True Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 9: Handling Desires

We were considering the aspects of psychological non-attachment as the first effort that one has to make while living in seclusion for the purpose of the practice of yoga. This is almost fifty percent of what one has to do in fortifying oneself adequately against onslaughts by the forces of nature – outside, as well as inside. The vulnerable parts of the human personality are the most dangerous enemies in the path of the spirit, which set up reactions and stimulate their counterparts in the world outside. Everything in us is connected by a string with everything else in the world. All that is outside in the world of creation is connected with us by subtle appurtenances. So, whichever be the spot within us becoming predominant in its strength, that particular spot stimulates its corresponding part in the world outside and draws its counterpart towards itself. This activity of the mind is called indulgence, which it does through the senses, which are its instruments of action.

Many a time, we are likely to be under the impression that our troubles come from the outside world, and so we go to distant places like jungles, forests and cloisters; and there are occasions when we feel that the troubles do not always come from the world outside – that they are all inside us only. So, it is necessary that we do a very thoroughgoing psychoanalysis of our own selves, irrespective of what is happening in the world outside. Both these are partial truths; they do not represent the entire truth.

It is true, of course, to a certain extent, that our troubles are not necessarily originated by the world outside. Many of our problems are internal, and a proper adjustment of ourselves internally may solve many of our difficulties. But the world is also a source of trouble in the sense that it is connected with us and we cannot simply isolate it from our personalities or our individual lives.

So is the case with ourselves. We cannot say from where the trouble arises – whether it is from inside us, or from outside – because the trouble arises simultaneously from both sides, inasmuch as both the internal centre and the external counterpart of it are connected by subtle artifices which we cannot easily understand.

So, again, we come to the conclusion that there is something tremendously difficult about the practice of yoga. We cannot be one-sided in our approach at any time; but we are prone to a one-sided approach always. It is difficult for the human mind to consider both sides of an issue, due to a weakness of its nature. Either we hang on something outside, or we hibernate in our own minds. This happens to us not only in our daily activities, but also in our religious attitudes. We are either too extrovert or we are too introvert, and neither of these natures can be regarded as ultimately desirable or successful. We must have a comprehensive view and take a joint action, as it were, from within as well as from without.

While it is necessary for us to find out what are our weaknesses, we have also to recognise at the same time what are the things around us which may be in a position to stimulate these weaknesses into activity. We have to subdue our passions and inordinate urges within – not only by an inward analysis, philosophical contemplation, and company of the wise, saints and sages, etc., but also by keeping physically away from those counterparts of these inner urges which can stimulate us into activity in spite of our satsangas, studies, japas, meditations, etc. So, there is a necessity to perform a double action at the same time: inwardly, be wary, cautious, vigilant, self-introspective, and pure to the extent possible; but outwardly, also be guarded. So, seclusion is one aspect of the matter, and self-analysis is its other side.

This process has to continue every day. As our great guide Patanjali puts it, success is quick in the case of those seekers who are persistent in their practice and do not break the practice by discontinuing it even for a day, and keep up the intensity of the practice in the same manner as they entertained it in their hearts at the commencement of a fit of renunciation with the love for God in their lives.  All this is easily said but very difficult to practice because while we may be wise, the forces of the world – also equally wise – are capable of circumventing every one of our precautions, and sometime harness the very means of our protection as instruments of their action.

The very caution that we have taken may become an instrument of our indulgence and fall. In other words, even our friends may turn against us and become enemies. The conducive atmosphere that we are thinking of in our mind may become an obstructing atmosphere. We have only to study the personal lives of sincere seekers who live in far-off places, away from towns and cities; their thoughts, feelings, and emotions are to be studied. We will find that it is a very complicated tale – not always a happy one to hear – and there should be no wonder if after years of practice, no tangible result has followed.

Our desires have various stages and forms of manifestation, and they are very wise, like snakes. They know how to act when the time for action comes. They know how to withdraw themselves when it is time for them to withdraw themselves. Prasupta, tanu, vicchinna and udara are supposed to be the four conditions of desire. If circumstances are unfavourable, the desires will be sleeping.

Suppose you are in Gangotri or Uttarakashi with no cloth, no woollen blankets, no financial resources, and nothing to set you into action in the direction of fulfilling your wishes. You would be undergoing a kind of compulsive austerity, and for a time it will look like you are on the spiritual path, practicing penance for the sake of God-realisation. But, beware! The desires are sleeping. A sleeping person is not a dead person. So, when there is a latency of desires in Gangotri, etc., it does not mean that they are destroyed, because they are lying in ambush to catch you at the earliest opportunity that may be provided to them.

