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The Study and Practice of Yoga
An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 6: Spiritual Life is Positive, Not Punitive

It is our experience that things to which we are accustomed, rightly or wrongly, look normal and usual, and those things which we are not used to, to which we are strangers, appear frightening and non-promising. The practice of yoga has a double aspect to the seeker. There is an initial feeling of confidence, enthusiasm, and even a sense of success, but it is followed by a sudden diminution of enthusiasm and a sense of helplessness which comes upon one due to certain psychological reasons. One who is not a good psychologist cannot face these problems, because the most difficult thing for one to understand is: what happens to one's own self? While one can observe and study others' minds as a good professor of psychology, it is not easy to know one's own mind because the mind is identified with one's personality and individual being, and vice versa. All students of yoga will pass through these stages.

The lowest condition of human existence is one of material attachment and immersion in social values, imagining that the world is all and nothing is beyond, and that sense-life is the real life. This is, perhaps, the lowermost level of earthly existence, where the bodily pleasures and sensory attachments are mistaken for the true values of life. But a day must come when one is shaken up from this conviction, and a sense of the beyond peeps into one's life. It is then that people like to go to ashrams, monasteries, go on pilgrimage, see Mahatmas, Saints, Gurus, or resort to sequestered places for the purpose of isolation, peace of mind, etc., as it occurs to their minds. Then comes a feeling that there is something superior to earthly existence or worldly life – that a life divine, a life of discipline and ethicality, morality, a life of love of God perhaps is the aim of life, and one has to take these higher aspects of life very seriously. Life in the world is not all. This is the stage of the seeker, the sadhaka, who works oneself up into an emotional enthusiasm of the love of God, practice of sadhana, discipline, austerity, diminution of physical pleasures and enjoyments of life, and this can go on for a protracted period. Sometimes this period can extend to several years.

One may be practising sadhana for years and years with a tremendous enthusiasm of spirit. But there must come a time when there is a sudden feeling of sinking down, as if everything is going. There is a leakage in the ship and the whole ocean is entering into it, to drown it forever. This has come upon the lives of all saints and sages, and it must come upon the life of every one of us. This is what they call the condition of a trishanku – where we are hanging in the middle without any support and no perception of the next step that is to be taken. On one side we have lost the values of earthly life, and on the other side we have found nothing that is beyond. There cannot be a worse condition than this. The world has gone because we have left it as something non-essential, and God has not come – perhaps He is not willing to come. So, what is our condition? Most miserable.

This condition of helplessness is a dangerous situation where anything can happen to any person. The condition of vacuum is not a safe one. The wind can blow from any side, and we do not know from which side it will blow. It will simply blast us in a direction of which we cannot have any kind of idea at the present moment. This situation of vacuum, a sense of emptiness and hopelessness, arises on account of a peculiar psychological reaction that is set up by the mind on account of a protracted control of the senses and practise of austerity for years together. We cannot have an action without a reaction. This is very important to remember. Even the action of sadhana will produce a reaction – it must. Well, one may ask, "Is there no sadhana which cannot produce a reaction?" Perhaps there may be a type of spiritual attitude which may not produce such reactions, but it is only a possibility and not a practicability.

For all practical purposes reactions must be produced, because it is impossible for a human mind to take into consideration every aspect of sadhana. Whatever be our wisdom, we will miss some points, and those missed points will react upon us with a tremendous vehemence and force. This is a condition of mind which one should expect at any time. If the austerity and self-control that we have been practising has been very intense, the reaction also may be intense, and it may come quicker than one would expect. But if it is a slow process, a lumbering movement of a seeker who is not able to devote much time to the sadhana, the reaction will not be set up for years and years. Sometimes nothing will happen at all; one will die without seeing any result. That is also possible because of the slowness of the concentration of the mind. But if one is earnest, the reaction must be set up.

