Transcending suffering

The spiritual world “bestows only the joy”; suffering comes from this world, and part of freeing one’s self from it means escaping suffering. However, this happens not by avoiding the particulars of a situation, but by transmuting our experience of it.

Clarifying the relationship between joy and suffering is something I’ve been trying to do a lot in my writing, but it proves an elusive task. Maybe an analogy will help: Whenever I play a sport that I love, it wracks my body – but is not perceived as suffering; I want to go out and do it again. But if I don’t love the sport, it wearies both my body and heart; and as Bahá’u’lláh wrote:

Lay not upon your souls that which will weary them and weigh them down, but rather what will lighten and uplift them, so that they may soar on the wings of the Divine verses towards the Dawning-place of His manifest signs; this will draw you nearer to God, did ye but comprehend.1

The experience of joy and suffering are like barometers, indicating the nature of our relationship to life (and thus to the Beloved). If something causes us suffering, it means we cannot see the Beloved in that direction; whereas joy opens our eyes to the true Reality.

This is confused by the fact that one must know how to distinguish joy from pastimes. It is the soul that feels joy, not the body. To discern our real response to a situation requires profound honesty. Violating chastity, for example, may feel terrific, but a true heart will see how it sickens the soul.

Next is the fact that some suffering is ordained. This is suffering we cannot avoid, either because life inflicts it upon us, or His law does. In that case, what happens is a challenge to find our way through a false understanding of life. Without such challenges, we would naturally avoid these tests and fail to grow. For the sake of the soul’s lasting joy, our ignorance is brought forcibly to our attention.

The Fast is one of these, where the fact of suffering is like a poke in the ribs, saying, “Why do you still experience me as suffering?” If we understood the real nature of the Fast, we would keep it without ceasing (see quote in previous post2). Or as He puts it in another place:

Whatsoever He, the Well-Beloved, ordaineth, the same is, verily, beloved. To this He Who is the Lord of all creation beareth Me witness. Whoso hath inhaled the sweet fragrance of the All-Merciful, and recognized the Source of this utterance, will welcome with his own eyes the shafts of the enemy, that he may establish the truth of the laws of God amongst men.3

In a genuine religious context, physical suffering may worsen, but the lover transmutes it in his heart into something better than ease and comfort – since his suffering connects him to his Beloved. `Abdu’l-Bahá says of such a soul: “It will not see in this station anything that is inconsistent with its contentment and it does not prefer the greatest ease to the most mighty calamity.”

Suffering is life acting in the role of a teacher. That we still see it should spur us on to pray and meditate, reflect on what we see, question our motives, our knowledge, our ideas, our beliefs. Suffering is a voice on the wind saying, “See past me, for I am the veil.”

Tear asunder, O my God, the veil of vain imaginings that hath obscured the vision of Thy people, that all may haste towards Thee, may tread the path of Thy pleasure, and walk in the ways of Thy Faith. We are, O my God, Thy servants and Thy bondsmen. Thou art sufficient unto us so that we can dispense with the world and all that is therein. We are wholly satisfied with all that hath befallen us in Thy path, and exclaim: “Praised be Thou, in Whose hand are the realms of revelation and of creation, and all the kingdoms of earth and heaven!”4

As vision clears and the soul’s perception becomes plain, following one’s joy can become a safe route along the Way – because the soul’s happiness can come only from nearness to God. When finally we “suffer for the Beloved’s sake” but feel it as bliss, we have passed one of life’s great tests. Then suffering ends, and whatever the body undergoes is wholly different from the life of the soul.

Although to outward view, the wayfarers in this Valley may dwell upon the dust, yet inwardly they are throned in the heights of mystic meaning; they eat of the endless bounties of inner significances, and drink of the delicate wines of the spirit.5

Develop a strong relationship with suffering! make it a friend; love it no matter how hard it seems – and in return, secrets will be whispered in your ears…

We are the guests of one who devours his guests The friends of the one who slaughters his friends… Although by his gaze he brings death to so many lovers Let yourself be killed by him: is he not the water of life?

Never, ever, grow bitter: he is the friend and kills gently. Keep your heart noble, for this most noble love Kills only kings near God and men free from passion.

We are the night, earth’s shadow. He is the Sun: He splits open the night with a sword soaked in dawn…6

  1. Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, P149

  2. “Should Thy Will decree that out of Thy mouth these words proceed and be addressed unto them, `Observe, for My Beauty’s sake, the fast, O people, and set no limit to its duration,’ I swear by the majesty of Thy glory, that every one of them will faithfully observe it, will abstain from whatsoever will violate Thy law, and will continue to do so until they yield up their souls unto Thee.” – Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p.337

  3. Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p.22

  4. Bahá’u’lláh, Prayers and Meditations, p.102

  5. Bahá’u’lláh, Seven Valleys, p.30

  6. Poem by Rumi.