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

The Deeper and Wider Meaning of Purification in the Integral Yoga

For most people, when they consider the concept of purification of the nature, the issue turns on various moral and ethical precepts that should be inculcated in the being. This however, is only one limited aspect of the greater purification that Sri Aurobindo describes as the fundamental necessity for the practitioner of the integral Yoga. The essence of this greater purification is the shift from the human standpoint of action to the divine standpoint, and when one reflects on all this implies, it becomes possible to understand the scope and magnitude of what turns out to be a radical change in the way the seeker sees, thinks and acts in the world.

“Ethics deals only with the desire-soul and the active outward dynamical part of our being; its field is confined to character and action. It prohibits and inhibits certain actions, certain desires, impulses, propensities,–it inculcates certain qualities in the act, such as truthfulness, love, charity, compassion, chastity. When it has got this done and assured a base of virtue, the possession of a purified will and blameless habit of action, its work is finished.”

Sri Aurobindo proposes a status of being “beyond good and evil”. He does not mean, as some moral philosophers have meant, a status of unconcern or a viewpoint of non-discrimination between good and evil; rather, he recognizes that in the world of action, in the relations to the social order, there is a real difference between the two and for someone acting in the world, and still rooted in the nature of body-life-mind, such a whitewashing of the choice between the two can lead to negative consequences.

He proceeds to define his view: “But it is meant that the Siddha of the active integral perfection will live dynamically in the working of the transcendent power of the divine Spirit as a universal will through the supermind individualised in him for action. His works will therefore be the works of an eternal Knowledge, an eternal Truth, an eternal Might, an eternal Love, an eternal Ananda; but the truth, knowledge, force, love, delight will be the whole essential spirit of whatever work he will do and will not depend on its form; they will determine his action from the spirit within and the action will not determine the spirit or subject it to a fixed standard or rigid mould of working. He will have no dominant mere habit of character, but only a spiritual being and will with at the most a free and flexible temperamental mould for the action. His life will be a direct stream from the eternal fountains, not a form cut to some temporary human pattern. His perfection will not be a sattwic purity, but a thing uplifted beyond the gunas of Nature, a perfection of spiritual knowledge, spiritual power, spiritual delight, unity and harmony of unity; the outward perfection of his works will be freely shaped as the self-expression of this inner spiritual transcendence and universality. For this change he must make conscient in him that power of spirit and supermind which is now superconscient to our mentality. But that cannot work in him so long as his present mental, vital, physical being is not liberated from its actual inferior working. This purification is the first necessity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 5, The Instruments of the Spirit, pg. 617-618

Purification of the Working Instruments of the Being

When the individual tries to address the functioning of the body, life, heart and mind, he frequently finds conflicting impulses, needs, desires and directions that create confusion in the mind and weaken the action that can be undertaken. Society has tried to bring about a purer relation between people by setting forth various standards of conduct, moral codes or religious principles of action. These standards are intended to help the individual overcome the impulses of desire whether they arise in the body, the vital desire-soul, or in the mind.

Practitioners of Yoga, seeking spiritual realisation have taken this purification process to a much further step of avoiding or eliminating the impulses to action by suppressing or restraining them and refocusing attention on the silent, immobile, passive spiritual reality.

Sri Aurobindo describes the resultant status: “What is ordinarily called purity of the being, is either a negative whiteness, a freedom from sin gained by a constant inhibition of whatever action, feeling, idea or will we think to be wrong, or else, the highest negative or passive purity, the entire God-content, inaction, the complete stilling of the vibrant mind and the soul of desire, which in quietistic disciplines leads to a supreme peace; for then the spirit appears in all the eternal purity of its immaculate essence. That gained, there would be nothing farther to be enjoyed or done.”

For the seeker of the integral Yoga, however, such a status cannot be the final result. The integral Yoga, in seeking an active purity in the manifested world, as well as the passive purity of the spiritual basis, must grapple with the impurity and limitations of action of the outer being of mind-life-body. “But here we have the more difficult problem of a total, unabated, even an increased and more powerful action founded on perfect bliss of the being, the purity of the soul’s instrumental as well as the spirit’s essential nature. Mind, heart, life, body are to do the works of the Divine, all the works which they do now and yet more, but to do them divinely, as now they do not do them. This is the first appearance of the problem before him on which the seeker of perfection has to lay hold, that it is not a negative, prohibitory, passive or quietistic, but a positive, affirmative, active purity which is his object. A divine quietism discovers the immaculate eternity of the Spirit, a divine kinetism adds to its the right pure undeviating action of the soul, mind and body.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 5, The Instruments of the Spirit, pg. 616-617

Accomplishing the Aim of the Integral Yoga

The universalisation of the consciousness and the uplifting of the consciousness to the spiritual standpoint are the essential aims of the integral Yoga. There is an inevitable action that flows from these steps, as the individual becomes a nexus and conscious expression of the divine intention in the world-manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo has summarized the implications in a brief compass: “In this self-development the soul finds that it has accomplished on this line the object of the whole integral Yoga, union with the Supreme in its self and in its universalised individuality. So long as he remains in the world-existence, this perfection must radiate out from him,–for that is the necessity of his oneness with the universe and its beings,–in an influence and action which help all around who are capable of it to rise to or advance towards the same perfection, and for the rest in an influence and action which help, as only the self-ruler and master man can help, in leading the human race forward spiritually towards this consummation and towards some image of a greater divine truth in their personal and communal existence. He becomes a light and power of the Truth to which he has climbed and a means for others’ ascension.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 4, The Perfection of the Mental Being, pg. 615

