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True Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 15: Obstacles in the Practice of Yoga

Many a time, even though the preparations are well contemplated and the processes have been well thought out, when we actually come to the forefront of the task, we find that it is a terrible thing that is before us. This is what happened to Arjuna, as described in the First Chapter of the Bhagavadgita. It was all a grand preparation for the practice of yoga, a glorious proclamation of the war of the spirit that was to take place, and a tremendous contemplation in all its intricacies had been worked out. But when the forces were confronted in the field of battle, it was enough to give a shock to Arjuna's entire personality. Now, Arjuna represents everyone in the world. Everyone is an Arjuna—an individual, a seeker, a soldier in the battlefield of spiritual practice.

All our preparations go in vain when we actually confront the terror that is in front of us. When we are in our room, we can say, “When I go to the jungle and meet the lion, I will draw my spear and give it a clout on its head!” But when the lion opens its mouth in front of us we say, “Oh God! This lion is not the one that I thought of in my room. This is something different!” We run for our lives.

All our preparations go to the winds because the idealistic preparation, though honestly entertained within oneself, is merely a thought process, and it is a little different when the very same thing is connected with the realistic pattern of the world. The world is not merely an individual idea, though the idea of the individual has something to do with the objects of the world.

In the practice of yoga, we should not be one-sided. We should neither lean too much on the side of our own thoughts and feelings to the exclusion of the facts of the outside world, nor should we lean too much on the world outside, completely ignorant of what is happening to us within our own selves. The subject and the object have to be correlated in the practice of yoga. As a matter of fact, the universal is nothing but such a correlation. The universal is neither a subject nor an object; it is both things blended in such a manner that no individual can imagine what it is.

So, in the beginning of yoga, at the very outset, when we are seated and put forth effort to contemplate, we will find that we are at sea. What is that on which we have to contemplate? Then doubts arise in the mind. One of the greatest dangers to the spiritual quest is doubts of various types. One of the doubts is: “Am I properly prepared for this task ahead of me?” There may be a suspicion from inside which tells us that perhaps we are not up to the task: “I have made a mistake.” This thought occurs to the minds of seekers within a short time after they have severed themselves from relationships with what they regarded as bondage in the world—it may be home, state and chattel, or whatever it is.

A second doubt may arise in the mind: “Is the technique that I am adopting in my practice all right? Or is there something wrong in the technique? Is it capable of piercing through to Truth?” A third doubt may come: “Is the master who has initiated me competent? Or should I have gone to a better one, a more competent one, a more advanced one?”

But the greatest of doubts is something different. This was the doubt of Arjuna>. He had three doubts in his mind, which he expressed to Lord Sri Krishna, and this threefold doubt comes to every seeker of Truth. One of the doubts is: “Will I succeed? I am a single person, and the problems before me seem to be so vast. Have I the courage and the power to face these problems?” Sri Krishna was queried by Arjuna: “What is the guarantee that we will win victory? Perhaps the other side may win victory. Then what is the purpose? What is the good of all this?”

Secondly, a very subtle social sense of ethics enters the mind: “What will happen to my wife? What about my children who are not settled? What about the opprobrium that will be cast upon me? Am I a selfish person who is seeking individual salvation while the whole world is in agony and sorrow?”

The third doubt of Arjuna was: “We will be creating chaos in the world by entering into this war. The consequence of this battle will be a terrible chaos and confusion throughout human society. Also, is it worthwhile to break traditions, uproot temples of sacred worship and defy all the rules and regulations of human society which are held in high, sacred esteem—the bonds of affection among people?” These doubts do not come on the very first day. They come after a few months, and they are enough to shake a person from the root.

These doubts arise because the initial enthusiasm which has driven the seeker to the path of yoga has not been backed with sufficient understanding. We are mostly emotional people. Every one of us has an emotion; and when emotion gains an upper hand, we get into a mood and take steps which on sober occasions we would have hesitated to take. When we hear a powerful discourse by an experienced mahatma on the nature of God or the glory of spiritual salvation, we can be fired up with the zeal of leaving everything, throwing away all things, and getting out of bondage. Because this is a spiritual enthusiasm, we should regard it as good. But it is not merely goodness that counts in this world; there are other things which have to be combined with goodness. Goodness is one of the features and characters of human nature, but there are other characters which should not be ignored, because they are equally important.

We have a body; we are biological individuals, and the body has its own urges. We have a subconscious layer of the mind which will have its own say at one time or the other but which, for the time being, has been buried underneath by the pressure of the conscious activity of the mind. And there is what is called the social sense in a human being, which is a very strong bond, but which can be submerged by emotions of a different type when they gain an upper hand.

There is nothing unimportant within us; everything is important when it comes up to the surface and demands recognition. We cannot say hunger is unimportant, thirst is unimportant, sleep is unimportant. We cannot say that human affections are unimportant. Well, they may all look meaningless from the point of view of spiritual aspiration, but they are not unimportant from their own point of view. It is necessary, therefore, to judge things from their own point of view, and not from some other standpoint altogether which may be irrelevant from the point of view of those instincts, urges and demands of our own nature. These things are not facts with which people are unfamiliar, but even the most rational mind can be stirred to emotion when it is evoked by certain means. Even a scientific mind can weep and cry due to an emotion which can be stirred up by certain conditions. It cannot be said that we are always a hundred percent rational.

