The Role of Free Will in the Surrender of the Ego

Our mental logic frequently stumbles over the apparent contradictions that lead us to adopt an extreme position over a more nuanced view of things. The debate about the role of free will in the processes of the yoga which involve the surrender of the ego to the action of the divine Force is one such area. Some people believe that surrender involves giving up any aspect of free will, and thus, they enter into a very passive state of fatality about what happens and when. The universal manifestation includes an individual aspect as well as a universal aspect so that it has more flexibility and opportunities through the exercise of individual free will. The free will involved is to purposely and purposefully shift or tune the awareness toward the higher divine Force, and to open up the receptivity to its action. If the individual chooses either not to focus, or not to accept the higher Force, then he remains rooted in the desire-soul of the ego-personality and the Force simply abides the decision and passes the individual by while it acts where it finds receptivity. Of course, as we all exist in an interactive universe we are constantly provided new ideas, emotions, feelings and circumstances, so today’s decision may be overridden tomorrow as we approach our situation from a new stance or circumstance.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “All the play in this world is based on a certain relative free will in the individual being. Even in the sadhana it remains and his consent is necessary at each step — even though it is by surrender to the Divine that he escapes from ignorance and separateness and ego, it must be at every step a free surrender.”

“The Divine Grace and Power can do everything, but with the full assent of the sadhak. To learn to give that full assent is the whole meaning of the sadhana. It may take time either because of ideas in the mind, desires in the vital or inertia in the physical consciousness, but these things have to be and can be removed with the aid or by calling in the action of the Divine Force.”

“Certainly, the main stress should be on the Force but the active assent of the sadhak is needed; in certain things his will also may be needed as an instrument of the Force.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 5 Bases of Yoga, Assent, pp. 105-106

Finding the Balance Between Individual Effort and Surrender in the Practice of the Integral Yoga

Practitioners of the integral yoga are confronted daily with the task of balancing between the individual effort required, and the call to surrender to the divine force that actually is undertaking the changes in the nature that are required. We all start with the ego-consciousness and all of the embedded habits, desires, needs and trained ideas that permeate our society and our individual lives. We begin to understand that as long as we live within the frame of the normal functions of mind-life-body we are bound to this ego-personality and the illusion of separateness that comes with it. The issue arises as to how to go about breaking out of this framework and allowing the higher force to operate completely and in an unimpeded manner. Any personal effort, by definition, starts from the basis of the mind-life-body. Since these are not being eliminated nor replaced, they remain operative. What needs to be addressed is the distinction between the ego, the desire-soul and the Self, the true person that is a spark of the Divine. The surrender is a surrender of the ego, and it represents an opening of the human instrument to the divine Force, the divine Shakti, the Mother.

Sri Aurobindo describes the process in his book The Mother, and goes on to amplify it by setting forth the different attitudes that come into play in the course of the spiritual effort by the individual, still encumbered by the ego, yet seeking to disengage and move beyond it.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The effort demanded of the Sadhak is that of aspiration, rejection and surrender. If these three are done the rest is to come of itself by the Grace of the Mother and the working of her force in you. But of the three the most important is surrender of which the first necessary form is trust and confidence and patience in difficulty. There is no rule that trust and confidence can only remain if aspiration is there. On the contrary, when even aspiration is not there because of the pressure of inertia, trust and confidence and patience can remain. If trust and patience fail when aspiration is quiescent, that would mean that the Sadhak is relying solely on his own effort — it would mean, ‘Oh, my aspiration has failed, so there is no hope for me. My aspiration fails, so what can Mother do?’ On the contrary, the Sadhak should feel, ‘Never mind, my aspiration will come back again. Meanwhile I know that the Mother is with me even when I do not feel her; she will carry me even through the darkest period.’ That is the fully right attitude you must have. To those who have it depression can do nothing; even if it comes it has to return baffled. That is not tamasic surrender. Tamasic surrender is when one says, ‘I won’t do anything; let Mother do everything. Aspiration, rejection, surrender even are not necessary. Let her do all that in me.’ There is a great difference between the two attitudes. One is that of the shirker who won’t do anything, the other is that of the Sadhak who does his best, but when he is reduced to quiescence for a time and things are adverse, keeps always his trust in the Mother’s force and presence behind all and by that trust baffles the opposition force and calls back the activity of the Sadhana.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 5 Bases of Yoga, Surrender, pp. 100-105

