The Integral Yoga’s View of Mental Health

Mental health in the West is generally understood to be a ‘negative’ state, the absence of various forms of disruptions that affect whether and to what extent an individual can conform or fit into the society and meet its expectations. The integral yoga views mental health in an entirely different sense, with an affirmative definition. This definition includes an alignment with a purpose-filled life, the infusion of awareness and joy in its higher sense of Ananda, and the recognition that the outer being, with all its normal day-to-day challenges, disruptions and concerns is not our true being.

Sri Aurobindo speaks of a triple transformation of the consciousness. The first stage of this transformation is called the psychic transformation, whereby the psychic being, the true soul in man, comes forward and takes control of the outer instruments of body, life and mind, and harnesses them for its higher purpose in the evolutionary development of consciousness.

Dr. Dalal notes: “The quintessence of mental health, from the viewpoint of Integral Yoga, lies in a change of consciousness, from one that is governed primarily by the outer consciousness of the physical, the vital or the mental to one that reflects more and more an inner or a higher consciousness. It is only by such a change of consciousness that one can be freed from psychological disturbances which, as elaborated in the preceding pages, are an inherent part of the ordinary physical, vital and mental consciousness in which we live most of the time. The kind of change of consciousness that is favoured most in Integral Yoga is that of ‘psychicisation’, which lies in bringing the mind, the vital and the physical under the domination of the psychic. Such a change can be brought about gradually when the discovery of one’s inmost being becomes more and more the dominating purpose of one’s life. Before one discovers one’s inmost being, one usually comes in contact with parts of the being which are intermediate between the outer being and the inmost being. Such a contact with these intermediate planes of the being, referred to in Integral Yoga as the subliminal or the inner parts of the being, does liberate one from the disturbances of the outer consciousness. However, it is only by psychicisation that one can not only free oneself from the influence of the disturbances but also transform the outer consciousness so as to rid it altogether of all disturbances and establish an immutable state of positive mental health.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, Mental Health and Integral Yoga, pp. xxxii-xxxvii

The Influence of the Psychic Being on the Body, Life and Mind

The action of the psychic being is subtle, more of an influence than a direct action in the lives of most people who are focused on fulfilling the needs and objectives set by their body-life-mind complex of their external being. The influence can be experienced and felt in the way the external being responds to situations and the inner state of awareness. One experiences the psychic being’s influence more directly through an attitude of receptivity and openness to it, along with a sense of gratitude and goodwill that allows the influence to act most effectively.

Dr. Dalal observes: “… the psyche is covered over by the outer nature of mind, life and body. However, the psyche exercises a constant, though indirect, influence on the outer being. There are brief moments or relatively enduring periods in the lives of most of us when we are most strongly under the influence of the psyche. During such moments or periods, we feel a certain state of inner well-being which we may experience differently at different times, as a state of peace, faith, joy, strength, love, aspiration, or simply goodwill towards all. The hallmark of such a state of psychological well-being which results from contact with one’s psyche, as distinguished from an ordinary state of ‘feeling good’, is that the psychic state of well-being is not dependent on outer conditions, such as favourable circumstances, good health, etc. On the contrary, a state of psychic well-being is often experienced in spite of unfavourable outer conditions.”

“Such a state of psychological health has been described by the Mother in speaking about the initial state of people when they come to live in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. She says: “Some of them come with a mental aspiration, either to serve or to learn; others come in the hope of doing yoga, of finding the Divine and uniting with Him; finally there are those who want to devote themselves entirely to the divine work upon earth. All of them come impelled by their psychic being, which wants to lead them towards self-realisation. they come with their psychic in front and ruling their consciousness; they have a psychic contact with people and things. Everything seems beautiful and good to them, their health improves, their consciousness grows more luminous; they feel happy, peaceful and safe; they think that they have reached their utmost possibility of consciousness. This peace and fullness and joy given by the psychic contact they naturally find everywhere, in everything and everybody. It gives an openness towards the true consciousness pervading here and working out everything. So long as the openness is there, the peace, the fullness and the joy remain with their immediate results of progress, health and fitness in the physical, quietness and goodwill in the vital, clear understanding and broadness in the mental and a general feeling of security and satisfaction.”

