The self and the structure of the personality — part 5
The vertical system
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: March 20, 2017

The vertical system is built around an ancient Vedic division in seven layers, which Sri Aurobindo calls The Sevenfold Chord of Being (LD, pp. 276–284). From top-down, the layers are:

  • Existence (sat),
  • Consciousness-Force (cit-tapas),
  • Bliss (ānanda),
  • Supermind (vijñāna, mahas),
  • Mind (manas),
  • Life, or Vital (prāṇa),
  • Matter (annam).3

There is a deep connection between psychology and cosmology in the Indian tradition, and Sri Aurobindo’s work is no exception. The individual and the cosmos are seen as two expressions of the same basic principles, and so it is not surprising that many of these terms apply with only minor modifications to:

  • levels and types of consciousness;
  • independently existing planes or worlds; and
  • forces and beings in these worlds.

The lowest three, Mind, Life, and Matter, are part of the complex evolving manifestation and, as such, these terms also apply to:

  • parts and planes in one’s own personal nature and
  • stages of collective and individual evolution.

Although in this hugely complex evolutionary world, these seven powers, or principles, overlap and intermingle, according to Sri Aurobindo (LD, p. 276), each of them also forms a more or less independent typal world, a plane of existence with a corresponding quality of consciousness. In the manifest evolutionary world, the different planes influence and penetrate each other, and there can be concrete formations that emanate from one plane into the other planes. We will now look at the vertical planes in some more detail—this time from the bottom upwards.

 

The Physical

Sri Aurobindo writes about the physical plane:

Each plane of our being — mental, vital, physical — has its own consciousness, separate though interconnected and interacting; but to our outer mind and sense, in our waking experience, they are all confused together. The body, for instance, has its own consciousness and acts from it, even without any conscious mental will of our own or even against that will, and our surface mind knows very little about this body consciousness, feels it only in an imperfect way, sees only its results and has the greatest difficulty in finding out their causes. It is part of the Yoga to become aware of this separate consciousness of the body, to see and feel its movements and the forces that act upon it from inside or outside and to learn how to control and direct it even in its most hidden and (to us) subconscient processes. But the body consciousness itself is only part of the individualised physical consciousness in us which we gather and build out of the secretly conscious forces of universal physical Nature.
There is the universal physical consciousness of Nature and there is our own which is a part of it, moved by it, and used by the central being for the support of its expression in the physical world and for a direct dealing with all these external objects and movements and forces. This physical consciousness-plane receives from the other planes their powers and influences and makes formations of them in its own province. Therefore we have a physical mind as well as a vital mind and the mind proper; we have a vital physical part in us — the nervous being — as well as the vital proper; and both are largely conditioned by the gross material bodily part which is almost entirely subconscient to our experience. (LY — I, pp. 201–202)

 

The Vital

Embodied life, in the details of its physical operations, has to follow the laws of physics and inorganic chemistry. But while it does that, it achieves something new that, at least in some aspects, seems to go against the basic spirit of the inorganic, physical reality. Plants and animals, for example, manage to reconstitute their immensely complex structures out of the utterly simple molecules of air, water, and soil in total disregard of physical nature's basic principles of inertia and entropy, its consistent tendency towards the dissipation of energy. As Sri Aurobindo remarked at several places, someone who knew only the purely physical world could never have predicted, or even imagined, the way life has developed on this planet (LD, p. 874; 1999, p. 186).

In terms of the Indian tradition, the origin of life on this planet is easier to understand. For example, in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (part ii) the life force is seen as a manifestation of the prāṇamaya kośa and, as such, it has a fundamentally different character than the material world, which belongs to the annamaya kośa. While the physical reality is dominated by tamas and its concomitant properties of inertia and entropy, the vital is characterized by rajas, energy, play, enjoyment, and self-assertion in ever more complex patterns of interchange. The way this is seen to operate in the process of evolution is beautifully explained in the Mundaka Upaniṣad (1.7-9). Life, as a type of consciousness, first involves itself in the near inconscience of matter, and then begins to evolve in there, while remaining part of that material world. Life does this by transforming the stuff of matter until it begins to manifest a mixture of its own physical characteristics with those typical of life. The details of the process are seen to be worked out under the influence of formative energies descending directly from the pre-existing life plane.

