Dealing With Physical Pain

In various places, Sri Aurobindo describes the possibility of pain becoming for the spiritual practitioner an intense form of spiritual bliss, Ananda. He is describing the psychological experience of a realized soul who has separated himself from attachment to and identification with the physical body. This is intended to show that vibrations experienced can have a different result when the individual shifts the standpoint of the consciousness. It is not meant as a prescription to ‘enjoy pain’. If pain comes to one, and one has the ability to distance oneself from it through such means, as a realized soul, then it is psychologically neutralized, but the underlying cause of the pain is not resolved.

For those who still have substantial identification with the body consciousness, and who are attempting to live a life in the world, pain has both a purpose and a measure of usefulness. It alerts the individual to some issue, imbalance or acute injury that needs to be looked after; and it awakens the awareness to make some effort. Those who are fully satisfied and comfortable tend to be less likely to take steps to achieve radical change in their lives than those who feel pressure or pain at some level.

The Mother has another viewpoint that goes to the root of physical pain. Such pain is caused by injury, indisposition, illness or disease. The cause of the pain obviously needs to be addressed. Thereafter, the Mother points out, the pain no longer serves a useful purpose as it has already done its job of alerting the individual to the concern. One could feel that until the underlying cause is fixed, the pain remains as a constant reminder; yet it can be both distracting and counter-productive. Thus, one should find a way to ‘turn off’ the pain after it has provided the necessary feedback from the part of the body that is affected.

Of course, achieving such an ability to ‘turn off’ pain generally requires some amount of discipline and self-training; yet there are individuals who have undertaken such a step. The philosophical approach of stoicism is very much rooted in this idea. There are even popular examples of individuals, such as Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist, who systematically bathed in ice in order to accustom his body to dealing with what would ordinarily be an extremely painful experience. Many yogis and shaman have shown tremendous ability to dissociate from pain by walking on or sleeping on a bed of nails, or walking over hot coals, etc. Boxers learn to deal with the pain of taking blows. Other individuals learn how to accept and distance themselves from various insect or snake bites. We see numerous examples in the world of strategies to simply do away with the psychological connection of pain when the body is injured.

There are individuals who are known as ‘masochists’ who indeed take pleasure in painful experience–in this case however, there is a vital satisfaction they obtain through what is essentially a perverse calling upon oneself of pain to try to achieve some vital excitement or satisfaction.

A disciple once asked: “Sweet Mother, how can one transform pain into forms of pleasure?”

The Mother responded: “Ah! but that’s not something to be done, my children. I shall certainly not give you the method! It is a perversion. … The first thing and the most indispensable is to nullify the pain by cutting the connection. You see, one becomes conscious of the pain because it is there. … For example, you have cut your finger, there’s a nerve that has been affected, and so the nerve quickly goes to tell the brain, up there, that something has happened which is wrong, here. That is what gives you the pain to awaken your attention, to tell you: ‘You know, there’s something wrong.’ Then the thought immediately feels anxious: ‘What is wrong? Oh! how it hurts’, etc., etc. — then returns to the finger and tries to arrange what is not yet destroyed. Usually one puts a small bandage. But in order not to have the pain, if it hurts very much, you must quite simply cut the connection by thought, saying to the nerve, ‘Now remain quiet, you have done your work, you have warned me, you don’t need to say anything any longer; ploff! I am stopping you.’ And when you do it well you suffer no longer, it is finished, you stop the pain completely. That is the best thing. It is infinitely preferable to telling yourself that it is painful.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Disturbances of the Body and Physical Consciousness, Will, Discipline, Endurance, pp. 88-90

The Vital Envelope, the Aura, and Its Protection of the Physical Body

People speak about an aura surrounding the physical body. Because many people cannot physically see the aura, they remain skeptical about its existence. This however is not a proof of its non-existence. Occultists and those who have developed subtle sense perception have described the aura around the body over the course of thousands of years. Western science has confirmed the existence of many unseen things, including electricity, atomic radiation and gravity, and in recent decades, through the use of Kirlian photography, and meters which can measure subtle electrical impulses, they have shown that the aura indeed exists.

An example of such an experiment took place in India at Jipmer hospital, where a researcher invited a lay person to visit his laboratory. There he showed Kirlian photographs illustrating the aura of various beings and objects. Since Kirlian photography was treated by many as somehow a ‘pseudo science’ he proposed an experiment to prove its validity. A subject had his hand photographed and there was a visible, but weakly outlined aura. He was then asked to chant or pray for a few minutes, which he did. The next photograph showed a very strong and vibrant aura radiating off the fingers. This showed not only the impact of chanting on the aura, but also showed that Kirlian photography was able to show differences, thereby validating its process.

