Paul Brunton

PB was no stranger to criticism.  Those of us who appreciate his work and legacy might be surprised to know that he was roundly criticized and attacked from many sources including: those with a materialistic world view who could not accept his writings; by Indians who wished for a ‘modern’ India and who saw his presentation of Indian Philosophy as reinforcing ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘primitive’ world views that must be abandoned; and by those who could only see an English person as a symbol of a colonial, imperialistic, and exploitative occupier.  In Volume 5 of the Notebooks, in the Category titled “Emotions and Ethics” PB offers advice on how to receive and how to offer criticism that is wise and immensely practical, demonstrating how philosophy is relevant and should be applied to the matters of daily life.

Regarding criticism of PB, his secretary at the time he lived in India during World War II commented:

His Indian enemies have described him in their public press attacks as a "journalist in yogic pose." The truth is that I found him to be really a yogi in journalistic pose! He used to smile indulgently at their attacks but thought it beneath his dignity to answer them. I, however, was not always able to keep silent over such gross injustices and misunderstandings.

In the Notebooks PB comments on the negative forces that are provoked by our spiritual seeking.  As always, he shares his wisdom without stating that what he writes is almost always based on personal experience of what he is talking about:

The petty fault-finding, destructive gossip, and biting criticism which so many worldly people practice among themselves is also found in professedly spiritual people. It is also directed towards those who teach or espouse doctrines unacceptable to them. The faults in character which lead to these sins in speech are poisoned arrows shot at the good and bad alike.

Whoever seeks to tread a path such as the one shown here will sooner or later find that these forces set themselves in opposition to his interior journey. His way will be blocked by external circumstances that entangle him in hopeless struggles or heart-breaking oppressions and enslavements, or by psychical attacks which seek to sweep him off his spiritual feet and destroy his higher aspirations. Persons in his immediate environment may be moved by these invisible forces to work against him, causing uprisings of hatred and misunderstanding; one-time friends may turn into treacherous enemies more virulent than the poison of a cobra. Public critics will appear and endeavor to nullify whatever good he is doing for humanity, or to prevent its continuance. The single aim and object of all these attempts will be to prevent his alignment with the Overself, to render mental quiet impossible, or to keep his heart and mind crushed down to earth and earthly things. He must needs suffer these things. Their power, scope, and duration may be diminished, however.

Yet we need not despair or be discouraged.  Opposition and criticism is a sign that we are headed in the right direction.  Help in overcoming difficulties is always available, here and from higher dimensions.  One of the characteristics of a spiritual seeker listed by PB in a chapter titled “The Philosophic Discipline” in the Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga was “Hold on and Hope On.”  There he advised us that we need:

…an enduring determination to take up the quest of truth and persevere, come what may, until the goal is reached… This single factor of unabated endurance amid all the perplexities and darkness which envelop the aspirant, is most essential if he or she is not to tire in discouragement and forego the quest… (this is) a hard task but a manageable one because whoever is really in earnest receives an undaunted courage born of despair.

 May we therefore accept PB’s optimism and not be deterred from advancing, knowing that success is inevitable, and that he himself offers us an example of how these challenges may be overcome.


PB gives us an example of criticism from an Indian who saw his work as problematic:

The prime minister of an Indian state, whom I happened to be visiting several years ago, said to me during a conversation in his office: "Your book about the yogis has circulated too widely for my liking amongst the educated generation of Indians. People like myself, with a modern outlook, have been trying for years to uplift this particular generation from the superstitious, backward, inert, and medieval mental attitudes which are so responsible for the poverty, dirt, illiteracy, and misery of the masses whom they should lead. People like you are being quoted here both to sustain the faith in all those undesirable attitudes and to support the exploitation of religious impostures and mystical apathy which have harmed India for centuries. Thus you are helping to undo our good work and to retard the progressive movement in modern Indian life." This statement struck me at the time with the force of an abrupt shock. I had not dwelt in thought on this situation before. I am grateful to Sir Shanmukhan Chetty, then the prime minister of Cochin, for having given me this food for many month's thought and for having contributed towards my general awakening.

And how does PB respond? He advises us:

Do not descend to the plane of malign critics and ignorant traducers," is the injunction I have constantly given myself when faced by the attacks of those who misunderstand my nature and mishandle my ideas.

And then, referring to himself:

He is indeed glad and grateful that where little men and narrow minds doubt, scorn, criticize, or distrust him, great sages and lofty spiritual personages of the Orient, who read by inner reality rather than by outward appearance, confide in and trust in him.

How then to accept criticism?  PB advises:

Be grateful to the one who criticizes you, whether he or she be a friend or a foe. For if his criticism be true, he renders you real service. He may point out a flaw in your character that you have long neglected, with unfortunate results to yourself and others. His words may prompt you to remedy it.

