The Power of Doing Nothing

The influence of the three Gunas, the qualities of Nature, cannot be underestimated for all action that takes place in the world generally. This includes the practice of Yoga until such time as the seeker has attained the status that is “beyond the three Gunas” (trigunatita). It is a basic tenet of the Yoga of knowledge as practiced historically that the seeker, in order to attain the refined states that are the object of the practice, must withdraw from active life in the world as much as possible.

Sri Aurobindo observes that there is a natural tendency, when adopting the poise of the Witness Self, to back off of the frenetic activity that characterizes the normal life of humanity. At the same time, he clarifies that if this becomes an opening for the action of tamas, through indolence, lassitude, indifference and sloth, rather than an inactivity that is based on a concentrated force of light and energy through tapas, then it will not yield the desired result, and is in fact, not the recommended approach.

The true status of inaction comes about through an intensity of focused energy, not a degradation of the energy. “The power to do nothing, which is quite different from indolence, incapacity or aversion to action and attachment to inaction, is a great power and a great mastery; the power to rest absolutely from action is as necessary for the Jnanayogin as the power to cease absolutely from thought, as the power to remain indefinitely in sheer solitude and silence and as the power of immovable calm. Whoever is not willing to embrace these states is not yet fit for the path that leads towards the highest knowledge; whoever is unable to draw towards them, is as yet unfit for its acquisition.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 7, The Release From Subjection to the Body, pg. 332

Genius or Madness and the Evolution of the Mind-Body Relationship

We may observe that most people, including the Western scientific community, will look upon the idea of changing the historical and customary relationship between mind and body as something either impossible or imbalanced. The touchstone of Western psychology for instance is the idea of bringing people to the state of being “normal”, which is defined essentially as abiding by the habitual lines of understanding and action and not exceeding them.

Sri Aurobindo observes that this is contradictory to the very approach of physical science which constantly seeks to overcome the established “laws of nature” and find ways to exceed, develop and enhance the basic actions of nature.

Yoga seeks to apply the concept of evolutionary progress to the realm of psychology and thereby must, by definition, work toward the upsetting of the “normal” relations of mind and body. The result here can be seen as madness and insanity if it leads to pure fantasies, but it can also lead to a breakthrough in human psychology and understanding. Western psychological researchers have also commented on the link between “genius” and “madness” with the difference being the ability of the “genius” to integrate the new experiences and understanding into a consistent and effective formation, while the “mad person” loses that basic sense of integration.

Sri Aurobindo comments: “Suffice it to say here once for all that a change of mental and physical state and of relations between the mind and body which increases the purity and freedom of the being, brings a clear joy and peace and multiplies the power of the mind over itself and over the physical functions, brings about in a word man’s greater mastery of his own nature, is obviously not morbid and cannot be considered a hallucination or self-deception since its effects are patent and positive. In fact, it is simply a willed advance of Nature in her evolution of the individual, an evolution which she will carry out in any case but in which she chooses to utilise the human will as her chief agent, because her essential aim is to lead the Purusha to conscious mastery over herself.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 7, The Release From Subjection to the Body, pp. 331-332

The Power To Change the Habits of Physical Nature

We understand, through experience, that when we set our minds to addressing a habit we have acquired, we can marshall the focus, force and tools necessary to change that habit. We may call it exercising will power, but in reality, it is a sign of the true relationship between the Purusha and Prakriti, with the Purusha acting as the “giver of the sanction” and thus, through its power of either withdrawing that sanction or changing the nature of the sanction, having the ability to adjust the workings of the physical nature.

Sri Aurobindo observes that this power is not limited to the kind of habits that we normally think about in this regard; rather, the entire realm of activity in the physical nature can be addressed in the same way. Some of these habits are long-ingrained through millennia of repetition, and may be considered to be “instinct”, meaning, for most people, something that is an irrevocable law of nature. But are these “laws of nature” actually irrevocable?