Extensive research on the aura has shown that various forms of illness are related to a weak aura, or as the Mother calls it the ‘vital envelope’. Various emotional states have been shown to strengthen or weaken this vital envelope. Fear, doubt, anger, rage, and various other emotional states may either create ‘holes’ in the aura, or may create an artificial spike which later, when it recedes is shown to sap the energy, thus, compromising the integrity of the aura.

The Mother indicates that this envelope is a strong protection for the physical body, so that when it is weakened, it allows various forces or vibrations to enter and attack the integrity of the physical being. Actions done to strengthen the coherence and integrity of the aura are therefore protective of the physical body.

The Mother writes: “The vital body surrounds the physical body with a kind of envelope which has almost the same density as the vibrations of heat observable when the day is very hot. And it is this which is the intermediary between the subtle body and the most material vital body. It is this which protects the body from all contagion, fatigue, exhaustion and even from accidents. Therefore if this envelope is wholly intact, it protects you from everything, but a little too strong an emotion, a little fatigue, some dissatisfaction or any shock whatsoever is sufficient to scratch it as it were and the slightest scratch allows any kind of intrusion. Medical science also now recognises that if you are in perfect vital equilibrium, you do not catch illness or in any case you have a kind of immunity from contagion. If you have this equilibrium, this inner harmony which keeps the envelope intact, it protects you from everything. There are people who lead quite an ordinary life, who know how to sleep as one should, eat as one should, and their nervous envelope is so intact that they pass through all dangers as though unconcerned. It is a capacity one can cultivate in oneself. If one becomes aware of the weak spot in one’s envelope, a few minutes’ concentration, a call to the force, an inner peace is sufficient for it to be all right, get cured, and for the untoward thing to vanish.”

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

Why Do Some People Believe the Practice of Yoga Causes Illness or Death?

People in the West who have been introduced to yoga, primarily Hatha Yoga, come to understand that there can be substantial health benefits to the practice of yoga. Meditation has also been shown to help reduce stress, aid in achieving rest and sleep, and thereby enhance health for the practitioner. With all of these known and supported benefits, we still see that in some people’s minds there is a connection between ill health and yoga.

It is true that extreme austerities can weaken the physical and nervous frame and thus, may indeed undermine basic health in various ways. It is also true that Pranayama practiced incorrectly can cause tremendous disruptions to the energy flow and lead to illness or death. Further, it is true that a practitioner may inadvertently or purposefully open up to various forces from other planes of existence, the energies and direction of which may be harmful to the life-force and the physical being. The practice of yoga may also lead to the action of powerful forces for which the practitioner has not been sufficiently prepared, thus leading to issues in ‘holding’ the force that is working. It has been said that in some cases a master, a guru, may actually take on various karmic burdens of a disciple, and this may have a negative impact on the guru’s health and well-being! In some cases, realized souls choose to take on illness and death to aid others in their spiritual development. The example of Milarepa, who consciously allowed himself to be poisoned in order to convert a jealous opponent.

All human beings are subject to illness and death at this point. Yogic practitioners are not excluded. There are methods to enhance the life-force and physical strength and resistance to illness which some yogic practitioners employ. Thus yoga can actually be a benefit to health.

Any human being who undertakes actions beyond the capacities of the mind, life or body will find that issues arise. Even if the mind is focused, there is still the possibility that vital or physical forces may act to break down the health. Just because someone is practicing yoga does not make him exempt from the basic law of Nature under which we currently live and act. Until that day comes when the body has been fully transformed, Nature will wind up taking its course. This cannot be laid at the door of ‘yoga’ per se. On the contrary, yoga may help to hasten the advent of the longer-term evolutionary changes that will wind up overcoming the body’s receptivity to illness and death.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “There is a sort of traditional belief in many minds that the practice of yoga is inimical to the health of the body and tends to have a bad effect of one kind or another and even finally leads to a premature or an early dropping of the body. Ramakrishna seems to have held the view, if we can judge from his remarks about the connection between Keshav Sen’s progress in spirituality and the illness which undermined him, that one was the result and the desirable result of the other, a liberation and release from life in this world, mukti. That may or may not be; but I find it difficult to believe that illness and deterioration of the body is the natural and general result of the practice of yoga or that that practice is the cause of an inevitable breakdown of health or of the final illnesses which bring about departure from the body. On what ground are we to suppose or how can it be proved that while non-yogis suffer from ill-health and die because of the disorders of Nature, yogis die of their yoga? Unless a direct connection between their death and their practice of yoga can be proved — and this could be proved with certainty only in particular cases and even then not with an absolute certainty — there is no sufficient reason to believe in such a difference. It is more rational to conclude that both yogis and non-yogis fall ill and die from natural causes and by the same dispensation of Nature; one might even advance the view, since they have the Yoga-Shakti at their disposal if they choose to use it, that the yogi falls ill and dies not because of but in spite of his yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Illness, pp 318-322