Dr. Dalal continues: “The above-quoted passage describes what, from the viewpoint of Integral Yoga, would be regarded as a state of ‘mental health’. Two things may be noted about such a state as described above. First, the state of psychological well-being is described in terms of the physical (‘health and fitness in the physical’), the vital (‘quietness and goodwill in the vital’) and the mental (‘clear understanding and broadness in the mental’), as well as an over-all sense of inner well-being (‘a general feeling of security and satisfaction’). Secondly, such a state of psychological health is ascribed to the fact that the psychic is in front and rules the consciousness, and gives one ‘a psychic contact with people and things’.

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, Mental Health and Integral Yoga, pp. xxxii-xxxvii

The Psychic Being — the Nature of the Soul

.When we try to understand what is meant by the term ‘soul’ we run up against a confusing mix of ideas about what the soul actually is. Similarly, the use of the term ‘psychic’ has its own issues with confused interpretation. Recognising the need to have some term in English that can be employed to describe the true soul in man, the spark of the Divine that utilizes the mind, life and body as its vehicle of experience in life, Sri Aurobindo developed the term ‘psychic being” after first clearly distinguishing those aspects in common parlance that are not actually the ‘soul’ or the ‘psychic’ element in man.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The word soul is very vaguely used in English — as it often refers to the whole non-physical consciousness including even the vital with all its desires and passions. That was why the word psychic being has to be used so as to distinguish this divine portion from the instrumental parts of the nature.”

“The soul is a spark of the Divine Spirit which supports the individual nature; mind, life, body are the instruments for the manifestation of the nature. In most men the soul is hidden and covered over by the action of the external nature; they mistake the vital being for the soul, because it is the vital which animates and moves the body. But this vital being is a thing made up of desires and executive forces, good and bad; it is the desire-soul, not the true thing. It is when the true soul (psyche) comes forward and begins first to influence and then govern the actions of the instrumental nature that man begins to overcome vital desire and grow towards a divine nature.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, Mental Health and Integral Yoga, pp. xxxii-xxxvii

The Role of the Psychic Being in the Integral Yoga

In order to both observe and manage the actions and reactions of the mind, life and body, it is necessary to achieve a standpoint outside of their action. Sri Aurobindo identifies the psychic being as the separate entity, what may be called the ‘soul’, as the consciousness capable of this separation and control. It is important to avoid the confusion engendered by the confused understanding of the term ‘psychic’ in the West.

Dr. Dalal notes: “It should be clear from the foregoing description of various psychological disturbances that, from the viewpoint of Integral Yoga, psychological health consists in emerging into a state of consciousness which is free from the disturbing influences of physical, vital, mental and subconscient parts of our being. It implies discovering and being in contact with a part of our being other than the physical, the vital and the mental. Integral Yoga speaks of several such parts of the being which are either behind or above the outer being of mind, vital and body. What looms large in the practice of Integral Yoga is the part of the being referred to as the psychic being. As the term ‘psychic’ is commonly used with different meanings, we quote below Sri Aurobindo’s explanations of the term as used in Integral Yoga.”

“The word psychic is used in English to indicate anything that is other or deeper than the external mind, life and body or it indicates sometimes anything occult or supraphysical; but that is a use which brings confusion and error and we have almost entirely to discard it.”

“What is meant in the terminology of the yoga by the psychic is the soul element in the nature, the pure psyche or divine nucleus which stands behind mind, life and body (it is not the ego) but of which we are only dimly aware. It is a portion of the Divine and permanent from life to life, taking the experience of life through its outer instruments. As this experience grows it manifests a developing psychic personality which insisting always on the good, true and beautiful, finally becomes ready and strong enough to turn the nature towards the Divine. It can then come entirely forward, breaking through the mental, vital and physical screen, govern the instincts and transform the nature. Nature no longer imposes itself on the soul, but the soul, the Purusha, imposes its dictates on the nature.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, Mental Health and Integral Yoga, pp. xxxii-xxxvii

Parental State of Consciousness at Time of Conception Impacts the Child’s Development

We tend to blame, accuse and punish a child for wild tendencies, without generally recognising that the child is the product of a number of factors, including samskaras from past lives, environmental influences, diet, pollution, celestial energies, societal expectations and acculturation, genetics, and parental energies which are the first and closest influence on the prenatal state. Once the child is born, all of the other factors take on a larger role, but the entire gestational period, from time of conception, exerts its influence on the developing child. The psychological state and energy active at the time of conception itself can have an influence that is generally unrecognised.

Dr. Dalal observes: “More concealed disturbances which are related to the subconscient are the prenatal influences of the parents on the infant. The state of consciousness of the parents at the time of conception is regarded in yoga psychology as a powerful factor that underlies the physical, intellectual and characterological defects and deficiencies which a child may manifest. In response to a question whether the wickedness found in some children is due to the fact that the parents did not wish to have the children, the Mother makes certain emphatic and categorical statements regarding the subconscient influence of the parents on the new-born.

