There is a wiser response to pain than Dr. Feelgood’s pharmacopoeia.
by Yogesvara dasa
YOGESVARA DASA, a devotee of Krsna for twelve years, is a contributing editor for BACK TO GODHEAD magazine. He is also head of Bala Books, which publishes Krsna conscious literature for children.
Most of the sufferings that afflict us all are more annoying than dangerous, more a bother than a threat. Even granting that physical and mental miseries are inevitable drawbacks to life in the material world, nature has endowed the body with curative mechanisms; left to our own devices, we would be quite able to cope with the greater part of our ailments.
But we are not left to our own devices. Indeed, we are overwhelmed by the devices of others: pharmacological wonders that shine forth at us from TV screens, magazine spreads, and prescription counters or appear clandestinely on street corners and at social gatherings. Drugs both soft and hard have moved out of the slums and into the mainstream.
More than one expert thinks that the phenomenon of a medicated society stems from a culturally reinforced need to avoid pain. “Youngsters are growing up that way” is what Newsweek recently heard from Donald Russakof, who heads a group-therapy organization. “They are being told that they don’t have to deal with pain in any sense, from headaches to anything that’s bothering you. It’s hard to say whose fault it is, but it’s happened.”
Norman Cousins writes in his book Anatomy of an Illness, an account of his struggle against a crippling disease, “Americans are probably the most pain conscious people on the face of the earth. For years we have had it drummed into us—in print, on radio, over television, in everyday conversation—that any hint of pain is to be banished as though it were the ultimate evil. As a result, we are becoming a nation of pill-grabbers and hypochondriacs, escalating the slightest headache into a searing ordeal.
“The most ignored factor of all about pain,” Mr. Cousins concludes, “is that the best way to eliminate it is to eliminate the [bodily] abuse.”
From the Vedic perspective, this advice is sound but the conclusion not quite to the point. Pain, like old age and death, will never be eliminated, nor, in this world, was it ever meant to be. Pain is an effective alarm, an indication that something is seriously wrong. Addicts of heroin, cigarettes, Valium, caffein, aspirin, or any other pain-avoidance agent carry their cause to a self-defeating extreme, for pain is to be heeded, not avoided, its causes dealt with, not denied.
Devotees of Lord Krsna, followers of the Vedic culture, recognize pain as a symptom of embodied life, nature’s way of signaling us that since we are eternal beings our presence in a fragile material body is a mistake and that the material body, no matter how well pampered or coddled, is simply a bad bargain.
A devotee’s life is one of moderation. While recognizing the self to be different from the body, a devotee doesn’t neglect the body’s needs. The Vedic teachers don’t advise us to seek pain as a path to spiritual advancement. So when simple cures won’t do, a devotee consults a physician.
Perhaps in days of yore it was otherwise. Ascetics would spend years in forests or mountains subjecting themselves to rigorous yoga practices to subdue worldly desires and realize the higher self within. And austerity is in fact the key to dealing with pain in all its forms. But the key to austerity for spiritual advancement is toleration, not self-torture.
Tapasya, the Sanskrit word for austerity, refers to the voluntary sacrificing of something desirable for a higher purpose. If, as Mr. Cousins suggests, abuse and overindulgence are at the root of pain, then self-control is prerequisite to self-satisfaction. Austerity in one’s habits of eating, sleeping, sex, and work requires training lamentably absent from contemporary school curricula. In Vedic education, however, it is quintessential. The Vedic scriptures describe the body as a machine (yantra). And as anyone knows who has ever owned a car, every machine has its particular needs. Abuse can shorten its life. The wrong kind of fuel will cause motor trouble. Improper maintenance will lead to inadequate performance. And most important, of course, is the driver behind the wheel. If he is negligent or uninformed about caring for his vehicle, he’s likely to wind up having to travel some other way.
Much of a devotee’s austerity, then, is guided by common sense. A Krsna devotee rises early, bathes, and typically spends between three and four hours in study, temple ceremonies, and meditation (specifically the chanting of the holy names of God, astound in the Hare Krsna mantra). His meals, carefully balanced, consist of vegetarian foods offered to the Lord. Whenever possible, a devotee eats his meals with other devotees in a peaceful environment, free from haste and distractions. He performs his work conscientiously, in a spirit of detachment, remembering that life’s purpose is not riches or fame but the attainment of love for God through devotional works. His thoughts therefore center on how to implement devotional principles, even within his occupation. A businessman may consider how to spend a portion of his profits to propagate Krsna consciousness; an artist may contemplate spiritual themes for his work; a homemaker may arrange a gathering with friends to discuss spiritual topics and hold group chanting. The Bhagavad-gita calls such thinking austerity of the mind.
The drive for power assumes a wholesome form in the character of a devotee. In his dealings he will aim for the greatest profit, but he remains free from selfish ambition and enmity. The devotee knows that Krsna determines the results of his efforts. So he strives to work well, but without jeopardizing his spiritual principles. The same causes of stress and anxiety that bring suffering to a nondevotee may attack a devotee as well, but a devotee advanced in his sadhana (devotional practices) remains undisturbed, fixed in his spiritual determination.
Because the devotee’s wants are simple, so is their attainment. In the minimizing of his needs, the devotee discovers a sense of freedom unknown to those still attached to the objects of the senses. His wealth lies in simplicity, and his pleasures come from the attainment of spiritual insights. He is equipoised in happiness and distress, for he knows that every situation in the material world—even the most provoking—is temporary, and that there are higher purposes to be considered than mere relief.
Ultimately, self-indulgence and the consequent endeavor to avoid pain are symptoms of a spiritually dulled society, one whose members receive little if any understanding of the fundamental difference between the soul and the body, the driver and the vehicle. Ignorant of our true identity, we accept anything pleasurable as good, anything obstructing pleasure as bad.
To complicate matters, self-appointed visionaries offer fool’s gold, awareness without any rules of austerity: in a phrase, pain avoidance. And in our choice of religions, as in our choice of any other commodity, we are a consumer society. Let the buyer beware. By and large, the public remains as spiritually naive as it was before the advent of the counterculture. We are as eager as ever to consume whatever the merchants of bliss distribute under the designer labels of nirvana and meditation. We are a public that associates self with sensuality, not with transcendence, a public restlessly in search of diversion rather than wisdom.
It is still the privileged few who achieve an appreciation of sacrifice and austerity, and fewer still are those who acquire the technical knowledge of how it is to be done. We are a society of extremes, as radical in our renunciation as in our possessiveness. If we’re not madly pursuing Mammon, we’re digging our fallout shelter in the mountains of Colorado.
The Vedic process, on the other hand, embraces appropriate austerity, counterbalancing our material needs with a strong sense of our spiritual needs. Devotees, while meeting their family and business obligations, regularly chant the holy names of God and distribute literature on spiritual life. This form of austerity—dedicating one’s time and energy toward disseminating Krsna consciousness—may not be as sophisticated as the multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns that push medical painkillers, stimulants, and mood enhancers, but the process brings far greater results: knowledge of the self beyond all physical and mental discomforts, a self beyond all pain.