Three Main Causes of Madness, Psychological Collapse and Failure of the Spiritual Quest

Those who take up the spiritual quest face numerous difficulties along the way. Old habits and ways of seeing and acting are suddenly challenged, while at the same time energies long subdued or depressed may arise as the various chakras begin to open and pour out their energy. The various parts of the being can even be in conflict with one another as the mind holds an idea, the heart holds an aspiration, while the physical, nervous, and vital elements continue to try to express themselves in their usual manner.

As the pressure rises, it is always possible for energy, intended for the spiritual growth, to be rerouted into fulfillment of various vital drives and impulses, and this in turn can cause tremendous mental and emotional distress for the seeker.

In the practice of Raja Yoga, there is a prescription that the seeker must first gain control over the vital and physical drives, through the practices of the 5 yamas and 5 niyamas. These are preliminary steps that ensure the solidity of the mental, emotional and vital framework of the being to enable the practice of yoga to succeed. Next comes the development of the strong “seat” in the being, the Asana. Following this is Pranayama, the control of the breath and thereby, the nervous envelope. These preliminary steps represent the building of a strong, solid and reliable basis in the framework of the being for the action of the higher yogic forces. This helps to prevent the inner breakdown or psychological collapse that can be precipitated by the release of vital energies that contradict the spiritual goal or aim.

Sri Aurobindo clarifies the danger for those who do not have the proper preparation when they embark upon and proceed with the yogic quest. Yoga is not for those who are unprepared and therefore weak in either body, vital force, or mind. The play of forces becomes too intense and the vital is too easily seduced to the following of enhanced opportunities for self-aggrandisement, and this can literally drive the seeker mad.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “I must say however that it is not the push for union with the Divine nor is it the Divine Force that leads to madness — it is the way in which people themselves act with regard to their claim for these things. To be more precise, I have never known a case of collapse in yoga as opposed to mere difficulty or negative failure, — a case of dramatic disaster in which there was not one of three causes — or more than one of the three at work. First, some sexual aberration — I am not speaking of mere sexuality which can be very strong in the nature without leading to collapse — or an attempt to sexualise spiritual experience on an animal or gross material basis; second, an exaggerated ambition, pride or vanity trying to seize on spiritual force or experience and turn it to one’s own glorification ending in megalomania; third, an unbalanced vital and a weak nervous system apt to follow its own imaginations and unruly impulses without any true mental will or strong mental will to steady or restrain it, and so at the mercy of the imaginations and suggestions of the adverse vital world when carried over the border into the intermediate zone of which I spoke in a recent message.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Difficulties Due to the Hostile Forces, pp. 280-286

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