The Essential Process of Ascent and Integration of Spiritual Progress

By putting emphasis on ‘headline’ spiritual experiences and attempting to hold onto them or repeat them, the seeker is potentially losing sight of the larger process that is taking place to effect the transformation of the nature. All progress represents what may be called a ‘vertical ascent’ to a higher level of conscious awareness. This may come through an experience that either takes the seeker to that higher plane for a time, or else, brings the force of that plane down into his normal awareness for a time. The experience is intended to create a connection to that higher energetic force, and to bring the individual into an awareness of it and prepare him for its action. It comes, does its intended work, and then recedes, so that the seeker may allow that force to work within him, open up new pathways of understanding, change habitual patterns of action, etc. This process is one that is called ‘integration’ of the experience, or, as the Mother terms it, “horizontal progress” to consolidate what has occurred with the ‘vertical’ progress. The two go together and both are necessary for any true change of human nature to take place.

What people also lose sight of frequently is the fact that each experience, when it comes, is manifesting in a particular time, place and circumstance in the seeker’s sadhana, and even if a similar experience comes at a future time, it must be somewhat different as it meets the seeker under different circumstances, after the earlier experience has done whatever it was supposed to do.

The point of spiritual experience is not to attach one’s ego to it, but to allow it to open up and change the nature, prepare it for further progress and allow the contact and opening to create opportunities for further, greater experiences and realizations.

The Mother writes: “Now, at a particular time, a set of circumstances, inner and outer, has caused one to be receptive to a certain vibration; for example, as you say, while looking at the stars or contemplating a landscape or reading a page or hearing a lecture, one has suddenly an inner revelation, an experience, something that strikes him and gives him the impression of being open to something new. But if you want to hold on to this tightly like that, you will lose everything, because one can’t keep the past, one must always go forward, advance, advance. This illumination must prepare you so that you can organise your whole being on this new level, in order to be able suddenly, one day, to leap up again to a higher step.”

“There is a horizontal advance between abrupt ascents. It is the moment of the abrupt ascent which gives you an impression of something like a revelation, a great inner joy. But once you have climbed the step, if you want to climb it once more you would have to go down again. You must go on preparing yourself at this level in order to climb another higher step. These things which suddenly give you a great joy are always ascents. But these ascents are prepared by a slow work of horizontal progress, that is, one must become more and more conscious, establish more and more perfectly what one is, draw from it all the inner, psychological consequences, and in action also. It is a long utilisation of an abrupt leap and, as I say, there are two kinds of progress. But the horizontal progress is indispensable.”

“You must not stop, you must not cling in this way to your vertical progress and not want to move because it has brought you a revelation. You must know how to leave it in order to prepare for another.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter VII Growth of Consciousness, Inner Experiences, pp. 145-146


Spiritual Progress Requires Non-Attachment to Specific Spiritual Experiences

The external being wants to have a stable basis by which it can understand and act in the world. The tools that support this stable basis include habit, fixed tendencies, instincts, education, memory and even the way the mental processes work, comparing new impulses of the senses to past memory to create pattern recognition and fixed lines of action. Psychologists have even concluded that neural pathways are built that, through repetition, lead the understanding down well-worn ways of understanding and acting, and which tend to solidify the life into predictable responses.

These things provide stability and are one of the conservative mechanisms that ensure that there is an orderly progression in the life that has a basis that is solid, steady and sure. The energy required to overcome this inertia of the external being is quite considerable, yet progress can only occur when an individual is able to pass beyond the limits of the past ways of knowing and acting.

The same thing happens with respect to spiritual experiences. The individual wants to continually repeat the experiences once they have made an impression on him, and then goes about classifying, organizing and remembering those experiences, and uses this mental framework to try to recapture the magic of that past event. In a certain way, this may help during a period of consolidation and fixing the experience into the external workings of the mind, life and body, but to the extent it remains fixed there, the individual cannot progress to the next new level of understanding and experience.

A devotee inquires: “Mother, why is it that the same contemplation does not always produce the same sensation in oneself? That is, for example, when one looks at the sea or the stars and thinks of one’s insignificance, then there is a particular sensation which is produced within, and then at another time, when one wants to have the same experience, even if one thinks about it, why doesn’t it recur?”

