Yoga is more than meditation and breathing exercises. It also requires cultivating an awareness of one’s own psychology – the traits that one has inherited from one’s parents, culture and environment. One must patiently trace the source of every impulse which arises before it is acted upon. (i.e. “Am I doing this for glory, out of fear, out of habit, etc”). This introspection constitutes the practice of Jnana Yoga (Yoga of knowledge and discrimination), which must be undertaken in order to cleanse the soul of its lower egoistic formations.
The ordinary man lives mostly in what Sri Aurobindo called “the vital“; he loves life and wants to live to the fullest. We love to socialize in the company of friends, enjoy free-flowing laughter and conversation, travel and eat as we want. As Sri Aurobindo remarked ironically, “To commit adultery with God is the perfect experience for which the world was created.” When we start on the path of Yoga, many of these tendencies have to be unmasked and renounced. This is a very difficult endeavour because in the interregnum between the ordinary life and the perfectly balanced spiritual life, there is always a part of the personality which craves for the old mundane way of life and refuses to submit to any spiritual discipline.
List of ego blocks
What follows is a digest of the various ego blocks and habit patterns.
1. Selfishness: We may notice that we are preoccupied in thinking about ourselves. The mind is caught in a racket of thoughts – it is always going “my troubles, my future, my hopes, what will happen to me tomorrow, help me, etc”. The solution here is to start living for something other than oneself, something greater than one’s own individuality and the highest replacement one can find is the Divine.
2. Apathy and the desire for a superficial peace: We may not have the strength to bear trauma, to sustain any kind of conflict. The world appears chaotic and we give up too easily. We desire to live in peace but this is a false peace born out of apathy and inaction. The soul has to develop the fortitude to bear the ups and downs of life. Here we must remember the words of the Upanishad, “nayam atma balahinena labhya” – the spiritual path is not for the weak of heart [Mundaka Upanishad 3.2.4].
3. Over-sensitivity: We may have a penchant for getting disturbed by the little setbacks in life. Any adverse situation has a large impact; it keeps resonating inside us for a long time. (“I lost my wallet/purse…I had an accident…I can’t stop thinking about it… “)
4. Self-pity: We may bemoan the hardship we have to face while others seem to be having it easy. (“Why is it that I have to suffer? Why do I have to bear all the troubles in life? Why can’t I have some peace and enjoy myself?”). Sri Aurobindo denoted this state as the “Man of Sorrows“.
5. Suffocation and Aggression: Both these complications arise from the same deformation of consciousness. When one possesses strong vital energy, one keeps clashing with life, trying to impose on everyone and everything, unable to quiesce and surrender to the Divine Will. This has been discussed in a previous post Subtle forms of the ego (transcending suffocation). In this context, one may recall the advice that Sri Aurobindo gave to a disciple about the attitude one must cultivate.
It is not enough that the active demands should be broken and removed; for this also is a passive way of demand, “I can’t have my demands; very well, I abdicate, don’t want to exist.” That must disappear.
Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – III: Transformation of the Vital – IX
6. Nature as a means of escape: At some stage in spiritual life, love of nature (the great outdoors) serves as an opening to the Divine but one must be careful not to misuse it as a means of escape from the hardships of life. Only when consciousness goes within can one find the true joy of which love of nature is a temporary substitute. The remarks that the Mother Mirra Alfassa made to a disciple, Satprem who had trouble suppressing his urge to travel are well worth noting:
You are now beyond the stage when the virgin forest and the desert can be useful for your growth. They had put you in contact with a life vaster than your own and they widened the limits of your consciousness. But now you need something else.
The Mother, Mother’s Agenda: October 28, 1956
7. Desire for excitement and Thirst for life (Trishna): The Buddhists call this Tanha. It is the desire to live the good life – to sit back and relax, travel to the mountain or the seashore, eat good food and chat with one’s circle of friends. Life seems boring and the outdoors seem inviting.
8. Self-justification : The vital energy in man surreptitiously influences his mind with its ambitions; it forces the latter to invent a rationale for fulfilling various desires. (“I want to eat ice-cream because I really haven’t enjoyed anything in quite a while”) This tendency to confuse needs and desires has to be watched carefully.
Nagin Doshi: How are we to distinguish between our needs and desires?
