Sister Kiran explains the difference between pain and sorrow, why another’s sorrow is not meant for personal consumption and how to avoid making a meal of it!
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
Having been raised a Christian, the wisdom of the Golden Rule and its derivatives were a big part of my understanding about how one should live one’s life. I also inherited a somewhat dim view of my own worth and a keen sense of my own shortcomings, which meant my worst fear was that criticism and condemnation might be ‘done unto me’. I therefore made special effort to be non-judgmental and forgiving, hoping that would be ‘done unto me’ instead.
Whenever something was done unto me from which I took sorrow, I added it to my inner landscape of low self esteem, for I believed that sorrow was my lot. “Mea culpa” was my subconscious motto. Yet often my immediate feeling was “I don’t deserve this!” Knowing that “as I sowed, so I would have to reap,” I refrained from deliberately giving anyone sorrow in return. However, I was not above silently blaming and cursing the person I thought responsible and secretly wishing them sorrow.
I know that I’m not the only one that does this! How often we button our lips and denounce others in our minds. We accuse and blame through our thoughts while feigning a smile. Or we write the other person off in our ‘book’ and gradually excuse ourselves from keeping their company. We think this doesn’t matter because there’s no ‘hard’ evidence that we’ve actually hurt anyone. We feel justified in our judgment and never consider there may be a price to pay for making it. Most of the time we don’t even realize we’ve made a judgment. Our attitude feels so ‘right’, so correct. When even our close relationships aren’t working very well, we never consider that our own mental attitude has anything to do with it.
My continuing search for wisdom eventually led me beyond the teachings of the Christian faith, beyond forays into many other religious, philosophical and occult studies and onto a more spiritual path on which I have felt at ease for over 27 years. I have learned (and am still learning) that sorrow is not my fundamental lot, but rather a temporary condition which has a beginning and an end. I am gaining an understanding of myself which includes a positive, wholesome vision of my original nature; an understanding which encourages me to accept my shortcomings without negating my value as an individual. Oddly enough, I’ve found that compassionate acceptance of my shortcomings is the prerequisite to moving beyond them.
I wasn’t far along this path before I encountered the slogan, “Don’t give sorrow, don’t take sorrow.” “What strange twist of the Golden Rule was this?” I wondered. The second half of this injunction puzzled me because, whilst I could understand that sorrow would come back to me if I dished it out; whilst I could accept the responsibility of refraining from hurting anyone, I could not grasp how it was possible to avoid taking sorrow. As far as I could see, sorrow just comes unbidden as part of life. I couldn’t see any connection between what I was receiving with what I had done unto others. Isn’t taking sorrow just a natural human condition?
Gradually, two aspects of spiritual knowledge have helped me make sense of the implications of this slogan. The first is a deep understanding of the great Law of Karma, the essence of which is captured in the Golden Rule. I began to realize that even the movement of my thoughts and feelings are subtle actions and reactions, also subject to the Law of Karma.
Gary Zukav, in his groundbreaking book, The Seat of the Soul, explains karma with great clarity:
“Every action, thought, and feeling is motivated by an intention, and that intention is a cause that exists as one with an effect. If we participate in the cause, it is not possible for us not to participate in the effect. In this most profound way, we are held responsible for our every action, thought and feeling, which is to say, for our every intention. We ourselves shall partake of the fruit of our every intention. It is, therefore, wise for us to become aware of the many intentions that inform our experience, to sort out which intentions produce which effects, and to choose our intentions according to the effects that we desire to produce…
Every cause that has not yet produced its effect is an event that has not yet come to completion. It is an imbalance of energy that is in the process of becoming balanced.”
Karma works on the principle of Newton’s Third Law of Motion, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” However, as Zukav describes it, karma is an “impersonal energy dynamic.”
“Karma is not a moral dynamic. Morality is a human creation. The Universe does not judge. The law of karma governs the balancing of energy within our system of morality and within those of our neighbors. It serves humanity as an impersonal and Universal teacher of responsibility.”
