The Best Attitude

Defying the British stiff-upper-lip, lifting the lid on ailments and exploring what can be learned from physical challenges.

As mentioned recently, after reading Auspicious Good Fortune, people sometimes kindly ask about my health, although that was not a major thread in the book. Unlike in Hollywood, real-life stories often leave issues unresolved, which can be a bit disappointing. Around the time I embarked on the spiritual life, I was visited by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) – a guest I couldn’t oust. It stayed in various forms for a couple of decades, soon overlapping with – and ultimately being replaced by – chronic migraines. Apparently the two often come as a special package.

I’m sure there was no coincidence in the timing of the onset, and by that I don’t mean the spiritual life was bad for my health – quite the contrary. Up until that time I indulged in some rather unhealthy habits, in order to escape from my own interior world. Letting go those addictive traits meant facing the underlying causes of them. That’s a good thing when you’re seeking the ultimate Truth, but some discoveries along the way are not so heartening. The journey can thus seem to become more arduous, rather than getting easier. When challenges arise, although the ideal reaction may be cheerful acceptance, instead it’s tempting to ask why they’ve arisen.

One reason for physical challenges could be that when following a spiritual life, one’s highest priority is spiritual progress. The soul might choose this time to work out the karmic results of one’s past actions, either from this life or previous lives. While Sri Chinmoy teaches the art of self-transcendence, he also teaches us to care for our physical health and certainly does not recommend we seek out suffering. But when it does come along, poor health can be a vehicle for progress, affording deeper insights into ourselves and empathy with the suffering of others.

Question: For the seekers who aspire to realise God, why does God make it so difficult?

Sri Chinmoy: He has not made it difficult for the sincere seekers. For the sincere seekers the road is very short. Only for the doubtful seekers, the road is very long. This moment you feel that God is very kind to you, but the next moment you get some blow or pain and you lose faith. Some unconscious part of you says, “O God, why are You so cruel to me? This morning I meditated well, so how is it that my body is suffering?” This will be your question to God. At that time if you can say, “Although I am suffering such pain, perhaps something infinitely more serious was going to happen to me and God saved me. God is so kind to me.” Like this, if you can change your attitude towards God, immediately the road becomes easier. You have some kind of pain, but if you feel that it could have been infinitely worse, then immediately you will see that you are making inner progress. The road is long only for those who do not feel gratitude to God.

– Sri Chinmoy, excerpt from FW 425

I was born with a conundrum. Child to a line of stoics in the old British tradition, I seem to have been blessed nonetheless with heightened senses and a rather low threshold for pain. Gratitude has not been a consistent theme throughout my years of unstable health – certainly not at the most challenging times.

For stretches of weeks or months, migraines would recur every two days or so. Combined with CFS, they made work, travel or socialising all but impossible. When CFS gradually receded to leave only migraines, I was genuinely grateful. As these followed me for fifteen years with varying frequency and severity, I admit to wallowing in self-pity or simply succumbing to frustration on numerous occasions, but I knew from experience things could be much worse.

Without wanting to disturb the stiff upper-lips of my ancestors, allow me a brief description for those who’ve never met a migraine. Firstly, it’s not a headache. While pain in the head is a significant aspect, ‘ache’ does not generally do the sensation justice. It also comes with a wide range of special effects and fancy features that have nothing to do with pain at all – more the digestion, cognitive function, emotions, vision and other senses.

My own experience varied, but the effect on the nerves was usually something like that of a dog barking in the face, while someone tried simultaneously – for reasons unknown – to drill a hole in the side of the head. Words and thoughts would jumble themselves. The vision might be as though two-dimensional or as though looking through cracked glass. There might be a flu-like feeling of incapacitation. Sometimes there was the added sensation in the stomach of riding a cross-channel ferry. An episode lasted anywhere from six hours to three days.

Whenever the clouds dispersed and each ‘adventure’ came to an end, the relief left me feeling superhuman. Pretty much anything seemed possible, and almost anything would be tolerable to me. Such joy and empowerment I’d rarely otherwise have experienced in everyday life, and I felt as true a gratitude as I know. It was almost worth going through the discomfort to come out the other side of it. Almost.

People who do not have the capacity sometimes are lucky because they can make surrender — let us not call it helpless surrender, because that is very bad, but cheerful surrender. You can say, “O God, You did not give me the capacity to do something, to perform something, but my gratitude-prayer to You is that whatever You have given me, I should be satisfied with.”

So if you are satisfied with what you have, then you can make the fastest progress. There is another way you can be satisfied with what you have: just look around. You will see that there are many people who are suffering much more than you are. If you go to the hospital, you will see how many are in infinitely worse condition than you are. When you think of your suffering, think of the hospital. Then this thought will be your immediate medicine. That is what I do. Sometimes, when I can walk only with utmost difficulty, I think of some human beings who cannot walk, cannot move at all, and my suffering seems like nothing in comparison to theirs. At that time, I say to God, “O God, You are so kind to me. Still I can walk a little, whereas so many people in Your creation cannot walk at all.”

