I’ve read that four of the greatest obstacles to spiritual life are anger, hatred, jealousy, and greed. The problem is that knowing this doesn’t really help me get rid of these feelings. I don’t want to be angry or jealous, but telling myself to stop doesn’t work. How can I overcome these obstacles? Teachers describe many techniques for dealing with these problems, among them: witness these emotions as if from a distance and let them go; analyze the nature of these obstacles, understand their causes, then deal with them appropriately; cultivate a positive attitude, which automatically will counteract these negative feelings; meditate and pray more; avoid situations in which these obstacles arise, and so on. But in my experience, none of these solutions work in the long run. They may sound good in theory, but when we are caught in the throes of these powerful obstacles these theories are not very helpful. They seem to work only as long as we are teaching them to others.
I will tell you what works for me (although I don’t know how easy it is for others to cultivate and live with this concept), and that is the constant awareness of my Ishta Deva—the completely personal concept of God. To give you a clear understanding of what I mean, I will relate one of my experiences.
Once my gurudeva gave me a japa practice (repeating a mantra a specific number of times). I was supposed to complete the practice in 36 days, during which time I was to observe certain disciplines during the practice. But I broke the disciplines and had to start all over again. This happened several times. Frustrated, I finally decided to do the practice in solitude while observing silence. I also decided to triple the practice so that I could do it in 12 days rather than in 36.
It was January and I had lectures scheduled every weekend. All but one were in cities distant from the Himalayan Institute, where I live. During that one weekend, I was scheduled to lecture at a seminar at the Institute. I asked my colleagues if it was possible to schedule my lecture in the evening so I could walk over quietly, give my lecture, and go back and resume my silence. They kindly scheduled me for Saturday night. I moved to a secluded cottage on the Institute grounds and began my practice.
On Thursday, one of my colleagues heard that a blizzard and ice storm was forecast for Saturday. Thinking that it would be inconvenient for me to walk to the lecture hall in such conditions, she sent a note asking if I could lecture Friday evening instead of Saturday evening. I wrote “yes” and sent it back. A day later, she sent another note, asking “Is it all right if you lecture Sunday morning?” Again, I wrote “Okay.” But Saturday morning she sent yet another note saying “I think it would be better if you lecture tonight.”
I lost my temper. Seething with fury, I began thinking, “She is deliberately trying to disturb me. She’s a bad person. She doesn’t like me . . . ” The anger and hatred occupied my mind so strongly that I could not do the japa of my mantra. Usually it took 3 minutes to complete one round on my mala, but looking
at my watch, I noticed that 15 minutes had passed and I was only halfway through a single round. I got scared and thought, “If I can’t overcome my emotions, how will I complete my practice, which is already three times more intense than the normal course?”
I took a shower to change my mood, but it didn’t help. I went for a walk hoping frigid air would cool me off, but that didn’t help either. I didn’t want to be angry, but I didn’t know how not to be. I tried to witness my turmoil from a distance and let it go, but I couldn’t get any distance. I tried my best to analyze the nature of my upheaval and understand its cause, but my mind was so unsteady and scattered that it failed to focus on the process of analysis and self-observation. I also told myself, “Hey, be positive. She must be doing this for a good reason.” None of these techniques helped, probably because I was already in such a frame of mind that I could not apply them properly. I even went so far as to recollect and put into practice my childhood beliefs in purifying the meditation room, removing obstacles by reciting purificatory and protective mantras, and drawing a line around my meditation seat with another set of mantras. Nothing helped.
Now my frustration was complete. With a deep sense of despondency, I picked up my favorite scripture, The Ramayana, and begged for help. “You are a gift to seekers from the wise and compassionate sage Valmiki. You embody the noble deeds of Rama, who walked among humans in the flesh only to uplift those who were stuck in the mud of affliction. Today, I am stuck. Come forward, O light of the sages, and uplift me.” So praying, I randomly opened the book and saw the couplet in which Shiva is speaking to his wife Parvati. Roughly translated, it goes like this: “O Uma, how can one who has surrendered at the feet of Rama and consequently is free from ego, desire, anger, and greed and who sees this world as though it is a manifestation of the Ishta Deva maintain any anger or animosity toward anyone?”
I was awestruck. I realized that my faith in, and surrender to, my Ishta Deva was not complete and, as a result, I was still under the influence of anger, hatred, jealousy, and greed. I was certainly unable to see this world, worldly objects, and people—including the friend writing those notes—as a manifestation of my Ishta Deva. What a low-grade aspirant I was! This realization lifted the veil from my ego and transported me to the realm where automatically I surrendered. My anger dissolved.
Only a person who has surrendered has the courage and ability to acknowledge his or her faults and still remain free from guilt. Only such an aspirant can pray with feeling, receive guidance, and overcome these four obstacles, which are otherwise indomitable.
My biggest obstacle is procrastination. I just can’t seem to get around to getting my practice established the way I know I should. Why do I keep procrastinating? One of the causes of procrastination is lack of desire. Without a burning desire, people tend to put things off. Small discomforts get in the way. For example, you think, “I don’t have a good room to do my practice in. Next month, I’ll move and then I’ll begin my practice.” But next month, you have to paint the new apartment. Then you think, “My daughter is visiting. Once she’s gone, I’ll begin my practice.” These are all excuses, and excuses are endless.
Excuses are a form of “guilt therapy.” You collect reasons to justify your procrastination so you won’t feel guilty about it. The underlying problem is that you have not yet come to understand that your spiritual goal is the most important part of your life. Everything else is left behind at death. Only knowledge—the samskaras stored in the mind—go with you. You have not yet grasped this and may not even believe it. That’s why you continue to procrastinate.
Are there techniques that can help? In our technological society, we have come to believe that everything depends on technique. But this is not the case with spiritual practice. Certainly there are techniques that you must adopt: if you don’t sit erect, you won’t be able to breathe diaphragmatically and the motion of your lungs will be disturbed. When that happens, your system won’t get enough oxygen to function properly. To really meditate, you must sit with your head, neck, and trunk erect. Techniques help smooth the way, but when it comes to penetrating your own inner being, they are of no avail.
What you need are some principles and a philosophy of life that will prevent your mind from being too disturbed by the external world. You must have sincerity, otherwise you will procrastinate and your practice will be irregular. When you are sincere, you pour your whole heart into your practice, and when you do that, you will not want to miss your practice. Your whole heart is in the practice only when you understand how crucial your practice is. If you believed that it is the most important part of your life—more important than your eight or ten hours at the office, for example—you would certainly do it.
Why do you always get to the office on time? For one of two reasons—either because of fear (the fear of losing your job or the fear of losing out on a promotion) or because you love your work so much that you are eager to get started in the morning. If you realized that you will lose your internal world if you neglect your practice, then you would put more emphasis on it. If you fall in love with your practice, skipping it will become unbearable. This is the role of knowledge—know what is important and eternal. Know which world you really dwell in, even in this life, while you are in this body.