Difficulties, Obstacles and the Spiritual Path

Every individual faces difficulties during his lifetime. They may be difficulties imposed due to external circumstances attendant on one’s birth, cultural or societal position, opportunities, or economic prospects. They may be difficulties that arise due to climate or natural disasters. They may also be difficulties that arise as a result of limitations of the individual or as more general manifestations of human nature as presently constituted. There are also difficulties that arise as humanity confronts the pressure and need to change, adapt and grow, leaving past habits behind and bringing in new ways of seeing, acting and relating.

The individual does not generally have much, if any, control of the external circumstances. He can, however, gain a measure of control over his own decisions, actions and reactions, and thereby participate actively in the unfolding of the future before him. This is not to say that all of these decisions or actions are painless or successful in the measure sought by the individual, of course.

For the spiritual seeker, the obstacles and difficulties are, in some cases, greatly enhanced by the increased visibility the seeker has to the inner workings of the being, and the additional conditions that those seekers have to fulfill to not only face external situations, but deal with internal reactions, energetic forces and needs of the spiritual growth of the being.

The positive side of all of this is that those who choose the spiritual life have the capacity to succeed if they remain steadfast. With the constant play of the three Gunas, the seeker should exercise care to not give way to the rise of Tamas with depression or despair that causes him to abandon the path; or, with the rise of Rajas, fall under the spell of self-seeking, vanity, greed, fame or lust, or under the spell of Sattwa, take the position of being able to determine what others should do out of spiritual pride, and then try to justify these things without recognising the spiritual peril involved.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “All who enter the spiritual path have to face the difficulties and ordeals of the path, those which rise from their own nature and those which come in from outside. The difficulties in the nature always rise again and again till you overcome them; they must be faced with both strength and patience….”

“All who cleave to the path steadfastly can be sure of their spiritual destiny. If anyone fails to reach it, it can only be for one of the two reasons, either because they leave the path or because for some lure of ambition, vanity, desire, etc. they go astray….”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter VI Growth of Consciousness, Difficulties and Pitfalls, pg. 108


Work, Devotion, Meditation and the Practice of the Integral Yoga

Whatever the predominant aspect of the individual nature, the spiritual aspiration seizes upon that as the leading power to carry the sadhana forward. Nevertheless, at some point, it is important to recognize both the value and the necessity of the other aspects for what is after all an integral yoga, with a goal of spiritual realisation and the transformation of human nature based on that realisation. This is different than past yogic practices that focused primarily on liberation and did not concern themselves with the external life at all.

The yoga of works is essential to ensure that the entire nature, including the most external parts, participate in the yogic development and to carry out the actions of transformation called for. Sole focus on meditation or devotion may lead to high spiritual experiences or the goal long sought after in the past of ‘liberation’, but they may, in today’s context, be imbalanced and fail to achieve the purpose of the integral yoga. Thus, work is considered to be essential to provide the balance and the field of opportunity to transform the outer nature.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “To say that one enters the stream of sadhana through work only is to say too much. One can enter it through meditation or bhakti also, but work is necessary to get into full stream and not drift away to one side or go circling there. Of course all work helps provided it is done in the right spirit.”

The Mother adds: “Work done in the true spirit is meditation.” and ” Let us work as we pray, for indeed work is the body’s best prayer to the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pg. 101

