The Necessity of Transformation of the Lower Vital Nature

If the goal of the spiritual seeker is to attain liberation or realisation, the vital nature can be, for the most part, disregarded. For an integral yoga that has transformation of life through the implementation of the next phase of the evolutionary cycle, such a direction cannot be accepted. At some point, the intractable human nature needs to be viewed, managed, controlled and eventually transformed to respond to the higher consciousness and force directly and devote itself in its entirety to the direction laid down by that higher consciousness.

While most people consider it to be a fixed and unchangeable basis of our existence, the vital being has already shown that under the pressure of the mental energy it can be modified. While this does not attain to the status of complete transformation, and while it has its own impact upon the mental nature, we can nevertheless understand the possibility of change exists. Sri Aurobindo’s approach is to call in the action of the higher consciousness-force to effectuate levels of change that are not possible for the mental being alone.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The cardinal defect, that which has been always standing in the way and is now isolated in an extreme prominence, is seated or at least is at present concentrated in the lower vital being. I mean that part of the vital-physical nature with its petty and obstinate egoism which actuates the external human personality, — that which supports its surface thoughts and dominates its habitual ways of feeling, character and action. I am not concerned here with the other parts of the being and I do not speak of anything in the higher mind, the psychic self or the higher and larger vital nature; for, when the lower vital rises, these are pushed into the background, if not covered over for the time, by this lower vital being and this external personality. Whatever there may be in these higher parts, aspiration to the Truth, devotion, or will to conquer the obstacles and the hostile forces, it cannot become integral, it cannot remain unmixed or unspoilt or continue to be effective so long as the lower vital and the external personality have not accepted the Light and consented to change.”

“It was inevitable that in the course of the sadhana these inferior parts of the nature should be brought forward in order that like the rest of the being they may make the crucial choice and either accept or refuse transformation. My whole work depends upon this movement; it is the decisive ordeal of this yoga. For the physical consciousness and the material life cannot change if this does not change. Nothing that may have been done before, no inner illumination, experience, power or Ananda is of any eventual value, if this is not done. If the little external personality is to persist in retaining its obscure and limited, its petty and ignoble, its selfish and false and stupid human consciousness, this amounts to a flat negation of the work and the sadhana. I have no intention of giving my sanction to a new edition of the old fiasco, a partial and transient spiritual opening within with no true and radical change in the law of the external nature. If, then, any sadhak refuses in practice to admit this change or if he refuses even to admit the necessity for any change of his lower vital being and his habitual external personality, I am entitled to conclude that, whatever his professions, he has not accepted either myself or my yoga….”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Vital, pp. 246-259

A Settled Peace in the Being and a Fixed Resolution in the Mind Aid in the Transformation of the Vital

In ancient Greek mythology, there is the tale of the 12 labours of Hercules, one of which was cleaning out the Augean stables. He needed to accomplish this task in one day, but there were so many cattle that it was considered an impossible task. And every day the mess was renewed after the cattle returned from pasture in the evening. Hercules was undaunted as he had the help of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. He made a hole on each end of the stables and dug trenches that allowed a river to flow into and out of the stable. He used the flow of clean water to clear out the muck and succeeded in his task.

It is easy to be fixated on the difficulty of the task of sorting out and cleaning up the various vital energies of the being, but the more we fixate on dealing with them on their own level, the less chance we have of success. This is where the power of the receptive mind can aid the seeker by bringing new, wide understanding and insight, and thereby also supporting the descent of peace, rather than agitation, in the work to be done at the vital level.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The one thing necessary is to arrive at a fixed and definite choice in the mind which one can always oppose to the vital disturbance. Disturbance in the vital will always come so long as the full peace has not descended there, but with a fixed resolution in the mind kept always to the front the acuteness of the disturbance can disappear and the road become shorter.”

“If you get peace, then to clean the vital becomes easy. If you simply clean and clean and do nothing else, you go very slowly — for the vital gets dirty again and has to be cleaned a hundred times. The peace is something that is clean in itself, so to get it is a positive way of securing your object. To look for dirt only and clean is the negative way.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Vital, pp. 246-259

Vital Disturbances Arise from Universal Nature and Bring Forth Habitual Responses

