Overcoming Obstacles in Spiritual Life – Part 2

By Swami Yatiswarananda

Swami Yatiswarananda (1889—1966) was a disciple of Swami Brahmananda. He spent seven years teaching Vedanta in Europe, where he founded an ashram in Switzerland, though he lectured on Vedanta from Madrid to Warsaw. He left Europe as the second World War forced a closure to the European Vedanta work. The swami then spent ten years teaching Vedanta in the United States, returning to India to head several Centers, eventually becoming Vice-President of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission.

Swami Yatiswarananda was famed for his meditative life and spiritual attainment. His book, Meditation and Spiritual Life, a compilation of his class talks, is considered one of the finest compendiums on spiritual life. The article below was taken from the Jan-Feb 1959 Vedanta in the West.The first part of this article was posted in June, 2003.

Read Part 1

Some Obstacles Peculiar to Our Own Times

We are now living an age of slogans. One of the much-repeated slogans is that religion is the opiate of the people and is therefore to be avoided as poison. As a result of hearing this constantly, some of us, who are not prepared to use our God-given power of reasoning, come to believe in it and lose our faith even in the true religion, which in the words of Swami Vivekananda, is really “the manifestation of the divinity already in man.” There is religion and religion. There is the religion which binds the soul to narrow doctrines and dogmas, and there is again that which awakens our spiritual consciousness, makes us feel that we are all parts of the one Eternal Being, and urges us to love and serve one another in a spirit of worship. We must overcome this obstacle created by false slogans.

There is a second obstacle. It is the cheap psychological slogan: “By advocating repression or suppression of our basic instincts, religion creates conflicts or complexes which are likely to make our mind and body ill; and therefore religion is to be avoided as a dangerous pursuit.” Let us examine this statement in terms of psychology itself.

Repression is the involuntary process by which unacceptable desires or impulses are excluded from consciousness, and thus being denied direct satisfaction are left to operate in the unconscious. Suppression on the other hand is the forcible exclusion of an idea or desire from consciousness. Driven into the unconscious, it starts doing its havoc there. In both cases these underground enemies tend to produce neurosis and may affect mental and physical health adversely.

There is a dangerous class of psychologists who, for the purpose of relieving a patient from nervous tension, say: “Express your instincts freely.” They even advocate a reckless moral life, thereby suggesting a means which is not only unwholesome but also greatly harmful. In trying to avoid a certain “complex,” the patient comes to form a worse “complex” and finally may be ruined in body and mind.

This is recognized by many wise and eminent psychologists. One of them, Dr. J. A. Hadfield, declares in his book Psychology and Morals: “From the point of view of cure, the advice to ‘go and express your instincts’ is only one degree more foolish than the antiquated advice which used to be given to every neurotic girl, ‘All you need is to get married.’ In actual experience I have never known a true neurosis cured by marriage, still less by sexual libertinism. But I have personally known many neuroses precipitated by marriage; indeed, I am sometimes tempted to think that half of my patients are neurotic because they are not married and the other half because they are!”

The psychological term “complex” actually means an idea or group of ideas closely bound together by a strong emotional bond. When we feel something strongly, we are dealing with a complex. The three most important complexes which play a great part in adult life are the ego, sex, and herd complexes. These parent complexes produce others, and the opposing demands of these complexes create serious conflicts in our being.

Complexes by themselves are not bad. They are bad when they take the form of selfishness, sensuality, greed, intolerance, etc., and become harmful to the individual and society; they are good when they express themselves as the self-sacrificing spirit of the parents, patriots, social workers, and promote the welfare of the individual as well as of society.

The Need for Perfect Sublimation

The Hindu socio-religious scheme recognizes all normal desires for wealth, progeny, and social position, and at first tries to take most men and women along the path of worldly achievement. Here great stress is laid on the householder’s life, in which desires are sublimated through the fulfillment of duties to the family and to society, and are directed to the Supreme Spirit through prayer, worship, and meditation.

