Dr. Dean Ornish held a webinar on Sunday November 20, 2022 with the Vegan Society of Honolulu, Hawaii, in which he succinctly explained the role of suffering in the progress of humanity. For those who do not know about his work, Dr. Ornish has spent decades studying the impact of diet and lifestyle on human wellness, and has conducted peer reviewed studies with literally thousands of patients with various forms of advanced heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc. His findings showed that with a switch to a vegetarian, or better still, a vegan, diet, focusing on low fat and low refined sugars and carbohydrates, combined with exercise, stress reduction techniques such as meditation, and opening the heart through relationships, intimacy and positive good will, these diseases not only could be arrested from further development, but could actually show substantial reversal. He pointed out that getting “compliance” with a new routine is generally quite difficult, but that his program has very high compliance rates. The reason was simple. People who started the program were suffering physically and were in many cases looking at a painful death from a terminal illness. Their primary care physicians held out only drugs and surgery as potential options, both with serious potential for additional pain, suffering, side effects and costs. Once they started on the Ornish program, they started seeing positive results virtually immediately, within a few weeks, and this made it clear to them that the future for them was held in these simple, ‘low tech’ solutions. The impetus to their making these somewhat major changes in their lives, in terms of switching from a meat-based, high fat, high sugar diet to in most cases a low fat, vegan diet, and in systematically adding exercise, stress reduction and building positive relationships was their suffering.
People do not make changes, particularly major changes, in the way they think, act and relate until they experience some form of suffering. It may be physical in the form of injury or disease, it may be vital and emotional in terms of closed off feelings, loneliness, anger reactions and the resultant effects of hypertension, high blood pressure, stroke and heart attacks, or it may be mental as they feel depressed, isolated and confused. The recognition of the suffering becomes the cause of reaching out for some way to reduce and relieve that suffering. For many, of course, they try to cover up the pain by self-medicating with alcohol or recreational drugs, or they create a false front of artificial happiness through external, though superficial, relationships, entertainments, diversions, etc. Until they find that these methods don’t provide any real solutions, or in fact may wind up increasing the suffering, they remain locked in the old patterns. Once they reach the point where they see no way out in their normal approach to the situation, they become open and receptive to changes that lead to both personal growth and inner growth.
We can see that it is pain, suffering, difficulties and obstacles that lead to progress as the being actively seeks for solutions that are not a priority when things are going well and they are enjoying their lives. Sri Aurobindo notes in Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol: “Pain is the hammer of the Gods to break a dead resistance in the mortal’s heart…”
A disciple asks: “What part has sorrow played in the evolution of humanity?”
The Mother answers: “Sorrow, desire, suffering, ambition and every other similar reaction in the feelings and sensations have all contributed to make consciousness emerge from the inconscience and to awaken this consciousness to the will for progress.”
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter I Emergence from Unconsciousness, pg. 9