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True Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 12: Assessing Ourselves

As it was pointed out some time back, it is not merely the conditions of our mind that tell upon the nature of the success that we achieve in our efforts, but also the nature of the atmosphere in which we are living. Both these factors are to be taken into consideration. There is an old saying: “Tell me the books that you read and the company that you keep. I shall tell you what you are.” This is a very wise saying, full of meaning.

What is in your bedroom? From that we can find out what sort of person you are. Search through your bedroom. What is on your bed? What is around? What pictures are you hanging on the walls? What books are you keeping? What is on the shelf ? What is in the almirah? All these will be an indication of the nature of your mind and the nature of your involvements.

From the point of view of spiritual life or the spirit that we are, these things are not silly or unimportant, because there is nothing insignificant in this world. Every little thing is taken into consideration in a very appropriate manner. To God, at least, there is nothing unimportant; and the way spiritual is the way of God. So, every little bit of thought, feeling, action and atmosphere is a matter for deep consideration because as a little finger held before the eyes can obstruct the huge sun from being perceived, or as a minute sand particle can irritate the eye and prevent us from seeing anything, a so-called insignificant event, a so-called unimportant thing, something not cognisable by the public eye, can become a terrific obstacle on our path. Even the smallest thing can assume a large proportion when the time for it comes. A little incident can separate close friends, and even an international war can take place on account of a little incident that happened somewhere, in a corner of the world. Hence, there is nothing unimportant or meaningless if we deeply consider these aspects of our life.

A spiritual seeker is a person who takes everything very seriously; he does not cut jokes with anything. And the most serious thing for him is his own personal life and his connections with things, even if they are inanimate. The things that are around us need not necessarily be animate in order to disturb us. It is not merely human beings that can disturb us; even inanimate, inorganic substances can disturb us, because money itself is an inorganic substance. Can it not disturb our mind? So, the atmosphere in which we are living is not necessarily merely a human atmosphere; it is anything and everything.

In the Svetasvatara Upanishad, and to a certain extent in the Bhagavadgita also, we are given some sort of an advice as to what kind of an atmosphere we have to select for the purpose of the practice of yoga. It should be free from every kind of distraction. The place for our stay, for our lodgement, for our practice, should be completely free from avoidable distractions. And what are the distractions? Anything that can stimulate the submerged desires.

It is not that we are free from desires when we are in a lonely place. Even inside the holiest of temples, the desires can work. But the things around may not be such as to be capable of digging up the inner feelings within us. There are objects outside which can evoke certain feelings and reactions from within us. Though the feelings are always there—the condition of our mind does not change essentially, even if we physically move from one place to another—yet, nevertheless, there is a possibility of their getting accelerated or accentuated and pronounced, and made to manifest themselves concretely outside by objects of sense.

An object of sense is anything that we can see with our eyes, a sound that we can hear, something that we can touch, something that we can smell or taste, and so on. These objects can rouse up the hidden feelings of even a distant past. Impressions created in our minds by experiences of twenty or thirty years back can be roused up into action by a counterpart in the world outside. Everything is inside us in the form of a subtle groove, like the groove of a gramophone plate or like the impression formed on a photographic film. It can be duplicated, triplicated, and so on. It can be replayed at any time. It is waiting for an opportunity.

The purpose of the spiritual seeker is not to give an opportunity for these grooves to get relayed into action or the films within to be duplicated, etc. They have to be kept unused for a long time. Now, to keep a thing unused is not necessarily to destroy it. It can be there for a very long time without actively disturbing us. The purpose of seclusion is not so much an attempt at dealing a sudden death blow to our old impressions, which is an impossibility, but at mitigating the intensity of these feelings within, and making us pass at least a little time in peace. This peace is tentative and is not real peace, because as long as enemies are lying hidden within, ready for action at any time, we cannot be said to be really in peace. Yet, when the enemy is not taking action, it is a kind of peace.

In the place of sequestration to which the yoga student resorts, many types of effort may have to be put forth. It is not merely a stereotyped routine of action that will help us much because, while we are under the impression that the enemy is not visible in front, he can strike us from behind.

