Aspiration: the Desire of the Soul for the Divine

Some people interpret the need to eliminate desire as becoming essentially cold and unmoved by anything. They even treat desire for the Divine realisation as something to eventually be eliminated. The subtlety and narrowness of the path makes it easy to stray in one direction or the other, and dealing with the impulses of desire is no different. Sri Aurobindo places the desire for the Divine in a totally different light as he defines it as aspiration of the soul, and not a ‘desire’ in the normal vital sense. Of course, this aspiration must be pure and untainted by demand, or any form of vital posturing. The aspiration of the soul for the Divine is the essential lever to shift the focus and attention away from the ego-personality and help thereby achieve the shift from the ego-standpoint to the divine-standpoint.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The desire for the Divine or for bhakti for the Divine is the one desire which can free one from all the others — at the core it is not a desire but an aspiration, a soul need, the breath of existence of the inmost being, and as such it cannot be counted among desires.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Desire, pp. 291-296


The Difference Between Suppression and Rejection of Desire

Suppression of desire can be compared generally to the compression of a spring. The spring increases its latent energy by being compressed and eventually, when it escapes the compression stage, it responds powerfully. When desires are suppressed, they gain in strength and eventually burst forth with tremendous intensity.

Spiritual practitioners frequently make the mistake of confusing suppression for rejection of desire, and in so doing, they do not eliminate desire, but actually intensify it. This can have its expression in forms of violence directed at oneself or others, in narrow-minded moral judgments rendered on others and in various forms of fanaticism. The ‘holy inquisition’ is an example of an attempt by religion to suppress desire through the misguided development of moral codes and self-created judges who were given societal power to enforce that code. The terror that was unleashed, and the corruption that occurred among the powerful provide examples of the type of results that stem from suppression of desire.

Rejection of desire, on the other hand, is based on a refocusing and re-tuning of the being and its receptivity, such that the focus is no longer on the desire, but on the higher purpose and calling that is moving the individual beyond desire.

Nietzsche famously held that the superior man was ‘beyond good and evil’. Dostoevsky, in Crime and Punishment explored this idea in the form of an individual who held himself to be a ‘superior man’ and thus could, with impunity carry out a gruesome murder to gain the wealth he needed to survive and save his sister from an unfortunate marriage. The individual buckled under the pressure of the crime he had committed. Yet the real issue of the story is the illustration of the false premise underlying the impunity expressed by the so-called superior man. Beyond good and evil, beyond morality, actually can have a deep spiritual significance, not through lowering the standard of action, but through evolution to a higher standard through transcendence of the entire framework of vital desire and the attachment to various ideas of success in the world tied to the fulfillment of desire. This occurs through the re-tuning process that shifts the standpoint from that of the ego and its gratification to that of the Divine with an alignment for the divine purpose of the existence in the individual’s life and action.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The rejection of desire is essentially the rejection of the element of craving, putting that out from the consciousness itself as a foreign element not belonging to the true self and the inner nature. But refusal to indulge the suggestions of desire is also a part of the rejection; to abstain from the action suggested, if it is not the right action, must be included in the yogic discipline. It is only when this is done in the wrong way, by a mental ascetic principle or a hard moral rule, that it can be called suppression. The difference between suppression and an inward essential rejection is the difference between mental or moral control and a spiritual purification.”

“Your theory is a mistaken one. The free expression of a passion may relieve the vital for a time, but at the same time it gives it a right to return always. It is not reduced at all. Suppression with inner indulgence in subtle forms is not a cure, but expression in outer indulgence is still less a cure. It is perfectly possible to go on without manifestation if one is resolute to arrive at a complete control, the control being not a mere suppression but an inner and outer rejection.”

“The difference between suppression (nigraha) and self-control (samyama) is that one says ‘I cannot help desiring but i will not satisfy my desire’, while the other says ‘I refuse the desire as well as the satisfaction of the desire’.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Desire, pp. 291-296

Overcoming Desire Without Suppression or Indulgence

The mental consciousness likes to frame issues in terms of black and white determinations, as ‘either/or’ considerations. So we tend to swing from one extreme to the other. Either we try to indulge ourselves in fulfilling desires, in some cases with the idea that by satisfying the desire we will overcome it, or else we undertake harsh suppression of the desire and utilize all kinds of punishing methods to enforce this suppression. It is rare that we find a way out of the conundrum that both of these methods, by fixating on the energy of the desire, are actually strengthening its hold! Sri Aurobindo describes the method he recommends which, over time, attenuates the hold of desire and frees the yogic practitioner from its clutches.

