Cultural values tend to vary across countries, civilizations and time. This frequently creates confusion as to which actions are spiritual in nature. Those who are raised in traditional societies prefer to conform to some ancient norms while those who are raised in secular societies tend to propound a freewheeling lifestyle. Furthermore, in the frenetic pace of life, it is difficult to distinguish the activities which please the surface personality from the activities which bring deeper joy to the soul. Which movies to watch? Which music to listen to? Which books to read? Which friends are better? The discernment required to choose correctly is often lacking because that discernment itself may not develop until one has advanced in Yoga. Often, it takes an epiphany to awaken and correct oneself after having gone down some wrong path.
It is imperative to choose correctly because, although we may be unaware of it, all our unrefined actions always leave a mark in our subconscient. The subconscient is always in recording mode, making note of our temper tantrums and lamentations, our fears and hopes (these are the colorings or kleshas that Patanjali mentioned in the Yoga Sutras).
When the lamp in the heart is lit, when psychic being (soul) awakens and begins to guide life, one gets an unambiguous sign of distress in the heart if one is indulging in actions that are antithetical to the Divine Will. But until this inner lamp is lit, one cannot clearly distinguish between right and wrong. Under such circumstances, the safest alternative is engage in actions which are sattwic (illuminating). Sattwic implies those actions which help the mind rise above the senses, those which bring deeper and long-term happiness rather than short-term. One must ask the following questions:
- Why am I doing this activity? Is it out of boredom, ambition or some other hidden purpose?
- What is the effect on the five senses and the general consciousness ? Is it causing dullness or excitement ?
- Does it induce a state of unconsciousness ?
- Does it evoke a the feeling of timelessness or just the fleeting joy of a rapidly pulsating heart ?
- Does it develop immobility of consciousness or excite passions ?
- Does it bring wisdom or does it create loss of attention and concentration ?
It is these psychological questions that have been raised and answered in the Bhagavad Gita‘s distinction in Chap 17 between Tamasic, Rajasic and Sattwic Tapasya (i.e ignorant, dynamic and illuminating askesis).
- Ignorant askesis (Tamasic Tapasya) refers to actions which are vulgar, which are executed mechanically for sense satisfaction without any higher ideal in mind. A contempary example would be the unthinking consumption of fast food, which is tasty and incredibly satisfying but causes dullness and long-term distress.
- Dynamic askesis (Rajasic Tapasya) refers to actions which are done for the sake of personal distinction to gain honour among men.
- Illuminating askesis (Sattwic Tapasya), which the Bhagavad Gita recommends, is the ennobled pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful in life. It is the action where one is not focused on the personal benefits that may be accrued, which is motivated by self-discipline, equanimity, purity of reason and will and gladness of soul.
We now move on to discuss which music, friends, books, food and movies could be characterized as “spiritual” !!
The music one is attracted to depends on the state of one’s consciousness. As long as desire for excitement rules the heart, one tends to enjoys pulsating music with lots of beats but when one has harmonized one’s nature and learned to live with equanimity, one is naturally attracted to music which touches the depths of the being and evokes the feeling of timelessness. Therefore, it is incumbent on the spiritual aspirant to cease listening to music that excites or deludes the mind, as the Mother Mirra Alfassa points out:
Question: What is it we should look for in music? How to judge the quality of a piece of music? How to develop good taste (for music)? What do you think of the light music (cinema, jazz, etc,) which our children like very much?
Mother: The role of music lies in helping the consciousness to uplift itself towards the spiritual heights. All that lowers the consciousness, encourages desires and excites the passions, runs counter to the true goal of music ought to be avoided. It is not a question of name but of inspiration – and the spiritual consciousness alone can be the judge there.
The Mother, On Education: Arts
Our friendships are, again, a reflection of our inner nature. When we inwardly long for belongingness, security and excitement, we tend to have friends who provide us these aspects. Such friendships, especially among teenagers, tend to be what Sri Aurobindo referred to as “vital” in nature (i.e. buoyant and emotional rather than psychic). They provide the illusion of security in the form of a group bound by shared hobbies and interests. Friends gather together regularly for chatting and eating and even making fun of each other. Sometimes these friendships also become transactional in nature, because they are bound by an expectation of gratitude. (“I did that for you, therefore you must do this for me”). Often, such friends end up creating stereotypes of each other (“I am like this, you are like that and she is like that…”).
Trivial amusements stimulate and waste
The energy given to him to grow and be.
His little hour is spent in little things.
A brief companionship with many jars,
A little love and jealousy and hate,
A touch of friendship mid indifferent crowds
Draw his heart-plan on life’s diminutive map.
Sri Aurobindo, Savitri – I: The Godheads of the Little Life
With the growth of spiritual maturity, such friendships are abandoned or transformed into friendships held together by a higher ideal and a greater understanding. Communication may become infrequent but it is also of higher quality – more impersonal and less egoistic, more understanding and less demanding.
A man’s growth is seen in the successive choirs of his friends. For every friend whom he loses for truth, he gains a better.
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)
The quality of the book depends on the consciousness of the author and, in many cases, that is difficult to judge. It is only when one has advanced in the practice of Yoga that one begins to get the unmistakable discernment of the books which are well-written.
