinks, “Oh, this is a vast world!” Terrified, it hurriedly hops back into its safe little cage again. Here it feels secure once more but remains locked up in a tiny reality.
Daily life also tends to push us back into our cages; back into the false little identifications as we continuously rotate around our egos thinking, “My decision, my satisfaction, my opinion, my difficulty,” etc. The soul is thereby held fast to the body and its identifications.
So let’s face it — exiting our cage and returning to the blissful soul level is an arduous task. Nevertheless, every little effort is precious. Self-effort is the way out of suffering and to realizing the true Self. And who among us isn’t sick of suffering, of being hurt, abandoned, betrayed, disillusioned, forgotten, of feeling failure and pain?
Once we experience the formless reality, nothing can touch us anymore. And once that formless reality expands, we are far beyond the inevitable pains of earthy life. Yogananda writes in his Autobiography of a Yogi:
If “escapism” be a need of man, cramped in his narrow personality, can any escape compare with the majesty of omnipresence?
The Door of the Cage
How can we exit the cage? Where is its door? The way out is first the astral spine and then the spiritual eye. We find that door by going in and up in meditation as has been well said: “The only way out is in!”
Yogananda assures us that through deepening meditation, we will get used to the inner flight:
Gradually, then, by repeated sorties, the bird becomes accustomed to being outside its cage. Then finally, one day, it spreads its wings and soars up into the sky, free at last!
The result is bliss. In that state, we are ourselves again. We experience the supreme glory of freedom.
The Grace of Saints and Masters
Alas, we still find ourselves in the cage (at least most of us do). Fortunately, great yogis come to assist us with their love, teachings, and grace. More than 2000 years ago, Patanjali, the father of yoga, described in his Yoga Sutras the ten principal attitudes of the yamas and niyamas. These attitudes are required if we want to shift our sense of identity from the little ego to the eternal soul.
One of them is swadhyaya, or self-study. Why is swadhyaya an essential attitude? How are we to apply it in our sadhanas and in daily life?
SWADHYAYA AS SOUL-CONTEMPLATION
Before we answer these two questions, let’s first say something about the meaning of swadhyaya. Like many other terms, it has various aspects and applications. (Only a narrow mind thinks, “It means this and only this!”)
Swami Sri Yukteswar, in The Holy Science, explains:
Swadhyaya is sravana, study, with manana, deep attention, and thereby nididhyasana, the forming of an idea of the true faith about Self; that is, what I am, whence I came, where I shall go, what I have come for, and other such matters concerning the Self.
So, let’s practice swadhyaya in the way Sri Yukteswar advises: “forming an idea” concerning the questions above. Let’s take some time to ponder each answer: quotes from Paramhansa Yogananda that follow, contemplating their meaning in order to gradually absorb “paradise-bird-consciousness” into our being.
What I am
Deeply contemplate these words:
I am made of God-substance, since that is the only substance which exists. Therefore I am health; I am success; I am peace… I will always behold the perfect, healthy, all-wise, all-blissful image of God in my life.
Whence I came
All things come from One, all things are sustained in One, and all things are dissolved in One. I will seek the One in the illusion of the many. Life is not worthwhile if it does not breathe in God… The perfect pattern was set in me in the beginning when man was made after the image of God, as the perfect plan of the plant is enclosed in the tiny seed.
Where I shall go
Naughty or good, I am Thy child. Sinner or saint, I am Thy child. Since Thy indelible image of perfection is in me, teach me to wipe away the superficial stains of ignorance and know that Thou and I are, and always have been, One… Today I will destroy the image of delusion which desecrates the image of God within me. I will remember that I and my Father are one.
What I have come for
The purpose of human life is to find God. That is the only reason for our existence… Self-realization is the knowing in all parts of body, mind, and soul that you are now in possession of the kingdom of God; that you do not have to pray that it come to you; that God’s omnipresence is your omnipresence; and that all that you need to do is improve your knowing… Because God is perfection, and I am made in His image and likeness, it is my duty to manifest that perfection in all of my endeavors.
SWADHYAYA IN OUR SADHANA AHYAYA
Now it’s time for action, time to teach our soul-bird to fly again. Our way of teaching will be one month of specific sadhana, or spiritual practices. You may practice the sequence given below, or a part of it daily.
The first goal is to help our bird of paradise to hop out of the cage every now and then by using powerful Self-realization techniques, practiced with a specific intention.
