The Lower Self and the Higher Self

It is a common experience of spiritual seekers that there is an enormous difference between the experience of the outer world and circumstances, the “lower nature” and the consciousness that finds itself separated and aloof from that outer world, the “higher nature”. This apparent dichotomy is at the root of many spiritual traditions and practices, and the idea that the outer world is either an illusion, or a bondage, resulting in the need to escape or rise above it to achieve enlightenment or liberation is clearly one that has taken root throughout human history all around the world. The renunciates of India, the Buddha’s search for enlightenment, the anchorite traditions of Christianity, all speak to this division and separation.

Sri Aurobindo explains the differences: “There is the lower self of the obscure mental, vital and physical nature subject to ignorance and inertia in the very stuff of its consciousness and especially in its basis of material substance, kinetic and vital indeed by the power of life but without inherent self-possession and self-knowledge in its action, attaining in the mind to some knowledge and harmony, but only with difficult effort and by a constant struggle with its own disabilities.”

“And there is the higher nature and self of our spiritual being, self-possessed and self-luminous but in our ordinary mentality inaccessible to our experience.”

“The first of these two very different things is the Gita’s nature of the three Gunas. Its seeing of itself is centred in the ego idea, its principle of action is desire born of ego, and the knot of ego is attachment to the objects of the mind and sense and the life’s desire. The inevitable constant result of all these things is bondage, settled subjection to a lower control, absence of self-mastery, absence of self-knowledge.”

“The other greater power and presence is discovered to be nature and being of the pure spirit unconditioned by ego, that which is called in Indian philosophy self and impersonal Brahman. Its principle is an infinite and an impersonal existence one and the same in all: and, since this impersonal existence is without ego, without conditioning quality, without desire, need or stimulus it is immobile and immutable; eternally the same, it regards and supports but does not share or initiate the action of the universe.”

“The soul when it throws itself out into active Nature is the Gita’s Kshara, its mobile or mutable Purusha; the same soul gathered back into pure silent self and essential spirit is the Gita’s Akshara, immobile or immutable Purusha.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 21, Towards the Supreme Secret, pp. 511-512