Dynamic Meditation

In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna poses the question to Sri Krishna as to how one can know the spiritual man, how does he walk, how does he speak, how does he act… Spiritual practitioners pose similar types of questions about meditation, as to what is the right form of meditation, how does one sit, how does one act, how does one carry out the meditation. Sri Krishna’s answer to Arjuna was that it was not the external form, but the internal substance that determined the truth. It is similarly the inner aspiration, the motivation of the seeker who meditates, that determines the effectiveness of the meditation. Meditation does not mean that one should simply sit and let ‘anything’ happen that comes up, and then, when the time is up, the individual gets up and nothing has changed or been transformed in his life. Meditation is not simply to withdraw from activity. A question that can be asked is whether the individual is the same after the meditation as before the meditation. What has changed? In fairness, some types of meditation will of course not bear obvious fruit after a single attempt. So one can look back and see whether after any period of time, one day, or one week, or one month, etc., the meditation has made the individual more reflective, more insightful, more compassionate, more understanding, more in tune with the divine purpose of his life. If it is not moving the seeker forward in the spiritual practice, then it is simply a static exercise that may help relax the individual, but does not go much farther. The dynamic form of meditation will have a transformative effect, and that is how one can see the difference over time.

A disciple asks: “How is it done? Is it done in a different way?”

The Mother observes: “I think it is the aspiration that should be different, the attitude should be different. ‘Different way’ — what do you mean by ‘way’ (laughing) the way of sitting?… Not that? The inner way?”


“But for each one it is different. … I think the most important thing is to know why one meditates; this is what gives the quality of the meditation and makes it of one order or another. … You may meditate to open yourself to the divine Force, you may meditate to reject the ordinary consciousness, you may meditate to enter the depths of your being, you may meditate to learn how to give yourself integrally; you may meditate for all kinds of things. You may meditate to enter into peace and calm and silence — this is what most people generally do, but without much success. But you may also meditate to receive the Force of transformation, to discover the points to be transformed, to trace out the line of progress. And then you may also meditate for very practical reasons: when you have a difficulty to clear up, a solution to find, when you want help in some action or other. You may meditate for that too.”

“I think everyone has his own mode of meditation. But if one wants the meditation to be dynamic, one must have an aspiration for progress and the meditation must be done to help and fulfil this aspiration for progress. Then it becomes dynamic.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter V Growth of Consciousness, Means and Methods, pp. 88-89

Purification of the Being Is More Essential Than Extraordinary Spiritual Experiences

The vital nature revels in having extraordinary experiences that arise as a result of spiritual practice or some type of opening to other planes of being. These experiences support the ego, making the individual feel special, uniquely qualified and selected for spiritual progress, and they are frequently ‘shown off’ to others as a type of spiritual “one-upmanship” and as a sign of authority to exercise influence or power over others.

Spiritual experiences have their role and purpose; yet, in an unprepared vessel, they can create enormous psychological imbalances, emotional or nervous upset and even disruptions to the health and well-being of the physical body.

Sometimes an experience comes on its own, unexpected and unplanned, particularly as the seeker begins to open to the spiritual energies. This type of experience is generally short-lived and gives the seeker faith or confidence in the focus he has decided on for his life. In some cases, the experience may come and totally disrupt the life-plans or career-focus of an individual, such that he heads off in a totally different direction. Yet these are not things that should be sought after for repetition but seen as signs or markers along the way. The longer lasting work is to systematically address and deal with the limitations and weaknesses of human nature and turn the being entirely toward the Divine Presence. This is not accomplished through ‘headline’ experiences, but through solid, day to day efforts done with patience and persistence.

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother emphasize that the long-term need is to create a vessel that is capable of holding the force when it enters the being without either spilling it or breaking down the various elements of the being.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “Do not be over-eager for experiences, for experiences you can always get, having once broken the barrier between the physical mind and the subtle planes. What you have to aspire for most is the improved quality of the recipient consciousness in you, discrimination in the mind, the unattached impersonal Witness look on all that goes on in you and around you, purity in the vital, calm equanimity, enduring patience, absence of pride and the sense of greatness — and more especially, the development of the psychic being in you — surrender, self-giving, psychic humility, devotion. It is a consciousness made up of these things, cast in this mould, that can bear without breaking, stumbling or deviation into error the rush of lights, power and experiences from the supraphysical planes. An entire perfection in these respects is hardly possible until the whole nature from the higher mind to the subconscient physical is made one in the light that is greater than the mind, but a sufficient foundation and a consciousness always self-observant, vigilant and growing in these things is indispensable — for perfect purification is the basis of the perfect Siddhi.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter IV Growth of Consciousness First Steps and Foundation, pg. 64

Focusing on the Dedicated Action, Not the Immediately Visible Results

In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna teaches Arjuna that he has the right to action, but not to attachment to the fruits of the action, i.e. the results. In our world today we are fixated on the destination, not the ‘journey’ and we measure everything by the immediate results we obtain. This process is bound to develop frustration, dissatisfaction and impatience as the type of change we seek in yoga is not something that can be measured in a tangible way from day to day.