Yogic techniques can be practiced with many different attitudes, intentions, and purposes. For the coming month, instill every technique with the intentional practice of swadhyaya, self-study. Do your best to perceive your formless Self and to identify with it.
Use these words by Swami Kriyananda as a constant reminder of your intention:
The secret of meditation is…
Releasing yourself from the limitations of body and ego;
identifying yourself with Infinity.
If you know and practice the Energization Exercises, try not only to feel but also to identify with, the cosmic energy that enters your body. In this way, you train yourself to shift your identity from something mortal to something immortal. Yogananda explains:
More than all, Yogoda [Energization Exercises] will teach you that you are not the body, which is only your servant, but that you are the immortal life-energy.
Affirm Yogananda’s words:
Right beneath the flesh is a tremendous current. I forgot it, but now, by the pickax of Self-realization, I have dug that life force up again. I and my Father are one. I am not the flesh. I am a bundle of electricity behind this body.
If the yoga asanas are part of your daily sadhana, focus especially during this month on Sirshasana, the Headstand (which you must have been taught properly by a teacher). Use it to shift your sense of identity from the body to the eternal soul. Affirm mentally in that posture:
I am He! I am He! Blissful Spirit, I am He!
Then sit down for meditation and offer a special prayer of Yogananda’s, excellent for the practice of swadhyaya: “Oh Spirit, may I know that I am not the body, not the blood, not the energy, not the thoughts, not the mind, not the ego, not even the astral self; but that I am the immortal soul which illumines them all, remaining unchangeable in spite of their changes.”
Now chant Swami Kriyananda’s song “I Am Free.”
As you chant Hong mentally with the incoming breath, feel that you are affirming not so much the little ego–the John Smith or Mary Green who is unique among human beings–but rather the Universal Man of which you are one expression. As you chant Sau mentally with the outgoing breath, feel that you are offering this self into the infinite Self or Spirit. Imagine your awareness expanding toward Infinity. Then as you chant Hong again, visualize the little self becoming infused with the consciousness of Sau, the Spirit, which you have just affirmed.
If you happen to be a Kriyaban (one who practices Kriya Yoga), practice it in a way that every breath carries you deeper inside, toward your formless Self. Again use Swami Kriyananda’s words as guidance:
“The essence of meditation, the essence of spiritual progress, is receptivity. You don’t have to accomplish anything, you have to receive that which already is, and that which you are. When you bring the energy up and down, try to feel that you are going deeper and deeper into your Self.”
After finishing your techniques, practice the following visualization, again taken from Swami Kriyananda’s book The Art and Science of Raja Yoga, consciously shifting your sense of identity towards a formless state:
In meditation it is good, in addition to devotional thoughts, to meditate on your own true, formless state. Think of a blue light (since blue is the color of the Christ Consciousness). Visualize this light gradually expanding, filling your body, then the room in which you are sitting, your city, your country, your continent, the world. Visualize this light expanding beyond the world, filling the solar system, our galaxy, the entire manifested universe. See all things glimmering in this infinite light. The Scriptures say: ‘Tat tvam asi! Thou art that!’ Dwell on the thought of your own infinite freedom. Why always affirm your temporary littleness? Patanjali said that divine realization is attained by awakening smriti, divine memory. In meditation the devotee at last remembers who and what He really is. That is the state of enlightenment. Any thought that feeds that divine memory will help to bring you back more and more to a recognition of the highest of all truths: ‘Aham Braham asmi–I am Brahman!’
Memorize the poem “Samadhi”
To effectively practice swadhyaya, memorize Yogananda’s poem “Samadhi.” During the final part of your meditation, repeat it mentally. Yogananda in fact recommended: “Repeat it daily. Visualize yourselves in that infinite state; identify yourselves with it. For that alone is what you really are!”
Since you probably haven’t memorized it yet, you may like to use the recording from Swami Kriyananda’s reading of Metaphysical Meditations, also set to a video slide show, and accessible on the Ananda Meditation App.
SWADHYAYA IN OUR DAILY LIFE
The bird of paradise needs to learn to fly, not only during meditation but also during its daily life.
Here is an important warning: as we learn to soar inwardly, it is important that during the day we don’t become spacey, strange, disconnected, irresponsible or impractical. Swadhyaya, as the great Masters have demonstrated, is always accompanied by having the feet firmly rooted on the ground. And as you are strongly grounded and present in your daily activities, try the following practice.
