Three Main Causes of Madness, Psychological Collapse and Failure of the Spiritual Quest

Those who take up the spiritual quest face numerous difficulties along the way. Old habits and ways of seeing and acting are suddenly challenged, while at the same time energies long subdued or depressed may arise as the various chakras begin to open and pour out their energy. The various parts of the being can even be in conflict with one another as the mind holds an idea, the heart holds an aspiration, while the physical, nervous, and vital elements continue to try to express themselves in their usual manner.

As the pressure rises, it is always possible for energy, intended for the spiritual growth, to be rerouted into fulfillment of various vital drives and impulses, and this in turn can cause tremendous mental and emotional distress for the seeker.

In the practice of Raja Yoga, there is a prescription that the seeker must first gain control over the vital and physical drives, through the practices of the 5 yamas and 5 niyamas. These are preliminary steps that ensure the solidity of the mental, emotional and vital framework of the being to enable the practice of yoga to succeed. Next comes the development of the strong “seat” in the being, the Asana. Following this is Pranayama, the control of the breath and thereby, the nervous envelope. These preliminary steps represent the building of a strong, solid and reliable basis in the framework of the being for the action of the higher yogic forces. This helps to prevent the inner breakdown or psychological collapse that can be precipitated by the release of vital energies that contradict the spiritual goal or aim.

Sri Aurobindo clarifies the danger for those who do not have the proper preparation when they embark upon and proceed with the yogic quest. Yoga is not for those who are unprepared and therefore weak in either body, vital force, or mind. The play of forces becomes too intense and the vital is too easily seduced to the following of enhanced opportunities for self-aggrandisement, and this can literally drive the seeker mad.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “I must say however that it is not the push for union with the Divine nor is it the Divine Force that leads to madness — it is the way in which people themselves act with regard to their claim for these things. To be more precise, I have never known a case of collapse in yoga as opposed to mere difficulty or negative failure, — a case of dramatic disaster in which there was not one of three causes — or more than one of the three at work. First, some sexual aberration — I am not speaking of mere sexuality which can be very strong in the nature without leading to collapse — or an attempt to sexualise spiritual experience on an animal or gross material basis; second, an exaggerated ambition, pride or vanity trying to seize on spiritual force or experience and turn it to one’s own glorification ending in megalomania; third, an unbalanced vital and a weak nervous system apt to follow its own imaginations and unruly impulses without any true mental will or strong mental will to steady or restrain it, and so at the mercy of the imaginations and suggestions of the adverse vital world when carried over the border into the intermediate zone of which I spoke in a recent message.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Difficulties Due to the Hostile Forces, pp. 280-286

Supraphysical Powers of Darkness and the Earthly Life

The great religious traditions of the world virtually all relate a battle between Powers of Darkness and the Powers of Light. Regardless of the specific names and forms each tradition adopts, the similarities speak to a human experience of a supraphysical reality that impacts life on earth.

Science, working from the mental intelligence, is unable to validate the existence of these powers, and thus, tends to deny their reality; yet, science cannot explain either the consistent and repeated experience of humanity throughout history across all major traditions and cultures, nor events and actions that occur on the earth that are so far beyond the pale of what we consider to be human that they remain unexplained and inexplicable.

When we peer into the eyes of pure evil, and see the fanaticism and even the signs of possession by some other force or being that lurks there, it is impossible to deny that there can be, and are, forces and beings that exist on other planes, outside of our normal range of sense perceptions, that can nevertheless act upon and impact life within our earthly scope.

Just as every living being fits somewhere in the “food chain” of the earthly life, so also we can understand that there may be beings that feed upon our energies, whether they are fear, hatred, lust, etc. and which act to harvest these feelings and emotions through persistent efforts at influencing human beings in their lives. Plants convert sunlight into material energy. Animals convert material energy into sensations and action, and human beings convert plant and animal substance into mental and emotional energy. So also, supraphysical beings may act to convert human mental and emotional energy into their food.

In his Paradise Lost, John Milton describes the motivations and actions of the fallen angels who seek to gain control over mankind for their own purposes of spite and retribution to the powers of Light which reign in heaven. In Faust, Goethe posits a wager between God and Mephistopheles for the control of the human soul. The Puranas in India describe extensive wars over many ages of human civilisation between the Devas, the Gods and the Asuras, the Demons. The battle takes place frequently upon earth and humanity becomes collateral damage to the warfare. The Ramayana recounts the ascension of the Demon Ravana who attempts to devour and control humanity and who is confronted by Sri Rama who embodies the Avatarhood of Vishnu, who is charged with maintaining the balance of the creation. Other traditions similarly recount beings of Light or Darkness who are fighting for domination over the earthly life.

