Memory and Mental Process

Sri Aurobindo discusses the role of memory and the functioning of the mentality in our inner self-experience as follows: “It is not the memory alone which constitutes the ego-sense; memory is only a mediator between the sense-mind and the co-ordinating intelligence: it offers to the intelligence the past data of experience which the mind holds somewhere within but cannot carry with it in its running from moment to moment on the surface.”

Its role however is significant: “for while all that it can do for the mind with regard to its direct self-consciousness is to remind it that it existed and was the same in the past as in the present, it becomes in our differentiated or surface self-experience an important power linking together past and present experiences, past and present personality, preventing chaos and dissociation and assuring the continuity of the stream in the surface mind.”

The sense of continuity provided by memory is an important constituent of the ego-sense, but even without memory, the ego-sense can and does exist. We will explore the process of the mental experience and its relation to the ego-sense of the surface consciousness starting in the next post.

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 9, Memory, Ego and Self-Experience

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The Subjective Experience of Mind

Putting aside speculation and theory for a moment, it is useful to actually look at the facts of our surface conscious experience. Sri Aurobindo describes these facts as follows: “We see it first as a purely subjective phenomenon. There is a constant rapid shifting of Time-point which it is impossible to arrest for a moment. There is a constant changing, even when there is no shifting of Space-circumstance, a change both in the body or form of itself which the consciousness directly inhabits and the environing body or form of things in which it less directly lives. It is equally affected by both, though more vividly, because directly, by the smaller than by the larger habitation, by its own body than by the body of the world, because only of the changes in its own body is it directly conscious and of the body of the world only indirectly through the senses and the effects of the macrocosm on the microcosm. This change of the body and the surroundings is not so insistently obvious or not so obviously rapid as the swift mutation of Time; yet is is equally real from moment to moment and equally impossible to arrest.”

Whether we experience the changes internally, or perceive changes in the external environment through time, we tend to attribute causality to the prior event that we have experienced. However, we have to recognize that causality is not established, as there could be synchronicity, or sequential experience that nevertheless is not a cause-effect relationship. The mind bifurcates its experience into subjective, meaning what it experiences internally in its own mental processing, and objective, meaning what it experiences as perceptions coming from the outside. The relationship of these two takes the form of attributed causality in many cases, which then creates patterns of understanding and response that yield the “personality” of the individual self responding to the events in the world that is the dominant paradigm. Sri Aurobindo points out however that “all this experience is at bottom subjective; for even the objective and external is only known to mind in the form of subjective impressions.” This is in fact a primary reason why it is important to review the subjective process of Knowing, so that we can begin to understand the real sense and meaning of our experience.

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 9, Memory, Ego and Self-Experience

The Ego as the Surface Self Subject to Time, Space and Circumstance

The usual experience of the mental being is that of constant change and experience in the flow of Time. Time, space and circumstance all constantly modify who we are in our surface mental awareness, and we identify with these changes to create a sense of individuality, which we may call the ego. Sri Aurobindo describes the experience of those who live constantly in this surface being: “Those who live in this surface Time-self and have not the habit of drawing back inward towards the immutable or the capacity of dwelling in it, are even incapable of thinking of themselves apart from this ever self-modifying mental experience. That is for them their self and it is easy for them, if they look with detatchment at its happenings, to agree with the conclusion of the Buddhist Nihilists that this self is in fact nothing but a stream of idea and experience and mental action, the persistent flame which is yet never the same flame, and to conclude that there is no such thing as a real self, but only a flow of experience and behind it Nihil: there is experience of knowledge without a Knower, experience of being with an Existent; there are simply a number of elements, parts of a flux without a real whole, which combine to create the illusion of a Knower and Knowledge and the Known, the illusion of an Existent and existence and the experience of existence.”

The ego sense is that nexus of awareness that lives in this surface self and is the referent to which all time, space and circumstance is directed and around which it all moves.

Ultimately, of course, there is a deeper awareness of consciousness, behind all the movement of the surface being, which provides the truer context, but from the point of view of the ego, bound to the flow of Time and circumstance, this is the framework and the limitation within which its consciousness moves and survives and gathers experience.

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 9, Memory, Ego and Self-Experience

Time, Memory and Self-Experience

While we tend to look upon our experience of the past, present and future as something unstable, fleeting and unknown, because of the limitations of our mental experience of Time, in reality, Sri Aurobindo reminds us “we shall find, he is always the same Eternal who is for ever stable and self-possessed in His supramental knowledge and what he seizes on is also for ever stable and eternal; for it is himself that he is mentally experiencing in the succession of Time.”

The fact of the Unity of the Eternal, unchanging, unmoving Absolute, with the expression of the multiplicity through the instrumentality of Time, means that the self-experience we have is generally rooted in Ignorance, but is not an ultimate Reality.

Sri Aurobindo discusses the functioning and purpose of Time in the Self-Experience of the Infinite Being as follows: “Time is the great bank of conscious existence turned into values of experience and action: the surface mental being draws upon the past (and the future also) and coins it continually into the present; he accounts for and stores up the gains he has gathered in what we call the past, not knowing how ever-present is the past in us; he uses as much of it as he needs as coin of knowledge and realised being and pays it out as coin of mental, vital and physical action in the commerce of the present which creates to his view the new wealth of the future. Ignorance is a utilisation of the Being’s self-knowledge in such a way as to make it valuable for Time-experience and valid for Time-activity; what wedo not know is what we have not yet taken up, coined and used in our mental experience or have ceased to coin or use.”