Now, coming to the point, this reaction is a very important feature to consider. We will not find a single person who has not experienced this reaction at some time or other. There is no individual seeker who will escape this peculiar action of the mind. But mostly what happens is that when the reaction is set up, it cannot be known. No one will know that the reaction has been set up and, therefore, we have to do something about it. What generally happens is that we get identified with the reaction, and that comes to be seen as a normal condition. We think that this is a thing that is quite in consonance with the nature of things, and nothing abnormal has taken place. A vigorous sensory activity may be a reaction of subdual of the senses for years together. But when that vigorous activity starts, we will not know that it is due to a reaction, because the mind is very treacherous. It is wise enough to dupe us into the feeling that everything is normal and nothing unusual has happened, because if we can discover its tricks, its methods will fail.

So the enemy is not always a fool; the enemy is also wise. We should not be under the impression that all enemies are fools, and that we can dupe them. It is not true. Sometimes the enemy can be equally wise, or even wiser than us. Thus arises the difficulty of facing this battle of life. And finally, our enemy, or friend, or whatever it is, is the mind only. On one side it is our friend; on the other side it is our enemy. Why does the mind set up reactions? It sets up reactions merely because it has been ignored. When we ignore a friend, the friend is hurt. If we do not talk to a friend for days together and turn our face away, naturally there is a feeling of dissatisfaction in the mind of the person. "He has been ignoring me and not talking to me, not paying any attention to me." We know the result of this kind of attitude.

So is the attitude of the mind. We have not paid any attention to its needs. The mind and the senses have needs. They want something, and we have been telling them, "I am not going to give you anything." We would not like to see; we would not like to hear; we would not like to eat; we would not like to sleep; and we are not going to give any kind of satisfaction to the temporal pattern of our physical existence. This is what is called sadhana usually speaking, in common language. When we do something contrary to the normal demands of body and senses, we regard it as a kind of religious life – austerity. If usually we have breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we cut off the breakfast and the dinner and have only lunch, we begin to feel that we are becoming a little religious. We begin to feel that a religious consciousness is arising because, "I am taking only lunch; there is no breakfast, no dinner. If I have been sleeping for eight hours, I am now sleeping for four hours. I have become more religious, and I am diminishing social relationships.

Now, the steps that we take in the direction of cutting off the requisitions of the mind and the senses are to be taken with great caution. A religious life, or a spiritual life, is not any kind of action that we take against the mind. It is because we mistake an action against the mind as a spiritual value, that the reaction mentioned earlier gets set up. The mind is not averse to spiritual consciousness, but it is averse to any kind of punishment that we mete out to it. This is the case with any schoolboy or student. It is difficult to believe that anyone would be averse to education. But one does not want that kind of education which involves punishment of some sort or the other. What is punishment? It is a deliberate and persistent refusal to give what one feels is an immediate necessity. The difficulty of the spiritual seeker in this respect is immense. We are not omniscient people. We cannot know everything at one stroke. So we are likely to commit mistakes in the attitude we have towards our own mind and the way we chalk out our daily programs.

One of the defects of the general approach to life spiritual is the treading of a beaten track of tradition, which has been driven into our minds right from our childhood as the proper approach to things. It is not true that what society says is always the right approach to things. There is a peculiar social conduct, which is regarded as normal by humanity – humanity in general, whether of the East or of the West. Human nature has a peculiar way of assessing values, personally as well as socially. These customs of human society have been allowed to percolate into the very blood corpuscles of the individual, and we live a kind of traditional mode of conduct which we are compelled to regard as final in its worth and value, merely because we have been taught these lessons right from our childhood.

We have been brought up under these conditions. We have a list of what we call the 'do's' and 'don'ts' of life. We should do this and we should not do that. Parents tell us, "Don't do that. Don't do that. Do this. Do this." Right from babyhood we are told, "Do this and don't do that." We are frightened right from childhood, and we are reared in a state of fear. We are never told the reason why it should not be done. Also, we are not told the reason why it should be done. Parents and teachers tell us, "It should not be done. Very bad. Don't go there. Don't do this." And also they say, "You must do this. If you don't, you will get this punishment, even of hell." This fear of religion often becomes the basis of our approach to God, and we know very well how harmful it is to a positive approach to anything whatsoever.