Some eminent Western psychologists stress the sublimation of the instincts through socialization. Thus Edward A. Strecker and Kenneth E. Appel say: “In sublimation, energy that might be used exclusively in carrying out primitive impulses is directed wholly or in part into more socially useful activities . . . not only for the development and preservation of society but also for the individual himself.” Professor H. A. Overstreet declares: “Sublimation, then is the lot of all of us. Nay, it should be our privilege. The object of all civilized life, married or unmarried, must be to find its great sublimated interest.”

Hindu spiritual teachers speak not only of socialization but also of spiritualization of our instincts, which they advocate as a step towards Self-realization or divine communion—the goal of spiritual life.

It is significant that some leading Western psychologists are coming to realize more and more the value of religion. In the opinion of Strecker and Appel, “Education, morality, and religion are organized aids to forward sublimation,” and “A love which is not satisfied on the personal level may be fulfilled in the warmth of religious devotion or it may be requited in the practical devotion of social service.” Observes Dr. Jung, the great Swiss psychologist: “. . .the idea of an all-powerful divine Being is present everywhere unconsciously if not consciously, because it is an archetype. . . . I therefore consider it wiser to acknowledge the idea of God consciously. . . .”

We Are Our Own Greatest Obstacles

The more we struggle and move along the spiritual path, the more do we discover that our greatest obstacles are ourselves. For our troubles we must take the responsibility on ourselves instead of blaming others.

There are biologists, psychologists, and other thinkers who attribute or trace some of our troubles to the environment, some to our ancestors, and some to the universal unconscious mind. With a view to avoiding our own responsibilities, sometime we too like to think along that line. How often do we justify ourselves by attributing all our obstacles and difficulties to outside agencies! But when we learn to analyze ourselves mercilessly, we discover that the troubles lie more with ourselves, and with ourselves.

William Ernest Hocking, a great Western thinker, has remarked: “Of all animals, it is man in whom heredity counts for least and conscious building forces for most.” So why should we make too much of the family tree or of physical ancestry? Through intelligent self-effort we can completely transform ourselves and achieve such a complete change which is not possible for any animal.

We create many obstacles through our wrong thinking, wrong feeling, and wrong doing. We may hamper our spiritual progress through too much self-laudation or self-condemnation. By having the correct attitude and proper training we can get over these.

Once a European gentleman came to see me. In the name of practicing mental stillness and samadhi he was inducing a kind of sleep. Thinking that he had reached the stage of samadhi—which really is the ultimate goal of yoga—he said to me: “There must be a higher state than samadhi!” When, however, the truth was pointed out to him, he realized his mistake and got over his trouble.

In the name of practicing meditation, an American was inducing a kind of dreamy state, in which his imagination would run riot with a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, of pure and impure ideas, of images and emotions. And he was thinking that sitting for a long time in this morbid state was an achievement. He was advised to get up from his seat as soon as he felt drowsy, and to improve the quality of meditation.

A lady used to condemn herself too much for emotions she had outgrown. She was advised to forget all that as a bad dream, to assert her spiritual nature, do the duties of life well, and devote a little time for prayer and meditation. She followed the instructions and a new chapter opened in her life.

There is also the case of a painter who was very skeptical. Later he became convinced of the utility of spiritual practice. Following certain instructions, he became more and more spiritual in his outlook, and his painting also improved in quality.

There have certainly been cases of failure, but there is no doubt that those who have been following the spiritual path sincerely are minimizing their obstacles, even getting glimpses of the spiritual idea and entering a new realm of light and peace.

Obstacles—Lower and Higher

There are obstacles and obstacles. There are the obstacles we create and increase by yielding to our baser instincts like lust, anger, and jealousy, and the obstacles of a Ramakrishna trying to attain the highest state of transcendental consciousness. Then Ramakrishna was initiated by his guru into the disciplines of non-dual Vedanta, with the greatest of ease he reached the penultimate stage of that path, when he found himself confronted by an insurmountable obstacle in the form of the blissful Mother of the Universe! But even this he overcame by following the instruction of his guru, and became merged in the Absolute.

Illumined souls do not drop from the skies. They are no doubt born with great potentialities, but these they unfold by overcoming obstacles through intense spiritual struggles followed under the direction of competent teachers.