Personal Effort and Surrender in the Sadhana of the Integral Yoga

The “either/or” limitations of the mental processes leads us generally to believe that spiritual progress either comes with individual effort, or alternatively, through ‘surrender’ of the ego and letting the Divine, or the Guru, bring about the progress. Thus, there are individuals who undertake extreme austerities and concentrated effort, quite certain that these efforts will result in the ultimate realisation, while there are others who preach that such efforts are unnecessary and one must only have devotion and open oneself to the Divine or the Guru to achieve the results.

The reality is, however, that neither of these approaches is totally correct and self-sufficient, and that a much more modulated understanding can be developed that understands the role and place for individual effort as well as the role and necessity of devotion and surrender.

Eventually, the ego-personality needs to be overpassed and subordinated to the Divine Force in action, but along the way, there are many snares and deceptions that the mind and vital ego create for the seeker to appropriate the fruits of the effort and to mislead about the progress. Until that occurs, individual attention and effort are needed to avoid the mistakes caused by the action of either tamas, in the form of laziness or ignorance, or rajas, in the form of self-aggrandisement, desire or ambition, or sattva, in the form of self-satisfied understanding within the limited mental framework that hides the true nature of the Divine Truth from the seeker in the web that the mental understanding weaves.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “In the early part of the sadhana — and by early I do not mean a short part — effort is indispensable. Surrender of course, but surrender is not a thing that is done in a day. The mind has its ideas and it clings to them; the human vital resists surrender, for what it calls surrender in the early stages is a doubtful kind of self-giving with a demand in it; the physical consciousness is like a stone and what it calls surrender is often no more than inertia. it is only the psychic that knows how to surrender and the psychic is usually very much veiled in the beginning. When the psychic awakes, it can bring a sudden and true surrender of the whole being, for the difficulty of the rest is rapidly dealt with and disappears. But till then effort is indispensable. Or else it is necessary till the Force comes flooding down into the being from above and takes up the sadhana, does it for one more and more and leaves less and less to individual effort — but even then, if not effort, at least aspiration and vigilance are needed till the possession of mind, will, life and body by the Divine Power is complete.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 5 Bases of Yoga, Surrender, pp. 100-105

The Practice of Yoga Through Surrender, Self-Giving and Consecration

The challenge faced by the aspirant trying to bring about the action of a new basis of awareness and action, is that continued reliance on the habitual means and methods of mind, life and body, inhibits the free active intervention of this new consciousness. The process of exceeding the framework of the present requires a methodology that shifts the focus and reliance to that new stance and allows it to determine the modus and timing of the steps along the way. The more we try to control the process, the less opportunity we provide for the higher force to act. Sri Aurobindo describes the yogic development based on leaving the past habits behind and relying on the Divine to bring about the evolutionary development in a receptive mind-life-body vessel.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “What I mean by surrender is this inner surrender of the mind and vital. There is, of course, the outer surrender also: the giving up of all that is found to conflict with the spirit or need of the sadhana, the offering, the obedience to the guidance of the Divine, whether directly, if one has reached that stage, or through the psychic or to the guidance of the Guru. “

“The core of the inner surrender is trust and confidence in the Divine. One takes the attitude: ‘I want the Divine and nothing else. I want to give myself entirely to him and since my soul wants that, it cannot be but that I shall meet and realise him. I ask nothing but that and his action in me to bring me to him, his action secret or open, veiled or manifest. I do not insist on my own time and way; let him do all in his own time and way; I shall believe in him, accept his will, aspire steadily for his light and presence and joy, go through all difficulties and delays, relying on him and never giving up. Let my mind be quiet and trust him and let him open it to his light; let my vital be quiet and turn to him alone and let him open it to his calm and joy. All for him and myself for him. Whatever happens, I will keep to this aspiration and self-giving and go on in perfect reliance that it will be done.”

“That is the attitude into which one must grow; for certainly it cannot be made perfect at once — mental and vital movements come across — but if one keeps the will to it, it will grow in the being. The rest is a matter of obedience to the guidance when it makes itself manifest, not allowing one’s mental and vital movements to Interfere.”

“All can be done by the Divine, — the heart and nature purified, the inner consciousness awakened, the veils removed, — if one gives oneself to the Divine with trust and confidence and even if one cannot do so fully at once, yet the more one does so, the more the inner help and guidance come and the experience of the Divine grows within. If the questioning mind becomes less active and humility and the will to surrender grow, this ought to be perfectly possible. No other strength and tapasya are then needed but this alone.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 5 Bases of Yoga, Surrender, pp. 100-105

The Surrender of the Ego-Personality to the Divine

The ego-sense, in its attempt to be in control and glorify in its success, abhors the very idea of “surrender”. The connotation of the term in English is loaded with negative inferences, yet in other languages there are more subtle and deeper meanings to be unlocked. For instance, in Sanskrit, the term atmasamarpanam has the sense of self-offering. Similarly in German, self-surrender translates as ‘selbsthingabe’ which conveys a sense of dedication, commitment or self-offering.

It is essential, however, to recognise that the yogic path of union with the Divine implies a self-exceeding, a breaking out of the limited framework of the usual action of mind-life-body, and this cannot be done if the ego-sense remains predominant in the nature, as it is tied to this mind-life-body complex. The process outlined by Sri Aurobindo to achieve this self-exceeding, is one of ‘aspiration, rejection and surrender’ as he has clearly explained out in his book The Mother. Aspiration shifts the focus away from the ego. Rejection is the process of maintaining the focus away from the forces that reinforce the ego. Surrender is the action of welcoming the Divine Force and its action and accepting it fully in one’s being. It is only with this step that the higher force can actually effect the transformations that are required for the next evolutionary development of consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “There is not much spiritual meaning in keeping open to the Mother if you withhold your surrender. Self-giving or surrender is demanded of those who practice this Yoga, because without such a progressive surrender of the being it is quite impossible to get anywhere near the goal. To keep open means to call in her Force to work in you, and if you do not surrender to it, it amounts to not allowing the Force to work in you at all or else only on condition that it will work in the way you want and not in its own way which is the way of the Divine Truth. A suggestion of this kind is usually made by some adverse Power or by some egoistic element of mind or vital which wants the Grace of the Force, but only in order to use it for its own purpose, and is not willing to live for the Divine Purpose, — it is willing to take from the Divine all it can get, but not to give itself to the Divine. The soul, the true being, on the contrary, turns towards the Divine and is not only willing but eager and happy to surrender.”

“Surrender means to consecreate everything in oneself to the Divine, to offer all one is and has, not to insist on one’s ideas, desires, habits, etc., but to allow the divine Truth to replace them by its knowledge, will and action everywhere.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 5 Bases of Yoga, Surrender, pp. 100-105

The Path of the Integral Yoga

The integral yoga relies on the action of a force of consciousness beyond the mind-life-body complex under which we ordinarily function. This involves a self-exceeding beyond the normal framework. Thus, it cannot be accomplished purely by the action of those powers residing within that framework, the powers of the mind, the powers of the life-force, the powers of the body. Developing the yogic path for such a self-exceeding involves a process of bringing the existing being to a state of receptivity and preparedness to receive the higher force and allow it to carry out its changes in the nature. The more we interfere with our mind’s pre-conceived ideas or limitations, the more we overlay our habitual patterns, our desires and our expectations, the less we allow the higher force to truly act.

Sri Aurobindo describes this as a process of aspiration, rejection and surrender. The aspiration is to turn the being towards the higher force and tune ourselves to receive its impulsions. The rejection involved is to not respond to the normal ideas, pressures and directions of the human existence as we have known it through our past development. The surrender involved is accepting this higher force in our lives and allowing it to act.

Because we are asked to rely on forces outside our normal process, there must be both faith in the action of the higher force, and patience as it acts to review, determine and transform the elements of our nature while working through the complexity and the obstructions it finds along the way.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “In this yoga all depends on whether one can open to the Influence or not. If there is a sincerity in the aspiration and a patient will to arrive at the higher consciousness in spite of all obstacles, then the opening in one form or another is sure to come. But it may take a long or short time according to the prepared or unprepared condition of the mind, heart and body; so if one has not the necessary patience, the effort may be abandoned owing to the difficulty of the beginning. There is no method in this yoga except to concentrate, preferably in the heart, and call the presence and power of the Mother to take up the being and by the workings of her force transform the consciousness; one can concentrate also in the head or between the eyebrows, but for many this is a too difficult opening. When the mind falls quiet and the concentration becomes strong and the aspiration intense, then there is a beginning of experience. The more the faith, the more rapid the result is likely to be. For the rest one must not depend on one’s own efforts only, but succeed in establishing a contact with the Divine and a receptivity to the Mother’s Power and Presence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 5 Bases of Yoga, Opening, pp. 97-100

Developing Receptivity to the Action of the Higher Force for Transformation of the Nature

We turn our attention and focus normally to the needs of the body, the desires and ambitions of the vital being, the impact of perceptions and the thought processes of our minds. Even when we take up a spiritual path, we try to find a practice that may involve the body, the life-energy and / or the mind in carrying out that practice. We try to measure “progress” by a definition that we have set up based on our mental calculus of what the spiritual practices are intended to achieve. All this time, we remain wrapped within the framework of the mind-life-body amalgam and we thereby limit anything new that can come in and effectuate any kind of real or substantial change in the nature.

Since the integral yoga is based on the action of a higher force in the process of manifesting as the next evolutionary stage of development, it is essential that we find a way to come into contact with this Force, and allow it to function, without interference from the mind-life-body complex. Sri Aurobindo thus provides a deceptively simple process which systematically disengages the mind, the life-energy and the body from attachment to their habitual modes of action and opens up a receptivity for the new action to take place. Thus, the mind must become quiet, the vital desires need to be stilled and the body needs to exhibit patient support for the process. This is not to be accomplished through suppression or violent practices that harm or abuse the being, as this creates a tension which locks in the mind-life-body within its frame and thus, actually prevents the full and free receptivity needed to have the higher Force do what it finds necessary. Similarly, impatience is a sign of vital disturbance which once again interferes with the receptivity.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “In this yoga the whole principle is to open oneself to the Divine Influence. It is there above you and, if you can once become conscious of it, you have then to call it down into you. It descends into the mind and into the body as Peace, as a Light, as a Force that works, as the Presence of the Divine with or without form, as Ananda. Before one has this consciousness, one has to have faith and aspire for the opening. Aspiration, call, prayer are forms of one and the same thing and are all effective; you can take the form that comes to you or is easiest to you. The other way is concentration; you concentrate your consciousness in the heart (some do it in the head or above the head) and meditate on the Mother in the heart and call her in there. One can do either and both at different times — whatever comes naturally to you or you are moved to do at the moment. Especially in the beginning the one great necessity is to get the mind quiet, reject at the time of meditation all thoughts and movements that are foreign to the sadhana. In the quiet mind there will be a progressive preparation for the experience. But you must not become impatient, if all is not done at once; it takes time to bring entire quiet into the mind; you have to go on till the consciousness is ready.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 5 Bases of Yoga, Opening, pp. 97-100

Opening the Being to the Divine Power and Presence

A yoga that focuses on opening to a new power of consciousness beyond the mind, and that does not abandon life, but acts to transform it, has to address the issues of the limitations embedded in the existing ‘status quo’ of mind-life-body. The limitations inherent in the operations of these elements circumscribe the progress. In order to transcend the framework within which we operate, we must find a way to access the next power of consciousness and allow it to function and overcome or modify these limitations.

This illustrates why it is not possible to achieve the intended results through practices involving the mind-life-body complex solely. Physical asanas, pranayama, meditation, concentration, various techniques all rely on the operations of the existing manifested powers.

The issue then is how to step beyond the framework of the mind-life-body complex. Sri Aurobindo therefore has presented a methodology of constant aspiration and receptivity that calls upon and opens to the influence and power of the higher stage of conscious evolution which is in the process of manifesting. It is the connection to this Force and the openness to its action, that comprises the method of the integral yoga. Specific techniques may be called upon from time to time as the need arises, but this is under the guidance of that higher Power and its determination of what is needed to break through the resistance or limits of the lower nature.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The sadhana of this yoga does not proceed through any set mental teaching or prescribed forms of meditation, Mantras or others, but by aspiration, by a self-concentration inwards or upwards, by self-opening to an Influence, to the Divine Power above us and its workings, to the Divine Presence in the heart and by rejection of all that is foreign to these things. It is only by faith, aspiration and surrender that this self-opening can come.”

“The object of the self-opening is to allow the force of the Divine to flow in bringing light, peace, Ananda, etc. and to do the work of transformation. When the being so receives the Divine Shakti and it works in him, produces its results (whether he is entirely conscious of the process or not,) then he is said to be open.”

“To be open is simply to be so turned to the Mother that her Force can work in you without anything refusing or obstructing her action. If the mind is shut up in its own ideas and refuses to allow her to bring in the Light and the Truth, if the vital clings to its desires and does not admit the true initiative and impulsions that the Mother’s power brings, if the physical is shut up in its desires, habits and inertia and does not allow the Light and Force to enter in it and work, then one is not open. It is not possible to be entirely open all at once in all the movements, but there must be a central opening in each part and a dominant aspiration or will in each part (not in the mind alone) to admit only the Mother’s ‘workings’, the rest will then be progressively done.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 5 Bases of Yoga, Opening, pp. 97-100

The Way of the Integral Yoga

Many paths of yoga teach a fixed method that everyone who takes it up is asked to follow in a precise and standardized way. Whether it is the use of a fixed set of asanas, pre-determined pranayama routines, set routines of prayer, mantra, japa, or devotional practices, everyone is given essentially the same starting point and are set to reach essentially the same result at the end of the process. For many, this involves the abandonment of the life and motives of the outer world and a focus on spiritual realisation and achievement of states of consciousness, such as samadhi, that unite the seeker with the divine in either a Transcendent, a Universal or an individual Self.

Because the goal of the integral yoga is not simply to depart from the world, but to actually bring down and put into action the higher powers of consciousness in the evolutionary process, to transform the world, not abandon it, such a fixed and uniform method of yogic practice is not feasible. Rather, each individual who takes up this path starts from their own unique circumstances, developed capacities, and limitations. The seeker is then asked to systematically deal with all of the complex elements of the nature, and make each level of being receptive and ready to manifest the new consciousness that is trying to express itself. The number of variables and the complex interaction of these variables in each individual makes this a daunting task that requires awareness, flexibility, adaptability and patience. There is no easy way to simply shut down the elements of mind, life and body to achieve a set form of realisation, when each of these needs to be supported and enhanced, modified to respond to the higher force, and brought into a state of harmony that does not exist in the current configuration of mind-life-body. There is also no way to avoid the interactions in the world and the pressures exerted by the environment. For each individual the specifics of the steps, the path and the working out of the issues and difficulties must necessarily be both varied and quite fluid. The traditional methods and practices may each find their role at a specific juncture of the sadhana of the integral yoga. They may, however, be left aside when a new phase comes into focus.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The way of yoga must be a living thing, not a mental principle or a set method to be stuck to against all necessary variations.”