There is nothing visible in front of us, so we go headlong on the path with the notion that everything is clear. The path is open; there is no problem, no difficulty. But the difficulties are created by certain placements of forces of nature which are spread out everywhere, and they are not always in front of us—physically speaking, at least. The forces which we have to confront in the practice of yoga are in all ten directions. They cannot be said to be only in front of us so that we can see them with our open eyes; and we cannot say that just because they are not visible in front, they are not there at all. An all-round action has to be taken in the practice of yoga. All the avenues have to be blocked, so that there is no chance of an entry of these inimical forces at any time. How many passes and bypasses are there through which these forces can gain an ingress into us? These have to be known first.

There is no use taking a sudden step because, as we have learnt earlier, taking the active step is not the real problem. The problem is equipping ourselves with all the necessities for taking that step, and that takes all the time—almost the major part of one's life. But that is not a loss of time or a waste of energy. It is a necessity, because when we have properly strengthened ourselves and we are confident of our strength, then to take the needed step would be very easy.

What are the avenues or the channels through which inimical forces can attack us? Broadly speaking, these are the senses, though this is not a complete answer to the question because there is more to be said about these things. But generally, for practical purposes, we can say that the channels of approach for every kind of force are the channels of the senses. The mind has hidden potentialities, which can be roused into activity through these avenues called the senses. The mind acts through the senses. Sometimes it can take direct action also, but it does so very rarely. Mostly it acts through the senses. It waits for an opportunity for the senses to act; and the senses act when they find an object which can stimulate them into action. Any sight can stimulate us into manifesting a hidden mental potentiality, and so on in respect of the other sense organs also.

So, the student of yoga chooses to live in such a place or atmosphere where objects are not in the immediate vicinity to rouse the senses into action. This step that the yogi takes in the beginning is, no doubt, not a solution to his problems because, as we know very well, the submerged desires of the mind are not going to keep quiet for long merely because they have no opportunity to express themselves. Yet, this is one necessary step. What is to be done with these submerged desires when they are not actively working, we shall see later on. The system of yoga prescribes methods for dealing with them in an effective manner.

To live in a place of isolation for a long time requires some sort of strength. A very weak person cannot live in isolation. The weakness of our personality is mostly due to our dependence on many factors outside, especially social factors, without which we seem to be incapable of conducting ourselves in our life, or of even existing. We have many needs of our body and mind, and these needs cannot be provided for if there is no proper social atmosphere. That is why most people cannot live in seclusion. We cannot get even a cup of tea in seclusion, not to speak of other things. It is a horrible state of affairs to contemplate the condition of a mind that has been starved for a very long time, which will feel as if heaven has come upon it even if the least satisfaction is provided to it. A drowning person is ready to catch even a straw that is floating on the surface of the water, though he knows that the straw cannot save him.

There is a starvation of the mind and the senses when we live in seclusion; and a famished personality is not always a healthy personality. So, in the beginning it will look that we are deteriorating and becoming a little neurotic, and these peculiar features which can be projected outside on account of the starvation of the mind and the senses can make us look awkward within ourselves. This awkwardness may put us out of order if proper guidance from a spiritual adept to utilise this condition for a better purpose is not forthcoming.

If positive spiritual guidance is not forthcoming, pure, forced and wilful isolation would be of no use. Beginners, novitiates, youngsters would be taking a very foolish step if they imagine that they should go into jungles or forests in the very beginning itself, and search for God in the woods by a withdrawal of themselves from social contact and a starvation of the mind and the senses. They will go crazy, because they have no positive spiritual guidance.

After cleansing the personality through austerity, a form of which is isolation, seclusion, etc., the personality has to be filled with positivity. It is an absence of this positivity of approach that creates the sense of vacuum often seen in spiritual life. We feel as if we are empty inside; and a vacuum is a dangerous place, because anything can enter it. We are under the impression that the vacuum will be filled by God, but that is not always the case. Even the devil can occupy that vacuum, and mostly that is what happens. God will not come.

In the Puranas there is the story of Amrita Manthana, the churning of the ocean for the purpose of the immortal nectar of the celestials. Nectar did not come. What came was poison—deadly, and frightening, darkening, repelling, which can drive us out of our senses. Such was the thing that came out when the gods churned the ocean to obtain an immortal ambrosia. No ambrosia came. And when we are churning the whole of existence in our spiritual practices for the sake of the nectar of immortality, that immortality will not come. Something the opposite of it will come, and then what will happen to us? We will be finished forever. We will be swept off the ground, and it will look as if we are in a state worse than the one in which we were even in earthly life, in a worldly life.