The other issue, not frequently appreciated, is that in some cases, changes take place below the level of perception and do not become visible until a certain quanta of change has taken place, at which point it may appear to be a ‘sudden’ change, when in fact, it has been developing in the background for quite some time. This is similar to the threshold of light photons required to ‘fire’ the eyes to see something. Until sufficient photons are active, everything is dark.

A disciple asks: “When we make an effort to do better but don’t see any progress, we feel discouraged. What is the best thing to do?”

The Mother responds: “Not to be discouraged! Despondency leads nowhere. … To begin with, the first thing to tell yourself is that you are almost entirely incapable of knowing whether you are making progress or not, for very often what seems to us to be a state of stagnation is a long — sometimes long, but in any case not endless — preparation for a leap forward. We sometimes seem to be marking time for weeks or months, and then suddenly something that was being prepared makes its appearance, and we see that there is quite a considerable change and on several points at a time.”

“As with everything in yoga, the effort for progress must be made for the love of the effort for progress. The joy of effort, the aspiration for progress must be enough in themselves, quite independent of the result. Everything one does in yoga must be done for the joy of doing it, and not in view of the result one wants to obtain…. Indeed, in life, always, in all things, the result does not belong to us. And if we want to keep the right attitude, we must act, feel, think, strive spontaneously, for that is what we must do, and not in view of the result to be obtained.”

“As soon as we think of the result we begin to bargain and that takes away all sincerity from the effort. You make an effort to progress because you feel within you the need, the imperative need to make an effort and progress; and this effort is the gift you offer to the Divine Consciousness in you, the Divine Consciousness in the Universe, it is your way of expressing your gratitude, offering your self; and whether this results in progress or not is of no importance. You will progress when it is decided that the time has come to progress and not because you desire it.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter III Growth of Consciousness Basic Requisites, pp. 59-60

Impatience and the Practice of Yoga

Impatience is endemic to modern day society. We expect everything immediately. If it does not come, we exhibit frustration, annoyance, anger and a disturbed energy which impacts the body, the life-energy, the nervous envelope and the mental state. Impatience, therefore, creates an energetic state that is diametrically opposed to that required for yogic development.

Impatience is rooted in the ego-personality and its desires. The action of the desire-soul in the vital is one of the main impediments to progress in yoga, and a focus on immediate results, with a rise of impatience that accompanies this focus, actually retards the yogic process.

Swami Vivekananda in his lectures on Raja Yoga, describes the chitta, or mind-stuff and its disturbances. The practices of Raja Yoga work to bring the mind-stuff to a state of tranquility, whereby it can reflect the higher divine reality without distortion. He also points out the intimate connection between the breath and the status of the nervous sheath and the mind-stuff, and he recommends the practice of pranayama as a means to achieve the needed state of tranquility. These practices may provide an aid to gaining control over the force of impatience, but the true underlying necessity is for the seeker to begin to observe the reactions within the being to the circumstances of life and reorient the way he responds. This involves a complete change in levels of expectation, concerns for the fulfillment of vital desires, the attempt to achieve results in the outer world in the form of ambition, power, wealth or status of any sort. Each of these things act upon the psychology to develop impatience in its various forms. None of these realisations or the steps to actually put them into practice occurs overnight. It is a process over the course of time as the seeker gains successive understanding of the subtlety of his mind, his emotions, his vital-nervous reactions and even his bodily needs and tendencies.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “Impatience is always a mistake, it does not help but hinders. A quiet happy faith and confidence is the best foundation for sadhana; for the rest a constant opening wide of oneself to receive with an aspiration which may be intense, but must always be calm and steady. Full yogic realisation does not come all at once, it comes after a long preparation of the Adhar which may take a long time.”

