Yoga as Applied Psychology

Sri Aurobindo notes that yoga is applied psychology. This implies that many of the techniques of awareness, adjustment and modification that are part of the yogic process can be successfully applied to anyone who seeks to address a disturbance in the being.

Another important factor raised by Sri Aurobindo is the identification of the part of the being to which a disturbance belongs, and the ability thereby to understand in more detail the nature of the disturbance, the causes of the disturbance and the needed application of focus and effort to resolve that disturbance. By unraveling the complex nature of human response in this way, Sri Aurobindo provides us with extraordinary leverage to effectuate change in the being.

Dr. Dalal writes: “… Sri Aurobindo’s yoga distinguishes psychological disturbances according to the part or plane of the being to which they belong. … Many methods and principles of Integral Yoga are of a general nature, being applicable to disturbances of any part of the being.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, Mental Health and Integral Yoga, pp. xxxii-xxxvii

The Integral Yoga’s View of Mental Health

Mental health in the West is generally understood to be a ‘negative’ state, the absence of various forms of disruptions that affect whether and to what extent an individual can conform or fit into the society and meet its expectations. The integral yoga views mental health in an entirely different sense, with an affirmative definition. This definition includes an alignment with a purpose-filled life, the infusion of awareness and joy in its higher sense of Ananda, and the recognition that the outer being, with all its normal day-to-day challenges, disruptions and concerns is not our true being.

Sri Aurobindo speaks of a triple transformation of the consciousness. The first stage of this transformation is called the psychic transformation, whereby the psychic being, the true soul in man, comes forward and takes control of the outer instruments of body, life and mind, and harnesses them for its higher purpose in the evolutionary development of consciousness.

Dr. Dalal notes: “The quintessence of mental health, from the viewpoint of Integral Yoga, lies in a change of consciousness, from one that is governed primarily by the outer consciousness of the physical, the vital or the mental to one that reflects more and more an inner or a higher consciousness. It is only by such a change of consciousness that one can be freed from psychological disturbances which, as elaborated in the preceding pages, are an inherent part of the ordinary physical, vital and mental consciousness in which we live most of the time. The kind of change of consciousness that is favoured most in Integral Yoga is that of ‘psychicisation’, which lies in bringing the mind, the vital and the physical under the domination of the psychic. Such a change can be brought about gradually when the discovery of one’s inmost being becomes more and more the dominating purpose of one’s life. Before one discovers one’s inmost being, one usually comes in contact with parts of the being which are intermediate between the outer being and the inmost being. Such a contact with these intermediate planes of the being, referred to in Integral Yoga as the subliminal or the inner parts of the being, does liberate one from the disturbances of the outer consciousness. However, it is only by psychicisation that one can not only free oneself from the influence of the disturbances but also transform the outer consciousness so as to rid it altogether of all disturbances and establish an immutable state of positive mental health.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, Mental Health and Integral Yoga, pp. xxxii-xxxvii

The Influence of the Psychic Being on the Body, Life and Mind

The action of the psychic being is subtle, more of an influence than a direct action in the lives of most people who are focused on fulfilling the needs and objectives set by their body-life-mind complex of their external being. The influence can be experienced and felt in the way the external being responds to situations and the inner state of awareness. One experiences the psychic being’s influence more directly through an attitude of receptivity and openness to it, along with a sense of gratitude and goodwill that allows the influence to act most effectively.

Dr. Dalal observes: “… the psyche is covered over by the outer nature of mind, life and body. However, the psyche exercises a constant, though indirect, influence on the outer being. There are brief moments or relatively enduring periods in the lives of most of us when we are most strongly under the influence of the psyche. During such moments or periods, we feel a certain state of inner well-being which we may experience differently at different times, as a state of peace, faith, joy, strength, love, aspiration, or simply goodwill towards all. The hallmark of such a state of psychological well-being which results from contact with one’s psyche, as distinguished from an ordinary state of ‘feeling good’, is that the psychic state of well-being is not dependent on outer conditions, such as favourable circumstances, good health, etc. On the contrary, a state of psychic well-being is often experienced in spite of unfavourable outer conditions.”

