Distinguishing the Realisation of the Atman and the Higher Planes of Consciousness

When an individual begins the spiritual quest, there can be considerable confusion about different directions, objectives and methods of attainment. In many cases, divergent goals are lumped together, while in other instances, there can be confusion about the sequence of the steps. Sri Aurobindo has provided an overview and a roadmap that can aid the seeker in understanding and clarifying these points.

The supramental transformation is not the first stage in the spiritual development; rather, it is a subsequent development, founded upon two prior transformations, the psychic transformation which brings forward the central action of the soul, and then the spiritual transformation which connects the individual with the universal and transcendent Spirit. Thus, the end goal of many traditional spiritual paths, the liberation from the bondage of the world of illusion, the transitory world of material existence, is actually a preliminary stage in the practice of the integral yoga. Freeing the being from the ego-consciousness is necessary for the spiritual transformation and the widening of the consciousness to occur.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The realisation of the Spirit comes long before the development of overmind or supermind; hundreds of sadhaks in all times have had the realisation of the Atman in the higher mental planes, buddhehe paratah, but the supramental realisation was not theirs. One can get partial realisations of the Self or Spirit or the Divine on any plane, mental, vital, physical even, and when one rises above the ordinary mental plane of man into a higher and larger mind, the Self begins to appear in all its conscious wideness.”

“It is by full entry into this wideness of the Self that cessation of mental activity becomes possible; one gets the inner Silence. After that this inner Silence can remain even when there is activity of any kind; the being remains silent within, the action goes on in the instruments, and one receives all the necessary initiations and execution of action whether mental, vital or physical from a higher source without the fundamental peace and calm of the Spirit being troubled.”

“The overmind and supermind states are something yet higher than this; but before one can understand them, one must first have the self-realisation, the full action of the spiritualised mind and heart, the psychic awakening, the liberation of the imprisoned consciousness, the purification and entire opening of the Adhar. Do not think now of those ultimate things (overmind, supermind), but get first these foundations in the liberated nature.”

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

The Need to Overcome Fear in the Realisation of the Atman

In the external world, fear plays a role that can both hinder progress, and protect from impulsive or rash action that would result in injury, loss or death. If fear is excessive, it paralyzes the individual into inaction. If it is insufficient, he may rush into circumstances far beyond his expectation and suffer the consequences. Fear is like a tripwire and a defensive wall. Depending on how sensitively it has been set, we determine the limits of our external life beyond which we do not go.

When one enters the vital domains, and leaves behind the protection of the physical body, the individual can be confronted with forces that are far more powerful and in some cases actually asuric or demonic in their nature and in this realm, fear reactions actually entice and encourage these hostile beings to attack. Fear in the vital world communicates weakness and helplessness, and thus encourages attacks. When one leaves behind the protection of the physical, external body to enter the vital realms, a fearless armor is one of the most important forms of protection, along with a steady focus on the spiritual truth and a call to the forces that guide, support and aid along the way. This is also a reason why the seeker should not rush headlong into an attempt to seize the experiences, as if he is unready and unprepared, he can suffer great harm.

The spiritual seeker, who is consciously delving into the inner realms and leaving the surface consciousness behind during this time, also has to confront various forms of fear, not simply the challenges in the vital arena, but even more existential fears, so long as the ego-personality remains active, organised and dominant in the seeker. An out of body experience for instance not only can subject the seeker to the vital forces, but can bring about the fear of separation or dissolution of the link to the body, and thus, death in the external world of the physical body. In order to traverse the vital worlds in the out of body experience and return, there must be a steady, calm, centred awareness that maintains the link to the physical existence.

Shifting the standpoint of the consciousness to the spiritual planes also requires the being to confront fear. For many, the first approach to the boundary separating the spiritual plane from the external world raises up an existential fear, which is, in reality, the fear of the dissolution of the ego and the individual personality. The rising up of fear during this process pulls the individual back from the boundary and into the external consciousness. Eventually, particularly with guidance from an experienced teacher or guru, the individual can face this fear, go beyond the boundary and enter fully into the spiritual planes of consciousness. If this fear is not surmounted, the individual remains rooted in the external world and its limitations and the spiritual development is limited from that point forward.