In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo explores the boundaries of the Ignorance and a framework for attaining knowledge. He describes at some length, the ‘circumconscient’ influence on what we believe are our own internal actions and reactions. We view ourselves through the ego-consciousness and believe we are different and separate from the universal manifestation. Yet, we are formed by, and respond according to, the forces active in the wider creation. The ego represents a nexus or standpoint, but it does not originate the energies that are active. One of the implications of this is that the struggles the sadhak faces with the vital movements are not actually his own issues, but are forces that impinge from outside and call forth the habitual responses. To the extent the seeker can distance himself from taking personal “ownership” of these responses, the easier it is to reject them when they try to enter and take over the being.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “In fact all these ignorant vital movements originate from outside in the ignorant universal Nature; the human being forms in his superficial parts of being, mental, vital, physical, a habit of certain responses to these waves from outside. It is these responses that he takes as his own character (anger, desire, sex etc.) and thinks he cannot be otherwise. But that is not so; he can change. There is another consciousness deeper within him, his true inner being, which is his real self, but is covered over by the superficial nature. This the ordinary man does not know, but the yogi becomes aware of it as he progresses in his sadhana. As the consciousness of this inner being increases by sadhana, the surface nature and its responses are pushed out and can be got rid of altogether. But the ignorant universal Nature does not want to let go and throws the old movements on the sadhak and tries to get them inside again; owing to a habit the superficial nature gives the old responses. If one can get the firm knowledge that these things are from outside and not a real part of oneself, then it is easier for the sadhak to repel such returns, or if they lay hold, he can get rid of them sooner. That is why I say repeatedly that these things rise not in yourself, but from outside.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Vital, pp. 246-259

Vital Movements Rising Up During the Practice of the Yoga

Every individual has all the long-established vital movements embedded deep in the nature. When the force of the yoga begins to open up the various energy centers, particularly the vital centers, these movements are stirred and use the opportunity to capitalize on the new energy and try to fulfill themselves. It is essential that the vital centers open to the action of the higher force, and it is quite common that the seeker will have to face the pressure of these lower movements trying to overwhelm him as this occurs. This can take many forms, including the rising of anger, frustration, sexual impulses, greed for food or accumulation of wealth, etc. The sadhak, who has been focused on the spiritual principles is sometimes caught quite unawares when these things suddenly arise, and does not always know what to do, where this is coming from or how to address the issues. In some cases, it leads the seeker to identify it with himself and believe that it is an incapacity or deficiency in himself that leads to it. Sri Aurobindo makes it clear that, on the contrary, this is a more universal phenomenon and should not be looked at as a personal failure. The more the seeker can disassociate from personal ‘ownership’ of the movements, the easier it will be to address these forces and bring them under proper management, redirecting the energy into the proper channels and avoiding or overcoming the old movements as they try to arise.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The exacerbation of certain vital movements is a perfectly well-known phenomenon in yoga and does not mean that one has degenerated, but only that one has come to close grips instead of to a pleasant nodding acquaintance with the basic instincts of the earthly vital nature. I have had myself the experience of this rising to a height, during a certain stage of the spiritual development, of things that before hardly existed and seemed quite absent in the pure yogic life. These things rise up like that because they are fighting for their existence — they are not really personal to you and the vehemence of their attack is not due to any ‘badness’ in the personal nature. I dare say seven sadhaks out of ten have a similar experience. Afterwards when they cannot effect their object which is to drive the sadhak out of his sadhana, the whole thing sinks and there is no longer any vehement trouble. I repeat that the only serious thing about it is the depression created in you and the idea of inability in the yoga that they take care to impress on the brain when they are at their work. If you can get rid of that, the violence of the vital attacks is only the phenomenon of a stage and does not in the end matter.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Vital, pp. 246-259

Making the Vital Being an Instrument of the Divine Shakti

The idea of changing the basic way that human beings respond to circumstances is one that has been considered to be a virtually hopeless task. Long human experience has provided the impression that our vital nature is fixed and, while we can perhaps soften it around the edges, it is basically impossible to change. Thus, there are various directions that humanity has explored to overcome the limitations of the vital being. One of these has been to simply avoid the issue, restrict the focus on the vital, and focus instead on the religious or spiritual focus that leads away from an active life in the world. Another approach has been developed to educate, refine and modify the vital nature to some degree. In this approach it still retains the basic drives and actions of the vital, but these are kept within limits and made to be less overtly abrasive in interactions in the world. A third approach is one of active suppression and ‘punishment’ to try to bring it in line with the goals of the seeker. This approach, however, tends to increase the intensity of the vital pressure and can indeed lead to explosions of vital outbursts when the pressure becomes more intense than the being can hold.

