Bringing Light to the Subconscient

Sri Aurobindo takes a different tack on understanding and revealing the action of the subconscient than we see in much of Western psychology. Psychologists starting with Freud have tried to understand the subconscient by dredging it up, bringing it all to the surface and there exposing all the mass of reactions, habits, mechanical responses, impulses, instincts and the complexes associated with them. Unfortunately, the conscious being is not really in a position to sort all of this out and they therefore wind up mostly wallowing in it, struggling against things without the understanding or the power to change them.

Sri Aurobindo’s approach is different: “A descent into the subconscient would not help us to explore this region, for it would plunge us into incoherence or into sleep or a dull trance or a comatose torpor. A mental scrutiny or insight can give us some indirect and constructive idea of these hidden activities; but it is only by drawing back into the subliminal or by ascending into the superconscient and from there looking down or extending ourselves into these obscure depths that we can become directly and totally aware and in control of the secrets of our subconscient physical, vital and mental nature. This awareness, this control are of the utmost importance.” The subconscient “sustains and reinforces all in us that clings most and refuses to change, our mechanical recurrences of unintelligent thought, our persistent obstinacies of feeling, sensation, impulse, propensity, our uncontrolled fixities of character. The animal in us,–the infernal also,–has its lair of retreat in the dense jungle of the subconscience. To penetrate there, to bring in light and establish a control, is indispensable for the completeness of any higher life, for any integral transformation of the nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

The Nature of the Subconscient

Sri Aurobindo delves into the subconscious levels of our being because so much of our physical being, life and reactions in the mind is actually controlled by the subconscient. “that part of us which we can strictly call subconscient because it is below the level of mind and conscious life, inferior and obscure, covers the purely physical and vital elements of our constitution of bodily being, unmentalised, unobserved by the mind, uncontrolled by it in their action. It can be held to include the dumb occult consciousness, dynamic but not sensed by us, which operates in the cells and nerves and all the corporeal stuff and adjusts their life process and automatic responses. It covers also those lowest functionings of submerged sense-mind which are more operative in the animal and in plant life; in our evolution we have overpassed the need of any large organised action of this element, but it remains submerged and obscurely at work below our conscious nature. This obscure activity extends to a hidden and hooded mental substratum into which past impressions and all that is rejected from the surface mind sink and remain there dormant and can surge up in sleep or in any absence of the mind, taking dream forms, forms of mechanical mind-action or suggestion, forms of automatic vital reaction or impulse, forms of physical abnormality or nervous perturbance, forms of morbidity, disease, unbalance. Out of the subconscious we bring ordinarily so much to the surface as our waking sense-mind and intelligence need for their purpose; in so bringing them up we are not aware of their nature, origin, operation and do not apprehend them in their own values but by a translation into the values of our waking human sense and intelligence.” Sri Aurobindo points out that the action of the subconscious remains unknown to us and functions automatically. We rarely have the opportunity to directly see this action–sometimes through illness or other imbalance of the system a window is opened to this mechanical, underlying consciousness that nevertheless has a tremendous influence on our waking lives. C.G. Jung in particular worked hard to actually explore the subconscious and bring out the hidden influences. We shall continue this review in the next post.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

Overcoming Our Psychological Ignorance

We believe ourselves to be this surface conscious being because of a sense of continuity within and an active surface memory that reinforces this sense of continuity. This limitation of our awareness to the surface consciousness is what Sri Aurobindo calls our “psychological ignorance”. He points out that this surface being is not the entirety of our existence. “Behind it is an occult existence and energy of our secret being without which the superficial consciousness and activity could not have existed or acted.” The surface consciousness is strictly limited and keeps us within its tight realm of activity, except in those moments when, in a sudden inspiration or intuition, we gain some small access to the wider Reality of awareness far beyond our normal scope. “But these occasional visitations cannot enlarge us far beyond our present capacities, are not enough to revolutionise our status. That can only be done if we can bring into it the higher undeveloped lights and powers potential in our being and get them consciously and normally into play; for this we must be able to draw freely from those ranges of our being to which they are native but which are at present subconscient or rather secretly intraconscient and circumconscient or else superconscient to us. Or,–the yet more that is also possible,–we must enter into these inner and higher parts of ourselves by an inward plunge or disciplined penetration and bring back with us to the surface their secrets. Or, achieving a still more radical change of our consciousness, we must learn to live within and no longer on the surface and be and act from the inner depths and from a soul that has become sovereign over the nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

Spirit Becoming the Central Focus of Our Manifested Being

The constitutional Ignorance Sri Aurobindo has been discussing can only be fully removed by taking the next step beyond the mental organisation of Life; namely, making the Spirit the dominant and central focus of the Life. “For what we are is spirit,–at present using mind predominantly, life and body subordinately, with matter for our original field but not our only field of experience; but this is only at present. Our imperfect mental instrumentation is not the last word of our possibilities; for there are in us, dormant or invisibly and imperfectly active, other principles beyond mind and closer to the spiritual nature, there are more direct powers and luminous instruments, there is a higher status, there are greater ranges of dynamic action than those that belong to our present physical, vital and mental existence. These can become our own status, part of our being, they can be principles, powers and instruments of our own enlarged nature. But for that it is not enough to be satisfied with a vague or an ecstatic ascent into spirit or a formless exaltation through the touch of its infinities; their principle has to evolve, as life has evolved, as mind has evolved, and organise its own instrumentation, its own satisfaction. Then we shall possess the true constitution of our being and we shall have conquered the Ignorance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

