Solace came in the form of hatha yoga, meditation and reading all the eastern philosophy I could get my hands on. Someone gave me Robert Svoboda’s Aghora—crude, intense, rich. His chapter on karma made one thing crystal clear to me—that none of us are victims in the big picture. Whatever we may experience—good, bad, neutral—is only the result of our own past karma—meaning, eons of thinking, speaking and acting in certain ways.
I felt sure that the half-a-million dollars or more that I’d lost by leaving my marriage was the sole result of the karmic pendulum swinging back at me. Had I retaliated in revengeful desperation, as several feminist friends exhorted me to do, I intuited that this same pendulum would swing back with even greater force, knocking me down for the count.
Back to Ananda Ashram: my companion and I waded towards the bookstore through mounds of sparkling snow. It was the eve of our departure and I wanted a memento of our trip. I hunted out the thinnest book I could find, hoping it would also be the least expensive. I chose The Brilliant Function of Pain by Dr. Milton Ward, a devotee of the Ashram guru, mainly because the price suited my minuscule budget.
I devoured it in one fell swoop when I got back to Manhattan. Its premise is simple: that the pain we humans experience—mental, emotional, physical—has a brilliant function—which is to help us flower into our full potential. In truth, pain is our best friend–for it warns us when we are in danger. Those who cannot feel pain die quickly; imagine if you were burning to death and could not feel a thing!
That book was more than worth its weight in gold, for it mentioned a little known myth about Shiva, the mesmerizing god of paradox and the Destroyer in the current Indian pantheon. This myth claims that Shiva lashes those souls who have strayed with a psychic whip that unleashes excruciating pain. Why? Because while humans can tolerate high levels of discomfort, most of us cannot endure agony; lashed by Shiva’s whip, we are forced to spiritually ascend.
I had no illusions about myself; I was never a saint and made no bones about it. Even as a rebellious child, I had always flirted with both dark and light. I felt as if I was split into two equally powerful selves—one hedonist, the other ascetic. Sometimes the dark side completely took over, exultantly throwing its black cloak over me, suffocating me until I longed for extinction. But when I had worked out the angst, the light would always welcome me back, suffusing my vision of the world with fresh radiance. So yes, the concept of Shiva’s whip made perfect sense to me.
In the years since, I have confirmed for myself that pain does indeed open the petals of the human heart. If we don’t know what it is to suffer—to be alone for long stretches of time with no human around with whom we can share our thoughts; to lose loved ones in tragic accidents; to be frightened out of our wits all the frigging time; to be broke in an expensive city; to be dangerously ill and friendless in a hostile place—how can we possibly empathize with others who also similarly suffer?
To understand all, as the old saying goes, is to forgive. Why forgive? Because when we trouble to investigate the underlying fabric of reasons why people think, speak and act as they do, we begin to realize that in essence we are no different; all sense of separation begins to dissolve, and we become one in our humanity. It is when we first comprehend the brilliant function of pain in our own lives that we can finally move forward, with grace and confidence.