Philosophically, the process may remind one of the ideas that Plato describes in his Republic  (c. 380 BC /1992), but Sri Aurobindo has worked out the subtleties of the integration of descending and ascending forces in considerably more detail (see, for example, The Life Divine, Book II, Part 1, pp. 305–655). The end result could perhaps be seen as a form of realistic idealism (or idealistic realism) that bridges fashionable oversimplifications like the opposing views of evolutionism and intelligent design, or constructivism and essentialism.

For psychology, the most important point is that according to Sri Aurobindo, the self-existent joy and energy—which are typical of the life force in its own domain—undergo a specific degradation when life begins to manifest within the physical world (SY, p. 645). This degradation happens because of the way in which they are used there: In order to overcome the tamas of the physical reality, joy turns into need and desire, because only these can force physical organisms to wake up and become individually active as living creatures. At the human stage of evolution, this degradation becomes conscious and is then the source of much of human suffering. Especially when the life-force enlists the half-individualized human mind, the energy and enthusiasm of life turn into egoistic self-assertion with all the pain and suffering this brings with it. It is part of yoga to recover the joy that is inherent in life in its original state. About the vital as it appears within the human personality, Sri Aurobindo says the following:

The vital has to be carefully distinguished from mind, even though it has a mind element transfused into it; the vital is the Life nature made up of desires, sensations, feelings, passions, energies of action, will of desire, reactions of the desire soul in man and of all that play of possessive and other related instincts, anger, fear, greed, lust etc. that belong to this field of the nature. Mind and vital are mixed up on the surface of the consciousness, but they are quite separate forces in themselves and as soon as one gets behind the ordinary surface consciousness one sees them as separate, discovers their distinct action and can with the aid of this knowledge analyse their surface mixtures. (LY — I, p. 168)
  The vital . . . is a thing of desires, impulses, force-pushes, emotions, sensations, seekings after life fulfilment, possession and enjoyment; these are its functions and its nature; — it is that part of us which seeks after life and its movements for their own sake and it does not want to leave hold of them even if they bring it suffering as well as or more than pleasure; it is even capable of luxuriating in tears and suffering as part of the drama of life. What then is there in common between the thinking intelligence and the vital and why should the latter obey the mind and not follow its own nature? The disobedience is perfectly normal instead of being, as Augustine suggests, unintelligible. Of course man can establish a mental control over his vital and in so far as he does it he is a man, — because the thinking mind is a nobler and more enlightened entity and consciousness than the vital and ought therefore, to rule and, if the mental will is strong, can rule. But this rule is precarious, incomplete and established and held only by much self-discipline. For if the mind is more enlightened, the vital is nearer to earth, more intense, vehement, more directly able to touch the body. There is too a vital mind which lives by imagination, thoughts of desire, will to act and enjoy from its own impulse and this is able to seize on the reason itself and make it its auxiliary and its justifying counsel and supplier of pleas and excuses. There is also the sheer force of Desire in man which is the vital’s principal support and strong enough to sweep off the reason, as the Gita says, “like a boat in stormy waters”, nāvam ivāmbhasi. (p. 175)

The vital plane is often divided into three sub-planes (LY — I, p. 86):

  • the lower vital, which consists of the basic life instincts, fear, anger, small enjoyments, etc.;
  • the middle vital (or vital proper), which contains the larger life energies of power, ambition, and self-assertion; and
  • the higher vital, which deals with the more sophisticated emotions in the social realm, both positive like sympathy, compassion, sense of responsibility, or aesthetic sense, and negative ones like self-love, vanity, envie or guilt.

The discussion will return to these three sub-planes in the context of further descriptions of the cakras.

 

The Mind

In the mind, one will find an entirely different type of consciousness than that of the vital. The mind, as such, is not interested in self-assertion, though the vital life force may enlist it for that purpose. It is the mind’s job to model reality, and then plan action on the basis of its model. The mind presents reality to itself, thinks about it, uses it to plan action, and expresses its mental constructions to itself and others. One can look at the nervous system—with which the mind tends to identify itself—as an incredibly complicated, multidimensional model-making machinery.

How completely different mind and vital are can be easily illustrated by the difference between the digestive system and the brain. For instance, when the stomach tackles an apple, the apple is destroyed. The apple, in the process of digestion, is taken apart into its constituting molecules, which are subsequently used to provide energy and the raw materials that the animal who eats it can use to build and maintain its body. At the end of the digestive process, there is no trace of the apple, but the apple-eating animal is strengthened. When, on the other hand, the eyes tackle an apple, the apple remains what it is. The mind creates an image: a hugely complex, multidimensional mental model of the apple, which the thinking creature can subsequently use to guide further action.

