The Deformation and Purification of the Psychic Prana

The psychic Prana acts as something of a lynch-pin between the physical body and the mental being. Sri Aurobindo describes the issues that arise: “The psychical Prana interferes in all the higher operations to deform them, but its defect is itself due to its being interfered with and deformed by the nature of the physical workings in the body which Life has evolved in its emergence from Matter. It is that which has created the separation of the individual life in the body from the life of the universe and stamped on it the character of want, limitation, hunger, thirst, craving for what it has not, a long groping after enjoyment and a hampered and baffled need of possession.”

The action of the life-force in the body is self-regulating in the physical realm. There is a natural balance between species, and even a symbiotic relationship whereby plants and animals depend upon one another to survive and thrive and thus, achieve homeostasis. The force of hunger, for instance, works itself out in the animal kingdom to the extent that large predators only eat what they need to survive and they generally will not undertake to decimate a population of their prey. If things were to get temporarily out of balance, due to a large increase in the predator population, the massive decrease of natural prey that results would restore the balance within a generation or two.

When the psychic Prana however brings the motivations of hunger, thirst, lust, etc. into the mental realm, however, imbalance quickly becomes apparent. “Easily regulated and limited in the purely physical order of things, it extends itself in the psychical Prana immensely and becomes, as the mind grows, a thing with difficulty limited, insatiable, irregular, a busy creator of disorder and disease.”

There is another issue as well: “Moreover, the psychical Prana leans on the physical life, limits itself by the nervous force of the physical being, limits thereby the operations of the mind and becomes the link of its dependence on the body and its subjection to fatigue, incapacity, disease, disorder, insanity, the pettiness, the precariousness and even the possible dissolution of the workings of the physical mentality. Our mind instead of being a thing powerful in its own strength, a clear instrument of conscious spirit, free and able to control, use and perfect the life and body, appears in the result a mixed construction; it is a predominantly physical mentality limited by its physical organs and subject to the demands and to the obstructions of the life in the body.”

The apparent solution to these problems of the psychic Prana is for the seeker to identify with the mind and eventually come to see it as separate from the bodily life. The seeker then can begin to develop the pure power of the mentality and reduce the reliance on the physical and vital instruments for its processes. This makes the life and body “…a transmitting channel for the Idea and Will in the Buddhi, obedient to its suggestions and commands; the Prana then becomes a passive means of effectuation for the mind’s direct control of the physical life….This control can be exercised perfectly, however, only from the supramental level, for it is there that the true effective Idea and Will reside and the mental thought-mind, even spiritualised, is only a limited, though it may be made a very powerful deputy.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 6, Purification–the Lower Mentality, pp. 630-631

Desire: the Primary Deformation of the Psychic Prana

The great spiritual teachings of the world tell us that we should overcome desire. Many have tried to do this, using various forms of discipline, stoicism, ascetism, even punishing the body when various types of desire arise. Desire is recognized by all these paths as being an obstacle to the realisation of the Divine. Yet it seems that no matter how hard humanity tries, no matter which methods are employed, no matter how strongly desire is suppressed, it cannot be fully extirpated and there is a tremendous amount of suffering that attends both its fulfillment and its denial! Sri Aurobindo recognizes the central role that desire plays in limiting the spiritual development and the need to overcome desire. He takes a somewhat different approach by first analyzing what this force is, how it works, and its role preliminary to developing methods to eliminate this deformation of the psychic Prana.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The root of desire is the vital craving to seize upon that which we feel we have not, it is the limited life’s instinct for possession and satisfaction. It creates the sense of want,–firt the simpler vital craving of huner, thirst, lust, then these psychical hungers, thirsts, lusts of the mind which are a much greater and more instant and pervading affliction of our being, the hunger which is infinite because it is the hunger of an infinite being, the thirst which is only temporarily lulled by satisfaction, but is in its nature insatiable. The psychic Prana invades the sensational mind and brings into it the unquiet thirst of sensations, invades the dynamic mind with the lust of control, having, domination, success, fulfilment of every impulse, fills the emotional mind with the desire for the satisfaction of liking and disliking, for the wreaking of love and hate, brings the shrinkings and panics of fear and the strainings and disappointments of hope, imposes the tortures of grief and the brief fevers and excitements of joy, makes the intelligence and intelligent will the accomplices of all these things and turns them in their own kind into deformed and lame instruments, the will into a will of craving and the intelligence into a partial, a stumbling and an eager pursuer of limited, impatient, militant prejudgment and opinion. Desire is the root of all sorrow, disappointment, affliction, for though it has a feverish joy of pursuit and satisfaction, yet because it is always a straining of the being, it carries into its pursuit and its getting a labour, hunger, struggle, a rapid subjection to fatigue, a sense of limitation, dissatisfaction and early disappointment with all its gains, a ceaseless morbid stimulation, trouble, disquiet, asanti. To get rid of desire is the one firm indispensable purification of the psychical Prana,–for so we can replace the soul of desire with its pervading immiscence in all our instruments by a mental soul of calm delight and its clear and limpid possession of ourselves and world and Nature which is the crystal basis of the mental life and its perfection.”

