Westerners and Indian Yoga, Part 4: Obstacles Faced by Westerners and the Soul’s Aspiration to Overcome Them in the Integral Yoga

All human beings, regardless of whether they are born in the West, the East, or elsewhere, find the challenges of taking up yoga to be daunting and requiring of them unstinting efforts to understand the obstacles, and identify and implement ways to overcome them. With its long history of support for spiritual practices, India has clearly at least some advantage in terms of preparing the ground for systematic spiritual effort. Of course, even those born in India and raised in that culture must face considerable obstacles associated with the basic nature of the human mind, emotions, vital force and physical body. The tales of spiritual quests and the difficulties attendant thereto are widespread in the traditional lore of India.

For Westerners there are of course unique challenges that arise due to the cultural background, education, and mind-set of the West which colors the approach to spirituality taken by almost all who endeavour in that direction from the West. As the world becomes smaller, and people are exposed to the cultural pressures of the West, even in India, these same issues now arise quite as frequently.

The centrality of the ego-personality and the vital, externally-facing action, along with the predominance of the mental culture as the basis for judgment and understanding, are clearly enormous obstacles. When a Westerner (or someone influenced by the cultural biases of the West) is asked to be receptive, quiet the mind, and surrender the ego, there is frequently a strong resistance that rises up, or else, in the attempt to carry out the needed steps, there comes in many cases a loss of the function of discrimination, which has led to much manipulation and abuse in modern-day attempts to bring yoga to the West. Surrender of the ego does not mean, nor require, abandonment of all faculties of understanding, analysis and clear-sighted vision of what is being asked, by whom and for what purpose. Finding a correct balance between the practice of surrender on the one hand, and the proper utilization of the mental intelligence, is of great importance.

When the soul comes forward to guide the yoga, regardless of whether one stems from East or West, these difficulties can be overcome through the unerring sense of rightness brought to the process by the psychic being and its unity with the Divine.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The Indian sadhak has his own difficulties in his approach to the yoga — at least to this yoga — which a Westerner has in less measure. Those of the occidental nature are born of the dominant trend of the European mind in the immediate past. A greater readiness of essential doubt and sceptical reserve; a habit of mental activity as a necessity of the nature which makes it more difficult to achieve a complete mental silence; a stronger turn towards outside things born of the plenitude of active life (while the Indian commonly suffers from defects born rather of a depressed or suppressed vital force); a habit of mental and vital self-assertion and sometimes an aggressively vigilant independence which renders difficult any completeness of internal surrender even to a greater Light and Knowledge, even to the divine Influence — these are frequent obstacles. But these things are not universal in Westerners, and they are, on the other hand, present in many Indian sadhaks; they are, like the difficulties of the typical Indian nature, superstructural formations, not the very grain of the being. They cannot permanently stand in the way of the soul, if the soul’s aspiration is strong and firm, if the spiritual aim is the chief thing in the life. They are impediments which the fire within can easily burn away if the will to get rid of them is strong, and which it will surely burn away in the end, — though less easily, — even if the outer nature clings long to them and justifies them — provided that the fire, the central will, the deeper impulse is behind all, real and sincere.”

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, Westerners and Indian Yoga, pp. 365-370

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