In reality, however, the deeper truth is that the experience of the surface mentality is artificially restricted and limited, but is not actually separated from the Oneness that supports all this experience. “Behind, all is known and all is ready for use according to the will of the Self in its dealings with Time and Space and Causality. One might almost say that our surface being is only the deeper eternal Self in us throwing itself out as the adventurer in Time, a gambler and speculator in infinite possibilities, limiting itself to the succession of moments so that it may have all the surprise and delight of the adventure, keeping back its self-knowledge and complete self-being so that it may win again what it seems to have lost, reconquering all itself through the chequered joy and pain of an aeonic passion and seeking and endeavor.”

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 8, Memory, Self-Consciousness and the Ignorance

Integration of the Mobile and the Immobile, Time and Timelessness in One Consciousness

The first status that the seeker generally becomes aware of when passing through the quieting of the mind into a wider consciousness is the “immobile status.” Sri Aurobindo describes it thus: “if we regard only the immobility of the self, we may say of it that it is not only timeless, but actionless, without movement of idea, thought, imagination, memory, will, self-sufficient, self-absorbed and therefore void of all action of the universe. That then becomes alone real to us and the rest a vain symbolising in non-existent forms,–or forms corresponding to nothing truly existent,–and therefore a dream.” This is the basis of what Sri Aurobindo calls the “refusal of the ascetic” who moves into this first experience beyond the Mind and considers it to be all, when it is but a movement from the active status to the immobile status of consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo points out that there is an integrating experience: “The real self is the eternal who is obviously capable of both the mobility in Time and the immobility basing Time,–simultaneously, otherwise they could not both exist; nor, even, could one exist and the other create seemings. This is the supreme Soul, Self and Being of the Gita who upholds both the immobile and the mobile being as the self and lord of all existence.” The terms in the texts are “para purusha, paramatmna, parabrahman.”

The total absorption in the mobile status without relating it to the timeless substratum or superstratum, is, as the Upanishad relates, a “blind darkness”. The total absorption in the immobile status is similarly considered to be “as if into a greater darkness”. The solution is to integrate both, and gain the consciousness that can simultaneously hold the mobile and the immobile, Time and Timelessness, in one coordinated view and experience.
reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 8, Memory, Self-Consciousness and the Ignorance

Becoming Aware of the Consciousness that Unites Time and Timelessness

Sri Aurobindo explores the nature of the direct versus indirect experience of reality that we explored in the prior post. He continues: “But, in truth, our sharp distinctions made between the without and the within, the present and the past self-consciousness are tricks of the limited unstable action of mind. Behind the mind and using it as its own surface activity there is a stable consciousness in which there is no binding conceptual division between itself in the present and itself in the past and future; and yet it knows itself in Time, in the present, past and future, but at once, with an undivided view which embraces all the mobile experiences of the Time-self and holds them on the foundation of the immobile timeless self.”

The Vedic sages had an expression they used for this state of consciousness, which translates essentially as the vision or seeing of the “3 times”. The fragmentation brought about the action of mind to create distinctions of past, present and future is healed in this other state of consciousness, and the 3 are clearly experienced as one uninterrupted whole.

Sri Aurobindo describes how this awareness comes about: “This consciousness we can become aware of when we draw back from the mind and its activities or when these fall silent.” Of course, for those who are wedded to the action of mind and intellect, the process of stilling them mind is both difficult and scary. This process, achieved through meditation and various techniques of viewing and calming the “mind-waves” is part of the practice of yoga, and has been thoroughly explained in step-by-step detail in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. There are other techniques as well which Sri Aurobindo describes elsewhere. However one achieves this state of stilling the active mind, the result opens up the possibility of moving beyond being bound by the action of mind and being trapped in a fragmented sense of Time.

In the next post we shall continue to explore the transition to the status of consciousness beyond the limitations of Time.

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 8, Memory, Self-Consciousness and the Ignorance

The Mind’s Direct Experience and Indirect Experience Capabilities

Sri Aurobindo takes up the question of what we really KNOW through direct experience, versus what we build upon through the use of various powers of the mind, and therefore representing an indirect knowledge. He explains: “Mind can only have the direct consciousness of self in the moment of its present being; it can only have some half-direct perception of things as they are offered to it in the present moment of time and the immediate field of space and seized by the senses.” The direct awareness we have HERE and NOW with no function of memory, speculation, imagination, conceptualisation, is the mind’s DIRECT experience.

Sri Aurobindo explains further as to the tools mind uses to try to expand its field of knowledge and experience: “It makes up for its deficiency by memory, imagination, thought, idea-symbols of various kinds. Its senses are devices by which it lays hold on the appearances of things in the present moment and in the immediate space; memory, imagination, thought are devices by which it represents to itself, still less directly, the appearances of things beyond the present moment and the immediate space. The one thing which is not a device is its direct self-consciousness in the present moment.”

There is a temptation among certain spiritual and religious traditions to treat only the Direct Experience as being Real and the Indirect Experience to be founded in Illusion and thus, Unreal. This of course is due to the limited mind attempting to determine “what is real”, which it cannot in fact do. The status of consciousness must move to the wider, embracing, unified consciousness founded in the Eternal in order for the “reality” and “unreality” to be reconciled and put in their proper places.

reference: Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 8, Memory, Self-Consciousness and the Ignorance