For the human ego-personality, which craves the excitement and energy of ‘doing’ something, the idea that one actually simply removes oneself from active involvement in the desire is a difficult concept to accept. Yet with practice one finds that the process of detachment, and observation with a calm view as if from outside oneself is actually the leverage needed to free oneself from the clutches of the desire-soul.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “… if you want to do yoga, you must take more and more in all matters, small or great, the yogic attitude. In our path that attitude is not one of forceful suppression, but of detachment and equality with regard to the objects of desire. Forceful suppression stands on the same level as free indulgence; in both cases, the desire remains; in the one it is fed by indulgence, in the other it lies latent and exasperated by suppression. It is only when one stands back, separates oneself from the lower vital, refusing to regard its desires and clamours as one’s own, and cultivates an entire equality and equanimity in the consciousness with respect to them that the lower vital itself becomes gradually purified and itself also calm and equal. Each wave of desire as it comes must be observed, as quietly and with as much unmoved detachment as you would observe something going on outside you, and allowed to pass, rejected from the consciousness, and the true movement, the true consciousness steadily put in its place.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Desire, pp. 291-296

Two Options for the Seeker to Eliminate Desire

When the spiritual aspirant hears that he must eliminate desire from his consciousness, he frequently takes this as a message of ‘renunciation’ and thereby determines to live an isolated life free from the efforts involved in living in the world and interacting within the societal framework. Even when he tries to live quietly in the forest, or the desert, or some kind of monastic retreat setting, he finds that desire follows him there. There eventuates then a struggle or battle to try to defeat the promptings of desire and in some cases, the seeker even resorts to mortification of the flesh and other types of abuse to ‘punish’ the recalcitrant body and vital being for giving in to desire, or, at the very least, constantly fixating on it. These methods however, tend not to work!

Whether one fulfills the desire, or aggressively suppresses the expression of the desire, the focus and attention remains tuned to the vital-physical centre where the desire arises. Further, by taking ‘ownership’ of the desire, the seeker believes that he must excise something that is part of his own nature and personality. Giving full license to the desire in the guise of ‘exhausting’ it also tends not to work. The seeker can deal with desire by moving outside the frame within which it is active, thereby taking the position of the neutral or disinterested observer of the action, rather than being involved and controlled by its energy.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “When one lives in the true consciousness one feels the desires outside oneself, entering from outside, from the universal lower Prakriti, into the mind and the vital parts. In the ordinary human condition this is not felt; men become aware of the desire only when it is there, when it has come inside and found a lodging or a habitual harbourage and so they think it is their own and part of themselves. The first condition for getting rid of desire is, therefore, to become conscious with the true consciousness; for then it becomes much easier to dismiss it than when one has to struggle with it as if it were a constituent part of oneself to be thrown out from the being. It is easier to cast off an accretion than to excise what is felt as a parcel of our own substance.”

“When the psychic is in front, then also to get rid of desire becomes easy; for the psychic being has in itself no desires, it has only aspirations and a seeking and love for the Divine and all things that are or tend towards the Divine. The constant prominence of the psychic being tends of itself to bring out the true consciousness and set right almost automatically the movements of the nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Desire, pp. 291-296

The Source and Origin of Desire and the Mechanism of Its Action in the Being

An individual experiences a craving, an urge, a desire and automatically tries to fulfill it through some action. If it is hunger or thirst, the individual wants to eat or drink. If it is a more complex desire, something that cannot simply be accomplished, the mind is brought into the picture to determine a way to succeed in that desire’s accomplishment. We rarely reflect on where and how these desires arise, and what the mechanism is that makes them conscious within us, at least to the extent of pushing us into action. Sometimes desires are expressed that run contrary to the rules or customs of society and the individual may have a guilty conscience for doing something frowned upon in society. For those who seek to quell desire in order to practice a spiritual discipline of some sort, there can be a feeling of guilt that arises when the desire gets fulfilled, with the sense that somehow the individual is the source of these desires.

