Mental and Vital Formations and Habits of Acceptance Which Create Obstacles for the Soul’s Victory

Every part of our being has certain habitual patterns of responding to, accepting and dealing with forces and vibrations that enter into them. These habitual patterns for the most part lock in the old ways of seeing and acting, and it takes a change in standpoint from the mental-vital-physical complex to the standpoint of the soul or psychic being, in order for the individual to clearly see what is happening and what is being accepted by them in the normal course. Sri Aurobindo provides the example of illness and the way to deal with it when there is an attack on the physical body. The mental and vital levels similarly are subject to such attacks. For those who have taken up a spiritual path, there comes a time when the divergence between their spiritual aspiration and the reality of how their mind and their vital being responds can become quite intense. In the worst cases, this brings about what is known in spiritual circles as ‘the dark night of the soul’. This status can bring about a state of deep depression and to the extent the individual identifies with the external being, he begins to feel like he is not cut out for the spiritual life, that he is a failure and that he just needs to give up the pursuit. Dark thoughts can go further and lead to suicidal impulses.

The way to overcome this is to utilize the separation of Purusha and Prakriti to create a division between the outer nature, subject to these failures, resistances and doubts, and the psychic being which recognises that the task of addressing and changing human nature and its long habitual response patterns, is one that requires extreme patience, persistence and dedication regardless of the force of the thoughts that overwhelm and continue to repeat themselves without break to beat down the will of the seeker.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “… the constant recurrence of depression and despair or of doubt and revolt is due to a mental or vital formation which takes hold of the vital mind and makes it run round always in the same circle at the slightest provoking cause or even without cause. It is like an illness to which the body consents from habit and from belief in the illness even though it suffers from it, and once started the illness runs its habitual course unless it is cut short by some strong counteracting force. If once the body can withdraw its consent, the illness immediately or quickly ceases, — that was the secret of the Coue’ system. So too, if the vital mind withdraws its consent, refuses to be dominated by the habitual suggestions and the habitual movements, these recurrences of depression and despair can be made soon to cease. But it is not easy for this mind, once it has got into the habit of consent, even a quite passive and suffering and reluctant consent, to cancel the habit and get rid of the black circle. It can be done easily only when the mind refuses any longer to believe in the suggestions or accept the ideas or feelings that start the circle.”

“It is these things you have to get rid of. But a sorrowful or despondent mood is not the proper condition for doing that. You have to stand back from the feeling of suffering, anguish and apprehension, reject it and look quietly at the resistance, applying always to yourself your will to change and insisting that it shall be done and cannot fail to be done now or later with the divine help because the divine help is there. It is then that the strength can come to you that will overcome the difficulties.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, General Methods and Principles, Detachment and Rejection, pp. 22-27

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Absorption in Our Outer Life, Living in the ‘Now’, Mindfulness and Detachment

Most people live a life without inward reflection, reacting to circumstances, conditioned by habits developed through millennia, trained responses and built up expectations. Their lives are fixated on whatever is presented to them at the moment, and they lose any sense of self-awareness in this reactive state. The organising principle is the ego-personality and its relations to the world, its perceived needs, its past line of development and its future expectations. For many, this is a state of sleepwalking through life, a state of absorption in the outer life.

As we begin to develop awareness, and self-awareness, we can recognise the shallowness and poverty of a life of reactiveness of this sort, and begin to recognise that much of this reaction is based on past habits or experiences or on a future of daydreams, ‘what if’ scenarios. To break down these fixed patterns, we are asked to live in the ‘now’, to treat everything as a fresh experience that we can perceive and respond to without the accretion built up of the past, and without overlaying the expectations of the future. This remains fixated on the outer being, but it is the first stage of an inward journey.

Another stage eventuates with the understanding that even trying to live in the ‘now’, we tend to allow many things to occur unobserved and simply to take place automatically. We are rushing through experiences making the ‘goal’ rather than the ‘journey’ the focus. This leads to the concept of practicing ‘mindfulness’ and thereby begin to pay attention to each action, each reaction, each response, and what it raises up. This is a stage of mental development that remains focused on the outer experience and life.

The next stage comes with a realisation that we cannot truly understand the significance or meaning of our lives until we recognise that the body-life-mind upon which we have fixed so much attention is not our true self, that there is an inner and deeper self that takes on a specific form of being and life for purposes of growth and to carry out the universal manifestation. As we begin to identify with this inner self, we experience a separation of our awareness such that we can seat ourselves within and become the observer of the outer action, while concurrently fully engaging the outer being in its role and activity. This is a process of detachment from the outer being.