Interestingly, the mind as it is found embodied in living creatures has undergone a disabling diminution that is quite similar to the degradation life underwent when it was first embodied in matter. Mind as it develops within living matter makes models of reality on the basis of the senses, memory, and whatever else it can press into service to this end. As constructed models, they can become better and better, but they will never reach absolute perfection. This is, according to Sri Aurobindo, a serious step down for mind, which at its best can function through intuitions it receives from planes of perfect, pre-existing knowledge (LD, p. 803). Why true intuition, in the sense of ready-made, perfect knowledge, can be expected to exist, and how people can develop access to it is discussed in the chapters on Knowledge [INTERNAL REFS].

Just as the fully developed manifestations of embodied life are many orders of magnitude more complex than those of inorganic matter, the brain, as a physical substrate for the mind’s activity in this evolving physical world, is many orders of magnitude more complex than any other biological structure. About the mind as it manifests in human beings, Sri Aurobindo writes in Letters on Yoga — I:

The “Mind” in the ordinary use of the word covers indiscriminately the whole consciousness, for man is a mental being and mentalises everything; but in the language of this Yoga the words mind and mental are used to connote specially the part of the nature which has to do with cognition and intelligence, with ideas, with mental or thought perceptions, the reactions of thought to things, with the truly mental movements and formations, mental vision and will etc. that are part of his intelligence. (p. 168)

The Mother (CWM–8, p. 189) says about the dynamic, action-supporting aspect of the mind:

For the true role of the mind is the formation and organisation of action. The mind has a formative and organising power, and it is that which puts the different elements of inspiration in order, for action, for organising action. And if it would only confine itself to that role, receiving inspirations — whether from above or from the mystic center of the soul — and simply formulating the plan of action — in broad outline or in minute detail, for the smallest things of life or the great terrestrial organisations — it would amply fulfil its function.
  It is not an instrument of knowledge.
  But it can use knowledge for action, to organise action. It is an instrument of organisation and formation, very powerful and very capable when it is well developed.
  One can feel this very clearly when one wants to organise one's life, for instance — to put the different elements in their place in one's existence. There is a certain intellectual faculty which immediately puts each thing in its place and makes a plan and organises. And it is not a knowledge that comes from the mind, it is a knowledge which comes, as I said, from the mystic depths of the soul or from a higher consciousness; and the mind concentrates it in the physical world and organises it to give a basis of action to the higher consciousness. . . .
Then, there is another use. When one is in contact with one’s reason, with the rational center of the intellect, the pure reason, it is a powerful control over all vital impulses. All that comes from the vital world can be very firmly controlled by it and used in a disciplined and organised action. But it must be at the service of something else — not work for its own satisfaction.
  These are the two uses of the mind: it is a controlling force, an instrument of control, and it is a power of organisation. That is its true place.

Manas, the Sanskrit word that probably comes closest to the English word mind, is in the older Sanskrit texts used for an entire plane or world of mind, the fifth from the top in the Sevenfold Chord of Being (SV, p. 45). In the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (2nd chapter, the “Ānanda valli”), it is used for what it calls the sheet of mind, the manomaya kośa. Patanjali seems to use manas in his Yoga Sutras4 rather like we use mind, that is for the individual mental faculty, but it is quite possible that it still has for him the connotation of something with a cosmic (rather than individual) existence (see verse i.35; ii.53, iii.48). In the later Darshanas (schools of philosophy), manas tends to be used in a more restricted way for the sense-mind whose job it is to coordinate the ten indriyas (the five senses and the five instruments of action) (see, for  example, Surendranath Dasgupta 1922/2006, I,  p. 213).

The mind intersects with the vital and the physical planes. On that basis, Sri Aurobindo (SY) distinguishes between:

  • the sense-mind (the intersection of the mind with the physical);
  • the emotional mind (the intersection of the mind with the vital); and
  • the thought-mind (the mind proper) (p. 350).

The mind proper is subdivided by Sri Aurobindo into five clearly distinct sub-planes that represent different types of mental consciousness. The first is:

  • the ordinary mind.

