Many people see the shallowness of a life devoted to the ego, and they take variously to Humanism, Socialism and so on. Religion in the West seems to have fallen into disrepute, largely due to the clergy’s failure to show proof of an intellectual integrity. Yet the feeling for religion is still there ; it is only organised religion of which people are suspicious.
It is precisely to these people who feel the lack of clear thinking in spiritual matters that Yoga appeals, for it demands of its students a careful discrimination between what is real and what is unreal, and a clear, calm attitude of mind, only obtainable through the practice of withdrawal and concentration.
Probably few people would ever think of discriminating between the unreal and the real in insentient objects. We realise, obviously, that as phenomenal objects they are impermanent, but this is an idea which we accept without fuss on the grounds that the lack of self-consciousness in an object makes the matter unimportant. Most of us fail to draw the logical conclusion from this lack of stability in objects, which must be that the pleasure which we seek from them does not reside in the object at all, and hence an object may be thought of with pleasure at one moment and pain the next. Let us try to realise, though, that objects and their attributes have no existence apart from the Reality on which they are superimposed by the force of ignorance.
We do, however, in everyday life discriminate between the Self and the Not-self in people. During the day-time we observe other people and realise that they are conscious beings, animated by the reflection of the Spirit within them. If we come across a sleeping person we know from our own experience that self-consciousness is not extinct, but latent within him, and so we react accordingly. But we see in the pallor and stillness of a corpse an utter lack of the animating Spirit, and so we know that to cherish this inert material object would be stupidity.
We should now think further that the Spirit which manifests in men is not subject to division, or causation, or temporality of any kind. Our egoity hides this truth from us ; we fail to appreciate the unmanifest amongst the diversity of manifestation. The distorting medium of our senses fails to convey accurate impressions of sensible objects to the brain, an a further distortion may occur according to the state of mind of the perceiver. The need to cultivate disinterestedness and practice withdrawal follows from this.
Withdrawal is hardly distinguishable from the general control of the mind and senses ; it is, however, more positive than these, as the mind is not just to be restrained from considering external objects, but is to be engaged in inward contemplation.
Everyone has experienced something of this state in their lives. It is quite common for people to pass their friends in the street without acknowledging them, and then offence is often caused. Later, if asked about it, they would say that they did not see their friend, as their mind was elsewhere. Intense concentration whilst reading can make people oblivious of noise ; we probably have all left the door unanswered through such a cause.
During a battle, a soldier can become obsessed with the idea of routing out and destroying the enemy. He will continue to advance even when he is wounded, unaware that he has been hit at all until his passion subsides.
All these examples imply that the mind has been withdrawn from normal bodily consciousness, and some strong interest has brought the mind into a state of concentration. Upon returning to normal we wonder what has happened to us, and look back upon our state of forgetfulness of the body with nostalgia. There is a clue here that bliss is experienced when we forget the ego, but people rarely grasp it.
We must try to practise withdrawal consciously, placing a thought of the underlying harmony in the temporal world before our minds, and bringing our powers of feeling, reason and will to bear upon it. In this way the mind is elevated, and subsequently it may become possible to send it soaring away towards God.
Agitation is the great enemy of withdrawal and inner contemplation, and the evidence of the full beds in our hospitals, where at least half of the patients are suffering from nervous disorders, proves that it is inimical to physical health. Some people are placid by nature, some excitable, but the aim of the aspirant to self-knowledge is to remain steady through pleasure and pain, neither being too elated at the presence of the first or downcast at the presence of the second. The thought that they are both in the mind, and do not pertain to the nature of the Self, should again be held on to.
If we can remain calm through all the minor disturbances of everyday living, we shall have accomplished a great deal.
There is no need intentionally to expose the body to the pairs of opposites ; ordinary living will be a severe enough test.