THEOSOPHY, Vol. 88, Issue 2, January/February 2000
(Pages 65-70; Size: 12K)


[Article number (7) in this Department]

Why is there pain in the world?

Because our immortal self is, to us, inseparable from the manifested body, it and we experience pain together. Good and evil, beneficence and injustice, love and hate -- painful progenies exist as lessons and debts, from the scraping of a child's knee to the torture of millions at the hands of governments, from the loss at separation from loved ones to the cruel consequences of our own failures. Lack of compassion for the smallest pain can intensify the experience for those abandoned to it. Equally so, sympathy can be unproductive if it consumes our energies and maintains our focus on our temporary lower desires.

If we did not feel pain, however, would we recognize it in others? Most say no. And if we were not loved, would we seek it? Most say, yes, love is innate. Seeds of pain and love are planted in birth. Correspondences exist (SD I, p. 203): "Born in the unfathomable depths of Space, out of the homogeneous Element called the World-Soul, every nucleus of Cosmic matter, suddenly launched into being, begins life under the most hostile circumstances. Through a series of countless ages, it has to conquer for itself a place in the infinitudes." Just as the three fundamental propositions of theosophy provide a basis for understanding the universe, students of theosophy explore the question of how its principles -- universal brotherhood, law, motion, and the evolutionary pilgrimage, etc. -- have influenced their understanding of pain in the world, exploring various facets of inquiry.


There is so much pain in the world because we want the things that cause us pain. Like the triple-scoop banana-split sundae that tastes so good going down but half an hour later causes severe abdominal stress. Like the attractive person who at first stirs our blood so we can't think straight but a few months later leaves us with a broken heart. Like the chief financial officer job that promises power and prestige but ends up offering only an eighty-hour workweek, a miserable home life and an ulcer.

No one does this to us. We do it to ourselves. As the Buddha says in Sir Edwin Arnold's The Light of Asia, "Ye suffer from yourselves. None else compels, none other holds you that ye live and die, and whirl upon the wheel, and hug and kiss its spokes of agony." Do we "hug and kiss" life's "spokes of agony"? Yes, for it all begins in desire. As the Upanishads say, "You are as your deep, driving desire is. As your deep, driving desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny." This universal truth is popularized in the old saying, "Be careful of what you wish for; you might get it."

It is karma that brings to us the inevitable outcome of our desires. When we want only power, sense pleasures, personal prestige and profit, karma brings us the exact and fitting results of those desires. It shows us that though at first these things may appear to be satisfying and pleasurable, ultimately they bring nothing but misery. Moment after moment, day after day, life after life, karma teaches us this lesson. And gradually we learn. Gradually we accept responsibility for our desires. We begin to consciously transform them so they harmonize with the laws of life. Instead of power, we seek peace. Instead of sense pleasures, we seek to comfort others. Instead of prestige, we seek humility. Instead of profit, we seek selflessness. Eventually, when we want only spirit, truth and compassion and nothing else, these things will be granted to us and we will transcend the realm of pleasure and pain and live in the land that knows no sorrow, the land of everlasting joy.


In a very real sense we are built for pain. We are wired to the physical world through our five senses. Noise that is too loud, light that is too bright, odors that are too strong, and temperatures that are too extreme cause us physical pain. Of all creatures, the human being seems the least adapted to the physical elements.

That sensation that we call pain, on the other hand, can be necessary to our survival as physical beings. If we didn't feel pain when we put a hand in the fire and pull it out by reaction, we might leave it there and really damage ourselves. Pain is a kind of warning system that is built into us. Chronic stomach pain or sharp chest pains are examples of how the body tells us that we better stop and check things out. Something is out of balance.

