Friday, December 31, 2010
A NEW YEAR PRAYER
It draws the unwilling spirit from the heights,
Or a dull gravitation drags us down
To the blind driven inertia of our base.
This too the supreme Diplomat can use,
He makes our fall a means for greater rise.
– SRI AUROBINDO*
In yoga, there are phases of rapid progress and of slow progress, as also phases of rise and fall. The fall comes because we are made up of many parts, each part having its own preferences. Till the mind and the intellect have been fully transformed, they tend to push us in a direction different from that to which our divine essence, the psychic being, tries to pull us. Even after we have managed to rise to a level of consciousness that is in tune with our psychic being, the gravitational pull of the emotional or intellectual parts of our being may drag us down. When that happens, the psychic being does not say ‘no’. It lets us do whatever we feel like doing. That is perhaps why Sri Aurobindo has called the Divine the supreme Diplomat. A diplomat never says ‘no’; when he wants to say ‘no’, he says ‘may be’! However, like a diplomat, the Divine never gives up either. It continues to haunt us. Every time we fall, it makes us feel uneasy. It renews and reinforces our aspiration by enticing us with sublime joy. It offers us the prospects of lasting mental peace if only we mend our ways and listen to the faint but clear and powerful voice that It has planted in us. It guides us how, after the fall, we can use our new circumstances for a rise. And, if we respond to the divine guidance, the new rise is invariably a greater rise than the one from which we fell.
In the New Year that is beginning, let us pray that all the falls that we had during the year that has gone by become, through the Mother’s Grace, the means for a greater rise.
Always the power poured back like sudden rain,
Or slowly in his breast a presence grew;
It clambered back to some remembered height
Or soared above the peak from which it fell.
Each time he rose there was a larger poise,
A dwelling on a higher spirit plane;
The Light remained in him a longer space.
– SRI AUROBINDO**
*In: Savitri, Book I, Canto 3, p. 34 (1970 Edition)
**In: Savitri, Book I, Canto 3, p. 35 (1970 Edition)
Friday, December 24, 2010
OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE SPIRITUALITY
Among the visitors to spiritual organizations like Sri Aurobindo Ashram are some dead serious, sincere and intense young people who claim to be on the spiritual path but seem to be on the verge of losing their mental balance, if they have not lost it already. The question naturally arises what makes something as laudable as the spiritual path a risky road to walk on. The risk lies in a faulty approach to spirituality. Young people who become miserable as a result of their engagement with spirituality invariably treat spirituality as yet another worldly achievement. They go about searching for techniques that would take them to the peak by the easiest, shortest and fastest route. They treat spirituality like mountaineering. They want to climb nothing less than the Everest, and feel entitled to do so because they are ready to spend all their energy looking for and learning the best techniques. They may try several techniques simultaneously, or in quick succession, with great vigour. They may go straightaway to the advanced pranayamas, or meditate for hours or days at a stretch under the mistaken impression that if something is good, more of it should be better. Then they start looking for signs of progress. So obsessed are they with getting there as quickly as possible that they attach great importance to their ‘visions’, ‘dreams’ and ‘experiences’. They try to hold on to these real or imagined events, try to repeat them, improve upon them, and talk about them, either to seek approval and confirmation, or to impress people. But instead of getting the peace that may be expected on the spiritual path, they get only more and more disturbed. Unless they correct the fatal flaw in their approach to spirituality, they end up on the psychiatrist’s couch.
In order to understand how the approach of these sincere but misguided young people to spirituality is flawed, let us digress to an ordinary young person. He wants wealth, power, and prestige. In the pursuit of what he wants, he becomes completely absorbed in himself. Our young man on the spiritual path wants to reach spiritual heights. In the pursuit of what he wants, he also becomes completely absorbed in himself. Hence there is no fundamental difference between these two young men. They both want something badly. They are both afflicted with acute self-absorption. The desire in both cases is intense, and the impatience of the seeker is palpable. The difference lies only in what they want. In a sense, our spiritual enthusiast is the worse of the two. The seeker of wealth, name and fame may at least temper his pursuit because of ethical considerations and out of decency. But the one wanting spiritual victory may be blatantly egoistic because he does not feel any scruples are necessary in pursuing the noblest of goals. The result is that spiritual enthusiasts frequently find themselves entangled in one or more of the following deadly traps.
The transactional trap
The seeker is quite conscious of having given up the usual goals of wealth, position and power. “I have sacrificed so much”, he argues, “therefore I should be rewarded with spiritual achievements”. In short, he looks upon spirituality as a transaction which involves giving up devalued currency and getting gold in return. The right approach is to simply give up everything that is no longer interesting. Gradually, there is more and more that appears uninteresting, unnecessary and superfluous. Giving up everything physically is, however, incompatible with life. But what can be done is to give up the attachment to everything – to things that one gives up physically, as well as to things that one has not been able to. This is what Sri Aurobindo calls inner renunciation. The key is giving up, not for the sake of getting something, but because one has realized that what is being given up cannot bring lasting happiness, and has no place in a meaningful and fulfilling life. Thus the dictum in spirituality is to give up everything, and to expect nothing.
The scholastic trap
The person reads a lot of spiritual literature. He finds so much of it that eventually devouring spiritual books becomes his major occupation, 24 X 7. Because of his passionate involvement in the subject, his reading speed is phenomenal, memory incredible, and even his comprehension may be admirable. Because of his vast theoretical knowledge, he assumes that now he has become deeply spiritual.
Spirituality is not the same as filling the head with spiritual facts. Spirituality may or may not be associated with mental knowledge; what is indispensable to spirituality is practice and experience. Knowledge may sometimes act as a trigger for spiritual progress by arousing the curiosity of the seeker. But if the focus remains on acquiring more and more knowledge at the mental level, knowledge may become a barrier on the path of spiritual growth in at least two ways. First, the person may start treating knowledge as a substitute for experience. Secondly, knowledge at the level of the intellect might make a person critical, less open, and distract him from genuine spiritual inquiry by directing the attention to too many irrelevant questions. As the Mother has said, “the mind is incapable of judging spiritual things… … in order to proceed on the path, it is absolutely indispensable to abstain from all mental opinion and reaction” (1).
