The Spiritual Life, the Religious Life and the Ordinary Human Life

Ordinary human life is essentially driven by response to outer circumstances, and is based in the desires, needs and reactions of the ego-personality. The interaction between people in a society, whether in the smallest groupings such as the family, or larger groupings of community, country or international relations, is essentially a widening of this same principle. In order to mitigate the effects of the underlying principles of a self-seeking for self-aggrandisement or defense, human society has developed concepts we call morality. At some point, people begin to awaken to the idea that a life focused entirely on survival and enjoyment has no intrinsic significance and they begin the search for meaning, which takes the form of individual seeking or adoption of a body of concepts and practices intended to reveal the deeper meaning of life, which we call religion. For the most part, however, the actual experience of a deeper truth is reserved for those who have undertaken a vision quest or who have undergone some life-changing event or recognition. The rest of the people try to maintain the force of the initial experience, or repeat it, through following the tenets and rituals that become associated with that religion.

In the end, however, the practice of religion is also seen to be insufficient for those who have a deeper calling and they take up the quest in what we call spirituality. This is essentially the turning of the being toward the deeper truths of existence for direct, individual experience. We see in today’s world a change as more people leave their religion behind and take up a spiritual seeking. This is a sign of the deeper aspiration that is driving humanity toward its next great stage of realisation and progress.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The spiritual life (adhyatma-jivana), the religious life (dharma-jivana) and the ordinary human life of which morality is a part are three quite different things and one must know which one desires and not confuse the three together. The ordinary life is that of the average human consciousness separated from its own true self and from the Divine and led by the common habits of the mind, life and body which are the laws of the Ignorance. The religious life is a movement of the same ignorant human consciousness, turning or trying to turn away from the earth towards the Divine, but as yet without knowledge and led by the dogmatic tenets and rules of some sect or creed which claims to have found the way out of the bonds of the earth-consciousness into some beatific Beyond. the religious life may be the first approach to the spiritual, but very often it is only a turning about in a round of rites, ceremonies and practices or set ideas and forms without any issue. The spiritual life, on the contrary, proceeds directly by a change of consciousness, a change from the ordinary consciousness, ignorant and separated from its true self and from God, to a greater consciousness in which one finds one’s true being and comes first into direct and living contact and then into union with the Divine. For the spiritual seeker this change of consciousness is the one thing he seeks and nothing else matters.”

“Morality is a part of the ordinary life; it is an attempt to govern the outward conduct by certain mental rules or to form the character by these rules in the image of a certain mental ideal. The spiritual life goes beyond the mind; it enters into the deeper consciousness of the Spirit and acts out of the truth of the Spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, The Integral Yoga and the Ordinary Life, pg. 15

Ordinary Consciousness and Spiritual Consciousness

Our mind and senses are generally turned outwards and we constantly are prodded to pay attention to events, people and circumstances in the outer world. We build up careers, we start families, we entertain ourselves, we satisfy the desires that arise as a result of our interaction with the outer world. This focus is punctuated by major life changes, birth, school, puberty, adult life and its various forms of responsibilities, and then disease, old age and eventually death, for ourselves and our loved ones. This is the cycle of the outer life that occupies us most of the time and we tend to react to it from our own individual ego-personality and its needs, wants, desires and concerns and fears.

Sometimes either an inner call or some outer circumstance, a major life-changing event or disappointment, propels us to seek for a deeper significance to our lives, and we begin to explore the quest of the soul, the spiritual quest and we turn inwards and begin to reflect. Sometimes, in fact most frequently, this has led to a renunciation or distaste for the outer activities of life and many spiritual or religious paths have therefore counseled abandonment of the life of the world to focus on spiritual attainment. It has almost seemed like you can have the one path, or the other, but not find a way to join them.

