Two Possible Attitudes Toward the World From the Viewpoint of the Seeker of the Yoga of Knowledge

Sri Aurobindo observes: “If we rest here, there are only two possible attitudes toward the world. Either we must remain as mere inactive witnesses of the world-play or act in it mechanically without any participation of the conscious self and by mere play of the organs of sense and motor-action.” The first one represents the attempt of the seeker to totally disassociate from the outer world and approach the abstraction and passivity of the silent Absolute. “We have stilled our mind and silenced the activity of the thought and the disturbances of the heart, we have arrived at an entire inner peace and indifference; we attempt now to still the mechanical action of the life and body, to reduce it to the most meagre minimum possible so that it may eventually cease entirely and for ever. This, the final aim of the ascetic Yoga which refuses life, is evidently not our aim.”

The second one participates in the life of the world, but only in a completely passive and detached manner. Sri Aurobindo points out that most people will object that such a completely passive attitude, absent a motivating thought and a conscious action of will, is not really feasible when engaging in the action of the outer world. “But, as a matter of fact, we see that a large part of our own action as well as the whole activity of inanimate and merely animate life is done by a mechanical impulse and movement in which these elements are not, openly at least, at work. It may be said that this is only possible of the purely physical and vital activity and not of those movements which ordinarily depend upon the functioning of the conceptual and volitional mind, such as speech, writing and all the intelligent action of human life. But this again is not true, as we find when we are able to go behind the habitual and normal process of our mental nature. It has been found by recent psychological experiment that all these operations can be effected without any conscious origination in the thought and will of the apparent actor; his organs of sense and action, including the speech, become passive instruments for a thought and will other than his.”

Elsewhere Sri Aurobindo describes his own experience when, after experiencing the total silencing of the mind, he had to deliver a speech to an assembly of political activists working toward the liberation of India from the British Empire. He thus speaks, not theoretically, but from an actual experiential basis that is also supported by the general principle that all action in the world is carried out mechanically by Nature acting through the three Gunas or qualities.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 14, The Passive and the Active Brahman, pp. 387-388

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The Spiritual Status of the Passive, Immobile, Immutable Awareness

Spirituality is not about a philosophical idea or development of logic structures; rather, it is about actual experience in consciousness. The attempt to describe the conscious experience in language leads to various imperfect formulations that seek to convey a sense or meaning to the mind, while not actually reproducing the state of consciousness itself. Different emphasis or interpretation thus can lead to different transcriptions of the experience.

Sri Aurobindo observes that both Sankhya and Vedanta provide basic formulations that have their inception in the experience of the passive, immobile, immutable awareness of the Eternal. Sankhya posits the separation of the witness consciousness, the Purusha and the active nature, Prakriti. So long as the Purusha remains attached to the action of Nature, it is bound; but when it realizes that it is the pure, immutable Self of existence, and drops the attachment, then it is free. “The Vedantic view of the same status led to the philosophy of the inactive Self or Brahman as the one reality and of all the rest as name and form imposed on it by a false activity of mental illusion which has to be removed by right knowledge of the immutable Self and refusal of the imposition. The two views really differ only in their language and their viewpoint; substantially, they are the same intellectual generalisation from the same spiritual experience.”

The experience is described poetically in the Shwetashwatara Upanishad: “There is One, unborn, white and black and red, who is ever bringing forth many creatures with forms and her one unborn loves and cleaves to and lies with her; another unborn abandons, when all her enjoyments have been enjoyed. Two winged birds cling about a common tree, comrades, yoke-fellows; and one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, the other eats not, but watches. The Soul upon a common tree is absorbed and because he is not lord, grieves and is bewildered; but when he sees and cleaves to that other who is the Lord, he knows that all is His greatness and his sorrow passes away from him.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Shwetashwatara Upanishad, Chapter 4, v. 5-7, pg. 370)

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 14, The Passive and the Active Brahman, pp. 386-387

Integrating the World-Consciousness Into the Yoga of Knowledge

The remote, abstracted and completely detached mode of consciousness achieved in the traditional Yoga of knowledge is not the goal to be reached in the practice of the integral Yoga, however. When the seeker of the integral Yoga reaches the status of the unmoving, uninvolved, silent and detached All-Consciousness, there must come a recognition that the world manifestation too is a part of the Reality, what Sri Aurobindo elsewhere calls “reality omnipresent”. “The integral Yoga of knowledge demands instead a divine return upon world-existence and its first step must be to realise the Self as the All, sarvam brahma.”

