The Necessity and Methods of Overcoming Inertia in the Physical Nature

The quality of Tamas has as a major characteristic the sense of inertia. Nothing seems to be moving or advancing, there is little energy or will active to undertake action, there is an overpowering sense of helplessness, weakness, failure and dullness.

Many times people confuse dullness or torpor with ‘peace’. There is a serious qualitative difference that represents the characteristic of Tamas being replaced by a quality of Sattwa. In dealing with the physical consciousness, therefore, Sattwa must be applied to offset and modify the natural tamasic energy of the physical basis. With the advent of Sattwa, there is a brightening of the understanding, a sense of peace and clarity and a rising of aspiration and faith that is missing when one is under the influence of Tamas.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The first means is not to get upset when it [inertia] comes or when it stays. The second is to detach yourself, not only yourself above, but yourself below and not identify. The third is to reject everything that is raised by the inertia and not regard it as your own or accept it at all.”

“If you can do these things then there will be something in you that remains perfectly quiet even in the greatest inertia. Through that quiet part you can bring down peace, force, even light and knowledge into the inertia itself.”

“The physical sadhana is to bring down the higher light and power and peace and Ananda into the body consciousness, to get rid of the inertia of the physical, the doubts, limitations, external tendency of the physical mind, the defective energies of the vital physical (nerves) and bring in instead the true consciousness there so that the physical may be a perfect instrument for the Divine Will. The food and care for the body is only to get it into good condition, afterwards it would not be necessary to attend to such things.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Physical, pp. 259-262

Addressing the Methods of Change of the Physical Consciousness

Brute force has often been employed by aspirants seeking to overcome the ‘desires of the flesh’ and the obstructions of the physical consciousness to their spiritual focus and seeking. Extreme fasting, wearing of the cilice or sackcloth, arduous penances in the desert, self-flagellation, austerities of an extreme nature, and other acts of physical mortification of the flesh have been tried throughout the world at various times and in a wide variety of religious traditions. Brute force is often employed when the seeker becomes frustrated at how slow or how difficult it is to effectuate real and permanent change in the physical nature. On a less extreme level, the philosophical perspective of stoicism has led to people undertaking various acts with the idea of developing the power of non-reaction to increasingly painful or difficult situations. Brute force tends not to work, but rather breaks down the mind, vital and physical and harms the readiness of the instrument for carrying out its tasks in life.

If brute force does not work, the question is whether and how change of the physical and vital nature can actually occur. Sri Aurobindo weighs in on this subject.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “It [the use of violence for the change of the physical] was done by some people, but I don’t believe in its usefulness. No doubt the physical is an obstinate obstacle, but it must be enlightened, persuaded, pressed even to change, but not oppressed or violently driven. People use violence with the mind, vital, body because they are in a hurry, but my own observation has always been that it leads to more reactions and hindrances and not to a genuinely sound advance.”

“It is only by a more constant dynamic force descending into an unalterable equality and peace that the physical nature’s normal tendency can be eradicated.”

“The normal tendency of the physical nature is to be inert and in its inertia to respond only to the ordinary vital forces, not to the higher forces. If one has a perfect equality and peace then one can be unaffected by the spreading of the inertia and bring down into it gradually or quickly the same peace with a force of the higher consciousness which can alter it. When that is there there can be no longer the difficulty and fluctuations with a preponderance of inertia such as now you are having.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Physical, pp. 259-262

The Price of the Transformation of the Earth-Consciousness

Once the yogic sadhana moves to the physical consciousness, it runs into the nature of the physical and material world that predominates in the quality of Tamas, with its characteristics of darkness, sloth, indolence and dullness, inertia and slowness to change. In the physical world itself, this is a stabilising quality that ensures continuity and process, and slows down the over-eager vital nature, based generally in Rajas, and forces change to be considered and implemented over time through a maturation and nurturing process, a consequence of the quality of Sattwa in its characteristic role.

When the sadhak of the yoga needs to deal with the resistance of the material consciousness, he must prepare for a slow and steady slog, as change at that level requires repetition, building of new habits of response, and encouragement to the physical nature to respond and support the needed changes. Once the physical nature actually provides its acquiescence, it can be a very willing and supportive tool for the action of the higher force in the world. Because the awareness of the physical consciousness is slow to awaken, and its power of resistance is embedded into its very existence, the progress at this level can seem interminable and inordinately difficult.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “This negation is the very nature of the physical resistance and the physical resistance is the whole base of the denial of the Divine in the world. All in the physical is persistent, obstinate, with a massive force of negation and inertia — if it were not so, sadhana would be extremely cursory. You have to face this character of the physical resistance and conquer it however often it may rise. It is the price of the transformation of the earth-consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Physical, pp. 259-262

The One Thing That Should Never Be Done

After intensive mental awakening, vital experiences of spiritual significance, and the emotional uplift and fervour of devotion, there comes a period when the work shifts to the physical mind and framework, and change, that seemed to be so close and real, now seems to be illusory and just about impossible. A sense of emptiness, of uselessness, of wasted time and effort overwhelms the mind and the being is caught up in what seems to be an utterly ordinary life devoid of any deeper meaning or significance. For an individual who has not had any spiritual opening, this represents a quite normal life and such an individual can find satisfaction in working for survival, fulfilling desires, chasing various forms of enjoyment and carrying out the life of work, family and friends that constitutes the vast majority of existence for most people. Once someone begins to experience the spiritual realm and recognises that there is a deeper meaning to life, the former activities take on less importance and become, to a great degree, a burden or a hindrance to the spiritual efforts. Thus, when one is suddenly thrown back into the ordinary life, without the uplifting force of the spiritual impetus, it is a blow and a source of depression and bewilderment that needs to be dealt with. The risk here is that the individual interprets this stage as a rejection or failure and gives up the quest.