The Taittiriya Upanishad equates the highest possible forms of bliss in the most evolved beings with “…the bliss of the vedawise, whose soul the blight of desire touches not.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 6, Purification–the Lower Mentality, pp. 629-630

The Proper Function of the Psychic Prana

Sri Aurobindo’s examination of the instruments of human nature is not done with a view toward suppressing them, but toward determining the right and proper function of each instrument and its relation to the entirety of human action. While some yogic practices work toward elimination of the outer relations to the world and a one-pointed focus and fixation on the silent Absolute, the integral Yoga seeks to take up and fulfill the divine purpose in the world. The psychic Prana, which is a major cause of the admixture of desire into the working of the higher reasoning intelligence, has its own right and proper action.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The proper action of the psychic Prana is pure possession and enjoyment, bhoga. To enjoy thought, will, action, dynamic impulse, result of action, emotion, sense, sensation, to enjoy too by their means objects, persons, life, the world, is the activity for which this Prana gives us a psycho-physical basis. A really perfect enjoyment of existence can only come when what we enjoy is not the world in itself or for itself, but God in the world, when it is not things, but the Ananda of the spirit in things that forms the real, essential object of our enjoying and things only as form and symbol of the spirit, waves of the ocean of Ananda. But this Ananda can only come at all when we get at and reflect in our members the hidden spiritual being, and its fullness can only be had when we climb to the supramental ranges.”

For those who are still living in the purely human levels of the physical, vital and mental existence, there is of course an appropriate action for the psychic Prana as well: “Meanwhile there is a just and permissible, a quite legitimate human enjoyment of these things, which is, to speak in the language of Indian psychology, predominantly sattwic in its nature. It is an enlightened enjoyment principally by the perceptive, aesthetic and emotive mind, secondarily only by the sensational nervous and physical being, but all subject to the clear government of the Buddhi, to a right reason, a right will, a right reception of the life impacts, a right order, a right feeling of the truth, law, ideal sense, beauty, use of things. The mind gets the pure taste of enjoyment of them, rasa, and rejects whatever is perturbed, troubled and perverse. Into this acceptance of the clear and limpid rasa, the psychic Prana has to bring in the full sense of life and the occupying enjoyment by the whole being, bhoga, without which the acceptance and possession by the mind…, would not be concrete enough, would be too tenuous to satisfy altogether the embodied soul. This contribution is its proper function.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 6, Purification–the Lower Mentality, pp. 628-629

The Need for Purification of the Intelligent Will and Reasoning Intelligence, the Buddhi

Rene Descartes, the famous French philosopher, once declared “I think, therefore I am.” While he may not have captured the complete proof of his existence, he did highlight the unique role that the reasoning intelligence plays for the human being. When we observe the world around us, the primary quality that sets the human being apart from the rest of the creation is the self-aware, reasoning mind which has begun to manifest and provide a character to the human experience that is not found generally in the animal kingdom. It is therefore both reasonable and expected that it will be the purification of the reasoning intelligence that acts as the lynch-pin to the purification and transformation of the rest of the nature.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “Pending the evolution of any higher supramental power the intelligent will must be our main force for effectuation and to purify it becomes a very primary necessity. Once our intelligence and will are well purified of all that limits them and gives them a wrong action or wrong direction, they can easily be perfected, can be made to responde to the suggestions of Truth, understand themselves and the rest of the being, see clearly and with a fine and scrupulous accuracy what they are doing and follow out the right way to do it without any hesitating or eager error or stumbling deviation.”

Another benefit of this process in the Buddhi is that it can open the way and make possible the influence of the higher levels of insight, intuition and knowledge that are native to higher planes but which can influence the receptive and purified intelligent mind.