“The power needed in yoga is the power to go through effort, difficulty or trouble without getting fatigued, depressed, discouraged or impatient and without breaking off the effort or giving up one’s aim or resolution.”

“Whatever method is used, persistence and perseverance are essential. For whatever method is used, the complexity of the natural resistance will be there to combat it.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter III Growth of Consciousness Basic Requisites, pp. 57-58

The Limitations of Religious Worship for Spiritual Growth and Development

Worship of an external deity, an avatar, savior or enlightened being is recognised as a sign of religious dedication on the part of an individual. In many instances, however, this form of worship is a more or less empty ritual that is part of a societal expectation or norm, or operates as a mechanism for indoctrination and control, but does not necessarily effectuate any deeper change in the being. Founders and leaders of some of the great religions speak of an inner change that must take place to follow their teachings. Compassion, peacefulness, goodwill, sharing, a non-judgmental attitude toward others, represent just a few of the qualities that these leaders ask their followers to incorporate in their lives. How frequently, however, have we seen religion turned into a weapon and a cause for hatred, destruction, oppression, suffering and greed! Some of the people most outwardly devotional seem to, at some point, turn their devotion into a desire to control, dominate, convert or ‘put to the sword’ those who follow a different religious belief.

The difference between organised religion and spirituality lies precisely in the need to shift from an outer form of worship to an inward process of growth and maturation. What a number of the great religious personalities of the past have called upon their followers and true believers to do was not to wage war against others in the name of the religion, but to inculcate within themselves and enliven the tenets of the religion in their own inner reactions and in the way they relate to those around them.

Worshipping a great soul is therefore insufficient. What is needed is for the individual to work at transforming himself into such a great soul! The great leaders recognise that all are one, part of the same universal manifestation and their role is to provide an example, an influence and an encouragement for us to grow and represent what it is we want to worship in their lives and existence. We are not to worship the Divine from afar, and create a separation and gap between God and man; rather, we are to bring the Divine into our lives and close the gap so that we recognise our inherent oneness with the Divine.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “… It is not sufficient to worship Krishna, Christ or Buddha without, if there is not the revealing and the formation of the Buddha, the Christ or Krishna in ourselves. And all other aids equally have no other purpose; each is a bridge between man’s unconverted state and the revelation of the Divine within him.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter III Growth of Consciousness Basic Requisites, pg. 53

Overcoming Negative Suggestions Through Faith in One’s Spiritual Destiny

How many times in the course of an individual’s practice of yoga do thoughts of failure and lack of capacity or ability to succeed intervene and work to create doubt and despair? If allowed to dominate the being, the quest fails, at least for the time being, or for the rest of the current lifetime, as it requires the willing and persevering dedication of the individual to stay the course. What brings these thoughts and feelings into prominence? No individual is fully competent at the beginning, or even for a great while on the path, to perfectly represent the expected results of the yogic practice. This is a progressive development, taking time and thus, defeats along the way are both to be expected and overcome by renewed efforts. Each individual has multiple different aspects to his being, some of which enthusiastically support the focus and dedication needed, while other aspects hold onto cherished ideas, ideals, emotions and vital desires. These parts continually try to convince the seeker that the focus is misguided, that there are other potential goals and avenues for success in life, and that major chances are being thrown away by the yogic process. It is not, however, just these various parts of the being which set forth contradictory goals and ideals. There is also the impact of one’s social environment, family, friends, associates, who each work to encourage the seeker to give up the quest and follow the normal path laid out by the society within which he has been born and raised. But even this is not the end of the attempt to waylay the seeker along the path. There are also larger forces which are hostile and inimical to the eventual goal of the yoga, and these forces exert tremendous pressure on those who seek to progress.

