How to Overcome Defects in Character

This is from a letter of Sri Aurobindo to a disciple who seemed to be suffering from some serious weakness in his nervous system and difficulties in his character. The letter provides comprehensive and compassionate guidance to the discipline not only on how to overcome his defects but also on how to conduct his life with a clear understanding of its aims.

Key Perspectives

Path of recovery; ideals of life; difficulties of character building; how to rebuild.

Path of Recovery

I shall answer briefly the questions you put in your second para. The way to set yourself right is, as I have said, to set your nature right and make yourself master of your vital being and its impulses. Your position in human society is or can be that of many others who in their early life have committed excesses of various kinds and have afterwards achieved self-control and taken their due place in life. If you were not so ignorant of life, you would know that your case is not exceptional but on the contrary very common and that many have done these things and afterwards become useful citizens and even leading men in various departments of human activity. It is quite possible for you to recompense your parents and fulfill the past expectations you spoke of, if you make that your object. Only you must first recover from your illness and achieve the proper balance of your mind and will. The object of your life depends upon your own choice and the way of attainment depends upon the nature of the object. Also your position will be whatever you make it. What you have to do is, first of all, to recover your health; then, with a quiet mind to determine your aim in life according to your capacities and preferences. It is not for me to make up your mind for you. I can only indicate to you what I myself think should be the proper aims and ideals.

Ideals of Life

Apart from external things there are two possible inner ideals which a man can follow. The first is the highest ideal of ordinary human life and the other the divine ideal of Yoga.

The ideal of human life is to establish over the whole being the control of a clear, strong and rational mind and a right and rational will, to master the emotional, vital and physical being, create a harmony of the whole and develop the capacities whatever they are and fulfill them in life. In the terms of Hindu thought, it is to enthrone the rule of the purified and sattwic buddhi, follow the dharma, fulfilling one’s own swadharma and doing the work proper to one’s capacities, and satisfy kama and artha under the control of the buddhi and the dharma.

The object of the divine life, on the other hand, is to realise one’s highest self or to realise God and to put the whole being into harmony with the truth of the highest self or the law of the divine nature, to find one’s own divine capacities great or small and fulfill them in life as a sacrifice to the highest or as a true instrument of the divine Shakti. About the latter ideal I may write at some later time. At present I shall only say something about the difficulty you feel in fulfilling the ordinary ideal.

Difficulties of Character Building

This ideal involves the building of mind and character and it is always a slow and difficult process demanding patient labour of years, sometimes the better part of the lifetime. The chief difficulty in the way with almost everybody is the difficulty of controlling the desires and impulses of the vital being. In many cases as in yours, certain strong impulses run persistently counter to the ideal and demand of the reason and the will. The cause is almost always a weakness of the vital being itself, for, when there is this weakness it finds itself unable to obey the dictates of the higher mind and obliged to act instead under the waves of impulsion that come from certain forces in nature.

These forces are really external to the person but find in this part of him a sort of mechanical readiness to satisfy and obey them. The difficulty is aggravated if the seat of the weakness is in the nervous system. There is then what is called by European science a neurasthenia tendency and under certain circumstances it leads to nervous breakdowns and collapses. This happens when there is too great a strain on the nerves or when there is excessive indulgence of the sexual or other propensities and sometimes also when there is too acute and prolonged a struggle between the restraining mental will and these propensities.

This is the illness from which you are suffering and if you consider these facts you will see the real reason why you broke down. The nervous system in you was weak; it could not obey the will and resist the demand of the external, vital forces, and in the struggle there came an over-strain of the mind and the nerves and a collapse taking the form of an acute attack of neurasthenia. These difficulties do not mean that you cannot prevail and bring about a control of your nerves and vital being and build up a harmony of mind and character. Only you must understand the thing rightly, not indulging in false and morbid ideas about it and you must use the right means.

How to Rebuild

What is needed is a quiet mind and a quiet will, patient, persistent, refusing to yield either to excitement or discouragement, but always insisting tranquility on the change needed in the being. A quiet will of this kind cannot fail in the end. Its effect is inevitable. It must first reject in the waking state, not only the acts habitual to the vital being, but the impulses behind them which it must understand to be external to the person even though manifested in him and also the suggestions which are behind the impulses. When thus rejected, the once habitual thoughts and movements may still manifest in the dream-state, because it is a well-known psychological law that what is suppressed or rejected in the waking state may still recur in sleep and dream because they are still there in the subconscient being.

But if the waking state is thoroughly cleared, these dream-movements must gradually disappear because they lose their food and the impressions in the subconscient are gradually effaced. This is the cause of the dreams of which you are so much afraid. You should see that they are only a subordinate symptom which need not alarm you if you can once get control of your waking condition. But you must get rid of the ideas which have stood in the way of effecting this self-conquest.

1. Realise that these things in you do not come from any true moral depravity, for that can exist only when the mind itself is corrupted and supports the perverse vital impulses. Where the mind and the will reject them, the moral being is sound and it is a case only of a weakness or malady of the vital parts or the nervous system.
2. Do not brood on the past but turn your face with a patient hope and confidence towards the future. To brood on the past failure will prevent you from recovering your health and will weaken your mind and will, hampering them in the work of self-conquest and rebuilding of the character.
3. Do not yield to discouragement if success does not come at once, but continue patiently and steadfastly until the thing is done.
4. Do not torture your mind by always dwelling on your weakness. Do not imagine that they unfit you for life or for the fulfillment of the human ideal. Once having recognised that they are there, seek for your sources of strength and dwell rather on them and the certainty of conquest.

Your first business is to recover your health of mind and body and that needs quietness of mind and for some time a quiet way of living. Do not rack your mind with questions which it is not yet ready to solve. Do not brood always on the thing. Occupy your mind as much as you can with healthy and normal occupations and give it as much rest as possible. Afterwards when you have your right mental condition and balance, then you can with a clear judgment decide how you will shape your life and what you have to do in the future.

Sri Aurobindo

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