There are various steps and stages involved in this integrative process: “First, concentrating on the Self-existent, we have to realise all of which the mind and senses are aware as a figure of things existing in this pure Self that we now are to our own consciousness. This vision of the pure Self translates itself to the mind-sense and the mind-perception as an infinite Reality in which all exists merely as name and form, not precisely unreal, not a hallucination or a dream, but still only a creation of the consciousness, perceptual and subtle sensible rather than substantial. In this poise of the consciousness all seems to be, if not a dream, yet very much like a representation or puppet-show taking place in the calm, motionless, peaceful, indifferent Self.” The seeker moves as another moving part in this movement of Nature while remaining absorbed in the unmoving stillness and peace of the consciousness. Action seems to take place mechanically as the Gunas of Nature operate the machinery of the world, including the actions of the individual now absorbed in the unmoving Infinite.

“For this Self is the immobile and does not originate or take part in the action which it allows. This Self is the All in the sense only of being the infinite One who is immutably and contains all names and forms.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 14, The Passive and the Active Brahman, pp. 385-386

The Extinguishing of the Mental Consciousness

The central discipline of the Yoga of Knowledge involves the systematic withdrawal of attention from the outer world, concentration of the attention within, and then a systematic stepping back even from these internal states of awareness. The seeker in the Yoga of Knowledge recognizes that he is not the body, he is not the specific life force, he is not the mind, he is not the ego-personality, and as he recognizes these things, he withdraws further as he works to turn the attention away from these ephemeral forms and forces to those things that are Eternal.

There are several stages of realization that come to the seeker as he progresses down this path. Sri Aurobindo describes them: “…he has arrived at realisation by knowledge of a pure, still, self-aware existence, one, undivided, peaceful, inactive, undisturbed by the action of the world. The only relation that this Self seems to have with the world is that of a disinterested Witness not at all involved in or affected or even touched by any of its activities.”

A further status makes the awareness even more remote from the world. “…at that is in the world is in a sense in that Self and yet at the same time extraneous to its consciousness, non-existent in its existence, existing only in a sort of unreal mind,–a dream therefore, an illusion.”

Sometimes the knowledge by identity leads the seeker to the recognition that this is the ultimate Self of his being, but in other cases, all sense of Self may actually be extinguished and there is then left a pure consciousness, aware, but unmoving and non-responsive to the forms and forces of the world action.

One can go from a state where the mental consciousness simply cannot define anything further and finds the status “unknowable” to an even further status where the mental consciousness blanks out and loses its entire ability to function. “It can even be realised by the mental being as a Nihil, Non-Existence or Void, but a Void of all that is in the world, a Non-Existence of all that is in the world and yet the only Reality.”

“To proceed farther towards that Transcendence by concentration of one’s own being upon it is to lose mental existence and world-existence altogether and cast oneself into the Unknowable.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 14, The Passive and the Active Brahman, pp. 384-385

Two General Methods of Self-Realisation

In the Taittiriya Upanishad, the seeker Bhrigu undertakes a course of sadhana to realize the Eternal. He is asked by his father to “Seek thou to know that from which these creatures are born, whereby being born thy live and to which they go hence and enter again; for that is the Eternal.” After deep reflection, Bhrigu determined that Matter (food) was the answer. Further concentration brought him to the realization that it was the Life-Force energy (Prana). The next step brought him to Mind as the source. Continuing on, he came to recognize the plane of consciousness called Knowledge. Finally he reached the realization that it was Bliss (Ananda) which is the Eternal. We see here a sequential evolution of consciousness from the planes of Matter-Life-Mind to the intermediate consciousness of the Supermind, to the eventual recognition of Sat-Chit-Ananda as the source and basis of existence. (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Taittiriya Upanishad, Bhriguvalli, Chapters 1-6, pp. 275-278)

Sri Aurobindo observes that this is the basic method of evolution of the mental being seeking self-development: “He may evolve himself from plane to plane of his own being and embrace on each successively his oneness with the world and with Sachchidananda realised as the Purusha and Prakriti, Conscious-Soul and Nature-Soul of that plane, taking into himself the action of the lower grades of being as he ascends. He may, that is to say, work out by a sort of inclusive process of self-enlargement and transformation the evolution of the material into the divine or spiritual man. This seems to have been the method of the most ancient sages of which we get some glimpse in the Rig Veda and some of the Upanishads. (Notably, the Taittiriya Upanishad)”

“He may, on the other hand, aim straight at the realisation of pure self-existence on the highest plane of mental being and from that secure basis realise spiritually under the conditions of his mentality the process by which the self-existent becomes all existences, but without that descent into the self-divided egoistic consciousness which is a circumstance of evolution in the Ignorance. Thus identified with Sachchidananda in the universal self-existence as the spiritualised mental being, he may then ascend beyond to the supramental plane of the pure spiritual existence.”