The Mother notes: “One can never have the same experience twice because one is never the same person twice. Between the first experience and the second, even if one hour has passed, you are no longer the same man and you can never reproduce identically the same thing. If you take care to become more conscious, more sincere, more concentrated, the experience you have will be different, but it may be deeper and more clear. But if you cling to something you have had and want to reproduce the same thing, you will have nothing at all, because you can’t have the same thing and you are in a state in which you refuse to have a new experience, for you are attached to the past one. And usually when one has had an experience which was a revelation, something altogether important, one doesn’t want to leave it, one is afraid of not having it any longer, and so, in this movement of clinging on to something, one prevents oneself from progressing and puts oneself in conditions in which one can’t have the next experience.”

“Well, this has to be understood, because it is an absolute fact: one can never have the same experience twice. There may be similar experiences, very close, and particularly some which appear similar, but these experiences… if one is absolutely sincere, impartial and like a blank page, he will perceive that there is a difference, sometimes an essential one, between the two, though in appearance they seem very close. But the more ready you are to leave behind all that you have experienced, in order to be able to go towards something better and higher, the faster you will go; the more you drag the heavy weight of all the past which you don’t want to get rid of, the slower is your advance.”

“All the past should always be simply like a stepping-stone or a ladder, something to lead you farther; it should not have any other use except to push you forward. And if you can feel this and always turn your back on what is past and look at what you want to do, then you go much faster, you don’t waste time on the way. What makes you lose time is always this clinging to what has been, to what is, what seemed to you beautiful and good in what is past. This must only help you, you must not reject it, but it must help you to go forward, it must simply be something on which you lean to take a step forward.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter VII Growth of Consciousness, Inner Experiences, pp. 144-145

One Should Be Greater Than One’s Experience

Whenever an individual has any kind of powerful emotion or experience, he tends to “lose himself” in that experience. He becomes angry, or lustful, or ecstatic, or joyful and the feeling takes over his entire being and for a time, he “is” that force. The same thing can, and does, tend to happen with spiritual experiences, particularly those that are intense and which demand attention when they occur. The experience fills the body-life-mind of the external being.

As the spiritual seeker cultivates the growth of consciousness beyond the limits of the body-life-mind complex, however, he becomes aware of a separation between the true inner being, the psychic being or soul-nature, and the external being; or else, he finds that he takes a separate standpoint as a ‘witness’ of the nature. Either way, he is able to observe the action without losing himself entirely in the experience. It is through this shift of standpoint that one also realizes that there are always further heights to scale, greater experiences, and larger opportunities as the consciousness continues to grow and evolve.

It is also helpful if the seeker is able to hold this separation of awareness, so that he does not become imbalanced and lose all sense of proportion and the varying needs that arise to interact with the world, and deal with time, place and circumstances in a realistic and practical way, something that may not occur if the seeker becomes too attached to a particular experience and what he believes it signifies.

For instance, there are individuals who experience the oneness of all existence and therefore say “I am God”. As long as they recognize that everyone else, and each event and circumstance is also ‘God’ they can find a way to maintain balance; however, if they fail to maintain that balanced view, they may put themselves, or others, in harm’s way or otherwise do things which are not in keeping with the harmony in their surroundings.

The Mother comments on the statement ‘One must always be greater than one’s experience.’

The Mother observes: “Whatever may be the nature, the strength and wonder of an experience, you must not be dominated by it to such an extent that it governs your entire being and you lose your balance and your contact with a reasonable and calm attitude. That is to say, when you enter in some way into contact with a force or consciousness which surpasses yours, instead of being entirely dominated by this consciousness or force, you must always be able to remind yourself that it is only one experience among thousands and thousands of others , and that, consequently, its nature is not absolute, it is relative. No matter how beautiful it may be, you can and ought to have better ones: however exceptional it may be, there are others still more marvellous; and however high it may be, you can always rise still higher in future. So, instead of losing one’s head one places the experience in the chain of development and keeps a healthy physical balance so as not to lose the sense or relativity with ordinary life. In this way, there is no risk.”

“The means?… One who knows how to do this will always find it very easy, but for one who doesn’t know it is perhaps a little… a little troublesome. … There is a means. … It is never to lose the idea of the total self-giving to the Grace which is the expression of the Supreme. When one gives oneself, when one surrenders, entrusts oneself entirely to That which is above, beyond all creation, and when, instead of seeking any personal advantage from the experience, one makes an offering of it to the divine Grace and knows that it is from This that the experience comes and that it is to This that the result of the experience must be given back, then one is quite safe. … In other words, no ambition, no vanity, no pride. A sincere self-giving, a sincere humility, and one is sheltered from all danger. There you are, this is what I call being greater than one’s experience.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter VII Growth of Consciousness, Inner Experiences, pp. 143-144

The Spiritual Experience Gets Watered-Down or Lost As It is Transcribed into the Mental Framework

Human beings are essentially dependent on their mental perception in order to function in the world. This mental perception frames what we see, how we experience it, and our interpretation. We thus try to transcribe anything provided to us by our senses (or provided directly to the mind without reliance on the senses) into a mental framework. It is similar to the idea that we try to translate one language into another, where the one language has heavy inflection, inference and subtle meanings that are not truly captured in the language into which it has been translated. Something is ‘lost” in the translation. Similarly, there is a divergence between the mental framework of the logical, sequential, analytical intelligence and the creative, comprehensive and combining intelligence. Thus, it is virtually impossible for the logical intellect to understand and pick up all that is being communicated through a work of art or a piece of music, for instance.

