By Robert Butler
When I was 19 years old, I joined a Krishna ashram.
Searching eagerly for a way out of my suffering and a way towards God, I thought I had found my place. I didn’t seem to fit in anywhere else in this world and my life up to that point had been difficult at best. The philosophy of Bhagavad-Gita answered– in a deeply satisfying way—every question I had ever had about where we come from, where we are going, why we are here, why we suffer, the nature of the world(s), and what are the best paths towards God.
The mystical experiences I had there were genuine, and the unconditional love I felt from my guru, as well as some of the other devotees living there soothed my aching heart.
However, when I joined the ashram all those years ago, I wasn’t so much running towards God as running away from my pain. Not long afterwards, I realized my pain followed me there and I couldn’t sustain the practices. Then, two years later, losing first my stepfather, then the one father figure who truly made me feel whole, my guru, I went into a 20-year tailspin of trying to cover up my pain by any means available to me.
Most psychologists (as well as marketing gurus) will tell you that people are much more motivated to act and willing to spend money, in order to avoid pain than they are to gain pleasure.
One look at the pharmaceutical industry should give you an idea of just how much money there is in promising people the eradication of physical pain. But what about subconscious psycho-emotional pain? Besides the plethora of drugs for that, in recent years an entire cottage industry has sprung up of life coaches, psychotherapists and spiritual counselors, promising us everything from enhancing our income and self-image, to a total transformation of our lives.
One day, at the urging of a friend who told me how sick he was of hearing me suffer, I began a 25-year period of deep emotional release work, literally running towards the pain. The results were profound. I made new connections and got to the root of some of the deep-seated issues that had been plaguing me since before my birth. I became aware of the shadows that were holding me back, keeping me in a perpetually contracted state and began to truly connect with others.
As anyone who has done deep shadow work for any significant period, they realize that we do not “get rid of” our shadows. The best we can do is make peace with them, acknowledge them for having protected us for so long, bless and embrace them. If we are fortunate, they will once again recede (for a while).
But as my guru had warned, this material world is a relentless place and without God in the center the result for me was a totally stripped down, raw person who had nothing left to give or receive, broken to bits by the incessant weight of continual external and internal invalidation. Vapid affirmations were not enough; knowledge was not enough; even self-awareness wasn’t enough to keep intense pain from tearing at me 24/7. Added to that is the fact that chronic physical pain was a constant companion.
The more real I got; the more I stood in my boundaries defending against unwarranted attacks from self-interested people.
They professed to love me but whose behavior revealed the opposite, and the more I sought to protect myself, the more people left me. During the dark times, the fear of dying alone and unloved was a specter that hung with me every single day. Until fairly recently, I had never understood suicide. And while my spiritual beliefs have always prevented me from seriously contemplating it, I can now empathize with those people who are truly on the cusp of taking this one final step at relieving their suffering.
While gratitude lists, meditation and different forms of sense enjoyment continually fail to allay it, the only thing left to do is to feel the pain completely, and not dismiss any part of it. And pray that the unconditional love I once experienced will manifest again in my surrender.
Ah, “surrender.” That word again. But what does it really mean?
It may be that one of life’s true mysteries is that we don’t fully grasp what it means until we are forced to do so. In the past year, I have lost many friends to death. The sadness that gripped me after each loss was undeniable and deeply felt. Yet, it was the resistance of letting go of those people which caused my pain, as well as the inevitability that the same fate awaited me at a date yet undisclosed became more evident with each passing day.
What am I holding onto? As any Buddhist text will tell us, attachment to a predetermined outcome is a sure-fire path towards suffering.
Surrender is not a term of weakness. It is a willful letting go of the things that are in the way of us accessing our higher consciousness, and ultimately the deep spiritual love from which we are made. And if we do not release these things willfully, we will be forced to at the time of death.
While the body will one day fail us, ultimately it is our minds, thoughts, and egoic sense of self we must ultimately let go of if we want to experience the highest truth within. It is letting go of these things that is the very definition of surrender. Our thoughts and judgments of how “things should be” are what keeps us bound to the realm of ego.
We do not need to wait for death to release these things. I have witnessed people who have died with true grace and peace. I have also witnessed others who resisted at every step and their departure was a tortured, unhappy affair.
Which will you choose?
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” – Sri Krsna, Bhagavad-Gita 18:66
Equally evident at this stage of my life is the veracity of the words of my guru all those years ago. The Divine, of which we are all a part, and which goes by many Names, is eternally situated within all of our hearts and is loving us unconditionally. Except it is with only one meager, but thoroughly consequential caveat: that we choose to focus our attention on Him!
The saints and sages of millennia have confirmed this in their writings, but like so many writings, they remain theoretical until we actually practice what they are preaching. And that practice requires purity. And how do we achieve purity? By not running away from our pain! It has come to heal us. It has something to teach us. When we purify the vessel of our heart with that pain, we create a place truly fit for the Divine to reside.
And we have a lifetime invitation into that abode.
Even as a child, Robert Butler was fascinated with the nature of consciousness. A practitioner of Bhakti Yoga and committed vegetarian since the age of 17, he embarked on a lifelong journey to help himself and others uncover the mysteries of life. After living in an ashram in his late teens through his mid 20s, he traveled extensively, and delved deeply into personal growth and healing work. For the past twenty-five years, he has run a San Diego based nonprofit that supports three Bhakti Yoga ashrams and sustainable farm communities: Audarya Ashram in Philo, California, Sarahgrahi near Asheville, North Carolina, and Madhuvan in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. He is an author, spiritual counselor and senior staffer with the ManKind Project, as well as a mentor with the Boys to Men Mentoring Network. He lives in Encinitas, California.