An ongoing evolution of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: in process

If you haven't read Section 2, you may like to read that section first:  

section 3
the future

The Vedic sevenfold chord of being and what it may tell us about the future.

Understanding our evolutionary past in terms of an evolving consciousness helps to make our present more understandable and leads to powerful methods for dealing with the difficulties and distortions that are due to our human, transitional stage of mental development. We'll come back to these methods later in the context of the potential they have for self-development, applied psychology and "rigorous subjectivity", which is crucial to turn psychology into a more effective science [INTERNAL LINKS].

Here we will focus on the insights Sri Aurobindo's idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness offers regarding the next step in our evolutionary journey. This matters because clarity about the direction in which the evolution is moving creates the possibility of "naturalising" meaning and values. Given the ever-increasing speed of change and the unprecedented range of options we have individually and collectively, the importance of getting some grip on core values can hardly be overstated.

So what is it that our evolutionary past can tell us about the direction in which we are moving? As we saw in the beginning of this chapter, the nature of the next step in the ongoing evolution of consciousness powerfully suggests itself, if one superimposes the progress made by the biological evolution till now on a Vedic conceptualisation of different "worlds" or types of conscious existence. In this Vedic map of consciousness there are seven layers: climbing up from the bottom, the first three, the annamaya, prāṇamaya and manomaya kośa, correspond roughly to what we would call matter, life and mind. Together these three layers, which nature has already manifested, are spoken of as the lower hemisphere. The top three levels are those of sat, cit and ānanda, the absolute, transcendent Existence, Consciousness and Bliss, which, according to the Indian tradition, together make up the divine hemisphere. In between these two hemispheres, there is the link-layer of the vijñānamaya kośa, or truth as it was called in the śloka from the Mundaka we quoted earlier. The consciousness of this link-plane is on the one hand fully divine and on the other hand differentiated and as such capable of manifestation. According to Sri Aurobindo it is here in this perfection, that the differentiation started which is the ultimate origin of the wondrously complex world in which we live. Above this vijñānamaya link layer, which Sri Aurobindo called the supramental, there is the divine Absolute, but no differentiation, no manifest world. Below the link-layer there is a manifestation, but it is a manifestation in what in the Indian tradition is called the ignorance, where individual entities have forgotten their oneness with the source of all existences and, if they are sufficiently individualised, experience disharmony and suffering.

After liberation transformation

Fig. 2. Involution and Evolution: where we have reached

The three types of consciousness that have manifested so far

In Matter, individual entities — whether fundamental particles or more complex manmade objects — are sufficiently conscious to know how to be and how to act on their surrounding according to the laws of nature. Beyond this, they have no awareness, no freedom, no ability to act: their consciousness is essentially bent backwards on itself.

At the level of Life, consciousness is sufficiently emancipated to allow living beings to have far more sophisticated interactions with their surroundings. There is a beginning awareness of themselves and their immediate surroundings and the ability to assert and rebuild their own complex structures out of much simpler material. 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. The first is well-established in humanity. At the human level, the mental consciousness has emancipated sufficiently for individual human beings to have a limited but ever-increasing objective awareness of themselves and of nature as a whole. With this, there is an increasing sense of individuality and freedom to plan and choose between different activities. At present, Nature is clearly busy perfecting and expanding this faculty. Collectively we are becoming more and more clever, especially in our dealings with physical things; education is reaching an ever larger percentage of humanity; more and more jobs are becoming mentally challenging; and democracy makes even government a shared responsibility.

The second power of the mind is not yet as well-established as the first. Though the early beginnings of it are fairly common, only few people have developed it to a significant degree. At its highest, it is the capacity to extricate one's consciousness temporarily from its physical foundation, so that it rises up into higher levels of consciousness, including those of what we have called the upper, divine hemisphere. As we will discuss later in more detail, it appears that till now individuals who have risen to these highest humanly reachable levels have done so only in a state of trance (called in Sanskrit, samadhi). That is, their consciousness appears to "jump" from more or less normal states of embodied mental awareness to these higher levels without complete mastery over all the intermediate layers. In other words, subjectively, these individuals are either up in the transcendent, or down here in the shared mental world, but they cannot yet dwell simultaneously in both. The reason seems to be that the human body, life and mind are not yet capable of embodying all the intermediate planes. With the transcendent that is not an issue: the only demand which the transcendent state makes on the outer nature is that it is sufficiently quiet. Once that is done, the centre of one's awareness can shift away from its identification with a small part of Nature, towards the pure consciousness further inside. In Samkhya terminology one could say that it shifts away from its identification with prakriti into a full absorption in the purusha. A full, dynamic embodiment of the supramental consciousness, on the other hand, would require the active involvement of the outer physical, vital and mental nature which in turn would demand degrees of transformation of those parts of one's nature that have simply not yet been achieved. Even those who in the Indian tradition are called jivanmuktas, embody in Sri Aurobindo's terminology at best one of the higher layers of the mental plane that are under influence from above, but not the supramental itself (or even the overmind for that matter).

