Suffering vs. Consciousness – Which came first?

Imagine the following:

Scenario 1: You are starting out on a road. It is a straight road and there are no obstacles ahead of you. You go straight ahead and reach your goal, or destination. There are no twists or turns in the road, in fact, you can’t see anything except mountains on either side. This road is a straight path between you and your destination. You travel this road at top speed.

Scenario 2: Now, imagine you are in a desert. You are a nomad walking the sands. You need to reach your destination and you plot a path through the desert. Sometimes, you find large sand dunes blocking your path, and you walk around them. Sometimes, you find hills and oases blocking your way- you walk around them. You are following a new road, that you yourself have made in the desert. The desert has no path by itself, and yet you carved a path for yourself to make your journey convenient. Your path is not a straight one, but takes you to your destination.

Scenario 3: You are walking in a long corridor that twists and turns (like in a videogame). The only rule is that you need to walk through all the open doors in front of you. Only one door is open at the end of each turn of the corridor and you walk through those open doors. You pass by many closed doors, and as instructed you ignore them, choosing only the open ones ahead of you. You reach your destination.

Scenario 4: You walk the same corridor through the building and this time, you have been given a list of doors that you need to open. The doors are not automatically open this time, but need to be opened. You are okay, because there is only one door at the end of each corridor and it is easy for you to just walk a few feet and open doors one after the other. You reach your destination.

Scenario 5: You walk the same corridor through the building, from your starting point. This time too, you have been given a list of doors you need to open, but with a difference. Your map has door numbers on it and clearly outlines which door numbers you need to open. You are fine with this – you walk down corridor 1, and there is only one door marked Door 22 (door numbers are random for some reason); then you walk down corridor 2 and there is only one door marked Door 56, and you open that; and so on and so forth. You follow all the doors blindly (there is only one route available), not bothering to check if the map door numbers match your doors (they do), and you reach your destination.

Scenario 6: You walk the same corridor through the building, from your starting point. This time too, you have been given a list of doors you need to open, with a map comprising door numbers on it. There is one small difference – as you walk down each corridor, you find new doors that have been added. You know as per your map (as in Scenario 5) you need to open Door 22 (which was the only door last time), but this time you find your path down corridor 1 having 21 extra doors from Door 1 to Door 21. You open Door 22 as per the map and exit to corridor 2, where you find Door numbers 51-59. But your map says open Door 56 (just like last time) and you do that, and you reach your destination.

Scenario 7: You walk the same corridor through the building, from your starting point. The map is exactly the same, the corridor is exactly the same as in Scenario 6 and all you need to do is open Door 22 and Door 56. But this time, you wonder what is behind all the other doors. Do they lead to an easier path? A better life? What if your map is wrong?

Scenario 8: You walk the same corridor through the building, from your starting point. You are filled with worries from Scenario 7 about all the other doors you are missing to open. You try opening a door and you find another corridor and more doors, making you even more confused – maybe this IS a great path that you are missing out on? You stop looking at your map and you try to ‘decide’ which door to follow – your previous Door 22 + 56 or New Door 15.

Scenario 9: You walk the same corridor through the building, from your starting point. You are filled with worries from Scenario 8 about ‘making a decision’ about which doors to open. The map has been long forgotten, but is safe deep in your pocket. You walk straight ahead and open Door 15 this time, then you walk straight ahead and find a dead end, you walk back and try Door 17, and this leads you to Door 25 which leads you to another Door 43 which leads you to another Door 62 which leads you to your destination. You started out by taking a straight path, but ended up on an unnecessarily long journey.

You begin wondering, “Why does the map keep advising Door 22 + 56 as the shortest route? How does the map know? More importantly, why do I even need a map? Why are there so many doors if they are not supposed to be used? Why are there so many corridors if they are not supposed to be used? Why does the map exist? Who drew this map?” This is consciousness.

And then you wonder further…” Why can’t I just follow any door and follow any path as long as I reach my destination anyway? Why should I be subservient to a silly map, even if it gives me the answer? When I am clearly able to think about what doors to choose, why should I not choose which door to follow?” This is the beginning of our need for ‘freedom’.

And then you wonder, “I hate this silly map, which tells me there is only one way to do things. I will decide for myself which doors to follow. In fact, the door that I follow is bound to be the right one. I have seen other people walking past me, following the map. Many others have walked past me, and opened doors different from mine (not following the map). It is clear that my way of opening doors works and all others are just wasting their time, irrespective of whether they are following the map or not”. This is the birth of our Ego.

And then you wonder, after going through many, many doors and finally reaching your destination tired and hungry – “Why do I have to make all these decisions? Why am I forced to choose doors? Why am I forced to face dead ends and walls that block my every path? Surely there has to be an easier way?” This is called the loss of consciousness and the beginning of suffering.