This provides a background for understanding the difficulty the mind has in perceiving, understanding, interpreting and communicating the truth and essence of spiritual experiences, which require a different type or form of understanding than that provided by the mind. For this reason, many people who have deep spiritual experiences wind up having them in a state of deep inward focus, a trance state of Samadhi, or else, they may describe what they can as a type of dream-state. In these cases, there is simply no “bridge” between the spiritual experience and the mental framework which provides the everyday understanding of the individual, and thus, the experience cannot be explained or held by the mind. Additionally, the attempt to transcribe the experience into a mental framework winds up shifting the focus from the spiritual, where the experience actually occurs, to the mental, where it is simplified and stored as a memory, without the power of the original experience.

The Mother writes: “For most people an experience exists only when they can explain it to themselves. The experience in itself — contact with a certain force, a widening of consciousness, communion with an aspect of the Divine, no matter what experience, an opening of the being, the breaking down of an obstacle, crossing over a stage, opening new doors — all these experiences, if people cannot explain them to themselves in so many words and materialise them in precise thoughts, it is as though these did not exist! And it is just this need for expression, this need for translation, which causes the greater part of the experience to lose its power of action on the individual consciousness. How is it that you have a decisive, definitive experience, that, for instance, you have opened the door of your psychic being, you have been in communion with it, you know what this means, and then –it does not stay? It is because it does not have a sufficiently tangible power unless you can express it to yourself. The experience begins for you only when you are able to describe it. Well, when you are able to describe it, the greater part of its intensity and its capacity of action for the inner and outer transformation has already evaporated. There it may be said that expression, explanation is always a coming down. The experience itself is on a much higher plane.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter VII Growth of Consciousness, Inner Experiences, pg. 142

Why Speaking About One’s Spiritual Experiences Can Be Counter-Productive to the Sadhana

It is a quite natural impulse. An individual has an extraordinary, unusual and in some cases, inexplicable experience, outside of his normal realm of experiences. Either through vital enthusiasm, a feeling of ego-aggrandisement due to the extraordinary nature of the experience, or through sense of fear or concern about what the experience is and what significance it has, he wants to communicate it to others. There is a very strong ego-driver that can motivate this need to describe, explain and otherwise take credit for having had the experience. The individual is also frequently being encouraged by others to talk about it, and there is a type of vital and emotional validation that can accompany a discussion about an experience.

The seeker who does this, however, often finds that the inner power that was acting seems to have dissipated or withdrawn at that time. There is a mechanism at work here. The spiritual force works in its native element and is most effective when it is not being watered down through interpretation, transcription or some kind of mental process. One can almost see it as a high power electrical line going through a ‘step down” transformer. In this case, the mind and the emotional-vital relation of the event means that it has been filtered, analyzed and otherwise subjected to the mind’s process. It moves the experience from a spiritual energy into a mental memory or explanation. In so doing, the seeker has short-circuited the action of the force.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The usual rule given by yogis is that one should not speak of one’s experience to others except of course the Guru while the sadhana is going on because it wastes the experience, there is what they call ksaya of the tapasya. It is only long past experiences that they speak of and even that not too freely.”

“The Light left you because you spoke of it to someone who was not an adhikari. It is safest not to speak of these experiences except to a Guru or to one who can help you. The passing away of an experience as soon as it is spoken of is a frequent happening and for that reason many yogis make it a rule never to speak of what happens within them, unless it is a thing of the past or a settled realisation that nothing can take away.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter VII Growth of Consciousness, Inner Experiences, pp. 141-142

The Need for Spiritual Discrimination, the Ability to Distinguish the Pure from the Impure

As the spiritual seeker develops the sadhana over time, eventually he is confronted with lights, voices, and energies that come to him. It is not sufficient for him to simply accept that whatever comes is to be seen as valid and supportive of his spiritual aspiration. Spiritual discrimination, the ability to distinguish between the pure and the impure, the higher and the lower, the light and the dark forces is essential.

