Subtle forms of the ego – (transcending suffocation)

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.

17 thoughts on “Subtle forms of the ego – (transcending suffocation)

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  3. Sandeep Post author

    Nelson Mandela is perhaps the most prominent living example of how one can survive suffocation. During his 27-year imprisonment, he was able to overcome his negative emotions and channel them to build character and gain poise and composure.

    The following is from

    In Nelson Mandela’s biography, “Mandela”, he advised his then-wife, Winnie, how to use her upcoming jail time. He spent 27 years in prison in South Africa for his fight against apartheid and went on to become its president from 1994-1999. The words he wrote can guide anyone serving time.

    “You may find that the cell is an ideal place to get to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to focus on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education… but internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being: honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, purity, generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve your fellow men — qualities within the reach of every soul — are the foundations of one’s spiritual life… At least if nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say of about fifteen minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard. You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative factors in your life, but the tenth attempt may reap rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.”

    1. mw

      “You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative factors in your life,…”

      This is grandiosely understated. … I feel like I am just starting to see those negatives. And rereading two posts I made on this posting over a year ago, how little I was seeing then. Now, compared to back then, I did not understand (or see) most I was reading here and in the Collected Works of SA & M — like I somehow was convinced that I knew what I was reading. And now, when I am rereading (many of these blogs) and SA & M’s writings only now am I seeing more clearly (not yet perfectly clear) what is being said. Perhaps even then, deep inside, beyond the grasp of ego, their truths were having an impact (like artillery fire in a battle) – I cannot make such a judgement since I really don’t know (and it is okay now, not to know). In a way, it feels like waking up from sleep and not remembering who you were or what has happened in your life to this point.

  4. Sandeep Post author

    Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Bet” can be said to illustrate the cathartic effects of suffocation (for mature souls only!).

    In the story, a young lawyer accepts a bet from a banker to spend 15 years in isolation in exchange for a princely sum of two million rubles. He is permitted to have a musical instrument, to read books, to write letters, to drink wine and smoke tobacco. By the agreement he could communicate, but only in silence, with the outside world through a little window specially constructed for this purpose.

    The lawyer undergoes enormous soul-searching introspection in those long years of suffocation.

    During the first year, he suffered terribly from loneliness and boredom. He incessantly played the piano. He read ordinary books like novels, crime and fantasy stories, and comedies,
    In the second year, he read only classics and ceased to play the piano.
    In the fifth year, the piano was heard again.
    In the second half of the sixth year, the prisoner began zealously to study languages, philosophy, and history.
    After the tenth year, the lawyer sat immovable before his table and read only the New Testament (Bible). The New Testament was then replaced by the history of religions and theology.
    During the last two years of his confinement the prisoner read haphazardly on a variety of subjects: natural sciences, Byron or Shakespeare, theology, philosophy.

    At the end of 15 years, he had discovered that the pleasures of life that human beings crave for are quite illusory and impermanent and he no longer needed them. Before he was due to collect his prize of two million rubles, he escaped from the prison leaving behind the following letter:

    “To-morrow at twelve o’clock midnight, I shall obtain my freedom and the right to mix with people. But before I leave this room and see the sun I think it necessary to say a few words to you. On my own clear conscience and before God who sees me I declare to you that I despise freedom, life, health, and all that your books call the blessings of the world.

    For fifteen years I have diligently studied earthly life. True, I saw neither the earth nor the people, but in your books I drank fragrant wine, sang songs, hunted deer and wild boar in the forests, loved women… And beautiful women, like clouds ethereal, created by the magic of your poets’ genius, visited me by night and whispered to me wonderful tales, which made my head drunken. In your books I climbed the summits of Elbruz and Mont Blanc and saw from there how the sun rose in the morning, and in the evening suffused the sky, the ocean and lie mountain ridges with a purple gold. I saw from there how above me lightnings glimmered cleaving the clouds; I saw green forests, fields, rivers, lakes, cities; I heard syrens singing, and the playing of the pipes of Pan; I touched the wings of beautiful devils who came flying to me to speak of God… In your books I cast myself into bottomless abysses, worked miracles, burned cities to the ground, preached new religions, conquered whole countries…

    “Your books gave me wisdom. All that unwearying human thought created in the centuries is compressed to a little lump in my skull. I know that I am cleverer than you all.

    “And I despise your books, despise all worldly blessings and wisdom. Everything is void, frail, visionary and delusive as a mirage. Though you be proud and wise and beautiful, yet will death wipe you from the face of the earth like the mice underground; and your posterity, your history, and the immortality of your men of genius will be as frozen slag, burnt down together with the terrestrial globe.

