Juan and I met again at the beginning of September, this time to talk about suffering. Juan had chosen this topic because of several conversations he had recently had in which suffering seemed to be the center of some peoples’ lives. For me, at first, suffering was not an appealing topic. But I hadn’t taken into account everything that lies behind the word “suffering”, which is so frequently used and so poorly understood today. Knowing Juan, I was intrigued, wondering which direction that our conversation would take.
While I was finishing my dessert in our usual restaurant and trying to sort through my ideas, the concept of “suffering” came to my mind. I thought about what I understand to be suffering, about the different types of suffering, and about something even more practical: whether suffering is of any use. Facing the idea that we try to avoid every kind of painful process, from a stressful situation to a complex disease, I considered the possibility that suffering has a purpose. Or perhaps it is just an unwelcome obstacle in our life. Then concepts like luck, destiny, karma came to mind, supposedly trying to somehow explain what lies behind suffering. The following is what Juan told me.
First of all, I think that we should start by defining what suffering is. This is important because it seems that there are different types of suffering and because suffering is often considered some kind of bad luck, a curse or a sign that things are not going well.
Suffering is an energy characterized by its heat, It is not cold, nor is it tepid. Every hot energy has fire, which is the element that most rapidly modifies structure. For example, when something gets burnt, it changes right away. Thus, suffering is related to changing structures because it heats them up. Therefore, when a person is suffering due to any sort of pain, physical or mental disease, anxiety, or whatever, there is heat, and the structure undergoes a process of change.
Like in the alchemical phases?
Exactly. The first one is calcination, isn’t it? And calcination is characterized by heat and fire. Suffering has a developmental value because it heats a structure and initiates change. This is unavoidable. Once something is alight, to know the extent of the fire and the depth to which it penetrates is just a matter of time. The longer suffering lasts the deeper it gets, and it can reach the level of the unconscious or even beyond the unconscious. The process of change is possible because in nature, all structures are impermanent. But of course, from our point of view, we don’t like anything to change.
We try to keep everything forever, believing that this gives a certain stability. Even if we don’t feel well, we tend to go by the saying “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know”.
Human beings tend to form habits and nature has developed ways to set things in motion and change them, regardless of our own personal decisions. Suffering is one of the ways used by nature –or our inner guide or universal consciousness, whatever we want to call it- to start a process of deep change. Suffering is a sign that a process of rapid change has started. That means that there is something positive behind it, and that perhaps, suffering is not as bad as we usually think.
That’s right, but in our modern culture, at least in the western world, suffering and pain are considered something to be avoided at all costs. That’s why there are so many pills, injections and all sorts of medicaments to neutralize the experience of suffering.
As we already said, suffering involves heating and burning. In India it is said that when an organism is heated at the psychical level, it starts to burn karma. Karma implies that the consequences of our past actions create unavoidable reactions that can appear at different moments in our life. The concept of karma has to do with the law of action and reaction, which means that every action is followed by a reaction. Therefore, experiencing suffering is a way to gradually burn and transform that karma, that energy that has accumulated.
In India and later in Tibet (which learnt it from India), specific practices were developed that require great effort and that generate suffering for the individuals who have accumulated, at the personal or familiy level, a heavy burden of negative actions. These people can voluntarily choose these practices that create suffering.
Yes, the practice of pilgrimage is one example. When one takes a vow to do a pilgrimage, one of the goals is to neutralize negative actions…
Is it perhaps like purification?
Exactly. This is a well-known practice here in Europe. In the Middle Ages, when someone had committed a crime, it was customary that the person was punished either by doing hard labor in the village where he/she lived or by going on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
Juan, you just mentioned the practice of pilgrimage as an example, but are there other cases of people who use a specific practice to burn negative karma more rapidly?
Yes, one example is the history of the great Yogi Milarepa, in Tibet. Milarepa practiced black magic before becoming a Yogi, and caused a lot of suffering by summoning storms to destroy whole villages and crops. His master, Marpa, ordered him to build a tower made of a special type of stone that could only be found far away. When the tower was finished, the master told Milarepa: “That tower you have built is black magic. Take all the stones back to the place you found them, and then I will instruct you.” The process took several years in which Milarepa built and destroyed the tower several times. This continuous and painful effort finally burnt the negative karma that Milarepa had accumulated by practicing black magic.
Another example can be observed today in India. There, some yogis go to a lake or a forest, and vow to stay there in a difficult and painful position, for example, standing on one foot for several years. I have photos and videos of a yogi who had held his arm raised for fourteen or fifteen years. His muscles had atrophied and his nails coiled around his hand.