Sri Aurobindo notes that the active involvement and cooperation of the vital is essential for the transformation of life which is one of the goals of the integral yoga. A little cultural refinement is not going to be sufficient to achieve the needed changes. Neither will deep suppression of the vital being and its energies suffice. A complete transformation of the vital’s expression, the application of energy, the motives involved, and the manner of its expression is the needed transformation. Despite past historical failures to change human nature, Sri Aurobindo reminds us that these failures were rooted in the attempt to use the mind and the emotional-vital forces directly to change the nature; whereas with the advent of the psychic transformation and the spiritual transformation, new higher powers of consciousness come into play which can effectuate those changes which the mental insight and will power alone cannot accomplish.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The vital is an indispensable instrument — no creation or strong action is possible without it. It is simply a question of mastering it and of converting it into the true vital which is at once strong and calm and capable of great intensity and free from ego.”

“It is through a change in the vital that the deliverance from the blind vital energy must come — by the emergence of the true vital which is strong, wide, at peace, a willing instrument of the Divine and of the Divine alone.”

“The human vital is almost always of that nature, but that is no reason why one should accept it as an unchangeable fact and allow a restless vital to drive one as it likes. Even apart from yoga, in ordinary life, only those are considered to have full manhood or are likely to succeed in their life, their ideals or their undertakings who take in hand this restless vital, concentrate and control it and subject it to discipline. It is by the use of the mental will that they discipline it, compelling it to do not what it wants but what the reason or the will sees to be right or desirable. In yoga one uses the inner will and compels the vital to submit itself to tapasya so that it may become calm, strong, obedient — or else one calls down the calm from above obliging the vital to renounce desire and become quiet and receptive. The vital is a good instrument but a bad master. If you allow it to follow its likes and dislikes, its fancies, its desires, its bad habits, it becomes your master and peace and happiness are no longer possible. It becomes not your instrument or the instrument of the Divine Shakti, but of any force of the Ignorance or even any hostile force that is able to seize and use it.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Vital, pp. 246-259

The Vital Nature and Its Role in Ordinary Life and Spiritual Life

In the ordinary life in the world, the action of vital desire, and the attempt to fulfill the desires is accepted to such a degree that it is not even consciously noted or treated as anything other than ‘human nature’. Society sets certain customary restraints or limits in order to build a civil framework for interaction of people, and it is only when someone goes outside these limits that the action of desire in an extreme form is noted and condemned. In such an instance, the desire is suppressed in some form, and either through an exercise of will, or through restraint imposed directly by society, such as incarceration or ostracism, the behavior is controlled. This falls under the rubric of a ‘moral code’. Some find new outlets for the energies of the vital that are thus suppressed, and this is called sublimation and this has been the subject of much of modern psychology beginning with the work of Freud and continuing with various enhanced levels of understanding and therapy that have developed in the post-Freudian era.

For the spiritual seeker, the issue is not one of ‘morality’ per se, but one of working out and redirecting the energy of the vital being into entirely new channels of action. The result may seem like adherence to a moral code, but in fact, it goes far beyond morality by addressing the underlying motivations and redirecting them to carry out the divine intention and not simply controlling or suppressing the vital urges that drive the ordinary life forward..

Sri Aurobindo writes: “In the ordinary life people accept the vital movements, anger, desire, greed, sex, etc. as natural, allowable and legitimate things, part of the human nature. Only so far as society discourages them or insists to keep them within fixed limits or subject to a decent restraint or measure, people try to control them so as to conform to the social standard of morality or rule of conduct. Here, on the contrary, as in all spiritual life, the conquest and complete mastery of these things is demanded. That is why the struggle is more felt, not because these things rise more strongly in sadhaks than in ordinary men, but because of the intensity of the struggle between the spiritual mind which demands control and the vital movements which rebel and want to continue in the new as they did in the old life. As for the idea that the sadhana raises up things of the kind, the only truth in that is this that, first, there are many things in the ordinary man of which he is not conscious, because the vital hides them from the mind and gratifies them without the mind realising what is the force that is moving the action — thus things that are done under the plea of altruism, philanthropy, service, etc. are largely moved by ego which hides itself behind these justifications; in yoga the secret motive has to be pulled out from behind the veil, exposed and got rid of. Secondly, some things are suppressed in the ordinary life and remain lying in the nature, suppressed but not eliminated; they may rise up any day or they may express themselves in various nervous forms or other disorders of the mind or vital or body without it being evident what is their real cause. This has been recently discovered by European psychologists and much emphasised, even exaggerated in a new science called psycho-analysis. Here again, in sadhana one has to become conscious of these suppressed impulses and eliminate them — this may be called rising up, but that does not mean that they have to be raised up into action but only raised up before the consciousness so as to be cleared out of the being.”

