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

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

Liberation Should Precede the Attainment of the Cosmic Consciousness

The ego-personality actually can be a form of protection for the unprepared soul in the world, as it limits the range and power of action. If a person breaks out of the framework provided by the small ego-personality, and comes into contact with and active conscious interaction with the larger universal, cosmic forces, this can result in an enlarged form of egotism and lead to devastating results due to the self-aggrandisement that can occur, combined with the greater powers at play at that level.

The liberation of the Self from the active Nature aids the seeker in avoiding the trap of this larger ego-action and thus, provides the best foundation for expansion into the cosmic consciousness and the new powers of which the seeker becomes aware that act in that larger field.

Without that liberation, forces that work at the cosmic level can control and manipulate the individual who is not properly prepared and resistant to the lure of those forces taking advantage of the ego-motives to turn the individual into a plaything and instrument of, in some cases, very hostile actions, including demonic possession of various sorts as can be seen with the rise of Hitler in the 20th Century. The results can be catastrophic, both for the individual and for the world.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “Liberation is the first necessity, to live in the peace, silence, purity, freedom of the self. Along with that or afterwards if one wakens to the cosmic consciousness, then one can be free, yet one with all things.”

“To have the cosmic consciousness without liberation is possible, but then there is no freedom anywhere in the being from the lower nature and one may become in one’s extended consciousness the playground of all kinds of forces without being able to be either free or master.”

“On the other hand, if there has been Self-realisation, there is one part of the being that remains untouched amid the play of the cosmic forces — while if the peace and purity of the self has been established in the whole inner consciousness, then the outer touches of the lower nature can’t come in or overpower. This is the advantage of Self-realisation preceding the cosmic consciousness and supporting it.”

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

Understanding the Inner Being

As long as we remain on the surface of our being, and rely entirely on the physical senses and the nervous system of the vital being and the mental processes focused on these outer sensations, actions and phenomena, the inner depths of our being remain hidden from us, occult, and not quite treated as real.

Western researchers, including notable C.G. Jung, dedicated their life work to coming into contact with the inner realms of being and identifying how these inner planes impacted our outer life. As a result of his research, Jung determined there was a ‘collective unconscious’ that had a storehouse of images and experiences which secretly acted upon the outer nature. There are many in traditional cultures who go on what are sometimes called “vision quests” where they seek to leave behind the surface perceptions and experience realms that operate to influence and control the outer life, but which remain, for the most part, unseen. Yogis and sages, through the processes of meditation and yogic practices, have sought to contact this inner realm of being and shift the standpoint there.

The surface consciousness has very little, if any, direct appreciation of the occult forces at work to shape its perceptions and actions. It is influenced by forces that work indirectly in many cases. The inner being is in touch with these forces and has the ability to see them at work and respond to them directly. Some people, who are sensitive and attuned to the inner being, can sense other beings nearby, can sense vital forces impinging upon them, and can experience thoughts entering from outside. The practice of yoga, which is a form of applied psychology, can open the individual to an appreciation of these inner realms.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The inner being is composed of the inner mental, the inner vital, the inner physical. The psychic is the inmost supporting all the others. Usually it is in the inner mental that this separation first happens and it is the inner mental Purusha who remains silent, observing the Prakriti as separate from himself. But it may also be the inner vital Purusha or inner physical or else without location simply the whole Purusha consciousness separate from the whole Prakriti. Sometimes it is felt above the head, but then it is usually spoken of as the Atman and the realisation is that of the silent Self.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Witness Consciousness, pp. 179-181

The Transitional Stage of Shifting from the Outer Surface Consciousness to the Inner Consciousness

At a certain stage of spiritual development, seekers tend to go through a phase where the world, its actions, objects, goals and results seem to be an illusion. The philosophical path of Mayavada resulted from just such an insight and experience. The seeker sees that everything is transitory and ephemeral in nature, that the objects of our desires and the fruits of our actions all crumble into dust and are not permanent. Everything changes and dies. There is nothing one can hold onto in the world that is not subject to death and dissolution. Buddhism has also clearly enunciated a similar position in the exposition of the four noble truths, which, when contemplated, are intended to liberate the individual from attachment to the world.