Spiritual seekers are not always brought into these battles, but as they advance the powers of Light in the world, they may be subject to attack or pressure, and in intense cases, world conflagrations, such as the Holocaust and World War II may erupt to try to set back the progress of civilisation as a whole if it seems like progress towards the Light will overwhelm the control, or even the existence of, the powers of Darkness.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The Asuras and Rakshasas etc. do not belong to the earth, but to supraphysical worlds; but they act upon the earth-life and dispute the control of human life and character and action with the Gods. They are the Powers of Darkness combating the Powers of Light.”

“Sometimes they possess men in order to act through them, sometimes they take birth in a human body. When their use in the play is over, they will either change or disappear or no longer seek to intervene in the earth-play.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Difficulties Due to the Hostile Forces, pp. 280-286

Two Forms of Protection from Attacks of Hostile Forces

There must be some form of inner connection or resonance for any vibration to succeed in impacting an individual. On the more general basis, the physical body represents a connection to the material world, so that actions which impact the material world may obviously impact the physical body. Thus, all of humanity is subject to impacts by virtue of living in the world.

One of the reasons that Sri Aurobindo counsels opening of the heart center or else, focusing above the brain center, is that the development of these centers and their capacities can aid the seeker in controlling the uprush of the forces that normally find outlet through the lower chakras. It will be easier to gain control over the expression of those energies if the higher mental or psychic / spiritual action is strong.

In his book The Mother, Sri Aurobindo advises “To walk through life armoured against all fear, peril and disaster, only two things are needed, two that go always together — the
Grace of the Divine Mother and on your side an inner state made up of faith, sincerity and surrender.” He expands on the meaning and implementation of this in Chapter III of The Mother.

He has provided a method for both those who are more open at the developed mental level, as well as those who are receptive and open in the heart centre. The two actually are expressions of the inner receptivity of faith, sincerity and surrender, and the responding Grace of the Divine Force acting in the being.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “There are two things that make it impossible for them [the hostile forces] to succeed even temporarily in any attack on the mind or the vital — first, an entire love, devotion and confidence that nothing can shake, secondly, a calm and equality in the vital as well as in the mind which has become the fundamental character of the inner nature. Suggestions then may still come, things go wrong outside, but the being remains invulnerable. Either of these two things is sufficient in itself — and in proportion as they grow, even the existence of the hostile forces becomes less and less a phenomenon of the inner life — though they may still be there in the outer atmosphere.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Difficulties Due to the Hostile Forces, pp. 280-286

The Yogic Practitioner Should Not Obsess About Hostile Attacks

The focus on attacks by hostile forces, and difficulties faced, easily engages the ego-personality in a form of vanity. It strengthens the hold of the ego, rather than loosening attachment to open the way for the shift to the divine standpoint. When it takes a rajasic form, the ego glorifies in the fight against the ‘powerful forces’ that are attacking constantly. When it takes a tamasic form, the ego wallows in despair that it is being overwhelmed without assistance as these forces attack.

Sri Aurobindo clearly explains the trap that this fixation on hostile forces entails and shows the way out of the trap by emphasizing the need for quiet reliance on the Divine Force and the process of tuning the being to that higher force and the peace that accompanies its descent into the being.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The hostiles when they cannot break the yoga by positive means, by positive temptations or vital outbreaks, are quite willing to do it negatively; first by depression, then by refusal at once of ordinary life and of sadhana.”

“One must not get into the habit of a state in which one is always in a struggle with suggestions and forces. People very easily fall into this and make it a habit — the vital part takes a sort of glowing satisfaction in crying out ‘I am attacked, overborne, suffering, miserable! How tragic is my fate! Why do you not help, O Divine? There is no help, nor Divine Grace? I am left to my misery and downfall etc. etc. etc.’ I do not want one more sadhak to fall into this condition — that is why I am calling Halt! before you get entangled into this kind of habit of constant struggle. It is what these forces want — to make you feel helpless, defeated, overcome. You must not allow it.”

“How can you have peace and quiet when you are always thinking of ‘lower forces’ and ‘attacks’ and ‘possessions’ etc.? If you can look at things naturally and quietly, then only you can have quiet and peace.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Difficulties Due to the Hostile Forces, pp. 280-286

Withstanding Attacks by Hostile Forces in the Practice of Yoga

It is a common occurrence for practitioners of yoga to adopt a position on one extreme or the other. Either they get fixated on dealing with weaknesses, failures, and attacks by forces inimical to their yogic progress; or else, they take the position that there is no reality to these forces and they need not worry about them at all if they focus on their spiritual sadhana. The reality is somewhere in between, as every human being has the capability of tuning to the vibration of either divine or undivine forces and powers, and at various times and under various circumstances, they may find themselves responding to or being overwhelmed by forces that they ordinarily do not want to accept.