The primary obstacle, in Sri Aurobindo’s analysis, to the purification of the Buddhi is its interaction with the vital principle in the form of the psychic Prana: “But this purification cannot be effected without a preliminary clearing of its natural obstacles in the other lower parts of the antahkarana, and the chief natural obstacle running through the whole action of the antahkarana, through the sense, the mental sensation, emotion, dynamic impulse, intelligence, will, is the intermiscence and the compelling claim of the psychic Prana. This then must be dealt with, its dominating intermiscence ruled out, its claim denied, itself quieted and prepared for purification.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 6, Purification–the Lower Mentality, pp. 627-628

Purification of the Lower Nature and the Issues Involved in Its Achievement

The issue for the seeker of spiritual realisation, and more particularly for the seeker of the integral Yoga who wants to manifest the divine intention in the world, is how to realistically and effectively make the transition from focus on and reliance upon the instrumentality of body, life and mind, the “lower nature”, and the distortions that they bring to the truth of existence and its clear manifestation without the admixture of the illusory aims of the ego-consciousness, or the separative, divided understanding that is active in the lower nature.

The first step in this process is what Sri Aurobindo calls purification. The purification consists of unraveling the confused understanding and interactions between the various elements of the lower nature. This provides a foundation for the being to both gain a clear understanding of the truth of existence, and for the action of the higher spiritual consciousness to flow through the individual in a direct and undistorted manner. Without this purification, everything becomes confused, mixed up and diluted from its original meaning and power.

The process of purification, however, suffers from these very defects and thus, Sri Aurobindo has raised the issue of what is meant by purification and what process can be undertaken to achieve it in the being: “But there is also the question where we are to begin. For the entanglement is great, the complete purification of one instrument depends on the complete purification too of all the others, and that is a great source of difficulty, disappointment and perplexity,–as when we think we have got the intelligence purified, only to find that it is still subject to attack and overclouding because the emotions of the heart and the will and sensational mind are still affected by the many impurities of the lower nature and they get back into the enlightened Buddhi and prevent it from reflecting the pure truth for which we are seeking.”

Sri Aurobindo suggests a line of approach to be explored for this process: “But we have on the other hand this advantage that one important instrument sufficiently purified can be used as a means for the purification of the others, one step firmly taken makes easier all the others and gets rid of a host of difficulties.” Despite the obvious difficulties, there is a way to carry out the purification, prepare the nature for the advent of the higher spiritual knowledge and power, and implement it to make the individual a conscious participant and nexus of the divine action in the world.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 6, Purification–the Lower Mentality, pg. 627

The Buddhi and the Ego-Sense

The Buddhi, the conscious intelligence, represents a stage clearly beyond the mechanical workings of the sense mind and the nervous reactions to the physical and vital impulses that characterize most of the action of the mentality in the lower nature. it clearly cannot originate in the physical nature itself, but must represent some higher force of conscious awareness that can become active at a certain evolutionary stage. Along with the activation of the Buddhi there arises a heightened sense of self-awareness and the potential for a reflective consciousness that is not entirely fixated on the sense-impressions that impinge on the mentality from the outer world. While we see the rudiments of a consciousness of self in the higher animal kingdom, and a self-preservation instinct throughout vital nature, the development of a self-aware ego-sense comes with the development of this higher mentality as expressed in the Buddhi.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Buddhi is really an intermediary between a much higher Truth-mind not now in our active possession, which is the direct instrument of Spirit, and the physical life of the human mind evolved in body. Its powers of intelligence and will are drawn from this greater direct Truth-mind or supermind. Buddhi centres its mental action round the ego-idea, the idea that I am this mind, life and body or am a mental being determined by their action. It serves this ego-idea whether limited by what we call egoism or extended by sympathy with the life around us. An ego-sense is created which reposes on the separative action of the body, of the individualised life, of the mind-responses, and the ego-idea in the Buddhi centralises the whole action of this ego’s thought, character, personality.”