Developing and Maintaining an Effective Attitude Towards Illness for the Spiritual Seeker

One of the challenges all human individuals, including spiritual seekers and yoga practitioners, have to face, is the issue of illness. Illness was described as one of the ‘four noble truths’ by the Buddha, when he described the human condition and why he recommended that people take up the spiritual life to escape the suffering of human existence.

Spiritual paths have tried numerous different ways to deal with illness when it comes. Some of them simply accept it as a fact of human life and try not to let it interfere with their spiritual effort. Others try to use various forms of faith healing or ‘mind over matter’ practices to overcome or prevent illness. Some paths develop extensive methodologies to create new power and endurance in the body and some use mantras to cure diseases! Sri Aurobindo reported once that his brother was violently feverish and a wandering yogi came by, said mantras over a glass of water and after partaking of the water, his brother was cured.

Some years ago a researcher at Jipmer Hospital, Pondicherry was doing research on using vibrations to both diagnose and cure diseases. He was infecting mice with cancer cells and he monitored the tumor growth and took regular photographs, including Kirlian images, to monitor the progress of the disease. He also measured the vibrational pattern of both sick and healthy mice. At a certain point in time he began to play back the vibrational pattern of the healthy mice to the sick mice, and was able to document the reduction of the tumors! Clearly new vibrational patterns as they develop have the opportunity to enhance the strength and resistance of the body to disease, and even cure disease once it has gained a foothold.

In Sri Aurobindo’s integral yoga, the body is the physical foundation for the transformation of life on earth through the next evolutionary manifestation. As this occurs, changes can and must occur in the physical being as also in the vital and mental levels to embody the new force and give it its complete scope. In the interim, while the seekers are still immersed in the current normal human consciousness, the body should be kept fit and strong, as possible, without either giving too much influence to its demands, or getting caught up in focusing entirely on the illness of the body when it comes.

.Sri Aurobindo notes: “Your theory of illness is rather a perilous creed — for illness is a thing to be eliminated, not accepted or enjoyed. There is something in the being that enjoys illness, it is possible even to turn the pains of illness like any other pain into a form of pleasure; for pain and pleasure are both of them degradations of the original Ananda and can be reduced into the terms of each other or else sublimated into their original principle of Ananda. It is true also that one must be able to bear illness with calm, equanimity, endurance, even recognition of it, since it has come, as something that has to be passed through in the course of experience. But to accept and enjoy it means to help it to last and that will not do; for illness is a deformation of the physical nature just as lust, anger, jealousy, etc., are deformations of the vital nature and error and prejudice and indulgence of falsehood are deformations of the mental nature. All these things have to be eliminated and rejection is the first condition of their disappearance while acceptance has a contrary effect altogether.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Illness, pp 318-322

A Balanced Approach to Dealing with Illness and the Health of the Body for the Yogic Practitioner

The traditional Western approach to health and well-being sees the human body as under attack and health is a matter for defense and counter-attack against the causes of illness in the form of bacteria and viruses. In cases where the process of illness or deterioration of the capacities of the body which are not subject to resolution through pharmaceutical drugs, surgery is considered to be a primary option.

In recent decades, this approach has been subjected to considerable modification as a deeper understanding of the interaction between mind, emotions and body takes hold, and as the influence of diet, lifestyle, stress, pollution, etc. have been recognised. This brings the Western approach more into alignment, although not fully aligned, with the long-standing approach and understanding we find in the East, both in Chinese traditional healing and in sciences such as Ayurveda from India.

For the yogic practitioner, there are several issues that need to be taken into account and balanced. First, the basic stability of the body as the ‘seat’ (asana) of the yogic practice must be assured. This means that a body wracked by illness and dominated by weakness is not generally the most fit instrument for yogic progress. While it is true that progress can be made regardless of one’s outer circumstances, including health-status, it is also true that this issue can become a distraction, obstacle and hindrance that needs to be overcome.

Second, the yogic practitioner should not have to devote inordinate time and attention to the body and its needs, so that he can refocus and tune the consciousness toward the higher spiritual endeavour. The need to harmonize between taking care, and not placing too much attention on the body, is one that requires a fine sense of balance on the part of the seeker.