The great Tibetan Yogi, Milarepa, had to undergo long and difficult physical trials under the guidance of his guru Marpa. While others came and were given the teachings and taught the meditations, he was made to labour away at building and taking apart, and rebuilding various structures of stone, all done by hand, alone, with backbreaking effort. Eventually he reached a point of crisis of faith and was on the cusp of giving up, after years of dedication. Only then his guru reached out his hand to him and reassured him, gave him the teachings and sent him for deep meditation, which involved further long years of intense effort. What if Milarepa had not stuck out the long, dry, difficult period of physical labour? That is how many seekers come to a crisis when the higher experiences disappear and they are left with just the physical demands and needs of the day to day life, and they cannot see their way forward any longer.

Sri Aurobindo has stated elsewhere: “He who chooses the Divine has been chosen by the Divine.”

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is always the effect of the physical consciousness being uppermost (so long as it is not entirely changed) that one feels like this — like an ordinary man or worse, altogether in the outer consciousness, the inner consciousness veiled, the action of yoga power apparently suspended. This happens in the earlier stages also, but it is not quite complete usually then because something of the mind and vital is active in the physical still, or even if the interruption of sadhana is complete, it does not last long and so one does not so much notice it. But when from the mental and vital stage of the yoga one comes down into the physical, this condition which is native to the physical consciousness fully manifests and is persistent for long periods. It happens because one has to come down and deal with this part directly by entering into it, — for if that is not done, there can be no complete change of the nature. What has to be done is to understand that it is a stage and to persist in the faith that it will be overcome. If this is done, then it will be easier for the Force, working behind the veil at first, then in front to bring out the yoga consciousness into this outer physical shell and make it luminous and responsive. If one keeps steadily the faith and quietude, then this can be more quickly done — if the faith gets eclipsed or the quietude disturbed by the long difficulty, then it takes longer but even then it will be done; for, though not felt, the Force is there at work. It can only be prevented if one breaks away or throws up the sadhana, because one becomes too impatient of the difficulty to go through with it. That is the one thing that should never be done.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Physical, pp. 259-262

The Characteristics of the Physical Nature and the Way Toward Transformation

At some point everyone experiences periods where the physical body and its corresponding physical mind seem dull, tired, lacking in enthusiasm, and interested only in sleeping, eating and the most basic things that occupy our physical life on earth. During these periods there is an absence of energy and inspiration, the spiritual effort is seemingly missing, and the individual feels lost and helpless.

The basic characteristics of Matter govern the physical nature. Slow to change, accustomed to habitual action that is ingrained over millennia, the material consciousness does not adapt well, easily nor quickly. The patterns of response to stimuli in the material world are conditioned and supersede the action of will of the individual.

At some point in the spiritual quest, the practitioner runs up against this bedrock of resistance. For those who understand how to develop and culture the physical being, certain things can be accomplished, but for anyone who has engaged in an endless round of dieting, or an attempt to gain physical fitness of the body, there is a sense that none of this is easy nor assured, and any gain is subject to being lost again when circumstances change. One illness, or even a broken limb, can enforce sedentary time that quickly erodes the physical culture that has been developed.

Sri Aurobindo points out that the physical nature is primarily based in the quality of Tamas, with the essential characteristics of darkness, ignorance, sloth and torpor, and lack of initiative. The power of the mind, the excitement generated by the vital energy can, for a time, uplift the action of the physical nature, but they cannot truly effect the complete needed transformation. This can be an exceedingly trying time for the yogic practitioner who is suddenly left without the active spiritual experience that sustains the will and the focus. The quality of Tamas then can quickly lead to feelings of hopelessness, depression and failure.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “A time comes when after a long preparation of the mind and vital being, it becomes necessary to open also the physical nature. But when that happens very often the vital exaltation which can be very great when the experience is on its own plane, falls away and the obscure obstructive physical and gross material consciousness appears in its unrelieved inertia. Inertia, tamas, stupidity, narrowness and limitation, an inability to progress, doubt, dullness, dryness, a constant forgetfulness of the spiritual experiences received are the characteristics of the unregenerated physical nature, when that is not pushed by the vital and is not supported either by the higher mental will and intelligence. This seems to be in part what has temporarily happened to you; but the way out is not to excite the physical by any vital revolt and outcry, or to blame for your condition either circumstances or the Mother, — for that will only make things worse and increase the tamas, dryness, dullness, inertia, — but to recognise that there is here an element of the universal Nature reflected in yours, which you must eliminate. And this can only be done by more and more surrender and aspiration and by so bringing in from beyond the vital and the mind the divine peace, light, power and presence. This is the only way towards the transformation and fulfilment of the physical nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Physical, pp. 259-262