Sri Aurobindo recommends several possible ways to accomplish this. One way is to work toward the attainment of the witness consciousness separate from the external nature. This witness, uninvolved, separate and free, can view all the reactions of body, life and mind with an impartial view and can thereby see clearly the source and intention of whatever comes before its view.

The other method is to have the soul, the psychic being, come forward and use its sense of purity as a spiritual compass to distinguish the differences. This is not the same as conscience, which is generally based in moral precepts trained into an individual and enforced by a mental understanding, but rather, a deeper ‘knowing’ of the source and energy of what one is experiencing or perceiving.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “Lights are of all kinds, supramental, mental, vital, physical, divine or Asuric — one has to watch, grow in experience and learn to know one from another. The true lights however are by their clarity and beauty not difficult to recognise.”

“The current from above and the current from below are familiar features of yogic experience. It is the energy of the higher Nature and the energy of the lower Nature that become active and turned towards each other and move to meet, one descending, the other ascending. What happens when they meet depends on the sadhak. If his constant will is for the purification of the lower by the higher consciousness, then the meeting results in that and in spiritual progress. If his mind and vital are turbid and clouded, there is a clash, an impure mixture and much disturbance.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter VII Growth of Consciousness, Inner Experiences, pg. 140-141

Three Rules for the Spiritual Practitioner with Respect to Experiences

What to do about spiritual experiences when they come? When we have a revelation of some sort, when we hear a communication that provides us insight or guidance, how are we to know whether it is truthful or misleading? Can we determine the source of the clairvoyant or clairaudient communication to be able to know, with certainty, that it is guidance we can trust and rely on?

Not only spiritual forces can exert their pressure on the mind-life-body complex. In particular we note that vital powers and beings can, and do, try to gain some level of control over the seeker once the protective walls of the external being have been lowered or breached as the seeker becomes more aware of the inner existence and with that, the energies, powers and forces of the subtle physical, vital and mental planes, as well as the spiritual.

Sri Aurobindo provides some succinct ‘rules’ for the seeker that can help him avoid the type of harm that can occur by following guidance that is flawed, or worse. The first is basically to not allow the enjoyment of the experience to take hold of the vital nature and build a desire for a repeat, or an enhancement. This can lead to a lot of distraction as well as error. The second is to accept the experience without attachment so that one remains free and can act as a witness without taking ‘ownership’ of it. The third is basically to recognise that everything in this world is of a mixed nature, that our reception and our interpretation, the filter we apply, can lead to enormous distortions that can corrupt what the experience is actually intending to bring, and can lead the seeker to accept those experiences, visions, voices that tend to inflate the ego and aggrandise the vital nature.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “… there are three rules of the sadhana which are very necessary in an earlier stage and which you should remember. First, open yourself to experience but do not take the bhoga of the experiences. Do not attach yourself to any particular kind of experience. Do not take all ideas and suggestions as true and do not take any knowledge, voice or thought-message as absolutely final and definitive.”

“These voices are sometimes one’s own mental formations, sometimes suggestions from outside. Good or bad depends on what they say and on the quarter from which they come.”

“Anybody can get ‘voices’ — there are first the movements of one’s nature that take upon themselves a voice — then there are all sorts of beings who either for a joke or for a serious purpose invade with their voices.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter VII Growth of Consciousness, Inner Experiences, pg. 139-140

The Process of Changing Human Nature

When we take up the question of how to go about changing human nature, we are confronted with the difficulty of that attempt. Instincts, habits, trained responses, ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ all conspire to maintain the status quo. When we attempt to make any change, we run up against the opposition of this status quo within ourselves, and the fact that the vital being can influence the mind to justify whatever it wants to do, even if those things are diametrically opposed to the evolutionary attempt.

Albert Einstein noted at one point that one cannot solve a problem with the same consciousness that created that problem. Thus, it is necessary to transcend the framework of the mind-life-body complex and its habitual patterns in order to effectuate real and lasting change. Yet, the process of transcendence is held back by the very nature that we would like to modify and transform.

