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"I got to wrestle with, and eventually let go of a troublesome life-long need always to be seen for who I am."
Suzanne Selby Grenager (SGrenager@aol.com) writes "The Art of Living," a monthly column for SpiritSite.com.
Suzanne is a writer, teacher, and life coach who helps people achieve their dreams. Her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Yoga Journal, and she has contributed to Healing Journeys: The Power of Rubenfeld Synergy.
Suzanne Selby Grenager,
"All Life is Struggle"
The wisest man I ever knew said
So far as I know,
The joy comes in surrender.
"Angels of struggle,
"All life is struggle." I was more than a little surprised, one day some twenty years ago, to hear a man who in my book rivaled the Dalai Lama as the freest, happiest person I’d ever met, speak those stark words. What an unequivocally discouraging statement about the human condition was my first reaction. Isn’t enlightenment, which he had apparently attained, supposed to put an end to pain and struggle?
As I sat with hordes of other yoga disciples at what we reverently referred to as his "holy lotus feet," the elderly man beaming his infectious smile out at us didn’t seem to be struggling in the least. He was full of joy and laughter. As usual when he joined us, he had been regaling us with hilarious inspirational stories in his native Gujurati, lovingly translated by my guru, whose guru he was.
We paid close attention, hanging on our guru’s guru’s every rendered word. "Bapuji" is what we called this big warm bear of a man, whose "real name" was Swami Kripalvanandaji, a mouthful of syllables few of us dared attempt. When Bapuji spoke, it was not to be taken lightly, his joking aside. In fact, for a long time before he came to America to be with us, his "spiritual grandchildren," as he had dubbed us, Bapuji hadn’t spoken a word.
Since retiring from an active life as a musician, teacher and speaker, he had maintained nearly twenty years of meditative silence in his native India. He raised his voice only in devotional chants, and wrote with chalk on a slate tablet when he felt the rare need to communicate with others. So when he spoke up, which was still only every now and then, we thirsty spiritual seekers listened up.
"All life is struggle." That’s what the man said. How curious, and how comforted I felt, and still feel, to think that this wise, saintly swami was sometimes perhaps having a hard time too! Often over the intervening years, I have returned, for my own and others’ edification, to these words I came to see as most encouraging. I find them in a little, out-of-print book of mine called Bapuji in America. How sweet it has been to know that we are not alone with our pain and suffering. Not to mention, as I will go on to explain, that our struggles may not be for naught!
I had come to love and trust Bapuji enough to know that he was not calling life a struggle simply to make us feel better about our problems. He seemed to have been speaking personally, as he usually did, drawing from the rich repertoire of his own varied life experience. He understood that "by example" was the best way to inform and ignite us. He wanted to affect us powerfully by sharing what life was like for the likes of a great man, like him.
"Life means struggle," he informed us — and "we cannot tell from where struggle will come next." He said ours is an "unbearable dark age," and that "anyone who is born into this world, must be a warrior…Man lives in constant pain," he added, though mostly without realizing it, "because he has so many remedies for it. In fact everything that we do in the waking state — sitting, walking, speaking, whatever — is only a remedy for some kind of pain or discomfort.
"So life means endless pain and endless remedy. In the entire world there is not one person who is totally free from pain," he concluded, which pretty much blew me away at the time, and does, more or less, to this day. Why?
Because I had assumed that certain spiritual warriors I knew, or knew of, and looked up to—not least Bapuji himself, who had attained the lofty state of Nirvakalpa Samadhi—had evolved to a point where they were all but free of any human entanglement or "struggle". Many spiritual teachers wrote books offering formulas for a freedom they claim to have attained. And maybe they have; how would I know? Anyway," Good for them, bad for me!" is what I had often thought.
But Bapuji seemed to imply that to be a human being in this life was by definition a struggle, and furthermore perhaps, that anybody who says it isn’t so isn’t paying close enough attention! "Amen!" said I to that, partly out of wishful thinking. For I had certainly done my share of human struggling, and making myself wrong for it. And no surprise here: I prefer to be right!
I still sometimes do all that, though far less intensely and frequently than I used to. So, progress is being made, especially in not making myself so wrong when I struggle, and Babuji’s teachings have helped! That, dear readers, is why I sit here now, writing about Bapuji, struggle and me.
