Suffering encourages us to let go of our attachments and limitations and reach for something higher. Without it, we wouldn’t have the motivation to seek further.
“Lord, give me more suffering”
Kunti Devi, the mother of three of the Pandavas princes in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, became very sorrowful when her sons were banished to the forest. In her despair, she constantly repeated the name of Lord Krishna. After some time, her mind became free of sorrow and she began to experience an ever-present joy filling her soul.
Pleased with her faith and devotion, Krishna appeared to Kunti and asked what “boon” she would like—which of life’s many pleasures could he bestow upon her. She replied, “Lord, give me more suffering, more difficulties, for it is in suffering that I remembered you.”
Tests come to us for one reason only: that we seek our fulfillment in God. Paramhansa Yogananda said that for most people, a life without difficulties is a wasted life, because there is no incentive to grow and take on a larger understanding. It is suffering that encourages us to reach for the divine within us.
Two years of worsening symptoms
Illness is often one of the most serious challenges people face and can be a major test. Fifteen years ago, I had a rare, debilitating illness; fatigue, fever, pain and shortness of breath were my constant companions. Early in my illness, I was told my symptoms would eventually go away and my health would improve. During this time, I tried my best to heal myself through conventional and alternative medicine, and prayer. I also meditated as best I could.
After two difficult years of worsening symptoms, I had to honestly ask myself, “What if this illness never goes away?” I faced the very real possibility that it would be with me for the rest of my life. Then I thought: “I am going to have to change my consciousness!”
The purpose of tests is to raise and uplift our energy. If we simply wait a test out without raising our energy, the karma that caused the problem will sprout again seed-like in the future, and we will be right back where we started.
My illness lasted three and a half long years. What did I learn during this time? The first lesson was not to become frustrated over what was happening to me, because giving in to frustration always led to despair. At times, this was very difficult, but the more I succeeded, the happier I was.
The second lesson was to see my illness as God’s agenda for me at this time, right now. What was occurring in my life was not a mistake. I realized that I had to welcome what He was giving me. To the degree I resented or resisted it, I would be unable to see the situation clearly and then make the necessary changes.
Usually our positive attitudes, service, and meditation practices enable us to sail past any difficulties. But a test is designed to stop us in our tracks so that we will look at, and discard, specific attitudes and delusions that are holding us back spiritually.
What were the attitudes holding me back? Before the illness, I tended to evaluate myself by how much I served, how much I meditated, and how much good I was doing, which included giving lectures around the world. When I became ill, that was all taken away because I couldn’t serve or meditate.
As a result of the illness, I learned not to define myself by anything outward. I went to the core of my relationship with Divine Mother and realized that She was satisfied simply if I loved Her.
The illness changed me in dramatic ways. I became more centered in myself and felt a greater sense of freedom and joy in all my activities. Cooperating with God’s will during the illness enabled me to renounce personal desires and live more fully for God.
Although the test was not easy, every day I am deeply thankful for it and the invaluable soul lessons I learned. Tests can be a source of tremendous blessings when we receive them in the right way.
“Master, help me to understand.”
Swami Kriyananda said the way to overcome tests is through love. What he means by that is to accept and embrace everything that comes to you. We should respond the way one of Kriyananda’s brother disciples did when he fell off a ladder and broke his arm. Instantly he said: “Yes, Master!”
Another of Yogananda’s disciples showed the same spirit under much more challenging circumstances. This woman underwent surgery for highly advanced cancer. When she woke up, the anesthesia had worn off; she was in tremendous pain and thought she might die.
She didn’t want to die with the consciousness of feeling trapped in the body and identified with suffering. So, with all her heart and soul, as strongly as she could, she prayed to Yogananda: “ Master, I have always tried to accept everything that comes to me as your will and for my highest good. Show me that this is true now. I’m not afraid of dying, but I don’t want my life to end in this horrible negative consciousness. You cannot let me die like this!”
Gratitude and total acceptance
Immediately she felt a calm presence surrounding her, and inwardly she heard Yogananda say: “I will help you through this. The key is: Be grateful for everything.”
From the response in her heart, this woman knew that her gratitude had to be total—that she needed be grateful for every tube that went into her mouth, for every intravenous drip attached to her arm, for every nurse and doctor, for every pain. What God wanted of her was total acceptance.
As she practiced being grateful for everything, she said it was like climbing a ladder step by step. “I was still in the darkness,” she said, but she kept on thanking God for everything. It took a few hours but she eventually climbed the ladder into a great feeling of light and joy. And she became a source of great inspiration to all the doctors and nurses in the hospital.
God comes to us through all of our life experiences. Swami Kriyananda said, “Karmic law is an expression of divine love.” A test is God coming to us to reveal our limitations and to help us to grow and expand beyond them. Every challenging experience is our own special “lesson plan” designed by God.
The way to overcome tests is to accept them calmly and pleasantly. It is reacting against challenging circumstances that increases their hold over us. When we respond to tests calmly and cheerfully, it means we are no longer identifying with their reality and their power to affect us.
We don’t have the full picture
Usually we have no idea why a test comes to us because we don’t see the big picture. It’s very much like the wrestling program I was involved in as a freshman in high school. My school had just started the wrestling program and all of us were new to the sport.
We began our first season with a week of intensive physical training. The exercise we practiced the most was the “bridging exercise,” where you lie on your back and arch your neck to lift your back off the ground. We practiced this exercise constantly and were so sore afterwards that we couldn’t turn our heads without moving the entire body.
Being young and eager, we wondered when our coach would teach us how to pin our opponent. We thought, “Isn’t the point of wrestling to win your match? Why are we spending so much time practicing this bridging pose—it’s so painful!”
As it turned out, being new to wrestling and not very good, we spent most of our time on our backs with our opponents trying to pin us to the mat. We found that “bridging” was our best move. Knowing how to keep ourselves from being pinned allowed us to survive long enough to actually win a few matches.
Life is often like this. We have no idea why certain things come to us, so we need to face our challenges with faith and courage—the faith that God knows what He is doing, and the courage to embrace and work with what He sends.
Contact God in meditation so you can experience Him as a God of love and joy. Then when trials come, you will be able to fully trust Him and know that He is with you.
Become a spiritual warrior
A “spiritual warrior” is someone who fully accepts what comes to him. He understands that God is behind all of life’s experiences because only God exists—nothing else is real.
From this understanding come liberating joy and freedom. Remember, nothing in creation can harm you when you live in the consciousness of God.