Sri Aurobindo: The vital can easily cheat the mind and show its desires as needs. You have to develop discrimination so that it becomes impossible for the vital to deceive you. 
9. Good desires also have to be given up!: It is not just bad desires but even the good desires that have to be relinquished. This may seem counter-intuitive especially to those who have been raised to be virtuous. But it is necessary otherwise, the very upheaval of consciousness that supports good desires can also become a breeding ground for the entry of weaknesses. One must abide by the adage from the Bible: Not my will, but thine, be done. (Luke 22:42). One must always aspire for complete quiescence of emotions through the practice of vital immobility.
Nagin Doshi: Why is there no place for even good desires in the spiritual life?
Sri Aurobindo: If there are good desires, bad desires will come also. There is a place for will and aspiration, not for desire. If there is desire, there will be attachment, demand, craving, want of equanimity, sorrow at not getting, all that is unyogic. 
10. Jealousy, revenge and holding of grudges: When insulted or humiliated, we may shrug it off and not notice that the blow has sunk deep into the heart. One may unconsciously hold grudges even if we don’t act upon them. A careful examination of the thought process is required to uncover all such defects within.
11. Delusion, vanity and pride: Human nature is such that sometimes one gets carried away by the power of one’s accomplishments while ignoring the weight of one’s weaknesses. Delusional impulses need to be countered by periodic reality checks.
12. Attachment to success: When we become good at some work, we become attached to that success. The businessman wants to continue building new businesses, the scientist wants to keep inventing new ideas and the sportsman wants to keep competing and winning. This bond of attachment has to be broken. The Yogin must be willing to engage in any activity necessary at the present moment without hesitation and full concentration.
13. Live on the hope that tomorrow will be better: We work with the expectation that the future will be better. Within our heart, we tie our hopes to some event in the future which will bring us joy and we live in fervent desire of fulfilling that joyful event. The Yogin has to live in the Timeless!
14. Live in the memory of past accomplishments: We seek comfort in the past. (“I did this in high school, I was so great, I was so popular.”) None of it really matters because the past is gone. The thought pattern which continues in the mind has to be dropped because it dissipates mental energy. In this context, the Mother Mirra Alfassa observed,
One should beware of the charm of memories. What remains of past experiences is the effect they have had in the development of the consciousness. But when one attempts to relive a memory by placing oneself again in similar circumstances, one realizes quite rapidly how devoid they are of their power and charm, because they have lost their usefulness for progress.
The Mother, Mother’s Agenda: October 28, 1956
15. Seeking security in the routines of life: In the chaos of life, we seek security by engaging in familiar routines. We prefer to have lunch, dinner and other social chores at fixed times with fixed people. There is energy locked up in our routines which has to be unlocked. The Yogin must learn to adapt and live in the moment. Carlos Castaneda calls this procedure ‘Disrupting the routines of life‘ 
16. Restlessness: This can be demonstrated in the inability to work with calmness and regularity. When you are at home, you feel suffocated and want to go out to enjoy but when you are outside, you feel bored and restless and want to come back home and relax. This incongruity was well-illustrated in the following dialogue from the TV series Seinfeld.
To be out, this is out…and out is one of the single most enjoyable experiences of life. People…did you ever hear people talking about “We should go out”? This is what they’re talking about…this whole thing, we’re all out now, no one is home. Not one person here is home, we’re all out! There are people tryin’ to find us, they don’t know where we are. [imitates one of these people “tryin’ to find us”; pretends his hand is a phone] “Did you ring?, I can’t find him.” [imitates other person on phone] “Where did he go?” [the first person again] “He didn’t tell me where he was going”. He must have gone out. You wanna go out: you get ready, you pick out the clothes, right? You take the shower, you get all ready, get the cash, get your friends, the car, the spot, the reservation…There you’re staring around, whatta you do? You go: “We gotta be getting back”. Once you’re out, you wanna get back! You wanna go to sleep, you wanna get up, you wanna go out again tomorrow, right? Where ever you are in life, it’s my feeling, you’ve gotta go. 