– Sri Chinmoy, excerpt from SCA 1126

I did all in my power and imagination to overcome both conditions – often joking that I’d try anything legal – but as they went on so long, I had to accept the idea that they might persist forever, if such was God’s Will. I might otherwise have gone a bit mad.

Since pretty much anything might spark an episode – from supermarket shopping to an hour’s lost sleep, a jog in the park to an uncomfortable conversation – I saw no sense adding more challenges to life voluntarily. But where challenges or opportunities arose in the course of my spiritual life, family life or work, I did all I could to accept them, assuming life might otherwise pass me by entirely.

I’ve never been good at acting, or even lying, but I made it my mission to transcend these symptoms whenever finding myself in company. Sometimes there was simply no negotiating, but over time I increasingly learned to separate myself from them. While my peers may have been taking on far greater challenges outwardly – opening a café perhaps, or running an ultramarathon – mine was just to appear as sensible and calm as possible while something was barking in my face, someone was probing the side of my head, and so on.

The first time I met a migraine was on a transatlantic flight. I had no idea what was happening, and nor did anyone else. The cabin crew kindly gave me their rest area, a proper duvet from First Class and two cans of oxygen. Someone was assigned to take me off the plane and through immigration in a wheelchair. I laugh now at the memory, though I certainly didn’t at the time. Migraines of some degree would travel with me on most flights thereafter, affording me plenty of chances to practise behaving like a normal person instead of making a fuss.

You may say it was my good genes or the blessings of my forebears that helped me in my pursuit. Maybe it was just a streak of stubbornness. I’d often be so spent from these feats of endurance I’d be no use for anything the next day. The whole exercise might thus sound masochistic, counterproductive, or a bit daft at best, but I have no regrets – none but the few times I probably shouldn’t have been driving a car.

I have two little dogs. When they suffer for some reason, on the strength of my oneness with them, I also suffer. God has created these little dogs, but I have established so much oneness with them that I feel miserable when they suffer.

In our case, God has created us. Naturally His Affection, Concern and Compassion for us will be infinitely more than what I can ever feel for my little dogs. So when we are suffering, we have to feel that God also is suffering. If my Beloved Supreme agrees to suffer with me, then I have to accept my fate as it is.

It is not that God has given us this suffering so that we can become a better person. God does not work that way. Only if it is something really good does God give it. But if something painful happens, then God may tolerate it. At that time, if we love God, we will say, “If God can tolerate this pain inside me, with me and for me, then I will have nothing to say against it. I will only pray to God for the fulfilment of His Will.

– Sri Chinmoy, excerpt from SCA 1193

In the past year everything has improved so radically I almost dare imagine the worst is over. The sense I used to have when the clouds finally dispersed is intensified, as day after day I’m free from pain and all the other special features – the stray dogs, phantom neurosurgeons and so on. A natural reaction is to wonder why.

Granted, I do at least two hours of spiritual practice a day; I eat only plant-based, organic, gluten-free wholefoods, including a kilo of fresh vegetables and fruit a day; I walk about four miles a day; I watch less than an hour of telly a day and have nothing to do with social media; I do yoga; I take cold showers; I pay my taxes; I’m kind to animals; I try to be a good, helpful and happy person in any way I can. Do I not then deserve to be well?

I, I, I – of course it doesn’t work like that. While it’s important that we each do our best, that effort perhaps counts for only one per cent of any outcome. As Sri Chinmoy teaches, the other ninety-nine per cent comes from Grace. When we look closely, we realise even ‘our’ one per cent is Grace.

In the beginning, we always feel that it is one per cent God’s Grace and ninety-nine per cent our hard labour. That is what our stupidity tells us. Then gradually we change our philosophy. We say that it is ninety-nine per cent God’s Grace and one per cent our labour. Then we come to the point where we say, “Are we sure that our labour is even one per cent?” We dive deep within for just a few seconds and we see that it is all one hundred per cent God’s Grace.

– Sri Chinmoy, excerpt from SCA 1194

Who knows if my days of ill health are over. Perhaps this is only a reprieve – maybe it’ll all come back, or be replaced with something else – but there’s no point worrying or even wondering about that.

I don’t remember where I read it, but I recall Sri Chinmoy said something along the lines that if by Grace we have been cured of something, we must remain grateful to the Source in order to keep our previous ailments at bay. That being the case, I pray I remember to do so for my every remaining day on earth.

Right now it feels as though some part of me, having been cryogenically preserved, is thawing and being coaxed back to life. I’m trying to reacquaint myself with the world and with life – assess what’s changed and what hasn’t in the last twenty years. Being as I am in my very late forties, perhaps for me life begins at fifty 🙂 . Either way, one thing is certain:

Is by far
The best attitude.

– Sri Chinmoy, ST 41226

4 replies on “The Best Attitude”

Dearest Sumangali… as ever, beautiful writing, wisdom, eloquence and poise. Sadly I have not been in touch, also due to ill health. I have been diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune condition which is pretty debilitating. Your writing gives hope. Much love, Gillie McIntyre xx

Dearest Gillie,

So very sorry to hear you are unwell. Glad to have brought a ray of hope, but I wish much more for you than that! Stay strong and take good care, you are very precious.

Much love to you,

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