Desires which are sleeping may become causes of mental ill-health. There can be a manifestation of peculiar complexes of behaviour in that person – susceptibility to sudden rage or anger at the least provocation, and desire for silly things which a normal person would regard as meaningless. A desire for a pencil – we can imagine what a desire it is. We will think it is foolish to desire a pencil; but a person whose desires have slept for years and could not reveal themselves even a little due to unfavourable conditions would find a tremendous joy even if a pencil is presented to him. A fountain pen is, of course, heaven. Why? Because the desires have been starved. They are hungry like lions, ready to devour anything that comes near them. A hungry lion is a dangerous animal even it is unable even to get up because it has been starved for days. Therefore, it is essential that we should not play jokes with God or the system of yoga by merely running to cold, remote regions, taking baths in icy water, and not seeing the face of human beings. This may continue for years, but that is not the whole story. There is something more about it.

The prasupta condition is the sleeping condition of a desire. We cannot know that the desires are sleeping, except by the complexes that we manifest in our lives; and unless we are good psychologists, we cannot know what these complexes are because they would look like normal behaviour to us. It would be unnatural behaviour in the eyes of a very shrewd observer – even to a normal person, in the worldly sense; but to one’s own self, it may look like very healthy behaviour. Irascibility is one of the features found in people who have forcefully subdued their desires for a long time. They immediately get angry by even the smallest thing, and make wry faces and retort in a manner in which even a person in the world would not indulge.

Sometimes, the desires become thin. They are not sleeping; they are awake, but they are thin, like a fine silken thread – as, for example, when we descend from Gangotri to Rishikesh but stay in an ashram. The desire is slowly awakening: “Oh! I have come to Rishikesh. This atmosphere is more congenial than in Gangotri, but my desire cannot be fulfilled because I am in an ashram.” So, the desires are like a weakened snake which has been starved for many days and is slowly trying to move, wriggle out of its hole and find an opportunity to fulfil itself. But it cannot, due to the restrictions of the atmosphere in which one lives.

When we voluntarily fast – not under compulsion – on ekadashi, for example, the desire for food is thin. It is not destroyed, because we have a satisfaction that tomorrow we will have a good meal. That satisfaction is itself a strength to bear the pain of today’s fasting; otherwise, if we are not sure that we will get food for even ten days, or do not know what will happen for days together, then it will be a horror. Very difficult is this mind to understand.

You may have no money in your hand just now, but you have the satisfaction that you have plenty in your bank. So money need not necessarily be in the hand always. It can even be in a bank, thousands of miles away from here, but a mere feeling that it is yours, or it is there, can give you a very healthy satisfaction. On the other hand, if I throw millions of dollars that belongs to the government on your lap, you cannot be happy, because it does not really belong to you and you cannot use it. You may be a cashier in a bank; what is the use? Counting, counting, for nothing! It is not yours. You will be cursing yourself even if you are touching millions of rupees or dollars. On the other hand, you are happy even if nothing is in your hand, merely because of the feeling that it is yours thousands of miles away. Subtle is the behaviour of the mind.

The mind can, therefore, satisfy itself by various means. Our attempt at a sublimation of desires would not always be fruitful, because who is to control or subjugate the mind? There is no doctor for it. It is the mind itself that has to rectify itself by an internal adjustment of its constitution. The mind is the patient, and the mind is the doctor. This is something difficult to conceive. How can the doctor and the patient be the same? But this is the situation. There is a peculiar feature in the mind which can act as a regulator for another feature of the very same mind which is to be regulated. In common language it is sometimes called the higher mind controlling the lower mind, etc.

Thinness of desire is an occasional device which the mind may adopt for the sake of making it appear that the desires are not there, while this subtle connection in the form of that thinned form of desire, thinned shape of desire, can swell it into inflated action the moment opportunities arise or suitable conditions are provided.

At other times, desires are intermittent; they come and they go. This is called vicchinna avastha, while the thinned form is called tanu avastha. Today you are angry, and tomorrow you are in a very pleasant mood. You have seen husband and wife quarrelling. They will not talk to each other, but they do not hate each other really. Even if they put on the appearance of disagreement, anger, and a mood of rejection, as it happens among members in a family, it does not mean that they hate one another. They have tremendous ties of attachment which can manifest at other times, under different conditions. It is a subtlety of love which gets suppressed by a fit of displeasure, at which moment it may look that the desire has gone or the love is absent, but it is pushed underneath. It is not absent, and tomorrow it will come up. It is possible that today you may be very affectionate, tomorrow you may be quite the contrary, and the day after tomorrow again you will be something else.