Because it is an “impersonal energy dynamic”, it is not a simplistic balancing that takes place, as in “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” or “tit for tat”. This is why trying to “settle the score” does not work. Trying to get even in this way creates additional karma, or, in Zukav’s terms, “another imbalance of energy which, in turn, must be balanced.”
The second aspect of spiritual knowledge that helps me understand “Don’t give sorrow, don’t take sorrow” is the concept of reincarnation, which says that the karmic, energy-balancing dynamic of my journey as an immortal soul continues over time and through numerous lifetimes. This explains why the connection between an effect and its underlying cause is not often apparent to what Zukav calls “the five-sensory” personality or what could be called the ‘body conscious self’. It also means that everything that goes around eventually does come around, without exception.
When I realized that nothing can escape the law of karma, I became even more careful to suspend judgment and prevent negative emotions from developing towards anyone, regardless of what they might be doing. Now, however, I maintain this caution, not out of fear of what others might do to me, but of what I am doing to myself. Gradually I am coming to accept that any sorrow coming to me is the effect of an event that I myself once set in motion; that I am partaking of the fruit of some past intention of mine.
But then, the question still remains, “How can I not take sorrow?”
First let me distinguish between pain and sorrow. That they are not the same is evidenced by our frequent use of the expression ‘pain and sorrow’. Pain is a signal or symptom that tells us something is wrong, that an imbalance is present, and that there is need of healing. It is not the imbalance or the illness itself.
In our culture, we are conditioned to avoid pain at all costs. This is because we haven’t understood pain. By making the pain go away, whether through drugs, alcohol, venting our anger, workaholism or other dysfunctional behaviors, we are merely treating the symptoms and not the underlying cause of the pain. We are in fact suppressing the pain. Anything suppressed or denied builds up pressure and erupts, usually in some far more serious form, sooner or later. It doesn’t matter whether we are dealing with pain in the body, pain in a relationship, pain between the haves the have-nots, or pain between races or nations.
Sorrow is my emotional reaction to pain. It is the depression which can accompany chronic illness; the grief which accompanies a loss, whether it be the loss of face or the loss of a friend. It is the fear and mistrust which follow the pain of being deceived, the righteous indignation which flares when one is insulted, the anger that follows the discomfort of being manipulated.
Healing begins when I accept the pain. Karma is created when I express the sorrow or other negative emotion that accompanies the pain.
Acceptance of pain doesn’t mean invoking it. Nor does it mean simply tolerating it or bearing up under it. It means making a connection between the pain and its underlying karmic cause. In order to heal, I must allow myself to feel the pain, the hurt, not to dwell on it, but to acknowledge and understand what it is trying to tell me. I can alleviate the pain by taking the pills, by sharing or confiding in someone who cares for me and whom I can trust, by working through and transforming my emotions through meditation, counseling or other positive means. But if I really want to heal, I cannot deny it, escape from it, or rationalize it away. And I most definitely will not heal if I take sorrow from the pain by heaping blame, shame, judgment, guilt, anger and recriminations upon myself or others because of it. For in doing so I’m adding insult to injury, harboring grudges and resentments, and further depleting my spiritual vitality.
I can learn to accept pain and heal my karmic imbalances only when I have a strong sense of my worth or value as a human being. At the deepest, innermost level, the way I think about myself, the regard I hold for myself is what determines my spiritual strength and vitality. In order to heal my karmic imbalances I must not only understand the cause and treatment of the imbalance, I must also know how to strengthen myself as a whole being.
“Wait a second”, you must be thinking. “This is all very well, but, doesn’t the one who hurt me have any responsibility? Do I just become a martyr? Where’s the justice in all this?”
The Law of Karma guarantees that we live in a just universe. I must remember that whoever is wounding me is going to get back what he or she is giving out in equal measure—not from me, but from someone, somewhere. Eventually, he or she will unavoidably experience the sorrow that I am now receiving. But does this knowledge make me happier? Does it give me satisfaction? Do I think, “OK you so and so, you’ll get yours one day!” If it does, then it is as if I am wishing upon the person who wounded me the sorrow that I am feeling. We are volleying pain and sorrow back and forth between us like tennis balls. The sorrow that I am wishing on them is eventually going to land back in my court. A better course of action is compassion.