“What is a perfect technique of yoga or rather of a world-changing or Nature-changing yoga? Not one that takes a man by a little bit of him somewhere, attaches a hook, and pulls him up by a pulley into Nirvana or Paradise. The technique of a world-changing yoga has to be as multiform, sinuous, patient, all-including as the world itself. If it does not deal with all the difficulties or possibilities and carefully deal with each necessary element, has it any chance of success? And can a perfect technique which everybody can understand do that? It is not like writing a small poem in a fixed metre with a limited number of modulations. If you take the poem simile, it is the Mahabharata of a Mahabharata that has to be done. And what, compared with the limited Greek perfection, is the technique of the Mahabharata?”

“The general principle of self-consecration and self-giving is the same for all in this yoga, but each has his own way of consecration and self-giving. The way that X takes is good for X, just as the way that you take is the right one for you, because it is in consonance with your nature. If there were not this plasticity and variety, if all had to be cut in the same pattern, yoga would be a rigid mental machinery, not a living power.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 5 Bases of Yoga, Not a Set Method, pp. 96-97

Integral Yoga: Answering the Call

For many, the idea of Yoga is physical postures and breathing techniques, to attain fitness and flexibility. This is not the whole story, however. Hatha Yoga, which has been popularized world-wide over the last 50 years or so, is one element of the much larger understanding of Yoga which we find in the ancient texts, such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or the Bhagavad Gita. Yoga has a vast range as seen in the practices of Tibetan Yoga, the Vedantic and Tantric traditions, and various spiritual disciplines, many under other names and forms, found in traditions around the world. Yoga means “union” and the underlying idea is to achieve union with the Divine, whether the Transcendent, the Universal or some individual form of the Divine Self. For the most part, Yoga has been focused on self-realisation and for many disciplines, this has implied abandonment of the outer, worldly life in order to focus all one’s attention and energy on the supreme realisation being sought.

The Integral Yoga, however, goes beyond the realisation of the Divine as the goal, as it recognises that there is a divine intention in the manifestation and that this intention is being carried out through Time in an evolutionary process.

None of the paths of Yoga can be considered “easy” because they all involve, one way or another, a change from the ordinary outward looking focus and preoccupation with one’s own desires, life, family, career, success, fame, etc., whether through an austere renunciation, or through a devotional practice or even through works in the world, carried out for a higher purpose, not the satisfaction of one’s ego-desires.

The integral Yoga adds an additional element of difficulty as the seeker cannot simply “cut the knot” of the complex motives, drives, urges, desires, tendencies and limitations of the mind, life and body; rather, the entire mechanism of the life must be taken up, dissected, and rewired to meet the needs of a higher calling and the pressure of the evolutionary force of change. Every detail of one’s life, motivations and mental process eventually comes under the purview of the yogic process.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “this yoga implies not only the realisation of God, but an entire consecration and change of the inner and outer life till it is fit to manifest a divine consciousness and become part of a divine work. This means an inner discipline far more exacting and difficult than mere ethical and physical austerities. One must not enter on this path, far vaster and more arduous than most ways of yoga, unless one is sure of the psychic call and of one’s readiness to go through to the end.”

“When one enters into the true (yogic) consciousness then you see that everything can be done, even if at present only a slight beginning has been made but a beginning is enough, since the Force, the Power are there. It is not really on the capacity of the outer nature that success depends, (for the outer nature all self-exceeding seems impossibly difficult,) but on the inner being and to the inner being all is possible. One has only to get into contact with the inner being and change the outer view and consciousness from the inner; that is the work of the sadhana and it is sure to come with sincerity, aspiration and patience.”

“Nobody is fit for the sadhana — i.e. nobody can do it by his own sole capacity. it is a question of preparing oneself to bring in fully the Force not one’s own that can do it with one’s consent and aspiration.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 5 Bases of Yoga, The Call to Yoga, pp. 95-96