The Self — the Atman and Individual Liberation

One of the primary objectives of traditional paths of yoga has been the liberation from the bondage of the world of illusion, the phantasmagoria of the creation and the individual’s fixation on success and failure, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, happiness and despair that occurs as a result of the ego-personality’s attachment to these transitory results. Historically this has been carried out through an abandonment of the life in the world, adoption of a life of seclusion and acceptance of the circumstances that arise while focusing intensely on freeing the consciousness from the outer attachments and joining the larger Self of the universal creation. A prime example can be seen in the practice of Tibet’s renowned yogi, Milarepa, who practiced intensive meditation in caves in the Himalayas, for the most part naked, and without regular food, subsisting on eating nettles.

For the integral yoga, the liberation from the ego-personality and the snares of attachment remains an important step, although the kind of exclusive abandonment practiced historically is not the preferred path, since this yoga focuses on eventual transformation of the life. True transformation cannot occur, however, when the ego dominates the consciousness and controls the understanding and action of the being.

The experience of the liberation of the consciousness is palpable and creates a new standpoint and sense of union that is not there in the normal life and awareness of the individual. From this standpoint, the life in the world can seem, particularly in the beginning, as a form of illusion or maya, a show or external play that is ephemeral and ever-changing, while the experience of the Self is one of infinity, a deep sense of peace and wide embracing of the entire existence as one.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “It is an experience of the extension of consciousness. In yoga experience the consciousness widens in every direction, around, below, above, in each direction stretching to infinity. When the consciousness of the yogi becomes liberated, it is not in the body, but in this infinite height, depth, and wideness that he lives always. Its basis is an infinite void or silence, but in that all can manifest — Peace, Freedom, Power, Light, Knowledge, Ananda. This consciousness is usually called the consciousness of the Self or Atman, for it is a pure existence or self that is the source of all things and contains all things.”

“The Self is being, not a being. By Self is meant the conscious essential existence, one in all.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Consciousness of the Self, pp. 181-184


Understanding the Inner Being

As long as we remain on the surface of our being, and rely entirely on the physical senses and the nervous system of the vital being and the mental processes focused on these outer sensations, actions and phenomena, the inner depths of our being remain hidden from us, occult, and not quite treated as real.

Western researchers, including notable C.G. Jung, dedicated their life work to coming into contact with the inner realms of being and identifying how these inner planes impacted our outer life. As a result of his research, Jung determined there was a ‘collective unconscious’ that had a storehouse of images and experiences which secretly acted upon the outer nature. There are many in traditional cultures who go on what are sometimes called “vision quests” where they seek to leave behind the surface perceptions and experience realms that operate to influence and control the outer life, but which remain, for the most part, unseen. Yogis and sages, through the processes of meditation and yogic practices, have sought to contact this inner realm of being and shift the standpoint there.

The surface consciousness has very little, if any, direct appreciation of the occult forces at work to shape its perceptions and actions. It is influenced by forces that work indirectly in many cases. The inner being is in touch with these forces and has the ability to see them at work and respond to them directly. Some people, who are sensitive and attuned to the inner being, can sense other beings nearby, can sense vital forces impinging upon them, and can experience thoughts entering from outside. The practice of yoga, which is a form of applied psychology, can open the individual to an appreciation of these inner realms.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The inner being is composed of the inner mental, the inner vital, the inner physical. The psychic is the inmost supporting all the others. Usually it is in the inner mental that this separation first happens and it is the inner mental Purusha who remains silent, observing the Prakriti as separate from himself. But it may also be the inner vital Purusha or inner physical or else without location simply the whole Purusha consciousness separate from the whole Prakriti. Sometimes it is felt above the head, but then it is usually spoken of as the Atman and the realisation is that of the silent Self.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Witness Consciousness, pp. 179-181

The Transitional Stage of Shifting from the Outer Surface Consciousness to the Inner Consciousness

At a certain stage of spiritual development, seekers tend to go through a phase where the world, its actions, objects, goals and results seem to be an illusion. The philosophical path of Mayavada resulted from just such an insight and experience. The seeker sees that everything is transitory and ephemeral in nature, that the objects of our desires and the fruits of our actions all crumble into dust and are not permanent. Everything changes and dies. There is nothing one can hold onto in the world that is not subject to death and dissolution. Buddhism has also clearly enunciated a similar position in the exposition of the four noble truths, which, when contemplated, are intended to liberate the individual from attachment to the world.