The signboard trap
Soon after embarking on the path, the person gets trapped in the superficial and visible signs associated with spiritual life. For example, he may start observing regular ritualistic fasts, adopt fad diets, observe long periods of silence, dress up in saffron or white, and chant incessantly, keeping count of the chants using a rosary. He may impose on himself a rigid routine and a punishing schedule, filling up every hour of the day and night with something that he considers clearly and visibly spiritual. The result is that he stands out in a crowd, and has time for little else except doing things which are necessary for him, because he is ‘spiritual’. Although he is very busy doing one thing after another, and lives like a machine, he lives only for himself.
This type of engagement with spirituality only boosts the pride of the seeker without leading to any real progress. Spirituality is primarily about an inner change, which may get reflected in a few outer signs, but which must get reflected in outer life. Unless the outer life is filled with greater love, compassion, giving, caring and sharing, merely displaying the signs and symbols of ‘spirituality’ does not make a person spiritual.
The school-leaving certificate (SLC) trap
The person might have seen a beam of light, or heard an encouraging voice during meditation. Or, he might have experienced a rush of energy as a result of some practices calculated to open up the charkas or awaken the kundalini. The person is ecstatic about what has happened to him. He starts imagining how much of bliss lies untapped at the summit. He gets greedy, and wants more and more, as fast as possible. He behaves like a child who has just received a school-leaving certificate, and is now in a hurry to get a Ph.D. as soon as possible. The spiritual enthusiast now engages in a sort of spiritual engineering to repeat his experiences, to hold on to experiences, and to climb towards the peak experience.
The right approach is to take the experiences as an indicator of the immense love of the Divine. It is through Divine Grace rather than personal effort that the seeker has received some encouragement in the form of these experiences. To negotiate the long way to the summit also Divine Grace will be much more important than personal effort. The seeker may continue his efforts, and trust that the Divine will take care of his progress in Its way and Its time. Therefore, the dictum is to continue walking the path, and to continue seeking the guidance and grace of the Divine. The walk itself is blissful; why then be in a hurry to scale the summit?
The misplaced curiosity trap
Drifting into spirituality with the relatively simple aims of pursuing something of lasting value, something useful to others, or something better than joining the rat race, some young people get distracted by the futile search for answers to irrelevant questions. They want to know more and more about life after death, rebirth, past life regression, or forecasting the future. They start resolving the apparent discrepancies in the karma theory. They want to know whether an evil man can be reborn as an animal. They want to know whether it is possible to communicate with the dead. They want to know whether some yogis can really do without food, air or sleep, and if so, why and how. They want to know whether yoga can help in conquering death. The result is that they are lost in a maze. These are not good points to begin forays into spirituality. From the spiritual point of view, these explorations are fruitless at best; sometimes they can even be dangerous. Life on earth is for growing in consciousness, not for forcing the Divine to reveal what It has chosen to conceal from us for our own good. Growing in consciousness means a change in our picture of reality from one based on multiplicity and division towards that based on oneness and unity. This inner change should get reflected in our outer life. That is the essence of spirituality.
The grandiose trap
Some seekers pass through a confusing and risky stage that Sri Aurobindo has described as the intermediate zone.* This is a stage between the physical and spiritual realms, and lacks the firm foothold of both. The seeker thinks that he has realized much more than he actually has. At this stage the person is vulnerable to exploitation by negative forces in the occult worlds. By unwittingly giving his consent to such exploitation, the person exposes himself to great risks. The person may go totally astray, or may stay permanently in the intermediate zone without any aspiration to progress further. Sri Aurobindo asserts that safety lies in attending to psychic and spiritual development before entry into the occult regions.
The intermediate zone is not an inevitable stage on the spiritual path. The risk of passing through this stage is increased by excessive hurry and eagerness, letting the emotional and mental parts of the being lead the sadhana, and an exaggerated confidence in one’s ability to do it either on one’s own or with the help of the ‘Divine’, as erroneously visualized by the seeker. While passing through the intermediate zone, it is important not to get attached to the lesser truths of this stage. The risks of the intermediate zone can be avoided by sincerity, humility, being calm and patient, letting the psychic being lead the sadhana, and by seeking the guidance of a guru. As Sri Aurobindo has said, “It is idle for anyone to expect that he can follow this road far, – much less go to the end by his own inner strength and knowledge without the true aid or influence…. All work here must be done in a spirit of acceptance, discipline and surrender, not with personal demands and conditions, but with a vigilant conscious submission to control and guidance” (2).
The greatness trap
The seeker is not sure whether he has reached the summit, but he has convinced himself that at least he is one notch above the rest of humanity. This is a very subtle trap, to which even experienced and sober seekers are not immune. It is a trap that people around the seeker strengthen by admiring him to the point of worshipping him. Experienced seekers may be a victim of this trap, but often manage to hide their vanity behind superficial humility. But young and volatile seekers who fall for this trap flaunt their arrogance with abandon. They miss no occasion to talk about how immune they are to heat and cold, hunger and thirst, pain and suffering. They look upon ordinary suffering humanity with a mixture of pity and disdain. On one hand, they are angry at the world for not doing what they have done. On the other hand, they are quite convinced that stupid humanity (with rare exceptions like themselves) is incapable of following their example. They are also proud to talk about their personal acquaintance with many renowned persons on the spirituality circuit, and enjoy comparing one with the other, and in the process end up talking about not only the strengths but also the flaws and weaknesses (as perceived by them) of these luminaries whom other people might have seen only on the TV. If they have read a lot, and are also a victim of the scholastic trap, so much the worse. Then they have a tendency to analyse spiritual books in hair-splitting detail. If they attend a discourse, they ask questions, either to show off their knowledge or to find faults with the speaker. They itch for discussions on spiritual topics, and if they do get (or create) such an opportunity, they are quick to argue in order to prove the other person wrong.