And then you wonder, “I need to find an easier way to manage these corridors (somehow I find myself at the starting point after reaching my destination each time). I need to stop for a bit and just…stop randomly opening doors. Perhaps there is a way for me to decide what is the best door to open.” And suddenly, something comes back to you – a distant memory asking you to go through Door 22. You ignore this, and go through a complicated path again to reach your destination. To help you mute this ‘voice’ asking you to open Door 22, you turn to drugs and alcohol. You get lost part of the way, but stumble with difficulty to your destination.

You are back at the starting point. This time, your mental and spiritual agony is too much to bear. You are fed up of exploring doors and you just want to get it over with. You kill yourself at the starting point, but you end up reborn exactly where you were, at the starting point. Death doesn’t seem to be a solution.

You find yourself back at the starting point. This time, you choose to listen to your inner ‘voice’ that guides you through ancient memories to Door 22. As you pass through each of the other doors…Doors 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…, you feel regret, sadness, and fear. You fear following a strange voice that keeps guiding you away from all these doors when so many others are going through them. You feel isolated and alone, for no one else seems to understand why you are ignoring all these other doors, without any ‘reason’. You are unable to explain, except by saying you are following your own path. This voice is called the voice of the soul, or sometimes ‘the call of God’. You follow this voice and you question it all the way, “Why are you asking me to open Door 22? Why do you want me to open Door 56? Why are these doors working? This doesn’t make sense at all.” This is called questioning and getting angry with God.

You find yourself back at the starting line. Your frustration has reached new peaks. You just want to get the journey done with. You blindly follow the voice, even when others laugh at you, and sometimes attack you. This is called “spiritual surrender”.

That ends the story. To summarize it all in another way:

  • All of us start out by following a map (pure and innocent)
  • At some point, we decide to ignore the map (known as losing our innocence, spiritual teenage, falling into Sin, eating the apple, birth of the ego etc.)
  • We keep go through a period of questioning everything – the map, our path, our purpose (birth of consciousness, need for freedom)
  • We reach a state of extreme tiredness and frustration, and want our repeating journey to be simple (we call this reincarnation and associated suffering. The learning from one journey transfers to the beginning of the next journey – we call this Karma)
  • We exhaust all our physical energy and decide to follow our soul’s guidance, our deepest instincts (we call this surrendering to God)
  • Our path ceases to restart after our ‘surrendered’ journey (we call this freedom from the cycle of birth and death)
  • We finally find peace (we call this Enlightenment, Mukti, Nirvana or Heaven)

Realizing your True Self- Understanding the Meaning of Surrender

One of the hardest or shall I say most difficult concepts to understand in spirituality is surrender.

Most people view surrender as just giving up their life’s duties and trusting it all to God or Life or Nature or the name they prefer for a higher power. Surrender is not abdication of your responsibilities. Which brings us to the next question- who are you responsible for? And equally importantly, who are you responsible to?

We are born with our bodies and minds. Some of us are born intelligent, some of us not so. I shall be straightforward here, but it takes intelligence to know you are intelligent, but a far greater intelligence to know you are not the most intelligent. Only an intelligent person can know how dumb he or she is, how little he/ she knows. It is therefore easy to get caught up in an appreciation of our intelligence, for who better can appreciate the vastness, diversity and uniqueness of our intelligence than ourselves? Some of us are given parents who constantly point out how intelligent we are, in school and college – this adds to our misconception that our intelligence is ours – that our intelligence belongs to us.

Let us go into this delusion further and see where it leads us.

Intelligence is not just about our minds but about our bodies too. A beautiful woman is born with a body that is ‘intelligent’ enough to realize the power of attractiveness. Her looks help open doors to jobs, relationships and networks that others may find more difficult to access. This is no less true for an intelligent man, but given the role of biology as it plays out, a man may likely create or pursue a persona of power, as compared to a persona of vulnerability and trust that a woman may pursue. Again, all of us are both male and female to varying extents and a woman can rely on her masculine side to obtain power as much as a man can rely on charm (his feminine side) to get ahead. So, we see that our bodies are intelligent too, not just our minds.

Our protagonists above are often ignorant of this fact and attribute this intelligence to themselves. They begin taking credit for all of their social and professional success and thanks to magazines that idolize success, social media that encourages likes and shares, this is not difficult. This goes on until they age. Death comes to us all, not just in bodily form (where we leave our bodies) but also to our minds (say we get Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s). Sometimes, our minds simply age, our memories begin to fade, our hands are not that steady any more, our skin begins to wrinkle. We rush to combat these through medication, Botox and any other boosters we can lay our hands on. But over time, skin that is Botoxed begins to harden into ugliness, minds that are ‘boosted’ through drugs begin to atrophy into rigidity.

