Here are some excerpts taken from Mandala Publications, of a long interview with two retreatants which I found is quite relevant for the rest of us in practice. Do read the entire article there if you have time.
The main reason we need to experience hardships is because that’s when we get to practice Dharma. When life is easy you don’t think about transforming a problem because you don’t have any. But when your life is full of problems (whether you’re in retreat or not), every minute is a chance to change your mind. The more problems you have, the faster your path to enlightenment. If you want to learn to ride a bicycle, you keep getting on, no matter how many times you fall off. You fall off, get back on. An easy life doesn’t give you much opportunity to transform your mind.
We have an incredible backlog of negative karma and the ways we experience the purification of that is by undergoing hardships. The negative karma doesn’t just go away; when you do Vajrasattva retreat the karma doesn’t disappear. You still have to experience the karma ripening, but maybe you experience it not in the hell realms but as some sort of sickness, or maybe your husband leaving you, or something like that. If we’re really intent on purifying negative karma and accumulating merit, then we’re constantly experiencing hardships due to constant purification. We have to want the hardships. If we’re doing the practice of the four opponent powers with faith and we’re sincerely purifying, the hardships are the outcome of pure practice. Then we have to learn to rejoice and feel happy when they come!
How can you tell the difference between purification and “normal” suffering? From the outside it’s impossible to tell. I think only an individual practitioner can tell by looking back over the years and seeing if they’ve changed after going through the hardships.
Sometimes it seems as if the sufferings increase and life gets worse when you wholeheartedly submit to the guidance of a qualified vajra master. But that’s what you want, that’s what you’re looking for. It’s like when you’re sweeping a house, you’re looking for the dirt and you want to get it out of the house. It’s very simple: When you practice Dharma you look for the negativities and you try to get them out through the doors of your body, speech and mind, the only places they can exit. That’s how you create the space in the mind for Dharma realizations to take root. Before it was overcrowded with the weeds of hatred, ignorance and greed. Nothing of virtue could grow there. You have to pull those weeds out and that’s always painful.
What part do courage and willingness to face hardships play? Once we find the powerful motivation needed to do something, then doing it is easy. You can call it courage, but you can also call it a mind that’s going to push through the hardships, knowing there’s something much greater. Everyone goes through hardships to achieve what they want, not just spiritual people. Even rich people go through the hardships of dealing with family and the pressures society places on them; everyone has hardships, no matter what. Actually, the courage to practice Dharma doesn’t seem like much at all because the results are so great; the hardships that are experienced are so miniscule in relation to the blissful outcome of enlightenment.
Another difficulty people face in truly entering the path is that we have to start Dharma from wherever we are; if you’re an independently wealthy heir to some kind of fortune and you meet the Dharma, you start from there. You can afford to do this or that, take teachings, pay for your own education in that way. But if you’re a very poor person with no material resources, you have to accept that’s where you start your practice. You can’t think, “Oh, one day I’ll create the ideal circumstances to practice,” and start from there, because that’s the kind of life where no Dharma is practiced. You figure out what your resources are, where you want to go, what you want to do, and you start from that point.