The Intuitive Truth

Observations On The Work Of Sri Aurobindo

In the world of Transpersonal studies mystics and theorists rarely mix.  In truth the relation between the two is often filled with mutual disdain and a mistrust bordering on antagonism.  Mystics frequently view theorists as rigid, empirically compulsive, soulless thought brokers whose need for evidence, order and explanation drains the metaphysical of its wonder and divinity.  Anxious to return the favor, theorists often deride the mystics as starry eyed idealists totally devoid of the detachment and critical abilities necessary to discriminate fact from fantasy.  The hard reality is both remain dependant on the other.  Without mystical experience theorists would have nothing to underlie their studies and without theorists mystics would have little to validate their experiences and impressions.  Of course, the line between the two is never so neatly drawn.  Few have heard of the transpersonal theorist whose interest doesn’t stem from some personal spiritual episode or intuition.  Nor have I met the mystic lacking a theory as to how their impressions derive from and square with the physical world.  Rare is the player who credibly switch hits to both sides of the transpersonal field; much less one who enjoys a high measure of esteem from members of each.  The late Indian yogi Aurobindo Ghose, respectfully and popularly known as Sri Aurobindo remains one of the foremost of these versatile anomalies.

Immortalized in statuary, coins and stamps, Aurobindo is revered as both a founding father of modern India and one of its great spiritualists.  Though gone from this corporeal plane for over sixty years, his thoughts, theories and writings continue to exert considerable influence on the transpersonal field.  Showing little metaphysical inclination in his early life, after graduating from Cambridge Aurobindo returned to India where he applied himself to political and social activism.  Only in his late thirties would he turn towards those spiritual pursuits that would ultimately define his life.  As an accomplished yogi, in 1926 he founded an ashram and small spiritual community in the southeast Indian city of Pondicherry with the French woman Mirra Richard, (nee Alfassa).  Known as “the Mother,” Richard became Aurobindo’s lifelong collaborator and co-teacher.

Equal parts philosopher, psychologist, academic, mystic, occultist and poet Aurobindo was an imaginative thinker and a highly prolific writer.  The sum total of his essays, letters and poetry are currently in excess of 40,000 pages.  Regrettably, Aurobindo’s basic writing skills lag far behind his existential insights.  Any way you cut it, this guy is an excruciating read.  More rambling stream of consciousness than tightly structured prose, Aurobindo’s profundity is difficult to collar.  His meandering run on sentences, tortured grammatical structure, peculiar punctuation, archaic vocabulary and awkward turns of phrase demand a tight focus.   Multiple readings of each sentence are frequently required to decipher his intent.  Mercifully, the results are usually worth the effort.

Aurobindo’s contribution to the fields of both transpersonal studies and psychology began with a fundamental ordering of existence into a series of stages of consciousness.  He refers to this model as Integral Yoga Psychology, (IYP.)  Rather than being purely reductive, it represents an all encompassing, holistic approach to psychological understanding.  Aurobindo conceives of consciousness or awareness as an independent and dynamic entity not intrinsically bound to material forms.  He believes everything within existence possesses some degree of this consciousness.  He differentiates the qualitites or “evolution” of this omnipresent consciousness like steps on a staircase.   Resembling a loose synthesis of traditional Indian philosophies and drawing liberally on their terminology, Aurobindo labeled this vertical series the “Planes of Consciousness.”  Beginning with the lowest level of base matter (the densly unconscious) he charts the developmental process of consciousness upward towards it’s highest culmination of full awareness which he alternately calls the transcendent Divine, Sacchidananda or Brahman.  He identified the simultaneously ascending and descending levels of conscious movement, (it works both ways, more on this later,) as follows:

