Reading, Mental Development and Spiritual Growth

There is a general bias in our society that holds that someone who has a developed mentality, and who is ‘well-read’ is smarter or more intelligent than those who cannot read or who have limited reading capacity. Yet it must be recognised that intelligence cannot be measured, as is done in the West, on tests that validate reading skills and memorization of ‘facts’. Intelligence is actually a measure of how well an individual actually understands what the ‘facts’ mean and has the ability to go behind the surface meanings to get at the real root significance. This is not restricted to reading, but relates to all of life and experience. Thus, intellectual development does not always correlate with true understanding. This is also known as the difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’.

Reading, particularly if it is done with a quiet and receptive frame of mind, or with a devotional openness of the heart, can help to put the being in the right ‘mood’ to open to spiritual forces and the higher ranges of mentality. This implies a different methodology for reading than is normally done in Western education. In the West, reading is used to acquire and hold onto factual knowledge, or to awaken the imagination to vital experiences, and in both cases, this ties the intellect down and creates a frame that is generally closed off from higher insights. Reading done slowly and deliberately, with an aspiration for understanding, may actually aid in the process of spiritual growth, and this is particularly the case if the reading is of devotional or spiritual literature that moves the mind and the heart into a receptive mode.

Another purpose of reading may be to acquire facts of the external world, and, if used to open up the sense of wonder and deeper insight into the nature of the creation, it can also aid in the spiritual seeking.

Certain types of reading can actually become a meditative process. Many who read Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri: a Legend and a Symbol, report experiences while reading certain passages, as the poem has a mantric force that, in a receptive state of mind, can bring with it the experience represented in that passage.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “Reading and study are only useful to acquire information and widen one’s field of data. But that comes to nothing if one does not know how to discern and discriminate, judge, see what is within and behind things.”

“Intelligence does not depend on the amount one has read, it is a quality of the mind. Study only gives it material for its work as life also does. There are people who do not know how to read and write who are more intelligent than many highly educated people and understand life and things better. On the other hand, a good intelligence can improve itself by reading because it gets more material to work on and grows by exercise and by having a wider range to move in. But book-knowledge by itself is not the real thing, it has to be used as a help to the intelligence but it is often only a help to stupidity or ignorance — ignorance because knowledge of facts is a poor thing if one cannot see their true significance.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 12, Other Aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Mental Development, Reading and Study, pp. 361-365

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