In Hindu mythology, there’s a gripping story of when the Demons invaded Heaven when the Gods were going through a rough patch. Almost at the verge of losing, the Gods decide to handle it diplomatically by striking a deal with the Demons. The Gods tell the Demons that churning the ocean of milk (Ksheera Sagara) would produce Amrita, the nectar of immortal life. The Demons agree to jointly churn this ocean with the Gods and share it amongst themselves.
And so begins this colossal task of churning the ocean of milk. Vasuki, the King of Serpents volunteers to be the rope for this churning process, and Mount Mandarachal is chosen as the churning rod.
When the mountain is placed within the ocean of milk, it begins to sink, therefore one of the Gods, Vishnu, takes the form of a gigantic turtle and supports the mountain which is now a churning rod, on his back.
Here's a painting of the scene:
It gets better.
The story goes that the demons held the head of Vasuki the serpent king and the Gods held the tail and began to churn the ocean.
And sure enough, the ocean began to produce... something.
It wasn't nectar though — in fact, it was a lethal poison known as Halahala.
The compassionate Shiva is implored to inhale all of this lethal poison. He keeps it contained within his throat which is why his throat turns blue and remains that way forever earning the name, “Neelakantha” — the blue throated one.
The Gods and Demons keep churning and eventually get to the nectar that they were after but the churning process yielded so many other things, pleasant and unpleasant, before culminating in the production of nectar which was what they were originally after.
A lot of adversity we face is on the journey to greatness.
You set out to crack an insanely difficult exam, you're met with failure and frustration.
You seek a fulfilling job, you start off with what feels like a dead end role that’s taking a toll on your health.
You seek stable companionship, and you discover you've made poor choices and are now suffering heartbreak.
You want to bring this beautiful idea to life and help millions of people, but bureaucracy gets in the way.
The list goes on…
Wouldn't it be easier if you could skip all this agony and get what you want without having to go through what you don't want?
There are so many people out there that take advantage of this impulse to avoid pain.
There's the Merchant of Hope who promises safety and security, touting his wares with a refrain which is some variation of:
Believe in this ‘placebo’ and you'll never suffer again.
All that's ever done for me is softened me up before things went terribly wrong. I was always playing catch up to rebuild my strength when I took this route. There's a temporary feeling of happiness when you choose to become effusively ‘positive’ — banish all negativity they tell you, which is quite impossible. And yet, I've placed my faith in such gimmicks just to ease my mind if only for a few moments.
After wasting my time with the Merchant of Hope and still seeing things go to hell, I go to the Merchant of Escapism, who seems to make a better case for his wares:
You're f*cked already so might as well use these distractions to dull the pain and run away from what you're feeling.
I take his prescription and it works pretty well. There are productive distractions, light-hearted distractions, artistic distractions — a whole catalog to choose from. Again, this just keeps taking me further away from what I set out to do. I feel like I lose my ability to think clearly when I immerse myself in the heady distractions that the Merchant of Escapism sells me. Nothing seems to matter anymore. Everything is a haze.
None of these Merchants will ever give me an antidote. They're just not capable of it.
I'm so tired of never fixing the pain - James Blunt
Is there a third option?
Yes, but you're not going to like it.
The third option doesn't involve any Merchants, it just requires that you feel the pain that is inflicted upon you.
No embellishments, no fantastical interpretations - just recognising that the poison does come before the nectar. That you'll have to play through the pain before things become enjoyable.
The struggles make the victories sweeter no doubt but there is more to it than that. The failure is an integral part of the process. To deny failure is to deny success. It’s the soil upon which your dreams will flourish. It isn’t pretty or beautiful or comforting, but it is necessary.
The pain is a precursor to greatness but no one seems to take such a sympathetic interpretation of pain. We are a culture that glorifies the wins and the power moves, but what of the quiet, uninspiring days of drudgery and toil? They are just as necessary to the victories as the flashes of genius.
We tend to obfuscate a key ingredient on our journey and thus end up endangering ourselves in the process.
How do you break the cycle?
The antidote is this, plain and simple:
Embrace your pain, learn from it, analyse it, sit with it and know it.
Work with it.
Work through it.
Stop running or pretending it isn't there.
Let it be.
To cut out every negative root would simultaneously mean choking off positive elements that might arise from it further up the stem of the plant. We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them. — Alain de Botton, paraphrasing Nietzsche
Don't stop when you hit the poison, it's a key ingredient in your journey to finally finding the nectar.
Churn your ocean of milk but don’t be put off by the poison — it was meant to happen. Separate the poison, deal with it as fully as you can and keep churning, your nectar awaits.