This situation makes the change process one that requires patience, perseverance and a shift of standpoint. As long as we remain fixed in the normal human standpoint rooted in the body-life-mind, we cannot expect any substantive change to occur. Spiritual experiences, to the extent they show us the reality of another level or form of consciousness, are helpful to the extent they support our faith and widen our understanding. At some point, however, the consciousness needs to shift to a new basis in the soul, the psychic being, which can observe the functioning of the human instrument and guide it into new directions without attachment or involvement. The shift allows the individual to begin to exercise control over the outer nature and its habitual actions, reactions, patterns and processes.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “To change the nature is not easy and always takes time, but if there is no inner experience, no gradual emergence of the other purer consciousness that is concealed by all these things you now see, it would be almost impossible even for the strongest will. You say that first you must get rid of all these things, then have the inner experiences. But how is that to be done? These things, anger, jealousy, desire are the very stuff of the ordinary human vital consciousness. They could not be changed if there were not a deeper consciousness within which is of quite another character. There is within you a psychic being which is divine, directly a part of the Mother, pure of all these defects. It is covered and concealed by the ordinary consciousness and nature, but when it is unveiled and able to come forward and govern the being, then it changes the ordinary consciousness, throws all these undivine things out and changes the outer nature altogether. That is why we want the sadhaks to concentrate, to open this concealed consciousness — it is by concentration of whatever kind and the experiences it brings that one opens and becomes aware within and the new consciousness and nature begin to grow and come out. Of course we want them also to use their will and reject the desires and wrong movements of the vital, for by doing that the emergence of the true consciousness becomes possible. But rejection alone cannot succeed; it is by rejection and by inner experience and growth that it is done.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter VII Growth of Consciousness, Inner Experiences, pp. 138-139

The Role of Spiritual Experiences in the Change of Human Nature

The vital ego is attracted to the excitement of having experiences that are unusual or powerful. It therefore wants to find ways to repeat or expand upon them once they have had such an experience. In reality, however, there is very little of long-term value in this approach. The experiences come, and they go, and the individual remains essentially unchanged, other than perhaps being distracted enough to want to chase after experiences.

A spiritual experience can be valuable, if it awakens the seeker to a possibility or a direction he should take. It may also be useful if it brings forth a particular force that is needed for the transformation of the nature. The issue comes down to what the seeker does with this experience and how he works to integrate the beneficial aspects into his life. There is in that case a dual process of ascent, where the being rises to a new level with a new experience, and integration or consolidation, where the experience is brought to bear on the ordinary nature of the individual and work is done to effectuate true change in the nature.

Sri Aurobindo declares in his epic poem Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol, “A moment sees, the ages toil to express.” It is like that. The experience, the vision, the spiritual force comes and presents itself before the seeker. This momentary experience must then be converted and implemented to change the mind, the life-energy and even the physical body. The implementation process is not generally fast or easy, requiring considerable effort over time, bolstered by patience, and perseverance, and grounded in peace and certitude of the eventual success. This certitude is inherent in the soul, the psychic being, and informs its aspiration.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “Merely to have experiences of the higher consciousness will not change the nature. Either the higher consciousness has to make a dynamic descent into the whole being and change it; or it must establish itself in the inner being down to the inner physical so that the latter feels itself separate from the outer and is able to act freely upon it; or the psychic must come forward and change the nature; or the inner will must awake and force the nature to change. These are the four ways in which change can be brought about.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter VII Growth of Consciousness, Inner Experiences, pp. 137-138

Intensity of an Experience Does Not Guarantee Its Veracity

There are occasions when an individual experiences something that is so powerful, so intense, that it causes him to trust the experience. Spiritual experiences in particular can have a force that overwhelms the normal mental standpoint of the individual and impose themselves upon the seeker in a way that goes far beyond the normal action-reaction processes of the mind-life-body complex. It is easy in such an instance to believe that such a powerful experience represents a truth that cannot be denied.

There is however a caveat to be appreciated. When the barrier between the external mind-life-body complex and the inner realms is breached, it can bring all manner of new experiences, many of them quite intense. This implies that some experiences may represent spiritual forces, while others arise from mental, vital or subtle physical realms. Another issue is the interpretation and filtering done as the outer being receives and transcribes the experience. In this case, any impurity, weakness or simply lack of complete background and understanding can cause the external being to apply its own interpretation that can clearly misconstrue what is actually occurring.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “I do not question at all the personal intensity or concreteness of your internal experiences, but experiences can be intense and yet be very mixed in their truth and their character. In your experience your own subjectivity, sometimes your ego-pushes interfere very much and give them their form and the impression they create on you. It is only if there is a pure psychic response that the form given to the experience is likely to be the right one and the mental and vital movements will then present themselves in their true nature. Otherwise the mind, the vital, the ego give their own colour to what happens, their own turn, very usually their own deformation. Intensity is not a guarantee of entire truth and correctness in an experience; it is only purity of the consciousness that can give an entire truth and correctness.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter VII Growth of Consciousness, Inner Experiences, pp. 137-138