The Bhagavad Gita took up the question of how the spiritual man could live in the world. Arjuna asked Sri Krishna how he could identify a spiritual man: in the way he acted, the way he spoke, in the things he did. The response was that all activities of life could be taken up, and one could not tell solely by what someone did, but had to look to the motive spring and focus of the inner being in the action. Even fighting a war was not to be denied when the call of the Spirit demanded it.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “I may say briefly that there are two states of consciousness in either of which one can live. One is a higher consciousness which stands above the play of life and governs it; this is variously called the Self, the Spirit or the Divine. The other is the normal consciousness in which men live; it is something quite superficial, an instrument of the Spirit for the play of life. Those who live and act in the normal consciousness are governed entirely by the common movements of the mind and are naturally subject to grief and joy and anxiety and desire or to everything else that makes up the ordinary stuff of life. Mental quiet and happiness they can get, but it can never be permanent or secure. But the spiritual consciousness is all light, peace, power and bliss. If one can live entirely in it, there is no question; these things become naturally and securely his. But even if he can live partly in it or keep himself constantly open to it, he receives enough of this spiritual light and peace and strength and happiness to carry him securely through all the shocks of life. What one gains by opening to this spiritual consciousness, depends on what one seeks from it; if it is peace, one gets peace; if it is light or knowledge, one lives in a great light and receives a knowledge deeper and truer than any the normal mind of man can acquire; if it is strength or power, he gets a spiritual strength for the inner life or Yogic power to govern the outer work and action; if it is happiness, he enters into a beatitude far greater than any joy or happiness that the ordinary human life can give.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, The Integral Yoga and the Ordinary Life, pp. 13-14

The Object of the Integral Yoga

People take up the practices of Yoga with many different objects in mind. Many do so from the viewpoint of the individual ego, seeking for fitness, health, energy, prosperity, fame, or for individual spiritual realisations, spiritual experiences, acquisition of special powers, conquest of death or ultimate salvation. These goals are all based in the ego and are ultimately illusory, as the ego is not an independent actor per se. They all measure the results of Yoga based on the individual’s value scale and judgment.

Sri Aurobindo provides a different viewpoint for the practice of integral Yoga. He shifts the standpoint to the Divine standpoint, which implies that Yoga is taken up in order to align the individual with the Divine Presence and Will, and then act as an instrument of the Divine to fulfill the intentions behind the universal manifestation.

This is not to say that other things will not occur along the way. In his lectures on Raja Yoga, for instance, Swami Vivekananda points out that the very practice of Yoga will inevitably bring along the manifestation of various powers but that the practitioner should not seek for or get lost in these powers, but stay focused on the true object of the practice.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The object of the yoga is to enter into and be possessed by the Divine Presence and Consciousness, to love the Divine for the Divine’s sake alone, to be tuned in our nature into the nature of the Divine, and in our will and works and life to be the instrument of the Divine. Its object is not to be a great yogi or a Superman (although that may come) or to grab at the Divine for the sake of the ego’s power, pride or pleasure. It is not for Moksha though liberation comes by it and all else may come, but these must not be our objects. The Divine alone is our object.”

Sri Aurobindo elucidates further: “The aim of this yoga is, first, to enter into the divine consciousness by merging into it the separative ego (incidentally, in doing so one finds one’s true individual self which is not the limited, vain and selfish human ego but a portion of the Divine) and, secondly, to bring down the supramental consciousness on earth to transform mind, life and body. All else can be only a result of these two aims, not the primary object of the yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, The Integral Yoga and the Ordinary Life, pp. 10-12

The Principle of Integral Yoga

When we look back at the history of the practices of Yoga, we find several lines of development. One is to move the consciousness away from focus on the outer world and its events, activities and insistent occupations to focus entirely on entering a status of unity with the Divine, the Absolute, whether conceived of as unmoving or moving, impersonal or personal. Another line of development, particularly in the field of Hatha Yoga, has been to focus on the capacities of the body to reach stages of flexibility, strength, and contained peace beyond what we normally experience in our physical bodies. The traditional path of knowledge uses development of the intellectual capacities to a highest stage of performance to break through the limits of our normal surface intelligence. The traditional path of devotion uses development of the emotional powers to achieve a purity and power of love and devotion far beyond what we call love in our normal lives. The traditional path of works uses development of action in the world to harness the will toward carrying out a divine impulsion or mandate. The way of works includes numerous humanitarian projects such as feeding the hungry or caring for the sick or elderly. All of these are positive and noble endeavors, clearly, and reflect the idealism and dedication of the practitioners of these traditional paths of development.

The integral Yoga seeks to achieve a total transformation of consciousness. The limitations of our physical, vital, emotional and mental consciousness are to be overcome through a transition of the awareness, first inwardly to create a separation from the surface ego-personality and to come in contact with the psychic entity, the true soul, residing deep within each person, and then acting from the flame of aspiration that characterises the soul to shift the standpoint of consciousness upwards, beyond the mental into what would be to us at this point, supra-mental regions of awareness. As a result of these changes, our way of knowing will be transformed from the intellectual, logical process to a knowing through identity that unifies us with the divine and also provides a new motive and power of action in life.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “…the principle of this Yoga is not perfection of the human nature as it is but a psychic and spiritual transformation of all the parts of the being through the action of an inner consciousness and then of a higher consciousness which works on them, throws out their old movements or changes them into the image of its own and so transmutes lower into higher nature. It is not so much the perfection of the intellect as a transcendence of it, a transformation of the mind, the substitution of a larger greater principle of knowledge — and so with all the rest of the being.”

