If you read Yoga Sutra 2.15 out of context, you’d think the great sage Patanjali was teaching yogis to give up hope. Life is suffering, he seems to be saying here. The verse reads: All is misery to the wise because of the pains of change, anxiety, and purificatory acts.
Patanjali is saying if you’re a discriminating sort of person, you’ll realize that suffering is inevitable. The Buddha got straight to this point in his Four Noble Truths. The first truth of Buddhism says life is suffering. And the second says there’s a reason we suffer.
The reason life is suffering, for yogis and Buddhists (and anyone else who takes a close enough look at such things) is we don’t accept the inevitability of change. Our anxiety over impermanence and loss causes a flurry of activity designed to alleviate suffering. The problem is many of the things we do to prevent suffering cause even more suffering. In short, we work too hard at maintaining our status, possessions, and relationships in this life.
Even if we begin to master the art of accepting change and avoiding anxiety, we still have our minds to contend with. Our minds will always change. It’s our job as yogis to observe the changing, monkey mind and do our best to not identify with it.
What to Do Once You Accept Life is Suffering
It’s not easy to acknowledge that life is suffering. We want to be happy, of course. We also want to be successful and feel safe. If your pursuit of happiness, success, or safety causes anxiety, congratulations. You’re human!
We have a few choices for managing the anxiety we create for ourselves. We can continue to battle against suffering, or we can accept it as part of life. Once we accept it, we’re ready to deal with it in a transformative way.
Many yogis I’ve encountered have a more tempered view of Buddha’s first Noble Truth. There is pain in life, they will say, but that doesn’t mean we must suffer.
Rather than get caught up in semantics, let’s look at Patanjali’s next verse.
Sutra 2.14 says, The grief which has not yet come may be avoided.
This is great news! Once we recognize suffering as part of life, we can avoid grief. We can avoid it, Patanjali goes on to tell us, by not identifying with the external world, with the chatter in our minds, or with the false self.
Reverend Jaganath Carrera puts this so beautifully in his book on the Yoga Sutras. We can tell we’re progressing on the spiritual path, he says, when “desires for worldly pleasures are replaced by a longing to return to our spiritual home, to rest in our own Self.”
This is not to say we should be miserable or reject the joys of life. Joy is also part of life. The key in both cases—joy and suffering—is that both are only parts of life, not life itself. And both are transitory. Our goal as spiritual seekers on the yogic path is a more permanent happiness, which we can only find in union with a higher power.