The borders of these three types of consciousness are not as sharp as our discussion so far may have made it appear, and they do not coincide with the appearance of the physical support structures we mentioned earlier. One could argue for example, that the first appearance of Life as a type of consciousness was not in uni-cellulars but in the play of clouds and waves [REF]. At the upper end, there are also aspects of life that became possible only thanks to the development of mind, like the movement and courtship of animals and the psychological drama which the more complex human mind allows. It is the same with mind: the first appearance of mental processes may well be in the way certain trees communicate with each other, without any support of a neural system. And again at the upper end of mental development, the ordinary physical mind may show the first signs of the coming of the supramental in the enormous influx of new ideas that we see in technology and the hard sciences.

The next step in the evolution of consciousness

If there is any truth in what we have said so far about our evolutionary past, then the logical next step in the evolution should be the biological embodiment of the layer which during the involution came before the mind, in other words, the link-plane which Sri Aurobindo called the supramental. And as differentiation here still goes together with a perfect divine harmony, we can then expect, however far in the future, a truly divine manifestation in a perfect harmony. Whenever this truly gnostic type of consciousness begins to manifest here in our evolutionary world, we should then begin to see individual existences that are at the same time fully individualised and fully conscious of their identity with the consciousness that manifested the universe out of itself.

This is of course an extremely bold claim and far more optimistic in its vision of our future than mainstream evolutionary psychology which tends to see the future in terms of hyper-intelligent machines and cyborgs or worse. So, one might be inclined to reject the prospect of such a radical psychological transformation as unrealistic, but doing so may not lead to the best line of action, for even if there is only a tiny chance of this working out in reality, it would still be worth working for it, because it is quite likely our only chance. The fact that the number of people who achieve a real mastery in the spiritual domain is small doesn't go against its reality: the number of people who achieve real mastery in domains like mathematics or music are not very large either. And on a lower level, spiritual belief and experience are extremely common: in spite of many years of solidly positivist-reductionist education, the vast majority of people, everywhere, still have a sense that there is something divine, or at least something very much better than we are which supports us and the world in which we live. Moreover, whatever good quality research has been done on yoga and meditation shows beyond any reasonable doubt that they have a positive effect on the quality of people's life [REF]. And finally, the internal logic of Sri Aurobindo's consciousness-centred theoretical framework for understanding reality holds well. It is not only comprehensive and intuitively attractive, but it appears to fulfil whatever demands on intellectual rectitude one could make. What remains as opposition may not be more than an artefact of European history, where the centuries old conflict between organised religion and scientific enquiry ended in a truce which saw religion limit itself to the study of "the book of God", and science to the study of "the book of Nature".[REF/INTERNAL LINK]

Science, which is increasingly becoming the dominant knowledge system in the global civilization has not yet recovered from this limitation of its scope. With the exception of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, it has hardly paid any attention to consciousness and its possibilities for change.4. There have been a few European thinkers who had somewhat similar ideas as Sri Aurobindo's — one could think of Teilhard de Chardin for example, or over a hundred years before him, the German philosopher Schelling [FN to Indian influence on both] — but they don't seem to have had much of an impact. In fact, philosophy as a whole has lost much of its relevance in a culture that is obsessed with physical comfort and the production and consumption of physical things. While there is an extensive "shadow culture"[FN to Eugene Taylor] with spiritual interests, mainstream science, education, government and media have a stunningly strong, almost all-overriding physicalist bias. Though there is an interest in justice, freedom of expression and equality, the predominant focus of humanity at present is economical. As far as there is mainstream interest in psychological change, it is for individual therapy or career and productivity enhancement and has not even begun to develop the practical psychological know-how that could bring about the kind of drastic change of consciousness humanity needs. Compared to its potential benefit, the effort towards research on non-physical aspects of reality and serious spiritual transformation is as yet exceedingly small, both in scale and quality.

Unfortunately, as Sri Aurobindo points out [REF], the Indian tradition, which has concentrated on the study of consciousness for millennia, erred in the opposite direction. It pursued spirituality almost exclusively for the sake for the Transcendent, and none of the presently most well-known schools of Indian thought, whether based on the teachings of Shankara, Patanjali, the Buddha, or even, in some way [REF], the Gita, has accepted the possibility of a radical divinisation of life. Recent off-shoots of some of these schools appear to have become more life-affirming, but their original teachings advocate as their ultimate aim a return to the Transcendent beyond the manifestation: they pursued moksha, samadhi, kaivalya, nirvana, not to be reborn, and had only a very limited interest in collective, or even individual, change and transformation. Though the idea of a Golden Age (Satya Yuga) to some extent implies it, there has hardly been any mention in the Indian literature of the possibility of the original Truth-Consciousness becoming an integral, inherent part of biological life on earth.