Transforming Constitutional Ignorance Into True & Effective Knowledge

Sri Aurobindo describes the higher ranges of consciousness available to humanity as we evolve beyond the limitations of the physical and the vital planes; and he points out that a mental formulation for life is not the end and goal. “for mind itself is not enough; even its largest play of intelligence creates only a qualified half-light. A surface mental knowledge of the physical universe is a still more imperfect guide; for the thinking animal it might be enough, but not for a race of mental beings in labour of a spiritual evolution. Even the truth of physical things cannot be entirely known, nor can the right use of our material existence be discovered by physical Science and an outward knowledge alone or made possible by the mastery of physical and mechanical processes alone: to know, to use rightly we must go beyond the truth of physical phenomenon and process, we must know what is within and behind it. For we are not merely embodied minds; there is a spiritual being, a spiritual principle, a spiritual plane of Nature. Into that we have to heighten our force of consciousness, to widen by that still more largely, even universally and infinitely, our range of being and our field of action, to take up by that our lower life and use it for greater ends and on a larger plan, in the light of the spiritual truth of existence. Our labour of mind and struggle of life cannot come to any solution until we have gone beyond the obsessing lead of an inferior Nature, integralised our natural being in the being and consciousness, learned to utilize our natural instruments by the force and for the joy of the Spirit. Then only can the constitutional ignorance, the ignorance of the real build of our existence from which we suffer, change into a true and effective knowledge of our being and becoming.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

Consequences of Failure to Develop Mental / Spiritual Standpoint for Human Life

In the prior post we discussed the need to establish, as the basis for a truly human life, the mental standpoint and focus as the centerpiece. This also provides a platform for the eventual evolutionary growth beyond the mental live and the consequent spiritualisation of life.

Various civilisations and cultures throughout human history have been inspired by this opportunity. Sri Aurobindo specifically points out the classical Greek culture as an example of such an attempt.

In each case in the past, the focus waned and the effort fell back as it was beyond the then current capabilities of the larger mass of humanity to sustain such an intensive effort. “In later times this perception was lost and, when it came back, it returned much diminished, mixed with more turbid elements: the perturbation of a spiritual ideal imperfectly grasped by the understanding and not at all realised in the life’s practice but present with its positive and negative mental and moral influences, and over against it the pressure of a dominant, an inordinate vital urge which could not get its free self-satisfied movement, stood in the way of the sovereignty of the mind and the harmony of life, its realised beauty and balance. An opening to higher ideals, a greater range of life was gained, but the elements of a new idealism were only cast into its action as an influence, could ont dominate and transform it and, finally, the spiritual endeavor, thus ill-understood and unrealised, was thrown aside: its moral effects remained, but, deprived of the sustaining spiritual element, dwindled towards ineffectivity; the vital urge, assisted by an immense development of physical intelligence, became the preoccupation of the race. An imposing increase of a certain kind of knowledge and efficiency was the first result; the most recent outcome has been a perilous spiritual ill-health and a vast disorder.”

We see this spiritual ill-health and disorder all around us in the world today. We have developed knowledge of the intricate atomic details of matter and biological processes of life, and, having lost our balance through the drive for self-aggrandisement and power, we try to effect change with these ill-understood tools and thereby drive the world and our civilisation totally out of all proportion and balance. We are left with massive unintended consequences and imbalanced ecological and social systems that have us all on the brink of massive species die off and potentially planetary desolution and extinction. It is therefore essential that we tackle the necessary changes to establish the spiritual foundation of existence if we are going to survive the current crisis.
Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

Becoming Truly Human

If we look at the evolutionary development of consciousness over time, we can recognize that the primary characteristic that sets humanity apart from other species on the planet is the manifestation of the higher mental consciousness, which includes reflection, spiritual and philosophical thought, higher emotional development, art & music, and advanced capability of planning. This is the essence of what it is to be human rather than an animal, even a mentalised animal on the plane of consciousness. Sri Aurobindo describes it thus: “Our gain in becoming more perfect mental beings is that we get to the possibility of a subtler, higher and wider existence, consciousness, force, happiness and delight of being; in proportion as we rise in the scale of mind, a greater power of these things comes to us: our mental consciousness acquires for itself at the same time more vision and power and more subtlety and plasticity, and we are able to embrace more of the vital and physical existence itself, to know it better, to use it better, to give it nobler values, a broader range, a more sublimated action,–an extended scale, higher issues.”