In these cases, people deliberately seek suffering. They are aware of their history, know that they have accumulated negative karma and decide to burn it, not in a gradual way but speeding up the process. One can understand through this example that in the culture of India, suffering is neither a curse nor a punishment, but rather a way to change structures.
Could you please now talk about comfort as a way of avoiding suffering and the mental states associated with it?
Modern western culture, especially since the postwar period, has build a model in which everything has to be confortable and absolutely nothing can be a cause of discomfort or bother… everything has to be pleasant. I myself, being born in this western culture, did not know anything about this,. When I was 22 years old, I went to Asia to meet a painting master that a friend of mine wanted to introduce me to. After hours hiking through the mountains of Nepal, we reached his cave with our rucksacks and our bad-weather gear, fully-equipped to spend some time in the mountains. The master stared at us with a great deal of interest and attention. As not many westerners had visited that place and tourism had not reached that area yet, westerners were studied as if they were extraterrestrials. When we had finally sorted out all our stuff, the master said: “Oh, you westerners like comfort a lot.” We were surprised by that, because we had actually never thought about it. We thought for a short while and we answered that of course, comfort was necessary. He then laughed for a long time and said: “comfort is like a drug and keeps the mind in a state of dullness”. We had never thought about that, but then we realized that it was true. He said that if a person is like under the effect of drugs, the mind is not in the best state to reach enlightenment. From that moment on, comfort has not been the same for me anymore. If there is comfort, one takes advantage of it, and if not, no problem, everything is fine.
That’s an instructive anecdote. In fact, the issue of comfort appears over and over again with groups of people seeking personal growth and doing energetic practices.
You are right. Sometimes people on retreat complain because they don’t have a good bed, or because the food is not what they had expected, etc. These people feel discomfort and classify the situation as not being perfect or good. These individuals should reflect on the role that comfort plays in their life and whether they are investing too much effort in looking for it. On the one hand, comfort can induce that state of dullness we have already talked about. On the other hand, it can also happen that people accustomed to comfort in their daily life, finally give up their practice because they don’t have the comfort they consider necessary to carry it out. But one should know that there are no optimal conditions “a priori” for practice. It is known that people have practiced in many different conditions throughout history.
Coming back to suffering as a general concept, Juan, could you explain why suffering is not experienced in the same way by everyone?
Something we learnt from those Tibetan masters is that human beings decide how they are going to experience suffering before incarnation: either in frequent small doses, or all at once at the beginning or the end of life.
Years ago, when I was told this, I started to investigate it because it seemed interesting and I had to find out whether it was true. Looking carefully at relatives, friends and people I knew, I realized that there was truth behind it. For instance, I know a child who had a large dose of suffering at birth. He spent more than one month in the hospital because he was born with a closed esophagus, and his mother could not cope with the situation. Now I have seen him growing up – he already is two and a half years old- I can see that this child has left something behind, like a burden.
But why experience so much suffering at such an early age?
To understand that, one has to go back to the concept of karma. The Tibetans say that when an individual is born, he/she carries traces of their past life; that means karmic residues of consciousness, and it is very common that these are experienced during the first days, weeks or years of life. That child I know, with the great suffering caused by all those surgical operations, got rid of a big burden he carried from his past life and now is a very pure and shining child.
Continuing with the topic of people who have a great dose of suffering in early life, how do you explain the case of newborn or small children dying from a, let’s say, silly accident? We know the example of small children who drown in a swimming pool in a moment when their parents weren’t paying attention …
Yes, they went there to drown…
Then, do they pay everything at once? Did they live only for that?
Tibetans say that when someone dies at an early age, it shows that an experience was missing. The person decides to return to this dimension to have that experience, and then leaves again.
You have talked about the case of people experiencing a lot of suffering in early life, either to burn karma and continue living in a more luminous way or to experience something that was missing and then leave this dimension. But what about people who experience suffering at the end of their life?
Well, I know several people that haven’t suffered at all in their lives and everything has been very easy for them. But a disease like cancer appears when they are old, in the last months or years of life, and they have a hard time.
One might be tempted to take drugs to avoid suffering at the end of one’s life, which increases the risk of dying in a comatose state. Which would be the consequences of that?
As we said earlier, we all have to experience a certain amount of suffering and we decide the way of experiencing it before our birth. When someone avoids suffering by taking drugs or whatever (for instance, dying people who are treated with morphine in hospital to enter a coma, and then leave in that state), one is actually postponing the time at which that dose of suffering will be released. A fragment of suffering that was to be released in this life remains pending. Perhaps that is why a child or a baby only comes for few months or years and then leaves.
