1.2 The Self and the structure of the personality
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: March 2021
the centre of identity
This is the fourth in a series of eight sections.
If you haven't read the previous sections, you may like to read them first:
As may be clear, human nature is a rather complex affair. There are many different parts that all have their own history, character, and priorities for action. In order to present one face both to the outside world and to oneself, one needs something to coordinate all these different parts and tendencies, and as long as the person has not found his or her real Self, it is the ego that fulfills this role.
At one place in The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo describes the ego as follows:
But what is this strongly separative self-experience that we call ego? It is nothing fundamentally real in itself but only a practical construction of our consciousness devised to centralise the activities of Nature in us. We perceive a formation of mental, physical, vital experience which distinguishes itself from the rest of being, and that is what we think of as ourselves in nature — this individualisation of being in becoming. We then proceed to conceive of ourselves as something which has thus individualised itself and only exists so long as it is individualised, — a temporary or at least a temporal becoming; or else we conceive of ourselves as someone who supports or causes the individualisation, an immortal being perhaps but limited by its individuality. This perception and this conception constitute our ego-sense. Normally, we go no farther in our knowledge of our individual existence. [ref]
In other words, Sri Aurobindo sees the ego as a temporary, makeshift arrangement that nature makes to centralize the action and provide a focal point for one’s sense of identity. Interestingly, neither the character, nor the center, nor the borders of the ego are fixed. When one speaks to a sibling, for instance, one becomes a sister or brother; when one is with one’s parents one functions as their child; with one’s children, as parent; and when one speaks with neighbours, one suddenly represents one’s family as a whole. When one watches a football match, one identifies with one’s city or country; when an individual talks about feminism, he or she grows aware of his or her gender; in one’s concern for the environment, one can identify with the planet; and when one hurts one’s toe, one retires to the central command of one’s little, individual, bodily existence. In other words, both the borders of the ego and the center of one’s identity shift continuously from one second to the next. As its right to exist is far from intrinsic and in many ways precarious, the ego tends to be in constant need of support and it engages in various forms of defensive action, not all of which are appropriate or helpful. Common ways for the ego to defend itself are, for example, to stress the superior quality of its achievements, character, possessions, and social contacts, or to do its opposite: get out of the way of others by dissimulating its own existence.
Modern society is ambivalent about the ego. In English, egoism, egotism, and ego-centricity have all negative connotations, if only because they clash with the same traits in others, but psychology professionals tend to stress that a lack of ego-strength leads to difficulties in keeping oneself together and to an inability to withstand the pressure of others. As they often meet people who do not have a sufficiently strong ego, it is not surprising that amongst professional psychologists a healthy ego is widely considered essential for psychological well-being. Amongst those who do yoga, however, one does not often hear praise for the ego and its often misplaced attempts at heroic action. Here, the ego is more often derided as the villain of the piece. As a young Buddhist monk once told me, “All suffering is due to ego”, and he had a point. We'll come back to this in later sections on individual development, therapy, and the role of pain and suffering.
Shifting the Border Between Self and World Inwards
As was mentioned earlier, the location of the border of the self is perpetually shifting and in a person's ordinary waking consciousness it can include not only the individual's body, mind, and personality, but even possessions, roles, group-memberships and whatever else one identifies with at a given moment. What is more, both the average and the ideal location for the border of the self differ, not only between individuals but also between (sub)cultures—think for example about the degree to which one's sense of self can include one's small family, extended family, caste, company, class or country. Some spiritual traditions in India recommend to place the borders of the self radically further inside. For example, in Sāṁkhya, the philosophy supporting hatha and raja yoga, the true Self or puruṣa contains only pure consciousness, while the personality and all mental processes are considered to belong to universal Nature, prakṛti [ref].
For Sri Aurobindo too, it is an essential element of the practice of yoga to shift one’s center of identification from the temporary formation of the ego to the true Self in the central being. As Sri Aurobindo says,
The “I” or the little ego is constituted by Nature and is at once a mental, vital and physical formation meant to aid in centralising and individualising the outer consciousness and action. When the true being is discovered, the utility of the ego is over and this formation has to disappear—the true being is felt in its place. [ref]
The Self: Ātman, Jīvātman, and the plane-specific Puruṣas
Sri Aurobindo uses the word Self (with a capital S) mostly for the transcendent, immutable essence, both in its universal form (ātman) and in its individual form (jīvātman). While in his scheme of things, the ātman is truly universal and one for everybody, the jīvātman is aware of that oneness but it also has the essence of a spiritual individuality: it is an eternal portion of the Divine [ref]. One could say that the jīvātman is not any longer anantaguṇa, of infinite quality, but, as the carrier of one’s spiritual individuality, it manifests only the particular subset of all possible qualities that determines one’s individual svabhāva and svadharma, one’s essential individual nature and truth of action.