Sri Aurobindo further subdivides the ordinary mind on different occasions in different ways using slightly different categories. For example (LY — I, p. 177):

    • The expressive externalizing mind is the part of the mind that mainly deals with externalizing of mental stuff into the physical world. There is a considerable overlap with the physical mind as discussed earlier.
    • The dynamic mind is the aspect of the mind discussed in the quote from the Mother given earlier. It deals with planning and the will.
    • The thinking mind, as has been seen, is also called the mind proper.

Another division is based on one’s degree of openness to intuition:

    • The habitual mind (also called mechanical mind) repeats itself endlessly and obstinately resists change—in short, the mind under the reign of tamas.
    • The pragmatic mind deals with action and practical things.
    • The pure ideative mind (also called intellectual truth-mind) consists of thoughts and ideas more or less for their own sake (SY, pp. 669–672).

 

Above this, but still within the mental plane (the manomayakośa), one finds the Higher Mind, Illumined Mind, Intuition, and Overmind. Together, Sri Aurobindo sees them as belonging to what he calls the higher consciousness. Individually, he describes them as follows:

    • Higher Mind:
I mean by the Higher Mind a first plane of spiritual [consciousness] where one becomes constantly and closely aware of the Self, the One everywhere and knows and sees things habitually with that awareness; but it is still very much on the mind-level although highly spiritual in its essential substance; and its instrumentation is through an elevated thought-power and comprehensive mental sight — not illumined by any of the intenser upper lights but as if in a large strong and clear daylight. It acts as an intermediate state between the Truth-Light above and the human mind; communicating the higher knowledge in a form that the Mind intensified, broadened, made spiritually supple, can receive without being blinded or dazzled by a Truth beyond it. (LPA, p. 20)
    • Illumined Mind:
…a Mind no longer of higher Thought, but of spiritual light. Here the clarity of the spiritual intelligence, its tranquil daylight, gives place or subordinates itself to an intense lustre, a splendour and illumination of the spirit: a play of lightnings of spiritual truth and power breaks from above into the consciousness and adds to the calm and wide enlightenment and the vast descent of peace which characterise or accompany the action of the larger conceptual-spiritual principle, a fiery ardour of realisation and a rapturous ecstasy of knowledge. (LD, pp. 978–979)
    • Intuition:
Intuition is a power of consciousness nearer and more intimate to the original knowledge by identity; for it is always something that leaps out direct from a concealed identity. It is when the consciousness of the subject meets with the consciousness in the object, penetrates it and sees, feels or vibrates with the truth of what it contacts, that the intuition leaps out like a spark or lightning-flash from the shock of the meeting; or when the consciousness, even without any such meeting, looks into itself and feels directly and intimately the truth or the truths that are there or so contacts the hidden forces behind appearances, then also there is the outbreak of an intuitive light; or, again, when the consciousness meets the Supreme Reality or the spiritual reality of things and beings and has a contactual union with it, then the spark, the flash, or the blaze of intimate truth-perception is lit in its depths. . . . Intuition has a fourfold power. A power of revelatory truth-seeing, a power of inspiration or truth-hearing, a power of truth-touch or immediate seizing of significance, which is akin to the ordinary nature of its intervention in our mental intelligence, a power of true and automatic discrimination of the orderly and exact relation of truth to truth, — these are the fourfold potencies of Intuition. Intuition can therefore perform all the action of reason — including the function of logical intelligence, which is to work out the right relation of things and the right relation of idea with idea, — but by its own superior process and with steps that do not fail or falter. (LD, pp. 981–984)

Intuition is the typal plane between the Illumined Mind and the Overmind. It is the highest typal plane that is still individualized. It is the source of the truth that can be found in the planes of the Illumined Mind and the Higher Mind. While in the ordinary mind, intuitions tend to come down like individual rays of lightning, in the typal plane that Sri Aurobindo calls Intuition: “Its rays are not separated but connected or massed together in a play of waves of what might almost be called in the Sanskrit poetic figure a sea or mass of ‘stable lightnings’” (LD, p. 983).

Sri Aurobindo uses the term Intuitive Mind in a few places for this same typal plane above the Illumined Mind, but he uses it more commonly for the embodied thinking mind when its substance and functionings are largely taken over by intuition. (1955/2005, pp. 799–810)

The next higher plane, the Overmind, is fully and intrinsically cosmic in nature.