Though restrictive discipline is essential so that the unwarranted clamours of body and sense should be directed in a systematic manner along a given channel, it is also necessary, at the same time, to remember that every step in the line of success is a positive step. Anything that we call success is positive – it is not negative. It is true that we must be hungry before we take our meal. The feeling of hunger is a negative condition, which should precede the positive intake of the meal. It is true that negative conditions should be there – without hunger we cannot eat. But the negative condition is not the whole thing. The essential feature is that it has to be followed by a positive action. When the positive action is missing, and merely the negative condition prevails, it becomes an unhappy state.

If we analyse our spiritual practices – we may refer to our own selves here, in this very institution or in this very hall – what is the type of spiritual practice that we are engaged in every day? What is it that we are doing? Is it a following of the system of 'do's and don'ts'? The monastery says, "You should do this, and you should not do that." So, we are following a rule that has been imposed upon us by a system of living. Is this the type of practice that we are following? Or is there any kind of urge, felt from within, towards something very substantial and positive from our own point of view? Or, to put it more precisely, do we feel that every day we have gained something in our practice, or are we only in a restricted, punitive atmosphere like a jailbird.

If a monastic life, or a life in a cloister, is a life of a culprit or a jailbird who has somehow been caught in that atmosphere and has to undergo a system of unhappy discipline which the mind is deeply resenting at every moment – if that is the condition, definitively it is not spiritual. It is something very unhealthy, and this will produce a serious reaction one day or the other. The condition of our mind will tell us whether we are spiritual, or whether we are unspiritual. Are we happy or are we unhappy? Is our sadhana making us unhappy? What a pity. Do we feel this about ourselves? "I have been caught up in this unhappy set-up of affairs; this could have been better for me." If we feel that this could have been better, and this is not all right, then this will pinch our heart and one day or the other it will speak in a language which is very annoying. To underline what I have said already, a sense of positivity and satisfaction should precede and accompany anything that we do as a spiritual practice.

The life spiritual is not an imposition either from a Guru or from a monastery – it is a thing that we have undertaken voluntarily, of our own accord. Nobody compels us to lead a spiritual life. Any kind of compulsion is unhealthy. Neither does the monastery require it, nor does the Guru require it. It is we ourselves that want it for our own purpose, for our benefit and welfare. So every moment, every day rather, one has to watch one's mind. "Is this spiritual practice an imposition upon me by the Guru, or the monastery, or society, or somebody else? Or is it something that I have been voluntarily doing and I am perfectly satisfied with it?" If there is any kind of external pressure and an unhappy feeling, whether it is justified or unjustified, that unhappy feeling is the reason why there is a reaction one day or the other. So ultimately, the reaction is caused by our unhappiness. How long can we be unhappy? We can bear it for one day, two days, three days, one or two years, five years, ten years. But eventually this pressure on the nerves caused by the unhappiness of our mind will burst like a bomb and devastate us. This is what they call 'the fall' in yoga, or any kind of fall for the matter of that. So the spiritual seeker must be very cautious, and must be a real spiritual seeker, not a disciplinarian or a hard taskmaster who will extract the blood of other people. This is not spirituality, because there is spontaneity in approach of anything that is spiritual. What we are aiming at finally is a development of our own inner nature, which is the highest spontaneity.

Nothing can be more spontaneous than what we ourselves are. There is no compulsion or restriction imposed by us on our own nature or our own being. We feel that we exist in a spontaneous manner. But to feel that one is a minister or a policeman or a collector is a little bit unnatural. We are not that, really speaking. So we have to pose and put on an air of circumstances to act like a collector, or a minister, or an officer, or this or that person. There is no difficulty in feeling what we really are. For example, we are not collectors when we are in the bathroom – we are just like anybody else. When we go to bed, we are just normal human beings. We are not ministers going to bed – that attitude will disturb the mind, because it is an attitude put on under external pressure and circumstances which are not normal and usual to our intrinsic make-up. So if spirituality is like this – that which has been put on, that which has been made up, that which has been created artificially by circumstances, deliberately or otherwise, then it is not going to help us. It is better to give up spirituality if it has become an imposition, a kind of torture, a suffering, a sorrow, and something which the mind resents.