Along the way, we may try to use our mental awareness as a form of detachment, but this gets in the way of our ability to focus and accomplish the actions of life, whether in the field of physical activity, vital or emotional responsiveness or mental development. In these areas, an exclusive concentration that blocks out other forms of attention is, in many instances, required to carry out the needed tasks.

There is no necessary conflict between the witness consciousness based outside the body-life-mind complex and the needed exclusive concentration for the outer being, once the individual recognises the difference between the witness and the nature, Purusha and Prakriti.

The Mother notes: “Ordinarily, identification leads to ignorance rather than knowledge, for the consciousness is lost in what it becomes and is unable to envisage proper causes, concomitants and consequences. Thus you identify yourself with a movement of anger and your whole being becomes one angry vibration, blind and precipitate, oblivious of everything else. It is only when you stand back, remain detached in the midst of the passionate turmoil that you are able to see the process with a knowing eye.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, General Methods and Principles, Detachment and Rejection, pp. 22-27

Detachment from and Mastery of the Surface Nature

When we are first confronted with the concept of detachment from our external nature, we tend to approach it from a mental standpoint and thus, try to shut down our emotions and mental reactions with various types of response such as forms of stoicism, renunciation, or a show of non-caring, or some kind of overpowering of reactions including the use of self-torture to train the body-life-mind complex not to react. This is however, not a methodology that can succeed over the long term, and leads to abandonment or submission of the external being, rather than true mastery. What generally occurs is that a mental formation decides that certain things are ‘good’ and others are ‘bad’ and begins to pick ‘winners and losers’ in terms of reactions of the nature in the external world and in its own inner response to the events and pressures of the world. It is thus that various moral and ethical codes try to impose themselves on the nature.

What Sri Aurobindo’s approach implies is a shifting of the standpoint from the mental-vital-physical external being to one that is centered in the psychic being, the inner self and soul that utilizes mind, life and body as the instruments of its experience and action in the world. The psychic being is unified with the divine intention in the manifestation and can thus act without the bias presented by the ego-personality in its various attempts at self-aggrandisement without regard to the larger intentions of the cosmic creation.

While the first step is cultivation of detachment from the actions of the external being, and development of the standpoint of the witness of the nature, eventually the psychic being begins to control and direct the actions of the outer nature, and thus, develops the mastery over the nature.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “Detachment means that one stands back from them [the imperfections and weaknesses of the nature], does not identify oneself with them or get upset or troubled because they are there, but rather looks on them as something foreign to one’s true consciousness and true self, [and] rejects them… The firm will of rejection must be there, the pressure to get rid of them, but not any wrestling or struggle.”

“Detachment is the beginning of mastery, but for complete mastery there should be no reactions at all. When there is something within undisturbed by the reactions that means the inner being is free and master of itself, but it is not yet master of the whole nature. When it is master, it allows no wrong reactions — if any come they are at once repelled and shaken off, and finally none come at all.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, General Methods and Principles, Detachment and Rejection, pp. 22-27

Gaining the Standpoint of the Observer of the Nature

An important step in the practice of yoga is to attain true detachment from the surface nature through the shifting of the standpoint from the surface to the ‘witness consciousness’, the Purusha. The separation of Purusha from Prakriti, the active nature, is needed in order to effectuate change in the external nature, as otherwise, we remain involved in that nature and are limited within the frame that it sets for us.

Many people wonder about the awareness that occurs with this separation. Until the actual experience occurs, we can only surmise based on the hints that Sri Aurobindo provides. We may, however, use the example of viewing a motion picture as a means of deepening our insight.

When people observe a motion picture, they sometimes get so involved with the story or the setting that they react with tears, or laughter, emotional reactions, or in some cases, mental analysis of what they are seeing. They are fully engaged and involved in the events taking place on the screen, and experience the sensations, emotions and thoughts that are being portrayed. When the motion picture is presented as a 3D screen, sometimes the experience intensifies and people react suddenly with, for instance, a fear reaction when they see a wild animal racing towards them in their immediate space! The separation of the ‘witness consciousness’ only would occur if the observer is able to watch the motion picture, and the surface reactions of his nature with complete dispassion, not getting involved in the activity no matter how uplifting, depressing, fear-inducing, or emotional it might be. This is not a recipe for uncaring dullness of senses; on the contrary, the witness should be able to observe carefully and precisely, even to the point of watching the nature react to the event, without closing off the observation, turning away or simply closing one’s eyes to it all.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “As to the change of nature, the first step is to become conscious and separate from the old surface nature. For, this rajasic vital nature is a surface creation of Prakriti, it is not the true being; however persistent it seems, it is only a temporary combination of vital movements. Behind is the true mental and vital being supported by the psychic.”