Mayavada did not arise from some abstract reasoning process, but from an experience of the transitory nature of existence. Sri Aurobindo has added his insight to show that this is part of a process of moving the consciousness inwards from the surface being, and at a certain stage the feeling and experience makes the outer world seem unreal. This temporary stage allows the development of non-attachment to the objects of the world, and thereby provides an opening for the inner connection to be developed. At a later stage, this new standpoint can provide the guidance to the outer nature and manage the transformation process.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The condition in which all movements become superficial and empty with no connection with the soul is a stage in the withdrawal from the surface consciousness to the inner consciousness. When one goes into the inner consciousness, it is felt as a calm, pure existence without any movement, but eternally tranquil, unmoved and separate from the outer nature. This comes as a result of detaching oneself from the movements, standing back from them and is a very important movement of the sadhana. The first result of it is an entire quietude but afterwards that quietude begins (without the quietude ceasing) to fill with the psychic and other inner movements which create a true inner and spiritual life behind the outer life and nature. it is then easier to govern and change the latter.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Witness Consciousness, pp. 179-181

The Emergence of the Witness Purusha

The recognition of the separation of the Purusha, the inner witness consciousness and the Prakriti, the active nature that operates in the mind, life and body, is an important step in the practice of yoga, whether for total abandonment of the outer world and liberation of the being, or as an essential phase in the eventual transformation of the nature to take up and manifest the divine intention without the distortions caused by the ego-consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo describes the experience of the emergence of the Purusha, and its potential to change the direction and scope of action of the Prakriti. He also reminds the seeker that the transformation process is not one that can occur overnight, as the body-life-mind complex is bound by habitual patterns of long-standing nature, and this is actually amplified by the corresponding habits in the society and in material nature itself. All of these embedded patterns were developed for a reason over time, and they have an incredible amount of inertia that makes them hard to shift into a new direction or mode of action.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The consciousness you speak of would be described in the Gita as the witness Purusha. The Purusha or basic consciousness is the true being or at least, in whatever plane it manifests, represents the true being. But in the ordinary nature of man it is covered up by the ego and the ignorant play of the Prakriti and remains veiled behind as the unseen Witness supporting the play of the Ignorance. When it emerges, you feel it as a consciousness behind, calm, central, unidentified with the play which depends upon it. It may be covered over, but it is always there. The emergence of the Purusha is the beginning of liberation. But it can also become slowly the Master — slowly because the whole habit of the ego and the play of the lower forces is against that. Still it can dictate what higher play is to replace the lower movement and then there is the process of that replacement, the higher coming, the lower struggling to remain and push away the higher movement. You say rightly that the offering to the Divine shortens the whole thing and is more effective, but usually it cannot be done completely at once owing to the past habit and the two methods continue together until the complete surrender is possible.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Witness Consciousness, pp. 179-181

Understanding the Witness Consciousness — the Separation of Purusha and Prakriti

We tend to identify with the perceptions, sensations, desires, feelings and thoughts we experience and through the ego-consciousness, we take ownership of them and believe that they are what makes up our unique individuality. When we sit quietly, and turn our attention away from the outer world, we experience the internal dialogue that takes place as we process all of these impinging forces and their impact on our brain and nervous system. We remain identified with them. Those who tend to be less outgoing, whom we call introverted, remain focused on the external world and its pressures, and their internal process remains very much the same, focused on the thoughts, feelings, etc. related to their ego-personality. None of this represents the ‘witness consciousness’ that Sri Aurobindo describes.and which develops from the separation of Purusha and Prakriti as found in the traditional teachings of the Sankhya.