“As for some men being able to control themselves and others being swept away, that is due to difference of temperament. Some men are sattwic and control comes easy to them, up to a certain point at least; others are more rajasic and find control difficult and often impossible. Some have a strong mind and mental will and others are vital men in whom the vital passions are stronger and more on the surface. Some do not think control necessary and let themselves go. In sadhana the mental or moral control has to be replaced by the spiritual mastery — for that mental control is only partial and it controls but does not liberate; it is only the psychic and spiritual that can do that. That is the main difference in this respect between the ordinary and the spiritual life.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Vital, pp. 246-259

Understanding Vital Dissatisfaction and Withdrawal of Energy

There are times when we feel a total lack of inspiration and energy. Dullness pervades, there is no initiative or interest in anything. These times come in the ordinary day to day life, but they are covered up with distractions, entertainment, intoxication, and vital forms of enjoyment. The vital nature thrives on such distractions generally, so the dullness, boredom, lack of drive are forgotten in the excitement of the vital stimuli.

For those practicing yoga, however, when such moments come, the response should not be one of giving in to the vital craving and diving into the diversions that suit that craving, but rather, working to understand the causes of the vital dissatisfaction that is responsible for the withdrawal of the interest and the energy, and determining ways to bring the vital being willingly into the goal, purpose and effort of the sadhana.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The vital can be all right when things are going on swimmingly, but when difficulties become strong, it sinks and lies supine. Also if a bait is held out to the vital ego, then it can become enthusiastic and active.”

“It is an oscillation due to something in the resistant part (not the whole of it) being still dissatisfied at the call to change. When any vital element is disappointed, dissatisfied, called or compelled to change but not yet willing, it has the tendency to create non-response or non-co-operation of the vital, leaving the physical dull or insensible without the vital push. With the psychic pressure this remnant of resistance will pass.”

“There are some who are solid and tenacious in their vital, it is they who can be steady — others are more mercurial and easily moved by impulses, it is these who are sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes drop into fatigue. It is a matter of temperament. On the other hand the mercurial people are often capable of a quicker ardour, so that they can progress fast if they want in their own way. In any case the remedy for all that is to find one’s true self above mind and vital and so not bound by temperament.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Vital, pp. 246-259

The Vital Is Attached to Suffering

We frequently hear people saying that this world is a world of opposites and one cannot have joy without sorrow, pleasure without pain. This is accepted basically as an axiom for living in the world. And it is true, that for virtually everyone there is a mixture of positive and negative vital experiences, pleasure and pain, and they always seem to contain the seed of the opposite within the depth of one or the other. The Chinese symbol of the Yin/Yang shows a black center in the white segment and a white center in the black segment, and shows a dynamic inter-relationship between them that implies they are ever changing from one to the other. This symbol epitomizes the idea that pain and pleasure are inextricably intertwined.

There is a part of the vital being of man that actually can enjoy the suffering, and there is the proverb among those doing any kind of physical body-development “no pain, no gain”. It is true that this can become excessive. There are individuals who struggle throughout their lives and they seem to fixate upon this as something unique and praiseworthy in themselves. They speak constantly of their sorrows and their suffering, and look for consolation, commiseration and support from others in their suffering.

Pain in fact is considered to be a goad towards progress, as those who are experiencing pleasure generally may relax and focus on their enjoyment, while those who are experiencing pain will try to develop and find a way beyond the pain. The illustration of the violin is used to show the relevance. The relaxed strings of an untuned violin do not make music. The strings must be tightened and put under intense pressure to allow music to result from them. Too tight, however, and the strings will snap and once again, the ability to make music is lost.

It would be a radical thought indeed to suggest that under certain conditions suffering would not be required, and that a being could live on the earth without this duality of pleasure and pain dogging his every step. The possibility remains, however, in that as the individual becomes more and more centred in the divine standpoint, the surface sensations, the surface interactions take on a different aspect and both pleasure and pain become experiences of the surface being that do not touch the deeper spiritual essence or experience.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Disappointed vital desire must bring about suffering. Pain and suffering are necessary results of the Ignorance in which we live; men grow by all kinds of experience, pain and suffering as well as their opposites, joy and happiness and ecstasy. One can get strength from them if one meets them in the right way. Many take a joy in pain and suffering when associated with struggle or endeavour or adventure, but that is more because of the exhilaration and excitement of the struggle than because of suffering for its own sake. There is, however, something in the vital which takes joy in the whole of life, its dark as well as its bright sides. There is also something perverse in the vital which takes a kind of dramatic pleasure in its own misery and tragedy, even in degradation or in illness.”

