There is a Hindu scripture that compares our human mind with a monkey. It says that the mind is like a monkey—a drunken monkey. And not just like a drunken monkey, but like a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion. Just imagine the condition of that monkey! So, how are you going to control the mind? How are you going to make it one‑pointed and peaceful? That is the challenge given to each of us in this life.
The monkey mind is given to you to see how you can train it and how you can make use of it in service of humanity. If, at the outset, you were given a nice, well‑trained mind, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to develop your expertise. So it’s purposely given to you in this untrained condition. It is as if you have been issued a challenge: “Here is a wild monkey. Tame it! Let me see your abilities.”
That is nature’s way of helping us to develop our abilities. To better understand this idea, let’s take a look at weight lifters. If someone wants to develop their muscles, would they try and lift feathers? That would be very comfortable and easy to do, but will it help build muscles? No. To develop the biceps and triceps, you need some resistance to push against. And as you progress, you add a little more and a little more weight. The pushing and pulling against the weight is what creates the resistance which in turn develops the muscles. If we are ready to do all that for the physical muscles, wouldn’t we want to do that to build our mental and spiritual muscles? There is more required of you to develop your total and full potential in life.
We can also look at the surfers who enjoy the challenge of big waves. Once they have reached a certain level of skill, they will look for bigger and bigger waves to challenge them and to enjoy. But isn’t it the nature of the ocean to create big waves that come and dash up against you? Yet, the surfers seem to realize that and still they seek out the bigger waves. Can you imagine seeing a surfer sitting on the shore and crying, “Oh dear, I went into the sea to surf and the water came up and created all kinds of big waves.” The surfer goes into the water just for that purpose and to have that kind of challenge and fun. That is why they are called “surfers” and not “sufferers.”
We too should realize that the nature of the mind is to constantly change and be “wavy.” You should learn how to surf on the waves of the mind, rather than being tossed and beaten by them. Always affirm that you are not going to be the slave of the mind; you are going to be the master. Use challenges and obstacles as opportunities to exercise your mastery.
Obstacles are tests that draw out our inner capabilities. That is the very reason that life is filled with all kinds of challenges. Only by challenges can you bring out your energy, your intelligence, your capabilities. We always need challenges. We should never get disheartened by the challenges. I also like to use the example of a little seed to explain this principle. If you simply put it in the ground and say, “Seed, grow into a nice, big tree,” it won’t grow. There is no challenge there. Instead, dig a hole, put the seed in there and close up the hole and then say, “Stay put there! Don’t do anything!” Very soon, that little seed begins to sprout as if to say, “Ha! You think you are going to hold me down and keep me in there? No way. I am going to sprout.” Very soon you will see that little sprout push its way through the earth and into the sunlight.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” we often say. This is very true. Life should be filled with the necessities so that you can bring out your capabilities. And the beautiful thing is that you are not putting something into you that wasn’t already there. Abilities and talents are not put in from the outside. It’s like the example of the seed. Does the gardener come along and open up the seed and place a tree inside of it? It already contains the potential of a tree within it. Nature only draws out that potential and enables it to express itself. The same thing with human beings. We are all a part of the nature.
All kinds of capabilities are in you already. But you don’t even know that you have the capability until and unless you see a challenge. Then the ability is brought to the surface. That is how challenges, obstacles, and difficulties makes us realize our capabilities. Don’t we find the motto, “No pain, no gain,” in our modern advertising? It is no joke. Without challenges you won’t gain anything much. But there is another subtle point here. When you know the reason—the importance of pain and of challenges—then you can choose to experience it in a different way. You will not just react and leave it there. Your understanding will expand and you will see the benefit that comes through the pain. That is how we can avoid unnecessary suffering. Because if you know the reason for the pain, you will not experience it as suffering.
I like to give the example of two women who go to the doctor’s office. One woman is clutching her stomach in pain and moaning. She is obviously in a lot of pain and distress. She tells the doctor that she is in terrible agony and to please find the problem and get rid of the pain. The doctor examines her and finds that she has a stomach virus. The doctor gives her some medicine and as she leaves the office, the doctor assures her that the medicine should relieve the pain and she will feel better soon.