    “You are mad, and gone the wrong way. You take falsehood for truth and ugliness for beauty. You would marvel if suddenly apple and orange trees should bear frogs and lizards instead of fruit, and if roses should begin to breathe the odour of a sweating horse. So do I marvel at you, who have bartered heaven for earth. I do not want to understand you.

    “That I may show you in deed my contempt for that by which you live, I waive the two millions of which I once dreamed as of paradise, and which I now despise. That I may deprive myself of my right to them, I shall come out from here five minutes before the stipulated term, and thus shall violate the agreement.”


  5. ipi

    In moments when the inner lamps are lit
    And the life’s cherished guests are left outside,
    Our spirit sits alone and speaks to its gulfs.
    A wider consciousness opens then its doors;
    Invading from spiritual silences
    A ray of the timeless Glory stoops awhile
    To commune with our seized illumined clay
    And leaves its huge white stamp upon our lives.

    -Sri Aurobindo, Savitri

    (Sandeep: The quote is from Book I. Canto IV)

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  11. mw

    “In the lovely book Gift from
    the Sea, author Anne M o r r ow
    Lindbergh writes, “…today more of
    us in America than anywhere else
    in the w o r l d have the luxury of
    c h o i c e between s i m p l i c i t y and
    complication of life. And for the
    most part, we, who could choose
    simplicity, choose complication.
    War, p r i s o n , s u r v i v a l p e r i o d s,
    enforce a f o rm of s i m p l i c i t y on
    man. The monk and the nun
    choose it of their own free will. But
    if one accidentally finds it, as I have
    for a few days, one finds also the
    serenity it brings.””

  12. mw

    Sharing the quote below in response to the two stories shared above: Prison Dharma/nelson mendala and The Bet by Chekov. Apparently it takes extreme measures to strip a person of all that is non-essential, recovering the essential inner-truth.

    The following is presented by Santosh Krinsky:
    “Sri Aurobindo points out that the entire weight of the social economical organization of humanity works against the attempt to live out these inner truths. “Life, State, society, family, all surrounding powers seem to be in league to lay their yoke on our spirit, compel us into their moulds, impose on us their mechanical interest and rough immediate convenience.”
    The individual must be able to develop freely according to his inner being. “The individual who develops freely in this manner will be a living soul and mind and will have a much greater power for the service of the race.” It is these individuals who actually lead and advance society. Following the inner truth of the being, and carrying out the work that results from that inner truth, and applying it is a field of action most suited to the nature, the individual “…can …turn it is to a means of growthand of a greater inner perfection. And whatever it be, if he performs his natural function in the right spirit, if he enlightens it by the ideal mind, if he turns its action to the uses of the Godhead within, serves with it the Spirit manifested in the universe or makes it a conscious instrumentation for the purposes of the Divine in humanity, he can transmute it into a means towards the highest spiritual perfection and freedom.” Essays on the Gita: Swabhava and Swadharma

    And this prayer is suggested by The Mother Questions and Answers (1956): 25 April 1956:

    “Lead me to the truth of my being. Give me what Thou in Thy supreme wisdom seest as the thing I need.”


    Public service announcement: “You are not a machine. Your natural genetic design does not tolerate 2-4 hours of travel per day, 8-12 hours of slave labor, 5-6 days per week for whatever monetary compensation on 5-6 hours of sleep in a system built on penalistic principle and a life under judgmental surveillance. Like it or not you are human. Stress, harassment, constant financial worries, fear and a sense of inadequacy DESTROYS the health of any human. This is a scientific fact. So why is it that we accept and tolerate a system that in reality demands that you erase your needs and in effect commit a slow joyless suicide for someone else’s profit?”

    1. mw

      Satprem writes:

      “Each time we feel an impossibility, a limitation or a barrier, we can be sure it is tomorrow’s victory, for without feeling the obstacle we could not conquer it; we are created to conquer all and to live all our dreams, for it is the Spirit that dreams in us. In a world where constraints are closing in more and more like an iron network, the first of these dreams is perhaps to be able to sail out into the open, unhampered by the body and by bounderies. Then we no longer need passports, we are stateless, heirs to all the nations of the world, without a visa; we can enjoy a marvelous expansion of life and freedom: “O Vastness…” says the Rig Veda.” (Adventures of Consciousness, p.123)

  13. Ronan

    Surely some environments are more conducive than others. I would rather be in the foothills of the himalayas or some other clean peaceful environment than a dirty noisy city. I have been to Pondicherry and besides sitting next to the samadhi and in the matramandir find it highly unfavourable. Maybe thats just my pranamaya kosha speaking.


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