There is, however, no inner ‘desire-generating mechanism’ within the individual being. Sri Aurobindo examined the source of desire and found rather that they originate outside oneself in universal Nature. The individual receives the vibration from outside and if he is receptive to those waves, he translates them into a feeling, an emotion or a thought that brings about an awareness of a felt need.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “All the ordinary vital movements are foreign to the true being and come from outside; they do not belong to the soul nor do they originate in it but are waves from the general Nature, Prakriti.”

“The desires come from outside, enter the subconscious vital and rise to the surface. It is only when they rise to the surface and the mind becomes aware of them, that we become conscious of the desire. It seems to us to be our own because we feel it thus rising from the vital into the mind and do not know that it came from outside. What belongs to the vital, to the being, what makes it responsible is not the desire itself, but the habit of responding to the waves or the currents of suggestion that come into it from the universal Prakriti.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Desire, pp. 291-296

Desires, Yoga and the Process of Overcoming the Promptings of the Lower Nature

Change implies giving up something that is currently active and replacing it with something new and different. A change of consciousness, a shift from the normal human egoistic standpoint to the divine standpoint, implies similarly that the normal human habits, traits, actions, drives and motives must be given up and replaced. This is in fact the crux of the difficulties the practitioner faces when he takes up the integral yoga. Every trained-in response, every instinct, long human habit and socialization from childhood builds a formidable obstacle to effectuating real change. Most people do not even think about the issue, as they are living their normal life which is filled with desire, the attempt to satisfy desire, and the frustration when a desire goes unmet and unfulfilled. This is considered to be the framework of human life.

In order to create a social body, people have determined that not all desires can or should be fulfilled. Some interfere with the smooth working of the society, particularly when they infringe upon the life and freedom of others who get in the path or stand in the way of the desire of the moment. Thus, laws, social customs and traditions are built to restrain desire in certain directions and people are encouraged to redirect their energies elsewhere when they approach these boundaries. But even here, many are the times when individuals transgress these societal rules, simply because they have no true control over the desires, the impulses that arise and the pressures that drive them.

For the yogic practitioner, a conscious awareness must arise that highlights these mostly unrecognised impulses for what they are, and the practitioner then must take up practices to not simply suppress or restrain the action of desire, but to reject it entirely and replace it with a new focus for the energy and awareness of the being. No small task!

Sri Aurobindo writes: “It is not yoga to give free play to the natural instincts and desires. Yoga demands mastery over the nature, not subjection to the nature.”

“Most men are, like animals, driven by the forces of Nature: whatever desires come, they fulfil them, whatever emotions come they allow them to play, whatever physical wants they have, they try to satisfy. We say then that the activities and feelings of men are controlled by their Prakriti, and mostly by the vital and physical nature. The body is the instrument of the Prakriti or Nature — it obeys its own nature or it obeys the vital forces of desire, passion, etc.”

“”But man has also a mind and, as he develops, he learns to control his vital and physical nature by his reason and by his will. This control is very partial: for the reason is often deluded by vital desires and the ignorance of the physical and it puts itself on their side and tries to justify by its ideas, reasonings or arguments their mistakes and wrong movements. Even if the reason keeps free and tells the vital or the body, ‘Do not do this’, yet the vital and the body often follow their own movement in spite of the prohibition — man’s mental will is not strong enough to compel them.”

“When people do sadhana, there is a higher Nature that works within, the psychic and spiritual, and they have to put their nature under the influence of the psychic being and the higher spiritual self or of the Divine. Not only the vital and the body but the mind also has to learn the Divine Truth and obey the divine rule. But because of the lower nature and its continued hold on them, they are unable at first and for a long time to prevent their nature from following the old ways — even when they know or are told from within what to do or what not to do. It is only by persistent sadhana, by getting into the higher spiritual consciousness and spiritual nature that this difficulty can be overcome; but even for the strongest and best sadhaks it takes a long time.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Desire, pp. 291-296

How Can I Understand True Spiritual Humility

In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna inquires how he can know an enlightened individual, whether by his talk, or the way he acts, or by some other external sign. Sri Krishna replies that it is not through external actions or signs that one can recognise the realised souls. The truth lies in their inner attitude and experience. Similarly, an outward show of spiritual humility, or an outward show of apparent egoism may not reflect the inward reality of the person. One must understand the force behind the outer activity to understand its significance.