1. Sacchidananda (Brahman, the Divine)

2. Supermind (infinite consciousness)

3. Overmind (cosmic consciousness)

4. Intuitive Mind

5. Illumined Mind

6. Higher Mind

7. Mind

8. Vital (realm of emotions, sensations, urgings)

9. Subtle Physical

10. Physical (the base body)

11. Subconscient (the unconscious)

12. Inconscient (base matter)

Each of these stages delineates a degree of conscious awareness or a level of psychic capability.  In the mystical game awareness is what it’s all about; the coin of the realm, stripes on the sleeve, the position on the pole.  Awareness is the grand ticket to the ultimate goal of highest understanding; dare we say the purpose of our sound and fury?  But the journey is long.  At the lower levels (stages 9-12) limited consciousness exists in entities that would otherwise seem purely material and inanimate.  Predictably, there’s not a whole lot of psychic awareness happening at this level.  But ever the self motivator, consciousness by its very nature is perpetually impelled to grow higher and larger.  With each upward step its capacity of awareness increases.  Climbing out of the materially static it evolves to a level found in simple living entities.  Here its capabilities are basically reactive in nature; bend to the light, find the food, fight or flight.  Developing greater cognitive capacities as it moves ever upward, within human beings consciousness possesses a sense of self awareness or mind.  As mind develops so does conscious ability. Higher levels of consciousness allow for the emergence of spiritual awareness; a sense of something greater.  In the final steps of development consciousness begins to incrementally realize its true supramental essence culminating in a recognition of the ultimate and original state of Sacchidananda, the unified, singular Divine whole.  There it is, the whole psychic process of awareness in a nutshell; matter to life to mind to spiritual awareness to fusion with the Ultimate.  It all seems so simple.

These categories represent the broad strokes relevant to the evolution of consciousness.  Aurobindo compliments this structure by laboriously expounding on the specifics and processes occurring within each stage as awareness ascends from its lowest material incarnation to its eventual recognition of and reconciliation with its ultimate nature.  This complete picture of consciousness development has been widely integrated within the concepts of many a psychological and transpersonal theorist.  It’s easy to understand why.  Both disciplines just love the idea of stages.  To them every psychic or emotional condition is perpetually in the process of coming from or going to somewhere else.   Such formalized paradigms provide a ready framework for charting and explaining the otherwise elusive and unseen processes within consciousness.

The insights within the Planes of Consciousness were quick to catch on.  A former Aurobindo student, Indra Sen would effectively combine the principles of IYP with the ideas of Freud and Jung to formally anoint the modern field of Integral Psychology.  The discipline soon attracted scores of devotees as did the Integral concept itself.  Within the transpersonal field elements of Aurobindo’s stage model permeate the literature and have drawn the admiration and commentary of such seminal figures as Michael Murphy, Ken Wilber and a host of others.  While many have tried to fine tune or elaborate on this structure few question its essential and enduring value.

Aurobindo was much more than an impersonal, calculating theorist.  While many readily ascribe to stage development models of consciousness/ transpersonal awareness/ spiritual development (Aurobindo’s or others) few dare speculate on the deeper, more specific spiritual phenomena underlying these psychological categories.  Possibly constrained by ignorance, uncertainty, a sense of spiritual relativism or base humility most are hesitant to take a stab at defining the character and properties of the Ultimate.  Aurobindo demonstrates no such sensitivity or restraint.  Underlying his stage development theory is a complete and fully evolved concept of the Divine and its grand scheme for existence.  Aurobindo’s spiritual audacity goes beyond just defining the nature of the Ultimate.  As if drafting a handbook of the supernatural he vividly relates the how’s, what’s and why’s of those mystical forces present at any of the prescribed stages and what they reveal about the meaning and processes of our essential nature.  Aurobindo fearlessly brings an experiential dimension and immediacy to what would otherwise remain the sterile realm of the purely theoretical.

Aurobindo’s spiritual philosophy begins with a fundamental belief; at the heart of all existence lays a singular and eternal entity known as the Divine consciousness.  This ultimate entity is possessed of intelligence, creativity and purpose and forms the essence of all within existence.  Echoing the core philosophies of most of the eastern wisdom traditions, this essential entity doesn’t exist beyond, above or apart from us; it is us and we are it.  The hidden truth, contrary to appearances, is all within existence are just different aspects of this Divine singularity.  The trick to realizing this idea is getting beyond the world of surface appearance.  Aurobindo stresses the common perception of existence being comprised of separate or individual material entities is misplaced.  All material perception is pure illusion; the only reality is the consciousness of the Divine.  Everything we think we see is actually a continuous part of the one Supreme self or spirit and is filled with its essence, awareness or consciousness.  Rocks, water, plants, animals or humans, it matters not.  Everything is a different manifestation of the consciousness or spirit of the Divine.