The higher reasoning faculty which we call Buddhi can be turned downwards and outwards to bring a new level of understanding and power of action to the individual, but it also has the capability to turn its light inward and upward to the higher levels of spiritual awareness: “But when the highest reason and will develop, we can turn towards that which these outward things mean to the higher spiritual consciousness. The ‘I’ can then be seen as a mental reflection of the Self, the Spirit, the Divine, the one existence transcendent, universal, individual in its multiplicity; the consciousness in which these things meet, become aspects of one being and assume their right relations, can then be unveiled out of all these physical and mental coverings. When the transition to supermind takes place, the powers of the Buddhi do not perish, but have all to be converted to their supramental values.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 5, The Instruments of the Spirit, pp. 625-626

The Buddhi: Thought-Power and Will-Power of the Spirit in the Lower Nature

There are, of course, powers of mind that exceed the reactive sense-mind and the basic pool of consciousness in the lower nature of body, life and mind. The Buddhi is the term used to designate the higher degrees of conscious thought and will potential in the human individual. Sri Aurobindo has identified three successive gradations of the powers of the Buddhi that play a role in the establishment of the higher ranges of mental development as a guiding and directing force for life in the world:

“There is first an inferior perceptive understanding which simply takes up, records, understands and responds to the communications of the sense-mind, memory, heart and sensational mentality. it creates by their means an elementary thinking mind which does not go beyond their data, but subjects itself to their mould and rings out their repetitions, runs round and round in the habitual circle of thought and will suggested by them and follows, with an obedient subservience of the reason to the suggestions of life, any fresh determinations which may be offered to its perception and conception.” This first level is the one that expresses itself first and operates most commonly in the mental development of human beings.

“Beyond this elementary understanding, which we all use to an enormous extent, there is a power of arranging or selecting reason and will-force of the intelligence which has for its action and aim an attempt to arrive at a plausible, sufficient, settled ordering of knowledge and will for the use of an intellectual conception of life.” This development of the Buddhi “…creatse a certain kind of intellectual structure, frame, rule into which it tries to cash the inner and outer life so as to use it with a certain mastery and government for the purposes of some kind of rational will. It is this reason which gives to our normal intellectual being our set aesthetic and ethical standards, our structures of opinion and our established norms of idea and purpose. It is highly developed and takes the primacy in all men of an at all developed understanding.”

This organizing and structuring power is however, not the highest action of the Buddhi: “But beyind it there is a reason, a highest action of the Buddhi which concerns itself disinterestedly with a pursuit of pure truth and right knowledge; it seeks to discover the real Truth behind life and things and our apparent selves and to subject its will to the law of Truth. Few, if any of us, can use this highest reason with any purity, but the attempt to do it is the topmost capacity of the inner instrument, the antahkarana.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 5, The Instruments of the Spirit, pp. 624-625

Manas: the Basic Sense Mind and Its Action

All of the sense impressions delivered along the nervous pathways from the physical senses are delivered to the basic sense mind, called “manas” in yogic parlance. Seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and touching are functions that utilize physical organs of sense, but only can be organized and interpreted through this sense mind. Without the attachment to the mind, the organs may mechanically record vibrations, but this does not constitute any form of observation or knowledge. Western psychology, starting from the external senses, has at times believed that the physical senses are primary and determinative, but as the science developed it began to recognize that mechanical “seeing” is not the same as observation. It takes the interpreting mind to observe.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The superficial and outward action of the senses is physical and nervous in its character, and they may easily be thought to be merely results of nerve-action; they are sometimes called in the old books pranas, nervous or life activities. But still the essential thing in them is not the nervous excitation, but the consciousness, the action of the Chitta, which makes use of the organ and of the nervous impact of which it is the channel. Manas, sense-mind, is the activity, emerging from the basic consciousness, which makes up the whole essentiality of what we call sense. Sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch are really properties of the mind, not of the body; but the physical mind which we ordinarily use, limits itself to a translation into sense of so much of the outer impacts as it receives through the nervous system and the physical organs.”

Because the inner instrument of mind is actually the observer, not the physical senses, the speculation naturally arises as to whether it is possible to cognize without reliance on the outer physical sense organs. A considerable amount of effort has been made to experiment with powers of mind that perceive and know without reliance on the sense organs. Clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy, and other occult powers are actions of the manas without intervention of the physical senses. Both Western and Eastern traditions have established the factual basis for these powers. Raja Yoga makes it clear that such powers exist and can be developed and harnessed through various forms of practice and concentration. “Mind is able to alter, modify, inhibit the incidence, values, intensities of sense impacts. These powers of the mind we do not ordinarily use or develop; they remain subliminal and emerge sometimes in an irregular and fitful action, more readily in some minds than in others, or come to the surface in abnormal states of the being.”