As the individual passes into the spiritual planes, an entirely new type of fear arises, in that there is a vast, immense silence that permeates the mind and the rest of the being, and the individual is afraid to release the habitual reliance on the mental processes to act in the world. However, no transformation can take place unless the habits of the lower nature in this regard are released to allow the action of the spiritual principle to take place, and this action operates through the silence of the mind.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “You must dismiss the fear of the concentration. The emptiness you feel coming on you is the silence of the great peace in which you become aware of your self, not as the small ego shut up in the body, but as the spiritual self wide as the universe. Consciousness is not dissolved; it is the limits of the consciousness that are dissolved. In that silence thoughts may cease for a time, there may be nothing but a great limitless freedom and wideness, but into that silence, that empty wideness descends the vast peace from above, light, bliss, knowledge, the higher Consciousness in which you feel the oneness of the Divine. It is the beginning of the transformation and there is nothing in it to fear.”

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

What is the Atman? How Do We Experience the Self?

As long as we are enmeshed in the ego-life, it is essentially impossible to conceive of the status or existence of the Atman. We relate to the physical world, we relate to other individuals as if we are just this limited human existence and being, we perceive and react to everything from our own egoistic framework. We find it difficult, if not virtually impossible, to conceive of infinite and inter-related existence and universal oneness, even if our most advanced scientists and sages tell us that the entire universe is one and indivisible, with the same energy creating and running through everything. When we conceive of our death, we either believe that there is “nothing” afterwards or we accept the tenets of our religious teachings which either point to a form of rebirth, or entry into some kind of afterlife, of a heaven (or possibly a purgatory or hell) within which we will be reunited with our family and loved ones in the form that we experience ourselves and them in our current lifetime. Of course, none of this makes any sense if we take a wider view of things. When we age and die, worn and shriveled, or diseased and demented, we expect that after death we will be our young, healthy and vibrant selves of memory and join up with everyone in their best days and forms. After all, who would want to be rewarded with eternal life in heaven with friends and family if everyone was in the form they were at the time of their death?

In order to understand the Atman, we need to have an experience that takes us out of this ego-bound individuality and when such an experience comes to us, it suddenly becomes crystal clear that none of these ego-driven fantastic ideas can possibly be the end-result of the enormous and yet extremely detailed universal creation.

Lifted out of the limitations of the body-life-mind complex, we partake of a wider life. While we do not experience this wider life, we can yet use our power of visualisation to gain at least some approximate concept of what is involved. We can visualise ourselves in the vast silent realms of outer space, with no sounds that we can perceive, and vast empty stretches within which universes, galaxies, stars, planets, black holes make up a tiny fragment of the immensity. Nothing is moving in this wide space and we feel like we have spread out with a deep, unshakable peace. This space is a representation of the container within which the universal creation forms and carries out its activity. It is not disturbed by the activity but holds it without comment or response, observing, at peace and still.

We can move our standpoint from one object to another without losing the sense of unity with everything else that is created, standing apart, even while viewing from an individual perspective, experiencing the individual as a portion of that larger existence.

We can visualize each cell in our bodies as having its own level of awareness and existence, separately living, yet part of a larger unity that we call ourselves. The cells cannot exist without the larger being, the larger being does not manifest without the cells. The energy that enlivens both is the same energy, which itself comes from another aspect of the universal creation.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The self is felt either as universal, one in all, or as universalised individual the same in essence as others, extended everywhere from each being but centred here. Of course centre is a way of speaking, because no physical centre is usually felt — only all the actions take place around the individual.”

“Everything acts in the self. The whole play of Nature takes place in the self, in the Divine. The self contains the universe.”

“The Self or Atman is inactive; Nature (Prakriti) or Shakti acts. When the Self is felt it is first an infinite existence, silence, freedom, peace that is felt — that is called Atman or Self. What action takes place in it is according to the realisation either felt as forces of Nature working in that wideness, as the Divine Shakti working or as the cosmic Divine or various powers of them working. It is not felt that the Self is acting.”

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