Let me instead think, “May they never have to suffer what I am going through right now.” Let us, like Jesus did, forgive them—for they know not what they do. This intention stops the volley and the game.
A deep understanding of karma can give us a perspective which Zukav calls “non-judgmental justice”. Non-judgmental justice is a perception that allows you to see everything in life, but does not engage your negative emotions. Non-judgmental justice relieves you of the self-appointed job of judge and jury because you know that everything is being seen—nothing escapes the law of karma—and this brings forth understanding and compassion. Non-judgmental justice is the freedom of seeing what you see and experiencing what you experience without responding negatively.
If I do not either give sorrow or take sorrow, what kind of person will I become? OK, maybe I won’t be judgmental, but will I become insensitive to others? Isn’t it important to empathize with another’s pain, to experience it as my own? There is a saying “By sharing happiness, it doubles; by sharing sorrow, it halves.” Does it follow that if we all shared each other’s sorrows there would be less sorrow in the world? Well, no it doesn’t. Let’s be honest. Feeling another’s pain does more to make me feel alive and involved than it does to alleviate that other’s sorrow.
Sometimes I take sorrow from what has happened in the past. I remember it, relive it, regret it, remorse over it. You might think this could itself be a way of balancing the energy, but in fact it further depletes it, because I’m not generating anything positive with my energy in the present. Whatever I need to deal with from the past will come up for me sooner or later in the present, so I don’t need to keep going back into the past to recall it. Many faith traditions speak of the dire consequences of looking back. There are far more positive ways to heal. Just as a sick person can change his or her diet and start an exercise program, so also, I can begin to nurture myself with positive thoughts and feelings, and engage in positive, selfless actions. This is a relatively painless way of redressing even long-term karmic imbalances.
Sometimes I take sorrow from things which are not intended to cause me sorrow. Someone inadvertently does something and I start interpreting the person’s actions and building a case against him or her. Then I ultimately judge/decide the case and render the verdict, “He or she is like this or like that”. Learning to not take sorrow also means learning how to be less sensitive or vulnerable, how to not take things personally.
Sensitivity which reflects an irritable or a delicate, easily offended temperament is a sensitivity rooted in dissatisfaction with the self, in low self-esteem. It is this sensitivity which convinces me that I am a victim, which then robs me of self-awareness, transforms my response-ability into reactiveness and renders me powerless.
So how to not take sorrow? Develop a kind and compassionate relationship with yourself, a solid sense of your own value. Heed the messages in your feelings, learn from your pain, accept responsibility for your karma. Forgive others and send them only good wishes and positive vibrations. Let the past be the past, remain compassionate but unaffected by the pain of others, refrain from taking things personally.
In every tradition there are memories and visions of a world free from sorrow. Have the faith that it will some day be a reality, and that we can bring it into being all the sooner by stopping the give and take of sorrow. Let us resolve to give and take only happiness.
Tips to alleviate pain and stop taking sorrow
When something hurtful happens, view the pain as a messenger. Notice your emotional reactions and understand them as something which you caused someone to feel in the past. Love the pain for letting you know, and forgive yourself. Send the person who is hurting you love, forgiveness and pure good wishes.
Be proactive. Be the one who stops the sorrow from going any further. Realize the excellent karmic return that you will create for doing so.
Don’t dwell on the pain, hurtful remarks, et cetera, i.e. watch your thoughts.
Don’t hold painful feelings inside. Let them out in a safe environment where they won’t harm you or others. For example, go to the seashore and fling rocks into the ocean, hike up a mountain and wail at the moon. Or confide your troubles to someone whom you can trust to not be affected by what you say, to not gossip to others or to use it against you.
Get some perspective on your problems by looking at them within a larger framework of reality.
Let the past be the past.
Shift the energy! Put on some uplifting music and sing or dance.
Find something that makes you smile or laugh. Spend some quality time with a child.
Clean out your room, or a cupboard or the basement. Open the windows, let in light and air.
Create some good karma: Give and take only happiness.
Sr. Kiran is the Coordinator of the Brahma Kumaris Centre in Eugene, Oregon