The Separation of Purusha and Prakriti actually implies that both the external actions and reactions, and the internal review and dialogue that occurs are seen as “external” and separate from the inner being. The Purusha observes but does not get involved nor attached to any of the actions of Prakriti. Prakriti includes both the outer and the inner activity. The Shwetashwatara Upanishad states “Two winged birds cling about a common tree, comrades, yoke-fellows; and one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, the other eats not, but watches.” This more or less describes the relation of the witness consciousness to the active external nature.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is not possible to distinguish the psychic being at first. What has to be done is to grow conscious of an inner being which is separate from the external personality and nature — a consciousness or Purusha calm and detached from the outer actions of the Prakriti.”

“There is a stage in the sadhana in which the inner being begins to awake. Often the first result is the condition made up of the following elements: 1. A sort of witness attitude in which the inner consciousness looks at all that happens as a spectator or observer observing things but taking no active interest or pleasure in them. 2. A state of neutral equanimity in which there is neither joy nor sorrow, only quietude. 3. A sense of being something separate from all that happens, observing it but not part of it. 4. An absence of attachment to things, people or events.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Witness Consciousness, pp. 179-181

The Need to Open and Bring Forward the Inner Psychic Being

Humanity has tried countless ways to solve the existential questions and crises that we face living in the world around us and interacting with all other beings who share the space with us. Religion, law, social development, economic development, technology, and others have each had their chance to uplift human existence. Yet, we find that each attempt faces limitations that prove that the solution is not in these things. Human nature itself is found to have its weaknesses and limitations, and habitual modes of acting and reacting, and we find that as long as human nature has not changed, we remain essentially the same, facing the same problems, with ever-increasing risks and stakes involved as we enhance our technological capability to effect change in the outer world.

Sages and seers throughout history have counseled that nothing can really be effectively changed without a change in human nature. But how do we go about changing human nature? As long as we live in the surface consciousness of our body-life-mind complex, controlled through the ego-personality, we are bound to remain within the limitations of that formulation.

Sri Aurobindo provides a solution and a methodology for the change of human nature that is required. He explains that there is not only our outer surface being and personality, but also an inner being which is the true central force and guide of our life trajectory. When this inner being takes up an active role and begins to make itself felt in the outer being, an aspiration arises to transcend the limits of the outer life and the true spiritual quest begins. The essential step involves a triple transformation: the psychic transformation which puts the individual in touch with his soul and the soul’s aspiration and opens the inner being; the spiritual transformation which links the individual with the universal and transcendent aspects of existence and the oneness of all creation, and the supramental transformation which brings about the shift of standpoint that releases the higher levels of consciousness into action in the human instrument and the world with which we interact.

The psychic transformation brings forth the flame of aspiration and devotion, the contact with the inner psychology, the inner mind, vital and physical that are receptive to the pure action of the forces that operate at each of these levels or planes, and reduces or eliminates the role of the ego-personality so that it no longer can control the direction of the being’s development in life and in relation to the rest of the creation.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “It is equally important for those who want that union with the Divine without which the transformation is impossible. The aspiration could not be realised if you remained bound by your external self, tied to the physical mind and its petty movements. It is not the outer being which is the source of the spiritual urge; the outer being only undergoes the inner drive from behind the veil. it is the inner psychic being in you that is the bhakta, the seeker after the union and the Ananda, and what is impossible for the outer nature left to itself becomes perfectly possible when the barrier is down and the inner self in the front. For, the moment this comes strongly to the front or draws the consciousness powerfully into itself, peace, ecstasy, freedom, wideness, the opening to light and a higher knowledge begin to become natural, spontaneous, often immediate in their emergence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Inward Movement, pp. 174-179

Spiritual Experiences Are Real

For the individual who has a spiritual experience, one of the most notable characteristics is the absolute and incontrovertible ‘reality’ of the experience. Yet, people who live primarily in the surface consciousness tend to treat such experiences, when related, as somehow less real or even unreal, compared to the experience of the outer world. Terms such as dream, hallucination, or delusion frequently are used, and in many cases, the person having such inner experiences is lumped in with those who require some form of counseling or mental health support.