“This is a slow and difficult process; the road is long and it is hard to establish even the necessary basis. The old existing nature resists and obstructs and difficulties arise one after another and repeatedly till they are overcome. It is therefore necessary to be sure that this is the path to which one is called before one finally decides to tread it.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, The Integral Yoga and the Ordinary Life, pp. 9-10

The One Indispensable Thing

There is considerable confusion about spirituality and spiritual practice. We tend to conflate “good works” with spiritual progress, when in many cases, these good works, while necessary and helpful in the world at large, actually arise from a mental or vital call to action rather than from the Divine as a direct imperative. The first goal in Yoga is to realise the Divine, to shift the consciousness from the human mental, separative and fragmented standpoint to the Divine standpoint. The realisation of the Divine then dictates the type, form and process of any action to be taken up and implemented in the world.

The danger of a mental realisation substituting for the Divine Presence is that it distracts and thereby creates obstacles to the actual needed focus and result. Eventually the mental plan or vital construct winds up in a dead end and is shown to not bring the breakthrough needed to move the Divine manifestation forward.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “To find the Divine is indeed the first reason for seeking the spiritual Truth and the spiritual life; it is the one thing indispensable and all the rest is nothing without it. The Divine once found, to manifest Him, — that is, first of all to transform one’s own limited consciousness into the Divine Consciousness, to live in the infinite Peace, Light, Love, Strength, Bliss, to become that in one’s essential nature and, as a consequence, to be its vessel, channel, instrument in one’s active nature. To bring into activity the principle of oneness on the material plane or to work for humanity is a mental mistranslation of the Truth — these things cannot be the first true object of spiritual seeking. We must find the Self, the Divine, then only can we know what is the work the Self or the Divine demands from us. … As we grow in the inner consciousness, or as the spiritual Truth of the Divine grows in us, our life and action must indeed more and more flow from that, be one with that. But to decide beforehand by our limited mental conceptions what they must be is to hamper the growth of the spiritual Truth within. As that grows we shall feel the Divine Light and Truth, the Divine Power and Force, the Divine Purity and Peace working within us, dealing with our actions as well as our consciousness, making use of them to reshape us into the Divine Image, removing the dross, substituting the pure gold of the Spirit. Only when the Divine Presence is there in us always and the consciousness transformed, can we have the right to say that we are ready to manifest the Divine on the material plane. To hold up a mental ideal or principle and impose that on the inner working brings the danger of limiting ourselves to a mental realisation or of impeding or even falsifying by a halfway formation the true growth into the full communion and union with the Divine and the free and intimate outflowing of His will in our life. … The divinisation of the material life also as well as the inner life is part of what we see as the Divine Plan, but it can only be fulfilled by an outflowing of the inner realisation, something that grows from within outwards, not by the working out of a mental principle.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, The Integral Yoga and the Ordinary Life, pp. 7-8

The True Aim of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga

The experience of a shift in consciousness from the human ego-standpoint to the divine standpoint, and the corresponding change in the direction and focus of action in the world, is not dependent on the form of religious devotion one may adhere to or practice, nor even on a philosophical ideology or any creed, belief system or dogma. It is a matter of actual experience in consciousness. The form of devotion, the exact method of knowledge, the sadhana that one has adopted is incidental and essentially loses its relevance when the consciousness actually shifts. Thus, Sri Aurobindo does not require adherence to a specific religious tradition. Along the way, there are times and circumstances where a specific type of sadhana, spiritual practice, may be helpful, and if such a practice is available to an individual through their traditional religious background, then they can take advantage of that practice for the limited purpose of working through a specific point in the process of change. In the end however, it is not a matter of someone practicing Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism or any other form of religious belief. It is a matter of a shift in consciousness.