The mental power, in its first expressions, obviously focuses on the needs of the Life and Body. This is true, not only for animals, but for the first steps of mental development in humanity. It is only later, as Mind continues its development in humans, that we see the true essential action of Mind coming into play and taking charge of the Life and Body in a more forceful and illumined action. “The mind liberated from a lower control and peroccupation introduces into life a government, an uplifting, a refinement, a finer balance and harmony; the vital and physical movements are directed and put into order, transformed even as far as they can be by a mental agency; they are taught to be the instruments of reason and obedient to an enlightened will, an ethical perception and an aesthetic intelligence: the more this can be accomplished, the more the race becomes truly human, a race of mental beings.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

Growing Beyond the World of Material Progress

Sri Aurobindo points out the vain futility of fixating all of our effort and intelligence on achieve mastery and knowledge on the plane of Matter or within the sphere of Life. “This preoccupation with life and matter is at the beginning right and necessary because the first step that man has to take is to know and possess this physical existence as well as he can by applying his thought and intelligence to such experience of it as his sense-mind can give to him; but this is only a preliminary step and, if we stop there, we have made no real progress: we are where we were and have gained only more physical elbow-room to move about in and more power for our mind to establish a relative knowledge and an insufficient and precarious mastery and for our life-desire to push things about and jostle and hustle around amid the throng of physical forces and existences.” He points out that “…the gospel of materialism, in spite of the dazzling triumphs of physical Science, proves itself always in the end a vain and helpless creed, and that too is why physical Science itself with all its achievements, though it may accomplish comfort, can never achieve happiness and fullness of being for the human race. Our true happiness lies in the true growth of our whole being, in a victory throughout the total range of our existence, in mastery of the inner as well as and more than the outer, the hidden as well as the overt nature; our true completeness comes not by describing wider circles on the plane where we began, but by transcendence. It is for this reason that, after the first necessary foundation in life and matter, we have to heighten our force of consciousness, deepen, widen, subtilise it; we must first liberate our mental selves and enter into a freer, finer and nobler play of our mental existence: for the mental is much more than the physical our true existence, because we are even in our instrumental or expressive nature predominantly mind and not matter, mental much rather than physical beings. That growth into the full mental being is the first transitional movement towards human perfection and freedom; it does not actually perfect, it does not liberate the soul, but it lifts us one step out of the material and vital absorption and prepares the loosening of the hold of the Ignorance.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

Understanding the Constitutional Ignorance That Limits Our Knowledge

“This evolution, this process of heightening and widening and integralisation, is in its nature a growth and an ascent out of the sevenfold ignorance into the integral knowledge. The crux of that ignorance is the constitutional; it resolves itself into a manifold ignorance of the true character of our becoming, an unawareness of our total self, of which the key is a limitation by the plane we inhabit and by the present predominant principle of our nature. The plane we inhabit is the plane of Matter; the present predominant principle in our nature is the mental intelligence with the sense-mind, which depends upon Matter, as its support and pedestal. As a consequence, the preoccupation of the mental intelligence and its powers with the material existence as it is shown to it through the senses, and with life as it has been formulated in a compromise between life and matter, is a special stamp of the constitutional Ignorance.”

Sri Aurobindo describes here the fundamental character of the constitutional Ignorance, the first of seven forms of Ignorance that limit our self-expression and our knowledge. “the attempt to grow out of this limitation of the wholeness, power and truth of the spirit by the materialised mental intelligence and out of this subjection of the soul to material Nature is the first step towards a real progress of our humanity.” This Ignorance is more of a limitation than a complete darkness. Thus it tends to provide a partial image, to falsify through these artificial limits, and to divide us from a comprehensive view of the reality of our existence. “out of that limitation and falsification we have to grow into the truth of our spiritual being.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”

Integral Transformation of Our Entire Being Is the Aim of Nature

The goal of Nature, as Sri Aurobindo points out, is not to immobilise the dynamic parts of our being, to make the life quiescent so that we can live exclusively in some high, refined state of bliss consciousness. This “goal” is frequently placed in front of those who follow the ascetic path, but Sri Aurobindo confirms that the wider aims of Nature clearly involve uplifting and transforming Life itself, not abandoning it to establish consciousness solely in some other plane or state of awareness.

“what Nature herself attends from us is that the whole of what we are should rise into the spiritual consciousness and become a manifest and manifold power of the spirit. An integral transformation is the integral aim of the Being in Nature; this is the inherent sense of her universal urge of self-transcendence. It is for this reason that the process of Nature is not confined to a heightening of herself into a new principle; the new height is not a narrow intense pinnacle, it brings with it a widening and establishes a larger field of life in which the power of the new principle may have sufficient play and room for its emergence.”

Nature takes up not only the new emerging principle but also the earlier established principles and widens them, makes them more powerful in their action through the influence of the new force of consciousness at work, more subtle, more receptive. “Our mental, physical, vital existence need not be destroyed by our self-exceeding, nor are they lessened and impaired by being spiritualised; they can and do become much richer, greater, more powerful and more perfect: in their divine change they break into possibilities which in their unspiritualised condition could not be practicable or imaginable.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, Book 2, Part 2, Chapter 19, “Out of the Sevenfold Ignorance towards the Sevenfold Knowledge.”