It is interesting to note that in mass psychology there is a phenomenon that even people who are ordinarily not violent or extreme in their views or their temperament may frequently succumb to the energy of the mob and do things they look back on with regret. This is an illustration of how general forces in the environmental consciousness can impinge upon and take control over the psychology of the individual. In the practice of yoga, where the sadhak is working to surpass the limits of human habitual patterns, the forces that desire to maintain the status quo, the forces of tradition, the forces of vestigial responses all rise up to prevent the progress if possible. There is a period which can seem long and hard, during which the sadhak has to continually refocus and tune towards the higher Light and the higher Peace and away from the demands of the vital desire nature, and there can be an oscillation between the two until the process is set and the higher energies are firmly in control.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “About the attacks and the action of the cosmic forces — these attacks very ordinarily become violent when the progress is becoming rapid and on the way to be definite — especially if they find they cannot carry out an effective aggression into the inner being, they try to shake by outside assaults. One must take it as a trial of strength, a call for gathering all one’s capacities of calm and openness to the Light and Power, so as to make oneself an instrument for the victory of the Divine over the undivine, of the Light over the darkness in the world-tangle. It is in this spirit that you must face these difficulties till the higher things are so confirmed in you that these forces can attack no longer.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Difficulties Due to the Hostile Forces, pp. 280-286

The Link Between Inner Defects and External Attacks of Adverse Forces

In order for any force or action to affect an individual, there must be something that links them together, attracting the energy that is external to the receiving station nexus of the individual body-life-mind complex. For purely material forces, obviously, this connection is existence in the material world. Thus, any embodied individual can be impacted by severe weather or earthquakes or volcanos if they are within the area of the activity. The more subtle forces, those of the vital or mental realms, can impact an individual from a further distance. For instance, there are cases of family members, who have an emotional bond with one another, experiencing emotional shock and pain at the moment a loved one is harmed or killed thousands of miles away. The ideas we accept on the mental level are very much aligned with those for which we are receptive. Quantum physics even shows that particles which are “quantum entangled” with each other will react precisely the same way even though there is no visible physical connection and they are distant from one another. The power of consciousness itself is not bound by limits of space or time, which implies that once one becomes receptive to pure consciousness, the action of that power is direct and immediate.

We understand from radio and tv technology that there are different frequencies of transmission and in order to experience a particular channel, the receiving instrument must be tuned to that frequency.

It is thus similarly true that if one has an experience or an attack of forces hostile to one’s aspiration, that there must be something within oneself that is receptive to and tuned to that particular frequency or vibration. The solution, then, to such attacks, is to understand the aspect of one’s being that is open to and tuned to that particular vibratory energy and ‘change the channel’. Human beings have a general capacity to tune to a relatively wide range of energies, linked to the vibratory capacity of the various energy centers, chakras, in the subtle being. Thus, we are constantly subjected to energies, which, if we allow them to have access and free play within us, can be disruptive and can be seen as an attack. The effective response to such attacks is not to set the entire being in motion through the energy of the attacking force, but to practice detachment, to isolate the vibration and location and then work to change the channel or at least the response to the stimulus.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “This yoga is a spiritual battle; its very attempt raises all sorts of adverse forces and one must be ready to face difficulties, sufferings, reverses of all sorts in a calm unflinching spirit.”

“The difficulties that come are ordeals and tests and if one meets them in the right spirit, one comes out stronger and spiritually purer and greater.”

“No misfortune can come, the adverse forces cannot touch or be victorious unless there is some defect in oneself, some impurity, weakness or, at the very least, ignorance. One should then seek out this weakness in oneself and correct it.”

“When there is an attack from the human instruments of adverse forces, one should try to overcome it, not in a spirit of personal hatred or anger or wounded egoism, but with a calm spirit of strength and equanimity and a call to the Divine Force to act. Success or failure lies with the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Difficulties Due to the Hostile Forces, pp. 280-286

How to Distinguish The Divine Force from the Habitual Action of the Lower as well as from the Hostile Forces

Trying to change human nature, the basic physical-vital-mental makeup that we accept as the predominant mode of being in the world today, is hard. The actions and reactions of the body, the senses, the vital energy, the organ systems, the emotional system, the hormonal responses, and the mental habits are deeply embedded. When someone tries to change any of these elements, he runs up against walls, obstacles and resistance.