She says: “It is perhaps a subconscious wickedness in the parents. It is said that people throw out their wickedness from themselves by giving it birth in their children. One has always a shadow in oneself. There are people who project this outside — that does not always free them from it, but still perhaps it comforts them! But it is the child who ‘profits’ by it, don’t you see? It is quite evident that the state of consciousness in which the parents are at that moment [of conception] is of capital importance. If they have very low and vulgar ideas, the children will reflect them quite certainly. And all these children who are ill-formed, ill-bred, incomplete (specially from the point of view of intelligence: with holes, things missing), children who are only half-conscious and half-formed — this is always due to the fault of the state of consciousness in which the parents were when they conceived the child. Even as the state of consciousness of the last moments of life is of capital importance for the future of the one who is departing, so too the state of consciousness in which the parents are at the moment of conception gives a sort of stamp to the child, which it will reflect throughout its life. So, these are apparently such little things — the mood of the moment, the moment’s aspiration or degradation, anything whatsoever, everything that takes place at a particular moment — it seems to be so small a thing, and it has so great a consequence: it brings into the world a child who is incomplete or wicked or finally a failure. And people are not aware of that.”

“Later, when the child behaves nastily, they scold it. But they should be scolding themselves, telling themselves: ‘In what a horrible state of consciousness must I have been when I brought that child into the world.’ For it is truly that.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, The Subconscient and Its Disturbances, pp. xxvii-xxxii

The Seeds of Thought, Emotion, Feeling, Action and Reaction Reside in the Subconscient Level of Consciousness

The yogic trance state called ‘samadhi’ has several levels, including one that is known as ‘with seed’ and one ‘without seed’. The difference essentially is that the level ‘with seed’ means that it still retains the capacity to be broken by the intrusion of external stimuli and internal reaction or awakening of suppressed items in the consciousness.

On a similar note, the attempt to eliminate various movements, reactions, thoughts, emotions or feelings from the mind-life-body complex has to be seen as being ‘with seed’ unless and until these things are actually able to be eliminated from the subconscient level where they reside and remain ready to assert themselves when appropriately stirred up either through internal processes or external stimuli.

Sri Aurobindo writes; “It is a known psychological law that whatever is suppressed in the conscious mind remains in the subconscient being and recurs either in the waking state when the control is removed or else in sleep. Mental control by itself cannot eradicate anything entirely out of the being. The subconscient in the ordinary man includes the larger part of the vital being and the physical mind and also the secret body-consciousness.”

“The habit of strong recurrence of the same things in our physical consciousness, so that it is difficult to get rid of its habits, is largely due to a subconscient support. The subconscient is full of irrational habits.”

“…We mean by the subconscient that quite submerged part of our being in which there is no wakingly conscious and coherent thought, will or feeling organized reaction, but which yet receives obscurely the impressions of all things and stores them up in itself and from it too all sorts of stimuli, of persistent habitual movements, crudely repeated or disguised in strange forms can surge up into dream or into the waking nature. For if these impressions rise up most in dream in an incoherent and disorganized manner, they can also and do rise up into our waking consciousness as a mechanical repetition of old thoughts, old mental, vital and physical habits or an obscure stimulus to sensations, actions, emotions which do not originate in or from our conscious thought or will and are even often opposed to its perceptions, choice or dictates. In the subconscient there is an obscure mind full of obstinate Sanskaras, impressions, associations, fixed notions, habitual reactions formed by our past, an obscure vital full of the seeds of habitual desires, sensations and nervous reactions, a most obscure material which governs much that has to do with the condition of the body. It is largely responsible for our illnesses; chronic or repeated illnesses are indeed mainly due to the subconscient and its obstinate memory and habit of repetition of whatever has impressed itself upon the body consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, The Subconscient and Its Disturbances, pp. xxvii-xxxii

Introduction to the Subconscient Level of Consciousness

Western psychology has invested a considerable amount of time and energy in trying to understand, describe and treat the subconscious levels of our existence. Freud described various complexes that arose from the subconscious and which drove the being into actions that the conscious parts neither understood nor desired. Pavlov showed that deep training could link events in the subconscious to create automatic responses to stimuli. Jung explored the subconscious deeply and described a “collective unconscious” that was the repository of deeply rooted drives, instincts, motives and linkages that drove much of response that we have to all things in our lives. Numerous researchers, starting with Freud, took up the study of the dreams to find the symbolic references to subconscious states of consciousness. The practice of psychotherapy began as a way to bring forth the hidden drives from the subconscious to make them conscious, and thus, accessible to treatment and change.