I have a good example of this topic that isn’t related to human beings but to animals. Years ago, I taught in Mexico City and stayed at a friend’s, who was multimillionaire and had a very good heart. As her house was like a palace, she took in every abandoned dog she saw in the streets. There were more than twenty dogs of every age, and some injured, living in the huge house’s garden. It was a dog orphanage and she was like a “Mother Teresa for dogs”. She had two maids cooking for her and the dogs, because different dogs liked different types of food. I was there observing the whole scene and thought that those dogs were eating better than the Mexican people in the streets outside. She gave me a call several months later to tell me that the oldest dog was very ill. She told me that she was considering the idea of putting the dog down, and she asked me for my opinion.
Because she wanted to avoid her dog suffering…
Exactly. My opinion was that the dog had lived a very comfortable life (apart from being abandoned early in life) and that he had to pay the rest of his appointed suffering at the end of his life. I suggested to her that, according to what I had learnt from the Tibetans, giving the dog an injection to stop it’s suffering would force it to come back again to finish its history.
So animals go through the same process…
Yes, at least dogs and cats. I am seeing it with our cat. She is already old and as she has lived a comfortable life with us, now is her time to experience suffering; she is deaf and moving takes a lot of effort.
You have talked about the different ways of experiencing suffering, that can take place at the beginning or at the end of life, and that these are decisions taken before birth. But you have also mentioned, giving the example of the Yogis in India and the practice of pilgrimage, that some beings decide to speed up the process of liberating negative karma in this life through voluntary suffering. Are there other practices that allow us to erase negative karma and change structures without self-induced suffering?
Yes, the different yogas represent a way of eliminating negative karma, not through suffering but through meditation. Using this method, one consciously contacts the unconscious at a very deep level and experiences negative karmas at that level, within the meditation. Therefore, there is a way to work with negative karmas which is independent of suffering, but that demands a stable and deep meditation power.
So far, we have only talked about individual karma.
Yes, and it is true that karma is not only personal, but there is also family and national karma, and even a worldwide karma. Every country creates its own karma, which can be positive or negative. People living or born in a given country share that karma, either because they create it or because they inherit it from their ancestors. Therefore, the level of negative karma that we have inherited from our ancestors and from the country we are living in is worth investigating (for instance, German people with Hitler and everything that happened there, or here in Spain with the conquest of America, or in the United States with Hiroshima, etc) so that we can release a certain amount of that negative karma through our own meditative practice.
And what about altruistic and positive actions? Do they represent an additional way of releasing negative karma?
Yes, that’s a third way to burn negative karmic traces. Generating well-being through altruistic actions is like a counterweight that compensates the suffering caused previously.
That reminds me of the film “The Mission”, in which Robert De Niro, playing the role of a Spanish landowner, kills his own brother because of a woman. He then regrets it and imposes on himself the punishment of carrying a heavy cross up a hill over and over, until he gets to know a priest (Jeremy Irons) in charge of a mission in the rainforest. The priest convinces him to help in the mission, so that he can canalize his guilt through social work. So at the beginning of the film, the landowner burns his negative karma through great self-induced suffering and then, after meeting the priest, one could say that he “changes his practice” and starts burning his negative karma through altruistic actions.
Yes, and it seems that a positive action is a very efficient way, or even perhaps the most efficient, to burn negative karma.
Is it possible to heal the ancestral and family structure?
Yes, when an individual increases the level of consciousness and does good for the world, it is good for everyone. Mother Teresa is a good example. With her actions, she affected not only her personal and family karma, but also the karma of India.
And I suppose that one has to take into account also one’s partner..
Certainly, we have to consider that when we investigate the negative karma that needs to be released.
Coming back to the issue of “self-induced suffering”, does mountain climbing have a similar effect to what we saw with the Yogis in India or the practice of pilgrimage?
It could be that climbing is a way of burning negative karma and changing structures through suffering. When I was living in Nepal, I wondered about the motivation behind those expensive climbing expeditions in which many people went through extreme difficulties. Perhaps there is something deeper in climbing and it represents another means of rapidly burning karmic traces.