Mayavada did not arise from some abstract reasoning process, but from an experience of the transitory nature of existence. Sri Aurobindo has added his insight to show that this is part of a process of moving the consciousness inwards from the surface being, and at a certain stage the feeling and experience makes the outer world seem unreal. This temporary stage allows the development of non-attachment to the objects of the world, and thereby provides an opening for the inner connection to be developed. At a later stage, this new standpoint can provide the guidance to the outer nature and manage the transformation process.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The condition in which all movements become superficial and empty with no connection with the soul is a stage in the withdrawal from the surface consciousness to the inner consciousness. When one goes into the inner consciousness, it is felt as a calm, pure existence without any movement, but eternally tranquil, unmoved and separate from the outer nature. This comes as a result of detaching oneself from the movements, standing back from them and is a very important movement of the sadhana. The first result of it is an entire quietude but afterwards that quietude begins (without the quietude ceasing) to fill with the psychic and other inner movements which create a true inner and spiritual life behind the outer life and nature. it is then easier to govern and change the latter.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Witness Consciousness, pp. 179-181

The Emergence of the Witness Purusha

The recognition of the separation of the Purusha, the inner witness consciousness and the Prakriti, the active nature that operates in the mind, life and body, is an important step in the practice of yoga, whether for total abandonment of the outer world and liberation of the being, or as an essential phase in the eventual transformation of the nature to take up and manifest the divine intention without the distortions caused by the ego-consciousness.

Sri Aurobindo describes the experience of the emergence of the Purusha, and its potential to change the direction and scope of action of the Prakriti. He also reminds the seeker that the transformation process is not one that can occur overnight, as the body-life-mind complex is bound by habitual patterns of long-standing nature, and this is actually amplified by the corresponding habits in the society and in material nature itself. All of these embedded patterns were developed for a reason over time, and they have an incredible amount of inertia that makes them hard to shift into a new direction or mode of action.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The consciousness you speak of would be described in the Gita as the witness Purusha. The Purusha or basic consciousness is the true being or at least, in whatever plane it manifests, represents the true being. But in the ordinary nature of man it is covered up by the ego and the ignorant play of the Prakriti and remains veiled behind as the unseen Witness supporting the play of the Ignorance. When it emerges, you feel it as a consciousness behind, calm, central, unidentified with the play which depends upon it. It may be covered over, but it is always there. The emergence of the Purusha is the beginning of liberation. But it can also become slowly the Master — slowly because the whole habit of the ego and the play of the lower forces is against that. Still it can dictate what higher play is to replace the lower movement and then there is the process of that replacement, the higher coming, the lower struggling to remain and push away the higher movement. You say rightly that the offering to the Divine shortens the whole thing and is more effective, but usually it cannot be done completely at once owing to the past habit and the two methods continue together until the complete surrender is possible.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Witness Consciousness, pp. 179-181

Understanding the Witness Consciousness — the Separation of Purusha and Prakriti

We tend to identify with the perceptions, sensations, desires, feelings and thoughts we experience and through the ego-consciousness, we take ownership of them and believe that they are what makes up our unique individuality. When we sit quietly, and turn our attention away from the outer world, we experience the internal dialogue that takes place as we process all of these impinging forces and their impact on our brain and nervous system. We remain identified with them. Those who tend to be less outgoing, whom we call introverted, remain focused on the external world and its pressures, and their internal process remains very much the same, focused on the thoughts, feelings, etc. related to their ego-personality. None of this represents the ‘witness consciousness’ that Sri Aurobindo describes.and which develops from the separation of Purusha and Prakriti as found in the traditional teachings of the Sankhya.

The Separation of Purusha and Prakriti actually implies that both the external actions and reactions, and the internal review and dialogue that occurs are seen as “external” and separate from the inner being. The Purusha observes but does not get involved nor attached to any of the actions of Prakriti. Prakriti includes both the outer and the inner activity. The Shwetashwatara Upanishad states “Two winged birds cling about a common tree, comrades, yoke-fellows; and one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, the other eats not, but watches.” This more or less describes the relation of the witness consciousness to the active external nature.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is not possible to distinguish the psychic being at first. What has to be done is to grow conscious of an inner being which is separate from the external personality and nature — a consciousness or Purusha calm and detached from the outer actions of the Prakriti.”

“There is a stage in the sadhana in which the inner being begins to awake. Often the first result is the condition made up of the following elements: 1. A sort of witness attitude in which the inner consciousness looks at all that happens as a spectator or observer observing things but taking no active interest or pleasure in them. 2. A state of neutral equanimity in which there is neither joy nor sorrow, only quietude. 3. A sense of being something separate from all that happens, observing it but not part of it. 4. An absence of attachment to things, people or events.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 7, Experiences and Realisations, The Witness Consciousness, pp. 179-181

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