What Are the Obstacles?
In spiritual life, we use the word "obstacles"- with reference to both the inner and the outer world, to physical and subtle objects, and to conditions and situations which stand in the way of our spiritual progress.
In general, there are obstacles of various kinds producing misery, or duhkha of various types. In the Sankhya Sutras, Kapila mentions duhkhas of three types: adhyatmika or that caused within ourselves""in the body by illness and unhealthy living, and the mind by evil desires, anger, greed, folly, pride, envy, etc.: adhibhautika or that caused by other living beings such as beasts, thieves, and evil-minded persons; and the adhidaivika or the misery brought about by natural phenomena such as extremes of temperature, floods and storms, earthquakes, pestilences , etc. These may act as hindrances to spiritual life. And we are affected by our troubles all the more when we are not well inwardly.
There are different kinds of obstacles, and we come across them in the different stages of our spiritual life. Spiritual life is like a stream and should move towards the ocean of Sat-Chit-Ananda or Infinite Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, call it Godhead, Brahman, the Lord, Allah, or Tao, as you please. Sometimes the spiritual current does not move at all; sometimes it moves for a time and stops; sometimes it tends to move in wrong directions. The task in our spiritual life is to make this current move; move in the right direction and move steadily till the goal is reached.
Obstacles Are Inevitable but Can Be Overcome
This is the ideal. But in actual life, there is no such thing as movement in a straight line. There are ups and downs, breaks or stops, in the movement. Obstacles continue to confront us till we have known God's grace and attain the peace and blessedness that come from divine realization. Until then, however, we have to persist steadily in our spiritual practices; we have to continue the struggle however insurmountable the obstacles may seem for the time being.
This is a matter of actual experience for many spiritual aspirants. A young man was once asked about this spiritual progress by Swami Brahmananda, his teacher. He said, "Not very well, Maharaj; my mind is restless. I have no taste for spiritual practices yet. There seems to be an obstacle inside me. I feel so unhappy. I must have been born with evil tendencies and these stand in the way of my spiritual progress."- To this the Swami replied: "My boy, you must not talk like that. Try to practice japa (chanting the Lord's name) at dead of night; if that is not possible, do it during the early hours of the morning. . . . Waste no more of your valuable time. Lose yourself in prayer and meditation; otherwise, how can the door to spiritual truth be opened? . . . The aspirant should first learn about the spiritual path from some great soul and then follow it methodically. If the person proceeds haphazardly he or she cannot make much progress, and if the person gives up entirely, the effort to begin again will be twice as difficult. But no effort is wasted. Lust, greed, anger, all gradually leave one who practices spiritual disciplines."-
When the young man said, "My mind is restless,"- he was not speaking of ordinary restlessness and unhappiness. Having made some substantial progress in spiritual life, he found inner obstacles standing in the way and these were making further advance difficult. The question may be asked, how do I know the mind of the young man? I know it because the young man was none other than myself.
There is restlessness and restlessness""that of the worldly man hankering for the pleasures of the world; and of the spiritual seeker yearning for progress, wanting to move from a lower plan of consciousness to a higher one.
Spiritual life is a twofold movement, one of which may be represented as vertical and the other as horizontal. We have to rise higher and higher and also expand more and more in our consciousness.
Most of us may not care to rise to a higher plane. We fool ourselves by thinking that we are all right where we are. We are like Pluto's men in the cave who took the shadows to be real and were quite satisfied with the life of darkness they lived. We are quite contented with our life in the cellar.
But some of us want to come out into the light and rise to a higher plane with the help of the spiritual current, which may be likened to the elevator which takes people from one floor to another. The spiritual current, when properly roused, takes us from one center of consciousness, or chakra, to another. Sometimes we want to get into the elevator but the door does not open; this is one of the obstacles. The door opens and we get into the box but the box does not move""this is another kind of obstacle. A third one is, we move up but the door does not open. The fourth is the door opens, we get out on the floor, move about for a time, but are not able to find our way back to the elevator when we want to rise higher. Something of this kind happened to me when I spoke to Swami Brahmananda of some obstacles standing in the way of my spiritual progress.
But these obstacles can be overcome. We can undergo spiritual practices, unfold the inner eye, discover the "secret stairs"- and move up higher and higher.
Co-existence of Obstacles and Helps
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