The right approach is to be grateful for whatever progress has been made, and to realize how much more remains to be done as compared to what has been done. Comparisons are also unfair because we are all fellow travelers on the same spiritual journey, and are manifestations of the same Divine. The following celebrated quote from James Adams applies as much to spiritual seekers as to the rest: “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill behaves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.”
The greatest difficulty for the spiritual enthusiast probably originates in the glimpses of suprasensory reality that he might experience. Spiritual experiences are not an achievement to discuss, share or boast about. Spiritual experiences widen, deepen and raise the consciousness, and this change should be reflected in outer life, making the person more considerate, compassionate and contented. Further, one should not talk about these experiences. As the Mother has said, “It is a very well-known fact that one has never to speak of one’s spiritual experiences, if one were not to see vanishing in a moment the energy accumulated in an experience which is meant to hasten one’s progress” (3). Another common wasteful distraction is searching for miracles. Ordinary life is itself a miracle – no other miracles are necessary for inspiring faith in the omnipotence of the Divine. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have repeatedly emphasized that the aspiration for spiritual growth should be sincere and constant; it may even be intense, but it should not be impatient. The distinction that Sri Aurobindo has made between straining and concentration is also relevant here. He wrote in a letter, “Straining implies an over-eagerness and violence of effort, while concentration is in its nature quiet and steady. If there is restlessness or over-eagerness, then that is not concentration” (4). Obviously, concentration helps, but straining hinders spiritual growth. Anxiety and restlessness are an expression of the ego. Ego is a product of the dividing consciousness. It divides the individual from the rest of the creation. In contrast, spirituality breaks the dividing barrier. Spirituality unites the individual with the rest of the creation. Hence the acute self-absorption that afflicts misguided spiritual enthusiasts cannot take them towards the spiritual consciousness that they seek. Instead of getting obsessed with spiritual growth, it is much better to follow one of the simplest pieces of advice that the Mother has given: “Be simple, Be happy, Remain quiet, Do your work as well as you can, Keep yourself always open towards me – This is all that is asked from you” (5).
1. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother On Education. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1956, p. 125.
2. Sri Aurobindo. The Riddle of this World. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 6th Edition, 1973, p. 44.
3. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother On Education. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1956, p. 150.
4. The Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1993, p. 156.
5. The Science of Living: A Simple Programme. Words of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2006, p. 1.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
If we go back to the times when the material universe did not exist, the only ‘thing’ that existed was God. God was a non-material entity, but was everywhere (omnipresent), all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient). According to the spiritual philosophy called Vedanta, when God chose to manifest in a material form, the result was the creation of the material universe. Since the material creation is just another form of the all-knowing or supremely conscious God, the Supreme Consciousness of the Creator is hidden in all creation. However, different forms of creation express the Supreme Consciousness to varying degrees. Non-living things express so little of it that they seem unconscious. Primitive forms of life express a little more of it. Animals with a mind express still more of it. Human beings, by far, express more of it than any other animal. But even human consciousness is only a very small fraction of the Supreme Consciousness. However, human consciousness is unique in having the capability of undergoing remarkable growth over a lifetime. Thus, a human being need not die with the same level of consciousness with which he is born. Yoga and other similar disciplines accelerate the growth of consciousness. A few rare individuals grow so much in consciousness in a lifetime that their consciousness approaches Supreme Consciousness itself. Such a person lives with a sort of double vision. Like everybody else, he is aware of what he can see or hear. In addition, he is aware of the Spirit of the Divine within everything animate and inanimate. His awareness includes also the unseen hand of the Divine behind all happenings. All his outer actions are also moulded by this higher, wider and deeper awareness, or as Sri Aurobindo says, he acquires the nature of the Divine. The consciousness of this person may be spelt with a capital ‘C’. Apparently just a change from ‘c’ to ‘C’, and yet what a great difference it is!
(From a work in progress: Timeless Wisdom in Small Doses)
Friday, September 17, 2010
NO MORE STRESS TO MANAGE
The spiritual worldview is an in infallible tool for eradication of stress because it places the control for removing stress entirely in our own hands. Fulfillment of a desire is not always in our hands, but overcoming it is. Controlling somebody’s behaviour is not in our hands, but responding to it the way we like is. Getting love is not in our hands, but giving love always is. Overcoming an illness is not always in our hands, but not being miserable due to the illness is. Nobody can stop us from looking at things the way we like. That is one freedom nobody can take away from us.
(From a work in progress: Timeless Wisdom in Small Doses)
Saturday, September 11, 2010
IS STRESS INEVITABLE?
It may be natural to ask whether human beings are doomed to suffer because of the mismatch between their stress and the stress response. Fortunately, the suffering is not inevitable, because human beings have also been given the mental ability to think and go to the root cause of the stress. Human beings suffer because their egos make them self-opinionated and selfish. Human beings suffer because their desires are endless. Human beings suffer because they are worried and insecure about the future. Animals have none of these problems. Human beings do not have to descend to the level of animals to overcome stress. Instead, human beings should use their capacity to rise to a higher level, at which also all the so-called human problems disappear. Viewed from that higher plane, the ego barriers dissolve, desires boil down to basic needs, and faith transfers the burden of the future to the Divine. Rising to a higher level of consciousness needs realizing our inherent divinity, and manifesting more of it than we generally do. The tragedy of man is that he is half animal and half divine – neither here nor there. That is what makes man the most miserable creature on earth. The glory of man is that he does not have to stay where he is. He has the capacity to use life to rise in consciousness, and rise in consciousness to enjoy life. Thus, physiologically, stress is inevitable; but spiritually, stress is unnecessary. The sooner the deeper truths of existence are understood, the greater is the ascent in a lifetime, and longer is the life spent in peace and joy. Life has been compared to a cup of tea in which the sugar has not been stirred. It is sometimes only towards the bottom of the cup that one discovers the sugar, and regrets not having taken the trouble to stir up the tea. In the same way, instead of going on living a life full of stress under the illusion that stress is unavoidable, it is better to stir up life and discover its sweetness. Life is difficult, life may even seem unfair, but life can be beautiful.