Disciple: “In the initial stages of Yoga, is it well for the Sadhaka (practitioner) to read ordinary books?”
Mother: It is a question I have been asked many times. If someone can tell me the effect on him of the reading of ordinary books, it will interest me very much.
Disciple: Ordinary books tire me.
Mother: It is a good sign.
Disciple: They give rest to the mind and have no effect on me.
Mother: No! The subconscient records everything, and if you have the impression that an ordinary book leaves no effect, it means that you are not conscious of what goes on within you. Each time you read a book in which the consciousness is very low, it strengthens your subconscient and inconscient – it prevents your consciousness from rising upward. It is as if you threw buckets of dirty water on the efforts you had made to purify your subconscient.
This is another dialogue on the topic of literature.
Question: Sweet Mother, all that we read in literature – stories, novels, etc. – very often contains stuff which lowers our consciousness. It is not altogether possible to leave out the matter and read only from the point of view of the literary value.
Mother: You see, there is no excuse for reading any odd novels except when they are remarkably written and you want to learn the language – if they are written either in your own language or in another one and you want to study this language, then you may read anything at all provided that it is well written. It’s not what is said that’s interesting, it’s the way of saying it. And so the way to read it is exactly to be concerned only with the way it has been said, and not with what is said, which is uninteresting. Only, for instance, in a book, there are always descriptions; well, you see how these descriptions are made and how the author has chosen the words to express things. And for ideas it is the same thing: how he has made his characters speak; you take no interest in what they say but in how they say it. If you take certain books like study books, to learn just how to write sentences well and express things as you should, because these books are very well written, what the story is has not much importance. But if you start reading books for what they narrate, then in that case you must be much stricter and not take things which darken your consciousness, because that’s a waste of time; it’s worse than a waste of time. So, things like vulgar stories which are written in a vulgar way, about these, you see, there’s no longer any question. These things you should never touch.
The Mother, Questions and Answers (1955): 21 September 1955
And in this excerpt, the Mother explains why books written by enlightened saints have a special power.
Each book, especially a book of revelation, of spiritual Wisdom or Teaching, is a concentration of forces, something like a battery. It is not mere words. Behind the words, there pulsates the power of the Knowledge that is clothed in the words and this power is full of the Consciousness that has manifested the Knowledge. It is the being of the author who has received, realised and given form to a truth of the Divine that breathes in each work of this kind. All that he knows and is may not be expressed in words in the pages; but it is there in potency behind every line of it. So, when anyone opens such a book, he really approaches the Consciousness that is responsible for its coming into being and continues in that chosen form unaffected by the transition of Time. 
In most cases, we watch movies because we want to escape from our humdrum existence by identifying with some movie character and living his/her more exciting life. Psychological self-observation is required to become aware of all such wayward desires and transform them. Secondly, watching too many movies is harmful because it weighs down the subconscious with negative images and prevents deeper contemplation (the movie scenes keep dancing in the mind…for more, see an earlier post). Movies which serve some educational purpose, which inform us of the complex character of human life should be preferred.
Question: We see too many films these days and I do not see how they educate us!
Mother: When one has the true attitude, everything can be an occasion to learn. In any case, this excess should make you understand that the imperious desire of certain people to see films is as pernicious as all other desires.
Question: How should one see a film? If one identifies oneself with the characters and if it is a tragic or detective film, one is so much involved that one weeps or is frightened. And if one keeps aloof one cannot appreciate it very well. What is to be done then?
Mother: It is the vital that is affected and moved. If you look mentally, the interest is no more the same; instead of being moved or troubled, you can judge quietly the value of the film, whether it is well constructed and well acted and whether the pictures have any artistic value. In the first case you are “good public”, in the second you are more peaceful.
The Mother, On Education: Arts
In another conversation, she instructs children on the right attitude towards movies.
Mother: …If we consider that the child should learn and know only what can keep him pure of every low, crude, violent and degrading movement, we would have to eliminate at a stroke all contact with the rest of humanity, beginning with all these stories of war and murder, of conflict and deception which go under the name of history; we would have to eliminate all present contact with family, relatives and friends; we would have to exercise control over all the vital impulses of their being. This was the idea behind the enclosed monastic life of convents, or the ascetic life in caves and forests. This remedy proved to be quite ineffectual and failed to pull mankind out of the mire.
According to Sri Aurobindo, the remedy is quite different. We must face life as a whole, with all the ugliness, falsehood and cruelty it still contains, but we must take care to discover in ourselves the source of all goodness, all beauty, all light and all truth, in order to bring this source consciously into contact with the world so as to transform it. This is infinitely more difficult than running away or shutting our eyes so as not to see, but it is the only truly effective way – the way of those who are truly strong and pure and capable of manifesting the Truth.
The Mother, On Education: Arts
When you are accustomed to eating a certain food, and it makes you feel good and satisfied, you tend to become inattentive of the effect it has on the consciousness. But once you progress some distance in meditation/contemplation, you will observe that the duration and quality of meditation depends on the quality of food you consume. This is how discernment in food quality is awakened dynamically. You can judge for yourself which food suits your temperament and body constitution. In general, food that is spicy or heavy weighs down the mind and hampers deeper durations of trance. For more, see How to eat like a Yogi
- M.P. Pandit, Mother of Love, Vol 3, Page 151