We can identify a systematic evolution of consciousness in the external world. Life evolves out of Matter, Mind out of Life. We do not, however, thereby determine either a significance or purpose to this evolution nor any causative factors that involve mind and life into matter such that they can eventually manifest out. We also do not discern thereby any purpose for our individual life and conscious awareness and our aspiration for growth, development and increase of knowledge. Looked at from the viewpoint of the individual ego-personality, our lives are short, unpredictable and have a defined beginning and a defined ending, with no visibility of either what precedes our birth or what eventuates after our death.
Seers and mystics, philosophers and those who have experienced deeper spiritual experiences, from traditions all around the world, have addressed these issues. Some traditions, which posit a “first creator” principle, then create a heaven or hell to which the spirit embodied in the individual proceeds after death. Some talk about resurrection and rejoining one’s current family in some after-life, presumably in a remade younger and healthier body than the one from which the individual departed! While there are obvious issues with this viewpoint, it is part of a continuum of efforts to understand and develop some form of meaning to our existence in this lifetime.
Other approaches describe a series of births, an ascending growth of consciousness, over time, transcending the individual lifetime and indeed tying lifetimes together, not from the viewpoint of the ego-personality of our current life, but from the greater consciousness that takes birth successively from life to life, and which embodies the purpose of the universal manifestation. Such an approach gains credence as we experience, in some cases, active recollection of a past lifetime (although this is rare since the mechanism generally does not hold onto individual lifetimes in their detail), or at least a feeling or sense of familiarity or relationship to some person, place or event.
Whatever the experience however, it soon becomes clear that there is a hidden mechanism or power that is manifesting the universal creation, which embodies through this creation a consciousness that embraces, includes and permeates all, and which works out over vast spans of time far beyond that of an individual human lifetime. The continuity of individual development then is brought about through a conscious participation of a divine element in each being, which Sri Aurobindo calls the psychic element, or soul element. As it gathers experience, and as the evolution of consciousness takes place, it becomes more aware, more conscious, and is thus able to participate actively in its own development.
Sri Aurobindo observes: “As the evolution proceeds, Nature begins slowly and tentatively to manifest our occult parts; she leads us to look more and more within ourselves or sets out to initiate more clearly recognisable intimations and formations of them on the surface. The soul in us, the psychic principle, has already begun to take secret form; it puts forward and develops a soul-personality, a distinct psychic being to represent it.”
“The psychic part of us is something that comes direct from the Divine and is in touch with the Divine. In its origin it is the nucleus pregnant with divine possibilities that support this lower triple manifestation of mind, life and body. There is this divine element in all living beings, but it stands behind the ordinary consciousness, is not at first developed and, even when developed, is not always or often in the front; it expresses itself, so far as the imperfection of the instruments allows, by their means and under their limitations. It grows in the consciousness by Godward experience, gaining strength every time there is a higher movement in us, and, finally, by the accumulation of these deeper and higher movements, there is developed a psychic individuality, — that which we call usually the psychic being.”
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Introduction, pp. xvii-xviii