Five Things That Hold Us Back Spiritually
What are some common habits and attitudes that hold us back spiritually? Most people who are seriously on the spiritual path don’t have to fight against the darker tendencies that typically hold people back: alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty, lack of education, and those kinds of things. In this lifetime, our enemies are more refined and our battles more inward.
1. Forgetfulness of God
For many of us, forgetfulness of God is the main culprit holding us back spiritually. When we go days at a time forgetting our spiritual quest, the path gets dry and we lose our inspiration.
Some years ago, I (Devi) had a beautiful week-long seclusion at Paramhansa Yogananda’s retreat at Encinitas. I meditated for many hours every day and immersed myself in Yogananda’s consciousness. In the early evening I would watch the sun setting over the ocean. There was one day when the sunset was especially beautiful. The sky’s iridescent pastel colors looked like beautiful shimmery chiffon and the ocean was like rolling waves of velvet with streams of silver.
I remember thinking that the sky looked like Divine Mother in the most beautiful gown I had ever seen. There was a feeling of perfect, beautiful omnipresence, and I was part of that omnipresence.
Then I looked down and saw a bit of movement on the water. My focus descended from the vastness and beauty of the sunset to that little point of movement. Three or four people were surfing, and I began watching them and thinking to myself, “Oh, look he’s falling. No, he’s going to make it all the way in.” Suddenly all I could think about was that little human drama. I had totally forgotten Divine Mother’s beautiful presence. When I realized what had happened, it was like a slap in the face.
But that happens so often in our lives as devotees. We set a resolution—we say we’re going to remember God, but subconsciously there are contrary inclinations, and we lose sight of the high mountain of Self-realization and the expansiveness of Spirit. It isn’t enough to say we shouldn’t be forgetful, because the very nature of the mind is to flit and forget. We need to build in constant little reminders like japa or chanting. But the main antidote to forgetfulness is introspection. Yogananda talked repeatedly about introspection and how important it is for our spiritual progress.
Yogananda recommends that we practice introspection twice a day, morning and evening. In the morning we should set our resolutions for the day and in the evening, review our day and ask ourselves: “Did we use our will power to keep our resolutions, or did we become the tool of bad habits?” Yogananda says that by “ever-watchful introspection” we can banish all the contrary inclinations that make us forgetful of God.
2. Negativity and avoiding the light
Paramhansa Yogananda spoke very strongly about not speaking negatively. His position on this issue contradicts much of modern psychology, but he said we should never talk about past hurts or bad experiences, or about any of the things people have done that bother us. Any form of negative expression opens the mind to negative thinking.
Yogananda said it was an abuse of God’s gift of memory to remember bad experiences and to dwell on them. We should use the gift of memory to recall uplifting and positive experiences. Using memory in this way helps to free us from karma.
Negativity can also take the form of watching movies or reading books that pull us down. The negative content of modern media can easily pull the mind into negative thought patterns. The same is true of certain kinds of news programs and political commentary. Most political commentary these days tends to be negative and polarizing.
Negative thinking is such an easy habit to fall into. Think of a river: When you step into it at the edge of the bank, the river doesn’t have much power. If you take only one or two steps into that negative current, it’s easy to get out. But the more you go toward the center of the stream, the more forcefully it will carry you into increasing negativity. It is important to catch your negative thoughts quickly and turn your mind toward something positive or beautiful.
People who are habitually pulled into a spiritual slump by negativity tend to avoid the very things that would help draw them in an upward direction: satsangs, group meditations, Sunday service. If you’re stuck in a downward pulling direction, one of the antidotes is to force yourself to go to uplifting events and places. Everything in the world has magnetism – people, places, thoughts – and environment is stronger than will power. Put yourself in the presence of upward pulling magnetism.
When you’re really stuck in a downward pulling thought pattern, the antidote is to work with the body, not the mind. Passive negativity doesn’t have enough energy to be redirected upward, so the first step is to do something that gets positive energy going — deep breathing, exercise, a walk, or some form of sport. Once the energy is moving again, find a way to help someone. Serviceful activity will help get you out of the negative stream and into the stream of positivity.
3. Restlessness and comparisons
The next culprit on the list is the tendency to get restless. We can be going along perfectly fine in our spiritual life and then all of a sudden we get the thought: “I need to go to the mall,” or “I need to relax and see a movie…” or “I’d like to have an outing with my friends.” Obviously it’s not a bad thing to get out and change our environment once in a while but if we have a habit of becoming restless, then we need to work against that habit. The complexity of the world is infinite, especially in this age of the internet. There are so many things we can get involved in—but the net effect of all this outward involvement is to draw us into a rajasic mode and away from God.