So, it is possible for a person to behave in different ways under different conditions of pressure, appearing to be one thing now and another thing afterwards. This is the intermittent condition of human desire, which takes shapes suitable to the conditions prevailing outside – because the purpose of the mind is to keep itself safe, secure, by hook or by crook. If desire should not be manifest, the mind will not manifest it. If the manifestation of a desire is harmful to its maintenance, to its security, it is good not to manifest it. It will manifest only those features which are necessary for its security at that moment; and at another moment, other features will manifest themselves, whatever they be, for the purpose of its maintenance and security at that time. And when every condition to manifest the desire is fulfilled, it can fully manifest. That is called udara avastha. Then, it will come like a roaring flood and swallow us.

Prasupta, tanu, vicchinna, udara are the four conditions of desire mentioned by Patanjali; and we are always in one or the other of these conditions. It does not mean that we have controlled the desires, or subjugated or sublimated them – nothing of the kind, because the moods that manifest in daily life will indicate they are still there.

What is to be done, then? There are various methods suggested by teachers of yoga as well as the scriptures. One of the methods is to live in a positive atmosphere even though there may be a rumbling of desires from within – for example, in the vicinity of a Guru. It is difficult for desires to manifest themselves in an unholy form in the proximity of a spiritual master; and a continued living with him – for years together, for instance – may make it so impossible for the desires to reveal themselves outside that they have no other alternative than to give up all hope. Not only that, the proximity with a great sage or a spiritual master produces a positive effect of its own. It is like the light and warmth of the sun, which destroys all infectious germs and purifies the whole atmosphere outside. We feel, sometimes, as if everything is all right in the presence of a great man. Well, when we are away from him, all things may look to be at sixes and sevens; but in the presence of that great man, our questions are answered, emotions are subdued, desires are silent, and holy aspirations manifest themselves in his presence – as it sometimes happens inside a temple, even. When we witness a grand worship in sacred temple, we are roused into a holy emotion at that moment. We strike our cheeks, prostrate before the deity, sing songs in ecstasy. For the time being, we forget everything that is earthly, carnal, physical, and undesirable.

A spiritual emotion is roused in the presence of a deity in a temple or in the presence of a spiritual master. While this is, perhaps, a very desirable method that can be suggested in the case of everyone, it may not be practicable for all people to be always witnessing holy worships in temples, or to be in the presence of a master. They have various difficulties of their own in their personal lives. The alternative method then suggested is to take to holy study for a protracted period – as, for example, Bhagavata saptaha or a purascharana of a mantra, which takes all our time so that we have no time to think anything else. Our desires are kept in subjugation for such a long time that they become very weak, and the positive influence exerted on them by the purascharana of the mantra or the holy reading, called the svadhyaya, may sublimate them, may liquefy them and rarefy them to such an extent that they get either tuned to our holy aspirations or are made to vanish altogether.

People who cannot always be under the direct guidance of a spiritual master would do well to take to mantra purascharana or holy study for a few hours of the day – not merely for a few minutes – so that the thoughts that are generated in the mind at that time would have the influence of a check upon undesirable emotions rising up, and purify the emotions gradually, though this process may take a very, very long time. But when there is no other alternative, this has to be done.

Study of such great scriptures like the Srimad Bhagavata, the Bhagavadgita, the Ramayana of Valmiki or Tulsidas, whatever it be, as a regular sadhana – not merely a random reading as in a library – would also create internal conditions by which the grace or blessings of these holy authors of these scriptures also would descend upon the seeker. When we read the Srimad Bhagavata, we are in a subtle internal contact with the great author Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa. After all, the thoughts are inseparable from the personality who has projected these thoughts. We are in communion with Vyasa himself in some way when we study the glorious recitations of the Mahabharata or the Srimad Bhagavata. We are in communion with the great sublime feelings of Valmiki when we read the Sundara Kanda of the Ramayana, for example. We are in tune with Christ's tremendous spiritual force when we read the New Testament, Sermon on the Mount, etc. When we read such holy texts like The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis, we are in tune with that forceful love of God which the holy author enshrined in his own heart.

Study of these scriptures, therefore, is not merely a means of gathering information on spiritual matters, but a positive technique of transmuting one's emotions into those conditions of thought and life, of which these authors of the scriptures were embodiments. And when we do purascharana of a mantra, a similar effect takes place. The blessing of the rishi who discovered the mantra is upon us, the grace of the devata who is the deity of that mantra is upon us, and the alchemic effect produced by the chandas of the mantra which we are reciting also is a highly contributory factor. Rishi, chandas and devata are associated with a mantra. Thus, svadhyaya of scriptures and japa of mantras, resorted to in a very consistent, austere manner as a sadhana, would be a safeguard against possible difficulties on the spiritual path.