Humanity has tried the approach of specific religious doctrines and it has led to conflict and warfare. It is time to move beyond this approach and look to the essential change needed. This also implies that regardless of one’s religious background, one can take up and practice the integral Yoga and work toward the transformation of human consciousness and life.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “This is Sri Aurobindo’s teaching and method of practice. It is not his object to develop any one religion or to amalgamate the older religions or to found any new religion — for any of these things would lead away from his central purpose. The one aim of his Yoga is an inner self-development by which each one who follows it can in time discover the One Self in all and evolve a higher consciousness than the mental, a spiritual and supramental consciousness which will transform and divinise human nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Introduction, pp. 5-6

The Role and Necessity of the Master

In our external life, we rely heavily on the teacher, the master, the leader to guide and help us achieve mastery ourselves in a relatively short period of time. A person’s lifetime is short and the acquisition of skills and powers of action must therefore be prompt and not simply a struggle through trial and error that can take many years, when the methodology and path is already well-known and can be communicated through a process of education, guidance and example. We would not expect anyone to become a brain surgeon, for instance, based on his own “trial and error” process without specific and detailed guidance and assistance provided by experienced experts along the way.

Similarly in the path of yoga, and in particular an integral yoga that seeks not only to escape life, but to transform all aspects of life, the seeker cannot be expected to understand, work through and accomplish all of the intricate steps without substantial assistance in the form of a direct guidance and influence. In yoga the process goes beyond an external teaching or lesson plan to an actual force of consciousness that is at work, that communicates silently and helps tune the consciousness to new levels of awareness and opening to the higher force.

There is a long tradition in yoga about the power of the master. The concept of “shaktipat” where the illumined guru can communicate the consciousness needed to the dedicated seeker is one of long-standing nature. Tibetan Buddhism speaks about the influence of the “gift waves” that the teacher directs to the student to open up insights, capacities, knowledge and actual powers of action.

The inner openness and willingness to receive is something that does not necessarily arise immediately when the seeker takes on the commitments needed for the practice of the yoga. Eventually however the necessity becomes clear to the sincere seeker and progress thereafter can be much swifter as there is now a guide, a path and a protector along the way.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “In this discipline, the inspiration of the Master, and in the difficult stages his control and his presence are indispensable — for it would be impossible otherwise to go through it without much stumbling and error which would prevent all chance of success. The Master is one who has risen to a higher consciousness and being and he is often regarded as its manifestation or representative. He not only helps by his teaching and still more by his influence and example but by a power to communicate his own experience to others.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Introduction, pg. 5

Yoga as Applied Psychology to Change Human Nature

Yoga can be looked at as a form of applied psychology, utilized by the self-aware soul to effect changes in human nature. The various traditional paths of yoga each take up one aspect of the complex human being and work to bring about changes, expansion and development of capacities, of that part of human capability and action. The path of knowledge works to explore and develop the powers of knowledge, to understand the limitations of the current human mentality, to understand also its processes and methods, and to develop ways to overcome the limitations and expand the ability of the seeker to attain true knowledge and overcome the illusory viewpoints that control our normal human mentality. The path of love and devotion opens the heart and provides the seeker with the sublimation of emotion into a wide embrace of all of existence, an intuitive sense of the oneness of all, and the development of compassion as an expression of this intuitive knowledge. The way of works seizes on the active nature and turns works into a consecrated, dedicated form of action that attenuates the ego-personality and the desire-soul, and redirects the energies to carry out the need of the wider creation rather than simply fulfilling the individual egoistic desires, greed and habitual grasping that characterises normal human action.

Any development of a new evolutionary potential, a growth of consciousness, will require these changes of the mind, the heart, the life energy and the bodily instrument as a basis and foundation. Otherwise we remain mired in the limitations of each of the instruments of our human life and no progress is really possible. The development of the supramental consciousness and its manifestation in human life is therefore a succeeding step to the necessary changes wrought by the traditional paths of yoga. The difference between the integral yoga and these traditional paths lies in the goal and the subsequent developments. The goal of integral yoga is not to escape to some other consciousness or world beyond human life, but to manifest the divine progression of evolution here in the world. For a long time, the paths seem to coincide as the preliminary developments work themselves out.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “There are many things belonging to older systems that are necessary on the way — an opening of the mind to a greater wideness and to the sense of the Self and the Infinite, an emergence into what has been called the cosmic consciousness, mastery over the desires and passions; an outward asceticism is not essential, but the conquest of desire and attachment and a control over the body and its needs, greeds and instincts are indispensable. There is a combination of the principles of the old systems, the way of knowledge through the mind’s discernment between Reality and the appearance, the heart’s way of devotion, love and surrender and the way of works turning the will away from motives of self-interest to the Truth and the service of a greater Reality than the ego. For the whole being has to be trained so that it can respond and be transformed when it is possible for that greater Light and Force to work in the nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Introduction, pg. 5

