Our Subliminal Self

Sri Aurobindo continues his exploration of the subliminal self in relation to our waking surface consciousness. “If we undertake this self-discovery and enlarge our knowledge of the subliminal self, so conceiving it as to include in it our lower subconscient and upper superconscient ends, we shall discover that it is really this which provides the whole material of our apparent being and that our perceptions, our memories, our effectuations of will and intelligence are only a selection from its perceptions, memories, activities and relations of will and intelligence; our very ego is only a minor and superficial formulation of its self-consciousness and self-experience. It is, as it were, the urgent sea out of which the waves of our conscious becoming arise.”

Clearly Sri Aurobindo’s insight here dramatically changes the way we can see and understand our normal conscious experience. Just as our view of the relationship of the sun and the earth changed with the application of science to our daily experience, a similar revolution of our understanding needs to take place to appreciate that it is the inner subliminal self that is the true source of what we experience on the surface.

Sri Aurobindo continues his review: “But what are its limits? how far does it extend? what is its fundamental nature? Ordinarily, we speak of a subconscious existence and include in this term all that is not on the waking surface. But the whole or the greater part of the inner or subliminal self can hardly be characterised by that epithet; for when we say subconscious, we think readily of an obsucre unconsciousness or half-consciousness or else a submerged consciousness below and in a way inferior to and less than our organised waking awareness or, at least, less in possession of itself. But we find, when we go within, that somewhere in our subliminal part,–though not co-extensive with it since it has also obscure and ignorant regions,–there is a consciousness much wider, more luminous, more in possession of itself and things than that which wakes upon our surface and is the percipient of our daily hours; that is our inner being, and it is this which we must regard as our subliminal self and set apart the subconscient as an inferior, a lowest occult province of our nature. In the same way there is a superconscient part of our total existence in which there is what we discover to be our highest self, and this too we can set apart as a higher occult province of our nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 11, The Boundaries of the Ignorance

Delving Into Our Inner Subliminal Being

Sri Aurobindo encourages us to explore the realm of the inner subliminal consciousness so as to gain a more accurate and complete understanding of our complete being, including, but certainly not limited to, the surface consciousness. “…its perceptions are not confined, as are ordinarily those of the waking mind, to the scanty gleanings of the physical senses, but extend far beyond and use, as telepathic phenomena of many kinds bear witness, a subtle sense the limits of which are too wide to be easily fixed. The relations between the surface will or impulsion and the subliminal urge, mistakenly described as unconscious or subconscious, have not been properly studied except in regard to unusual and unorganised manifestations and to certain morbidly abnormal phenomena of the diseased human mind; but if we pursue our observation far enough, we shall find that the cognition and will or impulsive force of the inner being really stand behind the whole conscious becoming; the latter represents only that part of its secret endeavor and achievement which rises successfully to the surface of our life. To know our inner being is the first step towards a real self-knowledge.”

When we follow this track we actually can begin to understand the motive springs and complexity of our actions and reactions, and eventually we can actually begin to form, guide and direct the outer action from a new standpoint of our being.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 11, The Boundaries of the Ignorance

Acquiring Knowledge of Our Inner Being

Sri Aurobindo makes it clear that the study of psychology, particularly in the West, has focused more on unusual phenomena and states, and has failed to adequately and completely grasp the real state of consciousness and awareness that drives our daily lives and surface awareness. It is however, precisely the inner subliminal state of consciousness which is more completely aware and interacting with the forces that are constantly impinging on us and creating our response in action.

“This concealed self and consciousness is our real or whole being, of which the outer is a part and a phenomenon, a selective formation for a surface use. We perceive only a small number of the contacts of things which impinge upon us; the inner being perceives all that enters or touches us and our environment. We perceive only a part of the workings of our life and being; the inner being perceives so much that we might almost suppose that nothing escapes its view. We remember only a small selection from our perceptions, and of these even we keep a great part in a store-room where we cannot always lay our hand upon what we need; the inner being retains everything that it has ever received and has it always ready to hand. We can form into co-ordinated understanding and knowledge only so much of our perceptions and memories as our trained intelligence and mental capacity can grasp in their sense and appreciate in their relations: the intelligence of the inner being needs no training, but preserves the accurate form and relations of all its perceptions and memories and,–though this is a proposition which may be considered doubtful or difficult to concede in its fullness,–can grasp immediately, when it does not possess already, their significance.”

Clearly there is a wide field here for psychological examination and effort if we are to gain any truer sense of who we are, and why we are here.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 11, The Boundaries of the Ignorance

Psychological Self-Examination of Our Consciousness

Sri Aurobindo encourages us to explore our psychological makeup, as a methodology of the practice of yoga, and the development of a conscious ladder of spiritual development within ourselves. “A superficial observation of our waking consciousness shows us that of a great part of our individual being and becoming we are quite ignorant; it is to us the Inconscient, just as much as the life of the plant, the metal, the earth, the elements. But if we carry our knowledge farther, pushing psychological experiment and observation beyond their normal bounds, we find how vast is the sphere of this supposed Inconscient or this subconscient in our total existence,–the subconscient, so seeming and so called by us because it is a concealed consciousness,–and what a small and fragmentary portion of our being is covered by our waking mind and ego are only a superimposition upon a submerged, a subliminal self,–for so that self appears to us,–or, more accurately, an inner being, with a much vaster capacity of experience; our mind and ego are like the crown and dome of a temple jutting out from the waves while the great body of the building is submerged under the surface of the waters.”