All of these opposing forces take advantage of the weaknesses and failures to imply to the seeker that he is unfit, that he can never succeed, and that what is asked of him is too hard to achieve. These all push the ego personality into a state of despondency and despair, with the goal of having the seeker leave aside the yogic process and take up another direction where success is more in line with the normal expectations of the society. It is thus necessary for the seeker to arm himself against these negative suggestions, whether they arise internally or as a pressure from outside, and make the commitment, based on his inherent faith in the truth that his soul has recognised, to continue on, no matter what failures, no matter what difficulties, no matter what obstructions stand in the way.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “To be always observing faults and wrong movements brings depression and discourages the faith.” A disciple requests clarification from the Mother: “How does it discourage the faith?”

The Mother responds: “The faith spoken about is faith in the divine Grace and the final success of the undertaking. You have begun the yoga and have faith that you will go through to the end of your yoga. But if you spend all your time looking at all that prevents you from advancing, then finally you say, ‘Ah, I shall never succeed! It is not possible. If it goes on in this way, I shall never get there.’ So this is to lose one’s faith. One must always keep the faith that one is sure to succeed.”

“Many people begin, and then after some time come and tell you, ‘Oh, I shall never be able to go through. I have too many difficulties.’ So this means not having faith. If one has started, one begins with the faith that one will reach the goal. Well, this faith should be kept till the very end. Keeping one’s faith, one attains the end. But if in the middle of the road you turn back saying, ‘No, I can’t’, then, obviously you will not reach the end. Some people start on the way and then, after some time, they find it heavy-going, tiring, difficult, and also that they themselves, their legs, don’t walk well, their feet begin to ache, etc. You see, they say, ‘Oh, it is very hard to go forward.’ So instead of saying, ‘I have started, I shall go through’, which is the only thing to do, they stand there, stop there, lamenting and saying, ‘Oh, I shall never be able to succeed’, and then they leave the path. So obviously, if they leave the path, they will never succeed. This is to lose one’s faith.”

“To keep one’s faith is to say, ‘Good, I have difficulties but I am going on.’ Despair — that’s what cuts off your legs, stops you, leaves you like this: ‘It is over, I can’t go on any longer.’ It is indeed finished, and that’s something which should not be allowed.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter III Growth of Consciousness Basic Requisites, pp. 44-45

Progressively Becoming Conscious

Everyone believes they are ‘conscious’. Spiritual seekers, especially, having awakened from the purely mechanical, habitual processes of the external life, certainly believe they are conscious. Those who believe in various religious traditions, by virtue of that belief, accept that they are conscious. This belief, however, does not change the facts of their lives, or the numerous areas where their lives are purely based in habit and a form of dull sleepwalking.

Sometimes an individual has an experience that shocks him out of the comfort zone of his daily beliefs, acts and perceptions. An intense spiritual experience can do that. Based on this experience, the seeker now believes that he is conscious. In some religious traditions he will understand that he has been “born again into the spirit”. However, the experience is a momentary phenomenon and generally the seeker quickly reverts to established patterns, habits and ways of seeing, thinking, acting and interacting.

It is possible also to be relatively conscious in one aspect or part of the being, while remaining unconscious in other parts of the being. The human being is a complex amalgam of physical, vital, mental and psycho-spiritual elements and they do not all progress in the same way or at the same time, or at the same speed.

The Mother was asked the question: When can one say that one is conscious?

