An ongoing evolution of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: March 2020
If you haven't read Section 1 and 2, you may like to read those first:
The post-biological period:
changing the world and changing ourselves
There are plants and even animals that from the outside don't look that different from inorganic matter, and there are animals who in terms of their emotional life, don't differ that much from humans. But if you look at the whole series, right from rocks to humans, it becomes clear that what the biological evolution has actually achieved is completely mind-boggling. And we have not reached the end. We humans are far too imperfect to be the end product of this enormous endeavour. In spite of all our fantastic capabilities, we are neither in harmony with ourselves nor with the rest of of this beautiful creation. So we look rather like an intermediate stage on the way to another type of being, a creature who is not only clever and enthusiastic but also wise, loving, and in harmony with himself and the rest of creation.
A fascinating aspect of the present moment is that we seem to have reached the point where the next step of the evolution might not need any further biological change, or at least, might not need such a physical change to start with. It seems possible for humans to change our own consciousness and with that the way we live without having to wait for any genetic mutation. As we saw at the end of the previous section, there appear to be two aspects to this post-biological stage of the evolution: one outward, technical and physical, and one inward, psychological and spiritual. We'll start with a quick look at what has happened in both areas till now.
The immediate cause of the present outward, technical and physical progress seems to have been the coming together of two things. The first is that we developed language and other means to share knowledge with others. The second is that we learned more and more sophisticated methods to modify the reality around us. The sharing may have begun, as in many other animal species, with the oral exchange of small bits of immediate interest, but at some stage we began to create complex stories, poems and sacred texts that were learnt by heart and shared with ever larger numbers of others. And then, when the sharing of our collective store of knowledge mixed with more and more clever physical creativity, this outward aspect of the post-biological evolution entered into the dizzying spin we now see around us.
The first part, the history of the way complex, grammer-based language developed, is for us at present hard to study as it left no physical traces, but what happened after that is to an amazing degree speeding up logarithmically. It seems to have taken at least thirty thousand years to move from simple sketches to writing; another four thousand years to master cheap and fast printing. After that it took 300 years to figure out how to send extremely cumbersome Morse code over long distances, and less than 40 years later telephones could transmit the spoken word. Radio came hardly a few years after that, and the speed by which we now produce and share new knowledge and things is increasing so fast that.... nobody really knows where it will lead to.
All this is not just some minor change. It took pre-mental Nature aeons to create a new type of bird or produce a butterfly with a new pattern of colours on its wings. We humans can now produce a new design within minutes, whether in our minds or on our computers, and with just a little more time and effort, we can actually make whatever we can imagine. And this is not a small or insignificant development. The embodied mind, in spite of all its defects, has turned us into a kind of secondary, miniature co-actors and co-creators. Where first it was only the universe as a whole that existed, acted and grew, in this mental stage of the earth's evolution, we see in our little corner of the universe the appearance of brainy creatures who function like tiny centres of semi-individualised action and creation in which consciousness is emancipated to a degree where there seems at least to exist a certain freedom, a possibility of choice and responsibility.
And this brings us to the other, the inner, psychological and spiritual change. Amazing as the outer physical revolution is, it is the inner one that in all likelihood will be the most game-changing.
As we saw, in some quite early stage of the evolution, the animal brain begins to make multiple images of the world, which it glues together serially, so that they form one coherent plan of action, which the animal can then execute, as when it walks to a place it remembers. The first beginnings of a human-like consciousness appear in the next stage when the brain manages to make sets of parallel plans from which the animal can choose one for outer action. But a fully human way of being and acting becomes possible only in a further development when the individual creature doesn't choose anymore mechanically which of a few given plans leads to the most desirable outcome, but when it reflects on the maps themselves, attempts to make better ones, compares what happens when one looks at the world from different viewpoints, or in different directions, with different levels and types of detail, and perhaps most importantly, when it imagines options for action involving different intentions, attitudes and ways of being conscious. It is then that the creature begins to have a real individuality and becomes a "person".
Has the time come where we have to change ourselves?
That all this has happened at all is amazing enough, but what makes it urgent to reflect on it are the consequences. We have looked at the degree to which everything is speeding up. We have also seen our increasingly active role in what is happening on the planet. The big question is whether these two together are at this very moment leading to a critical turning point. Given how toxic our human activities are for the rest of the planet, we seem to have reached a stage where we have only two options: to change, or to destroy ourselves.