(From a work in progress: Timeless Wisdom in Small Doses)
Sunday, August 15, 2010
THE MASTER'S WORD AND OUR HOMEWORK
‘The word’ that Sri Aurobindo gave the world is difficult to encapsulate in one paragraph. It was nothing short of a prescription for ‘the remaking of man’, to borrow an expression from Alexis Carrel’s Man, the Unknown. In the Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo worked out a powerful synthesis of all the major traditional schools of yoga, retaining the central principles of each without the rigidities or superfluities of any. In the Essays on the Gita, he saw the Gita in one sweep, the way few others have. Instead of analyzing the Gita verse by verse, Sri Aurobindo synthesized the three paths of the Gita into one, and demonstrated how it is impossible not to walk all the three after walking on any one of the three long enough and sincerely enough. In The Life Divine, he solved the riddle of existence. Although based on Vedanta, his approach was universal and non-denominational. Although based on his personal experience of the Divine, he has spoken almost entirely in the third person. Although he has brought out the limitation of reason, he has used incisive reasoning to do so! Being an impartial and sympathetic explorer of all aspects of truth, he has looked at the Truth from all angles. He has discussed even points of view different from his own at length, and justified them better than the proponents of those points of view could have themselves done, before demolishing them systematically. The result is that he does not leave any question unanswered, or any doubt unresolved. Reading The Life Divine is a humbling experience, a transforming influence. In the Gita, Arjuna becomes a devotee after receiving the knowledge of the Supreme Secret from Krishna. The same thing happens to the reader of The Life Divine. As a corollary to the knowledge received, he becomes a devotee. In The Secret of the Veda, Sri Aurobindo uncovers the symbolism of the Vedas. Using scholarly analysis of the etymology of words, profound logic, and his exceptional spiritual capacity, he brings out the deeper meanings of the apparently meaningless Vedic expressions and rituals. In The Foundations of Indian Culture, he establishes the justification for India’s role as the spiritual guru to the world. He does not deny the backwardness of the country at the time of writing (the early twentieth century), but makes the important point that a culture cannot be judged on the basis of its most decadent phase. Whether it is discussion of art, literature, social life, or religion of India, the thread that runs all through is that the Indian culture emphasizes a rich life, a full life, a multi-faceted life, a balanced and harmonious life, but every aspect of life here has a spiritual orientation, and is linked to the ultimate goal of life, which is spiritual growth. Thus Indian spirituality is not an otherworldly spirituality; it does not place spirituality in a compartment clearly demarcated from worldly life. In India, spirituality has an all-pervasive overriding presence in everyday life. In The Human Cycle, Sri Aurobindo has traced the psychological basis of the cyclic process through which societies pass. We can see clearly today that the world is passing through a transition from the age of reason towards a subjective age striving to overcome the limitations of reason, as predicted by Sri Aurobindo a hundred years ago. In The Ideal of Human Unity, he went into the history of formation of large aggregates such as the nation state and empires, and the reasons for their repeated collapse. He has also discussed the future possibility of a world union, the obstacles that will be encountered in the realization of the possibility, and the unsuccessful experiments that are likely to be made before we realize that the only durable basis for such a union is a psychological unity based on the spiritual oneness of mankind. Sri Aurobindo’s integral philosophy that runs through all his works forms the basis of a complete and ideal system of psychology and a system of education. Integral education seeks not only the clichéd all-round development of the individual but also includes the development of that inner monitor in-built in each one of us that enables us to make the choices in life that make life fulfilling and meaningful. Ignoring the inner monitor (called the psychic being by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother) leads to uneasiness, and listening to it gives us immense joy and lasting mental peace. The citizens of tomorrow appreciating the value of this joy in life, in contrast with the so-called happiness dependent on external circumstances, is the surest basis of a sane society. That integral education can be translated into practice was shown by the Mother in the school that she started in the Ashram at Puducherrry, and the experiment has been repeated since in several integral schools. Finally, Sri Aurobindo’s integral philosophy is couched in terms of evolution. He had visualized a hundred years ago that we are on the threshold of an evolutionary crisis. In the next evolutionary leap, mental man must give way to a supramental being – a necessity, potentiality and inevitability that many other noted thinkers have also lately hinted at.
Such then is a glimpse of the word that the Master spoke to the world. There is hardly any subject under the sun that he did not touch, and he gave everything he touched a unique timeless orientation. Following the publication of the Arya were decades of sadhana by the Master and the Mother aimed at the descent of the supramental on earth. The call was answered on 29 February 1956. However, for the effects of the descent to be visible and significant, we have to be ready. Our getting ready means that we examine everything we do in terms of the effect it will have on the level of our consciousness. Raising the level of consciousness is no longer just an individual pursuit for individual fulfillment. It has implications for the level of consciousness of the human race, the consciousness of our planet. It needs a critical mass of people to be at a very high level of consciousness for the supramental descent to have a perceptible impact on human affairs. Making our contribution to this critical mass is our homework. It is for this homework that the Mother asked mankind: “Are you ready?”
(August 15 is Sri Aurobindo's Birthday, and also the Independence Day of India)
Thursday, August 5, 2010
What is important to realize is that austerities are not a virtue in themselves. They involve giving up the lower for the sake of a higher goal. The motive behind the austerities is at least as important as the austerities. If the austerities are treated as a virtue in themselves, they may lead not only to needless suffering but also arrogance. Greater the self-imposed torture, greater may be the arrogance. Further, total denial is sometimes easier than moderation. Based on these principles, the Mother has talked of austerities involving different parts of the being. Physical austerity includes appropriate exercise for the body; diet, which is healthy and just right in quantity; good quality sleep, which is also just adequate in duration; work, done with interest and dedication; and sexual continence. Emotional austerity involves purification and refinement of emotions to an extent that they translate into enthusiasm and dynamism of action. The emotion of love should be retained but the love should be universal, unconditional, and should not expect anything in return. Mental austerity should consist of speaking only as much as is necessary. Restraining speech throughout the day is more difficult but also more fruitful than observing total silence for twenty minutes a day. These austerities are based on treating the body and life on earth as manifestations of the Divine. In turn, austerities can make it easier to appreciate that the body and life on earth are manifestations of the Divine.
(From a work-in-progress: Timeless Wisdom in Small Doses)
Sunday, June 27, 2010
THE DRIVING SCHOOL CALLED YOGA
Life is a journey, and as in any journey at least three elements are involved: the driver, the destination and the vehicle. We, the drivers, often neither know ourselves well, nor do we take enough care to keep ourselves fit to drive. If we ask a young person what his goal in life is, the typical answer is in terms of what he would like to become: a doctor, an engineer, a teacher, a manager, etc. Many young people, however, frankly declare that their goal is to make money: as much of it and as quickly as possible, any-which-how. If it is legitimate to view the goal of life in terms of worldly ambitions, all those who are able to realize their ambitions should be happy and feel fulfilled. Why then the realization of ambitions does not guarantee happiness? The flaw lies in mistaking the vehicle for the destination. So many lives combine an unfit driver with total ignorance of the rules of the road, the map and the destination. No wonder, even the best of vehicles get smashed.
No matter what the driver chooses as the goal of life, the first requirement is that he should be fit. For this, some of the basic requirements are the right type of food in the right quantity, moderate physical activity, adequate sleep, and keeping away from harmful substances such as tobacco and alcohol. The body and the mind being closely connected, a person cannot be truly healthy unless the mind is also at peace. Yoga is a time-tested system for improving the fitness of the driver.
Now that we have a driver who is physically fit, emotionally stable and intellectually agile, let us have a look at the vehicle. On the journey of life, our vehicle consists of the conditions and circumstances of life. The work that we do constitutes one part of the vehicle; the other part is made up of the people in our lives – in the family and at the workplace. Theoretically, any vehicle is good enough provided we know which way to go. However, there are good and bad vehicles in life. Generally speaking, noble professions such as teaching and health care professions are among the best vehicles. But a deeper understanding of life justifies neither the prevailing intense preoccupation with the vehicle nor the common criteria for judging the vehicles.
Finally we turn to the road map, the rules of the road, and the destination. Life is uncharted territory, and nobody can give us a roadmap in advance. Countless people and events that fill our days form the road map. Part of it may be pre-destined, but we also have a freewill that can alter the map. We can use the freewill to follow the rules, or to break the rules of life. Depending upon that, the road map changes, and the route that will take us towards the destination may get simpler or more winding and tortuous. The spiritual philosophy underlying yoga tells us our destination and also how to construct freeways to our destination. In that sense, yoga is a driving school. The crux of what yoga tells us is about making the right choices in life. We may make choices at the level of the body (to keep it strong), at the emotional level (pursuing what feels good), or at the level of the intellect (doing what is logical). Man is a complex being, whose different parts are at war with one another. The body needs exercise, but we may remain sedentary because that feels better; the body needs sleep and sleeping also feels good, but we may choose to work late because hard work may win us a promotion at the workplace. Conflicts between the emotions and the intellect are the most troublesome. Logic often tells us that what feels good may not be good in the long run, may be at the cost of a long-term important goal, or may not be ethically sound. In such conflicts, we do not always pay heed to logic; instead, the emotions exploit the intellect and we end up inventing reasons to justify what feels good. However, there is a part of the being, deep within, which is the best guide to making choices. It is variously called the inner voice, or the voice of the soul; Sri Aurobindo calls it the voice of the psychic being. Choices made at the level of the psychic being are characterized by loving, giving, caring and sharing. These choices may lead to a material loss, but they still give us intense joy. On the other hand, neglecting the faint whisper of the psychic being invariably leads to a sense of uneasiness. Let us examine how some vehicles are better than others in letting us make choices based on the voice of the psychic being, and how having a good vehicle is not enough for making the right choices. A doctor or nurse have in their patients, and a teacher has in her students, a steady stream of strangers on whom they can shower their love as a part of their job. The vehicle available to a manager in the corporate sector is generally not so good – if he decides to act always on the voice of the psychic being, he may lose his job. Whenever he neglects that voice, he feels uneasy, and because he is often compelled to neglect the voice, the cumulative uneasiness gives him mental stress. However, a doctor may prescribe unnecessary surgery to make money, or a teacher may not teach well to encourage students to go in for special coaching (tuition) for which she gets paid extra. Apparently such choices lead to material gain, but in the process the doctor and the teacher have misused the excellent vehicles they got. What do these choices have to do with the goal of life? The goal of life is spiritual growth, or growth of consciousness. Every choice at the level of the psychic being takes us one step towards the goal; every other choice takes us away from the goal. In short, a life full of love takes us towards our goal. Conditions that give us an opportunity to love are a good vehicle to have in the journey of life. But unless we know which way to go, even the best vehicle can be smashed. On the other hand, if the driver knows which way to go, a bad vehicle can be a challenge rather than a problem. For example, if an employee in the corporate sector can walk on the razor’s edge and make the right choices, he can move towards the goal pretty fast – certainly much faster than a bad doctor or teacher. In the journey of life, moving towards the goal is enough, reaching the goal is not. Life is a journey which can be enjoyed, provided we know the goal, and make sincere efforts to move towards the goal. We should all have an aim in life because, as the Mother has said, “An aimless life is always a miserable life”. She goes on to say, “… on the quality of your aim will depend the quality of your life. Your aim should be high and wide, generous and disinterested; this will make your life precious to yourself and to others”.
(From a work in progress: Timeless Wisdom in Small Doses)
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Austerity is commonly used as the English equivalent of what has been called Tapas in the Indian tradition. Austerity bears a superficial resemblance to tapas, but the two are not the same; there is no word in English that conveys the exact meaning of tapas. A life characterized by austerities is an extremely simple life. The simplicity is the result of self-denial, which in turn may be based on a philosophy of life that believes in reducing desires. Austerities may also be a type of self-imposed suffering, which in turn may be penance for a sin, or a religious practice aimed at a life higher and nobler than the ordinary. Tapas, on the other hand, is concentration of energies on something important. If we consider something to be important, we would like to pay more attention to it. This would require finding more time for it. Time is something we cannot manufacture or buy from the market. Each of us has available exactly twenty four hours in a day; in this respect at least, all of us have equal opportunities! Therefore, when we feel strongly that something needs more time, we cut down on the things which we do not consider really important. Taking away from our lives what is not important helps us concentrate on what is important. That is how the word is used also in chemistry. If we wish to concentrate a sugar solution, we heat it so that the water evaporates. Taking water away leaves behind a more concentrated solution, a sweeter solution of sugar. We are interested in sugar, not in water. By taking away water, we get a more concentrated solution of sugar. The more water we remove, the more concentrated the solution becomes. If we remove all the water, we will be left behind with only the sugar. In the same way, a stage may come when we cut down so much on the ‘unimportant’ in our lives that we are spending almost all the time on what is important to us. That would also be a life of self-denial, a life full of austerities, but it has been arrived at by a different route, and for different reasons. In the Indian spiritual tradition, and in all other mystic traditions, some occasional individuals have considered finding the deepest Truth of existence by themselves extremely important. Since this Truth is not easy to realize, those who have made it their mission in life have gradually lost interest in all those things such as food, sex, clothing, shelter, etc. which an ordinary person considers quite important. This voluntary change in lifestyle makes it possible to concentrate intensely on the one issue which is important to the person. That is why it is called tapas. A student, who has his board exam coming, may give up sports, TV, movies, gossip, etc. for a few months so that he can do his best in the exam. This is also a form of tapas!
What is important to realize is that austerities are not a virtue in themselves. They involve giving up the lower for the sake of a higher goal. The motive behind the austerities is at least as important as the austerities. If the austerities are treated as a virtue in themselves, they may lead not only to needless suffering but also arrogance. Greater the self-imposed torture, greater may be the arrogance. Further, total denial is sometimes easier than moderation. Based on these principles, the Mother has talked of austerities involving different parts of the being. Physical austerity includes appropriate exercise for the body; diet, which is healthy and just right in quantity; good quality sleep, which is also just adequate in duration; work, done with interest and dedication; and sexual continence. Emotional austerity involves purification and refinement of emotions to an extent that they translate into enthusiasm and dynamism of action. The emotion of love should be retained but it should be universal, unconditional, and should not expect anything in return. Mental austerity should consist of speaking only as much as is necessary. Restraining speech throughout the day is more difficult but also more fruitful than observing total silence for twenty minutes a day. These austerities are based on treating the body and life on earth as manifestations of the Divine. Therefore, the surface manifestations are potentially capable of undergoing transformation to befit the One that they manifest. Austerities can aid that transformation.
(From a work-in-progress: Timerless Wisdom in Small Doses)
Thursday, April 15, 2010
An aspiration is not an ambition. An ambition is usually a material goal, e.g. becoming a doctor, or becoming a millionaire. When the ambition is achieved, one has the choice of treating it as the final destination, or as a milestone on way to another ambition. An aspiration is neither material, nor a station reached in the course of a journey. An aspiration is limited to the direction in which the journey will be performed, the manner in which the journey will be performed, the way choices will be made while on the journey, and so on. The journey may have a destination, but that is not the primary concern. An ambition may or may not be fulfilled. But a sincere aspiration is always realized.
What may an aspiration be like? A good example is an aspiration for self-improvement. We may think that we are good. But very few of us can truly say that we cannot become better. Becoming better than we are may look like a very simple aspiration. Yes, it is simple, but it is not easy. Since there is always room for improvement, self-improvement is a life-long journey. After we have become a little better than we are, we find it is possible to become still better, and so on. Thus the process of self-improvement never really comes to an end. Another name for this life-long journey of self-improvement is yoga. The aspiration for self-improvement is not only perfectly compatible with worldly life, it is essential for worthwhile worldly existence. It is not enough to be a doctor or a teacher; one should be a good doctor or a good teacher. A good doctor is a good person along with being a doctor; a good teacher is a good person along with being a teacher. To put it ‘mathematically’,
A doctor + A good person = A good doctor
A teacher + A good person = A good teacher
If the good doctor or good teacher has an aspiration for self-improvement, he becomes a better person. As the good person turns into a better person, he also becomes a better doctor or a better teacher.
Aspiration is one of the three major tools in the yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother: the other two are rejection and surrender. According to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, the aspiration should be intense and sincere but not impatient. Calm and steady effort towards the aspiration, and rejection of all that comes in way of the aspiration, is all that is required of us. For the rest, it is enough to surrender to the Divine.
(From a work in progress: Timeless Wisdom in Small Doses)
Friday, April 9, 2010
BEYOND INDIVIDUAL CHOICE
Recently, the Government of Delhi decided that no beef would be served at the Commonwealth Games. The decision respects the sentiments of a large number of Indians, which are important, but there are other considerations which are even more important. Vegetarian diets have now been scientifically shown to be healthy and adequate. They are also ethically more sound than non-vegetarian diets. From this angle, causing pain to a goat or a pig for the sake of our food is just as unethical as to a cow. No sensitive person takes meat without at least sometimes feeling uneasy. But most importantly, vegetarian diets are more eco-friendly. The conversion of plant food into animal food is so inefficient that if only the world went vegetarian, the problem of hunger can be wiped out from the world in one stroke. Also, according to a 2006 UN report, the contribution of meat industry to global warming exceeds that of all the cars, SUVs, trucks, ships and aeroplanes of the world put together. Therefore, if only we all went vegetarian, we would not have to worry about global warming for a long time to come. One reason why many people in the West are unable or unwilling to give up meat is because they do not know how to cook palatable vegetarian food. Here India has something unique to offer. I have seen hundreds of guests from the West being served Indian vegetarian food. They are not only extremely happy with it, but are also amazed to find that vegetarian food can be so palatable. Thus, without sermonizing, we can deliver an important message of global significance by serving only vegetarian food during Commonwealth Games. Being vegetarian is no longer an issue that revolves around individual choice of a healthy lifestyle or personal ideas about ethics and morality. It is now a question of how much we are willing to do to safeguard the future of our planet. Commonwealth Games may be able to say silently what Copenhagen could not.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
If you are angry with yourself for getting angry too often and too fast, take heart – anger is not just my problem or your problem, it is a universal problem. Anger is a primitive protective response rooted in our evolutionary past. It has immense survival value for animals. But unlike animals, we have not just the part of the brain associated with emotions such as anger; we also have a very well-developed part of the brain, called the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex, or the cortex for short, apart from enabling us to think, judge and reason, also helps us control and regulate primitive tendencies like anger. However, the primitive tendencies are so deep-rooted and powerful that they surface all too often with the least provocation. The provocation leads to a temporary suspension of the thinking faculty, and a full expression of the primitive anger. That is why, during anger, it is difficult to determine how angry to get, and when or where to stop. No wonder, anger has been called temporary insanity, and being angry is informally called ‘being mad’.
Anger may be precipitated by a variety of situations. One of the commonest is frustration due to not getting what one wants. The Gita says something to the effect that desires lead to anger because if the mind dwells on an object, we get attached to it. Failure to get the object leads to anger, bewilderment, loss of the intellect and the chain of events eventually finishes the victim off (2:62-63). Another common source of anger is somebody not behaving properly with us. The root of the problem may be our inability to tolerate somebody else’s imperfection while taking a more charitable view of our own. Or, we may be angry because we are unable to control somebody else’s behaviour. A source of chronic anger is the vicious cycle of isolation and anger. A person who gets angry very easily is avoided by people. As the person’s friends, relatives and colleagues start distancing themselves from him, the isolation and loneliness make him more angry. The more angry he gets, the more people keep away from him. Thus anger leads to loneliness, and loneliness aggravates the anger. Finally, anger becomes a part of the person’s lifestyle, and the situation can be reversed only by understanding its genesis. All anger essentially reflects a victim mentality. The person perceives himself as weak, and feels victimized due to his weakness. The person may feel weak because he does not have the means to satisfy his desires. He may feel weak because he cannot change or control other people. Or, he may feel he is the victim of all those who are keeping away from him. The perceived weakness may lead to depression. But sometime or the other, sooner or later, the dam bursts, and instead of being just depressed, the person gets angry. Thus anger and depression are two sides of the same coin. Statistically speaking, women get depressed in response to perceived victimization whereas men get angry. In short, anger is a sign of weakness. The angry person sometimes feels he is stronger than the person whom he can get angry at. In fact, he can get angry because nobody can stop a person from being angry, not because anybody has given him the right or the permission to be angry. It is the angry person who sub-consciously perceives himself as weak, and therefore victimized, and sometimes gives vent to his pent up feelings through anger. The sense of being stronger through anger is a temporary self-created illusion.
The dictum, prevention is better than cure applies to anger as well. When you feel the anger rising, it may be helpful to do a few things to prevent it before you lose control completely. Start with a few slow and deep breaths. While breathing out, count backwards from ten to one, slowly. Another technique is to tighten your whole body for a minute, and then let go: let the body relax completely like a punctured balloon. Start meditating, if you know how to. Listen to soothing music, or still better, play on a musical instrument, if that is one of your hobbies. Take a brisk walk, if a safe place is available to you; otherwise, just pace up and down in the house. However, do not get into the car to let your tension out: an angry driver is neither himself safe, nor does he leave others on the road in peace. If at all it is possible to stay away from the victim of your anger, do so. Coming face to face is sure to result in an outburst. If you succeed in delaying and diverting the anger by some of these measures, you may provide a safe expression to your anger later in the day by writing a diary, or confiding in someone who is close to you. You may even write a letter to the person with whom you are angry, but do not send it! Giving safe expression to anger is not just an outlet; it also helps analyze the situation. By the end of the expressive exercise, you may realize that your opponent does have a point after all, or you may discover a more reasonable way of resolving the conflict. While these measures may prevent a sudden outburst, they may still leave behind pent up anger. Nevertheless, they are helpful in buying time, allowing thinking and introspection, and in avoiding irreversible damage to relationships. If the person getting angry is a parent, his losing control also sets a bad example for the children.
There has long been a debate whether it is better to suppress anger, or to express it. Arguments in favour of expression are that suppression may give the person a peptic ulcer or high blood pressure, while expression provides an outlet to the tension; it also clears the air between the persons involved. However, psychologists today, on the whole, favour suppression, and so did Sri Aurobindo. In one of his letters to a disciple, he wrote, “If you give expression to anger, you prolong or confirm the habit of the recurrence of anger; you do not diminish or get rid of the habit. The very first step towards weakening the power of anger in the nature and afterwards getting rid of it altogether is to refuse all expression to it in act or speech. Afterwards one can go on with more likelihood of success to throw it out from the thought and feeling also”.