Sri Ramakrishna would sometimes remove the obstacles of his disciples. Young Rakhal—who later on became Swami Brahmananda—was meditating. His mind became dry and restless, and all his striving was of no avail. Greatly depressed, he wanted to go to his master. But Ramakrishna himself knew the troubles of his disciple and was going to him. They met halfway, and the Master placed his hand on his disciple’s head. Rakhal became free from distractions and his soul became filled with peace and joy. When we met Swami Brahmananda, he was himself a highly illumined teacher, possessing tremendous spiritual powers. We know of many instances when the Swami enabled a number of his disciples, including some of us, to overcome their obstacles.

In the course of our spiritual strivings, we sometimes come to a closed door, or feel that we are in the midst of a thick cloud and are not able to see our way. In such cases the Swami would urge us to intensify our spiritual practices, and these removed the immediate obstacles. Sometimes, when we blundered greatly, he even gave us severe scoldings. We felt hurt, but became more and more introspective, continued our disciplines with increased intensity, and rising above the obstacles found our way again. There were occasions when he gave us even glimpses of the higher Reality. By his blessed touch he could raise our mind to a higher plan of consciousness for the time being.

Constant Struggle—The Only Way to Overcome Obstacles

Let not anyone think that our life was made very easy that way; it was just the contrary. Real struggle for mastering the experience started from that time, leading to greater struggle than ever before. The struggle is still going on, although it may not always be outwardly manifest. But through these struggles we are progressing.

Most intense were the spiritual strivings Swami Brahmananda and his brother-disciples underwent after the passing of their master. Once Vijayakrishna Goswami asked the Swami why he was practicing such intense spiritual disciplines even after Sri Ramakrishna had given him all that was necessary. The Swami replied: “I am only trying to become established in the vision of God which I received through the grace of the Master.”

Most of us do not, of course, get the opportunity of having an illumined teacher to guide us. There is no doubt that it is not safe to follow the spiritual path without a proper director. If, however, we are sincere, we may, in due course, get one—at least an advanced spiritual seeker, if not an enlightened soul. Such a guide will minimize the risks in the path and help us in our progress. But when no human guide is available, we have to depend on ourselves and do the best we can, constantly praying to the Supreme Spirit, who is really the ultimate Teacher, for light and guidance.

But the breeze of divine grace, as the Master and his disciples used to say, is constantly blowing. We have only to unfurl the sail. Through systematic spiritual striving we should come in touch with the divine spiritual current and move towards the goal steadily. We must be up and doing. We must remember the words of Sri Krishna: “A person should uplift themselves by their own self; so let them not weaken this self. For this self is the friend of oneself, and this self is the enemy of oneself.”

Spiritual life is a constant struggle, an indispensable part of which is the overcoming of moral obstacles. The illumined ones and the scriptures point out the way. Thus the Buddha says: “When people speak evil of you, thus must ye train yourselves: ‘Our heart shall be unwavering. No evil word shall we send forth. But we will abide compassionate of others’ welfare, kindly of heart, without resentment.’ And that person who thus speaks, we will suffuse with thoughts accompanied by love; and so abide.”

Christ declares: “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you; and pray for them who despitefully use you.” In the ancient Hindu scripture, the Mahabharata, we find:

Anger must be conquered by forgiveness.
And the wicked must be conquered by honesty.
The miser must be conquered by liberality.
And falsehood must be conquered by truth.

There are obstacles caused by tamas and rajas. Under the influence of tamas, the mind becomes full of ignorance, dull, sluggish, and deluded. When dominated by rajas, the mind becomes restless, passionate, disharmonious, and unhappy. What we need is the predominance of sattva, which brings right knowledge, goodness, harmony, cheerfulness, and happiness to the mind. The obstacles of tamas and rajas are to be removed as much as possible with the help of sattva, which itself is finally to be transcended in order to attain Self-realization.

The Way Shown by Patanjali

Patanjali, the great teacher of yoga, asks us to practice yama [abstention from evil doing] and niyama [the various observances] and to reach the state of nonattachment and harmony, in which the spirit transcends its limitations, its identifications with the non-Self, and manifests itself in its true, pure nature.