It is easy to try to shift the responsibility for these difficulties to some external, third-party adverse being, but for most people, there is no real need to invoke a hostile Force to explain what is taking place. Sri Aurobindo provides guidance on how to distinguish between the normal conservative principle governing the lower nature from the action of a truly hostile force, as well as from divine energies which can also work with an intensity that is overpowering for the individual awareness. When the energy of Mahakali enters to break down a strong resistance, the individual experiencing it can be overwhelmed; yet, this is clearly a divine action, not the action of a hostile being.

The primary distinguishing characteristic can be seen by the results, both psychological and in the being generally. Divine forces tend to bring with them a result that is consistent with the divine energy, which would bring knowledge, light, an atmosphere of peace and calm, a sense of a devotional and pure energy. Hostile forces tend to leave behind destruction, darkness and upset, chaos and confusion, a sense of aggressive egoistic desire that goes beyond a normal response of the lower nature in the circumstance. In between, the lower nature of the human being is perhaps dull, perhaps filled with desires, perhaps opinionated and self-satisfied with its understanding, but this is not the same as the kind of wreckage the hostile forces tend to leave behind.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The lower nature is ignorant and undivine, not in itself hostile but shut to the Light and Truth. The hostile forces are anti-divine, not merely undivine; they make use of the lower nature, pervert it, fill it with distorted movements and by that means influence man and even try to enter and possess or at least entirely control him.”

“The intensity of the force does not show that it is a bad power; the Divine Force often works with a great intensity. Everything depends on the nature of the force and its working: what does it do, what seems to be its purpose? If it works to purify or open the system, or brings with it light or peace, or prepares the change of the thought, ideas, feelings, character in the sense of a turning towards a higher consciousness, then it is the right force. If it is dark or obscure or perturbs the being with rajasic or egoist suggestions or excites the lower nature, then it is an adverse force.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Difficulties Due to the Hostile Forces, pp. 280-286

How the Practitioner Can Identify the Action of Hostile Forces

Whenever the discussion turns to unseen powers and forces, the rational intellect of the mind tends to shut down. That is one reason why there has been an argument, in the West, between Science and Religion. Yet, at some point, even the reasoning intellect needs to begin to reflect upon and accept that, as Hamlet tells Horatio ‘There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy [science].’ Science has continually had to expand its ability to deal with unseen, unknown and heretofore not accepted ‘facts’ once they become visible to the tools that expand human perception. The existence of bacteria and viruses, the existence of cosmic radiation, dark matter, black holes, all speak to powers that are active outside the normal human realm. The entire universal creation obviously consists of powers of consciousness and action, and an intention far beyond anything that humanity can grasp. Thus, it is not far-fetched to accept that there are conscious powers that are not actively perceptible to our material senses, but which nevertheless can act upon, influence and control, for better or for worse, actions in the human arena, just as cosmic radiation, bacteria and viruses, unseen though they may be, act upon human beings!

Not every human being is in a position to personally observe and identify unseen powers and forces, yet those who can are able to communicate their experience, and in many cases show a direct cause and effect process. Thus we can identify a disease vector or the influence of UV radiation on the skin. Similarly, unseen powers of consciousness are able to be observed and identified by people who have either developed the capacity or the focus, or who enter into another plane of consciousness by some means, whether through psycho-physical techniques, or just an act of ‘grace’. The fact that these powers are reported across many cultures, across millennia, and across many different traditions and backgrounds, and in many cases arise through similar processes of opening of the awareness, should help us to validate what our mind cannot know or experience directly in most cases. Just as we can accept the conclusions of scientists, we can accept the results of yogic practitioners, religious devotees and occultists who have opened to these realms of awareness beyond our current normal human range of perception.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The normal resistance of the lower Nature in human beings and the action of the Hostiles are two quite different things. The former is natural and occurs in everybody; the latter is an intervention from the non-human world. But this intervention can come in two forms. (1) They use and press on the lower Nature forces making them resist where they would otherwise be quiescent, making the resistance strong or violent where it would be otherwise slight or moderate, exaggerating its violence when it is violent. There is besides a malignant cleverness, a conscious plan and combination when the Hostiles act on these forces which is not evident in the normal resistance of the forces. (2) They sometimes invade with their own forces. When this happens there is often a temporary possession or at least an irresistible influence which makes the thoughts, feelings, actions of the person abnormal — a black clouding of the brain, a whirl in the vital, all acts as if the person could not help himself and were drawn by an overmastering force. On the other hand instead of a possession there may be only a strong Influence; then the symptoms are less marked, but it is easy for anyone acquainted with the ways of these forces to see what has happened. Finally it may be only an attack, not possession or influence; the person then is separate, is not overcome, resists.”

“There are some who are never touched by the hostile forces.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Difficulties Due to the Hostile Forces, pp. 280-286