Bound In The Present, Ignorant About Past & Future

As we discussed in the prior post, the human individual is very much bounded in his awareness by “present time”; with only partial memory to shadow the past, and intuition or speculation to foreshadow the future. Sri Aurobindo continues his exploration of the implications when he describes our predicament: “Therefore in his superficial consciousness man is to himself dynamically, practically, the man of the moment, not the man of the past who once was but is no longer in existence, nor the man of the future who is not yet in being; it is by memory that he links himself with the one, by anticipation with the other: a continuous ego-sense runs through the three times, but this is a centralising mental construction, not an essential or an extended existence containing what was, is and will be.”

This superficial personality is governed from behind by the true self which has real knowledge of the three times as one integrated flow of existence. The ignorance at the surface level is a device to concentrate and focus the action on the present time, but there still remains the inner reality which governs, and guides the surface person. Sri Aurobindo continues his development of this theme: “it is after all a knowledge behind which really determines the formed course of his existence; the superficial ignorance erects a necessary limiting outline and supplies the factors by which the outward colour and turn needed for his present human life and his present moment are given to his consciousness and his action. In the same way and for the same reason man identifies himself solely with the name and form he wears in his present existence; he is ignorant of his past before birth even as of his future after death. Yet all that he forgets is contained, present and effective, in the all-retaining integral consciousness within him.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 13, Exclusive concentration of Consciousness-Force and the Ignorance

Individual Exclusive Concentration and the Ignorance of Time

Sri Aurobindo points out another area where human individuals live in an exclusive concentration on the surface, and that is in our perception and relation to the phenomenon of Time.

“…man, though a really indivisible stream of Tapas, of conscious energy in Time, capable of acting in the present only by the sum of his past force of working, creating already his future by his past and his present action, yet lives absorbed in the present moment, lives from moment to moment, and is therefore in this superficial action of consciousness, ignorant of his future and ignorant of his past except for that small part of it which at any moment he may recall to him by memory. He does not, however, live in the past; what he recalls is not the past itself, but only the ghost of it, a conceptual shadow of a reality which is now to him dead, non-existent, no longer in being. But all this is an action of the superficial ignorance. The true consciousness within is not unaware of its past; it holds it there, not necessarily in memory but in being, still active, living, ready with its fruits, and sends it up from time to time in memory or more concretely in result of past action or past causes to the superficial conscious being,–that is indeed the true rationale of what is called Karma.”

There is a lot here to consider. For most of us, bound to the sequential divided movement of Time, and unable to experience the real unity of the past, present and future in one seamless movement of conscious-force in manifestation, it may be hard to conceive. We find it hard to truly recognize that our “present” is in fact the result of our past, just as water in a river, while ever changing the specific unit of water, nevertheless carries out an action of movement that results in carving out canyons and erosion of a watercourse in the present, as it has done in the past, and will do in the future, and eventually drops the eroded material, along with water, into the ocean. There is an experience of consciousness that can be attained by the true inner being whereby it can live in a living conscious awareness of the three times as One and Indivisible.

The limitation we experience, then, is, as Sri Aurobindo points out, “a second absorption, a second exclusive concentration which complicates and farther limits the being, but simplifies the apparent course of the action by relating it not to the whole infinite course of Time, but to a definite succession of moments.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 13, Exclusive concentration of Consciousness-Force and the Ignorance

Exclusive Concentration In Individual Consciousness

Sri Aurobindo, in order to illustrate the principle of the exclusive concentration, apparently ignorant of its wider consciousness and foundation of existence, creating the separative consciousness which is the basis of the Ignorance, examines the individual experience of this exclusive concentration in relation to the true self of the individual.

We generally identify the individual with the surface consciousness which is a somewhat random mixture of thoughts, feelings, emotions, drives, desires and physical needs thrown together and attempting to organise themselves into a coherent personality existing and acting through Time.