“Such a state of psychological health has been described by the Mother in speaking about the initial state of people when they come to live in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. She says: “Some of them come with a mental aspiration, either to serve or to learn; others come in the hope of doing yoga, of finding the Divine and uniting with Him; finally there are those who want to devote themselves entirely to the divine work upon earth. All of them come impelled by their psychic being, which wants to lead them towards self-realisation. they come with their psychic in front and ruling their consciousness; they have a psychic contact with people and things. Everything seems beautiful and good to them, their health improves, their consciousness grows more luminous; they feel happy, peaceful and safe; they think that they have reached their utmost possibility of consciousness. This peace and fullness and joy given by the psychic contact they naturally find everywhere, in everything and everybody. It gives an openness towards the true consciousness pervading here and working out everything. So long as the openness is there, the peace, the fullness and the joy remain with their immediate results of progress, health and fitness in the physical, quietness and goodwill in the vital, clear understanding and broadness in the mental and a general feeling of security and satisfaction.”

Dr. Dalal continues: “The above-quoted passage describes what, from the viewpoint of Integral Yoga, would be regarded as a state of ‘mental health’. Two things may be noted about such a state as described above. First, the state of psychological well-being is described in terms of the physical (‘health and fitness in the physical’), the vital (‘quietness and goodwill in the vital’) and the mental (‘clear understanding and broadness in the mental’), as well as an over-all sense of inner well-being (‘a general feeling of security and satisfaction’). Secondly, such a state of psychological health is ascribed to the fact that the psychic is in front and rules the consciousness, and gives one ‘a psychic contact with people and things’.

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, Mental Health and Integral Yoga, pp. xxxii-xxxvii

The Psychic Being — the Nature of the Soul

.When we try to understand what is meant by the term ‘soul’ we run up against a confusing mix of ideas about what the soul actually is. Similarly, the use of the term ‘psychic’ has its own issues with confused interpretation. Recognising the need to have some term in English that can be employed to describe the true soul in man, the spark of the Divine that utilizes the mind, life and body as its vehicle of experience in life, Sri Aurobindo developed the term ‘psychic being” after first clearly distinguishing those aspects in common parlance that are not actually the ‘soul’ or the ‘psychic’ element in man.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The word soul is very vaguely used in English — as it often refers to the whole non-physical consciousness including even the vital with all its desires and passions. That was why the word psychic being has to be used so as to distinguish this divine portion from the instrumental parts of the nature.”

“The soul is a spark of the Divine Spirit which supports the individual nature; mind, life, body are the instruments for the manifestation of the nature. In most men the soul is hidden and covered over by the action of the external nature; they mistake the vital being for the soul, because it is the vital which animates and moves the body. But this vital being is a thing made up of desires and executive forces, good and bad; it is the desire-soul, not the true thing. It is when the true soul (psyche) comes forward and begins first to influence and then govern the actions of the instrumental nature that man begins to overcome vital desire and grow towards a divine nature.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, Mental Health and Integral Yoga, pp. xxxii-xxxvii

Addressing the Difficulties of the Transformation of the Vital Nature

To effectuate a total transformation of the mind-life-body and its action in the world, it is necessary for the seeker to address and solve the issue of the vital being, its desires, and the ego-standpoint that it fosters and maintains.

Methods that essentially try to fight with the vital nature tend to not succeed. Suppression or methods of penalizing the vital being for its recalcitrance wind up backfiring and causing more disruption or a total stance of non-interest and non-cooperation. It is best to find a way to engage the vital nature in the value, purpose, benefit and necessity of cooperation in the endeavour and thereby obtain its willing and whole-hearted support. The mind and heart may be willing, but there may simply not be the capacity in those instruments to carry through this work on their own. This will necessitate the direct action of the Force in the vital arena.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “However that be, the descent of the sadhana, of the action of the Force into the vital plane of our being becomes after some time necessary. The Force does not make a wholesale change of the mental being and nature, still less an integral transformation before it takes this step: if that could be done, the rest of the sadhana would be comparatively secure and easy. But the vital is there and always pressing on the mind and heart, disturbing and endangering the sadhana and it cannot be left to itself for too long. The ego and desires of the vital, its disturbances and upheavals have to be dealt with and if not at once expelled, at least dominated and prepared for a gradual if not a rapid modification, change, illumination. This can only be done on the vital plane itself by descending to that level. The vital ego itself must become conscious of its own defects and willing to get rid of them; it must decide to throw away its vanities, ambitions, lusts and longings, its rancours and revolts and all the rest of the impure stuff and unclean movements within it. This is the time of the greatest difficulties, revolts and dangers. The vital ego hates being opposed in its desires, resents disappointment, is furious against wounds to its pride and vanity; it does not like the process of purification and it may very well declare Satyagraha against it, refuse to co-operate, justify its own demands and inclinations, offer passive resistance of many kinds, withdraw the vital support which is necessary both to the life and the sadhana and try to withdraw the being from the path of spiritual endeavour. All this has to be faced and overcome, for the temple of the being has to be swept clean if the Lord of our being is to take his place and receive our worship there.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 9, Transformation of the Nature, Transformation of the Vital, pp. 246-259

