Reading today of the current pope’s response to questions about suffering, and why some of us seem targeted and others almost unblemished by its shadow, which consisted, more or less, of  ‘We don’t know but we do know that Jesus redeemed us sinners by suffering for us’,  I am impelled towards a declaration of my own experience, both in and out of the body.  To declare to a seven year old, as the Pope did, that he too does not know why suffering so strikes, is perhaps more of a public relations move from a source no longer willing to further alienate by insisting on infallibility than a genuinely held theological position, and one perhaps demanded of so public a figure.

While I would not deny the significance of the sacrificial life journeys of the great prophets who paved the way for their more timid followers, for me the metaphysical position of religionists and atheists alike is completely inadequate, not to mention hopelessly uninformed.  Reliance on ancient sacred texts, bedeviled by conspiratorial editing financed by some ultimately victorious upholders of orthodoxy, and the resulting endless squabbles of interpretation and sectarianism, leads only to blinkered, dutiful compliance or blind, rebellious rejection.

Perhaps typical of the free-lance shamanism of the western esoteric tradition from which I unceremoniously spring, those pagan, alchemical, rosicrucian and theosophical outgrowths of the ancient mystery school transmissions, albeit underground, I would argue that only direct, unmediated experience is of any value in these matters.  A personal relationship with a prophet, interactions with angelic beings, contact with nature spirits, and communication with the so-called dead: all of these and more are the paths.  And the more personal the better, for even the oral transmission of such experience from teacher to student can be riven with misunderstanding and calcifying literalism.  What is living breathing process and pattern for the teacher can become rule and lifeless ritual for the student and something to be weighed, compared and dryly analysed by the historian and researcher.

Whatever our preference, it would seem to be a given that we learn from experience.  Some of us more slowly than others perhaps.  That experience can take on many qualities as it passes through our lives.  Suffering and joy are two of its main attributes.  The joy of the child in its mother’s arms, the joy of the expectant father, the joy of any ambition finally fulfilled.  The problem with joy is that we tend, through repetition, to take it for granted.  Suffering, however, leaves its mark in a more permanent fashion, and the scaring tends to become the components of what we call ‘character’.  The suffering of death, the disruptions of disease, the tragedy of disaster: we live in their midst and question their choices.

In most cases, however, they are our choice, choices we take, after advice and consideration, upon embarking on incarnation.  Some are personal, concerning the consequences of our past actions, some of which we may now view as misdeeds driven by blindness, arrogance, ignorance and the like.  We will choose to experience what we have inflicted upon others, whether it be injury, isolation, penury, or any of a dozen discomforts.  We will choose because we wish to learn, to cope with privation and limitation, and to do so with equanimity.  And as we are conscious planetary inhabitants before we are babies, time and time again it might be added, these deliberations are done in good humour, in the light of the paradise which we are about to depart.

Other choices are implicit in our selection of family, culture, epoch and religion.  Family, particularly parents and siblings, are almost always based on karmic connections within a group of familiar souls, sometimes called a soul group.  A former sister may wish to be your mother, a former lover your son, a former rival your brother.  Roles are remade and remodeled according to current needs.  A troubled life in a busy city may be the perfect antidote to several monastery or hermit existences, which may have produced a strong anti-social streak.  A life in the manic cut and thrust of the business world may be the suitably transformative extension to that of the aggressive warrior.  Priests and theologians, in attempt to shed the righteousness of the true way, wherein all others are judged by the unwavering truths of sacred texts, have been known to become scientists.

With cultures we join a project already well underway, a project wherein tribes become nations by blending their interests and intermarrying their progeny, and where effects continue to manifest from ancient causes.  Nations conquered by neighbours are usually reversing roles from centuries before, and the individuals so encumbered may have been the dominators before.  Or they may not.  But they would have been fully briefed on the possibilities of the historical process before making their choice.  As they would have also been concerning the weather patterns and their destructive potential in particular regions.  There is no such thing as entering an earthquake or tornado zone without knowing your chances.  Reigning political and religious systems are, of course, studied and perhaps noted by those who care about such things.  Some souls, however, feel that their personal progress is neither helped nor hindered by the societal mindsets involved, and plunge in regardless.

Just as those incarnating into a fishing village know that their chances of dying at sea, or having a spouse do so, are high, those entering upon a rainy climate know that they’ll likely get soaked from time to time, while those entering an earthquake or tornado region are apprised of their risk factor.  Plus, those who insist on pitching their tents in a well know flood plain can expect to be doused in the very next spring.  So why do souls make such choices?  It would seem to be attachment to national pride of place which overrides the meteorological threats.  It’s better to be British than anything else.  The rigors of the Russian winter makes man and nation stronger than the rest. Iran was the birthplace of civilization.  Mother Africa is the mother of us all.

It should be noted that incarnating souls, despite having easy access in the astral worlds to vast amounts of freedom from any definition or categorization, retain attachments to cultures, religions and epochs, and often make their choices from the standpoint of being a Christian, or a free-market capitalist or Pure Land Buddhist and wanting to be one again, convinced their new incarnation will help advance the project of Christ/Buddha/Capitalism/Emancipation of the Underprivileged/ on earth.  Agendas, other than the overarching one of spiritual evolution, play a major role.  I should point out that although these assertive observations are based on personal experience, they are corroborated by the archives of past life and between life regression research.

Every nation, either secretly or publicly, considers itself special, whatever its planetary ranking.  American exceptionalism is perhaps only the most egregious and obvious example, the various European empire building enterprises being the pioneering hubristic examples.  And of course, the civilizing impulse always accompanies such projects.  Those savages need upgrading don’t you know, and we are the ones to do it.

Small nations and tiny tribes often feel they have made a covenant with god.  Often, it turns out, they have made the classic mistake of merging with their folksoul until their devotions balloon it into some minor deity bulging with self-importance, who reflects her new found pride back onto the people, who then assume a new mantle, forgetting that  being small, by its very nature, tends to get folk repeatedly squished between their bigger, lumbering brothers.  That special relationship with god is a particularly noxious and debilitating mythology, regardless of national origin, for it inhibits all souls from exploring their infinite potential by poisoning them with the pride of nationalism.  No soul or nation is any closer to divinity than any other.  Each has its place in the overall plan.

Just as a life in the mountains prepares a soul in a certain way, so too does a farmer’s toil on the plains and a fisherman’s buffeting by the sea.  Not to mention the monk, the banker, the housewife, the soldier, the sex trade worker, the bureaucrat.  Each has its peculiar attributes and life lessons, and each goes to rounding out our educations as we spin through the cycles of our incarnations, being Aboriginies and Filipinos, Chileans and Norwegians, Athenians and Sumerians, grumpy hermits and social butterflies, peasants and politicos, artists and philanthropists, petty and parsimonious, hopelessly alcoholic, divinely inspired and doubting as the proverbial Thomas.

Suffering builds character we sometimes joke.  As a truism it is truer than we realize.  Our suffering through the ages teaches us lessons we never forget.  From the child’s finger in the flame, to the father watching helplessly as his family die in a famine, to the debt plagued aristocrat losing his ancestral home,  the scars of pain, tragedy and embarrassment are indelibly inscribed on our souls.  As are the joys of love, friendship and peaceful co-existence.  And empathy, once felt and exercised, certainly extends the complex of character traits.

But in reality character builds upon character, time after time, and the attributes accumulate over the epochs until the individuality emerges, complete and indivisible, a graduate spirit who can teach by just being and accomplish without further effort.  And this, my friends, is the true and ultimate purpose of suffering on this planet.  Because happiness and joy in the moment and living in harmony with nature are not enough.