In technical, psychological terms, the crux of our ability to change ourselves appears to be related to two aspects of consciousness which we discussed in the previous chapter. The first is that consciousness has the amazing quality that it is simultaneously one and many and that this unity of oneness and multiplicity is hierarchical and pervasive: an atom is one atom and a multitude of subatomic particles; a plant one plant and a multitude of cells; a galaxy one galaxy and a multitude of stars; a story is one story and a multitude of scenes, characters and events. The second is that we human being seem to have reached a level of emancipation where we can move freely up and down this hierarchy, we can move the centre of our consciousness more or less freely throughout the manifest world.
In the ordinary human mind, this expresses itself in the capacity to change our viewpoint (the place from where we look) as well as our focus (what we look at), and both can shift "horizontally" from one direction or issue to another; and "vertically" by zooming in or zooming out. We do this continuously and automatically without giving it much attention, but we can learn how to do it "at will" and concentrate upon one thing of our choice.
In consciousness, the freedom is much larger, but it is as yet hardly under our own control. It is part of the ordinary human life, that the type, the center and the borders of our consciousness change from second to second according to our circumstances and what we identify with, and the range is enormous. Sometimes we identify with our body; sometimes with a small part of it; at other moments we identify with our drives, our feelings or our thoughts; sometimes with a small, individual ego; sometimes with a thing, a plant, an animal, or some other human being; sometimes we identify with a group like our family, country, religion, or "race"; sometimes with something more impersonal, like an idea; some of us identify at times with much larger things like humanity, nature, the cosmos.
Because consciousness remains one in its essence, all these different ways of being conscious are in principle open to us, and, if we want to, we can learn to move between them at will. In other words, we can use our perspective-shifting capacity to change the basic sense we have of our own identity. We can use it to change the place from where we look at ourselves and the world, to change the place from where we act, and perhaps most interesting, to get control over the border between what we experience as self and what we see as world.1 It appears that all over the world such things were taught at least in some families and to some extent, as part of bringing up children, but in our public life, in science, and thus in education, this doesn't seem to get the attention its importance deserves. In India, a tiny but highly respected minority focussed on this faculty and developed it to a point where it can be used to free the centre of our consciousness from all its social and biological determinations and adopt a pure witness consciousness, or even to become one with the absolute Transcendence itself. The big question is whether and how the know-how this group developed can be utilised for our collective development.
Just as with the creative powers that humanity developed in the physical domain, it is hard to exaggerate the importance of what can be brought about by a real mastery over such shifts in our consciousness. While in modern times almost all our collective effort goes into the pursuit of freedom from outer circumstances, it is the freedom from our own inner drives, habits and preferences that will help us to overcome the many atavisms that at present stand in the way of living fulfilling lives in harmony with each other and the rest of nature.
As may be clear, for psychology to open up to these possibilities, will mean a large step forward towards more reliable and precise psychological knowledge as well as towards more effective inner development, therapy and social interventions, and we will have a closer look at all this in the chapters on the different types of knowledge and later again in those on self-development and its applications. But all this is only the beginning. The reason is that if we can free our consciousness entirely from its entanglement in our brain's activities and from from the ego, which is the source of all human suffering, its very nature might change in a manner that is far more radical than our present mind can even imagine. The reason is that the human mind even at its very highest is still in some subtle way dual: we can reach the Divine by exclusion, by devotion, by the absolute silence of the transcendent, but not in its absolute dynamic completeness. That requires a radically different consciousness, which according to Sri Aurobindo differs more from the mental consciousness than our human mind differs from the animal mind.
But before we can explore those far-off vistas, we need to have once more a quick look at the spiritual traditions from which most of our insights and know-how on how to change our consciousness have come till now.
The pursuit of the unknowable
When in the sixteenth century science began to develop in Europe as an independent knowledge system, it limited itself strictly to the study of nature, and it left the study of humans and their relation to the Divine to the Roman Catholic Church. This was not just a matter of political convenience. To know ourselves and the Divine requires a different type of knowledge and an entirely different methodology than what is needed to study physical things, and to develop those, Descartes and his followers were not remotely ready.
