Spiritual enthusiasts expect growth in the spiritual realm to happen much like the one in the material world by constantly looking for rewards and convincing others of their progress.
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 chakras 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 Aurobindohas 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.
*For more on the Intermediate Zone, see Reference 2, pp. 35-47, and Reference 4, pp. 187-189.