By Douglas McElheny
Recently I attended a conference called ‘Pain: Its Cause and Cure’ at the Sri Aurobindo Center For Advanced Research (SACAR) in Pondicherry India. I had arranged to stay at the SACAR guest house and arrived the evening before the conference began. While eating dinner I got to know a lady from Texas named Debbie who was attending the conference as well. I also took note of a pretty young Indian woman who came into the dining area briefly, but I didn’t actually meet her.
That night I had this dream:
I’m attending a lecture at the pain conference. I’m next to Debbie, though she looks much younger, and we just end up holding hands. I’m feeling desire and thinking we might hook up later. I end up resting my head on our clasped hands, but this puts my head behind a tall guy so I can’t see the PowerPoint presentation on the projector screen.
The dream was a little puzzling for me because, although Debbie was admittedly cute for her age (60), I didn’t really feel attracted to her sexually, though I liked her personality-wise. Anyway, at 9 a.m. we all went into the lecture hall and sat ourselves at two person desks. A very tall Indian woman sat down in the seat directly in front of me, effectively blocking my view of the screen, so that I had to lean to the side and peer around her in order to see it. I was struck by the exactness of the outer event matching what had happened in the dream, and I figured there was some meaning there, but I wasn’t sure what it might be. Arriving a little late was the pretty young Indian woman from the night before, and as is often the case when such beauty is around, my vital wants to eat it through my eyes, sexual staring I call it. It’s an urge that still just comes, like a reflex even though there’s part of me that would gladly be rid of it. As I sat there listening to the speakers, the desire would come in waves, and I would repeatedly have to use my will to keep pulling myself away from it. Later that afternoon I found myself sitting at the same table as her at lunch and found out her name, I’ll call her N. in this article, but I didn’t talk much to her. Then that evening at dinner she arrived late, and she sat down at the table with me and another American man, Don. The three of us conversed for a little while, and I found her quite charming and sweet as well as pretty. There was something too about her vital that my vital really found appealing, and I could feel that vital thrill you experience when you’re interacting with someone you’re really attracted to. It’s a kind of feeding, one you can keep at bay, but I didn’t do such a good job of it here. This thing in her vital though wasn’t anything flirtatious or overtly sexual, but quite the opposite really. She was actually very much a lady, and if you give my vital the choice between the tart and the lady it will take the lady the majority of the time though perhaps not every time.
At some point I excused myself to go up to my room, and that’s when my vital problems really began. What happened was the vital latched onto the idea of inviting N. to my house so she could see the work I’m doing here with some young tamil adults that live in a multi apartment complex with me and my partner in the endeavor Donny. It’s a work that’s been going on for a number of years, and Donny I both feel that what our house needs now, beyond some changes and structure within it, is for people in the community here to come and see what we’re doing. Since I knew I was going to this pain conference at SACAR and would be mixing with a large group of people, I was on the lookout for potential prospects to invite.
So with N. my vital took that ball and ran with it with, producing waves of thoughts and fantasies about bringing her to the house. Most of the scenarios the vital was cooking up we’re just about being around and her taking in her vital energy the same way I had at dinner the night before, but there were to a lesser degree outright romantic and sexual thoughts and feelings. The morning of that second day at the conference it was hard to stay focused because of the vital tumult. I kept trying to reject it, and also to turn my attention away from it by focusing on the lecturers and what they were saying. I’d succeed for a while and there’d be a space of clarity, but then another wave of it would come and it became quite apparent that my dream from two nights before, and the way my view of the screen was actually physically blocked the day before were foreshadowing this vital movement which was ‘blocking’ my view of the conference. And though the love interest in the dream was a young Debbie, it was N. it was referring to.
One thing that really helped though as these waves of desire would come was something Donny and I had been talking about just days before that had come from his muse which said:
What is a victory,
getting over a temptation?
Getting over a limitation1
These lines may not look like much at first glance, but the idea here is quite powerful. Looking at something as a temptation automatically gives it the association of badness, and creates a resistance or aversion to it that just makes it harder to throw out. Looking it as a limitation though takes that charge away from it. You can still see it for what it is, which is something getting in the way of one’s sadhana and not make excuses for it, but you can deal with it in a more calm and detached manner. Which is what I was able to do.
Now in addition to taking that attitude of a limitation towards the vital desire, I also tried to reason with the vital, pointing out things like the fact that having N. visit the house would mean wrestling with this desire, and the fact that even if she was game and I was willing to put a halt to twelve years of celibacy, my lower back problems would make it impossible to really enjoy intimacy with her or anyone else for that matter. I don’t remember exactly at what point in the day it happened, but there was a decisive moment where my vital basically said “Yeah, you’re right” and let go of the idea of bringing her over to the house. At that moment I felt something lift within me and instantly felt lighter and more clear to the point that when Donny came to visit me at the SACAR guest house late that evening he remarked that I seemed to be quite clear and focused. The thoughts and imaginings of bringing N. to the house still came a little bit, but the vital push and urgency that had been behind them was just a fraction of what it had been before.
