Why is there suffering?
I have a friend who is a self-described atheist. He is very angry with the god of his understanding, in whom he claims not to believe, because to his mind that god is callous, capricious, and wholly indifferent to the suffering that exists on Earth.
Yet my atheist friend is also searching for truth. So he sometimes peppers me with complaints and questions about God, which can lead to long email exchanges that often leave me weary and him even more disgruntled.
I do not take his questions lightly. To share and to feel concern for the immense suffering we witness on Earth is a beautiful gesture that arises from the pure love of our Divine inner nature. However, as humans we are ill-equipped to understand that it is unnecessary for us to double down on the suffering we witness by adding our own to it, on its behalf.
Even the great Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda (“Autobiography of a Yogi”) wrestled with the question of suffering. He once met with the sage Ramana Maharishi and asked Ramana the same question that my friend asks of me:
”Why is there suffering?”
And Ramana replied, “What is suffering? Who suffers?”
Ramana was alluding to the truth of our nondual nature, which reveals that although we appear to exist in the physical world as separate bodies, we are each in fact facets of Divine awareness, disguised as individuals. God so delights in the ongoing game of dressing up as human beings that, to paraphrase the philosopher Alan Watts, He is always playing hide and seek. He hides from Himself, pretending to be each of us, in order to enjoy the eventual reunion.
The spiritual path of Awakening is, in fact, that process of rediscovering our “true identity” and coming home to it. And although God delights in that journey, from the standpoint of a human being the path is often a grueling one, and at times so dark and difficult that we can only take small steps while holding tight to a wisp of faith and our appeal to Divine grace.
Here is what I told my friend: At the end of the day, I can answer your questions and complaints until the cows come home but it would be pointless, because nothing will satisfy you until you find out for yourself.
To paraphrase one of my teachers, you have to want truth more than your ego wants to be comfortable. When you come to embody that truth, you will see suffering in a new context which does not require you to assume it as your own. This is part of what is meant by “The truth will set you free.” Original sin is simply ignorance of our true identity, which must be rediscovered through your experience. The techniques are freely available by which you can invite the Divine to reveal Itself, but your free will means you must commit fully, and fearlessly, to using them.
The great yogis have always said: ”Don’t believe us, go find out!” All religions “point” to the truth, but serve more as an intermediary for those who are unable or unwilling to take the more demanding, direct route.
In the meantime, other people are also God playing dress-up. Their development is not our concern. But this does not imply becoming indifferent or dismissive of others, for they are part of us. It simply means we can act from a place of peace without projecting ourselves into someone else’s journey as heroes or martyrs. Of course we should still behave morally and with integrity, and try to serve to reduce suffering where we are able, but judgment of others’ suffering is not ours to bestow. Our only real responsibility is to help heal the whole by healing ourselves. Until we as individuals get tired enough of our own suffering to commit to that path, we will continue to create more of it.
Finally, know that if you do commit, when the truth is finally revealed, that revelation will not be at all what you are expecting or imagining it to be, but it will be glorious. It will be the opposite of suffering, which is peace. It will also be nearly impossible to express in words.