How can one throw anger out from the system completely? To do that, one has to understand that anger belongs to the infra-rational part of our being. To throw it out, one has to rise to a higher level of consciousness. Rationality is higher than the infra-rational, and therefore helps in overcoming anger. For example, one may reason, “Perhaps I misunderstood him. Let me give him the benefit of doubt”, or “Perhaps my way of looking at the situation is not the only one possible. His way could be one of the other ways in which it can be looked at”, or “He is wrong because he is ignorant”, and so on. Better than rising to rationality, is to rise to the supra-rational level. The supra-rational part of the being is the psychic being. When I rise to that level, I realize two things. First, the anger is not me. The anger does not arise from my true self. My deepest self, the soul, knows no anger. Anger is a trespasser, an invader. Therefore, I should reject it. Sri Aurobindo says that even if it is difficult to grasp this idea in the beginning, it is good to keep it in mind and remind ourselves that anger is not a part of our true nature. Secondly, the one with whom I am angry is no different from me. He is also a manifestation of the Divine. Like him, I am also an imperfect manifestation of the Divine. Since we are both alike, I should love him. Love leads to forgiveness. Forgiveness is the only true antidote against anger. Many other antidotes reduce the expression of anger, but not its toxicity. It is the toxicity of anger which gives rise to hatred, desire for revenge, high blood pressure, or an ulcer in the stomach. Forgiveness cures the expression as well as the toxicity of anger. However, genuine forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness is not just pretending that all is well. Forgiveness is not an attitude of superiority. Forgiveness is not the same as patronizing. Genuine forgiveness is a transformation. It is a transformation of our lower nature so that it acts in light of our higher nature. It is a transformation of our mind and intellect so that they work in light of our psychic being. The mind now enjoys love and forgiveness better than hatred and anger. The intellect now justifies forgiveness as the best course of action, being the most fair, ethical and peaceful option. The person who makes me angry is no longer a rascal who might kill me by giving me high blood pressure. He is an angel who created for me an opportunity for transformation. He helped me grow spiritually. Therefore, he helped me take a few steps towards the fulfillment of the purpose of my life. Once the angry person has done the inner work and prepared the background for forgiveness, it is acceptable to face each other. The key to a constructive confrontation is communication around a common ground. Love, which is at the root of forgiveness, expands the common ground. Love goes beyond reason, and therefore involves meeting more than half-way. If both parties have been able to create an atmosphere of love, both may end up saying sorry to each other, which may not be logical, but dissolves anger as nothing else does. An important principle in communication is to express feelings rather than thoughts. Thoughts are opinions. If I tell someone with whom I am angry what I think of him, he goes into a defensive mode, and tries to prove that my opinion of him is wrong. But if I tell him that I am feeling very hurt ‘by his behaviour’, leaving the ‘by his behaviour’ part unsaid but understood, he cannot contradict me. If I say that I am hurt, I know better than anybody else whether it is true. He cannot prove me wrong; all he can do is to ask me why I am hurt, and even say that he did not mean to hurt me. This type of a conversation is always more constructive and peaceful than one based on what each person thinks of the other. Further, a constructive conversation need not be all serious: it ususally benefits from diversions, digressions and humour.
One of the commonest situations provoking anger is bad traffic coupled with drivers who are worse. Road rage is no longer confined to shouting; it has started claiming life and limb. Anger alone never solves a problem, and all the road rage we are capable of will not improve anybody’s driving. Better driving requires introspection, a genuine acknowledgement of the rights of other road users, respect for the rules of the road which are there for our own safety, and above all, love for all our fellow-beings. A simple resolution which one may start with is to give a smile to anyone at whom one feels like shouting on the road. The person whom it will benefit the most is ourselves: it will save our vocal cords as well as coronaries.
Is anger always bad? Not necessarily. There is something called righteous anger. It is the anger one feels against evils such as corruption, dowry, illiteracy, injustice or red-tape. Without such anger, not much may change for the better in the world. Such anger may not be good for the coronaries of the person who is angry, but it is good for the society. But one also has to learn that one cannot correct everything that is wrong with the world. Therefore one must choose one’s battles carefully, and with the understanding that victory may not be complete. For anger to truly qualify as righteous anger, there are a few pre-requisites. First, I should not be content to be angry; I should do something to eradicate the evil. Secondly, the anger should be irrespective of who the victim of the evil is. The anger may be precipitated by the evil affecting me personally, but I should not stop working against the evil once my job is done. Thirdly, I should work primarily against the evil, not against individuals. I might have to oppose individuals, but I should not enjoy it. What I should enjoy is correction of a system, eradication of an evil, not the punishment that individuals get. As Mahatma Gandhi said, hate evil, not the evildoer. Finally, I should work as an instrument of the Divine, not an egoistic holier-than-thou do-gooder. I should be grateful for having been given by the Divine the abilities and the circumstances to do something about an evil. This is the spirit of karma yoga. If I work in this spirit, I expect no credit, reward or recognition for my work. Not only that, even if I fail to eradicate the evil in spite of putting my heart and soul into it, I do not lose my peace of mind. If I am not the doer, how can I determine the outcome? On the other hand, if I succeed, the success does not go to my head. In either case, I thank the Divine, by whose Grace the mission was begun and concluded.
I might master my anger, but how should I react to somebody else’s anger directed at me. For one, I should certainly not react with anger. I should also not respond with compliance unless I am in the wrong. To determine whether I am right or wrong, I should contact my deepest self, my psychic being. If I am still confident that I am doing something right, I should follow the Mother’s dictum: to go on doing with simplicity and sincerity what is right without bothering about the reactions of others.
(From a book under preparation, Timeless Wisdom in Small Doses)