The vital nature of man wants to feel that it is ‘doing something’ and is ‘succeeding’. Thus, we want to employ vigorous methods and see instant results. Yet the best approach may turn out to be the one that requires the least effort!

Yogic practitioners are not required to give up the benefits of human progress, and thus, may choose to employ medicines, vaccines, surgery, and urgent care options as they may find helpful, without at the same time adopting the entire philosophical approach underpinning the Western model of health and healing. These can be understood as supports or physical carriers of the will to health that is required.

The influence of the mind and emotions on the body is another factor that can be utilized to positive effect without undue attention being paid. Simply keeping a positive attitude about health and wellness, and treating the body with respect can go a long way toward achieving the balance and harmony needed so that the yogic practitioner can focus on the shifting of attention toward the spiritual endeavour. Yoga requires a strong aspiration and will on the part of the seeker, and needs strength on all levels of the being for the eventual success of the sadhana. In the long run, the advent of a higher spiritual force in action will have its own impact on the strength, resistance and well-being of the physical body, as it begins to change the way the cells and organ systems respond and deal with the pressures of bodily existence.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Care should be taken of the body certainly, the care that is needed for its good condition, rest, sleep, proper food, sufficient exercise; what is not good is too much preoccupation with it, anxiety, despondency in the illness, etc., for these things only favour the prolongation of ill-health or weakness. For such things as the liver attacks treatment can always be taken when necessary.”

“But it is always the right inner poise, quietude inward and outward, faith, the opening of the body consciousness to the Mother and her Force that are the true means of recovery — other things can only be minor aids and devices.”

“Above all, do not harbour that idea of an unfit body — all suggestions of that kind are a subtle attack on the will to siddhi and especially dangerous in physical matters. It has been cropping up in several people who are doing the yoga and the first business is to expel it bag and baggage. Appearances and facts may be all in its favour, but the first condition of success for the yogin and indeed for anybody who wants to do anything great or unusual is to be superior to facts and disbelieve in appearances. Will to be free from disease, however formidable, many-faced or constant its attacks, and repel all contrary suggestions.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Illness, pp 318-322

The Role of Medicine in Treating Illness for the Practitioner of Yoga

The spiritual seeker often is confronted with a situation that seems to pit faith against medical science. The debate between religion and science goes back millennia and this is one small part of that larger debate. Those who are dedicated practitioners are asked to face all difficulties with faith in the Divine intervention protecting and supporting them. Therefore, they are asked to call upon the Divine when they face physical illness or challenges. For many this means they should not use medicine, consult doctors or take precautions such as immunizations against virulent diseases.

They are shocked when they wind up sick, or dying, and either respond with the fatalistic idea that they were intended to suffer this, or even be ‘called’ to depart their earthly life; or else, they feel like they have been abandoned, possibly because of some failure in their expression of faith.

Sri Aurobindo takes a deeper look at the issue and points out that the individual is not consistently and harmoniously perfect in bringing their faith and aspiration into all parts of their being, and thus, there is a process that takes place, through time, that needs to understand the complexity of the transformation that is called for, the various different aspects of the being, and the need to systematically open up the receptivity and acceptance of the transformative change in each part of the being. This does not happen overnight, and thus, there will be divergences between the faith and the response of the physical body along the way. Yoga depends on strength of body, life and mind, and thus, taking support from means developed by mental processes, such as medical science, is not a deviation from faith, but a support of the evolutionary growth that needs to occur.

There are many potential causes of illness, including some that arise through the pressure of the sadhana acting upon parts of the being that are not sufficiently receptive, as well as overbearing pressure of some mental idea, overly ambitious vital activity as well as purely physical issues that impact the body. Fear also can set up a reaction that weakens the protective vital sheath and opens the way to what one fears. One way or the other, illness eventually needs to be rejected or overcome, and this can take place through the action of any particular force or combination of forces in the being, including, for the spiritual seeker, the action of the higher Force as it descends and opens up the being to its action.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “Illness marks some imperfection or weakness or else opening to adverse touches in the physical nature and is often connected also with some obscurity or disharmony in the lower vital or the physical mind or elsewhere.”

“It is very good if one can get rid of illness entirely by faith and yoga-power or the influx of the Divine Force. But very often this is not altogether possible, because the whole nature is not open or able to respond to the Force. The mind may have faith and respond, but the lower vital and the body may not follow. Or, if the mind and vital are ready, the body may not respond, or may respond only partially, because it has the habit of replying to the forces which produce a particular illness, and habit is a very obstinate force in the material part of the nature. In such cases the use of the physical means can be resorted to, — not as the main means, but as a help or material support to the action of the Force. Not strong and violent remedies, but those that are beneficial without disturbing the body.”

