When Milarepa approached Marpa, requesting liberation in one lifetime, he was haunted by the misdeeds he recognised in his own recent past and the harm he had caused many people. He had justified the harm based on the misdeeds of those individuals towards his family, but eventually he understood that his own fate was on the line. Instead of granting him the teachings, Marpa set him to work with hard physical labor for an extended period of time. What thoughts were going through Milarepa’s mind as he carried out the seemingly meaningless, back-breaking work? He eventually broke down with a fit of despair and felt like there was no way he could go on any longer. And it was only after that occurred that the teachings were granted to him. This illustrates just one of the various potential causes for an apparently empty period for the spiritual seeker.

When the youth, whose tale was told in the Upanishads, was given several cattle and told by the teacher to take them into the forest and create a massive herd of cattle in order to get the teachings, he did not despair despite an obviously long period of effort and physical privation, and the need to overcome the difficulties of living in the forest, caring for and raising a large herd of cattle, and learning how to deal with all the external circumstances that could have sidetracked his effort. Instead of meditation, he had to herd cows….. for years. He clearly reached out for the teacher initially due to some intense inward calling which drew him away from family, friends and the life in society.

While most seekers do not have such a pressure or such an intense background that motivates them to take up spiritual practice, they nevertheless undergo periods of time where nothing is seemingly taking place, and if this occurs after a particularly fruitful time of opening and growth of consciousness, they feel the lack very acutely.

Spiritual seekers who have various experiences all find that at some point the ‘headline’ experience recedes and they are left with dealing with the difficulties and obstacles of their nature, or the pressures placed by the outer world with which they have to interact.

There are always significant reasons why these alternations take place, and Sri Aurobindo describes several of them, and advises on the proper attitude to work one’s way through these difficult periods of time.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The reason why there are these alternations of which you complain is that the nature of the consciousness is like that, after a little spell of wakefulness it feels the need of a little sleep. Very often in the beginning the wakings are brief, the sleeps long; afterwards it becomes more equal and later on the sleep periods are shorter and shorter. Another cause of these alternations, when one is receiving, is the nature’s need of closing up to assimilate. It can take perhaps a great deal, but while the experience is going on it cannot absorb properly what it brings, so it closes down for assimilation. A third cause comes int he period of transformation, — one part of the nature changes and one feels for a time as if there had been a complete and permanent change. But one is disappointed to find it cease and a period of barrenness or lowered consciousness follow. This is because another part of the consciousness comes up for change and a period of preparation and veiled working follows which seems to be one of unenlightenment or worse. These things alarm, disappoint or perplex the eagerness and impatience of the sadhak; but if one takes them quietly and knows how to use them or adopt the right attitude, one can make these unenlightened periods also a part of the conscious sadhana.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter VI Growth of Consciousness, Difficulties and Pitfalls, pg. 121

Author's Bio: 

Santosh has been studying Sri Aurobindo's writings since 1971 and has a daily blog at http://sriaurobindostudies.wordpress.com and podcast at https://anchor.fm/santosh-krinsky He is author of 17 books and is editor-in-chief at Lotus Press. He is president of Institute for Wholistic Education, a non-profit focused on integrating spirituality into daily life.