Our creativity begins to decline, whether we fight death or not. The only difference is, when we do not fight death, our bodies and minds age gracefully – our bodies become softer and warmer to look at (our grandparents?), our minds become less ambitious and easier to live with once they are free of ambition. In short, surrender to death makes us beautiful, makes our journey worthwhile. Fighting death brings to the surface the ugliness that we so desperately seek to hide.

Does surrender to death make us less ugly, less unattractive? Hardly. Just as milk boils and releases cream, our bodies release beauty to balance our ugliness as we age. But putting a lid on boiling milk, we only cause spillage and a mess, and lose our appetite for the vey milk that we boil. Then we can ask, if we are boiling milk and see it as an analogy to aging and the fight against death, who is boiling us- our bodies and minds? We realize the presence of something outside us, or perhaps inside us that seems to have the master control over our lives. This realization is one part of surrender.

We can take this a step further – for if death is indeed releasing us from our bodies and minds by an act of God, surely the same God had attached us to our minds and bodies during birth. This takes us to the natural questions – what do we mean by ‘us’? What is this ‘us’ that our bodies and minds are being attached to at birth, and what is this ‘us’ that our bodies and minds are being detached from upon death? It is to be noted here that we see our minds as separate from ourselves, our we would never use phrases like ‘my mind is not working today’ or ‘my legs are troubling me lately’. Clearly, we subconsciously realize that is something else separate within us, beyond our bodies and minds, beyond our physical power and intellect. We can call this our soul, our deepest true self, our primal self.

Different religions make an attempt to describe this – Hinduism tries to help you realize the existence of your soul through renunciation – giving up possessions, wealth, eventually your food, air and the body itself. During this process, you come to realize that however much you give up, something inside you refuses to die – that is your soul. Christians are shown this path through Jesus dying on the cross – Jesus decided to show a path rather than giving too many steps like the Hindus – he has essentially said ‘Try out death for yourself, and you will see what doesn’t die’. Now, death here does not mean suicide, but the experiencing death in the form of loss of our families, relationships, jobs, careers, possessions and the like. Any loss feels like death – it pains us, rips our heart apart. As the Buddhists say, when something is dying, let it die. If your job is being taken away from you despite your best efforts, let go. If your marriage is failing despite all you are doing, let it go. Let things die around you.

When you let things die around you, you master death. For now, death instead of being a force acting against you becomes a tool that helps you wash away the old and ring in the new. Death is a shower; death is a bath with soap and shampoo after a day in the sewers. Death cleans you. You begin to make friends with Death, you embrace change.

You then realize, Death is not always available at your command. True- you can kill things on your own through divorce, a job resignation or a yard sale of unwanted property. But often, Death comes calling when you are not ready or have asked for it. Who has asked Death to come to you? Who decided you needed a shower for you were stinking from not having taken a bath for years? Just like you can’t control when it rains, you also can’t control when Death decides you need a cleansing shower. Death is God in disguise, cleansing you, closing doors you no longer need, opening doors you don’t have the courage or foresight to open on your own. Death is your best friend, and sometimes Birth (of the wrong relationships, jobs, families or friends) can be your worst enemy. You realize you trust Death. This is surrender.

We now reach the next level of questioning – how do I know what I should do, and what I should trust to God in the forms of Birth and Death? You will never know – think of God as your boss who never interferes in your work but allows you complete freedom to make a mess of things at the office. He/she steps in only when you are messing up in the wrong way. Messing things up is perfectly fine as we now understand, for if we are going off path, we experience corrections in our life by either getting things added to our life or removed from our life. So, if we need to allow God to be our boss, we need to allow things to be added or removed. Let us remember, Death is our best friend, not the friends we talk to everyday. If Death decides to remove our friends because you want to marry someone against their wishes, let it be. If Death decides to allow you to start your own company by sacking you from your job, let it be. Therefore, the only way Death can be our friend is through keeping our other relationships on earth ‘loose’. We call this detachment, best explained in Buddhism. Detachment is what helps us prioritize the main relationship in our life, with God, allowing him to do his work. God does his work anyway – the difference is whether you accept his (her) decisions with understanding or you accept his/ her decisions kicking and screaming. Accepting God’s decisions comes through understanding- this understanding reduces our suffering when Death comes knocking. This is surrender.

We now come to the final part of surrender. If we decide surrender is the only way to live, it becomes a religion and cult, rather than a philosophical guide. Our ultimate act should be surrendering surrender itself. Do not accept surrender as the true way, do not force others to surrender – instead surrender yourself to their lack of knowledge. Do not force yourself to accept or apply this article, you are free to surrender this article too.

Thus, as its final parting gift, surrender teaches you that the only person you can control, the only person you can make decisions for regarding surrender is yourself. No one else. By allowing you to surrender everything, including surrender itself, it leaves you with the greatest gift of all- complete, personal freedom of the soul.