“The true being is calm, wide, peaceful. By drawing back and becoming separate one creates the possibility of living in the peace of this inner Purusha and no longer identified with the surface Prakriti. Afterwards it will be much easier to change by the force of the psychic perception and the Peace and Power and Light from above the surface being.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, General Methods and Principles, Detachment and Rejection, pp. 22-27

Moving the Standpoint of Consciousness to the Mental World

Just as the awareness can be shifted to the vital plane or world, the seeker also has the potential to move the standpoint of the consciousness to the mental plane. Neither the shift to the vital world, nor that to the mental world represents a real spiritual transformation, as it is still manipulating the forces, energies and factors of the world of Matter-Life-Mind. Sri Aurobindo advises: “Living on these we are, whatever the enlargement of our powers and our consciousness, still living within the limits of the cosmic gods and subject, though with a much subtler, easier and modified subjection, to the reign of Prakriti over Purusha. To achieve real freedom and mastery we have to ascend to a yet higher level of the many-plateaued mountain of our being.”

The process involved, however, is useful as a preparation for the higher ascent and the results may aid the seeker in this achievement, if the seeker does not become attached to the powers and the presence of the vital, or the mental world as an end in itself. Sri Aurobindo describes the process and results of moving the consciousness to the mental world:

“By doing so we can become the mental self and draw up the physical and vital being into it, so that life and body and their operations become to us minor circumstances of our being used by the Mind-soul which we now are for the execution of its lower purposes that belong to the material existence. Here too we acquire at first a certain remoteness from the life and the body and our real life seems to be on quite another plane than material man’s, in contact with a subtler existence, a greater light of knowledge than the terrestrial, a far rarer and yet more sovereign energy; we are in touch in fact with the mental plane, aware of the mental worlds, can be in communication with its beings and powers. From that plane we behold the desire-world and the material existence as if below us, things that we can cast away from us if we will and in fact easily reject when we relinquish the body, so as to dwell in the mental or psychical heavens. But we can also, instead of being thus remote and detached, become rather superior to the life and body and the vital and material planes and act upon them with mastery from our new height of being. Another sort of dynamis than physical or vital energy, something that we may call pure mind-power and soul-force, which the developed human being uses indeed but derivately and imperfectly, but which we can now use freely and with knowledge, becomes the ordinary process of our action, while desire-force and physical action fall into a secondary place and are only used with this new energy behind them and as its occasional channels. We are in touch and sympathy also with the Mind in cosmos, conscious of it, aware of the intentions, directions, thought-forces, struggle of subtle powers behind all happenings, which the ordinary man is ignorant of or can only obscurely infer from the physical happening, but which we can now see and feel directly before there is any physical sign or even vital intimation of their working. We acquire too the knowledge and sense of the mind-action of other beings whether on the physical plane or on those above it; and the higher capacities of the mental being,–occult powers or Siddhis, but of a much rarer or subtler kind than those proper to the vital plane,–naturally awake in our consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 20, The Lower Triple Purusha, pp. 444-445

Moving the Standpoint of Consciousness to the Vital World

Human awareness is not absolutely limited to the physical consciousness. It is indeed possible to move the basis of consciousness out of the physical world and into the vital or other worlds, where the principle of action, rather than being diluted through diffusion in the physical world, takes on the native characteristics of that world, and from there, acts with more power and directness on the physical.

Sri Aurobindo describes some of the methods and results: “This may be done, on the side of Purusha, by drawing back from the physical self and its preoccupation with physical nature and through concentration of thought and will raising oneself into the vital and then into the mental self. By doing so we can become the vital being and draw up the physical self into that new consciousness, so that we are only aware of the body, its nature and its actions as secondary circumstances of the Life-soul which we now are, used by it for its relations with the material world.”