The famous tale of the young spiritual seeker who felt that he was a divine servant illustrates another aspect. He was walking along the road when a mahout (elephant driver) yelled for him to get out of the way as the elephant was charging. He was knocked aside when he failed to heed the warning. The master explained, ‘yes, you are the Divine. But you failed to heed the driver-divine and the elephant-divine.” Spiritual pride may tend to forget that all is the Divine and fail to keep a proper respect and balance in one’s relations with the other forms of the divine manifestation.

Spiritual humility then is an inward recognition of one’s subordination to the Divine, and one’s spiritual oneness with the entire creation. Each individual, keeping the proper attitude, will then be called on to act in the way that most appropriately moves the divine creation forward.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “As for the sense of superiority, that is a little difficult to avoid when greater horizons open before the consciousness, unless one is already of a saintly and humble disposition. There are men like Nag Mahashaya (among Sri Ramakrishna’s disciples) in whom spiritual experience creates more and more humility; there are others like Vivekananda in whom it creates a great sense of strength and superiority — European critics have taxed him with it rather severely; there are others in whom it fixes a sense of superiority to men and humility to the Divine. Each position has its value. Take Vivekananda’s famous answer to the Madras Pundit who objected to one of his assertions saying: ‘But Shankara does not say so’, to whom Vivekananda replied: ‘No, but I, Vivekananda say so’, and the Pundit was speechless. That ‘I, Vivekananda,’ stands up to the ordinary eye like a Himalaya of self-confident egoism. But there was nothing false or unsound in Vivekananda’s spiritual experience. For this was not mere egoism, but the sense of what he stood for and the attitude of the fighter who, as the representative of something very great, could not allow himself to be put down or belittled. This is not to deny the necessity of non-egoism and of spiritual humility, but to show that the question is not so easy as it appears at first sight.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Humility, pp. 289-291

Spiritual Humility

The quality of humility is important to keep the ego in check, but even here, the ego finds ways to create an artificial form of humility that actually reinforces the ego. Those following an inspiring leader, or treading a path that provides true spiritual experience may use their position to puff up the ego and provide a sense of superiority or that one’s own path is better than others, or one’s progress exceeds that of others, etc. There is, as with all things, a fine line between true spiritual humility and the ‘appearance’ of humility outwardly.

Spiritual humility is based in the understanding that each seeker, from the human standpoint from which he starts, is limited in both understanding and power of action, and it is the Divine, acting through the nexus of the individual, that actually can carry out the divine intention. The shift away from the ego-standpoint brings with it an overwhelming sense of the vastness of the universal creation, the magnitude of the evolutionary development, and the tiny, yet important, role that each individual plays in that process spanning many thousands of years, and lifetimes of any individual.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Humility before the Divine is also a sine qua non of the spiritual life, and spiritual pride, arrogance, or vanity and self-assurance press always downward. But confidence in the Divine and a faith in one’s spiritual destiny (i.e. since my heart and soul seek for the Divine, I cannot fail one day to reach Him) are much needed in view of the difficulties of the Path.”

“A spiritual humility within is very necessary, but I do not think an outward one is very advisable (absence of pride or arrogance or vanity is indispensable of course in one’s outer dealings with others) — it often creates pride, becomes formal or becomes ineffective after a time. I have seen people doing it to cure their pride, but I have not found it producing a lasting result.”

“Perhaps one could say that it [spiritual humility] is to be aware of the relativity of what has been done compared with what is still to be done — and also to be conscious of one’s being nothing without the Divine Grace.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Humility, pp. 289-291

Three Steps (and Beyond) to Eliminate the Ego-Consciousness

The ego-consciousness controls our viewpoint, how we respond to events and circumstances, and our relations with others. This is such an inherent and automatic framework of action, that we many times do not even notice or appreciate that it is there. When egoism becomes extreme, we can ‘see’ it, but when it hides under forms of selflessness, altruism, philanthropy or self-giving, we tend to believe that we have overcome the ego. Yet the ego remains in all these forms and until we appreciate that and address that fact, we remain locked within the framework of the ego. And until we shift outside that frame, we cannot truly observe, and control the action of the ego-consciousness.

