Suffering is the university of egocentrism. Milan Kundera, Czech writer [1929-]
Suffering is inevitable. That is a fundamental lesson of life. Religions teach us that, philosophy does, and literature shows the same too. While dealing with the inevitable though unwanted, our options are quite limited. We should change what can be changed and accept what cannot be changed. We may need to adapt ourselves in the face of what we cannot change.
Religion, philosophy, the arts, and a lot of things can help us to make life easier in the face of suffering. Aren’t these things primarily meant for that: to help us make life bearable and as pleasant as possible?
Why haven’t they been able to achieve their purposes? Obviously, they have not been used rightly. On the other hand, they have been misused by certain people. Religion joined hands with politics and became a tool in the hands of bigots or the power-hungry. Philosophy is dead for all practical purposes, killed by our pursuit of the superficial and by the prevalence of the farcical. The arts have been too commercialised to be effective agents of personal or social transformation.
The solution obviously lies in bringing authenticity and a certain degree of profundity back to these things: religion, thinking and the arts. The solution lies in our choosing to make these things effective in enabling us to touch the sublime.
Poet William Blake sang about the human capacity to “see a world in a grain of sand / And a heaven in a wild flower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour”. This ability is a kind of innocence that makes us stand in awe before the beauty of a flower, the mystery of a pebble, and the splendour of the universe. It is the ability to go beyond ourselves and touch the infinity lying out there, the infinity of which we are all parts.
We have largely lost the ability to stand in awe before the wonders of the world because we have lost the awareness of ourselves as parts of some bigger whole. Religions take the bigger whole to be God. Philosophy conceives it as some transcendent reality beyond the grasp of our rational faculties. Literature and other arts touch it in moments of inspiration.
We need to touch it ourselves. We may use religion, contemplation, the arts or whatever we choose in order to carry us beyond our selves to the reality, the mystery, the magic lying out there somewhere. This is one of the best ways to deal with suffering.
How to do that?
We need to understand first of all that we are all autonomous individuals and organic parts of a larger entity at the same time. We are always performing a tightrope walk between our autonomy and our integration: asserting our unique individuality while being an integral part of a society and also of a macroscopic cosmos.
It is a tightrope walk because many of our individual desires, motives, ideals and beliefs may be in conflict with those of the community to which we belong. We are obliged to cultivate and express our urges and ideals without disrupting the harmony that seeks to pervade the community as well as the cosmos. We should grow into the fullness of our individual selves while being in harmony with our community and the larger cosmic system. That is the ideal. But the ideal is seldom achieved. That is one of the chief reasons of the mounting suffering in our world.
We live in a world that is becoming increasingly competitive and hence even more increasingly self-centred. Competition is always about the victory of some individuals over other individuals or groups of even systems. In a capitalist system everyone is everyone else’s potential rival one way or another. This rivalry soon extends to the groups or communities to which the individuals belong. Whole systems like democracy or ideals like secularism can come crumbling down in such a world. Worse, such demolitions may even be seen as virtuous victories of the good over evil.
Such battles are rampant in our world today. Some people emerge as glorious victors while some others end up as pathetic losers.
These battles need to end. The ideal way is to open our eyes and see the most fundamental reality about ourselves: that we are not only unique and separate individuals but also integral parts of a larger whole. Call the larger whole God if you choose. Call it truth or the sublime or whatever. If we learn to touch that sublime, if we open our ears to the mellow music of that sublime, our suffering is going to take a different turn.
Suffering will not vanish. We will learn how to cope with it better.
The sublime opens our eyes and hearts. In plain words, it makes us understand the reality better and deal with it lovingly. This understanding and love are the ultimate remedies for unavoidable suffering.
This relationship with the sublime is a spiritual condition. You need not be religious for experiencing it. Atheists experience it in their own diverse ways. Artists experience it through their arts. When Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious; it is the source of all true art and science,” he was referring to the experience of the sublime. When Mozart said that love – and not intelligence or imagination – is the real soul of genius, he meant nothing else.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince put it most elegantly: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The brain does help us to understand the reality. As Hinduism teaches, intellectual pursuit or jnana yoga can offer us enlightenment.
But when it comes to grappling with the riddles of life, the heart shows the way. Blake saw a world in a grain of sand with his heart, not his eyes. Mirabai, great devotee of Lord Krishna, could unfurl herself across the universe by stretching her heart, not her intellect. It is your heart that will give you the wings to fly.
Will suffering vanish when you learn to see a world in a grain of sand or to fly in the heavens on wings of the heart?
No. Suffering can never vanish from our life. We learn to cope with it. We learn to see it from a different perspective.
It is the perspective of the heart. It is with the heart we see certain essential truths clearly.
When the homo sapiens evolved from their simian ancestors, the brain continued to evolve while the heart retained its loyalty to the beast. Our species went on to conquer the whole world with the help of our evolved brains. We subjugated everything on earth mercilessly to our tools and technology. We established our mastery over everything on the planet as well as beyond it in the eternal spaces. We moved light years in a few hundred calendar years. Great intellectual achievement.
But our hearts remained simian. Very primitive. Except in the cases of those few enlightened ones, those who chose to touch eternity in a moment.
Our religions, our arts and our philosophical teachers all sought to train our hearts. But we chose to convert these entities into competitive architecture or showbiz or propaganda. They did not touch our hearts.
They were like the roses in our gardens tended by hired labourers. Passers-by admired them. But they did not touch our hearts. Because it is only when you waste time with your roses do they touch your hearts.
The answers to quite a lot of our problems lie in our own hearts. And we keep seeking them in a lot of other places.
We have wings to fly with, but we choose to walk.
If only you start flying. Once you have conquered certain heights, you won’t come down, as Richard Bach says in one of his books. You will spread your wings and fly. You hover over the suffering that belongs to the earth.
***PS. This is the last chapter of my e-book, Coping with Suffering. The book is available exclusively at Amazon.in