After the ashram of the great Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi was moved from a wild place on Arunachala hill down to Sri Ramanasramam, his monkey friends came to visit him and complain about his absence. Ramana comforted the crying monkey king: “Grandpa. What to do? I have been retained here. I could not come there. I also miss you all very much. You have come to see me with your queens, all the way from there, risking attacks from other herds of monkeys staying in these parts. How are you? How is your family? Is everything all right? I am quite well here. Please go back and also take back these queens safely. It is very good of you to have come to see me.” Ramana’s voice was choked and tears were rolling down his face.
On another occasion, an attendant of Ramana Maharshi started to beat monkeys for stealing food. In a cracked voice full of pain, Ramana said: “You are not beating the monkeys. You are beating me. The pain is mine.”
Ramana always cared for the most vulnerable. He cried with those who came to him in pain, feeling their suffering and bringing them relief. His care for others was practical. The wonderful book Bhagavan Ramana, The Friend of All describes an incident when Ramana saw a shepherdess crying because her sheep had fallen from a rock. He proceeded to descend the 5-meter boulder, hoist the sheep on his shoulders, climb up, and return the sheep to the girl.
Robert Adams, a disciple of Ramana Maharshi, said: “I have been to many teachers, many saints, many sages. I was with Nisargadatta, Ananda Mayi Ma, Papa Ramdas, Neem Karoli Baba, and many others, but never did I meet anyone who exuded such compassion, such love, such bliss as Ramana Maharshi.” Ramana was soft and gentle, and also severe when there was a need for severity—especially with people who didn’t treat animals with respect.
He used his full human potential, including the power of his voice. Sometimes he even screamed at such people: “You don’t even know how to feed peacocks properly!“
Ramana spent many years in silence, not because he took a vow, but because he didn’t feel like speaking. He broke his silence out of compassion for those who needed his advice and, afterward, started to live a normal life. He was natural and enjoyed working in the kitchen or doing construction. He expressed his emotions openly, often using irony. When he was working with people from his ashram and was told that visitors had come to see him, his mouth dropped as he said: “Goodbye. I have to go back to jail (referring to the meditation hall).”
Messengers of the Soul
Sometimes in spiritual environments, there is a rejection of difficult emotions like pain, fear, irritation, anger, loneliness, and sadness. Such rejection can be interpreted as a need to transcend these emotions or sublimate them into “more elevated states.” The Hatha Yoga techniques for sublimation can be a beautiful way of offering ourselves compassion and relief from pain, and they are helpful in dealing with sexual energy. However, if the underlying motivation of such practices is to escape from difficult emotions, they can become a trap that keeps us from fully embracing our humanity.
Thoughts, emotions, and body sensations are the messengers of our soul that want to be held with love. They want to express themselves, they want to be embraced, they want to be heard. Even enlightened beings experience the full spectrum of emotional states, including pain, fear, missing a dear one—the struggle of human soul coupled with a deeper acceptance.
The great yogi Paramahansa Yogananda described his resistance to the immensity of human suffering while simultaneously expressing his acceptance of it: “I have had continual controversy with my Heavenly Father as to why pain is a test to bring back to Him human beings who are made in his image. I tell the Father that in pain there is a compulsion. Persuasion and love are better ways to get human beings back to heaven. Even though I know the answer, I have always fought with God on these points, for He understands me as a father understands his son.”
Feeling the Sorrow of Death
Yogananda was a very emotional person and he accepted this aspect of his soul. He was usually absent when his family members and dear friends were dying because he knew he couldn’t resist the desire to pray to prolong their lives, even if he knew that it was time for them to leave the body.
Yogananda had a very deep and beautiful friendship with an older lady from his community, sister Gyanamata. He appreciated her life and service so much that he obtained a promise from God that she would not die without his “permission.” Sri Gyanamata was sick and had a strong physical pain for many years, but she didn’t complain about it and comforted others in the middle of her own suffering. As described in the book God Alone, when Yogananda understood that her time on the Earth had come to an end, he went through a deep emotional struggle, which he explained on November 19, 1951, during her memorial service:
“This is a very difficult occasion for me. I cannot say that I am happy, because I terribly miss Sister, and will continue to miss her. Why Spirit makes the delusion of parting with loved ones in death so painful is one of the things about which I often fight with the Divine Father, the Divine Mother. […] Even though I knew Sister suffered not for her own, but only for the sins of others, still I often fought with the Heavenly Father as to why He, in His almightiness and pain-aboveness, was not helping to relieve her suffering. […] Last Wednesday, one of the disciples in Encinitas called Mt. Washington and told us: Sister is suffering awfully. I began to cry; I began to pray [He prays for her death]. The next day, although I wanted to with my whole soul, God wouldn’t let me see her, because He knew I would again pray that she stays here. […] The following day, I wanted to go out of the Hermitage; Ihad to go, because death doesn’t often happen when I am there. And I knew there would be a big battle between my Father and me. […] When I came to the Hermitage they told me: She is gone. I shook my head that I already knew. And then I felt a tremendous vibration in this place, and I knew that she was not gone; that everyone who comes here will feel her sweetness ineffable. […] I am sorry that I asked God to let her go. This is the human element in me. But then she would be here still in suffering; so I know I have done right. I leave it to God.”