I want to remind all of us who still sometimes struggle, of this heartening thing: at least one saint whom I knew and loved, understood us and the stuff of our lives. Bapuji seems to have appreciated that no matter how "enlightened" (how conscious) one may become, life itself is not exactly a bowl of cherries, but, in his words again, "a source of constant pain," and so too, of at least some struggle.
Yet from all he said and what I could see, he was not in the least discouraged by this. And after his many years of silent contemplative practice, who should know better about the essential qualities of life and struggle, and the relationship between them and spiritual growth, than he—is what methinks!
What’s more, Babuji told us, we who struggle with this painful life may not be as unconscious, as un-evolved, as I, for one, have sometimes concluded that my struggling must mean I am. As we shall soon see, according to Bapuji, more than an intrinsic part of human life even, struggle can be an important source of—a critical fodder for—our spiritual growth.
The value of struggle seems to depend on what we do with it, how we choose to work with it, and let it work with us. Let me follow Bapuji’s example and speak from my own experience, about what both has and has not worked to free me, in dealing with struggle. I’ll begin with a recent example of what definitely did not work.
On the second day of creating this very story, I made a poor choice in dealing with struggle. My body was less than comfortable sitting, and I was feeling no small measure of mental resistance to the artful act of writing. Though the day before I found it fun and easy to write, that Friday, for no reason I could easily discern, it was a painful business, physically and psychically.
But I did it anyway, my "remedy" of choice having been to slouch down and back in my chair. With the exception of the not very frequent break, I kept on slogging away all day at the keyboard, miserable—struggling. At my desk the following Monday, I could see that Friday’s "stick-it-out-no-matter-what" strategy for dealing with struggle was probably not what Bapuji had in mind.
For one thing, you will not be reading much of what I wrote that Friday, since it sucked. For another, sitting slouched in struggle mode for several hours did little but distress my already "iffy" back, which as a result hurt like hell come Monday. Not least, I was totally ignoring clear signals of unhappiness from the realm of body-mind, which I know to be the source of much accumulated wisdom.
So ignoring struggle, pretending all is well enough to push on through when all isn’t well enough, as you too probably knew, is not the answer. Fortunately, Bapuji had further guidance to offer on the matter of understanding and managing struggle, more encouraging words from that ragged little record book of his talks I referred to:
"Struggle when we look at it superficially, seems very cruel," he reminds us, "but the true nature of struggle is not evil. It is really an angel in disguise, and it brings good to everyone." Bapuji explains: "Struggle keeps us from being lazy. It keeps us aware and active and bestows true knowledge, the kind that cannot be obtained from any other teachers, such as mother, father or even guru." Well there’s a rave review for struggle, topped perhaps only by this one (my italics):
"We may not be able to receive struggle with love," he said, "But we should never turn it away. To turn away struggle is to turn away the grace of God."
Wow! This advanced spiritual seeker tells us we should welcome struggle as an "angel in disguise," a bearer of "true knowledge," as nothing less than "the grace of God" itself! What? How? Why? By way of example, let me share the story of another recent bout of struggle, which this time proved very beneficial to me.
A few weeks ago, I received an eagerly awaited envelope that I expected would contain an invitation to a beloved niece’s wedding. When I opened it, however, I found that, while I was being informed about her upcoming marriage, I was not looking at an invitation. I realized pretty quickly that my side of the family was not going to be looking at my niece walking down the aisle either, and I got upset.
The pain of this unexpected blow sent me reeling, into a state of temporary unconsciousness, and surprisingly major struggle mode. I imagined, among other horrors, that my brother and sister-in-law, with whom I thought I had good relations, were part of this exclusionary wedding plan. After all, they are the parents of the bride! Why did they all not want me there?
My emotions, with which I struggled intermittently for days, included disappointment and hurt, as well as anger at my niece, brother and sister-in-law. I was even mad at my mother, who the next day showed me her invitation, stuffed with inserts about fun events. Salt in the wound! Poor, poor me!!
So while, as you can see, I began this particular struggle far from Bapuji's suggested attitude of "receiving (it) with love," many challenging days later, as he’d promised, I was indeed the clearer, stronger and freer for having ultimately embraced this struggle. What happened?