    • Overmind:5
…the Overmind knows the One as the support, essence, fundamental power of all things, but in the dynamic play proper to it it lays emphasis on its divisional power of multiplicity and seeks to give each Power or Aspect its full chance to manifest, relying on the underlying Oneness to prevent disharmony or conflict. Each Godhead, as it were, creates his own world, but without conflict with others; each Aspect, each Idea, each Force of things can be felt in its full separate energy or splendour and work out its values, but this does not create a disharmony, because the Overmind has the sense of the Infinite and in the true (not spatial) Infinite many concording infinities are possible. (LY — I, p. 139)
  In its nature and law the Overmind is a delegate of the [next higher plane, the] Supermind Consciousness, its delegate to the Ignorance. Or we might speak of it as a protective double, a screen of dissimilar similarity through which Supermind can act indirectly on an Ignorance whose darkness could not bear or receive the direct impact of a supreme Light. Even, it is by the projection of this luminous Overmind corona that the diffusion of a diminished light in the Ignorance and the throwing of that contrary shadow which swallows up in itself all light, the Inconscience, became at all possible. For Supermind transmits to Overmind all its realities, but leaves it to formulate them in a movement and according to an awareness of things which is still a vision of Truth and yet at the same time a first parent of the Ignorance. (LD, p. 293)

 

Above the Overmind

The plane above the Overmind is the Supermind. It links the upper hemisphere to the lower hemisphere. Sri Aurobindo (EPY) describes the Supermind as follows:

The Supermind is in its very essence a truth-consciousness, a consciousness always free from the Ignorance which is the foundation of our present natural or evolutionary existence and from which nature in us is trying to arrive at self-knowledge and world-knowledge and a right consciousness and the right use of our existence in the universe. The Supermind, because it is a truth-consciousness, has this knowledge inherent in it and this power of true existence; its course is straight and can go direct to its aim, its field is wide and can even be made illimitable. This is because its very nature is knowledge: it has not to acquire knowledge but possesses it in its own right; its steps are not from nescience or ignorance into some imperfect light, but from truth to greater truth, from right perception to deeper perception, from intuition to intuition, from illumination to utter and boundless luminousness, from growing widenesses to the utter vasts and to very infinitude. On its summits it possesses the divine omniscience and omnipotence, but even in an evolutionary movement of its own graded self-manifestation by which it would eventually reveal its own highest heights, it must be in its very nature essentially free from ignorance and error: it starts from truth and light and moves always in truth and light. As its knowledge is always true, so too its will is always true; it does not fumble in its handling of things or stumble in its paces. In the Supermind feeling and emotion do not depart from their truth, make no slips or mistakes, do not swerve from the right and the real, cannot misuse beauty and delight or twist away from a Divine rectitude. In the Supermind sense cannot mislead or deviate into the grossnesses which are here its natural imperfections and the cause of reproach, distrust and misuse by our ignorance. Even an incomplete statement made by the Supermind is a truth leading to a further truth, its incomplete action a step towards completeness. All the life and action and leading of the Supermind is guarded in its very nature from the falsehoods and uncertainties that are our lot; it moves in safety towards its perfection. (p. 558–559)

The crucial importance of the distinction Sri Aurobindo makes between Overmind and Supermind will be discussed in the last section. Above the Supermind, there is finally the upper hemisphere of:

    • Ānanda, pure, absolute Delight;
    • Cit-Tapas, pure, absolute Consciousness-Force; and
    • Sat, pure, absolute Existence.

The upper, or divine hemisphere, and the Supermind, together, are the home of the Divine Consciousness. Sri Aurobindo describes this consciousness as follows: “By the Divine Consciousness we mean the spiritual consciousness to which the Divine alone exists . . . and by which one passes beyond the Ignorance and the lower nature into unity with the Divine and the Divine Nature” (LY — I, p. 5). Sri Aurobindo stresses throughout his works that it is only through a descent of this Divine Consciousness that an entire perfection is possible. And so, as he says in one of his letters: “The more you surrender to the Divine, the more will there be the possibility of perfection in you” (LY — II, p. 285).

With this, the present discussion has come to the end of its description of the Sevenfold Chord of Being, the complex hierarchy of increasingly conscious planes of existence that forms the all-important backdrop for Sri Aurobindo’s understanding of human nature and its potential for further development. But before moving on to the next section, there are a few smaller issues remaining that have a vertical component and, as such, will be discussed here.

