An ongoing evolution of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: May 2019
If you haven't read Section 1 and 2, you may like to read those first:
Involution, evolution and the future
The need for involution preceding evolution
In the first section we looked from an Indian consciousness-centred perspective at the evolution of life within matter and of mind within embodied life. In the second section we looked at what we called the post-biological evolution, the period in which there is a significant further evolution of consciousness within humanity. We will start this third section with a look at what might have happened before all this started: how the physical world has come into being. Or to say it more paradoxically: at what happened "before" the big bang, if that makes sense given that with the big bang not only mass, energy and the laws of physics, but even space and time seem to have burst into existence. As we discussed earlier, the reason to st the very beginning is that understanding our past may well give us a hint on what to expect next. So, from where did it all come?
If we look at the biological evolution as a gradual emergence of consciousness, that consciousness must have been hiding somewhere before it emerged. To use a perhaps over-simplistic metaphor, a magician cannot pull a rabbit out of a hat if he has not hidden that rabbit somewhere inside the hat before he starts. Similarly, consciousness cannot emerge out of matter if the basic principle of consciousness is not already there in some form or another. In other words, an involution of consciousness must have preceded the evolution, and this is exactly how the Indian tradition visualises the process that must have produced our present world. The combined process of involution and evolution can then be depicted as in Figure 1.
Fig. 1. Involution and evolution
As we saw earlier, the Indian tradition developed the concept of saccidānanda, a unity of true being, consciousness and joy as the nature of the ultimate reality. And since, according to integral Vedānta, the entire universe is a manifestation of that ultimate reality, saccidānanda should also be the essence of everything in existence. In other words, everything in this universe must be conscious and joyful. At first sight, this may be hard to accept as there are plenty of things in this world that to us don't look conscious and joyful at all, but if we think about it a little deeper, we have to admit that this may be due to a too narrow, anthropocentric view of reality. The history of physics shows how helpful it can be to leave such anthropocentric perspectives behind. In ordinary life we measure temperature in Centigrade and Fahrenheit, which both have positive as well as negative values because for us, as small biological creatures in a large and not always human-friendly environment, things can be too hot or too cold. But physicists measure temperature in Kelvin which has only positive values, because they look at temperature as the energy in things and in their knowledge system nothing can exist that has zero energy. One could look at the Indian concepts of Consciousness and Joy as similarly professional concepts: Just as an object with zero Temperature cannot exist in any meaningful manner, nothing can exist without Consciousness and Joy because without Consciousness it would not know how to be, and without Joy it would not want to be.1
Exclusive concentration as the mechanism behind māyā
The question we'll try to address here is then how the vast silent splendour of saccidānanda could have given rise to the immensely complex world in which we live. Sri Aurobindo's essentially Vedic explanation offers not only a coherent theory about our past, but also an absolutely fascinating vision of what might be our long term future. There are several riders to this story, which we will take up later in this book, but here is the basic idea.In the Indian tradition, right from Vedic times, the force that is held responsible for creation is called māyā, and much of the differences between the various schools of Indian philosophy and yoga centre around the way māyā is understood. In essence, māyā is simply the power of manifestation, but how this power is appreciated changed considerably over time. In later philosophical texts, māyā obtains the meaning of illusion, a power which creates an imaginary world that looks real enough to the ignorant, but that has no true existence in itself. Yoga is then described as the process through which one wakes up out of that illusion into the Truth. In the māyāvādin traditions, this position is taken to its extreme and the entire world is considered as māyā in its most derogatory sense, that is, as an illusion, a veil of ignorance or an imposition, adhyāropa, on the purity and immutability of the silent Absolute.2
It is important to note that the largely negative meaning of māyā does not yet play a major role in the earliest texts of the Indian tradition. In the Ṛg Veda, māyā is still simply a creative power of the Divine which measures out the worlds in front of itself, and the quality of the created world depends on the consciousness of origin. As a result there are many different kinds of māyā. In some places the word is used for the true power of manifestation that belongs to the divine Mother herself. In others, it belongs to a lesser light, not a fully fraudulent lie, but still dark compared to the light of Surya (the Sun, as symbol of absolute Truth) and as such an illusion to be slain (e.g. RV 5.40).
