An ongoing evolution of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: May 2019
If you haven't read Section 1, you may like to read that first:
Involution, evolution and the future
The need for involution preceding evolution
If we see in the biological evolution 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 has produced our present world. The combined process of involution and evolution can then be depicted as in Figure 1.
Fig. 1. Involution and evolution
In the previous section we looked from an Indian consciousness-centred perspective at the evolution of life within matter, and of mind within embodied life. We will now look at what might have happened before that: how did the physical world in which this evolution took place come into being? Or to say it more paradoxically: 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 popped into existence. From where did it all come?
As we saw earlier, the Indian tradition developed the concept of saccidānanda, a unity of true being, consciousness and bliss as the nature of the ultimate reality. And since according to the integral Vedanta, on which this text is based, the entire universe is a manifestation of that ultimate reality, saccidānanda should also be the essence of everything in existence. The difficulty with this theory is that for most of us, the actual world in which we live doesn't look perfect, conscious and joyful at all. This is an issue that in different forms has plagued humanity for as long as we know. On the one hand, we humans have an indefeasible faith that there must be something Divine beyond the life we know, and that, ultimately, this Divine must be good, but we also have the daily experience that life is not that great at all, so what happened? Even if we manage to discern a divine Presence within or behind all appearances, it is still hard to deny the practical day-to-day reality of suffering, pain, death, incapacity, deliberate evil and cruelty. For most of us these things are part of our lived experience and a very real aspect of our lives. Where did they come from? How could a God who is good, have created a world which is not, or in the more abstract language of Vedanta, how could the absolute splendour of saccidānanda give rise to the strangely imperfect and conflicted world we know?
This is not a simple or small question, and it asks for answers at many different levels. On a pragmatic, human level, what should our attitude be to our own pain, and to the pain of others? What should we do with our own errors and what with those of others? Is there a realistic chance we can eradicate pain? If not, do pain and suffering serve a purpose? Does cruelty? Do we have a choice in how we experience things? Should our first priority be changing the world or changing ourselves? To these practical questions we'll come back later in the chapters on self-development and applied psychology. Here in this section of the introduction we'll try to answer the more basic, partly philosophical, partly technical question of how this world might actually have come into existence, because a deeper insight in how that has happened can help us to understand the real nature of our present predicament and how to come out of it. This too, is, of course, not that easy to answer. The oldest Indian text, the Ṛg Veda, ends its description of the creation of the world by saying — with a rather modern sounding scepticism — "Only the gods know how it happened, or perhaps even they don't know." But still, there are some explanations that are more convincing than others. I'm giving here Sri Aurobindo's which gives rise to an inspiring vision of the long term future of humanity. There are several riders to this story, which we will take up later in this book, but here is the basic idea.
Exclusive concentration as the mechanism behind māyā
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.1
It is important to note that the largely negative meaning of māyā is not there 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. The quality of the created world depends on the consciousness of origin and 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) 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: (1) the ability to split itself into many instances of itself, and then (2) the ability to apply, in each of these instances, the power of exclusive concentration (2005, p. 281). As we will see later, 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 svabhava, 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. This has been expressed as, "we (and all other things) 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. Mass production starts only after the plan has been fully detailed out, but smaller products and prototypes tend to be made somewhat haphazardly, with the details being worked out gradually, on the fly. An extreme form 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 the same way? Not by an over-sized human being creating a pot out of clay, but by "powerful idea" slowly crystallising in an initially amorphous sea of semi-conscious existence? Could 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 a pre-existing "idea"? And then, once the species is perfect, mass-production with all the details fixed in its DNA?
Though most of us are not aware of them, the existence of an occult hierarchy of subtle planes, objects, beings and forces is reported on 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.
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; it is fairly straightforward, logically coherent and in harmony with my personal experience; and, as far as I know, it doesn't clash with the findings of science.
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 vijñāna māyā kosha; 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 consciousness. What is more, this conscious universe is evolving, and if Sri Aurobindo's essentially Vedic hypothesis is right, there was an occult involution of consciousness before the manifest evolution which science studied. 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
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 part of 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 being pushed by the adventurous spirit of our vital energy and supported by the sturdiness of our physical embodiment.2
The three types of consciousness that have manifested so far
As we have seen in the beginning of this chapter, inanimate things — whether fundamental particles or more complex man-made objects — are sufficiently conscious to know how to be and how to react to their surrounding according to the laws of nature. Beyond this, they have no awareness, no freedom, no agency: their consciousness is essentially stuck inside itself.
At the level of Life, consciousness is sufficiently emancipated to allow living beings to have more sophisticated interactions with their environment. There is a rudimentary awareness of themselves and their immediate surroundings and the ability to assert and rebuild their own complex structures out of the much simpler material they find around themselves. There is playfulness and movement, and the consciousness in living beings is sufficiently individualised to engage in complex relationships.
At the level of the Mind, there are two new powers of consciousness, one outer, technical and physical; one inner, psychological and spiritual. The first is well-established in humanity. At the human level, the nervous-system-based mental consciousness is emancipated sufficiently to develop ever-more complex models of the physical reality, to make ever better tools, and to share and process the symbol-renderings of our knowledge with ever-increasing efficiency. At present we are building together an ever-faster-growing quantity of this kind of constructed, "artificial" knowledge. And as consciousness is not only passive awareness but also an active, creative force, our increasing knowledge leads almost automatically to a growing know-how, which together with humanity's dynamism leads to an ever increasing creative activity by mankind. And so with this increasingly complex collective knowledge there has come an increasing ability to plan and execute ever more complex actions. In short, Nature is clearly busy perfecting and expanding this outer, technical knowledge and power at a tremendous, ever-increasing speed, not only individually but also collectively.
The second power of the mind does not appear to be as well-established or quickly progressive as the first. It is our ability to consciously change the basic working of our own consciousness. We'll have a closer look at this in the last section of this chapter. There also we 'll explain why the vijnanmaya kosha, the Supramental linkplane between the higher hemisphere of sachchidānanda and the lower hemisphere of mind, vital and matter has been highlighted.
1. 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, [REFs with dates of both original texts]).
2. 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).