We see instances where people have undertaken actions which would be considered impossible, such as long fasting, deep undisturbed meditation for days (or longer) and reversal of various disease processes through what may be called “faith healing” on occasion, or even, the power of the “placebo effect” which means that when the mind believes something it is able to effectuate change in the physical health of the body in a positive direction.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “It will find that as the giver of the sanction he can withdraw the original fiat from the previous habits of Nature and that eventually the habit will cease or change in the direction indicated by the will of the Purusha; not at once, for the old sanction persists as an obstinate consequence of the past Karma of Nature until that is exhausted, and a good deal also depends on the force of the habit and the idea of fundamental necessity which the mind had previously attached to it; but if it is not one of the fundamental habits Nature has established for the relation of the mind, life and body and if the old sanction is not renewed by the mind or the habit willingly indulged, then eventually the change will come. Even the habit of hunger and thirst can be minimized, inhibited, put away; the habit of disease can be similarly minimized and gradually eliminated and in the meantime the power of the mind to set right the disorders of the body whether by conscious manipulation of vital force or by simple mental fiat will immensely increase. By a similar process the habit by which the bodily nature associates certain forms and degrees of activity with strain, fatigue, incapacity can be rectified and the power, freedom, swiftness, effectiveness of the work whether physical or mental which can be done with this bodily instrument marvelously increased, doubled, tripled, decupled.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 7, The Release From Subjection to the Body, pp. 330-331

The Initial Liberation of the Mental Being From Servitude to the Body

The separation of Purusha and Prakriti, when applied rigorously by the seeker, eventually brings about the experience of the Purusha as being separate and distinct from the body. At a certain stage, the body appears to be something external and somewhat remote, and its needs, while coming to the awareness of what is now a “witness consciousness” remain abstract, in some sense similar to the current experience of our human awareness in relation to the needs and experiences of another being. Sri Aurobindo observes: “…the mind will come to know the Purusha seated within it as, first, the witness or observer of the movements and, secondly, the knower or perceiver of the experiences. It will cease to consider in thought or feel in sensation these movements and experiences as its own but rather consider and feel them as not its own, as operations of Nature governed by the qualities of Nature and their interaction upon each other. This detachment can be made so normal and carried so far that there will be a kind of division between the mind and the body and the former will observe and experience the hunger, thirst, pain, fatigue, depression, etc. of the physical being as if they were experiences of some other person with whom it has so close a rapport as to be aware of all that is going in within him.”

This “externalization” of the body becomes a tremendous leverage to allow the mind to refocus its attention inward and upward and thereby contact and receive the influence and widening power of other levels of consciousness that pave the way for the eventual transition of the mind from the human to the divine standpoint.

“This division is a great means, a great step towards mastery; for the mind comes to observe these things first without being overpowered and finally without being at all affected by them, dispassionately, with clear understanding but with perfect detachment. This is the initial liberation of the mental being from servitude to the body; for by right knowledge put steadily into practice liberation comes inevitably.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 7, The Release From Subjection to the Body, pg. 330

Experiences of the Mind’s Increasing Detachment from the Body

As the seeker applies the recommended methodology to attain detachment of the mind from the body, various experiences arise that indicate the progress being made in this direction. The process must be continually repeated until it becomes habitual, and as that occurs, the experience takes on a palpable and constant presence.

Sri Aurobindo describes the correct attitude of the mental Purusha to the body: “…it will know the mental Purusha as the upholder of the body and not in any way the body itself; for it is quite other than the physical existence which it upholds by the mind through the agency of the vital force.” It should be noted that this is essentially the opposite relationship to that experienced by most human beings who are centered in the body consciousness and who treat the mind, not as the cause or upholder of the body, but as a result of the development of the body!

The development of the new habitual viewpoint brings about a radical transformation in the relation between mind and body: “This will come to be so much the normal attitude of the whole being to the physical frame that the latter will feel to us as if something external and detachable like the dress we wear or an instrument we happen to be carrying in our hand. We may even come to feel that the body is in a certain sense non-existence except as a sort of partial expression of our vital force and of our mentality. These experiences are signs that the mind is coming to a right poise regarding the body, that it is exchanging the false viewpoint of the mentality obsessed and captured by physical sensation for the viewpoint of the true truth of things.”