 

The Cakras

The cakras are centers of consciousness that seem to be stacked up one above the other in the inner, subtle physical body, the sūkṣma śarīra. As centers of consciousness, the cakras seem to belong to the puruṣa, but they preside over corresponding layers of the inner nature, which are part of prakṛti. As the cakras are as much centers of force and action as of awareness, they do not go well with the strict separation of puruṣa and prakṛti that can be found in Sāṁkhya, and one sees them more often discussed in Tantric literature. Sri Aurobindo only rarely describes them in the traditional (and perhaps rather romantic) manner of lotuses with distinct colors, sounds, and numbers of petals. He writes, however, very often about the layers, or levels, of conscious existence over which they preside. In the following descriptions, the quoted phrases are from Letters on Yoga – I:

  • The sahasrāra cakra, the highest, is located at the crown of the head. It “commands the higher thinking mind, houses the still higher illumined mind, and at its highest opens to the intuition through which . . . the overmind can have . . . an immediate contact” (p. 230). It is for obvious reasons that there is not much mentioned in the English language, though there may be a vague reference to it in the fact that difficult or highly abstract ideas are said to “go over one’s head”. It is through here that inspirations are most often felt to enter (pp. 235–237).
  • The ājñā cakra, just below it, “governs the dynamic mind, will, vision, mental formation” (p. 230). It is located behind the forehead. This is the location where philosophers and academics feel that their consciousness resides. Again, a child who needs to think more clearly is asked to use his head, not his heart, let alone his guts.
  • The viśuddha cakra, below the ājñā at the level of the throat, represents the lowest mental layer, the expressive and externalizing mind. Its character depends on what it expresses. It can express vital feelings coming from below as well as thoughts and inspirations from above. It is not only concerned with verbal and vocal expressions, but it is also active in other forms of creative work.
  • The anāhata cakra at the level of the heart “governs the emotional being” (p. 230) and lodges the higher vital consciousness. It carries the more sophisticated human emotions of love, compassion, etc. If you want to encourage someone to be more generous or compassionate you don't say: “Open your head.” You say, “Open your heart.”
  • The maṇipūra cakra carries the middle vital with one’s larger ambitions for power and possession. This middle vital is the Hara of Japanese martial arts (see J. C. Markert, 1998). It is also the source of what business people call gut feelings. Significantly, “having guts” means being courageous and daring—qualities that occur when one’s consciousness is powerfully present at this level.
  • The svādhiṣṭhāna cakra, still further down, houses the lower vital consciousness. Here one finds sexuality and the search for minor, personal comforts.
  • The mūlādhāra cakra is the last, at the bottom of the spine. It is the seat of the kuṇḍalinī energy and the physical consciousness down to the subconscious.

The cakras are interconnected through vertical energy channels within the subtle body. Some people spontaneously feel them as streams of force while others perceive them as streams of light. When subtle inner energies open a cakra, the inner powers, or siddhis that belong to that cakra awaken and become available. This awakening can be achieved intentionally, for example, as part of focused hatha and rajayoga practices, but it can also happen spontaneously or as a consequence of other forms of yoga (LY — II, pp. 237–238, 460–464).

To end this discussion of the cakras, it may be noted that in my experience the different types of consciousness that the main cakras represent tend to be easily recognizable by people as located in their traditional bodily locations. These locations are also commonly referred to in the English language. As mentioned above, it is part of common English usage to say that business people follow their gut feelings (the seat of the middle vital that houses ambition); charitable organizations ask people to open their heart (the seat of the higher emotions); and teachers admonish children to use their head (where the ājñā cakra houses the faculty of thought). The different layers are, in English, also used to indicate specific kinds of unease. There is a commonly understood difference between butterflies in one’s stomach, a heartache, a lump in one’s throat, and a headache. While they are clearly part of the common understanding of human nature and have quite a prominent place in literature, they have perhaps not been given as much attention in academics as they deserve. This is unfortunate because a good understanding of these different centers can help considerably with the development of insight and mastery over one’s drives and motives. The ability to locate the center of one’s consciousness in any of them at will should, in fact, be considered an important life-skill, which could quite well be taught in school.    

 

Levels of Awareness

Besides the Sevenfold Chord of Being and the cakras, there is still another set of terms that describe states, which subjectively are experienced as a vertically arranged hierarchy. They describe levels, or degrees, of awareness. From the bottom up, they are the inconscient, the subconscient, the ordinary waking consciousness, and the superconscient. The inconscient base of the creation Sri Aurobindo also calls the nescient.