“It is the latter method the stages of which we may now attempt to trace for the seeker by the path of knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 14, The Passive and the Active Brahman, pg. 384

The Last Difficulty of the Mind

The mind’s tendency toward limiting and demarcating is the cause of the last and ultimate difficulty in the process of spiritualizing the mind. The mind focuses on one aspect or experience, to the exclusion of all the others. We see this in the traditional Yoga of knowledge, wherein the seeker is asked to abandon the life of the world in order to attain the Absolute. These two poles are seen as mutually exclusive to one another, and indeed, it is the experience of ages that has led to this conclusion. The integral Yoga, in seeking to overcome this gulf between the two poles, must eventually find a way to harmonize the experience of the Unity and the ultimate consciousness of Sat-Chit-Ananda with the experience of the Multiplicity and the experience of Mind-Life-Body.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is not altogether difficult to arrive at and dwell in a pure infinite or even, at the same time, a perfect global experience of the Existence which is Consciousness which is Delight. The mind may even extend its experience of this Unity to the multiplicity so as to perceive it immanent in the universe and in each object, force, movement in the universe or at the same time to be aware of this Existence-Consciousness-Bliss containing the universe and enveloping all its objects and originating all its movements. It is difficult indeed for it to unite and harmonise rightly all these experiences; but still it can possess Sachchidananda at once in himself and immanent in all and the continent of all.”

This experience is primarily the extension of the Unity into the world, more or less along the lines of envisioning Space as the unifying container within which stars, planets, moons, comets and asteroids all are contained. It does not yet take the added step of actually recognizing all these various individual forms, forces and actions as One.

“But with this to unite the final experience of all this as Sachchidananda and possess objects, movements, forces, forms as no other than He, is the great difficulty for mind. Separately any of these things may be done; the mind may go from one to the other, rejecting one as it arrives at another and calling this the lower or that the higher existence. But to unify without losing, to integralise without rejecting is its supreme difficulty.”

“He who is one and without hue, but has ordained manifoldly many hues by the Yoga of his Force and holds within himself all objects, and in Him the universe dissolves in the end, that Godhead was in the beginning….That alone is the fire and That the sun and That the wind and That too the moon; That is the Luminous, That the Brahman, That the waters, That the Father and Lord of creatures. Thou art the woman and Thou the man; Thou art a boy and again a young virgin; Thou art yonder worn and aged man that walkest bent with thy staff. Lo, Thou becomes born and the world is full of thy faces.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Shwetashwatara Upanishad, Chapter 4, v. 1-3, pg. 369)

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 13, The Difficulties of the Mental Being, pp. 382-383

The Mind Divides the Absolute

The basic characteristic of the mind follows the seeker into the realms of spiritual experience. Intellectually the seeker may acknowledge the unity of Sat-Chit-Ananda (Existence-Consciousness-Bliss) but in practical terms, the mind will tend to fixate on one aspect exclusively and put the others in the background or disregard them almost entirely. Sri Aurobindo observes: “…in approaching Sachchidananda it will dwell on its aspect of the pure existence, Sat, and consciousness and bliss are compelled then to lose themselves or remain quiescent in the experience of pure, infinite being which leads to the realisation of the quietistic Monist. Or it will dwell on the aspect of consciousness, Chit, and existence and bliss become then dependent on the experience of an infinite transcendent Power and Conscious-Force, which leads to the realisation of the Tantric worshipper of Energy. Or it will dwell on the aspect of delight, Ananda, and existence and consciousness then seem to disappear into a bliss without basis of self-possessing awareness or constituent being, which leads to the realisation of the Buddhistic seeker of Nirvana. Or it will dwell on some aspect of Sachchidananda which comes to the mind from the supramental Knowledge, Will or Love, and then the infinite impersonal aspect of Sachchidananda is almost or quite lost in the experience of the Deity which leads to the realisations of the various religions and to the possession of some supernal world or divine status of the human soul in relation to God.”

For those who seek a solution to the riddle of existence through escape, Sri Aurobindo points out that any of these realisations will accomplish what is sought; yet for the seeker of the integral Yoga, this type of walled-off realisation based on an exclusive focus or concentration on one aspect or another, is clearly insufficient.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 13, The Difficulties of the Mental Being, pg. 382