Can Human Beings Change?

We try, as human individuals, to make changes in our lives. Self-help information proliferates, and people try numerous methods to change various habits, cravings and directions in their lives. We have a proverb that it is harder to change human nature than to straighten out a dog’s tail, which implies that, in the end, it is not possible. Strategies we employ include attempting to force change through will-power, suppression of habits we would like to eliminate, and a variety of disciplines that attempt to harness one or another power of our nature to bring about change.

If we observe closely, we can in fact see that change is not only possible, but a part of the human experience. We continue to grow and strive to be more than we are today, and some of the strategies we employ show results. Yet we continue to be plagued by struggles against habits and cravings, pressure to conform to the expectations of our social setting –family, community, society — and confusion about the methods we employ. Suppression, it turns out, may yield short-term apparent results, but generally leads to a return, with more powerful action in many cases, of the action being suppressed. Yo-yo dieting is an example of the failure of artificial suppression. We try to utilize shame, or fear of punishment, or on the flip-side, promised rewards, to bring about change, but all of these have their own down sides in terms of long-term substantive change.

It takes a more precise and deeper understanding of human nature to bring about effective results and one of the first steps is to recognise that we can separate ourselves from our external being and not get caught up in its actions and reactions. This separation allows us to act upon the external nature without being enmeshed and having to struggle to change what we would otherwise identify as our own being, our own personality, a something that makes us “who we are”.

This separation of consciousness also helps us to observe the impact of the surrounding and impinging forces that put pressure on us to respond and conform. The witness consciousness, the separation of our inner being from our external mind, life and body, provides us leverage to recognise the power of these external forces and to thereby limit the influence of those which seek to hold back the necessary progress.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The outer being is a means of expression only, not one’s self. One must not identify with it, for what it expresses is a personality formed by the old ignorant nature. If not identified one can change it so as to express the true inner personality of the Light.”

“The individual is not limited to the physical body — it is only the external consciousness which feels like that. As soon as one gets over this feeling of limitation, one can feel first the inner consciousness which is connected with the body, but does not belong to it, afterwards the planes of consciousness above the body, also a consciousness surrounding the body, but part of oneself, part of the individual being, through which one is in contact with the cosmic forces and with other beings. The last is what I have called the environmental consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Planes of Consciousness and Parts of the Being, pp. 48-51

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