The Self and the structure of the personality — part 1
The Concentric System
last revision: March 20, 2017

The concentric system is the term Sri Aurobindo uses to describe what one encounters when one ventures inward from the surface nature in the direction of one’s innermost self. In the concentric system, Sri Aurobindo distinguishes three major realms: an outer nature and an inner nature—both part of prakṛti, universal Nature—and an inmost, or true nature, which belongs to the puruṣa, the Self.


Outer nature is the term Sri Aurobindo uses for that part of being that a person is conscious of, at least to some extent, in his or her normal everyday life. The longer one studies oneself, the clearer it becomes that this outer nature is only a tiny part of one’s existence as a whole. Freud speaks about the tip of an iceberg, Sri Aurobindo uses an even stronger metaphor, “We are not only what we know of ourselves but an immense more which we do not know; our momentary personality is only a bubble on the ocean of our existence” (LD, p. 576). In this outer nature, physical, emotional, cognitive, and conative elements are all mixed-up together. When a person gets angry, for instance, one’s body and mind tend to be as much involved as one’s feelings. On the surface, thoughts are rarely entirely free from emotional coloring. Bodily states—like tiredness and freshness, illness and health—affect the way an individual feels and thinks; the mind affects the way one feels both emotionally and physically. The situation gets more complicated because the outer nature is the end result of the “immense more” mentioned above, of which most are not at all aware. The main purpose behind the complex concepts and maps used in this article is to help the reader find his or her way through these inner realms. Furthermore, these maps might help individuals see more clearly from where their feelings, thoughts, and actions arise, and how they could be changed.


Inner nature is the term Sri Aurobindo uses for that part of the being, which is not fully accessible to an individual in his or her ordinary waking consciousness. The word inner might give the impression that one is dealing only with a small, dark, and purely private territory. The opposite is true. The inner nature, according to Sri Aurobindo, (a) is vaster and more luminous than the outer nature; (b) has access to broader and higher ranges of experience and knowledge; and (c) is more, not less, connected to others and the rest of the world (LD, pp. 442, 554–564). Though Sri Aurobindo sometimes uses the word subconscious to describe this part of the human nature, he prefers the term subliminal,subliminal which indicates that it is that part of a person that is below the threshold of one’s ordinary outer awareness without implying that it is smaller or less conscious than the outer nature.

Most people are not aware of what the subliminal contributes to their lives except indirectly through unexplained feelings and changes of mood, through dreams and other special states, or through sudden thoughts and flashes of insight, which the subliminal throws up onto the surface. According to Sri Aurobindo all these contributions from the subliminal are possible because the person, in the subliminal, is connected vertically to layers above and below his or her ordinary awareness and horizontally to other people and to the myriad of forces and beings that surround the person (LD, p. 580, p. 605, p. 681, pp. 761–763). The part of the subliminal that deals with an individual’s own deeper and higher being, Sri Aurobindo calls here the intraconscient. It is through the intraconscient that a person can become aware of those aspects in his or her own nature which one has no access to in one’s ordinary waking state. The intraconscient includes the area that Freud calls the unconscious. The intraconscient also includes the ranges above the ordinary waking consciousness of which Jung explores certain parts (Coward, 1985). The part that connects an individual to others and to the play of cosmic forces that exist all around, he calls the circumconscient. It is through the circumconscient part of the inner being that Sri Aurobindo sees most parapsychological perceptions taking place (p. 556–557).

Partial glimpses of the inner nature can be experienced through dreams. Dreams are, however, not really the royal road Freud holds them to be. They are more like incidental cracks in the wall that separates the inner from the outer nature. To explore the inner nature systematically, an expert level of inner observation and training is required that, as has been discussed in the introduction, involves a relocation of one’s center of perception inwards.


True being and central being are terms Sri Aurobindo uses for what one can experience as a kind of vertical axis at the core of one’s individualized existence. While the outer and inner natures belong to prakṛti, one’s true being is the puruṣa. Above all planes and worlds, it is the jīvātman who eternally and immutably presides over the manifest nature. The jīvātman is one’s highest individualized essence. Still further above it is the ātman, one’s true universal essence. Both can be experienced as the true Self— far above the ordinary earthly existence, transcendent, immutable, and eternal  if not beyond time. Deep within one’s embodied being, behind the heart is the soul, the psychic entity, which represents the jīvātman in its incarnate existence (LY — I, p. 56 onwards). The discussion will return to these and other aspects of the Self and soul in more detail in a later section on the various centres of identity.

Figure 1-2-1a. The concentric system

A simplified diagram of the concentric system could then look like Figure 1-2-1a. In Figure 1-2-1a one can notice on the right the parts of the nature, and on the left the types of knowledge that give access to them. See Chapter 6 for more details on these four types of knowledge. Appendix 1.2.1 gives some more info on how defective assumptions and methods of enquiry have limited what mainstream psychology can see.


subliminal. Latin sub, below + Latin limen, threshold.

This file: 1-2-1-whoami-concentric.php
Next file: 1-2-2-whoami-vertical.php