He speaks of the many obstacles which confront the aspirant in the various stages of spiritual struggle, and suggests means by which they can be overcome: “The obstructions to yoga are killing, falsehood, etc., whether committed, caused, or approved.” “To obstruct thoughts which are inimical to yoga, contrary thoughts should be raised.” He explains: “The tendency to harm, to lie, to steal, to live an unchaste life, and to depend upon others too much, is to be overcome by the practice of harmlessness and love, of truth, of non-stealing, of chastity, and self-help or non-dependence on others. Uncleanliness is to be overcome by clean habits of the body and mind, discontentment by contentment and cheerfulness, being given to too much comfort by asceticism, desultory reading by deep study and assimilation of ideas, and egocentricity by devotion to the Supreme Spirit.”

This is the first step of purification—termed by others sublimation or purgation—in the spiritual path. Only after this can one take up successfully the later steps of practice such as posture, breath-control, withdrawal of the mind from distractions, concentration, meditation, and absorption.

Patanjali gives a list of the various obstacles experienced at the different stages of yoga practice. These are: Disease or disturbances in the body, languor or the feeling of helplessness in the mind, vacillation or doubt, lethargy or making no effort toward the attainment of communion, sloth or inactivity of the body and mind due to tamas, absence of nonattachment or hankering of the mind for sense objects, mistaken notions or wrong ideas, nonattainment of the goal or not reaching the state of communion, and instability or inability of the mind to remain stable having gone very close to the state of communion. Through japa and meditation these obstacles are overcome and introspection is gained.

Obstacles of various kinds may come even to advanced souls. The Vedanta Sara of Sadananda speaks of four obstacles to the nirvikalpa samadhi or the highest superconscious state: torpidity or sleep, distraction or the minds occupation with nonspiritual things, attachment due to lurking desires for pleasures, and enjoyment of the bliss of spiritual visions of lower states of consciousness. The remedy prescribed is: “When the mind is torpid, rouse it; when it is distracted, bring it back to consciousness; when it becomes attached be aware of it and detach it; do not linger on the bliss of dualistic visions; be unattached to all vrittis or mental waves through the exercise of extreme discrimination.”

In the Bhagavad-Gita, Sri Krishna speaks of the yogi’s controlled mind as being similar to the flame of the lamp which is sheltered from the wind and does not flicker. This ideal is spoken of by Patanjali also at the very beginning of his Yoga Aphorisms: “Yoga is restraining the mind-stuff from taking various forms. . . . At that time the seer rests in his own unmodified, perfectly pure state.”

Japa and Meditation—The Best Means

Patanjali does not ask us to overcome the obstacles one by one. They are to be got rid of by properly following just one instruction: “Repeat the Divine Name, as indicated by Om, and meditate on the Divine Spirit.” The commentator explains the aphorism thus: “After the repetition of Om, the spiritual seeker should have recourse to meditation; after meditation the seeker should again take to repetition. Through the perfection of repetition and meditation, the Supreme Spirit becomes manifest. . . . All the obstacles cease to exist by virtue of devotion to the Lord, and then follows for the aspirant the perception of his or her own real nature. The aspirant comes to realize that just as the Lord is Spirit—pure, blissful, free from troubles—so also is the spirit which functions through the mind.”

Swami Brahmananda used to encourage us saying: “Plunge yourself deep into the practice of japa and meditation. Now the mind is gross and feeds on gross objects. But as japa and meditation are practiced, the mind becomes subtle and learns to grasp subtle truths. Practice, practice. See for yourself if there is really a God. . . . The veils of maya will be removed one after another; a new vision will open. Then you will see what a wonderful treasure lies within you. You will unfold your own divinity and inherit eternal happiness.”

So let us repeat the Divine Name and meditate on Him. Let the body and mind vibrate with the cosmic spiritual rhythm. Let the cosmic current sweep away all the ills of the body and all the distractions of the mind. Let our meditation on the Great Illuminator—the Guru seated in our hearts—dispel all darkness and reveal to us His divine nature and also our spiritual nature, which is eternal, ever pure, ever enlightened, ever free, and ever blissful.

Overcoming Obstacles in Spiritual Life – Part 1
June 5, 2003
The Ego and the Self
August 5, 2003
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Overcoming Obstacles in Spiritual Life – Part 2