During the day – The detached observer
A perfect daily practice of swadhyaya is to remain, with one part of your mind, a detached observer, while you act, work, and relate to others. Try to stay in touch with that part in you that is free, not involved, forever watching. Keep an inward detached smile.
Swami Kriyananda explains it in this way (in his book The Art and Science of Raja Yoga): “Swadhyaya must mean above all self-awareness of some higher kind—awareness of the true Self, surely. The more aware you become of your own higher Self—that part of you which is not involved in outward activities, but which dwells within you, watching everything that goes on in your life—the more you will approach awareness of the divine within you.”
In the evening – Self-analysis
Swadhyaya (Self-study) has many aspects, as we mentioned earlier. It also involves an attentive study of our little self (our personality). Swami Kriyananda explains (in The Art and Science of Raja Yoga): “Self-study, in a yogic sense, signifies rooting out from one’s heart those delusions and false attachments which prevent one from realizing who and what he really is: the Infinite Spirit. Self-study begins with the careful observation of one’s thoughts, feelings, and motives. As one advances in this practice, he discovers that central reality of his being which is beyond thought, form, and substance, which cannot be observed and analyzed, which cannot even be truly defined, though it is sometimes described by its essential quality: JOY.”
So, in the evening, examine your day and analyze when you felt a strong sense of attachment, when delusion held you, when thoughts of ego became strong and when feelings of selfishness caught you. Then resolve to improve tomorrow, for the sake of your bird of paradise, which can’t wait to fly again.
At night and early morning – An affirmation
Daily practice this suggestion by Yogananda:
Every night I will say to myself, ‘I am no longer the body; I am the omnipresent Spirit; I am immortal; I am eternal.’ And when I awake, I will remember the thought anew.
SWADHYAYA IN DIFFICULT SITUATIONS
Difficult situations can become most advantageous if we use them to practice swadhyaya. In this way, they become an opportunity for our souls to emerge. Here are some words of Yogananda that you can put into practice as affirmations.
I will always behold in my life the perfect, healthy, all‑wise, all‑blissful image of God.
Moments of low consciousness
In reality I am a son of God. I have been dreaming that I am a mortal man, but now I am awake. The dream that my soul is imprisoned in a bodily cage has vanished. My Heavenly Father is the King of the universe. I am the heir to all His kingdom of power, wealth, and wisdom.
The moment I am agitated, restless, or disturbed in mind, I will retire to silence, discrimination, and concentration, until calmness is restored to my unhappy mind.
I will realize that God’s power is limitless, and, since I am made in His image and likeness, I, too, have power to overcome all obstacles that I may encounter.
Sense of lack
I am the child of the Supreme Spirit. My Heavenly Father possesses everything. Having Him, I have everything, for I own everything that He owns.
Fear of death
The ocean of Spirit has become the little bubble of my little soul. The bubble of my life cannot die, whether floating in birth or disappearing in death in the ocean of Cosmic Consciousness, for I am indestructible consciousness, protected in the bosom of Spirit’s immortality.
Tragedy and loss
I am the immortal child of God, living for a little while in this mortal body. I am here to behold the tragedies and the comedies of this changeable life with an attitude of unchangeable happiness. I am a child of immortality sent here to play the drama of birth and death, remembering always my deathless Self.
I will transform all conditions, good or bad, into the veritable instruments of success. Before a conquering soul, even dangers loom as benedictions from God.
When the ego is strong
I am made of God-substance, since that is the only substance which exists. Therefore I am health; I am success; I am peace.
I shall burn the faggots of my worries and fears and kindle the fire of happiness to illumine Thy temple within.
I know that as God’s child I am perfect. I will recover that consciousness by wisdom and true understanding of the meaning of life and its problems.
I will wipe the dream fears of disease, sadness, and ignorance from the soul’s face of silence, with the veil of Divine Mother’s peace.
SWADHYAYA IN A POEM
Read the words of Yogananda’s “I Am Thy Bird of Paradise, Wishing to Fly in Thy Astral Airplane,” from Whispers from Eternity, as a final encouragement for us to awaken to our true nature.
O bird of paradise! hop into My plane of omnipresence! Fold now thy fluttering wings and ride with Me peacefully, anywhere, everywhere in thine ethereal home!
Originally posted on Ananda.org, September 2018.