Sometimes the experiences take the form of an action in some other world or plane, particularly in a subtle physical, vital or inner mental plane, where events take place and work themselves out somewhat differently than in the outer world. Some of the vital planes may in fact transcribe themselves to the individual in something of a dreamlike character as to sequence or interaction within the experience.

Several points must be kept in mind. First, the experience of the outer world itself can take on the sense of being a phantasmagoria with no ultimate provable reality. We do not experience the outer world directly, but through interaction through senses which relay signals to the mind, which then goes ahead and interprets them. The same outer circumstance may indeed be perceived differently by different individuals based on the acuity of their senses, the clarity of the reception, and the filter and interpretation placed by the mind. Using the criteria so often cited by those who live in the surface consciousness upon the spiritual experiences of others, the outer world would suffer the same analytical result.

The second point is that our surface being is strictly limited as to the type of things it can actually perceive or relate to, and we constantly are finding that we have to correct our understanding of the world as our knowledge becomes more subtle and our capacity to measure and identify increases. Many things which make little or no sense when viewed purely from the outer consciousness suddenly gain real significance when viewed from the spiritual viewpoint. The existence of other worlds, other planes of existence, and other forces or beings who inhabit and act on these planes is something that science today is beginning to appreciate, and theories such as multiple universes, string theory etc. are developments taking the scientist into the realm already trod by the spiritual explorer. It is also true that we are not strictly limited to the outer surface body-life-mind complex, but ourselves act and interact on these subtler inner levels of consciousness and existence.

A third point is that spiritual experiences, which present themselves with an overwhelming sense of greater reality than the outer world to those who experience them, tend to change the way the individual responds, thinks, acts, feels and perceives things. This shows us the power and reality of this experience, in that it has the ability to change the life of the seeker. For the practitioner of the integral yoga, which recognises that the transformative forces which are in the processing of manifesting into the physical world actually have their source in other planes of existence, it is important to understand these forces and the planes from which they act upon the seeker.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The sadhak must understand that these experiences are not mere imaginations or dreams but actual happenings, for even when, as often occurs, they are formations only of a wrong or misleading or adverse kind, they have still their power as formations and must be understood before they can be rejected and abolished. Each inner experience is perfectly real in its own way, although the values of different experiences differ greatly, but it is real with the reality of the inner self and the inner planes. It is a mistake to think that we live physically only, with the outer mind and life. We are all the time living and acting on other planes of consciousness, meeting others there and acting upon them, and what we do and feel and think there, the forces we gather, the results we prepare have an incalculable importance and effect, unknown to us, upon our outer life. Not all of it comes through, and what comes through takes another form in the physical — though sometimes there is an exact correspondence; but this little is at the basis of our outward existence. All that we become and do and bear in the physical life is prepared behind the veil within us. It is therefore of immense importance for a yoga which aims at the transformation of life to grow conscious of what goes on within these domains, to be master there and be able to feel, know and deal with the secret forces that determine our destiny and our internal and external growth or decline.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Inward Movement, pp. 174-179

Understanding and Bridging the Gap Between the Outer Surface Existence and the Inner Being

The Upanishads describe an aspect of reality that is generally blocked from the external awareness of the body-life-mind complex. The Isha Upanishad states: “The face of Truth is covered with a brilliant golden lid; that do thou remove, O Fosterer, for the law of the Truth, for sight.” (Isha Upanishad, verse 15, translation by Sri Aurobindo in The Upanishads). The Taittiriya Upanishad describes a series of successively more subtle sheaths of consciousness, starting with the outermost material sheath, then moving to the vital sheath, the mental sheath, the supramental or knowledge sheath and the bliss sheath. Our normal awareness, focused on the external being and the world within which it moves, does not normally have full and direct conscious awareness of the hidden depths and breadths of reality.