“A certain remoteness from physical being and then a superiority to it; a vivid sense of the body being a mere instrument or shell and easily detachable; an extraordinary effectivity of our desires on our physical being and life-environment; a great sense of power and ease in manipulating and directing the vital energy of which we now become vividly conscious, for its action is felt by us concretely, subtly physical in relation to the body, sensible in a sort of subtle density as an energy used by the mind; an awareness of the life-plane in us above the physical and knowledge and contact with the beings of the desire-world; a coming into action of new powers,–what are usually called occult powers or Siddhis; a close sense of and sympathy with the Life-soul in the world and a knowledge or sensation of the emotions, desires, vital impulses of others; these are some of the signs of this new consciousness gained by Yoga.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 20, The Lower Triple Purusha, pp. 443-444

Transcending the Domination of the Physical Self

For the most part, we remain mystified by the entire meaning of life, birth and death. This is due to our starting point in the consciousness of the physical self. As the vital and mental powers begin to evolve and develop, they each, in their own way, begin to transform and transcend the physical nature of the world. We can see this as the plant, and later the animal, turns “dead matter” into living matter with higher levels of responsiveness and reactivity than physical forms absent the vital input; and we can see this with the development of the mental powers in the world of Matter and the enormous transformations that the mind carries out in terms of manipulating and changing both Matter and Life-Energy.

None of this has any real meaning either, absent the larger context that incorporates the process of life-death-rebirth and the evolutionary mechanism that is inherent in that process. And this larger context is largely invisible to most individuals who remain based in the physical being, even with the input of vital and mental energies and forces enhancing their action and understanding.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “A more developed humanity allows us to make a better and freer use of all the capacities and experiences that we derive from the vital and mental planes of being, to lean more for support upon these hidden planes, be less absorbed by the physical and to govern and modify the original nature of the physical being by grater vital forces and powers from the desire-world and greater and subtler mental forces and powers from the psychical and intellectual planes. By this development we are able to rise to higher altitudes of the intermediary existence between death and rebirth and to make a better and more rapid use of rebirth itself for a yet higher mental and spiritual development. But even so, in the physical being which still determines the greater part of our waking self, we act without definite consciousness of the worlds or planes which are the sources of our action.”

“We are aware indeed of the life-plane and mind-plane of the physical being, but not of the life-plane and mind-plane proper or of the superior and larger vital and mental being which we are behind the veil of our ordinary consciousness. It is only at a high stage of development that we become aware of them and even then, ordinarily, only at the back of the action of our mentalised physical nature; we do not actually live on those planes, for if we did we could very soon arrive at the conscious control of the body by the life-power and of both by the sovereign mind; we should then be able to determine our physical and mental life to a very large extent by our will and knowledge as masters of our being and with a direct action of the mind on the life and body. By Yoga this power of transcending the physical self and taking possession of the higher selves may to a greater or less degree be acquired through a heightened and widened self-consciousness and self-mastery.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 20, The Lower Triple Purusha, pp. 442-443

The Stage of Predominance of the Physical Being

A progressive evolution of the involved divine consciousness is the nature of life in the material world. The ancient sages recognized that there are five Purushas, or “Beings” active in humanity, with each one founded in and based upon one of the sheathes or bodies in this evolutionary structure. The first of these five, is the physical being, which, as the name implies, is closely tied to the physical body and under control of the forces and activities of the material world. Even when the life force emerges and gains strength, representing the vital being, or when the mind develops, representing the mental being, those individuals who are rooted in the physical being are predominantly acted upon by the material world and this colors their vital and mental efforts as well.

Sri Aurobindo describes it thus: “This physical soul is present everywhere in material Nature; it pervades the body, actuates obscurely its movements and is the whole basis of its experiences; it informs all things even that are not mentally conscious. But in man this physical being has become vitalised and mentalised; it has received something of the law and capacities of the vital and mental being and nature. But its possession of them is derivative, superimposed, as it were, on its original nature and exercised under subjection to the law and action of the physical existence and its instruments. It is this dominance of our mental and vital parts by the body and the physical nature which seems at first sight to justify the theory of the materialists that mind and life are only circumstances and results of physical force and all their operations explicable by the activities of that force in the animal body. In fact, entire subjection of the mind and life to the body is the characteristic of an undeveloped humanity, as it is in an even greater degree of the infra-human animal.”

As long as the soul remains under the predominant control of the physical being, it will take births that conform to the need to work out the issues at that level, until such time as it is prepared to move to the predominant action of the next level. “According to the theory of reincarnation those who do not get beyond this stage in the earthly life, cannot rise after death to the mental or higher vital worlds, but have to return from the confines of a series of physical planes to increase their development in the next earthly existence. For the undeveloped physical soul is entirely dominated by material nature and its impressions and has to work them out to a better advantage before it can rise in the scale of being.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 20, The Lower Triple Purusha, pg. 442

The Desire-World and the Material World

When one takes up the practice of Yoga, one of the first issues to arise is how to deal with the force of desire. Desire for family, wealth, food, sex, power all are attractions with which the seeker must grapple. In order to truly solve this issue, the seeker needs to understand the actual relation between desire and his life in the physical body.