Sri Aurobindo compares the main process through which Brahman manifests the world out of itself with the kind of “exclusive concentration” that is part of our ordinary mental consciousness. At our human level, exclusive concentration expresses itself in our ability to concentrate on a limited sub-set of all that we can potentially experience at any given moment. When you read this text, for example, your consciousness is guided along by what you read: things like your physical posture, the room in which you sit, your programme for tomorrow, a zebra, and the house in which you grew up enter your consciousness only when this text brings them to your attention.
At the cosmic level, where in Sri Aurobindo's conception consciousness includes the power of creation, Sri Aurobindo describes exclusive concentration as “a self-limitation by Idea proceeding from an infinite liberty within”. He then argues that the manifestation of the world out of saccidānanda could have taken place through a simple combination of only two basic powers that must have been present in the original consciousness:
- the ability to split itself into many instances of itself, and then
- the ability to apply, in each of these instances, the power of exclusive concentration (2005, p. 281).
As we saw, the first of these two is the reason why we, tiny, insignificant creatures as we are, can still in some mysterious way, know the Divine: every little thing in this universe is in it deepest essence still a true portion of the Divine. This inner identity between the one and the many, might also explain those strange phenomena in physics where particles behave at the same time as if they are numerically one and numerically many.
The second is the origin of the svabhāva, the true spiritual nature of things (including ourselves). As we saw, this could have happened in roughly the same manner that our ordinary human mind thinks of different things at different times, except that it must have worked on a more solid, existential level, not creating a variety of images in one individual human awareness, but a variety of objectively existing objects within the reality of the Divine. In the European tradition, this has been expressed as, "things and the laws of nature are the thoughts of God". In terms of qualities one could say that while the absolute conscious being of the Divine is inherently anantaguṇa, of infinite quality, each individual entity comes into being with the specific qualities it has because it crystallises by exclusive concentration into a different subset of that infinite set of qualities.
The formation of subtle worlds
Pure consciousness doesn't suddenly change into hard physical objects. One should imagine it as a gradual process of solidification by which in different stages, different "worlds" are created of increasing solidity. As exclusive concentration produces the different entities, each with its own svabhāva, self-nature, they begin to populate this hierarchy of occult, typal worlds.
All this may look strange to us as we have all undergone such a solidly physicalist education that we tend to see only physical things as real. We think of ideas only as abstractions derived from what we see as the only really real, physical world, and we think that creation is inherently and exclusively a bottom-up construction. But this is not how the world actually works. It is not only poets and story-tellers that create personalties and adventures in thin air. Builders, architects, and industrial designers too, start with an idea, a plan, something that exists only in their consciousness, and then detail that out top-down. It begins with a vague initial idea, hardly more than an intention, and it ends, after many intermediate stages, with the kind of technical detail that is required to get something actually constructed. While mass production can start only after its design has been fully detailed out, single products and prototypes tend to be made somewhat haphazardly, with the details being worked out gradually, in an interaction of top-down and bottom-up processes. A fascinating example of this can be seen in the way small children learn to draw. They begin with scribbling what look like random lines on the paper, seemingly just for the joy of the colours, or for the "kick" they get out of creating something, anything. And then, suddenly, one day, they recognise a few lines in a corner as "papa" — nobody else sees why, but they do — and in their next drawing they do their level-best to accentuate the "papa-ishness" of the lines in that corner and so, gradually, the first match-stick figure sees the light. Could it be that the awe-inspiring creation of the cosmos has proceeded in a similar way? Not by an over-sized human-like being creating in one single gesture a perfect pot out of clay, but by a "powerful idea" slowly crystallising in an initially amorphous sea of semi-conscious existence? Could the steps in Darwin's evolution have taken place like this? An element of chance to start with, but gradually more and more of a conscious push and pull in the direction of pre-existing "ideas"? First a lot of trial and error, then, once a species is near-perfect, mass-production with all details fixed in its DNA, yet allowing for occasional minor updates?
Though most of us are not aware of them, the existence of an occult hierarchy of subtle planes, objects, beings and forces is reported by mystics in all major civilizations. And it is not just the mystics who took the possibility of self-realising ideas for possible. The hypothesis of a top-down creation through exclusive concentration is in harmony with the idealist philosophy of Plato and most major philosophers in the pre-modern West. As for the hierarchy of occult planes, the descriptions given in different civilizations may look quite different at first sight, but at closer inspection it becomes clear that they have enough in common to assume that they are all descriptions of one and the same, independently existing reality of which different people in different civilizations have seen and described different aspects.