Yogic practitioners, seeking to understand these depths of existence, find that they must transcend the outer consciousness in order to enter into these other realms or levels of awareness. There is, however, a gap that must be bridged and the characteristics of those other levels of reality are so different from normal experience, that our outer individuality has a difficult time either transcribing the experience, or describing it. This leads to various results. First, the entry into these alternative states of consciousness may only come about, at least initially, in a state of yogic trance, Samadhi. When the seeker returns to the outer surface being he is unable to fully comprehend or describe what occurred or what was experienced, and thus, there is a disconnect between the outer reality and the inner reality. This is one of the reasons that the sages have held that the day of the person living primarily in the surface being is the night for the yogi, and vice versa.

Another issue arises as the seeker enters into the realms of the inner consciousness. At a certain point, the ego-personality fears its extinction and transcribes this as impending death. The fear of death can then pull the seeker out of the inner awareness and back into the surface being. The mode of existence, knowledge and action also is different in the inner and more subtle realms and the being, coming from a habitual understanding based on the surface, outer existence, may find things disorienting. All of these things lead to somewhat confused or garbled attempts to understand, integrate and describe the experience of the subtle existence of the inner planes of consciousness. The individual may either not actively remember what occurred, or may conclude it was some kind of dream, or transcribe it in some inaccurate manner using the language and imagery that is familiar.

Eventually, with repeated experience, a linkage can be built so that there is a free and open communication and interchange between the surface and the inner being. At this point, the influence of the inner consciousness can begin to make itself felt overtly and take over the guidance of the outer being.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Last comes crossing of the border. It is not a falling asleep or a loss of consciousness, for the consciousness is there all the time; only it shifts from the outer and physical, becomes closed to external things and recedes into the inner psychic and vital part of the being. There it passes through many experiences and of these some can and should be felt in the waking state also; for both movements are necessary, the coming out of the inner being to the front as well as the going in of the consciousness to become aware of the inner self and nature. But for many purposes the ingoing movement is indispensable. Its effect is to break or at least to open and pass the barrier between this outer instrumental consciousness and that inner being which it very partially strives to express, and to make possible in future a conscious awareness of all the endless riches of possibility and experience and new being and new life that lie untapped behind the veil of this small and very blind and limited material personality which men erroneously think to be the whole of themselves. it is the beginning and constant enlarging of this deeper and fuller and richer awareness that is accomplished between the inward plunge and the return from this inner world to the waking state.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Inward Movement, pp. 174-179

Results of Spiritual Development in the Consciousness

Just as we cannot see electricity, but we can observe its results, or we cannot see the mental process objectively (although one can indeed observe thoughts processing internally), but we can see its impact in the world, so with the spiritual development, which is more subtle than the mental power, the observation is truly based on changes that take place for the individual in both the perception of one’s own being, body-life-mind, and the way one responds to events, circumstances and perceptions. There can be physical sensations that occur, and for some, the departure of the awareness from the body to a point outside the body is one of the more disorienting results that can occur. People who have had this experience report being able to stand outside or look down upon their body, and observe it in its immobile state, in some cases with people trying to deal with a suddenly unconscious physical existence in their presence!