“The thing in you which enjoys the suffering and wants it is part of the human vital — it is these things that we describe as the insincerity and perverse twist of the vital; it cries out against sorrow and trouble and accuses the Divine and life and everybody else of torturing it, but for the most part the sorrow and the trouble come and remain because the perverse something in the vital wants them! That element in the vital has to be got rid of altogether.”

“Yes, it is so. Even there is something in the vital consciousness that would not feel at home if there were no suffering in life. It is the physical that fears and abhors suffering, but the vital takes it as part of the play of life.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Vital, pp. 246-259

Understanding the Moods of the Vital Consciousness

When we are busy fulfilling our desires or ambitions, we notice that the vital energy is generally plentiful and positive, we forget about fatigue and want to carry on with exuberance. This is the normal status of the vital energy carrying out its habitual functions in human life and society. There is a ‘gusto’ to life that is palpable and which weaves itself into whatever we are doing. When asked to undertake actions that it does not appreciate, support or recognise as beneficial within its normal frame of reference, the vital being of man likes to complain, obstruct or even ‘go on strike’, so to speak. The transition to a spiritual standpoint from the normal ego-standpoint can lead to such energy disruptions if the vital being feels like its normal forms of enjoyment and benefit are being denied, and not replaced with something else that it finds equally compelling or beneficial.

It becomes necessary, at a certain point in the practice of the yoga, for the vital being to accept, whole-heartedly, the new focus, and direction of the being, and find its satisfaction in becoming a willing servitor to a new, higher standpoint, outlook and focus of action.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The ordinary freshness, energy, enthusiasm of the nature comes either from the vital, direct when it is satisfying its own instincts and impulses, indirect when it co-operates with or assents to the mental, physical or spiritual activities. If the vital resents, there is revolt and struggles. If the vital no longer insists on its own impulses and instincts but does not co-operate there is either dryness or a neutral state. Dryness comes in when the vital is quiescent but passively unwilling, not interested, the neutral state when it neither assents nor is unwilling, — simply quiescent, passive. This, however, the neutral state can deepen into positive calm and peace by a greater influx from above which keeps the vital not only quiescent but at least passively acquiescent. With the active interest and consent of the vital the peace becomes a glad or joyful peace or a strong peace supporting and entering into action or active experience.”

“The feeling of the desert comes because of the resistance of the vital which wants life to be governed by desire. If that is not allowed, it regards existence as a desert and puts that impression on the mind.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Vital, pp. 246-259

Addressing the Difficulties of the Transformation of the Vital Nature

To effectuate a total transformation of the mind-life-body and its action in the world, it is necessary for the seeker to address and solve the issue of the vital being, its desires, and the ego-standpoint that it fosters and maintains.

Methods that essentially try to fight with the vital nature tend to not succeed. Suppression or methods of penalizing the vital being for its recalcitrance wind up backfiring and causing more disruption or a total stance of non-interest and non-cooperation. It is best to find a way to engage the vital nature in the value, purpose, benefit and necessity of cooperation in the endeavour and thereby obtain its willing and whole-hearted support. The mind and heart may be willing, but there may simply not be the capacity in those instruments to carry through this work on their own. This will necessitate the direct action of the Force in the vital arena.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “However that be, the descent of the sadhana, of the action of the Force into the vital plane of our being becomes after some time necessary. The Force does not make a wholesale change of the mental being and nature, still less an integral transformation before it takes this step: if that could be done, the rest of the sadhana would be comparatively secure and easy. But the vital is there and always pressing on the mind and heart, disturbing and endangering the sadhana and it cannot be left to itself for too long. The ego and desires of the vital, its disturbances and upheavals have to be dealt with and if not at once expelled, at least dominated and prepared for a gradual if not a rapid modification, change, illumination. This can only be done on the vital plane itself by descending to that level. The vital ego itself must become conscious of its own defects and willing to get rid of them; it must decide to throw away its vanities, ambitions, lusts and longings, its rancours and revolts and all the rest of the impure stuff and unclean movements within it. This is the time of the greatest difficulties, revolts and dangers. The vital ego hates being opposed in its desires, resents disappointment, is furious against wounds to its pride and vanity; it does not like the process of purification and it may very well declare Satyagraha against it, refuse to co-operate, justify its own demands and inclinations, offer passive resistance of many kinds, withdraw the vital support which is necessary both to the life and the sadhana and try to withdraw the being from the path of spiritual endeavour. All this has to be faced and overcome, for the temple of the being has to be swept clean if the Lord of our being is to take his place and receive our worship there.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Vital, pp. 246-259