First Steps in the Practice of Yoga

The transformation of the individual is not something that occurs magically overnight. Even if someone is awakened out of their habitual routines by some extraordinary experience, such as a sudden spiritual opening, or even a near death experience, the ongoing effort is still required to bring the vision, the light, the power and the action down into all aspects of mind, life and body, overcoming the strong habits of the past evolution and the acculturation of the society within which one lives. Sri Aurobindo noted in his epic poem Savitri: a Legend and a Symbol: A moment sees, the ages toil to express.”

There must first be a shift of the standpoint from the surface personality to the inner soul-being. This shift allows the practitioner of the yoga some distance from the actions that control and carry out the habits of the daily life. This allows the soul to express more clearly the deeper aspirations that propel the seeker forward in the yoga. As the changes take hold, there is more receptivity and clarity to tune the being toward the higher levels of knowledge and receive them into the being to carry out the needed transformations.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “This, however, cannot be done at once or in a short time or by any rapid or miraculous transformation. Many steps have to be taken by the seeker before the supramental descent is possible. Man lives mostly in his surface mind, life and body, but there is an inner being within him with greater possibilities to which he has to awake — for it is only a very restricted influence from it that he receives now and that pushes him to a constant pursuit of a greater beauty, harmony, power and knowledge. The first process of Yoga is therefore to open the ranges of this inner being and to live from there outward, governing his outer life by an inner light and force. In doing so he discovers in himself his true soul which is not this outer mixture of mental, vital and physical elements but something of the Reality behind them, a spark from the one Divine Fire. He has to learn to live in his soul and purify and orientate by its drive towards the Truth the rest of the nature. There can follow afterwards an opening upward and descent of a higher principle of the Being. But even then it is not at once the full supramental Light and Force. For there are several ranges of consciousness between the ordinary human mind and the supramental Truth-Consciousness. These intervening ranges have to be opened up and their power brought down into the mind, life and body. Only afterwards can the full power of the Truth-Consciousness work in the nature. The process of this self-discipline or Sadhana is therefore long and difficult, but even a little of it is so much gained because it makes the ultimate release and perfection more possible.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Introduction, pp. 4-5

Conscious Evolution

Evolution takes time. Hundreds of millions of years were required to move even small steps forward, as universal “time” does not fit into the “human” time-sense. Humanity measures things in terms of an individual lifespan, and in increments that we have devised from our humanity-centric viewpoint. Thus we speak of generations, and look for change to occur in months, years or decades. Centuries seem like eternity to us, and millennia are beyond our immediate ability to truly understand. So when we speak of the evolutionary process, we need to look at it from a totally different standpoint if we are to appreciate what is taking place. What is “slow” to a human being may be “fast” in the sense of a universal Being manifesting systematically various stages in the expression of consciousness.

At the same time, while not representing overnight change, there is a unique opportunity presented to humanity. The first beings on the planet to be actively self-aware and holding an aspiration for further development of consciousness, which is a sign of our inner essential nature of being, we have the opportunity to apply our conscious efforts to the evolutionary process and thereby potentially speed up the next phase of the manifestation of consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “But while the former steps in evolution were taken by Nature without a conscious will in the plant and animal life, in man Nature becomes able to evolve by a conscious will in the instrument. It is not, however, by the mental will in man that this can be wholly done, for the mind goes only to a certain point and after that can only move in a circle. A conversion has to be made, a turning of the consciousness by which mind has to change into the higher principle. This method is to be found through the ancient psychological discipline and practice of Yoga. In the past, it has been attempted by a drawing away from the world and a disappearance into the height of the Self or Spirit. Sri Aurobindo teaches that a descent of the higher principle is possible which will not merely release the spiritual Self out of the world, but release it in the world, replace the mind’s ignorance or its very limited knowledge by a supramental Truth-Consciousness which will be a sufficient instrument of the inner Self and make it possible for the human being to find himself dynamically as well as inwardly and grow out of his still animal humanity into a diviner race. The psychological discipline of Yoga can be used to that end by opening all the parts of the being to a conversion or transformation through the descent and working of the higher still concealed supramental principle.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Introduction, pp. 3-4