17. Copy the habits of parents : One inherits not just the biological genes but also the subconscious habits of one’s parents. Unconsciously or otherwise, we tend to perpetuate the life-style of our family members. This happens especially as we grow older because by then we have lost the urge to be different. The Mother remarked on this pattern of behavior:
But once you have taken this decision, once you have decided to find the truth of your being, once you start sincerely on the road, then everything seems to conspire to help you to advance, and if you observe carefully you see gradually the source of your difficulties: “Ah! Wait a minute, this failing was in my father; oh! this habit was my mother’s; oh! my grandmother was like this, my grandfather was like that.” Or it could well be the nurse who took care of you when you were small, or brothers and sisters who played with you, the little friends you met, and you will find that all this was there, in this person or that or the other. But if you continue to be sincere, you find you can cross all this quite calmly, and after a time you cut all the moorings with which you were born, break the chains and go freely on the path.
18. Seeking security in one’s identity and roots: Faced with a competitive and uncertain world, we take refuge in a superficial identity construct. (“I am from here, my family has roots there, my brother is like that, my mother is like this, I went to this great school, I belong to this great religion, this is my sun sign, I am from this country, and so on and so forth”). The Yogin’s sole identity rests in his/her soul and that is what one has to find; all false identities have to discarded. Carlos Castaneda refers to this as ‘Erasing Personal history’ 
19. Craving for status, acceptance and recognition: We seeks affirmation for our identity in the eyes of the people. We want to be accepted. We desire to talk about our life to others, we want to explain to everyone why we are doing whatever it is we are doing. Any loss of identity leads to emptiness, despair, fear and panic attacks. All such turmoil disappears only when we find refuge in our awakened soul.
20. Inability to handle setbacks: When in trouble, we may do three or more things : we lash out at someone, we engage in self-pity or we take solace in the fact that our situation is better than that of others. None of this is really helpful. One must learn to face the situation with equanimity.
21. Clash between different value systems: There is sometimes a clash of values because one aspires to live for the Divine and yet one also has to follow the ways of the world – the laws of countries, the traditions of societies, the norms of culture, etc. The rules of the game are not always clear and each dilemma has to be faced and resolved by one’s own intuition. Of course, this can sometimes lead to mistakes but they have to be accepted as a necessary prerequisite to spiritual growth.
Dissolving the ego blocks
Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga affirms life and seeks to divinize it. Consequently, all these difficulties have to be resolved and dissolved through growth of consciousness. In particular, one must adhere the following principles of Yoga.
- One must always remain aware of the difference between what the Mother Mirra Alfassa called “horizontal freedom” and “vertical freedom“. Horizontal freedom is the freedom to do what you want. Vertical freedom is the freedom from your desires and it comes with growing unity with the Divine. One has to distinguish between the two in every choice one makes and methodically aspire only for vertical freedom.
- Some detachment from social life may be necessary to avoid dispersion of energy. It is concentration of energy which enables one to develop the state of witness consciousness which is useful in dissolving ego blocks. See How to cultivate witness-consciousness.
- One must learn to open oneself to intuitional guidance from the summit of consciousness above the head. One must refrain as much as possible from hastily acting out of the emotional imbalances or mental habit patterns. See How to develop intuition.
- As the following passage from Sri Aurobindo shows, the right way to tackle impulses is to withdraw inward consent rather than suppress the vital life-energy.
The difference between suppression and an inward essential rejection is the difference between mental or moral control and a spiritual purification. When one lives in the true consciousness one feels the desires outside oneself, entering from outside, from the universal lower Prakriti, into the mind and the vital parts. In the ordinary human condition this is not felt; men become aware of the desire only when it is there, when it has come inside and found a lodging or a habitual harbourage and so they think it is their own and a part of themselves. The first condition for getting rid of desire is, therefore, to become conscious with the true consciousness; for then it becomes much easier to dismiss it than when one has to struggle with it as if it were a constituent part of oneself to be thrown out from the being. It is easier to cast off an accretion than to excise what is felt as a parcel of our substance.
Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – III: Transformation of the Vital – X
- (Seinfeld Chronicles) script at http://www.seinfeldscripts.com/TheSeinfeldChronicles.htm
- Nagin Doshi, Guidance from Sri Aurobindo, p 41
- Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan — The Lessons of Don Juan, Chapter 8: Disrupting the Routines of Life.
- Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan — The Lessons of Don Juan, Chapter 2: Erasing Personal History