Once the spiritual aspirant has steadied himself(herself) in mental silence, he is faced with the next challenge and that is the surrender of the unruly vital personality. The vital (AKA life energy or pranamaya kosha) centered in the region from the heart to the navel is the reservoir of all our fears, desires, attractions and repulsions. The mental ego is easy to identify and isolate; it stamps it’s impress on the train of thoughts and begins to subside when the mind is tranquilized by mental silence. But the vital ego is much more difficult to isolate and subdue for it is stubborn and subtle in it’s working; it is the source of our self-justifications, our revolts, our feeling of self-pity and many other petty movements of our consciousness which often go unnoticed in our daily life. One such outcrop of the vital ego discussed in this post is the feeling of suffocation.
The feeling of suffocation as a subtle form of ego
Oftentimes, one feels suffocated and hemmed in by circumstances and the people around us(“…I need some space…I just want to be me…”). There arises a feeling of dryness and boredom. One wants to escape; one wants to live at ease and in comfort away from the grim realities of life. One justifies this desire as a “NEED OF THE SOUL” – a deep-felt need of the heart for tranquility and peace. This then motivates the desire to travel and change the environment (“…lets just escape and begin a new life somewhere else…”), buy a bigger house, change the job, so on and so forth.
In reality, this is not a need of the soul. This is a case where we mistake our ego for the real soul. It is our ego which desires to live freely, to do what it wants without submitting to the Divine will. One who has attained a deep inner calm due to meditation becomes equal under all circumstances. He or she doesn’t need to run around the world because the feeling of suffocation doesn’t arise. The Mother of the Aurobindo Ashram, Mira Alfassa, explained this situation as follows:
Most people tend to want to change their environment, to want to change their occupation, to want to change their surroundings, to want to change their habit, thinking that will help them to change inwardly – it’s not true. You are much more vigilant and alert to resist the old movement, the old relationships, the vibrations you no longer want when you remain in a context that, in fact, is habitual enough to be automatic
It’s very interesting even, I made a very deep study of people who think that if they travel things are going to be different…. When you change your external surroundings, on the contrary, you always tend to keep your internal organization in order to keep your individuality; whereas if you are held by force in the same context, the same occupations, the same routine of life, then the ways of being you no longer want become more and more evident and you can fight them much more precisely.
Basically, in the being, it’s the vital that has difficulty; it is the most impulsive part and has the greatest difficulty in changing its way of being. And it’s always the vital that feels “free,” encouraged and more alive during travels, because it has an opportunity to manifest freely in a new environment in which everything has to be learned: reactions, adaptations, etc. On the contrary, in the routine of a life that has nothing particularly exciting, it strongly feels (I mean, if it has goodwill and an aspiration for progress), it strongly feels its inadequacies and desires, its reactions, repulsions, attractions, etc. When one doesn’t have that intense will to progress, it feels imprisoned, disgusted, crushed – the whole habitual refrain of revolt.
The Mother, Mother’s Agenda: December 2, 1964
There is a whole range of words which we use to describe this oppression felt by the vital. This is an excerpt from a letter by Sri Aurobindo advising a disciple who had the same complaints.
All these suggestions are very familiar, and they are always the same both in expression and substance. The reactions too are always the same and their very nature is sufficient to show the source from which they come, – disappointment of unsatisfied desire, despondency, discontent, unhappiness, the sense of grievance and injustice, revolt, a fall to tamas and inertia (because the vital being refuses participation in the spiritual effort unless its egoistic demands are conceded,) dryness, dullness, cessation of the sadhana. The same phrases even are repeated, – “no life in this existence”, “suffocation”, “limitation”, “air-tight compartments”; and all this simply means that the lower vital nature – or some part of it – is in revolt and wants something else than the divine Truth and the tapasya that leads to the supramental change. It refuses to give up ego and desire and claim and demand or to accept a true self-giving and surrender, while yet it feels the pressure on it to transform itself into an instrument of the divine life. It is this pressure that it calls suffocation…
Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – III: Transformation of the Vital – IV
How to overcome this feeling of suffocation?
The proper way to conquer this feeling of suffocation is NOT to run away from circumstances by changing the environment but to change the vital personality itself. This takes time and patience. It requires a multi-pronged rigorous approach consisting of the following.
- Karma Yoga: One must continue to work in adverse circumstances without flinching and with discipline and inner silence. Instead of kvetching about restrictions, one must learn to accept them as part-and-parcel of the spiritual pursuit. This blunts the vital’s hold over the personality and lays the foundation for the establishment of equanimity.
- Jnana Yoga: One must pause before every decision for reflection and learn to refer all actions to the Guru or to the Divine above or within. This reduces the play of impulses upon our decisions and puts a check on the vital ego.
- Raja Yoga: Some form of regular meditation is necessary for it is only the descent of the higher consciousness that can successfully dissolve the resistance in the vital and open the inner being.
- Bhakti Yoga: Devotion brings about the emergence of the psychic and this can also help in tranquilizing the obstinate vital.
After prolonged period of such discipline, one begins to feel the first effects of the loosening of the vital ego. There comes a feeling of general tranquility which is independent of circumstances and a psychic joy which arises from deep within the heart. The feeling of suffocation disappears as one gladly accepts all circumstances with equal mind and heart.
There is a joy to which you still seem completely closed: it is the joy of SERVING. In truth, the only thing in the world that interests you, directly or indirectly, is YOURSELF. That is why you feel imprisoned within such narrow, stifling limits.
-Mother (Mira Alfassa) in a letter to a disciple, Satprem, who was complaining of suffocation.
The Mother, Mother’s Agenda: October 8, 1957
It is these seemingly little things that differentiate Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga from other Yoga systems. In other Yogas, the aim was solely liberation of the soul through renunciation of life while the problematic human nature was left unchanged. By contrast, Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga sets out the goal as perfection and divinization of life and this goal is accomplished by using the descent of the higher powers of consciousness to change the body consciousness itself.