The doctor now calls the second women into the exam room. The woman is also holding her stomach but she seems to be complaining to the doctor that she has no pain! She says, “Doctor, I am so worried because I should have gotten the pain yesterday itself, but still nothing is happening. Please can you induce the pain?” What is this? One woman asking for the pain to be removed and one asking for it to be induced? Who could that second woman be? Have you guessed? Yes, it is a pregnant woman whose due date was the day before. So who will ask for the labor pains? The one who knows what the benefit will be, what gift lies in store when the pain arrives.
Pain is a messenger. It’s not a disease in itself. Through pain and difficulties we grow, we learn, and we get cleansed. If pain comes, accept it, and understand its purpose. My Master, Swami Sivanandaji, used to say, “Pain is my friend. Pain comes to tell me that I did something wrong somewhere.” I like to say that pain is a sort of fire alarm. Imagine if you are asleep in your home and the smoke alarm goes off. It is past midnight and the sound of the alarm wakes you up. It’s rather painful and upsetting to be woken up out of a deep sleep with that loud blast. But imagine if you simply get annoyed and angry with the alarm and go and cut the wires! If you cut the wires, the alarm may stop, but the fire doesn’t.
That’s why I really can’t appreciate the term “painkillers.” In our modern medical system we have all kinds of “painkillers.” They are there to literally “murder” your pain. But is that any way to treat a friend or messenger. Don’t we also say, “Don’t kill the messenger?” Pain is nothing but a messenger sounding an alarm that something needs your attention and possible adjustment. That is why I say that pain is our friend.
I’m not here to criticize modern medicine because it offers us many beautiful things. I am only pointing out that the theory or principle behind instant remedies and painkillers does not treat the whole problem. Often we treat a symptom or just kill the pain. For example, let’s say that you have a fever and want to reduce it. It is best to find out the cause for the fever. If you can correct the cause, then the fever will go. So, it is important to understand pain in this sense. We have to admit, “Yes, I must have done something that was not good for my body. Maybe I have not been moderate in my diet or I have not been getting proper rest. I may have done something that was out of balance with the nature’s way.” Take responsibility for the way in which you live your life. Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes or shortcomings because then you can begin to correct them.
Naturopathic doctors say that if you suppress one problem it comes out in another form. For example, if someone has eczema and they try and suppress the symptoms by using superficial creams and things, you are sure to have asthma. And if you try to suppress the symptoms of asthma, the eczema will come back. When the system tries to throw out toxins we should not push it back into the body or stop that effort. The body itself has its own intuition; it is a great doctor. That’s why when you eat something wrong and if it is not acceptable for the stomach, the nature’s way is to throw it out. But when somebody has the vomiting feeling you take some medicine to stop the vomiting and what happens? What the system wanted to throw out, you push back in.
An ancient South Indian sage once wrote, “The more you burn the gold, the brighter it becomes. Every time you put it in the crucible it improves in its carat. Our life is like that. In Sanskrit, this principle is known as “tapasya” or the purification that comes from austerity or hardship. The idea here is that the process of bringing out the purity of the gold is a purification process. It involves getting well rubbed and scrubbed and heated and baked and roasted until all the impurities are removed. It is also a metaphor for the pain and challenges we face in life. So, let’s not run away from the pain or bury our heads when challenges come.
All our adversities, all our difficulties, all our pains are there to open our eyes. But what usually happens is that we remember for a little while and then we forget, until another pain comes. Think of the husband whose wife was in a car wreck. Just that same day they may have been arguing and fighting. They would have forgotten why they ever got married, about their vows, about the love they shared, and the children they have. They may have been unfaithful to one another or hurt each other in so many ways. But for a moment, the husband realizes his mistakes and prays sincerely to God, “Please, if you just spare her and let her be okay, I promise I will always cherish her and I will mend my ways. Just let her live and be all right.” That resolve and those feelings may last for some time. But then, slowly, they are forgotten.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, adversities and suffering help us to remember what is important in life. Without pain we don’t seem to open our eyes and realize the blessings we have. We don’t realize the shallowness of the temporary happiness that we run after. So, only by getting burned enough, we begin to change and grow. If you have not gotten burned enough then all the resolves and changes are temporary.