The Mother responds: “That is always a relative question. One is never altogether unconscious and one is never completely conscious. It is a progressive state. … But a time comes when instead of doing things automatically, impelled by a consciousness and force of which one is quite unaware — a time comes when one can observe what goes on in oneself, study one’s movements, find their causes, and at the same time begin to exercise a control first over what goes on within us, then on the influence cast on us from outside which makes us act, in the beginning altogether unconsciously and almost involuntarily, but gradually more and more consciously; and the will can wake up and react. Then at that moment, the moment there is a conscious will capable of reacting, one may say, ‘I have become conscious.’ This does not mean that it is a total and perfect consciousness, it means that it is a beginning: for example, when one is able to observe all the reactions in one’s being and to have a certain control over them, to let those one approves of have play, and to control, stop, annul those one doesn’t approve of. … Besides, you must become aware within of something like a goal or a purpose or an ideal you want to realise; something other than the mere instinct which impels you to live without your knowing why or how. At that time you may say you are conscious, but it doesn’t mean you are perfectly conscious. And moreover, this perfection is so progressive that I believe nobody can say he is perfectly conscious; he is on the way to becoming perfectly conscious, but he isn’t yet.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter I Emergence from Unconsciousness, pp. 8-9

The Subtle Higher Forces of Existence Create Our External Being and Action

When looked at from the outside, it seems that Matter came first and out of Matter arose Life and out of Life arose Mind. What is not addressed here is how material forces were able to create life and intelligence, in a seemingly random fashion. This is why some religious traditions posit that there is an external, all-powerful Being (God) who creates everything, since Matter, on its own, simply is not able to create something beyond itself. The New Testament of the Bible begins with an intriguing statement of “in the beginning was the Word”. This points to a non-material original cause of existence.

When we observe the working of human intelligence applied to any situation, we see that imagination, concept, idea, thought, and planning precede the actual creation of any material form that an individual may envision. Thus, there are many who hold that the more subtle power of thought is in fact the causative factor. If we follow this logic further, we find that there are even more subtle, and powerful, causative elements that create thought itself.

In the Taittiriya Upanishad, a seeker tries to discover the reality behind existence, as he seeks for the Eternal. His father, his teacher, tells him to seek that by which all is born, by which all live, and into which all things enter again upon death and dissolution. The seeker begins with the idea of Matter but soon finds that he cannot explain everything as resultant from Matter. He continues the process, eventually coming to Knowledge and Bliss as the true powers of creation.

Western scientists, following a similar process have delved deeply into Matter. They eventually found that Matter does not exist! It is actually a form of Energy. Further, they find that Energy is a form of Consciousness. Consciousness pervades, permeates and constitutes the universal creation.

The actual moving powers in existence are not those we observe on the surface. Just as we are misled when we believe the sun rotates around the earth, or that the earth-existence is at the center of the universe, so also we are similarly misled about what causes us to exist, to live, to act, to think and to grow.

Dr. Dalal observes: “A salient aspect of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga pertaining to the psychology of inner growth is its view of the inner and higher planes of consciousness as dynamic forces. Though hidden from the outer surface consciousness, the inner and higher parts of the being exercise on the surface parts of the being a constant influence and pressure, pushing towards the evolution and growth of consciousness. alluding to the ‘decisive part played by the higher planes [of consciousness] in the earth-evolution’, Sri Aurobindo writes: “Our development takes place very largely by their superior but hidden action upon the earth-plane. All is contained in the inconscient or the subconscient, but in potentiality; it is the action from above that helps to compel an emergence. A continuance of that action is necessary to shape and determine the progression of the mental and vital forms which our evolution takes in material nature; for these progressive movements cannot find their full momentum or sufficiently develop their implications against the resistance of an inconscient or inert and ignorant material Nature except by a constant though occult resort to higher supraphysical forces of their own character. This resort, the action of this veiled alliance, takes place principally in our subliminal being and not on the surface: it is from there that the active power of our consciousness emerges, and all that it realises it sends back constantly into the subliminal being to be stored up, developed and re-emerge in stronger forms hereafter. This interaction of our larger hidden being and our surface personality is the main secret of the rapid development that operates in man once he has passed beyond the lower stages of Mind immersed in Matter.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Introduction, pp. xiii-xiv