The retracing of steps from the spiritual direction that one has taken earlier is a common feature among spiritual seekers. They turn back upon the very same condition of life which they were leading earlier. Sometimes they fall even further down. The earlier state would have been better, because the facilities of austere living provided in a solitary place had not been taken advantage of  by doing something positive.

Here, we have to also draw a line of caution. We must be very wise in choosing the kind of seclusion intended for our type of mind. Everyone is not on the same level of evolution. If a person comes from Delhi and stays in the Sivananda Ashram, it is a kind of seclusion for him, but he may not be prepared to live in Badrinath; that will be an unsuitable type of seclusion for a person living in Chandni Chowk or Connaught Place. So there is also a difference in the kind of seclusion, on account of the degree of its intensity.

Even in Delhi itself, if we go to the suburbs, that will be a seclusion for a person who lives in Chandni Chowk. If we are in the middle of the city of Bombay, to go to the outskirts of Greater Bombay is a seclusion. But that is not as secluded as living in Gangotri, which is something quite different.

The extent or the intensity of seclusion that one can tolerate, and would be essential for a person, should be judged by oneself, if possible, by self-analysis. One should not take extreme steps. Extremes are dangerous and would immediately bring about an undesirable retaliation.

Therefore, the seclusion chosen should be in the proper intensity, and not be of an extreme type. Even the Buddha failed in his extreme tapas, and he came down to what he called the Middle Path, or the Madhyama Marga, the via media, the golden mean of approach. We should not go to extremes. An extreme is that step which the body and the mind in the present condition cannot bear. That step should not be taken.

Our intention is not merely to die or perish. A soldier does not enter the battlefield in order to die; that is not his intention. The purpose is to win victory in the war. Similarly, we do not go on the spiritual path to perish. That is not the purpose. We go to win victory, and we can win victory only if we know all the tactics and techniques of warfare. We must be well trained in soldiery, in the art of battle, we must have the suitable equipments, we must be healthy enough, and we must have greater strength than the strength of the enemy. This is very important; otherwise, victory will be far.

Now, to judge whether we have greater strength than the strength of the enemy is also a difficult thing. We require guidance here again. And to know this, we must first know who is our enemy. Then only we can know whether our strength is greater or not. We should not think that the entire creation is before us to press us down into a state of defeat. The whole of creation is not being confronted at once. We are gradually rising from the immediate atmosphere to a larger expanse, until the whole world is taken into consideration.

The immediate concerns of life are what we have to confront. 'Confronting' means solving a problem, not merely facing it with the power of will to crush it. We are not going to cut the Gordian knot, but untie it gradually. Our problems are knots, ties heaped up one over the other, and we cannot simply crush them, because knowledge is not merely an expression of  brute force but a very intelligent extrication of oneself from involvements.

The nature of knowledge is very peculiar; and the practice of yoga is a rise from one stage of knowledge to another stage. Every stage in the practice of yoga is a state or stage of knowledge, understanding, and conscious experience. It is not a brute activity, it is not an unconscious dealing, and it is not something that we do unawares. Every step is a conscious step, intelligently taken, and it is nothing but a movement of our mind in a sattvic condition. Yoga is a sattvic activity of the mind when it is already freed from rajas and tamas.

Right from the very beginning we have to be cautious, and not allow ourselves to be fired up with any unnecessary enthusiasm. Sometimes a kind of jubilation which is bereft of understanding enters us. That is improper. Mere enthusiasm will not succeed. Understanding is to be there behind it because, while enthusiasm and a sense of confidence within are absolutely essential, the enthusiasm should not be of a foolish sort. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” we are told. Angels are afraid of going there, and fools are rushing into it. We should not take such steps. There is a foolishness on our part, an unintelligent enthusiasm sometimes, with which we are fired up. Because of this it is that we are failing in our attempt—not only in the practice of yoga, but in every other walk of life. Even in secular fields, we lack proper understanding and capacity of adjustment. We always go to the extreme in our thoughts, feelings, and deeds.

Thus, we again come to the point that the first thing that we have to do is to understand where we are standing. Where do I stand today? What is my physical strength? What is my moral strength? What is my intellectual capacity? What is my capacity to understand my relationship with other people? And what are the reactions that are likely to be set up by any step that I take, even the first step? If reactions are set up, what further step I am going to take—without getting defeated, of course—to set them right? These are intelligent analyses which should precede our direct practice of yoga, commencing with asana, pranayama, and so forth.