There is a way of seeing known as ‘ubuntu’ which stems from Africa. It recognises that ‘I am because we are’, a basic recognition of the oneness of all of us, without separation of ego. We can appreciate, if we reflect deeply, that none of us is independent of the rest of the creation. Without the sun, life on earth would not exist. Without plants and trees, which are symbiotic with us, as they create the oxygen we breathe, and we create the carbon dioxide which they breathe, we could not live. We are born through the union of two people and we live in a social setting depending for everything in our lives on the actions of others, just as they depend on us.

In the West there is a feeling that an individual is free and independent and there is the myth of the ‘self-made man’. If we examine closely, however, we see that this is an assertion of the ego that has no basis in fact. We exist within the society, utilize the infrastructure of the society and are socialized into the patterns of that society.

For the practitioner of yoga who seeks to shift the standpoint outside the ego-framework to the divine standpoint, it is an important requirement to recognise the all-pervading existence and influence of the ego consciousness and to work assiduously to shift the perception to one that appreciates that the ego is an artificial construct, that the self-awareness of this nexus of individuality is part of the machinery of Nature, and that a truer viewpoint about our existence can only come about when we rise beyond the individuality of the ego-personality.

Just as we believed that the sun rotated around the earth, we believe the world moves around our needs, wants, desires and powers of action. Eventually, we are able to shift our intellectual understanding to the concept that in fact, the earth is not the center of the universe. The recognition comes, however, with real experience. When astronauts first observed the earth from outer space, they escaped the framework of the earth-centric viewpoint for the first time and their reactions were indicative of the start of a new frame of realisation. Similarly, we will go through stages of development until eventually we have shifted to the standpoint that lies outside the ego, and we look back at the individual life as a very small point of reference in an enormous living creation.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “It is so with everybody. Human nature is shot through in all its stuff with the thread of the ego; even when one tries to get away from it, it is in front or could be behind all the thoughts and actions like a shadow. To see that is the first step, to discern the falsity and absurdity of the ego-movements is the second, to discourage and refuse it at each step is the third, — but it goes entirely only when one sees, experiences and lives the One in everything and equally everywhere.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, The Ego, pp. 286-289

Identifying and Overcoming the Resistance of the Tamasic and Rajasic Egos

The action of the three Gunas pervades and permeates all action including our response to obstacles, setbacks and concerns that arise during the practice of Yoga. When Tamas is predominant it sends out thoughts and ideas of weakness, failure and limitation. When Rajas is in the ascendent it sends out thoughts and ideas of domination, control and pride. Both of these create ‘affirmations’ that impact the body-life-mind complex and colour the response we have to the obstacles and difficulties we face. Sri Aurobindo identifies the thought patterns that accompany either of these Gunas as well as substitute affirmations that can redirect and ‘tune’ the response to the higher force that needs to find receptivity to act in the being. As the seeker grapples with the shift from the ego-standpoint to the Divine-standpoint, these affirmations help build up the sense of aspiration, receptivity and acceptance that are needed to allow the Divine Force to do its work and transform the being.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “By tamasic ego is meant the ego of weakness, self-depreciation, despondency, unbelief. The rajasic ego is puffed up with pride and self-esteem or stubbornly asserts itself at every step or else wherever it can; the tamasic ego, on the contrary, is always feeling ‘I am weak, I am miserable, I have no capacity, I am not loved or chosen by the Divine, I am so bad and incapable — what can the Divine do for me?’ Or else ‘I am especially chosen out for misfortune and suffering, all are preferred to me, all are progressing, I only am left behind, all abandons me, I have nothing before me but flight, death or disaster,’ etc., etc., or something or all of these things mixed together. Sometimes the rajasic and tamasic Ahankar mix together and subtly support each other. In both cases it is the ‘I’ that is making a row about itself and clouding the true vision. The true spiritual or psychic vision is this: ‘Whatever I may be, my soul is a child of the Divine and must reach the Divine sooner or later. I am imperfect, but seek after the perfection of the Divine in me and that not I but the Divine Grace will bring about; if I keep to that, the Divine Grace itself will do all.’ The ‘I’ has to take its proper place here as a small portion and instrument of the Divine, something that is nothing without the Divine but with the Grace can be everything that the Divine wishes it to be.”

“The right attitude is to see that as a separate being, as an ego, one has no importance whatever and the insistence on one’s own desires, pride, position etc. is an ignorance, but one matters only as a spirit, as a portion of the Divine, not more than others but as all souls matter to the Soul of all.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, The Ego, pp. 286-289