Sunday, 21 September 2014


For many people one of the chief benefits of religion lies in what it has to offer in terms of providing an escape from suffering, that being an inevitable fact of existence in this world. Indeed, Buddhism arose specifically from the attempt to understand and, if possible, go beyond suffering. The solution the Buddha found and taught was the cessation of desire. We suffer when we hold on to things so letting go of desire, in particular the attachment to it, brings freedom from pain. You might go further back and say that it's the sense of separation that brings about suffering. If we were one with life we would be complete and nothing could be added to us or taken away from us. So suffering at root is, or comes from, separation.

That is all true and maybe even a truism now, but I want to look at suffering from a different perspective here. I want to look at it in a practical sense as a purifier and the one true agent of spirituality. Today, when all the wisdom teachings of the past are readily available, there are many people presenting themselves as spiritually mature or even enlightened on the basis of a certain amount, small or large, of knowledge and experience. But I must tell you that a person may have all the spiritual understanding in the world but there is no real wisdom without suffering. You may talk of love and profess an awakened heart because you have heard that this is how a spiritual person should be, but there is no possibility of real compassion without having known deep suffering. It is as the Masters have said. In pain alone you get true values.  Pain is the gateway to eternal life because pain strips away falsehood and pretence. You can always tell a genuinely spiritual person by their face and expression. It is not constantly wreathed in smiles telling us what a loving, open, joyous person they are. It is marked by sorrow. I don't mean that they walk around looking miserable. That is self-pity. But they have been through the fires and that is etched into their face for it is suffering, and suffering alone, that cleanses the soul and stamps the heart with spiritual truth. Only pain patiently endured gives depth.

It is a perfectly natural impulse to wish to avoid suffering, and it is certainly a mistake (probably even an act of egotism) to seek it out with the idea of gaining spiritual kudos. But suffering that comes to us in the ordinary course of life, that is, in effect, God-given, that is unavoidable, we should use as an opportunity for self-transcendence. It comes to burn out the fires of ego. It is part of the sacrifice that makes holy, and it is only through such sacrifice that holiness is born in the individual. Only when forced to by pain can we truly begin to give up the self. This is the reality of living in a fallen world. Self has become corrupted and made itself into its own centre. Suffering is what de-centres the self, or does so if the ‘patient’ reacts to it correctly by offering it up to God and using it as an opportunity to go beyond itself. If you can you should even see it as a gift in that you are being given a chance to graduate to a higher spiritual state. You would not be given this gift if you were not thought equal to what it entails.

Now, none of this means that one should not respond to suffering in others or even that one may not pray for one’s own suffering to be alleviated. Suffering is not in any sense a good or desirable thing even if it can be used as a creative thing. The rule must surely be, especially where others are concerned, that one does all one can to relieve suffering, but if attempts to do this come to naught then one must accept the reality of the situation without rancour, resentment or resistance, and this is particularly so in cases where you are the one suffering. See it as a chance to go beyond your present state. Accept the will of God and submit to the experience, seeking to use it as a springboard to greater understanding, an understanding that comes from having lived something not just known about it.

As I have implied, this is a doctrine that can be misused and misunderstood. The fact that suffering is what I have called the one true agent of spiritual purification does not mean that all suffering in this world is sent by God and should just be left to run its course. Indeed, most of it comes from the fact that we live in a fallen, corrupted world in which human beings exploit each other and fail to live in harmony with the truth. This sort of suffering we should do all in our power to redress as well as always being aware of how we might be adding to it and how we can avoid doing that. But there is also spiritual suffering, frequently but certainly not always mental in focus, which we must learn to recognise. Thus we need to acquire discrimination as to what is suffering caused by man’s inhumanity to man and what is suffering that comes as part of treading the spiritual path. Complications can arise when the two become mixed, as they can do, and karmic suffering is another factor to take into account, suffering that may be the result of decisions that individuals or groups of individuals acting collectively have taken. But determining the meaning and probable inner causes of events that occur in life is all part of the process of developing spiritually. We cannot look at these matters in a simplistic way by saying that everything that comes about does so for a single reason. This is a complicated world and we must avoid the temptation to reduce serious spiritual questions to elementary formulae that can be expressed in a quick and easy catchphrase. Nevertheless for the spiritual aspirant it is wise to regard any suffering that enters into your life as having a purpose. That doesn't mean that you just lie down and submit to it. It may have come to enable you to develop the strength to fight it. But you must learn what you can overcome and what you must accept so a good rule would be that initially you seek to solve the problem it presents and if you can't do that then is the time for acceptance and submission to God's will, knowing that his will is always to our own long term advantage even if it does not seem like that from our current limited perspective.

It is a fact that the greatest saints appear to have known the greatest suffering and we also have the example of the suffering of Christ before us, showing us that this is indeed the way to eternal life. And how could it not be, given that the barrier to eternal life is the fallen self or ego whose roots have become so deeply planted in the soil of our being that we mistakenly regard it to be what we really are? But then, to put all this talk of suffering in perspective, we see what it leads to. The risen Christ who has found his identity in God and is thereby released from bondage in form which bondage is the cause of all suffering. So suffering is no more, gone, impossible. Its pain has been transformed into love. For note that form as the expression of spirit, and its opposite pole in manifestation, remains. The risen Christ still has a body, but that now exists as the means to express goodness, truth and beauty. Its power to limit and to hurt has gone. Now it exists only to reveal the glory of spirit and to manifest the perfection of love. And, believe it or not, it is suffering that has made this possible. That is not to justify suffering but to explain its presence because understanding it will diminish the ferocity of its sting.


USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hi William,
I read your comment at One Cosmos and decided to check out your blog. I'm also going to get your book because I'm a seeker of truth, particularly higher Truth which is why I like One Cosmos so much.

I brought about my own suffering when I got AIDS while serving in the US Navy (at Phuket, Thailand, one of our port o' calls).

One of the first things I learned, as my suffering increased is I had a choice; I could be bitter about my circumstances or I could choose to be grateful, since it led me back to God.
Thankfully, I chose to be grateful and to not succumb to bitterness and rancour.

As you point out, suffering can, indeed be used for good, and I have endeavored to do that, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

I look forward to reading your book and blog. Thanks for commenting at One Cosmos. I hope you comment again because I believe you have much wisdom to offer.

William Wildblood said...

Hi Ben

Thanks for your kind and generous words. Your response to your suffering reminds me that words (mine in this post) are easy but actions or reactions are what really count. I wish you all the best.

It's funny that someone who served in the US Navy should comment on my blog today. By chance I watched The Bridges at Toko-Ri last night. What a good film.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Aye, that is a superb film! Thank you, sir.