But it also does not mean that we will not exert our reason, our rationality. That sometimes also comes and demands recognition, irrespective of our emotional enthusiasm. Therefore, a lot of time may have to be spent in a calculated preparation for this arduous task, which is the drawing up of a statistical balance sheet, we may say, of every function and every factor in our complicated personality. We are not simple persons; we are very complicated beings. We are made up of as many complications as there can be in the world. Because we are a miniature of the cosmos, we have within us all the wonders and miracles and problems that the world can have; and we cannot merely ignore these existences within us.

I have been repeatedly saying that inside factors are as important as outside factors because the powers that are within can stir up the powers that are without; and these are what are called the obstacles in the practice of yoga. What we call the obstacles in meditation are only the counterparts of inner forces that are stirred up externally. Therefore, we must be able to realise in our own selves, to an appreciable extent, what are the powers within us, and what are the forces that are likely to be worked up into activity when we exert a pressure upon them or force them to take a particular direction of activity.

At present, the mind is accustomed to confused action because we give it a free hand, a long rope; and because it can move in any way, doing anything it likes at any time, we are slaves of the mind. But when we take to the practice of yoga, we do not wish to be slaves of the mind. We wish to control it; therefore, we exert a pressure upon it by the force of will, which is called concentration, and compel it to move in a particular direction—not in the directions it likes, or in those directions in which it used to move previously. Then it will revolt; it will resent our pressure upon it. It all depends on which side will win—whether the pressure we exert upon it is stronger, or its resentment is stronger. If we are consistently putting pressure upon it with sufficient intelligence, knowing the weaknesses of the mind and also its powers, then we may succeed. But, sometimes, our understanding of it may not be adequate to the task. Then it will react with such vehemence that it can upset all our efforts. It can break our pot and throw down our milk, and make everything higgledy-piggledy. Then what will happen? We will start weeping, and we will be put out of order in our emotions, in our feelings. We will not sleep, we will not eat, we will not talk; we cannot take a step forward, and we cannot take a step backward.

This is likely to be the fate of even an enthusiast on the path of yoga. Therefore, the practice should be very gradual, with sufficient clarity of mind in respect of every step that is taken. It is better that we take steps very slowly, rather than take quick steps or jumps. Oftentimes, it would be advisable to repeat the same step again and again rather than take the next step, to see that we are well placed and our first step is firmly fixed. If today we have been taking recourse to a particular method of adjusting the mind to a certain set of thoughts, the same technique may be adopted for a few days instead of advancing further. This is in order to see that whatever has been done has been done properly and has been successful, and has not been done with haste. It is only when pressure is put upon us that our real nature comes out. Otherwise, everything looks very beautiful. Somebody should exert some pressure upon us; then we see what we are. We will resent it, because nobody likes pressure. Any kind of pressure is a tendency to put down the ego in a certain measure; and the mind has its own ego. It is the ego itself. Therefore, careful steps have to be taken and a proper, chalked-out routine for a few days or a few months ahead is to be prepared. This routine must be followed with tenacity, because it is consistent practice that will bring success. A correct practice that is not consistently undertaken will not bring success.

Satudīrghakāla nairantaryasatkāra āsevitaḥdṛḍhabhūmiḥ (Y.S. 1.14), says Patanjali. This is a very wise statement in the Yoga Sutras. The practice should be continued for a very long time without remission of effort, without break in the practice. This means to say, it has to be continued every day. We should not miss it even one day. Even if we are moving in a train, we must sit and see that the practice is not broken. Satkāra āsevitaḥ is the other appellation that Patanjali uses: We must have great love for it. We are not taking to yoga because the Guru has told us to, or the scripture has declared it, or some pressure has been brought upon us by outside factors. We like it, and we have voluntarily taken to it. We have affection for it; it is dear to us. It is like a mother and a father to us. It is everything to us. Such is yoga, which is going to protect us like a parent, and take care of us as if we are its children.

Yoga is not merely an abstract thinking. It is a stirring up of forces in the universe, which will protect us at all times. Divine forces are roused into action by the practice of yoga, and these forces will act like milch cows which will yield the necessary sustenance for us. Nobody can take care of us with such complete and comprehensive caution as the powers roused in the practice of yoga. These powers are not merely persons, though persons in this world can be used as instruments by these forces. Ultimately, we will realise there are no persons in this world, there are only forces. Even these persons seated before me are not really persons but are only forces. We have a wrong notion that persons are in front of us. There is no such thing as a person or a thing in this world. Everything is a centre of energy, and it is these energies, these centres of force that we are trying to rouse up into a comprehensive action by an all-round technique that we adopt in the practice of yoga. Glorious is the practice, indispensable it is to every human being, and vigilance is its watchword.