When Yogananda said this, he was an enlightened being and also a mature man, with 58 years of life experience (he died a few months later). He was fully aware of the illusion of the material body and the continuity of life after death. He had seen his teacher Sri Yukteswar after his death and had touched his resurrected body. He experienced and understood the mysteries of existence far beyond the reach of most humans. And still, his struggle during the dying process of his beloved friend was so human and so fully embraced his humanity.
In his book Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda said that his heart palpitated in fear when his teacher Sri Yukteswar told him that his work on Earth was finished. He also perceived that, for a moment, his master trembled like a frightened child. To explain this, he quoted the words of Patanjali: “Attachment to bodily residence, springing up of its own nature, is present in a slight degree even in great saints.”
(Yoga Sutras, II:9)
Yogananda acknowledged the temporary emotion of fear in himself and his teacher, while also strongly encouraging an attitude of fearlessness, as described in Living Fearlessly: “Fearlessness is the impregnable rock on which the house of spiritual life must be erected. Fearlessness means faith in God: faith in His protection, His justice, His wisdom, His mercy, His love, His omnipresence…” Yogananda’s own life was an example of such fearlessness.
Some people believe that when they reach “a high spiritual state” they will stop feeling certain emotions. The lives of many spiritual teachers show that this is not the case. There are even cases of depression among saints, like St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa), who lived in perpetual spiritual darkness while performing selfless service for almost fifty years (with only a 5-week break). Her prayer expresses this darkness: “Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love—and now become as the most hated one—the one—You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want—and there is no One to answer—no One on Whom I can cling—no, No One. –Alone … Where is my Faith—even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness—. My God—how painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith—I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart and make me suffer untold agony.”
St. Teresa’s prayer reveals her suffering, but also her deep passion for God. On the spiritual path, a period called the “dark night of the soul” might feel like depression. Jeff Foster, a contemporary spiritual teacher who went through a deep depression, has an interesting perspective on it: “We can view depression not as a mental illness, but on a deeper level, as a profound (and very misunderstood) state of deep rest, entered into when we are completely exhausted by the weight of our own (false) story of ourselves. It is an unconscious loss of interest in the second-hand—a longing to ‘die’ to the false. This longing needs to be honored, not medicated, meditated or analyzed away. It’s amazing what can evolve naturally when depression and the desire for suicide (which is the desire for the deep rest of yourself) are truly honored, met, embraced, held, and you do not flinch from pain or turn away from it.”
St. Teresa didn’t heal from emotional pain, but managed to accept it. As she wrote to one of the spiritual counselors who helped her in the process of integrating the darkness: “I can’t express in words the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me—for the first time in years, I have come to love the darkness, for I believe now that it is part of a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on Earth. You have taught me to accept it as a ‘spiritual side of your work’ as you wrote. Today, really, I felt a deep joy that Jesus can’t go through agony anymore, but that He wants to go through it in me.”
The Sacred Game of Life
Emotions and emotional states are messengers from life, from the Heart. They knock on the door of our humanity and say: Stop and listen. True listening to our
soul is meditation. It is diving into the stillness and sacredness of life, being deeply in touch with our humanity, and honoring everything that appears in our inner landscape. There is no mistake in feeling what we feel. In the same way as radio waves are not less spiritual than gamma rays, difficult emotions are not less spiritual than easy ones. The depth of life lies in embracing the full spectrum of our humanity.
The deepest truths are hidden in the greatest paradoxes of life. Human life itself is a paradox of light and darkness. It is terribly painful and, at the same time, very playful. Authentic spiritual teachers know the sacred game of existence and play it with grace. Once, when everybody was immersed in meditation, Ramana started clapping his hands, laughing like a child, and shouting: “He got it! He got it!” People opened their eyes in surprise and realized that their Bhagavan was referring to a monkey who managed to steal a piece of fruit from a tray guarded by an attendant. Ramana burst with joy when the monkey defeated the attendant and kept laughing while it ate the fruit.
Both the lives and the deaths of true spiritual teachers are expressions of their compassion, simplicity, and humanity. Doctors said that Ramana Maharshi must have suffered terribly during the end of his life, but he never stopped caring for others. While he was leaving his body, a peacock started screeching. Ramana asked: “Has anybody fed the peacock yet?” These were his last words.