The method by which entities are created and spiritually infused by the Divine consciousness is a calculated process referred to as “involution.”  Involution occurs when the Divine consciousness differentiates or reconstitutes a portion of its infinite nature into the matter of our world.  Though sounding complicated it’s actually very simple and relatable.  New entities and consciousness never actually separate from the Divine but directly project, extend or emanate outward into different forms within our physical world; like the hairs on our head or leaves at the end of a branch, separate in appearance but ultimately connected to the source.  Involution is conceived as the initial “descending” process of the highest elements of consciousness out to the lower forms.  This is the essential nature of being.  Those who worship at the shrine of modern science should note that involution initially happened (though it continues to happen) before the emergence of time and space.   Consciousness has always been present within the essential building blocks of matter before those material processes as we understand them began.

This spirit of Divine consciousness that seeps or involves into human beings constitutes what Aurobindo refers to as the soul, the psychic principle or the permanent being within us all.  Soul comes directly from the Divine and forever remains connected to the source.  Aurobindo believes our soul functions as a tool of the Divine which uses our mind, life and body as an extension of itself.  As such, the soul is much more than just a peripheral presence; it may very well represent the very purpose of our existence.  Soul guides our being.  We are all “the instruments for the progressive manifestation of the Divine within the material being.”

Unfortunately, because of the nature and limitations of our sense perceptions most remain ignorant of these fundamental dynamics underlying existence.  But take heart, redemption is possible.  The road back from our confinement in the ignorance of sense perception to the realization of our true interconnected nature is termed “evolution.”  Aurobindo believes the development of certain psychological disciplines (yogic practice for one) is the ticket towards regaining the awareness of the ultimate nature of being.  This spiritual evolution takes place gradually and proceeds through the above listed Planes of Consciousness.  The ultimate goal of consciousness is to recognize and release itself into the grand perfection of the Divine Consciousness from where it first arose.  He claims this culmination of awareness to be the ultimate aim of human existence.

Having laid out the essential ontological imperative of existence Aurobindo begins expounding on the specific phenomena driving this process.  This is where the fun begins.  You see, it’s more than just our true nature that hides from our perception.  Aurobindo asserts we exist within a sea of unseen universal forces (Prakti) that perpetually influence who we are and the course of our lives.  These forces relentlessly swirl around and through we poor humans.  For the most part we remain oblivious to their existence.  Some of these forces such as electromagnetism or gravity are well known.  Others have as yet avoided scientific detection and description.  However, Aurobindo believes all these fields of energy to be filled with powerful psychic qualities. Best conceived of as “vibrations,” or “resonances,” they emanate from the numerous different agencies within existence; the Divine Consciousness, other bodies of worldly matter (animate and inanimate) and those entities existing within different dimensions of existence (there are many of these).  If only we had the proper sensory capability we would realize we exist like fish within a vast ocean of psychic vibration to which we are perpetually interacting.

Aurobindo cryptically defines the most essential of these psychic energies as secret world forces and subtle physical forces.  These unseen powers operate on the subtle (or unrecognized) level of our being.  They originally descend from the Divine consciousness and are considered to be supraphysical. On the corporeal level these forces form and animate our material being and endow us with our personal form.  Cognitively, they shape and organize the character and dimensions of each of our particular psyches.  They make us who and what we are.  These are the stimuli ultimately compelling us to spiritual evolution.  However, not all of these energies have an immediate or apparent effect.  Many remain internalized and lie deep within us in a realm beneath our consciousness known as the subconscient where to the delight of Freudians everywhere they exert their influence without our awareness. Still other forces of the Divine fail to penetrate our physical being at all.  Many are destined to exist above and beyond the scope of our consciousness in the realm Aurobindo calls the superconscient.