He should take care that opponents are not permitted to disturb the equanimity of his mind. Conscious of the loftiness of his motives where they suspect sordid ones, aware of the true facts of a situation which they construe falsely, he must discover his own strength by trusting the higher laws to take care of them, while he takes care to protect his thoughts from being affected negatively.

And, rather than wait for others to point out our faults, we should seek to identify them on our own:

He comes to a point where he is not only willing to identify his own faults without having to wait for some self-made misfortune to wring the admission from him, but where he does so calmly, without emotional distress, as if he were identifying them in someone else. Even more, he will seek criticism from others in order to profit by it.

The disciple should be as relentless in his periodic, critical observation of himself as he should be merciful in his observation of other people. He must never shrink from exposing his own faults to himself and he should not trouble himself with the faults of other people, except that his dealings with them render it essential to allow for such faults.

In this way we advance, perfecting ourselves to be more and more an instrument of love, light and compassion in this world of struggle, and to be ready to receive the Grace which is waiting to descend upon us.


In the Quest of the Overself PB provides guidance on how to receive criticism:

The wise person turns all opposition into opportunity.  The faults of those with whom we are thrown into inescapable contact become sharpening stones for our own virtues.  Irritability of others is met with sublime patience as we switch attention to the inner self… We do not merely commend our friends and loved ones but alone to the kindly care of the Overself but also our enemies…

And PB gives us insight into those who criticize him, as follows:

Whether written or spoken, his words will have a liberating effect on some, an inspiring one on others, but may stick painfully like barbed arrows in the minds of not a few…  Fools may learn nothing from wise men, but wise men may learn much from fools.

Now, let us turn to the task of offering criticism to others.  In “Criticizing Constructively” in the Emotions and Ethics volume of the Notebooks, PB tells us:

Criticism of others should be benevolent, constructive, and suggestive, firm yet sympathetic.

Help in growth also comes from friends – if they are superiors or at least equals and if they have the courage to criticize shortcomings.

To offer someone constructive criticism and to avoid its being taken as a reproof, one should phrase the sentences carefully as if making a helpful suggestion and not as if making an attack.

The first step in dealing with someone who is difficult to live with…. Is to control in yourself what you with them to control in themselves….  In short, be polite outwardly and surrender the ego inwardly.  Only by first conquering the weakness inside yourself can you rightly hope that he or she will ever even begin to struggle against the same weakness inside of themselves.


PB’s advice to his students about criticism and negativity

PB had an extensive correspondence, both with individuals who wrote him with questions and with his more devoted students with whom he corresponded more frequently.

Here PB comments to some of his closest students on dealing with negativity and about someone who has attacked him:

Thank you for your expression of confidence.  It shows your intuition and your common sense are very much alive.  But others, weak foolish or inexperienced, get frightened by such assertions and stray from the path.  It is a test of course.  It also shows how careful one has to be on guard against the evil forces that oppose everyone who would make really substantial progress. (With respect to the person who has attached me)…  She is headed for destruction and will be overtaken by heavy retribution.

You mentioned in a previous letter having had to listen to a lot of abuse of me when this person visited you. May I venture to say that it would not have been wrong to have defended P.B. even though you know he would not defend himself?  At least you can both testify of you own experience of your dealings with him, which is first-hand knowledge as against the hearsay of those who are not permitted to enter his life and who consequently accept ignorant gossip as gospel truth.

And now, back to the Notebooks in a section of Emotions and Ethics titled “Sympathetic Understanding”:

Even if he finds the opinions, beliefs, and actions of others repulsive and not to his taste he should experiment at times in the development of tolerance and in the knowledge of human nature. This can be done by entering imaginatively into their history and into their experience until he understands why they think and act as they do. That need not result in the acceptance of their attitudes, but in the comprehension of them.

To give others who hold different beliefs a mental sympathy - enough to understand what it is they hold and why - calls for a capacity to detach oneself temporarily from one's own beliefs. This is not to be done, of course, by rejecting them in any way but by just letting them stand as they are while moving over and into the other person to get an understanding of his point of view. Such a capacity cannot be acquired without enough humility and selflessness to make it possible to entertain a distasteful viewpoint even for a single second.

We conclude this series of posts on dealing with negativity and giving and receiving criticism with the following quotes from the Notebooks:

I can afford to be patient and calm despite the barking of such critics, for a historical pioneering task for this generation has fallen on my shoulders. Such self-appreciation is not identical with self-conceit. The one is the unembellished knowledge of one's correct height, the other the emotional exaggeration of it to satisfy vanity.

Human experience is our laboratory for higher experiment. The world is our school for spiritual discovery. The vicissitudes of personal circumstance are our field for ethical achievement. The great books written by illumined individuals from antiquity till today are our guides. 

All worldly experiences may become doors to divinity if interpreted aright.