The Need to Universalize and Uplift the Consciousness

As the analytical mind begins to reflect on the nature of the obstacles and difficulties it faces, several observations arise. First, the fragmentation and division, the very nature of the apparent separation of the individual from the rest of the creation is the primary obstacle that must be addressed and overcome for the individual to move from ignorance and weakness, to knowledge and power of action in any complete sense. Second, the universalization of the awareness to include the rest of the manifested universe does not, in and of itself, overcome the limitations caused by the ever-changing balance of the qualities of Nature that underlie the entire action of the universe. Thus, the seeker recognizes the need to shift the entire standpoint to the higher stance of the divine standpoint, Sat-Chit-Ananda, where knowledge, power, existence and delight are all present constantly and without limitation, and from where the entire action of the universe flows with absolute knowledge and power of implementation.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is essential for him to grow out of separative individuality, to universalise himself, to make himself one with the universe. This unification can be done only through the soul by making our soul of mind one with the universal Mind, our soul of life one with the universal Life-soul, our soul o body one with the universal soul of physical Nature. When this can be done, in proportion to the power, intensity, depth, completeness, permanence with which it can be done, great effects are produced upon the natural action. Especially there grows an immediate and profound sympathy and immixture of mind with mind, life with life, a lessening of the body’s insistence on separateness, a power of direct mental and other intercommunication and effective mutual action which helps out now the inadequate indirect communication and action that was till now the greater part of the conscious means used by embodied mind.”

Universalising the awareness breaks the individual out of the bonds of the individual ego-sense, yet is not sufficient for a complete spiritual transformation of the nature. “To transcend it he has in the universality too to rise to the supramental and spiritual, to be one with the supramental soul of cosmos, the universal spirit. He arrives at the larger light and order of a higher principle in himself and the universe which is the characteristic action of the divine Sachchidananda. Even, he is able to impose the influence of that light and order, not only on his own natural being, but, within the radius and to the extent of the Spirit’s action in him, on the world he lives in, on that which is around him. He is svarat, self-knower, self-ruler, but he begins to be also through this spiritual oneness and transcendence samrat a knower and master of his environing world of being.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 4, The Perfection of the Mental Being, pp. 614-615

The Unity and Harmony of Individual Being With Universal Being

The apparent opposition and conflict we experience as the ego confronts an apparently indifferent or hostile Nature, is part of the method of Nature to develop and evolve consciousness from its involved state in Matter to the eventual “unity with diversity” that would characterize the expression of the supramental Truth of unity with the supramental implementation of diversity. In actual fact, all of Nature is one and unified, even in its seeming oppositions. We can observe the codependent and symbiotic relationship of each to all wherever we turn our gaze in the natural world. We see this even in the relationship between plants which breath in carbon dioxide and breath out oxygen, and all animal species, including man, which breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Clearly, we must have a thriving natural world in order for our own existence and survival.

Sri Aurobindo elaborates on the relation between the universal creation and the individual: “This conflict is a rendering of the underlying unity, which assumes the aspect of a struggle by a necessity of the original separation; the two pieces into which mind has cut the oneness, rush upon each other to restore the oneness and each tries to seize on and take into itself the separated portion. Universe seems to be always trying to swallow up man, the infinite to resume this finite which stands on its self-defence and even replies by aggression. But in real fact the universal being through this apparent struggle is working out its purpose in man, though the key and truth of the purpose and working is lost to his superficial conscious mind, only held obscurely in an underlying subconscient and only known luminously in an overruling superconscient unity.”

The resistance and opposition acts to enhance man’s growth and development by putting up challenges and opportunities to exercise the various powers of mind, life and body and bring them to their peak of development. Even through this process, however, there is a hidden seeking after the oneness which permeates all existence: “Man also is impelled towards unity by a constant impulse of extension of his ego, which identifies itself as best it can with other egos and with such portions of the universe as he can physically, vitally, mentally get into his use and possession. As man aims at knowledge and mastery of his own being, so also he aims at knowledge and mastery of the environmental world of nature, its objects, its instrumentation, its beings. First he tries to effect this aim by egoistic possession, but, as he develops, the element of sympathy born of the secret oneness grows in him and he arrives at the idea of a widening cooperation and oneness with other beings, a harmony with universal Nature and universal being.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 4, The Perfection of the Mental Being, pg. 614

Individual Standpoint Versus Universal Standpoint

The normal experience of the human individual is to see himself as separate and distinct from every other being and form that exists in the universal creation. This individual, acting from the ego-standpoint that characterizes this perspective, tries to survive and thrive against the pressure and conflicting needs and actions of all others. This fragmented and divided view of existence has a quite limited and temporary utility to allow the development of the powers of separation in order to increase the richness and diversity of the universal manifestation and bring out new forces through the apparent opposition created. Yet, in an ultimate sense, this viewpoint is a fictitious one which eventually must be abandoned for spiritual development to truly take hold of the consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “But this perfection cannot be attained or cannot be secure and entire in its largeness if the Purusha lays stress on individuality. To abandon identification with the physical, vital and mental ego, is not enough; he must arrive in soul also at a true, universalised, not separative individuality.”

Sri Aurobindo emphasizes that the separative ego-consciousness is a false premise: “His whole action starts from and is founded upon this self-conception and world-conception. But the conception is in fact an error. However sharply he individualises himself in mental idea and mental or other action, he is inseparable from the universal being, his body from universal force and matter, his life from the universal life, his mind from universal mind, his soul and spirit from universal soul and spirit. The universal acts on him, invades him, overcomes him, shapes itself in him at every moment; he in his reaction acts on the universal, invades, tries to impose himself on it, shape it, overcome its attack, rule and use its instrumentation.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Four: The Yoga of Self-Perfection, Chapter 4, The Perfection of the Mental Being, pp. 613-614