“Mind physical, mind supraphysical,–we have and can use this double sense mentality.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 5, The Instruments of the Spirit, pp. 623-624

The Psychic Prana: The Sensational Mind and Its Nervous Action

When the sense organs receive impulses from the external world, they have to deliver these impulses to the mind. This is done through the nervous-bital sheath of the mental being. This provides a linkage between the physical body and the inner self-awareness of the mental consciousness. This same nervous sheath works to carry the reactions of the inner awareness into action to the organs of action. The nervous energies get excited by the impulses coming from either direction. Almost all of the reactionary state of mind comes from the excitation of this vital nervous being and habitual patterns of reaction become ingrained in these channels, creating what most consider to be their individuality or personality, but which in reality is simply a temporary bundle of habits that can be observed and change at a certain stage of the spiritual development by a conscious mentality or higher spiritual focus.

Swami Vivekananda in his Raja Yoga lectures spends a considerable amount of time focusing on the psychic prana, which is the term given to this nervous-vital segment of the mental sheath, and the methods used by the practitioners of Raja Yoga to gain mastery over the reactions that occur at this level, and which tend to otherwise dominate the body and mind’s reactions to events and forces.

Sri Aurobindo describes the action thus: “This nervous mentality pursues indeed all the action of the inner instrument and seems often to form the greater part of things other than sensation. The emotions are especially assailed and have the pranic stamp; fear is even more of a nervous sensation than an emotion, anger is largely or often a sensational response translated into terms of emotion. Other feelings are more of the heart, more inward, but they ally themselves to the nervous and physical longings or outward-going impulses of the psychic Prana.”

“Still the proper action of the sensational mind is not emotion, but conscious nervous response and nervous feeling and affection, impulse of the use of physical sense and body for some action, conscious vital craving and desire. There is a side of receptive response, a side of dynamic reaction. These things get their proper normal use when the higher mind is not mechanically subject to them, but controls and regulates their action. But a still higher state is when they undergo a certain transformation by the conscious will of the spirit which gives its right and no longer its wrong or desire form of characteristic action to the psychic Prana.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 5, The Instruments of the Spirit, pp. 622-623

Chitta and the Emotional Mind

Sri Aurobindo observes: “But in fact all action of the mind or inner instrument arises out of this Chitta or basic consciousness, partly conscient, partly subconscient or subliminal to our active mentality. When it is struck by the world’s impacts from outside or urged by the reflective powers of the subjective inner being, it throws up certain habitual activities, the mould of which has been determined by our evolution. One of these forms of activity is the emotional mind,–the heart, as we may call it for the sake of a convenient brevity.”

The emotional mind is made up of inputs from the physical/vital sense-impressions impacting the Chitta, with an input from the higher mentality, that reacts and responds to these impressions. Whereas we can find in physical nature certain fixed relations that we call “laws of nature”, the response by the mentality in the emotional mind is governed by habit, but can in fact not be called “laws of nature”. These habits can be identified and changed through pressure from the higher mentality or the spiritual force acting on the nature.

Sri Aurobindo explains the dynamic: “Our emotions are the waves of reaction and response which rise up from the basic consciousness, cittavrtti. Their action too is largely regulated by habit and an emotive memory. They are not imperative, not laws of Necessity; there is no really binding law of our emotional being to which we must submit without remedy; we are not obliged to give responses of grief to certain impacts upon the mind, responses of anger to others, to yet others responses of hatred or dislike, to others responses of liking or love. All these things are only habits of our affective mentality; they can be changed by the conscious will of the spirit; they can be inhibited; we may even rise entirely above all subjection to grief, anger, hatred, the duality of liking and disliking. We are subject to these things only so long as we persist in subjection to the mechanical action of the Chitta in the emotive mentality, a thing difficult to get rid of because of the power of past habit and especially the importunate insistence of the vital part of mentality, the nervous life-mind or psychic Prana.”

Many philosophical and spiritual traditions around the world have developed methods to try to overcome this habitual linkage of emotional reaction to sense-impression and event. The stoics used will-power to suppress the reaction. Great religious leaders have asked us to re-learn these past habits and return love for hatred for example, or compassion and gratitude in place of anger or the force of desire.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “And yet the true emotive soul, the real psyche in us, is not a desire-soul, but a soul of pure love and delight; but that, like the rest of our true being, can only emerge when the deformation created by the life of desire is removed from the surface and is no longer the characteristic action of our being. To get that done is a necessary part of our purification, liberation, perfection.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 5, The Instruments of the Spirit, pp. 621-622