Sri Aurobindo’s View of the Supramental Transformation

The spiritual landscape is vast, and there are innumerable objectives and paths that can be taken. Sri Aurobindo describes briefly his approach to spiritual growth and its relation to the process of an evolution of consciousness in the earth-nature to incorporate what he calls the supramental transformation as a next step in the evolutionary progression. He also clarifies that the existence of the supramental realm and individual seeking to embody it is not ‘new’ but that his yogic vision is for this to become a human potential and realisation, not just one of individual yogis undertaking their own spiritual development more or less as an individual power of perfection. The goal of Sri Aurobindo is not individual liberation or perfection, but the uplifting and transformation of life on the planet through the supramentalisation process as this power of consciousness manifests and undertakes to change mind, life and body.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “There are different statuses (avastha) of the Divine Consciousness. There are also different statuses of transformation. First is the psychic transformation, in which all is in contact with the Divine through the individual psychic consciousness. Next is the spiritual transformation in which all is merged in the Divine in the cosmic consciousness. Third is the supramental transformation in which all becomes supramentalised in the divine gnostic consciousness. It is only with the last that there can begin the complete transformation of mind, life and body — in my sense of completeness.”

“You are mistaken in two respects. First, the endeavour towards this achievement is not new and some yogis have achieved it, I believe — but not in the way I want it. They achieved it as a personal siddhi maintained by yoga-siddha — not a dharma of the nature. Secondly, the supramental transformation is not the same as the spiritual-mental. It is a change of mind, life and body which the mental or overmental-spiritual cannot achieve.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 8, The Triple Transformation: Psychic, Spiritual and Supramental, The Supramental Transformation, pp. 229-237

The Play of the Gunas in the Spiritual Path

The Bhagavad Gita places considerable emphasis on the need to understand the play of the Gunas, Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas, in all things. Yogic practice is not exempted from this play. Each of the Gunas has a specific set of characteristics, and they are not stable. The Gunas are always in motion. Doubt, fear, darkness, lack of effort, despondency or depression, all are signs of the predominance of Tamas. Ambition, energetic action, desire, grasping are all signs of the action of Rajas. Light, balance, harmony and understanding, steady, calm effort are the signs of Sattwa. As they go through their natural cycles, they intersect with the action of the divine Force as it descends into the being. As the intensity of the force alternates between periods of high intensity and low intensity, the receipt of the force and the assimilation phase, the practitioner may respond to these alternations based on the action of any of the Gunas, and thus, in some cases, there will be despondency, fear and a feeling of failure (Tamas) when the action is not visibly apparent. Similarly there may be attempts to grasp for the force and “storm the gates of heaven”, so to speak, if Rajas is ascendant. Ideally, the seeker will recognise the predominant Guna and take action to create balance and insight, the quality of Sattwa, which provides a smoother path forward as these alternations take place. At some point, the action of the Force and its impact on all the different aspects of human nature, the mind, the emotions, the vital and nervous being and the physical sheath, will resurface and whatever resistance or obstacles prevented its steady and visible action on the surface will have been worked out. The Gita provides the assurance that there need be no fear, as no effort at spiritual development is ever lost. Sri Aurobindo emphasizes that “he who chooses the Infinite has been chosen by the Infinite.” Thus, what cause is there for depression or despondency when the action takes on a less visible phase?