Once ultimately endowed with our forms and conscious awareness all become subject to other more immediate psychic influences that Aurobindo refers to as mind forces.  Mind forces are powerful and dynamic presences emitted from the presence and actions of other entities and are constantly stimulating and influencing our everyday thoughts and behavior.  Aurobindo believes every entity within existence, from stones to insects to humans fills the ether with their own respective energies that act as causal factors on the being of others.  He conceives of the atmosphere as a force field filled with an almost infinite number of energy signatures that influence us individually and collectively in accordance with numerous factors.  From this perspective all of existence becomes a vast interrelated exchange of energies; a perpetual psychic game of give and take.  Human thought and feeling is especially powerful and susceptible.   Aurobindo notes how the totality of our thoughts, actions and emotions “radiate particles into the atmosphere” that all sense and respond to.  Though few realize, each individual is simultaneously a receptacle and propagator of these existential energies.  Like a leaf floating on the surface of a stream we are constantly reacting to the dynamic psychic forces driving existence.  Revealing a pronounced theosophical bend, he notes how this condition explains the existence of telepathy, clairvoyance, remote viewing, and other common psi phenomena.  He further claims the power of thought can be harnessed to actively manipulate reality, create matter out of the ether, cure or ward off disease, modify the thoughts and feelings of others or be marshaled to create protective energy fields to deflect harmful powers.

Lest any become too enamored of the potential positive power of our thoughts, Aurobindo cautions of a distinctly darker dimension within the psychic force of existence.  Befitting a more complete picture of the human psyche, he notes such negative feelings as greed, envy, hatred and anger can create distinctly harmful real world effects.  He ominously warns of a realm filled with powerful and malevolent sentiments called the Vital.  Existing alongside and intermixing with our terrestrial world, the Vital is a plane of existence filled with ill will, disorder and the ”anti-divine” and is constantly fed by the vibrations of our negative emotions.  Like all energies radiating within existence, these darker forces also affect our being.  True to their character they cunningly lure us into falsehoods, ignorance and evil.  If only it ended there.  Unfortunately, the Vital is much more than just an existential dumping ground for our darker thoughts.  Drawn by the vibrations generated by our negative emotions, it’s filled with supernatural malevolent entities and beings actively seeking us harm.  Whether they be mischievous gremlins causing us to overlook objects otherwise in plain sight or vampire like creatures who actively suck the life forces from our bodies, the Vital is home to a wide range of sinister and deceptive forces who feed on the energies of our lesser virtue.  The Vital is just one psychic mechanism insuring we literally reap what we sow.   In Aurobindo’s perspective the progress of earthly life seems to be a continual battle between the supraphysical forces that lift and illumine and those that would thwart our upward evolution.

Reading Aurobindo gives great pause to those clinging to any traditional notions of free will.  Adrift in an existential ocean of unknown yet powerful causative forces it’s difficult to imagine we retain much control over the course and quality of our own individual lives.  Aurobindo does little to disavow this notion.  He fatalistically notes while not everything within existence is predetermined we are certainly not as free as we think.  He casually speculates only about ten percent of our actions are free from outside determinates.  Compelled to elaborate on this concept, The Mother once remarked the forces of existence “don’t determine whether you want one lump of sugar or two with your tea,” however, beyond that she was not prepared to say.  Ever the metaphorical master, Aurobindo is fond of likening our existence to that of a “singular drop of water atop a giant wave.”  In our limited perspective we may think we are choosing but clearly we are being moved along in a specific direction by forces inconceivably larger than ourselves. Ultimately Aurobindo believes the only true free will in this world is the will of the Divine; the truth in Nature.

Delving into the realm of Aurobindo is quite the departure for those accustomed to investigating the transpersonal through the cautious reason, detachment and circumspection so common of academicians and other “responsible” scholars.  Such restraint is understandable given the field of transpersonal study is by definition focused on elements and forces beyond normal perception and examination.  It’s quite apparent Aurobindo’s approach exudes considerably more certitude than most.  This is quite remarkable considering the unseen and unverifiable permeate virtually every dimension of his existential perspective.  Even his apparently reasonable and argumentatively rational theory on the Planes of Consciousness contains distinctly metaphysical undercurrents.  Aurobindo’s theories are in so many ways grounded within his own uninhibited subjective experience.  Rarely does he proceed from any basis of empirical agreement, develop the excruciatingly structured chain of reason common to most philosophy or rely on other sources (apart from other mystics).  As such, many of his assertions are perpetually dogged by questions of credibility.