The word subconscious Sri Aurobindo uses with two somewhat different meanings. He uses it sometimes simply to indicate all that is below the ordinary consciousness (in other words, as a synonym for the subliminal), but he uses it more typically for a specific plane situated below the physical consciousness. In that last sense, the subconscient contains the first crude beginnings of conscious movement when creation just arises out of the sleep of the inconscient. But into this nether region also sinks back whatever has been rejected from the higher levels of consciousness. And so come into being the murky waters that Freud describes as the unconscious. It is also the place from which rise up the active remnants of the past, or atavisms, that mar the individual’s progress. Sri Aurobindo explains:

In our yoga we mean by the subconscient that quite submerged part of our being in which there is no wakingly conscious and coherent thought, will or feeling or organised reaction, but which yet receives obscurely the impressions of all things and stores them up in itself and from it too all sorts of stimuli, of persistent habitual movements, crudely repeated or disguised in strange forms can surge up into dream or into the waking nature. For if these impressions rise up most in dream in an incoherent and disorganised manner, they can also and do rise up into our waking consciousness as a mechanical repetition of old thoughts, old mental, vital and physical habits or an obscure stimulus to sensations, actions, emotions which do not originate in or from our conscious thought or will and are even often opposed to its perceptions, choice or dictates. In the subconscient there is an obscure mind full of obstinate sanskaras, impressions, associations, fixed notions, habitual reactions formed by our past, an obscure vital full of the seeds of habitual desires, sensations and nervous reactions, a most obscure material which governs much that has to do with the condition of the body. It is largely responsible for our illnesses; chronic or repeated illnesses are indeed mainly due to the subconscient and its obstinate memory and habit of repetition of whatever has impressed itself upon the body consciousness. But this subconscient must be clearly distinguished from the subliminal parts of our being such as the inner or subtle physical consciousness, the inner vital or inner mental; for these are not at all obscure or incoherent or ill-organised, but only veiled from our surface consciousness. Our surface constantly receives something, inner touches, communications or influences, from these sources but does not know for the most part whence they come. (LY — I, pp. 216–217)

In The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo similarly writes:

That part of us which we can strictly call subconscient because it is below the level of mind and conscious life, inferior and obscure, covers the purely physical and vital elements of our constitution of bodily being, unmentalised, unobserved by the mind, uncontrolled by it in their action. It can be held to include the dumb occult consciousness, dynamic but not sensed by us, which operates in the cells and nerves and all the corporeal stuff and adjusts their life process and automatic responses. It covers also those lowest functionings of submerged sense-mind which are more operative in the animal and in plant life; in our evolution we have overpassed the need of any large organised action of this element, but it remains submerged and obscurely at work below our conscious nature. This obscure activity extends to a hidden and hooded mental substratum into which past impressions and all that is rejected from the surface mind sink and remain there dormant and can surge up in sleep or in any absence of the mind, taking dream forms, forms of mechanical mind action or suggestion, forms of automatic vital reaction or impulse, forms of physical abnormality or nervous perturbance, forms of morbidity, disease, unbalance. Out of the subconscious we bring ordinarily so much to the surface as our waking sense-mind and intelligence need for their purpose; in so bringing them up we are not aware of their nature, origin, operation and do not apprehend them in their own values but by a translation into the values of our waking human sense and intelligence. But the risings of the subconscious, its effects upon the mind and body, are mostly automatic, uncalled for and involuntary; for we have no knowledge and therefore no control of the subconscient. It is only by an experience abnormal to us, most commonly in illness or some disturbance of balance, that we can become directly aware of something in the dumb world, dumb but very active, of our bodily being and vitality or grow conscious of the secret movements of the mechanical subhuman physical and vital mind which underlies our surface, — a consciousness which is ours but seems not ours because it is not part of our known mentality. This and much more lives concealed in the subconscience.
  A descent into the subconscient would not help us to explore this region, for it would plunge us into incoherence or into sleep or a dull trance or a comatose torpor. A mental scrutiny or insight can give us some indirect and constructive idea of these hidden activities; but it is only by drawing back into the subliminal or by ascending into the superconscient and from there looking down or extending ourselves into these obscure depths that we can become directly and totally aware and in control of the secrets of our subconscient physical, vital and mental nature. This awareness, this control are of the utmost importance. For the subconscient is the Inconscient in the process of becoming conscious; it is a support and even a root of our inferior parts of being and their movements. It sustains and reinforces all in us that clings most and refuses to change, our mechanical recurrences of unintelligent thought, our persistent obstinacies of feeling, sensation, impulse, propensity, our uncontrolled fixities of character. The animal in us, — the infernal also, — has its lair of retreat in the dense jungle of the subconscience. To penetrate there, to bring in light and establish a control, is indispensable for the completeness of any higher life, for any integral transformation of the nature. (LD, pp. 762–763)