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The length of your period of dullness is also no sufficient reason for losing belief in your capacity or your spiritual destiny. I believe that alternations of bright and dark periods are almost a universal experience of yogis, and the exceptions are very rare. If one inquires into the reasons of this phenomenon, — very unpleasant to our impatient human nature, — it will be found, I think, that they are in the main two. The first is that the human consciousness either cannot bear a constant descent of the Light or Power or Ananda, or cannot at once receive and absorb it; it needs periods of assimilation; but this assimilation goes on behind the veil of the surface consciousness; the experience or the realisation that has descended retires behind the veil and leaves this outer or surface consciousness to lie fallow and become ready for a new descent. In the more developed stages of the yoga these dark or dull periods become shorter, less trying as well as uplifted by the sense of the greater consciousness which, though not acting for immediate progress, yet remains and sustains the outer nature. The second cause is some resistance, something in the human nature that has not felt the former descent, is not ready, is perhaps unwilling to change, — often it is some strong habitual formation of the mind or the vital or some temporary inertia of the physical consciousness and not exactly a part of the nature, — and this, whether showing or concealing itself, thrusts up the obstacle. If one can detect the cause in oneself, acknowledge it, see its workings and call down the Power for its removal, then the periods of obscurity can be greatly shortened and their activity becomes less. But in any case the Divine Power is working always behind and one day, perhaps when one least expects it, the obstacle breaks, the clouds vanish and there is again the light and the sunshine. The best thing in these cases is, if one can manage it, not to fret, not to despond, but to insist quietly and keep oneself open, spread to the Light and waiting in faith for it to come; that I have found shortens these ordeals. Afterwards, when the obstacle disappears, one finds that a great progress has been made and that the consciousness is far more capable of receiving and retaining than before. There is a return for all the trials and ordeals of the spiritual life.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 8, The Triple Transformation: Psychic, Spiritual and Supramental, The Spiritual Transformation, pp. 209-229

Addressing the Experience of the Dark Night of the Soul

There are periods in the life of virtually every spiritual seeker or religious practitioner when the active experience seems to withdraw and the individual is thrown back into a world and a life that seems empty, meaningless, dark and obscure, and the presence of the Divine is not felt any longer. The experience called the “dark night of the soul” describes such a stage in the spiritual life of the seeker, and the classic book of a dedicated religious seeker, ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’, describes the aspirant having to traverse the “slough of despond’ along the way.

The experience has several potential causes. First, there is the necessary time for assimilation of the force that was working and in some cases, it appears to withdraw but in fact continues to work. In other instances there is the rising up of movements of the lower nature as various energy centers are touched and energy is released. These movements can greatly cloud the spiritual flame of aspiration for a time and the seeker sometimes feels like he is drowning in a sea of lower vital movements, emotional disruptions or mental confusion. In other cases, the ego is actively involved in trying to appropriate the force for the fulfillment of the desires and the seeking is somewhat mitigated by this. Finally, there may just be the rajasic impatience of the vital ego that wants constant attention and when it withdraws or subsides for some reason, it feels abandoned.

Sri Aurobindo elsewhere points out that “he who chooses the Divine has been chosen by the Divine.” This assurance should let the seeker feel the confidence, and maintain the faith that ‘this too shall pass” and the darkness will at some point be overcome and the visible progress and experience of the higher Force will resume. If the seeking is sincere, it will eventually have its inevitable result.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is somewhat like that. That is to say, there are always alternations in the intensity of the Force at its work. It comes with great power and effects something that has to be done; then it is either concealed or retires a little or is felt but from behind a screen as you say, while something comes up that has to be prepared for illumination and then it comes in front again and does what has to be done there. But formerly while the support, help, even the deeper consciousness was always there, as you now rightly feel, yet when a veil fell, then it was all forgotten and you felt as if there was nothing but darkness and confusion. This happens to most sadhaks in the earlier stages. It is a great progress, a decisive advance if, at the time the Force is acting behind the screen, you feel that it is there, that the help and support, the more enlightened consciousness is there still. This is the second stage in the sadhana. There is a third when there is no screen and the Force and all else are always felt whether actively working or pausing during a transition.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 8, The Triple Transformation: Psychic, Spiritual and Supramental, The Spiritual Transformation, pp. 209-229

The Need for Time to Assimilate the Descent of the Divine Force

The vital nature craves excitement and signs of progress. It feels like time spent reflecting, relaxing, or contemplating may be ‘wasted time’. This is similar to the mindset that sees a vacant piece of land, with just plants, flowers and trees on it as ‘wasted’ as it has not been ‘developed’. Sri Aurobindo places some perspective on this viewpoint, as he recognises the importance and value of having the time and space for assimilation and integration of the new insights and energies. In the ancient texts the imagery is shown as the ascent of a mountain, and then a time needed for rest on the plateau before moving to the next phase of the climb. For an integral yoga that seeks the transformation of the nature, it becomes important not just to experience the force, but to be able to let it fill and build out the capacities of the mind, life and body. Thus, a rhythm ensues for the process, whereby there is an intense period of experience, followed by a slower quiet period. This mirrors the peak and valley wave patterns found in the electro-magnetic spectrum and follows the law of the vibratory patterns of oscillation between the time for the peak flow and the time of the ‘trough’ between the peaks.

When the seeker begins to see and understand this rhythm, there is less impatience and the rajasic impulses are modulated, providing a deeper insight and overview of the processes of the yoga, and encouraging the development of patience and persistence as core qualities for the long-term achievement of the goals of the yogic sadhana.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “As regards your own sadhana and those of others … I think it necessary to make two or three observations. First, I have for some time had the impression that there is a too constant activity and pressure for rapidity of progress and a multitude of experiences. These things are all right in themselves, but there must be certain safeguards. First there should be sufficient periods of rest and silence, even of relaxation, in which there can be a quiet assimilation. Assimilation is very important and periods necessary for it should not be regarded with impatience as stoppages of the yoga. Care should be taken to make calm and quiet strength and inner silence the basic condition for all activity. There should be no excessive strain; any fatigue, disturbance, or inordinate sensitiveness of the nervous and physical parts, of which you mention certain symptoms in your letters, should be quieted and removed, as they are often signs of overstrain or too great an activity or rapidity in the yoga. It must also be remembered that experiences are only valuable as indications and openings and the main thing always is the steady harmonious and increasingly organised opening and change of the different parts of the consciousness and the being.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 8, The Triple Transformation: Psychic, Spiritual and Supramental, The Spiritual Transformation, pp. 209-229

Understanding and Addressing Resistance in the Lower Being to the Descent of the Divine Force

There is a physical sensation that often accompanies the descent of the higher Force into the being. Some people relate this as a type of pressure in the head. Some experience headaches initially. Some find their being shaking to some degree as the nervous system absorbs and distributes the impulses. Some find that the sensation is as if there is a drilling process taking place at the top of the head. Other experiences are also related from time to time by those experiencing this descent.

Sri Aurobindo clarifies that these experiences are not due to the Force, per se, but due to the resistance it finds in the being as it descends. In most cases this is just in an initial stage as the individual is going through an entirely new experience. An important point is to widen the being to accommodate the force that is descending. Most people, when they experience anything new or even moderately painful, tend to “narrow” the being, to pull in upon their core body-life-mind and try to block the energy that is pressuring them. This habitual reaction may work to protect from external attacks, but eventually, it must be overridden by a conscious process of relaxing, widening and accepting the force as it enters. Once that occurs, the experience of pressure, or headache, etc. tends to disappear.

Similarly, any pressure that begins to open any of the chakras will tend to lead to an expression of the energy held within that centre. To the extent there are habitual patterns of expression, these will tend to arise. This is one concern, and rationale, for opening the higher centres, and bringing the psychic being in front, so as to mitigate the lower energies that would otherwise take advantage of the force for their own patterns of action. This will require some amount of effort to manage these lower energies should they arise, and redirect their focus and action based on the needs of the divine force.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The power does not descend with the object of raising up the lower forces, but in the way it has to work at present, that uprising comes in as a reaction to the working. What is needed is the establishment of the calm and wide consciousness at the base of the whole Nature, so that when the lower nature appears it will not be as an attack or struggle but as if a Master of forces were there seeing the defects of the present machinery and doing step by step what is necessary to remedy and change it.”

“The quiet flow is necessary for permeating the lower parts. The big descents open the way and bring constant reinforcement and the culminating force at the end — but the quiet flow is also needed.”

“Probably the accumulated Force became more than the physical being could receive. When that happens the right thing to do is to widen oneself (one can do it by a little practice). If the consciousness is in a state of wideness then it can receive any amount of force without inconvenience.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 8, The Triple Transformation: Psychic, Spiritual and Supramental, The Spiritual Transformation, pp. 209-229