It is said in the ancient texts that “day” for the yogin is “night” for the normal consciousness, and vice versa. Similarly, that the Ashwattha tree, symbolizing the manifested universe and all its forms, has its roots above and branches and leaves down below. These provide the yogin with the insight that it is the mind (and beyond it the higher levels of consciousness) that forms, creates, upholds and supports the body and the material world, not the other way round.

Just as the human being, captured by the impressions of the senses, initially believes that the sun rises and circles the earth, the material man believes the body is the primary existence and the mind is a subordinated function; whereas, a further level of understanding teaches us that in fact, the earth both rotates and circles the sun, creating the illusion that confused our sense impressions and understanding; and that similarly, it is the mental consciousness that take primacy over the body.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 7, The Release From Subjection to the Body, pp. 329-330

Detachment of the Mind from the Body

The technique of the separation of Purusha and Prakriti is the key to the achievement of the detachment of the mind from the body. The first step is to look upon the activities of the body and the body itself as an expression of Prakriti through the operation of the three Gunas or qualities of Nature. The seeker takes the poise of being the silent witness consciousness, observing but not participating in the action of the body. Sri Aurobindo observes: “We shall find, if we try, that the mind has this power of detachment and can stand back from the body not only in idea, but in act and as it were physically or rather vitally. This detachment of the mind must be strengthened by a certain attitude of indifference to the things of the body; we must not care essentially about its sleep or its waking, its movement or its rest, its pain or its pleasure, its health or ill-health, its vigour or its fatigue, its comfort or its discomfort, or what it eats or drinks.”

Due to the propensities of the mental consciousness to treat everything as separated into opposites, we find that many will use this conceptual tool with an extreme bias and either treat this as a requirement for strict asceticism or even as a basis for torturing the body. Sri Aurobindo reminds us that this is not the intention: “This does not mean that we shall not keep the body in right order so far as we can; we have not to fall into violent asceticisms or a positive neglect of the physical frame.” The object here is simply to not have the witness get itself involved in whatever happens to the body and attach itself to the status or the response, so that the Purusha can gain the leverage of detachment as the basis for achievement of the higher status of consciousness that is the object.

All of the habitual beliefs the seeker holds in his mind regarding the relationship of the body and the mind are to be put aside, as once the Purusha gains its freedom, it has the possibility of modifying the nature and basis of the relationship between mind and body.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 7, The Release From Subjection to the Body, pp. 328-329

The Forgetfulness of the Purusha

It is one thing to recognize intellectually that the true Self of the individual is not the body, not the life-energy and not the mind. That recognition is the first step in the path of liberation; yet, there is still the fact of the identification that we experience with the body-life-mind to address. For most human beings, our inner experience is limited to the bodily life and we see, feel and experience ourselves to the limit of the physical body and no further. Occasionally, through some extraordinary experience of consciousness, we may temporarily go beyond this limitation in our perception, such as when an individual is suddenly confronted with an “out of body” experience and can actually observe the body from a viewpoint outside while the conscious awareness is with the individuality that is now, temporarily, separated from the body.

An implementation stage is therefore required, during which the seeker works to actually realise, not just intellectually accept, the separation from the body consciousness. Sri Aurobindo suggests that the leverage for this step is achieved by the separation of Purusha and Prakriti, which then allows the Purusha to systematically take the standpoint that it is separate and uninvolved in the action of the nature, Prakriti, and thereby remember that it is not the body, life or mind within which it has been bound by its having forgotten its true nature and freedom.

“The Purusha, the soul that knows and commands has got himself involved inn the workings of his executive conscious force, so that he mistakes this physical working of it which we call the body for himself; he forgets his own nature as the soul that knows and commands; he believes his mind and soul to be subject to the law and working of the body; he forgets that he is so much else besides that is greater than the physical form; he forgets that the mind is really greater than Matter and ought not to submit to its obscurations, reactions, habit of inertia, habit of incapacity; he forgets that he is more even than the mind, a Power which can raise the mental being above itself; that he is the Master, the Transcendent and it is not fit the Master should be enslaved to his own workings, the Transcendent imprisoned in a form which exists only as a trifle in its own being. All this forgetfulness has to be cured by the Purusha remembering his own true nature and first by his remembering that the body is only a working and only one working of Prakriti.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 7, The Release From Subjection to the Body, pg. 328