Our ordinary waking consciousness is limited to a small portion of the physical, vital, and lower mental planes. Most of what happens even on these planes remains below its threshold of awareness. The higher ranges of the mental plane, the supramental, and saccidānanda are entirely superconscient to the ordinary waking consciousness. The words superconscious and superconscient are both used by Sri Aurobindo again with two different meanings. More broadly, they are used for any consciousness that is above the ordinary waking consciousness—in other words, including the higher consciousness or, more specifically, for that type of consciousness that is divine, entirely beyond dualities. Sri Aurobindo does not use the term the unconscious. Freud’s unconscious covers, more or less, what Sri Aurobindo describes above as “a hidden and hooded mental substratum into which past impressions and all that is rejected from the surface mind sink” (LD, p. 762). Jung’s unconscious contained more positive formations, like, for example, his archetypes. In that sense it has some overlap with Sri Aurobindo’s subliminal.

 

Overview of terms used for the vertical system in one table

We can now put the most important terms used for the vertical system together in one table as follows:

hemisphere sevenfold chord of being cakra consciousness knowledge/
ignorance
upper hemisphere Existence (sat)

superconscience,
 
higher
consciousness,

spirit / spiritual

Divine Consciousness/
the Knowledge
Consciousness-Force (cit-tapas)
Bliss (ānanda)
link plane Supermind (mahas or vijñāna)
lower hemisphere Mind (manas) Overmind first beginnings of separation, though not yet of real Ignorance
Intuition
Illumined mind Knowledge-Ignorance
mixture
Higher mind sahasrāra
Ordinary mind thinking ājñā Ordinary Waking Consciousness Ignorance
planning
expressive viśuddha
Vital (prāṇa) higher anāhata
middle maṇipūra
lower svādhiṣṭhāna
Physical (annam) mūlādhāra
Subconscient Subconscience
Inconscient Nescience

Table 10.2. An overview of terms used for the vertical system

It may be noted that, in terms of the concentric system, everything in this table belongs to the subliminal. The only exception might be the ordinary waking consciousness and its share of the ignorance. But, one could argue that in the ordinary waking consciousness even the ordinary waking consciousness itself belongs to the subliminal. The reason is that most people, most of the time, are so fully identified with the part of the surface mind, where their consciousness happens to be centered, that they are only aware of the content with which that mind is busy. So even when they engage, for example, in introspection, they may become aware of the mental and vital processes that are happening inside their consciousness, but they will still not be aware of the consciousness itself, let alone of its ignorance.

The following is a word of caution: The terms that occupy the cells of this table do not denote things. They point at concepts that have meanings and connotations whose borders tend to be far more vague than the neat lines that this diagram suggests. Though I hope this table is useful for those who enjoy such things, it has to be treated with utmost caution and humility. Even the simplest flower surpasses whatever our minds can possibly create.

Endnotes

3. In his writings for the general public, Sri Aurobindo tried to use English translations rather than the original Sanskrit terms whenever possible, capitalizing them to indicate that he used them with a specialist, and often elevated, meaning. Mind stands here for manas in its oldest and widest Vedic sense, which includes all the mental powers, intellect, intelligence, understanding, perception, sense, conscience, etc. (Elsewhere, Sri Aurobindo uses manas more often with the much narrower meaning of sense-mind.)

4. There is an extensive literature in English about Patanjali’s Yogasutras. A good place to start is B. K. Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1993). A more scholarly approach, inclusive an excellent glossary cum index of all Sanskrit words used in the text, see Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation and Commentary (1979/1989).

5. It may be noted that the term Overmind for the topmost layer of the lower hemisphere was introduced by Sri Aurobindo only after the Arya period (1914–1920). In the unrevised parts of The Synthesis of Yoga (part of “The Yoga of Divine Knowledge,” “The Yoga of Devotion,” and “The Yoga of Self-Perfection”) the words Supermind and supramental are not yet used in the specific sense he later gave to them. In these texts, they are often used to denote what he later called the Overmind, and sometimes even simply to denote anything above the ordinary mind. For a clear exposition of the difference, see his Letters on Yoga — I (p. 149 onwards).

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