Much of what takes place in the physical consciousness actually has its roots in the subconscient levels of being. These roots are deeply embedded, and whether we call them habits, instincts, drives, automatic responses, or autonomic functions, they are programmed into the being at levels that are far below our normal conscious awareness, and thus, beyond our normal ability to control. Things such as the “fight or flight” response, or response to pheromones in human male-female interaction, are just a couple of the reactions programmed into the subconscient.

Dr. Dalal notes: “Not mentioned so far is the subconscient — part of the being which, from the evolutionary point of view, precedes and is more primitive than the physical consciousness. It includes those concealed parts of the mental, the vital and the physical which have no waking consciousness in them. Everything that enters our consciousness sinks into the subconscient. Besides, all that is suppressed from conscious awareness without being eradicated is also pushed into the subconscient. The following extracts from Sri Aurobindo’s letters elaborate upon what has just been stated about the nature of the subconscient and mentions some of the chief disturbances associated with this part of the being.”

Sri Aurobindo explains: “That part of us which we can strictly call subconscient because it is below the level of mind and conscious life, inferior and obscure, covers the purely physical and vital elements of our constitution of bodily being, unmentalised, unobserved by the mind, uncontrolled by it in their action. It can be held to include the dumb occult consciousness, dynamic but not sensed by us, which operates in the cells and nerves and all the corporeal stuff and adjusts their life process and automatic responses. It covers also those lowest functions of submerged sense-mind which are more operative in the animal and in plant life.”

“… all that is consciously experienced sinks down into the subconscient, not as precise though submerged memories but as obscure yet obstinate impressions of experience, and these can come up at any time as dreams, as mechanical repetitions of past thought, feelings, action, etc., as ‘complexes’ exploding into action and event, etc., etc. The subconscient is the main cause why all things repeat themselves and nothing ever gets changed except in appearance. It is the cause why people say character cannot be changed, the cause also of the constant return of things one hoped to have got rid of for ever. All seeds are there and all Sanskaras of the mind, vital and body, … All too that is suppressed without being wholly got rid of sinks down there and remains as seed ready to surge up or sprout up at any moment.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, The Subconscient and Its Disturbances, pp. xxvii-xxxii

The Force of Habit and the Physical Consciousness

For the physical consciousness, repetition and the building of habit is the centerpiece of harnessing physical, material nature. The “laws of physics” are essentially habits at the level of Matter that function to create an order and system in Nature that maintains the cohesion and operation of the universe. Our minds can envision other universes that operate under different “laws” and of course, as we lack complete knowledge, we recognise that over time our understanding of the “laws” of Nature will deepen and encompass the actual functionality more completely. Thus, Newtonian physics has been updated, not entirely thrown out, with the development of quantum mechanics and relativity.

In human life, and in our psychology, a similar process of habituation occurs, and this is particularly strong in the realm of the physical consciousness. All of the autonomous processes of our bodies are essentially habitual patterns of action that function under specific circumstances, and begin to break down, or cease to function, when the conditions required by that habitual action are no longer available.

Participation in any kind of body-building or sports activity involves intense repetition to build “muscle memory” and even learning to walk or run or jump involves a process of repetition. Much of our education system is actually based on the power of repetition as it is training the physical mind to respond. How much effort goes into memorizing mathematical relationships, spelling, rules of grammar, historical dates, etc.!

The flip-side of the positive ability to train and utilize the physical consciousness in this way, is the iron-clad control that it exercises over much of our lives. If we try to go outside this framework and methodology, we find that the physical mind resists, and tries to assert its habitual patterns. The attempt to break out of physical addiction for those who face that issue, represents the struggle between a habitual pattern in the physical being and physical mind and the attempt of the mind and the will to assert its freedom and develop a different, non-addicted pattern. For an individual interested in the practice of yoga, to move beyond the limits of the mind-life-body complex, there is a daunting task ahead to systematically unravel the habitual knots and open up new pathways of knowledge and action.

Dr. Dalal observes: “What have been called habit disorders in psychiatry are also partly related to the physical consciousness, for the force of habit is derived from the inertia and mechanical repetitiveness of physical consciousness. As Sri Aurobindo explains:

“In the physical being the power of past impressions is very great, because it is by the process of repeated impressions that consciousness was made to manifest in matter — and also by the habitual reactions of consciousness to these impressions, what the psychologists, I suppose, would call behaviour.”