The next day however it became apparent that while the vital had let go of the desire to invite N. to the house, it still hadn’t totally let go of the desire to be around her and to interact with her while the conference was still going on. During lunch an Austrian man and I spoke a little Spanish to each other, and N., who was also at our table, showed some interest by mentioning she really likes a Netflix series called Narcos which is full of Spanish. So I took that opportunity to teach her a few words in Spanish as a way to interact with her. That in itself may not have been inappropriate. You can do something like that in the right way and for the right reason, and when I woke up on the morning of the fourth and last day of the retreat I made a strong resolution not to follow the vital’s desire to interact with N. and to try and handle whatever interaction came up in the right way, i.e. without vitally eating.
What was amazing though was that after having made that resolution it seemed like every time I turned around, there she was. So I taught her a number of Spanish words that day as well as explained some concepts in Spanish such as gender and different words for the verb ‘to be’. I also talked about places I’d traveled in Latin America and she told me she had a sister that was living in Mexico. I tried not to vitally eat, but I don’t think I was completely successful. The truth is I still have things to learn regarding the subtleties of when I’m vitally eating or not eating when having these more casual interactions with someone I’m sexually attracted to. Overall though, I felt pretty good about things at the end of the day, felt like I’d been the friend she needed me to be and it seemed that her interest had been perked further not just in Spanish, but also in the possibility of traveling in Latin America. I wondered if maybe that’s something that will be important in her process. That’s just speculation though.
Be that as it may, when I got home from the conference and was reflecting on everything that had happened, I was initially a little disheartened since I hadn’t had the romantic/sexual thing come up that strongly in many years, didn’t think it actually could come up that strongly anymore. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised though. Even though I’ve put a lot of effort into breaking the habit of following the romantic/sexual impulse in all its forms in waking life, it’s still there. It’s also in dreams too, though outright sexual dreams and nocturnal emissions aren’t nearly as common as they used to be. When the romantic/sexual impulse does come up in dreams it’s usually just on the level of feeling and flirting where often there’s the potential for sex later if I can find myself alone with this person. Even these types of dreams aren’t so common anymore, but even if I were able to free my waking and dream life completely from these movements, they could still rise up from the subconscient according to Sri Aurobindo2. What I think it basically boils down to is that until you reach a certain turning point in the yoga these things will always have the potential to rise when given the right stimulus. And with N. I had a very strong stimulus both physically and vitally that was hitting on all cylinders as far as what gets me going sexually and romantically. I will say however that it didn’t get its hooks into me as badly as it has in the past, and I think that’s because of the effort I’ve put into breaking the habit of following that impulse over the course of many years, and also because mentally I understand I’m not going to get any lasting satisfaction from a romantic/sexual relationship.
Now of course it’s good that I didn’t get as carried away with the vital movement as I have in the past, but it seems like the process of getting free of these things is interminable, like the curve of a hyperbola which gets closer and closer to its asymptotes as it extends into infinity but doesn’t ever actually touch them. So what is the turning point? It seems to me it could be different things for different people. For some people it might be something really major like the vital being becoming fully converted and giving itself wholly to the divine instead of the pursuit of its desires, or the psychic being suddenly and irrevocably coming to the front. A letter I recently reread of Sri Aurobindo’s gives me reason to believe though that it can happen in a more subtle way. He tells us:
By constant effort and aspiration one can arrive at a turning point when the psychic asserts itself and what seems a very slight psychological change or reversal alters the whole balance of the nature.3
Now other people might read this differently than I do, but it doesn’t appear to me that he’s describing the psychic being coming completely forward in this quotation. I think what he’s talking about here is a turning point where the psychic being wouldn’t be fully out in front, but its influence would become more powerful than the resistance of the outer nature. Then it would only be a matter of time for things like the complete conversion of the vital, or the psychic being coming irrevocably forward to happen.
However that turning point happens though, you have to carry on with your effort and aspiration until you reach it, and that’s hard. I’m finding in my own case that the vital has become fairly neutral, and while it’s not opposing the sadhana much, it’s not putting its enthusiasm into it much either. It also gets discouraged and I’m finding the only way is to will myself forward despite movements of discouragement and loss of faith. It’s kind of like walking in the desert, and while you come across the occasional oasis, you wonder if you’re ever going to find your way out of it. I hope one day to be able to tell people what’s it like on the other side of that desert.
- Copyright Donny Duke
- ‘When the waking consciousness has renounced the indulgence of the sexual desires and impulses, these take refuge in the subconscient as impressions, memories, suppressed desires and come up in sleep as dreams and involuntary sleep emissions. If the waking consciousness is not itself clear, if, that is to say, though there is no physical indulgence, yet there are imaginations in the mind or desires in the vital or the body, then these dreams and emissions can be frequent. Even if the waking consciousness is clear, the subconscient emergences can still come for a time, but in time they diminish.’ Sri Aurobindo, CWSA Volume 31 – Letters on Yoga Volume 4, pg 526
- Sri Aurobindo, CWSA Volume 28 – Letters on Yoga Volume 1, pg 121