For most people, the arising of desires and the attempt to fulfill them does not lead to any self-reflection. It is just considered to be a natural process. This viewpoint actually has given impetus to the line of thought that believes the solution is to withdraw from active life in the world, thereby not giving any opportunity for the fulfillment of desires, as well as the more extreme paths which ask the seeker to “mortify” himself in order to provide a negative feedback loop whenever any kind of desire arises within him.

Sri Aurobindo takes a deeper view of the situation and points out that the vital world, or “desire-world” is actually the creator of the material world, infuses its energies and values into the physical world for its own purposes, and contains forces and beings who are constituted to work out and carry out various aspects of vital fulfillment. “In fact, the material world is really a sort of projection from the vital, a thing which it has thrown out and separated from itself in order to embody and fulfil some of its desires under conditions other than its own, which are yet the logical result of its own most material longings. Life on earth may be said to be the result of the pressure of this life-world on the material, inconscient existence of the physical universe.”

Most people when they think about other worlds or planes of existence, or “locations” such as heaven or hell, treat these as if they are physical locations outside or separate from the world within which we live and function. Sri Aurobindo observes that the vital worlds, and also the mental and other higher worlds are not geographically distant, but actually represent subtler sheathes which infuse and co-exist on a subtler level right here, and that there are interactions between these worlds and our world of physical existence. “The influences of the life-world are always pouring out on the material existence and producing there their powers and results which return again upon the life-world to modify it. From that the life-part in us, the desire-part is being always touched and influenced; there too are beneficent and malefic powers of good desire and evil desire which concern themselves with us even when we are ignorant of and unconcerned with them.”

Just as we have forms of conscious awareness in our physically-predominant world, so there are also conscious beings on each of the other planes, formed and acting from their predominant principle, in this case, the vital principle with its desire-fulfillment needs. “As we awaken to the higher planes of our existence, we become aware of them as friends or enemies, powers which seek to possess or which we can master, overcome, pass beyond and leave behind.”

In order, therefore to truly begin to address the action of desire upon the seeker through Yoga, these relations must be understood. “For the supra-material is as much a reality as the existence of mental beings in the material universe.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pp. 434-435

The Relation of Purusha and Prakriti in the Desire World of the Vital Principle

When we view the intensity of the relation between Purusha and Prakriti in the framework of Matter, we can easily succumb to the idea that this is the only possible relationship and that the Purusha either becomes immersed in the world of Matter under the control of Prakriti, or else has to abandon that life by complete detachment and separation. Sri Aurobindo observes, however, that each principle of existence, Matter, Life, Mind, Supermind, as well as Sat, Chit, Ananda in the upper range, is able to make its own unique set of conditions, principle of action and corresponding relationship between the soul and Nature. What one might imagine, therefore, to be a fixed and unvarying relation between the two is actually only operative in this material universe and manifestation.

Sri Aurobindo describes the principles and operative relations that arise when the vital principle, the Life principle is actually dominant: “In this world forms do not determine the conditions of the life, but it is the life which determines the form, and therefore forms are there much more free, fluid, largely and to our conceptions strangely variable than in the material world.” Where the world of Matter appears to be inconscient, the vital world is one of evident consciousness expressing itself. It seeks for fulfilment of desire and achievement of enjoyment. “Desire and the satisfaction of impulse are therefore the first law of this world of sheer vital existence, this poise of relations between the soul and its nature in which the life-power plays with so much greater a freedom and capacity than in our physical living; it may be called the desire-world, for that is its principle characteristic.”

Due to the fluidity of the principle of life, the actual forms such a world and life can take are extremely variable, and can therefore create a series of different manifestations depending on whether it is aligned more closely to the material principle, or the higher principle of Mind, or even other principles such as the Psychic Being, or the spiritual realms of Sat-Chit-Ananda.

The principle of desire represents a separation and experience of something lacking, and in attempting to achieve the objects of desire, the soul then takes on the experience of pleasure and of pain, enjoyment and suffering. “It is here therefore that there are situated the lowest heavens and all the hells with the tradition and imagination of which the human mind has lured and terrified itself since the earliest ages. All human imaginations indeed correspond to some reality or real possibility, though they may in themselves be a quite inaccurate representation or couched in too physical images and therefore inapt to express the truth of supraphysical realities.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 19, The Planes of Our Existence, pp. 432-433