“As for medical treatment it is sometimes a necessity. If one can cure by the Force as you have often done it is the best — but if for some reason the body is not able to respond to the Force (e.g. owing to doubt, lassitude or discouragement or for inability to react against the disease), then the aid of medical treatment becomes necessary. It is not that the Force ceases to act and leaves all to the medicines, — it will continue to act through the consciousness but take the support of the treatment so as to act directly on the resistance in the body, which responds more readily to physical means in its ordinary consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Illness, pp 318-322

Illness and Immunity

The human being is composed of a number of different forces working along their own lines and attempting to find some kind of harmonious interaction between the parts of the being. There is the physical body, the vital being, the mental being, the psychic being and the spiritual planes beyond that. Many times, the vital or the mental adopts a mode of action without taking into account the needs, and limitations, of the physical body. This is true for spiritual seekers as well as those living the life of the world. In such instances, actions or decisions are taken which force the body and push its past its limits. If proper care is taken, training and development done, and time spent wisely in creating the right circumstances for the physical body, one can see what appear to be extraordinary results. However, in many cases, people believe that holding a mental idea about something means that ‘with faith’ they have actually succeeded in the needed transitions and changes. People can read all about swimming for instance, understand the principles of swimming and ‘how to do it’, but in the end, until they actually get in the water and work to coordinate the body to the action, they don’t actually know how to swim.

Similarly, spiritual seekers frequently extrapolate the achievement of the end result from the aspiration held in front of their vision. This can lead, however, to extraordinary breakdowns when the seeker finds that the body simply is not prepared or readied for what the mind is prepared to exact upon it.

This same issue arises with respect to illness and the ability to marshal the immune system to prevent illness from taking hold. Certainly there is a truth to the power of the mind, and the vital nervous envelope, the aura, to withstand and reject the advent of certain illnesses. Many people have the experience of “feeling a cold coming on” and then strengthening their will and prevent its development. This does not mean, however, that the body itself has been transformed and can withstand any assault no matter how powerful, of forces that can cause it dis-ease.

For those who are willing to devote considerable time and attention to the process of strengthening the nervous sheath and the body, such as through practices of Hatha Yoga or Pranayama, certain signal advances can be documented. Some yogis gain extreme control over the body and its reactions to the point of being able to control not only the voluntary actions, but even the autonomous nervous system and the actions of the organs themselves, slowing the heartbeat, entering into deep states of trance without eating or drinking for days at a time, etc.

The Western celebrity, Harry Houdini, was said to be able to withstand extreme cold, freezing water for extended periods of a time, after habituating his body systematically to endure and accept the cold. Some Tibetan yogis practice the art of tummo, the generation of psychic heat, and they are able to wear freezing wet cloths and dry them with the heat generated without experiencing any form of physical suffering as a result.

For those who have not, however, devoted the time or attention needed to practice these external controls and train the body to accept and endure, the mental formation is generally insufficient, on its own, and they remain subject to ill-health from time to time. There is of course a natural strengthening of the immune system through a positive and focused purpose in life, and it can thus help the seeker avoid numerous inconveniences; yet in the end, until the physical body itself is transformed and fully opens and responds to the higher force, it remains subject to the weakness of the physical plane, and there remain limits to what can be imposed on it without breakdown.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “All illnesses pass through the nervous or vital-physical sheath of the subtle consciousness and subtle body before they enter the physical. If one is conscious of the subtle body or with the subtle consciousness, one can stop an illness on its way and prevent it from entering the physical body. But it may have come without one’s noticing, or when one is asleep or through the subconscient, or in a sudden rush when one is off one’s guard; then there is nothing to do but to fight it out from a hold already gained on the body. Self-defence by these inner means may become so strong that the body becomes practically immune as many yogis are. Still this ‘practically’ does not mean ‘absolutely’. The absolute immunity can only come with the supramental change. For below the supramental it is the result of an action of a Force among many forces and can be disturbed by a disruption of the equilibrium established — in the supramental it is a law of the nature; in a supramentalised body immunity from illness would be automatic, inherent in its new nature.”

“The complete immunity from all illness for which our yoga tries can only come by a total and permanent enlightenment of the below from above resulting in the removal of the psychological roots of ill health — it can’t be done otherwise.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Illness, pp 318-322