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

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

Fulfilling the Human Aspiration For a Deeper Meaning to Existence

The material life in the world, presented to the human individual as the reality within which he has to live, strive and survive, is not the entirety of existence. Eventually, the human soul wakens to deeper stirrings and feels the human aspiration for something more and greater that can provide the context for the life we experience. Sri Aurobindo observes: “Science gives us the objective truth of existence and the superficial knowledge of our physical and vital being; but we feel that there are truths beyond which possibly through the cultivation of our subjective being and the enlargement of its powers may come to lie more and more open to us. When the knowledge of this world is ours, we are irresistibly impelled to seek for the knowledge of other states of existence beyond, and that is the reason why an age of strong materialism and scepticism is always followed by an age of occultism, of mystical creeds, of new religions and profounder seekings after the Infinite and the Divine.” Sri Aurobindo calls this, in The Life Divine, “The Human Aspiration” and it is clear that there is a deep-seated dissatisfaction which continually prods us with the sense that “this world is not all there is.”

Even for those who start from the attempt to simply understand the material world, the larger issues quickly come to the fore. A search into the microcosm of existence shows an incredibly powerful and extraordinarily well-organized structure for all Matter. When we look into the environment we see intricate interactions that speak to a larger consciousness that has organized it. Searching for answers to physical life, the scientist discovers unseen powers that can be codified into laws of physics and then applied to our lives, powers such as electricity, the electro-magnetic spectrum, nuclear energy, or gravitation, for instance. Looking outside we can find immense galaxies and universes interacting, expanding and contracting, with immense distances and powers that cannot even be fully imagined. Scientists go on to discover that Matter itself is Energy, and that Energy is Consciousness, and this launches the quest of science into the realm of consciousness and the spiritual paths of Yoga.

“We come to see that what is present to our physical senses is only the material shell of cosmic existence and what is obvious in our superficial mentality is only the margin of immense continents which lie behind unexplored. To explore them must be the work of another knowledge than that of physical science or of a superficial psychology.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 20, The Lower Triple Purusha, pg. 439