Less ‘exciting’ but probably more important, seekers often see the results of the spiritual changes through a new way of dealing with and responding to pressures and circumstances. They may experience a new sense of peace or contentment where formerly they may have erupted in anger or anxiety. Or they may feel a new wideness and unity with a larger existence that expands far beyond what they have formerly considered to be their individual being. They may experience new streams of inspiration or a sense of intuition, or even the awakening of new capacities or talents, sometimes creative and sometimes in being able to understand and deal with people in a new way.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The movement of ascension has different results; it may liberate the consciousness so that one feels no longer in the body, but above it or else spread in wideness with the body either almost non-existent or only a point in one’s free expanse. It may enable the being or some part of the being to go out from the body and move elsewhere, and this action is usually accompanied by some kind of partial samadhi or else a complete trance. Or, it may result in empowering the consciousness, no longer limited by the body and the habits of the external nature, to go within, to enter the inner mental depths, the inner vital, the inner (subtle) physical, the psychic, to become aware of its inmost psychic self or its inner mental, vital and subtle physical being and, it may be, to move and live in the domains, the planes, the worlds that correspond to these parts of the nature. It is the repeated and constant ascent of the lower consciousness that enables the mind, the vital, the physical to come into touch with the higher planes up to the supramental and get impregnated with their light and power and influence. And it is the repeated and constant descent of the Divine Consciousness and its Force that is the means for the transformation of the whole being and the whole nature. Once this descent becomes habitual, the Divine Force, the Power of the Mother, begins to work, no longer from above only or from behind the veil, but consciously in the Adhara itself, and deals with its difficulties and possibilities and carries on the yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Inward Movement, pp. 174-179

Experience and Signs of Spiritual Development in the Consciousness

When we experience something in the physical body, it is a sensation that carries a nervous impulse to the brain, which interprets whether it is cold or hot, dry or wet, painful or pleasurable, etc. Similarly, vital reactions and emotions are experienced through the release of various hormones into the bloodstream which travel to the brain and create the vital experience. When the mind is active, various parts of the brain become activated through the release of neuro-transmitters which activate various nerve pathways and thereby create the sense of memory, creative imagination, will, or thought that indicates an active mental process. We cannot “see” any of these reactions or experiences but we trust them through training and habit to be real and meaningful for our individual life processes and decision-making skills. Humanity has also created a collective understanding of shared experience and thus, we determine the reality of the physical, vital and mental experiences based on this shared experience.

When it comes to spiritual experience, therefore, the issue is not that we perceive it in some totally different way, but that the experience itself is something that goes outside our normal, habitual bounds for what the body, life and mind accept as normal and usual. Some of these experiences are very much felt in a physical way, such as the descent of a force from above, while others are more subtle such as the feeling of a deep peace overwhelming the being, or a spontaneous uprush of adoration or devotion. The experience of the Kundalini energy has been reported to be something that is physically palpable. One of the primary characteristics of spiritual experiences, in fact, is the absolute authenticity with which they present themselves to the awareness. Some may be very intense, some may be overwhelming, while others are quite subtle in their action, but all of them are incontrovertibly real to those who experience them. Another factor to consider is that spiritual experiences have been reported independently, throughout the world, throughout humanity’s history, and collectively there is a body of evidence that validates the reality of these experiences, taking them outside the realm of pure subjectivity without an external basis.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “This inward movement takes place in many different ways and there is sometimes a complex experience combining all the signs of the complete plunge. There is a sense of going in or deep down, a feeling of the movement towards inner depths; there is often a stillness, a pleasant numbness, a stiffness of the limbs. This is the sign of the consciousness retiring from the body inwards under the pressure of a force from above, — that pressure stabilising the body into an immobile support of the inner life, in a kind of strong and still spontaneous asana. There is a feeling of waves surging up, mounting to the head, which brings an outer unconsciousness and an inner waking. It is the ascending of the lower consciousness in the Adhara to meet the greater consciousness above. It is a movement analogous to that on which so much stress is laid in the Tantric process, the awakening of the Kundalini, the Energy coiled up and latent in the body and its mounting through the spinal cord and the centres (cakras) and the Brahmarandhra to meet the Divine above. In our yoga it is not a specialised process, but a spontaneous uprush of the whole lower consciousness sometimes in currents or waves, sometimes in a less concrete motion, and on the other side a descent of the Divine Consciousness and its Force into the body. This descent is felt as a pouring in of calm and peace, of force and power, of light, of joy and ecstasy, of wideness and freedom and knowledge, of a Divine Being or a Presence — sometimes one of these, sometimes several of them or all together.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Inward Movement, pp. 174-179