According to Sri Aurobindo, the Vedic ṛṣis (sages) still knew the supramental as a typal plane in which they could enter but did not even think of “bringing it down” into the physical reality. Later sages and commentators failed to distinguish the overmind and the supermind and possibly beginning in the time of the Buddha, the very existence of the Supermind as the origin of the manifestation was forgotten, and the world was seen as the creation of an overmind māyā, and as such intrinsically a world of ignorance and suffering out of which it is best to escape into a nirvāṇa or some other blissful emptiness or featureless vast beyond (Sri Aurobindo, LY-I, p. 142-4). Sri Aurobindo holds, however, that an overmind māyā cannot have been the original creator of the world but at most a secondary force because it introduces the first elements of Ignorance and division in a manifestation that must logically have as its ultimate origin the divine Truth-Consciousness itself and that as such must be capable of evolving into a true manifestation of that divine perfection.

If such a consciousness could indeed manifest on earth, it would mean a continuation, but also a radical reversal of the development that has taken place so far. Evolution until now has taken place primarily within matter: as we have seen, our human consciousness is still strongly embedded in the workings of the physical brain and as such it is limited by this physical apparatus. The supramental consciousness, on the other hand, is primarily based in the Spirit, and in that freedom, from there, it engages matter, expresses itself in it and, while doing so, transforms it.

Going back or going forward

An interesting aspect of all this is that humanity seems to have reached a point where individuals may have two very different options for their further spiritual development.

As we mentioned before, most traditional schools of Indian spirituality recommend liberation from our suffering individual existence and strive for moksha or nirvāṇa. While, if Sri Aurobindo is right, we have another option: to go forward to the next stage of the world's evolution. Schematically the process of involution and evolution can then be depicted as in Figure 3.

After liberation transformation

Fig. 3. Involution and Evolution 2: two options for the future

We are now somewhere in the second half of the mental development, half-baked in every possible way. Our consciousness is sufficiently emancipated to give us a sense of freedom though that freedom is as yet largely illusionary; we have a vague sense of the beauty, truth and perfection towards which we are heading though we never fully achieve any of them; we have the gift — or curse — of looking back, nostalgically at the perfection of the cosmic vasts, and the innocent beauty of our planet's plant and animal life. Our head is in the sky, our feet are still stuck in the mud, and we seem to stand at the crossroads where we can merge back into the featureless transcendent from which it all started, or struggle on to complete the evolution of which we are a part.

The attentive reader may have realised that the path to the left depicts what we described in the Introduction 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 all the Light, Truth and Power of the infinite ocean. In actual life, that choice may, however, not be as starkly binary as the diagram suggests. On the one hand a certain purification of the 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. So in the end, both paths may need to be followed, and the traveller may be graced with a visit to the Transcendent before he proceeds towards humanity's further destiny, which forms the central theme of Infinity in a Drop and the raison d'être of its integral approach to psychology.


1.   For a funny rant on the number of stars and galaxies see this article by Glen Mackie.

2.   Those with an interest in the history of ideas might wonder whether this way of talking about "Life" is not an attempt at reintroducing "vitalism". In some sense it probably is, but that is no reason to conclude that it is wrong. Sri Aurobindo uses the word "vital", but he does not mean with it a physical substance or energy of which the existence can be proven or disproven by a physical or chemical experiment. He takes it as a type of consciousness, and from his standpoint, the entire debate about "vitalism" was vitiated by misunderstandings about the nature of consciousness and its relation to matter. When physicalist researchers could not show the existence of "élan vital", that did not disprove Sri Aurobindo's theory; on the contrary, it showed he was right to think that life was something extra that could not be reduced to purely physical stuff and energy. That people like Huxley thought élan vital had no meaning because it was not physical, was absurd, because if that had been true, then meaning (which is also not physical) would itself have been meaningless. The futility of the materialist's objections against "life" and "vitalism" can perhaps be illustrated most easily with manmade things: if one studies, for example, the construction of a cathedral with the research methods that physicalist-reductionist science has at its disposal, one will find only material things and energies. No problem with that and no surprise: the cathedral is no doubt a physical object. And yet, without ideas, plans, community support, land-owners, architects, engineers, contractors, craftsmen and labourers nothing would have been built. To claim that all those things (and all those people!) were only physical misses the whole point of the cathedral's existence (and of these human lives). In short, the cathedral is physical, but not only physical. To refuse to admit this, betrays a rather stunningly dogmatic type of selective blindness. A more detailed discussion of this issue can be found in the previous chapter, "Concepts of consciousness".

3.   Having "thoughts crossing one's mind" is a surprisingly fit description of this state: The impression one has is that one watches (or perhaps I should rather say, one is) a vast silent sea in which a thought appears, like a small sailing boat on the horizon, only to disappear a little later without leaving a trail.

4.   There seem to be several more areas of science that are interested in consciousness and change but as we have seen in the chapter on philosophical foundations, most, if not all, bracket their findings in a way that makes them socially ineffective.


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