There was a book published in the 1950s called “Annapurna” in which the author, the climber Maurice Herzog, tells the story of the first expedition to Annapurna. In the book he explains all the difficulties he had with the mountain equipment of the period and the hard experiences he suffered. His feet and hands froze and he had to be carried down to New Delhi to get an airplane back to his country. On the way to New Delhi, his fingers and toes had to be cut off one by one because they became gangrenous, and they were thrown out of the window of the train. When he finally returned home after five or six months, his wife found him without fingers, toes and nose. In the last chapter, he claims that this was the most important spiritual experience of his life, which transformed it and gave him a new vision of existence…
I was pretty young when I read that story and I could not understand why he said that after such a hard time. Now, looking back from the perspective of suffering, I see that through his experience in the Annapurna, that man got rid of a heavy karmic burden, either family or personal. And perhaps his greatest feat was not to be the first to climb Annapurna but to be the first in his family to burn a large amount of negative karma, all at once, so that he then entered a different phase of life.
Continuing with the practices that generate suffering, I have heard that some people are able to obtain extraordinary things by voluntarily doing something painful.
Yes, for instance, there are stories in India about Yogis going through severe conditions like fasting for a long time, or staying motionless for some time, or experiencing cold for some days, etc.., and in this way, they obtain magical powers.
How does that work? Do you have any example?
It is said that the power of austerity of some practitioners can be so strong that it causes an imbalance in the universe. There are many stories in which Shiva appears to the practitioner and grants him whatever he wants so that he stops the practice. A good example is the story of how the Ganges River descended to the earth, which can be found in a series of books, the Puranas, which mean “the ancients”. These are stories about the time when people lived for ten, fifteen or even twenty thousand years.
There was a king whose family had a past full of wars, egoism and vanity, and he found out that all his ancestors were in purgatory or hell. He wondered what he could do to liberate them and a god answered that in order to free them, he had to make the Ganges – that is a celestial river, the Milky Way – descend to earth. The king left his kingdom to become a Yogi and he practiced under extreme austerity for years. One day, Shiva appeared before him and asked him what he wanted. He answered that he wanted to liberate his ancestors by bringing the Ganges down to earth. Shiva granted him this desire and that is how the Ganges came down to earth and became a holy river, because of the austerity of someone who wanted to liberate his family.
I still have one concern about disease and suffering. I suppose it is useful to be aware of the process triggered by suffering, in other words a change of structure. But it is not a matter of sitting back and waiting until things happen by themselves, a solution must be actively sought, mustn’t it?
Right, one doesn’t stay still but does something to heal the disease or improve the situation.
And what happens with serious illnesses like cancer or AIDS?
In that context I can give an example that demonstrates what can be reached by combining a clear decision, an altruistic intention and strong willpower. A friend of mine was born handicapped, with one arm much shorter than the other and a bit ugly. He used to say that that was the price to pay for having a past history of aggressiveness, not from this but from other lifetimes. He was born in a wealthy family and the other son, his brother, was a good-looking guy, very sociable. When the family organized receptions at home, they used to send him to the countryside to avoid the guests seeing him. When he realized what was going on, he rebelled. He told me something he did to shame his family, for whom image and social status was the most important thing. He decided to become homosexual, openly and with bravado. And on the way he got AIDS. When the disease was already in an advanced state, he decided to heal himself to help other people with AIDS. In doing so, his decision to be cured had, above all, an altruistic goal. He became healthy in six months and then lived some years to reach his goal. Once he felt that his task was fulfilled, he decided to leave. Then he developed a heart virus that was apparently incurable, and he left. He gave me a call when he decided to leave, saying that he could now leave in peace because everything had been done. In fact, he left six months later.. Six months to heal himself and six to leave this world… What willpower!! This person suffered from AIDS and used his experience to help others.
This story is similar to that of Superman, Christopher Reeve, who was born as Superman and he then became paralysed. A paralysed Superman, an incredible symbol. And he used the attention he drew to himself to help paraplegic people, to set a positive example and encourage other people.
One wonders in these two cases whether they simply burnt negative karma or chose that illness to later help others thanks to their own experience. The question is open, but what is true is that there is something extraordinary in their attitudes, whatever the reason underlying the experience. There is something transcendent, beyond the person. And there are many similar cases.
We have gone through the different types of suffering and it appears, in conclusion, that suffering is a necessary energy; nature has not created it as a punishment. On the contrary, suffering is an energy that allows us to change structures. When we don’t see the reason behind a particular painful situation, we should be aware that we are releasing karmic traces from the past, that we are being purified. We have also seen that suffering can be voluntarily induced to speed up the process of change. And we now know that there exist at least two other ways to purify past actions and change structures: through meditation and altruistic actions. If we are suffering, it is worth being aware of the process that is taking place so that we don’t consider it an injustice and build up resentment. On the contrary, suffering can be seen as an opportunity for a positive change, for purification.