Our mind and senses are generally turned outwards and we constantly are prodded to pay attention to events, people and circumstances in the outer world. We build up careers, we start families, we entertain ourselves, we satisfy the desires that arise as a result of our interaction with the outer world. This focus is punctuated by major life changes, birth, school, puberty, adult life and its various forms of responsibilities, and then disease, old age and eventually death, for ourselves and our loved ones. This is the cycle of the outer life that occupies us most of the time and we tend to react to it from our own individual ego-personality and its needs, wants, desires and concerns and fears.
Sometimes either an inner call or some outer circumstance, a major life-changing event or disappointment, propels us to seek for a deeper significance to our lives, and we begin to explore the quest of the soul, the spiritual quest and we turn inwards and begin to reflect. Sometimes, in fact most frequently, this has led to a renunciation or distaste for the outer activities of life and many spiritual or religious paths have therefore counseled abandonment of the life of the world to focus on spiritual attainment. It has almost seemed like you can have the one path, or the other, but not find a way to join them.
The Bhagavad Gita took up the question of how the spiritual man could live in the world. Arjuna asked Sri Krishna how he could identify a spiritual man: in the way he acted, the way he spoke, in the things he did. The response was that all activities of life could be taken up, and one could not tell solely by what someone did, but had to look to the motive spring and focus of the inner being in the action. Even fighting a war was not to be denied when the call of the Spirit demanded it.
Sri Aurobindo writes: “I may say briefly that there are two states of consciousness in either of which one can live. One is a higher consciousness which stands above the play of life and governs it; this is variously called the Self, the Spirit or the Divine. The other is the normal consciousness in which men live; it is something quite superficial, an instrument of the Spirit for the play of life. Those who live and act in the normal consciousness are governed entirely by the common movements of the mind and are naturally subject to grief and joy and anxiety and desire or to everything else that makes up the ordinary stuff of life. Mental quiet and happiness they can get, but it can never be permanent or secure. But the spiritual consciousness is all light, peace, power and bliss. If one can live entirely in it, there is no question; these things become naturally and securely his. But even if he can live partly in it or keep himself constantly open to it, he receives enough of this spiritual light and peace and strength and happiness to carry him securely through all the shocks of life. What one gains by opening to this spiritual consciousness, depends on what one seeks from it; if it is peace, one gets peace; if it is light or knowledge, one lives in a great light and receives a knowledge deeper and truer than any the normal mind of man can acquire; if it is strength or power, he gets a spiritual strength for the inner life or Yogic power to govern the outer work and action; if it is happiness, he enters into a beatitude far greater than any joy or happiness that the ordinary human life can give.”
Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, The Integral Yoga and the Ordinary Life, pp. 13-14