It is clear therefore, that to truly understand our lives, and take stock of our entire self and being, we need to undertake what may be called “psychological self-examination” and thereby explore the operations of the surface awareness, as well as determine what lies within, below and above our surface formation, and to what extent these hidden subliminal forces actually direct, influence or control our waking self and our actions.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 11, The Boundaries of the Ignorance

The Wider Reality Underlying our Limited Ego-Awareness

Sri Aurobindo points out that the ego, despite its overwhelming central position to our surface consciousness, is just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the real movement of consciousness and energy in and through our being. “But the moment we study ourselves, we find that the self-experience which we thus co-ordinate and consciously utilise for life, is a small part even of our waking individual consciousness. We fasten only upon a very limited number of the mental sensations and perceptions of self and things which come up into our surface consciousness in our continual present: of these again memory saves up only a scanty part from the oblivious gulf of the past; of the storings of memory our intelligence utilises only a small portion for co-ordinated knowledge, our will utilises a smaller percentage for action. A narrow selection, a large rejection or reservation, a miserly-spendthrift system of waste of material and unemployment of resources and a scanty and disorderly modicum of useful spending and utilisable balance seems to be the method of Nature in our conscious becoming even as it is in the field of the material universe.”

While this is what the self-observation shows, the fact remains that nothing of the “wasted” or “unused” material is actually wasted; rather it works subliminally, subconsciously or unconsciously and remains available for recombination into new forms and directions which we, in our ego-consciousness, believe we are inventing, but which in actual fact we are predominantly obtaining from materials secretly stored deep within and bringing forward in newly blended formulations.

Sri Aurobindo concludes: “We are not only what we know of ourselves but an immense more which we do not know; our momentary personality is only a bubble on the ocean of our existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 11, The Boundaries of the Ignorance

The Nature and Role of the Ego-Sense

Sri Aurobindo recognizes that the development of the ego-sense has its purpose in the evolutionary development of consciousness out of the Inconscience, and it provides a basis for action, a nexus, through which energy can be focused to interact with other ego centers to create new combinations and energetic patterns. This is not to say that the ego is something ultimately real and required in the higher evolutionary stages. Eventually the ego must be surpassed if we are to break free of the limitations of the human framework of consciousness. “It is this ego-sense that gives a first basis of coherence to what otherwise might be a string or mas of floating impressions: all that is so sensed is referred to a corresponding artificial centre of mental consciousness in the understanding, the ego-idea. This ego-sense in the life stuff and this ego-idea in the mind maintain a constructed symbol of self, the separative ego, which does duty for the hidden real self, the spirit or true being. The surface mental individuality is, in consequence, always ego-centric; even its altruism is an enlargement of its ego: the ego is the lynch-pin invented to hold together the motion of our wheel of nature. The necessity of centralisation around the ego continues until there is no longer need of any such device or contrivance because there has emerged the true self, the spiritual being, which is at once wheel and motion and that which holds all together, the centre and the circumference.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 11, The Boundaries of the Ignorance, pg. 554

The Mechanism of Our Mental Awareness

Having reviewed the different types of knowledge and their origin and functions, Sri Aurobindo next takes up the exploration of the limits of our awareness both above and below, which he calls “The Boundaries of the Ignorance”. He begins with a description of the experience of awareness that we share: “We see that in us it consists of a succession of waves of being and force, pressing from outside and rising from within, which become stuff of consciousness and formulate in a mental cognition and mentalised sensation of self and things in Time and Space. Time presents itself to us as a flow of dynamic movement, Space as an objective field of contents for the experience of this imperfect and developing awareness. By immediate awareness the mental being mobile in Time lives perpetually in the present; by memory he saves a certain part of his experience of self and things from streaming away from him entirely into the past; by thought and will and action, by mind-energy, life energy, body energy he utilises it for what he becomes in the present and is yet to become hereafter; the force of being in him that has made him what he is works to prolong, develop and amplify his becoming in the future. All this insecurely held material of self-expression and experience of things, this partial knowledge accumulated in the succession of Time, is co-ordinated for him by perception, memory, intelligence and will to be utilised for an ever-new or ever-repeated becoming and for the mental, vital, physical action which helps him to grow into what he is to be and to express what he already is.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 11, The Boundaries of the Ignorance, pp. 553-554

The Ladder of Conscious Evolution

Sri Aurobindo now has established the foundation for following the emergence of consciousness from the Inconscient as it develops and expresses its powers and capacities in various planes of existence. He shows us how the initial manifestation is unformed, weak and tentative, and how it then gradually develops, extends itself and comes to a fuller outflowering at the next stage of its emergence.