What is to be emphasised here is that the life spiritual is positive, undertaken by ourselves and not imposed upon us by others. We want it because it has some value for us, and every discipline that we are practising is undertaken by us of our own accord, deliberately. We need it and we know why we need it. We should not do it because somebody tells us to do it – then it is external and we may not like it. So, it is no use to jump to the skies in a sudden artificial enthusiasm or buoyancy of spirit created by circumstances external to us. One penny that is our own is much better than a million dollars which is not ours. What is the use of a million dollars? It is not ours. We are only holding it for somebody's sake. But one penny is really ours. So even a little that we do – really, positively and genuinely, with joy – is of greater worth in our life than many things that we do in a day without joy in the mind.

Many spiritual seekers find themselves in an unfortunate atmosphere on account of mistakes that they make in the choice of the type of life that they have to live, and the mistake is committed on account of an enthusiasm which is not directed by understanding. We are driven by emotion rather than by intelligence, and this happens to everyone in the beginning. We suddenly cry for God, as if God is going to jump from the skies in a minute. That looks very wonderful in the beginning, "Oh, how religious is the person, how spiritual, how yearning, how pure, how genuine." But this will not work for all time, because while God is love, God is also law. He will not break a law merely for the sake of love, notwithstanding the fact that He is infinite love.

It is here that we find a combination, inextricably related, of law and love. Tremendous disciplinary restrictive law combined with infinite spontaneity of affection and love – all these we will find in God. And so, in the approach to God, we have to take into consideration this peculiar feature of God, though nothing can be regarded as more congenial to our nature than God's presence. No one can be regarded as more affectionate than God, and no one can be regarded as stricter than God. He is the strictest of all conceivable beings – yet He is the most compassionate. These two features are blended there in a Single Unitary Being. And so, as God's nature is reflected in the stages of sadhana, the disciplinary aspect or the restrictive feature of sadhana, which is voluntarily undertaken, has to go hand in hand with a spontaneity of approach and a positivity of feeling and satisfaction.

To reiterate, spiritual practice is voluntary. It is we that move towards God. We are not pushed by some motive force from outside or from behind. Forces can assist us, but they should not compel us, because anything that is of the nature of a compulsion is extrinsic in nature – whereas the spirit is intrinsic, and spirituality is the manifestation of this intrinsic nature of our own being. It is possible, therefore, to avoid reactions in sadhana by a judicious observation of the various factors in our present state of affairs. We should be very humble and dispassionate in judging our own selves as we are just now, and not as we ought to be in the future. "Today, just at this moment, what am I? What are my senses saying? What is the body telling? And what are my involvements speaking to me?" We cannot avoid any of these things. If we have involvements, these involvements must be properly tackled. The involvements may be psychological, emotional, social, monetary, economic, political – they can be anything. But these involvements are important things because we are involved – it is not somebody else who is involved – and so they have some meaning in the way in which we live. Our involvements, therefore, have to be properly encountered, and their questions answered in a satisfactory manner. Also, the needs of the body and the senses are not unnecessary things when they are actually there.

Nothing that is visible can be regarded as unnecessary. But it has to be properly approached and intelligently harnessed for the purpose of an onward progress in sadhana rather than kept aside as a hobgoblin of which we are afraid always, not knowing when it will pounce upon us. Every external factor should be converted into an internal feature of our sadhana so that all our external relationships, whatever be their nature – whether of a family, or an institution, or a whole nation - these external factors should be transformed into an internal feature necessary in the transformation of the total personality, because the individual's personality is not an island. "No man is an island," as a poet wrote. We are not like islands, completely cut off from other portions of the land.

Every individual is connected to every other thing in the world, in some way or the other, so it is not possible to have a totally isolated individual approach, oblivious of external factors. When these factors are visible, especially when they are very pressing in their nature, they should be taken note of in their proper place, giving due respect to the position they occupy, and then converted and transformed into a motive force for the onward movement of the spirit towards God.