“The physical is the slave of certain forces which create a habit and drive it through the mechanical power of the habit. So long as the mind gives consent, you do not notice the slavery; but if the mind withdraws its consent, then you feel the servitude, you feel a force pushing you in spite of the mind’s will. It is very obstinate and repeats itself till the habit, the inner habit revealing itself in the outward act, is broken. It is like a machine which once set in motion repeats the same movement.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, Disturbances Associated with the Physical, pp. xxv-xxvii

Passivity and Weakness of Will-Power Can Be a Disturbance of the Physical Consciousness

People struggle all the time with the force of desire and how to deal with it in their lives. For the yogic practitioner this becomes an even greater concern as desire causes countless difficulties in bringing the inner being to a state of peace in which the yogic consciousness can flourish. Stoicism has been tried. Indulgence has been attempted. Some try to control desire by accepting “whatever comes” without question or either attraction or aversion. Many wind up accepting the idea that one can only overcome desire by rejecting the use of will-power; while others believe that it is a weakness of will-power that causes desires to control one’s action despite a wish to avoid carrying out those desires. It is not through an absence of the use of will-power that the solution is found, but it also must be recognised that will-power operates in a different part of the being from those parts most directly driven by the force of desire.

When tamas is predominant in the being, such as when the physical consciousness is in front, there can be a profound lack of will to do anything, to accomplish anything or to participate in anything. The physical consciousness is more driven by whatever force dominates the being at any time than a driver of the action. The action of tamas in the physical consciousness can also impact the higher functions of mind and restrain or at least partially throttle them from their true native power of action.

Dr. Dalal writes: “An aspect of inertia is passivity, which manifests as a weakness of the will. Sri Aurobindo speaks of this as follows: “It [the weakness of the will] is a first result of coming down into the physical consciousness or of the physical consciousness coming up prominently…. The physical consciousness is full of inertia — it wants not to move but to be moved by whatever forces and that is its habit.”

“The physical consciousness or at least the more external parts of it are, as I have told you, in their nature inert — obeying whatever force they are habituated to obey, but not acting on their own initiative. When there is a strong influence of the physical inertia or when one is down in this part of the consciousness the mind feels like the material Nature that action of will is impossible.”

Dr. Dalal concludes: “Weakness of the will may be regarded by some as pertaining to the province of ethics and morality rather than that of psychopathology. However, we must recognize that weakness of the will is a disturbance of volition and as such it is as relevant to psychopathology as disorders of the other two major psychological functions, namely, thinking and feeling.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, Disturbances Associated with the Physical, pp. xxv-xxvii

The Predominant Characteristic of Physical Consciousness: Tamas or Inertia

An understanding of the three gunas, or qualities of Nature, is extremely helpful in gaining an understanding of the responses to external stimuli, events, people and circumstances. The gunas are sattwa, with a predominant quality of light and harmony, rajas with a predominant quality of movement and action of desire, and tamas, with a predominant quality of inertia or darkness. In general, one of these qualities tend to predominate, even though they remain at all times in flux and adjustment. Different aspects of the Nature tend to take on the cast of the predominant guna. In the physical consciousness, tamas tends to be the most prevalent. This has consequences for the types of disturbances that tend to occur in the physical consciousness, as described briefly below:

Dr. Dalal notes: “The most prominent characteristic of physical consciousness is inertia or Tamas. Therefore an individual with a predominantly physical consciousness is slow in reacting to stimulation. It needs a violent stimulus to produce an emotional reaction in tamasic individuals. As the Mother remarks about such persons:”

“… they always need new excitements, dramas, murders, suicides, etc. to get the impression of something. … And there is nothing, nothing that makes one more wicked and cruel than tamas. For it is this need of excitement which shakes you up a little, makes you come out of yourself.”

Dr. Dalal continues: “Because of the inertia of physical consciousness, what is experienced as a pleasant intensity of a stimulus by the average person is too feeble or dull for the individual whose consciousness is chiefly that of the physical. In order to feel a pleasant stimulation, such a tamasic individual needs a violent stimulus, such that an average person would experience as unpleasant or even painful. Such a condition represents a psychological disturbance because it is a form of masochism — a state in which an individual finds pleasurable something that is experienced by most people as painful. Thus some forms of masochistic disorders are related to the physical consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, Disturbances Associated with the Physical, pp. xxv-xxvii