“First, there emerges a crude or veiled sense which develops into precise sensations aided by a vital instinct or concealed intuition; then a life-mind perception manifests and at its back an obscure consciousness-sight and feeling of things; emotion vibrates out and seeks an interchange with others; last arises to the surface conception, thought, reason comprehending and apprehending the object, combining its data of knowledge. But all are incomplete, still maimed by the separative ignorance and the first obscuring inconscience; all are dependent on the outward means, not empowered to act in their own right: consciousness cannot act directly on consciousness; there is a constructive envelopment and penetration of things by the mind consciousness, but not a real possession; there is no knowledge by identity.”

The mechanism for the next step in the emergence of consciousness is next defined: “Only when the subliminal is able to force upon the frontal mind and sense some of its secret activities pure and untranslated into the ordinary forms of mental intelligence, does a rudimentary action of the deeper methods lift itself to the surface; but such emergences are still an exception, they strike across the normality of our acquired and learned knowledge with a savour of the abnormal and the supernormal. It is only by an opening to our inner being or an entry into it that a direct intimate awareness can be added to the outer indirect awareness. it is only by our awakening to our inmost soul or superconscient self that there can be a beginning of the spiritual knowledge with identity as its basis, its constituent power, its intrinsic substance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 10, Knowledge by Identity and Separative Knowledge, pg. 552

Evolution of Consciousness Out of the Inconscient

Sri Aurobindo traces the stirrings of awareness, sensation and conscious energy as they emerge from the Inconscient: “This first crude mechanical action of an inherent absorbed conscious energy opens in the primary forms of life into submental life-vibrations that imply an involved sensation; there is a seeking for growth, light, air, life-room, a blind feeling out, which is still internal and confined within the immobile being, unable to formulate its instincts, to communicate, to externalise itself. An immobility not organised to establish living relations, it endures and absorbs contacts, involuntarily inflicts but cannot voluntarily impose them; the inconscience is still dominant, still works out everything by the secret involved knowledge by identity, it has not yet developed the surface contactual means of a conscious knowledge. This further development begins with overtly conscious life; what we see in it is the imprisoned consciousness struggling out to the surface: it is under the compulsion of this struggle that the separated living being strives, however blindly at first and within narrow limits, to enter into conscious relations with the rest of the world-being outside it. It is by the growing amount of contacts that it can receive and respond to and by the growing amount of contacts that it can put out from itself or impose in order to satisfy its needs and impulsions that the being of living matter develops its consciousness, grows form inconscience or subconscience into a limited separative knowledge.”

As this process develops, forms are organised that become more complex, more capable of exercising higher powers of sensation, observation, reflection and conscious thought. We move through the levels of plant life, to animal life, and into the human evolution by an extension of this process of the evolution of consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 10, Knowledge by Identity and Separative Knowledge, pg. 551

Emergence from Involved Inconscience to Evolved Awareness

Sri Aurobindo describes at this point the mechanism and stages of the emergence of consciousness from the involved state of Inconscience previously described: “We can, in this knowledge, understand more clearly the stages of the emergence of consciousness from involution to its evolved appearance, of which we have already attempted some general conception. The material existence has only a physical, not a mental individuality, but there is a subliminal Presence in it, the one Conscious in unconscious things, that determines the operation of its indwelling energies. If, as has been affirmed, a material object receives and retains impressions of the contacts of things around it and energies emanate from it, so that an occult knowledge can become aware of its past, can make us conscious of these emanating influences, the intrinsic unorganised Awareness pervading the form but not yet enlightening it must be the cause of this receptivity and these capacities. What we see from outside is that material objects like plants and minerals have their powers, properties and inherent influences, but as there is no faculty or means of communication, it is only by being brought into contact with person or object by a conscious utilisation by living beings that their influences can become active,–such a utilisation is the practical side of more than one human science. But still these powers and influences are attributes of Being, not of mere indeterminate substance, they are forces of the Spirit emerging by Energy from its self-absorbed Inconscience.”

There are numerous examples that illustrate this principle. Research done on The Secret Life of Plants for instance, is able to record vital sensations and a form of awareness that most people have not yet recognised, but which nevertheless can now be measured and recorded. Similarly, some years ago I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit a researcher in a teaching hospital in South India who was working with measurement of vibrations. Among other things, he brought in various stones from different locations, some generally available in nature, with others brought from temples where prayers had taken place for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The stones that had been in the temple environment showed an aura and radiance that was immediately and palpably noticeable compared to the “ordinary” stones. Clearly those particular stones had absorbed and held energy of the prayers and was now radiating it back out. This is similar to the ability of stones to collect and hold heat, and then later radiate it back.

We shall continue this exploration in the next post.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 10, Knowledge by Identity and Separative Knowledge, pp. 550-551