After days of unsuccessful efforts to turn the struggle away, I finally remembered what I had to do. I stopped trying to ignore, avoid and push the resurfacing pain back down. I didn’t like it one bit. But after years of watching myself in the interest of growth, I was well aware that recurring emotional pain always, always has its reasons (whether I ever get to find them out or not); and thus, that I’d be smart to give in—to surrender, if you will—and give my pain a chance to touch, teach and transform me, as pain always does if I let it.
There had been little question from the get-go that I was seriously "overreacting" here. My response was so intense I knew it had to be about more than mere exclusion from my niece’s nuptials. I guessed from past experiences that this new wound must be reminding me of an earlier, deeper, and more appropriately painful one. If I could get to the bottom of my upset about this wedding, I knew I’d probably be clearing out an old, smelly closet of emotions, which had long been stirring up trouble from below the reaches of my conscious mind.
So from then on, whenever I felt upset about the wedding and had the luxury, I started trying to give my unwelcome thoughts, and the feelings they evoked, enough time and space for honest expression. I’d sit or lie down, and let the rush of emotions rise up from that unconscious place, and overcome me. I often came to the point of tears, which I allowed to fall until I was at least temporarily spent.
Then one day I felt strong, and close enough to the bottom of this emotional morass, to go for it. I finally allowed the full force of the hurt I’d been feeling recently to hit me. I let myself cry so hard that I dropped way down past resistant mind, into what felt like the very essence of a familiar old pain. I somehow sensed that I had reached the emotional "underground," that which lay beneath — and had been triggering — my extremely sad, angry feelings about the wedding.
As I wept with abandon, I noticed I was starting to feel like the small, helpless child I once was. Suzie had been a bright but not altogether happy little girl. Like the brothers who came after her, she was rarely seen for who she was, and often misunderstood.
We were emotionally neglected by our self-absorbed, rather distant parents, who went out a lot without us, and didn’t know how to talk with us, or honor our feelings in the least, when they were home. (My mother to this day has deep regrets about what I call ignorant and misguided, and she pitilessly calls "terrible" parenting on her part.)
Despite my intellectual adult understanding of my childhood situation, little Suzie apparently had a raft of leftover, unexpressed feelings about having been ignored and virtually abandoned, decades ago; feelings that the wedding exclusion had evoked. So, little by little, as I sank tearfully into the pain within, I, the grownup Suzanne, was making room in my heart for that unhappy child, creating the all-important acceptance that my parents had not known how to give. As I wept, I could simultaneously feel both the depths of my long-held hurt and the possibility for great emotional healing.
By the time I stopped crying, I had understood intellectually, and more important, resolved viscerally, my hurt feelings about the current wedding situation, and so much more! By giving in to the struggle, letting it have me—and its way—I got to wrestle with, and eventually let go of a troublesome life-long need always to be seen for who I am and included—and the concomitant nagging fear of being ignored, left out, of missing something, a fear which used to painfully run me, and of which I am now close to free.
Getting clear as I eventually did about this struggle offered the added benefit of allowing me to speak in a non-threatening and clarifying way with both my brother and my niece. I got to discover that my brother was not paying for the wedding, and was very disappointed about the couple’s choice to keep the ceremony small and exclusive, and had tried to persuade them differently.
I also learned from our frank discussions that the kids had left lots of important people out but had not meant to hurt anyone. I can honestly say that so far as I can tell, there isn’t a trace of ill will left among any of us. I even daresay that my brother and I have never been closer! So here’s what I got: greater personal freedom and enhanced family understanding and intimacy. A pretty nice spiritual haul from one lone personal struggle, I’d say.
Babuji put it this way: "Only when we have triumphed over our struggle and have seen the results can we understand the true nature of struggle. Then we no longer see it as an enemy but as a kinsman and loved one.
"Struggle is the animating force of our lives. It leads us from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge and from death to immortality…it transforms the animal man into a true human being and an ordinary man into a saint. Struggle is what has made every great master into the unique and unparalleled creation he is…angels of struggle let your victory be everywhere."
Amen, and thank God for struggle!
Suzanne Selby Grenager is a long-time student, teacher, writer and mentor about the art of living truly. Her current coaching practice attracts coaches, therapists and others who long to live and work from a powerful, illumined awareness of who they are. If this article speaks to you, Suzanne would like to speak with you, about you! Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at her website at http://www.suzannegrenager.com or by calling 717-938-3257.