The Hindu scriptures talk about this kind of forgetfulness. There are three different kinds of understanding that can arise from challenges. But all three tend to be temporary, until we have suffered enough and then they make more permanent changes. One type of temporary realization occurs when one reads the lives of great saints or inspiring heroes and heroines. We may read about their lives and almost vicariously feel we have learned the lessons they have learned by going through various adversities. We may even think to ourselves, “Yes, I really want to make some changes in my life. I must be more like him or her. I should live like Mahatma Gandhi. I would like to be like Mother Teresa.” Or, “I am going to be another Martin Luther King, Jr.” As long as you are reading the book you feel inspired. But after you close the book and a little time goes by, all that is forgotten completely. Very soon, you find yourself getting stuck in the old same ruts again. But that is okay. You should not give up. Keep on reading the lives of saintly and inspiring people. One day, the inspiration and the lessons will stay a little longer, a little longer, a little longer.
Another type of understanding comes when you attend a funeral or go to the cemetery. While you are there you realize, “Yes, everybody has to go one day like this. What is permanent in this? Look this was a great person, lived wonderfully, with all comforts, but now dead and gone. Yes, we are all going to go one day. I should remember those things that are really important in life so that when I say good-bye I have no regrets.” This is how you feel as you walk along the casket on the way to the cemetery. Once the funeral is over, you seem to forget everything. Suddenly, your cellular phone rings and you remember, “Oh gosh, I have a really important appointment! It is a big million dollar deal. I can’t delay much. I have to rush.” And then all the things you realized in the moment of seeing the coffin lowered into the ground are gone. These are like fleeting realizations.
The third type of temporary detachment comes when you have undergone a very intense and painful experience and as a result of that you make some sweeping resolves. There are several examples I could give. In one instance, there is the pain of childbirth. As the mother is going through labor she may feel absolutely and adamantly that she never wants to go through that pain again and tells her husband, “That’s it. This one baby is enough and no more children ever.” But after a year or so, as the baby is growing and the pain of childbirth is fading, she begins to forget her resolve and think, “I don’t know, the baby seems to be tired of playing with all these stuffed animals and dolls and things. Wouldn’t it be nice to give the baby a little brother or sister?” The detachment is gone already. But don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying she should not want to have more children, but this is an example of how the mind functions. That even when we are absolutely sure about a resolve, when we go through pain and suffering and seem positive about our resolves, they easily fade away.
That is why it is said that training the mind is like taming the wild monkey. It is very difficult to do. The mind easily forgets the resolves. How often do we see people making “New Year resolutions.” How many will be kept, how many will be broken within a few days or months. Even when we know that something is not good for us, even when it causes us intense pain and suffering and we vow to stay away from it forever, there we are again with the same bad habits repeated over and over.
But that is why we say that life is a game. It has to be filled with challenges. That is why the mind is given to you. And all the challenges are tests to see if you can train and master your mind. Normally, the mind is like a wild horse tied to a chariot. Imagine the body as the chariot; the intelligence is the charioteer; the mind is the reins; and the sense are the horses. Although controlling the wild horse is often painful in the beginning, it will eventually lead us to self-mastery and to peace of mind. When we understand this principle, we will welcome the challenges we face in life because they are equipping us with the tools needed to attain self-mastery. We will even thank the people who seem to bring us difficulties because they are giving us the opportunity to steady our minds and burn out impurities.
In our lives there are hundreds of opportunities for purification. Even a piece of cloth must undergo a lot of pain to become clean. When you take a soiled cloth to the laundry what will happen? Will the washing machine adore and praise your garment? Or will it toss and turn it, agitate, and wring it out so that it gets cleaned? Then it will get put under a hot steam iron to get all the wrinkles straightened out. The clothing undergoes this whole process with one purpose in mind, “Yes, I am going through this to get cleaned and in good shape so I can serve well.” The washing machine and the iron have no hatred for the cloth. They don’t toss and turn it and subject it to hot steam out of anger. Rather, they are helping the cloth get purified.
Our mind too must be washed, squeezed, tossed, dried, and ironed by the experiences of life. If we understand this point and accept it, we’ll never find fault with anyone or anything. Handling the challenges of life this way takes great courage. Mental strength and strength of character comes by accepting the pain that life brings. That doesn’t mean that you should run after or seek out suffering. But if it comes accept it and know that it is all for good. Then pain is no longer pain because we have understood and realized its benefits.
If something terrible comes, we seem to tell ourselves, “Oh, I just can’t bear this. I can’t stand it another minute.” If you give up and run away from the challenges of life, there will be difficulties to face wherever you go. Because wherever you go, you take your mind with you. But if you just hold on a little longer, it passes. Clouds come and go. Wait a little; everything passes away. Never, never give up.