When first penned, Aurobindo’s mysticism may have seemed quite imaginative.  Such is no longer the case.  In actuality, twentieth century science has been very accommodating to many elements of his once controversial metaphysics.  Such ideas as a unified existence awash in an all pervasive energy field of interrelating causation and reaction, matter being essentially composed of packets of dynamic energy lacking any degree of static character and the electromagnetic nature of thought are now commonly accepted.  Considerable modern research suggests such phenomena as clairvoyance, telepathy, psychokinesis and many other types of psychic abilities have an empirical grounding.  Even the dramatic notions of the existence of multiple universes and other dimensions of existence are now the current rage of physicists and mathematicians.  To a great extent it would seem science has caught up with and is now validating Aurobindo’s conception of the hidden forces of existence.

Of course little within the current scientific perspective accounts for the origin of existence much less the possibility of a Divine entity exercising specific intentions.   At this point we must assess for ourselves how rationally Aurobindo has structured his intuitions around the core assumption that soul, spirit, awareness or consciousness has an independent reality apart from and uncreated by any material entity.   If this essential premise be granted, Aurobindo’s conception of the involution and evolution of such awareness through the Planes of Consciousness displays a simple and credible train of reason.  The assumption that any diffused quality or entity spreads from its source through the actions of some process (and any process by definition can be broken down into a series of sequential, evolutionary stages) seems beyond doubt.   This logic remains regardless of whatever the quality or entity in question may be.  That regaining an awareness of this ultimate source (Sacchidananda) by moving backwards through the same stages of diffusion seems reasonable if not obvious.

Surprisingly, Aurobindo is uncharacteristically reserved on the predominant question hovering over his entire body of work; why would the Ultimate, Transcendent, Divine Consciousness wish to or need to involve into lower forms?  For what purpose does the Divine use humans and lesser entities as its instruments?  As all in existence are just various aspects of the same singular consciousness, nothing we experience or encounter in our differentiated state would be outside of or unknown to the Divine.  Are we to believe all of existence is merely an elaborate form of self entertainment?  Historically, many of lesser inhibition have advanced a multitude of different theories far too numerous to elaborate here.  Aurobindo frequently confesses not to know the aim of the Divine.  His only certainty is the Divine is manifested within each of us and our ultimate purpose as human beings is to try and recognize our Original state.  One can’t help but feel somewhat empty at this turn.  Or is possible Aurobindo is answering us with his restraint?  Could it be regardless of the degree of conscious awareness humans ever acquire, there are some questions we are fated never to know?  Will the answers only appear when we are relieved of this corporeal incarnation and reawaken within our original nature?  Who can be sure?

That certain questions and curiosities continue to swirl about the body of Aurobindo’s work does little to diminish the impressive nature of his thought.  In an age of excruciating academic specialization it’s rare to find someone capable or willing to extrapolate the grand from such a multitude of specifics in such an otherwise cohesive and thorough manner.  That Aurobindo has dared to unite all elements and dimensions of existence within a credible system is quite the feat.  The value of this work within the field of transpersonal studies is obvious.  Presenting a version of the big picture helps us define and conceptualize the object of our study while simultaneously providing a framework from which additional investigation may proceed.  Nor should we ignore the possibility that Aurobindo’s metaphysical explanations of the nature of existence drawn from his own thought and experience are right on the mark in their current form.  Certainly there remain many superficialities and vagaries within his structure begging for greater and necessary detail.   However, all issues of rational defensibility may be of little consequence.  For many, Aurobindo’s assertions inspire a strong sense of truth that resonates deep within the core of their being; an instinctive and intuitive sympathy that ultimately transcends all matters of verifiability.  Perhaps it’s this subjective dimension that ultimately lies at the heart of his enduring appeal.

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