At the same time, the surface personality, concentrated exclusively on itself, does not take cognisance of the fact that it is actually created, managed, guided and impelled by the sea of the subliminal consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “That sea is the subliminal self, the superconscient, the subconscient, the intraconscient and circumconscient being, and holding it all together the soul, the psychic entity. The stream is the natural, the superficial man. In this superficial man Tapas, the being’s dynamic force of consciousness, is concentrated on the surface in a certain mass of superficial workings; all the rest of itself it has put behind and may be vaguely aware of it there in the unformulated back of its conscious existence, but is not aware of it in this superficial absorbed movement in front. It is not precisely, at any rate in that back or in the depths, ignorant of itself in any essential sense of the word, but for the purposes of its superficial movement and within that movement only it is oblivious of its real, its greater self, by absorption, by exclusive concentration on what it is superficially doing. Yet it is really the hidden sea and not the superficial stream which is doing all the action: it is the sea that is the source of this movement, not the conscious wave it throws up, whatever the consciousness of the wave, absorbed in the movement, living in that, seeing nothing else but that, may think about the matter. And that sea, the real self, the integral conscious being, the integral force of being, is not ignorant; even the wave is not essentially ignorant,–for it contains within itself all the consciousness it has forgotten and but for that it could not act or endure at all,–but it is self-oblivious, absorbed in its own movement, too absorbed to note anything else than the movement while that continues to preoccupy it. A limited practical self-oblivion, not an essential and binding self-ignorance, is the nature of this exclusive concentration which is yet the root of that which works as the Ignorance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 13, Exclusive concentration of Consciousness-Force and the Ignorance

Concentration of Conscious Force Developing the Separative Consciousness

Sri Aurobindo has clearly explained the relationship of the all-knowing, all-powerful consciousness-force and the development, through various actions of manifestation, of four different poises of that concentration. He reminds us that “An exclusive concentration on or in a single subject or object or domain of being or movement is not a denial or departure from the Spirit’s awareness, it is one form of the self-gathering of the power of Tapas.”

The move toward a separative consciousness comes about thus: “But when the concentration is exclusive, it brings about a holding back behind it of the rest of self-knowledge. It may be aware of the rest all the time, yet act as if it were not aware of it; that would not be a state or act of Ignorance: but if the consciousness erects by the concentration a wall of exclusion limiting itself to a single field, domain or habitation in the movement so that it is aware only of that or aware of all the rest as outside itself, then we have a principle of self-limiting knowledge which can result in a separative knowledge and culminate in a positive and effective ignorance.”

We shall explore what this means in the next post.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 13, Exclusive concentration of Consciousness-Force and the Ignorance

Four Poises of the Concentration of Consciousness-Force

Sri Aurobindo describes four separate poises of the concentration of Consciousness-Force that represents Tapas in the manifestation. “The concentration may be essential; it may be even a sole indwelling or an entire absorption in the essence of its own being, a luminous or else a self-oblivious self-immersion. Or it may be an integral or else a total-multiple or a part-multiple concentration. Or it may be a single separative regard on one field of its being or movement, a single-pointed concentration in one centre or an absorption in one objective form of its self-existence. The first, the essential, is at one end the superconscient Silence and at the other end the Inconscience; the second, the integral, is the total consciousness of Sachchidananda, the supramental concentration; the third, the multiple, is the method of the totalising or global overmental awareness; the fourth, the separative, is the characteristic nature of the Ignorance. The supreme integrality of the Absolute holds all these states or powers of its consciousness together as a single indivisible being looking at all itself in manifestation with a simultaneous self-vision.”

Each of these four, then represents an experience of awareness that either concentrates the focus of the consciousness in such a way that it seems to not pay attention to the other poises; or else, represents a standpoint that draws all the separate points together into one integrated whole. The “whole” can be either non-manifested or manifested (depending on whether we look at the essential unmoving Silence or the inconscient status of Matter); or it can be a standpoint that overviews and ties together the divergent threads of the manifested universe into the warp and woof of creation and action through Time. Or it can become so involved in specific movements of the manifestation so as to “forget” its relationship to the whole temporarily in an all-absorbing focus of separative, fragmented consciousness.