As said, for this text, I'll use the Vedic description of this inner reality as described by Sri Aurobindo. It is one of the oldest systems humanity has, and it is fairly straightforward and logically coherent. As far as I know, it doesn't clash with the findings of science, and it is in harmony with my personal experience as far as it reaches.
In its most simple form, it consists of three parts. There is an upper, divine hemisphere of saccidānanda, which is transcendent, undifferentiated and unmanifest. There is a lower world of subtle mind, life and matter of which we all know the diminished forms that are part of the evolving physical world: thoughts, feelings, and things. And in between these two hemispheres, there is a link-plane, which is, like the world above it, perfectly divine, and yet, like the world below it, differentiated. The Vedic rishis called this link-plane, the maharloka; the Upanishads the vijñānamaya kośa; the Greeks knew it is as something that can, if at all, be known only through the highest type of non-dual knowledge, gnosis; Sri Aurobindo calls it the Supramental .
We will now have a more detailed look at the processes that may have taken place during the involution and evolution, and see why it is this link-plane that carries in it the secret of our our future.
Involution and evolution revisited
As we have seen, in Sri Aurobindo's vision everything in the universe, however inconscient it may appear on the surface, is actually permeated with and the expression of consciousness. What is more, this conscious universe is evolving, and if Sri Aurobindo's essentially Vedic hypothesis is right, there must have been an occult involution of consciousness before the manifest evolution which science studied as well as a determining influence of consciousness during that evolution.
If we add the main points of what we discussed so far to the diagram of involution and evolution we saw earlier, the full picture might look something like Figure 2.
Fig. 2. The process of involution and evolution till now
Ascent and Integration
In figure 2, there is on the left, in the subtle, inner worlds, an involution, a descent, a gradual diminution of consciousness from the absolute perfection of saccidānanda, via the perfect but not yet manifest supramental world, to the lesser and lesser forms of consciousness we have called mind, vital and physical, till we have, at the bottom of the picture, the near total darkness of an apparent Nescience. In the account given by science, this is when the "Big Bang" takes place. And everything to the right of this point is visible in the manifest, "gross-physical" world. An interesting aspect of the scientific account is that all the laws of physics must have been operative right from that first moment. In the consciousness-centred Indian conception, that same lawfulness is called Brahman, the consciousness of the Divine, a divine consciousness which is absolutely everywhere, even hidden deep within the darkness. We leave it to the reader to what extent this difference is substantial or just a matter of language, but where both sides agree is that from this apparent darkness, the universe begins to evolve. According to the Indian version it does this partly pushed by the hidden Divinity within, partly pulled and moulded by the higher types of consciousness that are already present in the typal worlds which were created during the involution. Both are part of the omniscience of the Divine, and it is this that creates the fabulous harmony and beauty one sees in the inanimate material universe. As Sri Aurobindo says (2005, p. 359),
the force [acts] automatically and with an apparent blindness as in a trance, but still with the inevitability and power of truth of the Infinite.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Indian description of this evolutionary process is that it is not just a re-ascent back up the same ladder of consciousness it assumes we came down from. There is also an integration of the new with the old, of the higher with the lower: when life arises out of matter, there are not just wafts of vital energy but flowers and tigers; when mind arises from life, there are not just free-floating ideas but intelligent people who hold those ideas. In short, there is not just an ascent but an "ascent and integration". And that is how we humans can live in the freedom of the mind's creativity, while still being pushed by the adventurous spirit of our vital energy and supported by the sturdiness of our physical embodiment.3
Fig. 3. Involution and evolution: two options for the future
The aim of life: going back or going forward
At present, most of humanity is still focussed on the development of what in Figure 3 is called the "Embodied Mind". We have become amazingly good at physical engineering but we haven't reached the same levels of perfection in the management of our social and psychological life.
Those with a spiritual interest seem to stand at the crossroads where they, as individuals, can follow a path that aims at a merger back into the featureless Transcendent from which it all started (or some other specific form of the Divine), or struggle forwards to complete the evolution of which we are a part. In other words, we seem to have two very different options for our further spiritual development. We can, as some high and lofty schools of Indian spirituality recommend, forget about the world and strive for individual or collective liberation from our suffering through mokṣa, kaivalya or nirvāṇa, or, if Sri Aurobindo is right, we can go bravely forward to the next stage in the world's evolution. It is true that this choice need not be as starkly binary as the diagram suggests. On the one hand a certain purification of one's nature is needed before one can hope to find the Transcendent, and on the other hand, it may be necessary to have at least some sense of the Transcendent before one can successfully attempt the road towards transformation. Accordingly, as we already discussed in the chapter on concepts of consciousness, most modern schools of spirituality are somewhere on the continuum between exclusive and integral spirituality. Unfortunately this means in practice, that many of them are satisfied with the kind of compromise that used to be called the householder's path: a pursuit of spirituality that doesn't go at the cost of one's other interests and that is satisfied with making the ordinary life a bit more bearable. For most individuals this is enough, and things work out fine as long as there is harmony between the guru and the disciples. But for the future of our collective life this is not sufficient.