A less obvious form of restlessness is comparing ourselves with others. Once while still fairly new on the path, I (Devi) asked an Indian yogi who was visiting Ananda and giving a satsang, “How do we develop the kind of commitment that keeps us on the path for our entire life? He said, “Never compare yourself to other people.”
I thought, “What has that got to do with staying on the spiritual path?” Since then I’ve realized how important that advice was. Comparing ourselves with other people takes us out of our higher self into a sense of separation. It takes us into ego competition, into such thoughts as: “He’s so spiritual, she’s not so spiritual. I’m more spiritual than they are.” We can easily slip into feelings of superiority and negativity, or we can become discouraged about our spiritual potential.
Swami Kriyananda suggested a way out of a tendency to feel superior. He said we should strive to put our egos in a position of disadvantage, to look for ways we can take a back seat. This helps us disconnect from the sense, “I am important.” For feelings of discouragement, the solution is to offer such thoughts up to God, knowing that God is pleased when we strive to do our best with the karma we’ve brought over from the past.
One of the most powerful of all spiritual techniques is to keep our consciousness focused at the point between the eyebrows, the spiritual eye. Keeping our consciousness there banishes all restless thoughts.
4. Material desire and “unnecessary luxuries”
For many people material desire would be at the top of the list of things that hold us back from God, but most devotees aren’t strongly pulled by the usual material desires. Devotees are more challenged by what we might call “unnecessary luxuries.” These are the ways we indulge ourselves emotionally and psychologically: “I don’t really need to get up for meditation every morning. I’ll give myself the luxury of sleeping in twice a week.” “Though I need to lose weight, I’ll give myself the luxury of eating two big pieces of that dessert.” Every time we give into those indulgences, we’re giving in to our lower nature.
Sometimes those who’ve been on the spiritual path for awhile begin to think: “I’m a devotee. I’ve given my life to God. It’s probably okay if I go see that R-rated movie.” But it’s not okay. The consciousness is very malleable, and those images penetrate deeply. The downward pulls of delusion are so strong that we can never relax our vigilance. In a way, the longer we’re on the spiritual path, the more vigilant we need to be because it’s easy to allow bad habits to start creeping in.
We received a letter recently from a friend who as a young man had struggled with alcoholism, and was able to overcome it through a 12-step program. He was looking forward to his 30-year anniversary as a non-drinker. He wrote that he had attended a gathering of friends he hadn’t seen for a long time, and that he was the only one who wasn’t drinking. And he could feel a pull —“What’s one drink going hurt? You’ve been sober for 30 years.” He felt this battle going on within himself. He concluded the letter by saying, “I left the party, and I made my 30th anniversary.”
5. The non-use of Yogananda’s techniques
The ultimate culprit that holds us back spiritually is the non-use of Yogananda’s techniques. The failure to use the spiritual tools given by the Guru puts us out of attunement with him. The antidote is to start doing the very simple things he suggested. Sit and practice Hong Sau for an entire meditation. Try to go deeper and deeper. Ultimately the goal of Hong Sau is to go beyond the breath, into breathlessness. Try also to practice the AUM technique more, and especially Kriya Yoga.
We’ve listed five things that hold us back spiritually, but you don’t have to give into them. A simple formula that applies to all five is this: Anytime you feel pulled in a negative direction ask yourself: “What is the opposite of this direction?” Then put your energy into that positive direction. Yogananda says if you bring in the light, the darkness disappears even though it’s been there for a million years. As soon as you flip the light switch, it becomes light. You don’t have to wait another million years for the light gradually to cancel the darkness.
What draws us to God?
Ultimately what draws us to God is the help of God and Guru. We can’t do it on our own. The Guru is that expression of God who has been designated to lead us out of darkness and into the light. Do everything possible to increase your attunement with the Guru. Draw from his power. Keep him in your heart. Try to feel you are a channel for the Guru’s vibration and that nothing exists except that vibration. More than anything else, being a channel for that vibration is what will draw us to God.
From talks at Ananda Village during February 2010 and August 2011.
Nayaswamis Jyotish and Devi are the Spiritual Directors of Ananda Worldwide.
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