In each case, these represent simply powers of the all-Consciousness and remain under control of that all-knowing awareness.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 13, Exclusive concentration of Consciousness-Force and the Ignorance

Ignorance Arises Through Exclusive Concentration

The Tattiriya Upanishad, in one of its more memorable chapters, takes us through a series of steps undertaken by the student to learn the nature of reality. In each step, the teacher advises the student to go back and carry out “tapasya”, or “concentration of conscious-force” as Sri Aurobindo has translated it. And each time the student returns, he has expanded his insight to the next level of awareness, until finally he realises that the “bliss of the Eternal” is the Brahman and that it constitutes all that is, without a second.

Concentration of Consciousness-Force necessarily focuses the attention and the energy into a narrower compass, and so long as it retains its awareness and standpoint of being part of the larger whole, it is a power of Knowledge. But at some point in the concentration, if it focuses so intensely that it loses its awareness of all else other than the point being focused upon, it can give rise to what we call the Ignorance.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “Since Brahman is in the essentiality of its universal being a unity and a multiplicity aware of each other and in each other and since in its reality it is something beyond the One and the Many, containing both, aware of both, Ignorance can only come about as a subordinate phenomenon by some concentration of consciousness absorbed in a part knowledge or a part actio nof the being and excluding the rest from its awareness. There may be either a concentration of the One in itself to the exclusion of the Many or of the Many in their own action to the exclusion of the all-awareness of the One, or of the individual being in himself to the exclusion both of the One and the rest of the Many who are then to him separated units not included in his direct awareness.”

In each case, or in all of them, we see that it is the exclusive concentration in one direction or another which leads to the Ignorance and all of the implications of that Ignorance.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 13, Exclusive concentration of Consciousness-Force and the Ignorance

The Nature & Origin of the Ignorance

As Sri Aurobindo has made clear in our previous posts, the Ignorance is not an essential power of the Brahman, but something which arises at some later point, for some specific purpose, and as it is a secondary created formation, it can also eventually be dissolved. The question arises, however, as to what the nature of the Ignorance may be.

We have defined it as the separative consciousness that creates artificial but seemingly real divisions between various manifested forms and forces, treating each one as if it is more or less totally independent of the whole. Such a standpoint leads to the attempts to aggrandise one form at the expense of another, and eventually leads to imbalance, pain and suffering, and death.

When we look more deeply into these apparently independent forms of matter, we see an intense energy at work to maintain these forms. This energy, and thus, these forms, continually are reorganised and recalibrated into new forms and new movements of energy, and thus we see the process of the creation and destruction of forms of matter, while the energy simply takes on new formations, and is not lost thereby.

Sri Aurobindo describes the development of the Ignorance: “The origin of the Ignorance must be then be sought for in some self-absorbed concentration of Tapas, of Conscious-Force in action on a separate movement of the Force; to us this takes the appearance of mind identifying itself with the separate movement and identifying itself also in the movement separately with each of the forms resulting from it. So it builds a wall of separation which shuts out the consciousness in each form from awareness of its own total self, of other embodied consciousnesses and of universal being. It is here that we must look for the secret of the apparent ignorance of the embodied mental being as well as of the great apparent inconscience of physical Nature. We have to ask ourselves what is the nature of this absorbing, this separating, this self-forgetful concentration which is the obscure miracle of the universe.”

We shall take up this question starting with tomorrow’s post.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 12, The Origin of the Ignorance

The Integral Oneness of Brahman

The Upanishads make a statement to the sense of “This is the complete; That is the complete. Take the complete from the complete, and the complete remains.” Sri Aurobindo follows up on this sense in his discussion of the integrality of Brahman. “Brahman, as he exceeds the passivity and the activity, so too exceeds the unity and multiplicity. He is one in himself, but not with a self-limiting unity exclusive of the power of multiplicity, such as is the separated unity of the body and the mind; he is not the mathematical integer, one, which is incapable of containing the hundred and is therefore less than the hundred. One in himself, he is one in the many and the many are one in him. In other words, Brahman in his unity of spirit is aware of his multiplicity of souls and in the consciousness of his multiple souls is aware of the unity of all souls. In each soul he, the immanent Spirit, the Lord in each heart, is aware of his oneness. The Jivatman illumined by him, aware of its unity with the One, is also aware of its unity with the many. Our superficial consciousness, identified with body and with divided life and dividing mind, is ignorant; but that also can be illumined and made aware. Multiplicity, then is not the necessary cause of the ignorance.”

During his time in prison during the early years of the independence movement in India, Sri Aurobindo had the palpable experience of this Oneness, and he saw the tree sheltering him from the sun as Sri Krishna protecting him; he saw the judge and the prosecutor, as well as his defense attorney, as that One and he gave himself up to the protection and direction that the one Spirit in all was working out. As we know, he was eventually acquitted of all charges against him and partially as a result of the experience he had during that time, he gave up his political calling and turned to matters spiritual, which occupied the rest of his long life in Pondicherry, India.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 12, The Origin of the Ignorance

Moving From Division to Unity of Consciousness

Sri Aurobindo shows us the steps toward unification of consciousness starting from the material basis: “Body is the outward sign and lowest basis of the apparent division which Nature plunging into ignorance and self-nescience makes the starting-point for the recovery of unity by the individual soul, unity even in the midst of the most exaggerated forms of her multiple consciousness. Bodies cannot communicate with each other except by external means and through a gulf of externality; cannot benetrate each other except by division of the penetrated body or by taking advantage of some gap in it, some pre-existent division; cannot unite except by a breaking up and devouring, a swallowing and absorption and so an assimilation, or at most a fusion in which both forms disappear. Mind too, when identified with body, is hampered by its limitations; but in itself it is more subtle and two minds can penetrate each other without hurt or division, can interchange their substance without mutual injury, can in a way become parts of each other: still mind too has its own form which is separative of it from other minds and is apt to take its stand on this separateness. When we get back to soul-consciousness, the obstacles to unity lessen and finally cease to exist altogether. The soul can in its consciousness identify itself with other souls, can contain them and enter into and be contained by them, can realise its unity with them; and this can take place, not in a featureless and indistinguishable sleep, not in a Nirvana in which all distinctions and individualities of soul and mind and body are lost, but in a perfect waking which observes and takes account of all dinstinctions but exceeds them.”

We have here, then, an overview of the process of moving from total fragmentation to a state of unity of consciousness which clearly shows the increasing level of universality and integration possible as we move our standpoint to higher expressions of conscious Nature.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 12, The Origin of the Ignorance

Ignorance Is Not Absolute

Sri Aurobindo takes up the important question of the origin and status of the Ignorance, for if the Ignorance were founded in the original absolute Brahman, then it too would be Absolute and thus, impossible to overcome. “And if Ignorance is not an element or power proper to the absolute nature of the Brahman or to Its integrality, there can be no original or primal Ignorance.” Maya, the “illusory power of creation” then cannot be of the nature of Ignorance either, and thus, the question arises as to how and in what manner, at at what point in the process of manifestation the Ignorance actually comes about.

Sri Aurobindo systematically approaches this question: “ignorance can only intervene as a minor and subsequent movement, partial and relative. Is it then something inherent in the multiplicity of souls? Does it come into being immediately Brahman views himself in the multiplicity, and does that multiplicity consist of a sum of souls each in its very nature fractional and divided from all the others in consciousness, unable to become aware of them at all except as things external to it, linked at most by communication from body to body or mind to mind, but incapable of unity? But we have seen that this is only what we seem to be in our most superficial layer of consciousness, the external mind and the physical; when we get back into a subtler, deeper, larger action of our consciousness, we find the walls of division becoming thinner and in the end there is left no wall of division, no Ignorance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part I, Chapter 12, The Origin of the Ignorance