The False Choice Between Spiritual Realisation and Life in the World

The human mind is programmed to look at things from an “either/or” perspective.  This results in creating false choices based on extremes rather than finding nuanced solutions that understand and accept the values and principles that each side represents.  This type of false choice has dominated much of the debate between the spiritual traditions, which have emphasized fulfillment through renunciation, or at least, have treated life in the world either as an illusion or of lesser importance than spiritual liberation, attainment of heaven, or ineffable Oneness with the Absolute, and the worldly wise who focus on the perfection of our powers of action in the world, the achievement of worldly results and success and the enhancement of our worldly life.

Sri Aurobindo’s approach points out that each of these has its own inherent value and necessity and thus, we need to find ways to resolve the false choice of the extremes and integrate them into a new synthesis.  He describes this at length in the early chapters of The Life Divine titled “The Refusal of the Ascetic”, “The Materialist Denial” and “Reality Omnipresent”.  

In The Human Cycle, Sri Aurobindo observes:  Religion “seems to condemn the pursuit of earthly aims as a trend opposed to the turn to a spiritual life and the hopes of man on earth as an illusion or a vanity incompatible with the hopes of man in heaven.  The spirit then becomes something aloof which man can only reach by throwing away the life of his lower members.  Either he must abandon this nether life after a certain point, when it has served its purpose, or must persistently discourage, mortify and kill it.  If that be the true sense of religion, then obviously religion has no positive message for human society in the proper field of social effort, hope and aspiration or for the individual in any of the lower members of his being.  For each principle of our nature seeks naturally for perfection in its own sphere and, if it is to obey a higher power, it must be because that power gives it a greater perfection and a fuller satisfaction even in its own field.  But if perfectibility is denied to it and therefore the aspiration to perfection taken away by the spiritual urge, then it must either lose faith in itself and the power to pursue the natural expansion of its energies and activities or it must reject the call of the spirit in order to follow its own bend and law, dharma.”

“This quarrel between earth and heaven, between the spirit and its members becomes still more sterilising if spirituality takes the form of a religion of sorry and suffering and austere mortification and the gospel of the vanity of things; in its exaggeration it leads to such nightmares of the soul as that terrible gloom and hopelessness of the Middle Ages in their worst moment when the one hope of mankind seemed to be in the approaching and expected end of the world….  But even in less pronounced and intolerant forms of this pessimistic attitude with regard to the world, it becomes a force for the discouragement of life and cannot, therefore, be a true law and guide for life.  All pessimism is to that extent a denial of the Spirit, of its fullness and power, an impatience with the ways of God in the world, an insufficient faith in the divine Wisdom and Will that created the world and for ever guide it.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Future Evolution of Man, Chapter Three, The Present Evolutionary Crisis, pp. 25-26


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