Occasionally we find ourselves in unbearable situations, and believe we are in hell. Since hell is a mental state, it is possible for all of us to visit. However, we decidedly (and fortunately) do not dwell there most of the time. We are now in the human realm, and possess a precious human life. Knowing that, we can use these occasional visits in hell to motivate us in our practice.
Progress in the spiritual path may seem glacial, but it is cumulative. Then one day (‘suddenly’) we find ourselves at a new, very different level. It is similar with meditation –when begin meditating, perhaps for the first time we notice the agitation of our minds, and may come to believe that meditation is increasing our agitation. But actually, mental agitation is decreasing with practice.
My Teacher used to say, “The path is gradual; enlightenment is sudden”. We slowly and methodically gather the container, the oil, the wick, and the fire, and only then can we light the lamp. But when we do, light radiates immediately and unimpeded.
(From a different perspective, enlightenment is also gradual. It is not one instant of all-pervading clarity and lightness, but rather a series of enlightened moments.)
In any case, instances of ‘hell awareness’ are neither negative setbacks nor rare occurrences when traversing the path. Christian practitioners speak of ‘the dark night of the soul’, and Buddhists become keenly aware of, and cry for, the suffering of all sentient beings (including ourselves).
To know darkness as darkness is necessary before we can know light as light.