Given the challenges humanity is facing, our very survival may depend on our willingness to go beyond our present understanding, and on our willingness to take both paths, the scientific and the spiritual, further till they meet, not by a half-hearted compromise to their core-principles, but by a self-exceeding, a willingness to go beyond their respective traditions. What we will find may however well be way beyond what we can presently imagine.
The reason is that all present religious and spiritual traditions lead to one specific aspect of the Divine or to the absolute Transcendent. For the devotional traditions it is obvious. The heart gives all its love to one form of the Divine till it merges into it. To the outsider that one form looks arbitrary, but to the devotee that is irrelevant because it is his love. Those who approach the divine through the intellect, feel superior in their pursuit of their "non-dual" absolute, whether negative as in Buddha's emptiness and Patanjali's Kaivalya or positive as in the Advaitin's all-inclusive paramatman which is identical to Brahman, but in the end this absolute too is just one form of the Divine, while the Divine is not only transcendent to everything but also in everything and comprehensive of everything. What we really need is to become like the Divine itself, and this means that we should have, or rather become a consciousness that is radically different from our imitative, constructing mind. We need a consciousness that is one with the dynamic Divine from which this cosmos originates in all its aspects. This goes way beyond what in spiritual literature is sometimes described as a "non-dual mind", but it is only way we can permanently overcome the "indignity of mortal life" (Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p. 313).
It appears then that the tremendous creative power behind the evolution will not allow humanity to be satisfied till it has a complete understanding of reality, and if that is to happen, science cannot afford to leave the highest ranges of consciousness out of its purview, and spirituality cannot limit itself to its too limited, too one-sided understanding of the Divine. In Figure 3, the path to the left depicts what we described in an earlier chapter as the path leading to the immersion of the drop back into the ocean from where it came, while the path to the right represents the attempt at transforming the drop into a dynamic centre of the Light, Truth and Power of the infinite ocean. It is this path to the right which is the adventure of consciousness and joy4 that forms the central theme of Infinity in a Drop and the raison d'être of its integral approach to psychology.5
1. We are so used to see the world as purely physical, that attributing consciousness and will to inanimate objects may look as an erroneous anthropomorphic attribution, but it is the other way around. To think that only we humans have consciousness and will gives us a strange exceptional position in the universe and makes both our own existence and the existence of the universe incomprehensible. The moment physicists realised that gravity must work in the same manner throughout the universe, they could not only develop a better understanding of how gravity works on earth, but they could also better understand the place the earth occupies within the rest of the universe. Similarly the Vedic assumption that consciousness and joy are universal properties of everything, makes it much easier to understand how these two crucial aspects of our own human existence work in us, and makes it clear how we humans fit into reality as a whole.
2. To give one striking example, Swami Sivananda, who was in his time considered by many to have the same spiritual stature as Sri Aurobindo and Sri Ramana Maharshi, quotes in one of his books, and clearly in agreement with it, a recommendation by Adi Shankara to look at everything, good and bad, as no better than “the excrement of a crow”. (Adi Shankara, as quoted by Swami Sivananda, 1983/1998.
3. The term "ascent and integration" is often attributed to Ken Wilber, but Sri Aurobindo used it many years earlier in the title of one of the chapters of The Life Divine (a book which Ken Wilber refers to in his earlier writings).
4. Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p. 2.
5. I'm not sure whether this needs stating, but while I do hold that for the development of a new foundation of psychology, the integral position Sri Aurobindo developed is the most promising, the choice of one's individual path is a very different and purely personal issue in which others should not interfere.
For an in-depth comparison of three
different concepts of consciousness:
For a one-page overview of the integral concept
of consciousness as used in Infinity in a Drop:
For a few lines of Sri Aurobindo's epic poem Savitri,
which describe the evolution of consciousness: