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

Chitta, the Basic Human Consciousness and the Role and Action of Memory

In his lectures on Raja Yoga, Swami Vivekananda devotes considerable attention to the “chitta”, or basic human consciousness. One of the primary practices of Raja Yoga is the observation and stilling of the waves that arise in the chitta or “mind-stuff” as a result of sense impressions that reach the chitta, and which then lead to reactions in the form of “waves” in that basic mind-stuff. The senses receive impressions from the outer world and deliver them to the mind where they impinge on the chitta and create waves. Those waves develop habitual patterns of both recognition and response, memory and reaction, which then become the foundation for the action of the individual in the world. Most of the action of the chitta is below the level of conscious intention. This brings about habitual patterns of interaction between the individual and his environment.

Sri Aurobindo expands on this analysis: “Chitta, the basic consciousness, is largely subconscient; it has, open and hidden, two kinds of action, one passive or receptive, the other active or reactive and formative. As a passive power it receives all impacts, even those of which the mind is unaware or to which it is inattentive, and it stores them in an immense reserve of passive subconscient memory on which the mind as an active memory can draw. But ordinarily the mind draws only what it had observed and understood at the time,–more easily what it had observed well and understood carefully, less easily what it had observed carelessly or ill understood; at the same time there is a power in consciousness to send up to the active mind for use what that mind had not at all observed or attended to or even consciously experienced.”

“This action of memory is so fundamental to the entire mental action that it is sometimes said, memory is the man. Even in the submental action of the body and life, which is full of this subconscient Chitta, though not under the control of the conscious mind, there is a vital and physical memory. The vital and physical habits are largely formed by this submental memory. For this reason they can be changed to an indefinite extent by a more powerful action of conscious mind and will, when that can be developed and can find means to communicate to the subconscient Chitta the will of the spirit for a new law of vital and physical action. Even, the whole constitution of our life and body may be described as a bundle of habits formed by the past evolution in Nature and held together by the persistent memory of this secret consciousness. For Chitta, the primary stuff of consciousness, is like Prana and body universal in Nature, but is subconscient and mechanical in nature of Matter.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 5, The Instruments of the Spirit, pp. 620-621

Overview of the Human Psychological Framework

Sri Aurobindo has described Yoga as applied psychology. In order to effectuate change in human psychology, the elements of the human psychological structure must be understood and their interaction noted. With this purpose in mind, Sri Aurobindo describes the human instrument and its usual workings:

“Mind, life and body are the three powers of our lower nature. But they cannot be taken quite separately because the life acts as a link and gives its character to body and to a great extent to our mentality. Our body is a living body; the life-force mingles in and determines all its functionings. Our mind too is largely a mind of life, a mind of physical sensation; only in its higher functions is it normally capable of something more than the workings of a physical mentality subjected to life.”

The body and the life-force make up what yogic psychology calls the “gross body”, sthula sarira. The life-force active in the body is called the physical Prana. “This is only the outer instrument, the nervous force of life acting in the form of body with its gross physical organs.”

There is also an inner side to the human being. “This inner instrument is divided by the old system into four powers; citta or basic mental consciousness; manas, the sense mind; buddhi, the intelligence; ahankara, the ego-idea. The classification may serve as a starting-point, though for a greater practicality we have to make certain farther distinctions. This mentality is pervaded by the life-force, which becomes here an instrument for psychic consciousness of life and psychic action on life. Every fibre of the sense mind and basic consciousness is shot through with the action of this psychic Prana, it is a nervous or vital and physical mentality. Even the Buddhi and ego are overpowered by it, although they have the capacity of raising the mind beyond subjection to this vital, nervous and physical psychology. This combination creates in us the sensational desire-soul which is the chief obstacle to a higher human as well as to the still greater divine perfection. Finally, above our present conscious mentality is a secret supermind which is the proper means and native seat of that perfection.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 5, The Instruments of the Spirit, pp. 619-620

Concrete Examples of the Two Fundamental Defects and Their Implications for the Seeker

A divine perfection is founded on what may be called a preliminary human perfection. Without clearing up the confusion in the lower nature, the higher forms of knowledge, will and bliss are continually bogged down, circumscribed, diluted, and obscured. Sri Aurobindo thus focuses his attention on the two primary forms of defect that prevent the perfection of the human instrument, and provides concrete examples of the interactions that occur as a result. This aids the seeker in sorting out the actual psychological action and thereby finding ways to resolve these defects and prepare the nature for a purer and higher action.

Sri Aurobindo observes, for instance, that “…the proper function of the life, the vital force, is enjoyment and possession, both of them perfectly legitimate, because the Spirit created the world for Ananda, enjoyment and possession of the many by the One, of the One by the many and of the many too by the many; but,–this is an instance of the first kind of defect,–the separative ignorance gives to it the wrong form of desire and craving which vitiates the whole enjoyment and possession and imposes on it its opposites, want and suffering. Again, because mind is entangled in life from which it evolves, this desire and craving get into the action of the mental will and knowledge; that makes the will a will of craving, a force of desire instead of a rational will and a discerning force of intelligent effectuation, and it distorts the judgment and reason so that we judge and reason according to our desires and prepossessions and not with the disinterested impartiality of a pure judgment and the rectitude of a reason which seeks only to distinguish truth and understand rightly the objects of its workings. That is an example of immixture. These two kinds of defect, wrong form of action and illegitimate mixture of action, are not limited to these signal instances, but belong to each instrument and to each combination of their functionings. They pervade the whole economy of our nature. They are fundamental defects of our lower instrumental nature, and if we can set them right, we shall get our instrumental being into a state of purity, enjoy the clarity of a pure will, a pure heart of emotion, a pure enjoyment of our vitality, a pure body. That will be a preliminary, a human perfection, but it can be made the basis and open out in its effort of self-attainment into the greater, the divine perfection.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 5, The Instruments of the Spirit, pg. 619

Two Forms of Impurity Are at the Root of the Confusion of Knowledge and Action

The forms of purification that are frequently the focus of human endeavor tend to focus on the moral and ethical nature, and the imperfections that arise in this aspect of life. Sri Aurobindo, however, treats this as a secondary symptom of deeper forms of impurity and imperfection. His prescription is to focus on these deeper levels and set them right, with the assurance that the outer being, including the vital being that is subject to the moral defects, will be set straight thereby.

Sri Aurobindo particularly identifies two forms of impurity upon which to fix the attention: “One is a defect born of the nature of our past evolution, which has been a nature of separative ignorance; this defect is a radically wrong and ignorant form given to the proper action of each part of our instrumental being.” This is caused by identification with the separative ego-sense rather than the divine standpoint of existence, and thereby treats the world as something external, to be seized, mastered and conquered for the benefit of the ego-sense.

“The other impurity is born of the successive process of an evolution, where life emerges in and depends on body, mind emerges in and depends on life in the body, supermind emerges in and lends itself to instead of governing mind, soul itself is apparent only as a circumstance of the bodily life of the mental being and veils up the spirit in the lower imperfections. This second defect of our nature is caused by this dependence of the higher on the lower parts; it is an immixture of functions by which the impure working of the lower instrument gets into the characteristic action of the higher function and gives to it an added imperfection of embarrassment, wrong direction and confusion.”

The lower instruments are generally unable to hold and express the hgreater light and force of the higher nature. We can see this, for example, when an individual has an inspiration. The inspiration tends to set off the mental process which chews on the concept, works to try to organize it and frame it within a normal method of understanding. While something of that higher inspiration clearly can come through, it has been veiled, watered down and covered up with mental conceptualization. The same thing may happen when an individual has an opening that brings forth an experience of divine delight or bliss. The body cannot hold this energy and may break down in certain ways. The mind becomes intoxicated with the energy and the vital being may actually twist this energy into its characteristic downward-flowing action rather than allowing itself to be uplifted.

The outer instruments act something like a “step-down transformer”, taking the higher energy that flows in and expressing it out in a much less powerful and direct state. When we start from the basis of acceptance of the idea of our separative existence, it becomes easy to misunderstand, misinterpret and confuse the sense of the higher knowledge and force when it wants to manifest. When we then also express them through the weakness of the outer instruments, we can see the causes of much of human misconception, distortion and confused effort. By solving these two defects, the seeker can bring about a much more potent action based on knowledge rather than ignorance.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 5, The Instruments of the Spirit, pp. 618-619