The idea of growing pains is not just a metaphorical phrase either. There is a degree of pain in the process of growth. Growth implies change. From an occult point of view, we must retrain certain elemental lives on the thought plane when we change a habit of mind. The original habit has a life of its own and does not give up easily. So a kind of battle ensues between the old and the new, which creates an inner disharmony and causes us mental, emotional or physical pain. Often it causes all three to a lesser or greater degree. Once we get through the pain (a kind of right of passage), we find ourselves having grown a little, having overcome the old habit and a bit closer to what we were striving toward. The alchemical analogy uses the process of transmuting base metals into gold. The burning off of the dross or impurities in the alchemical furnace is analogous to "the growing pain."

The truth remains -- most of the pain in the world is avoidable. We constantly inflict pain on each other and upon ourselves because of our disregard for the consequences of our actions. The fact that there are people in the United States, the wealthiest country in the world, who are without enough food to eat and without adequate health care and housing, shows that we have lost sight of our interconnectedness and essential unity. The fact that we live in a country where far too many people attempt to rid themselves of pain with alcohol, drugs and sensory satiation of all kinds should tell us that something is terribly wrong. Although problems of this magnitude have no simple real-life solutions, the principles that can act as a foundation for positive change are basic. And this is why theosophy is in the world -- to reawaken us to the realization that we are spiritual beings and that our only true fulfillment in life will come from working for the good of the whole as we perceive the opportunity in our everyday lives. When we oppose this principle of universal harmony we suffer. HPB puts it this way in her article "Can the Mahatmas Be Selfish?": "...we have to endeavor to work along with Nature, and not place ourselves in opposition to its inherent impulse which must ultimately assert itself. To oppose it, must necessitate suffering, since a weaker force, in its egotism, tries to array itself against the universal law." (See H.P.B. Articles, i, 322.) [Note: For those who would like to read it, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to HPB's "Can the Mahatmas Be Selfish?" article at the end of this one.--Compiler]


Anyone going through life has experienced pain of one sort or another. We can experience pain on the physical plane through disease, from physical accident or having it inflicted on our bodies by an outside agency. However, physical pain is only one dimension, and philosophically, it represents the effect of a former cause. There is also mental anguish, the writhing over something we do not understand. This is Arjuna's position in the first chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, "The Despondency of Arjuna." From one point of view, we could say that ignorance is the cause of most pain whether it manifests physically or mentally. However, ignorance of what? In the West, most view life as an effort to increase material wealth in order to be secure or free. The continued striving for more, while at the same time keeping ourselves distracted with "things" so that we don't have to deal with the unknown, proves that this doesn't satisfy our inner needs.

Where do we look for help in all this confusion? Most, if not all, conventional therapy is superficial or focused on the effect or symptom, and in the ordinary conception, once the symptom is removed, the cure has taken place. Much of theology tells us that our suffering is the will of God and that we cannot question this judgment. If we follow this line of reasoning, we take the position of a puppet on a string and relinquish any responsibility or control over our lives. Yet, in Buddhist teaching, we are told that "all we are is the result of what we have thought" and further "we suffer from ourselves." As difficult as this position may seem to some, it puts the responsibility for our lives in our own hands.

What is the basis for this admonition? The ancients take the position that we are spiritual beings, in thought and act. As rays of the absolute, we think and act with the highest discrimination we can conceive of, and instead of thinking we are poor miserable sinners, we consciously take our evolution into our own hands and make our judgments with the understanding that we are reincarnating beings trying to understand the law of life or karma. For in reality, we are all one in essence and every thought and act affects the whole of life. We will make mistakes because of our inability to see the total picture; however, we also know that we will have further opportunities to make clearer decisions as we learn to harmonize our thoughts and acts with the great law of life or karma. Our effort then is to see pleasure and pain as positive and negative poles, and when they are harmonized, there is no pain as it results in equalmindedness and illumination. The perfected being is one that is incapable of acting against law and therefore is karma-less or devoid of any personal karma.

[Note: Here's the link to HPB's article, entitled "Can the Mahatmas Be Selfish?", that was quoted from in the above article by one of the students.--Compiler]

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(March/April 2000)
[Article number (8) in this Department]

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