As we have seen, we can know the Divine since our consciousness is in its very essence still one with the consciousness of the Divine, we can know Him because we are Him already in our innermost essence. And this is something that has been known experientially by mystics and poets in all major civilizations. Children in English medium schools all over the world learn Tennyson's famous lines by heart:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
What the indian tradition has added is a treasure of practical methods to achieve what Tennyson wistfully asks for. But there is a hitch. In most of us, our consciousness is solidly entangled in our outer nature and in the pursuit of our day to day objectives. Though most people believe that there is something beyond the physical and social realities they are busy with, they tend to ignore it, or if they take it seriously, they accept whatever their religion has to say about it. Very few are those who try to know Him/ Her/ That directly for themselves, and amongst them, there are even less who are really serious about it. For those who are serious, there are many different ways to reach the Divine. An intense love, a complete surrender — virtually any truly one-pointed concentration can lead to a direct, experiential contact with some special aspect of the Divine, and even with the absolute transcendent essence of the Divine. For indeed, it seems possible to "jump" as it were by the sheer power of concentration from a high state of embodied mental awareness straight to the Transcendent, to the formless, featureless essence of the Divine. But once we have reached that, we tend to be satisfied and stagnate.
The reason such jumps are possible at all, is that to be and know some aspect of the Divine or even its absolute transcendent essence, a full transformation of our manifest nature is not required. The only demand on the outer nature is that it needs to be sufficiently quiet so that the centre of our awareness can move spontaneously from an already quiet, sattvic, harmonious, mind towards pure consciousness. In Samkhya's terminology, one could say that the center of one's individual identity has to move from one's individual portion of prakṛti, Nature, towards one's individual puruṣa, Self, and this becomes possible when the outer nature becomes sufficiently similar to the inner consciousness. As such, the process is similar to the already rather momentous movement in which one shifts the starting point of self-observation from a quiet mind to the pure witness consciousness, sākṣī, except that it includes one's entire being and the scale and intensity are of a different order. And yet, though these may well be our only possibility to know the Divine at present, they are still short-cuts, and what they find may be absolute and free of suffering, but they are not the Divine in its dynamic fulness. While such experiences can lead to an increasingly constant inner joy and there can be other reflections from these higher levels of consciousness onto the lower planes of our ordinary human existence, what they don't manage is a genuine and complete transformation of the lower nature2 and as such, they cannot be where our ultimate destiny is to be found.
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 as yet we haven't reached very far with 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 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 the world is not remotely like we think it is. What we know as the world is not what the world is in itself but only the model that our brain makes of it. In the model our brain makes, the world consists of "things" that have surfaces which reflect light in a range of colours determined by the way our eyes are constructed. And so we think this how the world looks, but if we had had receptors for infrared radiation instead of our present eyes this would not have been the case at all. And this is true for every aspect of the world we know. There must be some modicum of truth in our brain-generated model, as otherwise we would not be able to survive as the small creatures we are, but how much we don't know, and to take the world we now know as "the world" is pretty naive. If we try to get around this problem by freeing ourselves from the physical nervous system, we would have two further problems to solve. We must avoid getting stuck in the intermediate non-physical planes immediately surrounding us, and we must avoid getting lost in one specific aspect of the Divine or in the absolute Transcendent. Against the first, all major traditions warn, but the second is what many of them promote. For the devotional traditions it is obvious. The heart gives all its love to one form of the Divine, till it occupies verything and becomes absolute, all inclusive. 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 absolute, whether negative as in Buddha's emptiness or in the Advaitin's all-inclusive paramatman identical to Brahman, but in the end their absolute is also just one form of the Divine, while the Divine is not only transcendent to everything but also in verything and comprehensive of everything. To really get it we need to be like the Divine, and that means to have, or rather be a consciousness radically different from our imitative, constructing mind, a consciousness that is one with the dynamic Divine from which this cosmos originates in all its aspects. This is not exactly a small program, but it is only way we can 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 joy3 that forms the central theme of Infinity in a Drop and the raison d'être of its integral approach to psychology.4
1. This is such an important issue for psychology that we have a devoted a separate appendix to it: Changing the centre and borders of the self.
Besides this, there is within the chapter entitled "The self and the structure of the personality", an example of the many different ways one single event can look, dependent on where one places the centre of one's consciousness.
2. As we saw earlier, the manner in which the exclusive spirituality which we discussed in the previous chapter arose out of a premature satisfaction with what actually is only a partial vision of the Divine, is the mirror-image of what happened in Europe, where Laplace's observation that God is not needed to explain the movements of the stars and planets, in due time led to a worldview in which God was simply forgotten. As a result, in most schools of traditional Indian spirituality, the possibility of a perfect manifestation disappeared from view, in mainstream science, the Divine.
3. Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p. 2.
4. 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 is the most promising, the choice of one's individual path is a 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: