Understanding and Respecting the Body’s Need for Rest

When an illness strikes the body, its energy must go to recuperation and rebuilding its basic strength. For a practitioner of yoga, as well as for those who have a developed mental or emotional consciousness, or an aesthetic sense, the recuperation and rebuilding phase can be irksome, as there is a desire to continue the normal activities and progress in whatever the individuals’ focus normally tends to be. We tend to begrudge the time needed for the body’s recuperation and we exhibit impatience and in some cases, we overdo the activity at too early a stage. These are due to the Guna of Rajas as it rebounds from the weakness and indolence associated with a serious health condition or illness. This tendency, however, needs to be both understood and rejected by the seeker. In order to do so, the individual needs to have a clear insight to the actual needs of the body and have the patience to supply those needs without disturbance. The body is an outstanding instrument when it is participating in the process, and having its basic requirements met. When it is struggling under some weakness, however, it needs support.

When there is a basic peace and equanimity in the being, it can abide even during physical discomforts or inconveniences, as well as illnesses and other bodily weaknesses. When this is operative in the being, the individual can take an attitude of calm towards the time and effort needed, while not ‘accepting’ the illness or weakness as something to be either welcomed or accepted, so that the energies of the mind, vital being and the body itself can be marshalled toward the recovery and strengthening of the body.

Sri Aurobindo notes; “[After an attach of influenza:] The first thing to do is to keep throughout a perfect equanimity and not to allow thoughts of disturbed anxietey or depression to enter you. It is quite natural after this severe attack of influenza that there should be weakness and some fluctuations in the progress to recovery. What you have to do is to remain calm and confident and not worry or be restless — be perfectly quiet and prepared to rest as long as rest is needed. There is nothing to be anxious about; rest, and the health and strength will come.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Disturbances of the Body and Physical Consciousness, Rest, Quiet, Goodwill, pp. 86-88

Resting the Body with the Right Consciousness

The machinery of the physical body has its own basic requirements for rest in order to function optimally. When one goes beyond the body’s capacity for effort at any point in time, and thereby becomes fatigued, a state of tamas tends to arise. This is inimical to maintaining the continuity of the yogic focus. There are however states of rest whereby the body can be refreshed and energized without the fall into a tamasic torpor or indolent state.

For example, the practice known as yoga nidra, the yogic sleep, is one such methodology used to refresh the body with a clear, calm and quiet state of peace, bringing awareness to the body and then letting it simply rest, without stress, without any rajasic pressure to ‘keep going’ beyond the body’s current capacity.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Take care to rest enough. You must guard against fatigue as it may bring relaxation and tamas. To rest well is not tamas, as some people suppose; it can be done in the right consciousness to maintain the bodily energy — like the savasana of the strenuous hathayogin.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Disturbances of the Body and Physical Consciousness, Rest, Quiet, Goodwill, pp. 86-88

The Essential Role of the Psychic Being in the Process of Vital Transformation

Transformation of the vital nature in man is a key and essential part of the transformation that must come with the evolution of the next stage of consciousness. Past yogic paths did not focus to any great degree, if at all, on transformation of the external being and life in the world; rather, it was highly intent on achieving spiritual realisation or liberation, with little emphasis given to the body-life-mind individuality or the mode of living in the world. For a yoga that takes up the integration of the inner growth with the outer expression, at some point the vital needs to be transformed to act under the guidance and impulsion of the higher consciousness.

While there are two major methods of separating oneself from the ego consciousness, one by bringing the soul, the psychic being forward, and the other by rising above into the spiritual consciousness, in terms of the transformative action, the soul-element, the psychic being, which is directly in touch with the body-life-mind complex while maintaining its connection with the Divine, is clearly the right instrument to effect this change.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “Your difficulty in getting rid of the aboriginal in your nature will remain so long as you try to change your vital part by the sole or main strength of your mind and mental will, calling in at most an indefinite and impersonal divine power to aid you…. If you want a true mastery and transformation of the vital movements, it can be done only on condition you allow your psychic being, the soul in you, to awake fully, to establish its rule… impose its own way of pure devotion, whole-hearted aspiration and complete uncompromising urge to all that is divine on the mind and heart and vital nature.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Disturbances of the Vital, Transforming the Vital, pp. 69-85

Dual States of Consciousness in the Being

The normal human individual lives primarily in a state of consciousness that is immersed in the outer life, including the inner reactions to that life, and the functions of the body, life-energy and mind. This is true whether the person considers himself to be an extrovert or an introvert. The introvert simply focuses more on the inner reactive states of the being in relation to that external reality, but the focus remains essentially the same as the extrovert.

When an individual takes up the practice of yoga, one of the first recommended steps is stepping back from this external personality to achieve the standpoint of the witness-consciousness, the Purusha, observing the action of the nature, Prakriti. This leads to a dual status of consciousness as the Purusha awareness takes hold, while the ego-consciousness is still active.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “What you have noticed about the disturbance is true. There are now two consciousnesses in you, the new one that is growing and what is left of the old. The old has something in it which is a habit of the human vital, — the tendency to keep any touch of grief, anger, vexation etc. or any kind of emotional, vital or mental disturbance, to make much of it, to prolong it, not to wish to let it go, to return to it even when the cause of disturbance is past and could be forgotten, always to remember and bring it up when it can. This is a common trait of human nature and a quite customary movement. The new consciousness on the contrary does not want these things and when they happen throws them off as quickly as possible. When the new consciousness is fully grown and established, then the disturbances will be altogether rejected. Even if the causes of them happen, there will be no response of grief, anger, vexation etc. in the nature.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Disturbances of the Vital, Transforming the Vital, pp. 69-85

The Need for Constant, Steady and Flexible Progress on the Yogic Path

At certain stages along the way, a particular technique or method of standpoint may be helpful to the growth of the spiritual consciousness or the implementation of that consciousness in the outer being and life. These same methods, however, can lead to stagnation if practiced without heed to changing needs or circumstances. Each individual needs to start from where they are and then systematically, step by step, address the issues, limitations and obstacles placed before him. Generally, the individual can find within himself the means of taking the next step for a considerable distance along the way, until such time as all human means reach a stopping point and at that moment, the Divine Grace must be called on to act!

Due to the complexity of the human instrument, and the inter-relationships of mind, life and body, as well as the interaction with the outer world and other beings, an individual always has issues to address and obstacles to surmount. Careful observation, quiet aspiration, and constant focused energy, combined with persistence, are what allow the individual to adopt the means to the end, and continue to move forward. That is why what works for one individual in one circumstance cannot be arbitrarily applied to another being variously situated, nor even to his own situation as it changes over time.

The Mother observes: “I do not say this to discourage you; only, things happen like that. And the worst of all is to get discouraged when it happens. You must tell yourself, ‘With the means of transport at my disposal I have reached a certain point, but these means do not allow me to go further. What should I do?… Sit there and not stir any longer? — not at all. I must find other means of transport.’ This will happen quite often, but after a while you will get used to it. You must sit down for a moment, meditate, and then find other means. You must increase your concentration, your aspiration and your trust and with the new help which comes to you, make a new programme, work out other means to replace those you have left behind. This is how one progresses stage by stage.”

“But you must take great care to apply at each, as perfectly as possible, what you have gained or learnt. If you remain in an indrawn state of consciousness and do not apply materially the inner progress, a time will certainly come when you will not be able to move at all, for your outer being, unchanged, will be like a fetter pulling you back and hindering you from advancing. So, the most important point (what everybody says but only a few do) is to put into practice what you know. With that you have a good chance of succeeding, and with perseverance you will certainly get there.”

“You must never get discouraged when you find yourself before a wall, never say, ‘Oh! what shall I do? It is still there.’ In this way the difficulty will still be there and still there and still there, till the very end. It is only when you reach the goal that everything will suddenly crumble down.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Disturbances of the Vital, Transforming the Vital, pp. 69-85

Transformation of the Vital Requires the Action of a New Power of Consciousness

Albert Einstein was famously quoted as saying: “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. It is necessary to achieve a new frame of reference and standpoint in order to address the issues of the body-life-mind complex and the transformation of the vital nature is one of the key issues that needs to be so addressed. The vital nature, as we have described, is not subject to change through the normal tools of indulgence or suppression that seekers have tended to employ in past attempts to bring it under control. There are also apocryphal stories of yogis who spent years in deep meditation in cave retreats, who achieved a measure of peace through their yogic discipline, who, when confronted by real world events and circumstances, erupted with vital explosions they had assumed were already worked out.

The shift in consciousness needed comes generally at the end of human effort, when the individual has done everything he can do, and reaches a dead end. At that moment, there is a choice of despair or an act of utmost faith in the higher providence that shaped his destiny, his aspiration and his focus up to that point.

Sri Aurobindo points out that the process of nature includes setting up extreme circumstances of opposition that then must rise to a higher level to find the solution. The ascetic response does not solve it; nor does the materialistic response; in other words, suppression or indulgence. The higher synthesis is based on an omnipresent reality that understands both drives, that towards liberation, and that towards outer growth and perfection, that make up these two opposite approaches.

A disciple asked the Mother about this:

But if one can tear out completely the root of the thing?

The Mother writes: “Ah! one must not be so sure of that. I have known people who wanted to save the world by reducing it so much that there was no longer a world left! This is the ascetic way — you want to do away with the problem by doing away with the possibility of the problem. But this will never change anything.”

“No, there is a method — a sure one — but your method must be very clear-sighted and you must have a wide-awake consciousness of your person and of what goes on there and the way in which things happen. Let us take the instance of a person subject to outbursts of rage and violence. According to one method he would be told: ‘Get as angry as you like, you will suffer the consequences of your anger and this will cure you.’ This could be discussed. According to another method he would be told: ‘Sit upon your anger and it will disappear.’ This too could be discussed. In any case, you will have to sit upon it all the time, for if ever you should get up for a minute you will see immediately what happens! Then, what is to be done?”

“You must become more and more conscious. You must observe how the thing happens, by what road the danger approaches, and stand in the way before it can take hold of you. If you want to cure yourself of a defect or a difficulty, there is but one method: to be perfectly vigilant, to have a very alert and vigilant consciousness. First you must see very clearly what you want to do. You must not hesitate, be full of doubt and say, ‘Is it good to do this or not, does this come into the synthesis or should it not come in? You will see that if you trust your mind, it will always shuttle back and forth: it vacillates all the time. If you take a decision it will put before you all the arguments to show you that your decision is not good, and you will be tossed between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’, the black and white, and will arrive at nothing. Hence, first, you must know exactly what you want — know, not mentally, but through concentration, through aspiration and a very conscious will. That is the important point. Afterwards, gradually, by observation, a sustained vigilance, you must realise a sort of method which will be personal to you — it is useless to convince others to adopt the same method as yours, for that won’t succeed. Everyone must find his own method, everyone must have his own method, and to the extent you put into practice your method, it will become clearer and clearer, more and more precise. You can correct a certain point, make clear another, etc. So, you start working…. For a while, all will go well. Then, one day, you will find yourself facing an insurmountable difficulty and will tell yourself, ‘I have done all that and here is everything as bad as before!’ Then, in this case, you must, through a yet more sustained concentration, open an inner door in you and bring into this movement a force which was not there formerly, a state of consciousness which was not there before. And there, there will be a power, when your own personal power will be exhausted and no longer effective. When the personal power runs out, ordinary people say, ‘That’s good, I can no longer do anything, it is finished.’ But I tell you that when you find yourself before this wall, it is the beginning of something new. By an obstinate concentration, you must pass over to the other side of the wall and there you will find a new knowledge, a new force, a new power, a new help, and you will be able to work out a new system, a new method which surely will take you very far.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Disturbances of the Vital, Transforming the Vital, pp. 69-85

Indulgence of Vital Desire Is Not a Solution — Neither is Suppression of the Vital

The Mother illustrates the difficulty of transforming the vital nature. None of this is either fast or easy, given the complexity of human nature and, in particular, the vital being. There are also deeply entrenched habits of action and reaction and a general force of vital nature that lives in the collective environment, and thus, can always impact the individual, even if he happens to have made substantial progress within his own psychological identity.

The Mother notes: “There are people who have a pretty little theory like that which I have often heard; they say that one’s vital should never be repressed, it must be allowed to do all it wants, it will get tired and be cured! This is the height of stupidity! First, because the vital by its very nature is never satisfied, and if a certain kind of activity becomes insipid, it will double the dose: if its stupidities bore it, it will increase its stupidities and its excesses, and if that tires it, as soon as it has rested it will start again. For it will not be changed. Others say that if you sit upon your vital it will be suppressed and, one day, it will shoot up like a steam-jet… and this is true. Hence, to repress the vital is not a solution. To let it do what it likes is not a solution either, and generally this brings on fairly serious disorders. There must be a third a solution.”

To aspire that the light from above may come and purify it?

“Obviously, but the problem remains. You aspire for a change, perhaps for a specific change; but the answer to your aspiration will not come immediately and in the meantime your nature will resist. Things happen like this: at a given moment the nature seems to have yielded and you think you have got the desired result. Your aspiration diminishes in intensity because you think you have the desired result. But the other fellow, who is very cunning and is waiting quietly in his corner, when you are off your guard, he springs up like a jack-in-the-box, and then you must begin all over again.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Disturbances of the Vital, Transforming the Vital, pp. 69-85

The Vital Nature: a Great Assistant, but an Impossible Master

Lion tamers, horse whisperers, dog trainers, all learn certain things about how to bring the vital nature into a compliant and participatory mood, to carry out the wishes of the trainer. They quickly learn that they cannot simply allow these vital beings the absolute license to do whatever they feel like doing; rather, they need to follow the direction and guidance of their trainer. They also learn that harsh discipline tends not to work and that a system of calculated rewards combined with a positive attitude and relationship, and the ability to induce a willingness to please the trainer, turns out to be the most effective approach.

If we reflect on these things, we begin to see a way to both understand and gain mastery over the vital nature. We also recognise that without the force of the vital fully engaged, the practice of any yogic sadhana is basically impossible. The vital believes it is the preeminent power, yet as the Kena Upanishad so clearly pointed out, the pride of the vital is humbled before the Supreme. Vayu’s power, the vital force, was capable of moving anything in the physical world. Yet, confronted by the Supreme Divine, it became powerless, and thus had to subordinate itself to that higher power.

The Mother observes: “It is difficult to regulate it. Yet naturally, when you have succeeded in taming it, you have something powerful in hand for realisation. It is that which can carry by storm the biggest obstacles. It is that which is capable of turning an idiot into an intelligent person — it alone can do so; for if one yearns passionately for progress, if the vital takes it into its head that one must progress, even the greatest idiot can become intelligent! I have seen this, I am not speaking from hearsay; I have seen it, I have seen people who were dull, stupid, incapable of understanding, who understood nothing — you could go on explaining something to them for months, it would not enter, as though one were speaking to a block of wood — and then all of a sudden their vital was caught in a passion: they wanted simply to please someone or get something, and for that one had to understand, one had to know, it was necessary. Well, they set everything moving, they shook up the sleeping mind, they poured energy into all the corners where there was none; and they understood, they became intelligent. I knew someone who knew nothing practically, understood nothing, and who, when the mind started moving and the passion for progress took possession of him, began to write wonderful things. I have them with me. And when the movement withdrew, when the vital went on strike (for sometimes it went on strike, and withdrew), the person became once again absolutely dull.”

“Naturally it is very difficult to establish a constant contact between the most external physical consciousness and the psychic consciousness, and oh! the physical consciousness has plenty of goodwill; it is very regular, it tries a great deal, but it is slow and heavy, it takes long, it is difficult to move it. It does not get tired, but it makes no effort; it goes its way, quietly. It can take centuries to put the external consciousness in contact with the psychic. But for some reason or other the vital takes a hand in it. A passion seizes it. It wants this contact (for some reason or other, which is not always a spiritual reason), but it wants this contact. It wants it with all its energy, all its strength, all its passion, all its fervour: in three months the thing is done.”

“So then, take great care of it. Treat it with great consideration but never submit to it. For it will drag you into all kinds of troublesome and untoward experiments; and if you succeed in convincing it in some way or other, then you will advance with giant strides on the path.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Disturbances of the Vital, Transforming the Vital, pp. 69-85

The Trouble Based on the Nature of the Vital That Needs to be Overcome

It is a universal human experience that the vital force in the being is either extremely reactive to situations, particularly when it has a desire or craving to fulfill, or, if not given its desire, it can sulk or withdraw its energy and the being goes into a state of torpor or indolence, unwilling or unable to do anything productive, and in most cases, wasting time with distractions and various forms of mindless activity or entertainment.

The question then arises as to how to get the cooperation of the vital being in the yogic process, how to obtain the goodwill and support of the vital for achievement of the yogic aims, which require energy in order to be achieved. Some have tried to overpower the vital with will, but that tends not to succeed over the long-term. Some have tried providing satisfaction to the vital of its desires as long as a certain amount of energy is given to the pursuit of the yoga. This, too, has its drawbacks as a method. In order to address this issue, the Mother first provides an overview and analysis of the ways the vital reacts and what one should look for and understand about its nature.

The Mother observes: “All your troubles, depression, discouragement, disgust, fury, all, all come from the vital. It is that which turns love into hate, it is that which induces the spirit of vengeance, rancour, bad will, the urge to destroy and to harm. It is that which discourages you when things are difficult and not to its liking. And it has an extraordinary capacity for going on strike! When it is not satisfied, it hides in a corner and does not budge. And then you have no more energy, no more strength, you have no courage left. Your will is like… like a withering plant. All resentment, disgust, fury, all despair, grief, anger — all that comes from this gentleman. For it is energy in action.”

“Therefore it depends on which side it turns. And I tell you, it has a very strong habit of going on strike. That is its most powerful weapon: ‘Ah! you are not doing what I want, well, I am not going to move, I shall sham dead.’ And it does that for the least reason. It has a very bad character; it is very touchy and it is very spiteful — yes, it is very ill-natured. For I believe it is very conscious of its power and it feels clearly that if it gives itself wholly, there is nothing that will resist the momentum of its force. And like all people who have a weight in the balance, the vital also bargains: ‘I shall give you my energy, but you must do what I want. If you do not give me what I ask for, well, I withdraw my energy.’ And you will be flat as a pancake. And it is true, it happens like that.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Disturbances of the Vital, Transforming the Vital, pp. 69-85

Transforming the Vital Nature, Part 2: Overcoming Difficulties and Obstacles on the Path

The primary initial difficulties faced by the sadhak in overcoming the vital nature are related to the Gunas of Rajas and Tamas. Rajas is naturally energetic and somewhat aggressive and thus, it tackles issues with vehemence. When it becomes frustrated or suffers a setback, it tends to recoil into tamas, with its depression and feelings of failure or weakness. While there are also at some point obstacles caused by excess of Sattwa, at least initially, it is the quality of sattwa that can aid the sadhak in overcoming the difficulties associated with the other two gunas, by developing peace and calm, patience and long-standing perseverance.

The Mother writes: “Depression, unless one has a strong will, suggests, ‘This is not worth while, one may have to wait a lifetime.’ Enthusiasm, it expects to see the vital transformed overnight: ‘I am not going to have any difficulty henceforth, I am going to advance rapidly on the path of yoga. I am going to gain the divine consciousness without any difficulty.’ There are some other difficulties …. One needs a little time, much perseverance. So the vital, after a few hours — perhaps a few days, perhaps a few months — says to itself: ‘We haven’t gone very far with our enthusiasm, has anything been really done? Doesn’t this movement leave us just where we were? — perhaps worse than we were, a little troubled, a little disturbed? Things are no longer what they were, they are not yet what they ought to be. It is very tiresome, what I am doing’ And then, if one pushes a little more, here’s this gentleman saying, ‘Ah! no, I have had enough of it, leave me alone. I don’t want to move, I shall stay in my corner, I won’t trouble you, but don’t bother me!’ and so one has not gone very much farther than before.”

“This is one of the big obstacles which must be carefully avoided. As soon as there is the least sign of discontentment, of annoyance, the vital must be spoken to in this way, ‘My friend, you are going to keep calm, you are going to do what you are asked to do, otherwise you will have to deal with me.’ And to the other, the enthusiast who says, ‘Everything must be done now, immediately’, your reply is, ‘Calm yourself a little, your energy is excellent, but it must not be spent in five minutes. We shall need it for a long time, keep it carefully and, as it is wanted, I shall call upon your goodwill. You will show that you are full of goodwill, you will obey, you won’t grumble, you will not protest, you will not revolt, you will say ‘yes, yes.’ You will make a little sacrifice when asked, you will say ‘yes’ whole-heartedly.’ “

“So we get started on the path. But the road is very long. Many things happen on the way. Suddenly one thinks one has overcome an obstacle; I say ‘thinks’, because though one has overcome it, it is not totally overcome. I am going to take a very obvious instance, of a very simple observation. Someone has found that his vital is uncontrollable and uncontrolled, that it gets furious for nothing and about nothing. He starts working to teach it not to get carried away, not to flare up, to remain calm and bear the shocks of life without reacting violently. If one does this cheerfully, it goes quite quickly (note this well, it is very important: when you have to deal with your vital, take care to keep your good humour, otherwise you will get into trouble). One keeps one’s good humour, that is, when one sees the fury rise, one begins to laugh. Instead of being depressed and saying, ‘Ah! in spite of all my effort it is beginning all over again’, one begins to laugh and says, ‘Well, well! one hasn’t yet seen the end of it. Look now, aren’t you ridiculous, you know quite well that you are being ridiculous! Is it worthwhile getting angry?’ One gives it this lesson good-humouredly. And really, after a while it doesn’t get angry again, it is quiet — and one relaxes one’s attention. One thinks the difficulty has been overcome, one thinks a result has at last been reached: ‘My vital does not trouble me any longer, it does not get angry now, everything is going fine.’ And the next day, one loses one’s temper. It is then one must be careful, it is then one must not say, ‘Here we are, it’s no use. I shall never achieve anything, all my efforts are futile; all this is an illusion, it is impossible.’ On the contrary, one must say, ‘I wasn’t vigilant enough.’ One must wait long, very long, before one can say, ‘Ah! it is done and finished.’ Sometimes one must wait for years, many years….”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Disturbances of the Vital, Transforming the Vital, pp. 69-85