There is, however, not only a Self above the manifest reality, but there is also a distinct Self, or puruṣa, on each plane or level of consciousness. These plane-specific Selves function as the true center of one’s conscious existence on that level. So, the central being contains an annamaya puruṣa, a prāṇamaya puruṣa, and a manomaya puruṣa. On each of the three manifest lower planes (physical, vital, and mental), one can find, besides this plane-specific Self, also plane-specific aspects of the inner and outer nature.[ref] The combination of a self, in the most generic sense of a center of consciousness and identity, with a corresponding part of nature, Sri Aurobindo calls a being. So, within the human individual, one can speak of an inner and an outer physical being, an inner and an outer vital being, as well as an inner and an outer mental being.7 In the outer nature, one is generally not aware of the true Self, and as a result, there is a tendency to operate under command of some more superficial, ego-based center instead. The inner nature comes more easily under control of one’s true Self. For example, the outer mental being is likely to be guided mainly by a mental ego, while the inner mental being is more likely to have the mental Self as its center. Sri Aurobindo speaks about a true being when on one of the planes, one’s nature is fully under the conscious control of the true Self of that plane. The true mental being, for example, describes that part of the mental nature that is fully under conscious control of the mental puruṣa.
In Sri Aurobindo's system, the psychic center is the delegate of the jīvātman, one’s individual Self beyond space and time, into this “world of becomings”.8 It stands behind all the complexities of one’s outer and inner nature, and from there it supports one’s whole nature through the plane-specific Selves. Initially, this psychic center (antarātman, caitya puruṣa) is only a small, almost point-like psychic entity. It is the tiny kernel of truth that hides below the otherwise false sense that the ego has of its own reality and importance. Initially, it can be felt in the surface nature at best as a psychic influence. Gradually, however, as it grows, or to put it differently, as it brings (over many lifetimes) more and more of one’s inner and outer nature under its influence, it becomes a full-fledged psychic being, which one can experience as a psychic presence. When this presence is strong and sensed even by other people, they may say of such a person that he or she is an "old soul". At a still later stage, there can be a complete reversal, through which the psychic being becomes one’s one-and-only identity, and the ego is no longer needed.
The word soul Sri Aurobindo uses quite often in the common English sense for anything with which one’s I can identify. In this more common sense, he speaks, for example, about the desire soul.[ref] More typically he uses it, however, for this evolving psychic center.
The true being may be realised in one or both of two aspects — the Self or Atman and the soul or antarātman, psychic being or caitya puruṣa. The difference is that one is felt as universal, the other as individual supporting the mind, life and body. When one first realises the Atman one feels it separate from all things, existing in itself and detached. … When one realises the psychic being, it is not like that; for this brings the sense of union with the Divine and dependence upon it and sole consecration to the Divine alone and the power to change the nature and discover the true mental, the true vital, the true physical being in oneself. Both realisations are necessary for this yoga.[ref]
While the outer layers of the being remain for a long time determined by the forces working in the surrounding outer nature, the inner layers generally come more easily under the influence of the psychic element. Sri Aurobindo explains:
One must first acquire an inner Yogic consciousness and replace by it our ordinary view of things, natural movements, motives of life; one must revolutionise the whole present build of our being. Next, we have to go still deeper, discover our veiled psychic entity and in its light and under its government psychicise our inner and outer parts, turn mind-nature, life-nature, body-nature and all our mental, vital, physical action and states and movements into a conscious instrumentation of the soul. Afterwards or concurrently we have to spiritualise the being in its entirety by a descent of a divine Light, Force, Purity, Knowledge, freedom and wideness. It is necessary to break down the limits of the personal mind, life and physicality, dissolve the ego, enter into the cosmic consciousness, realise the self, acquire a spiritualised and universalised mind and heart, life-force, physical consciousness. Then only the passage into supramental consciousness begins to become possible, and even then there is a difficult ascent to make each stage of which is a separate arduous achievement.[ref]
It may be noted that the distinction Sri Aurobindo makes between the eternal, immutable nature of the Self above and the evolving nature of the soul deep within is not commonly made within the Indian tradition—at least not in the same manner. The antarātman is recognized as the self-within, but it is not seen as individualized or evolving. One reason for this is that the existence of an evolving soul-personality is only interesting in the context of an on-going evolution of consciousness where the ultimate aim is the manifestation of various aspects of the Divine in an ever-evolving material world. If the ultimate aim of life is liberation, mokṣa, and merger with the transcendent Divine, then the personality, however well-developed it may become on the way, has no real meaning. The soul is then seen as a center of pure consciousness which is experienced inside, but otherwise identical to the cosmic ātman above, unchanging and the same for everyone. Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879–1950), for example, speaks of the antarātman but acknowledges only its pure, immutable presence, neither its individuality, nor its evolving nature. For him, distinctions like those between ātman, jīvātman and antarātman are still part of māyā, and as such unreal and uninteresting (1923/2010, items 3–7). Swami Sivananda Saraswati (1887-1963),9 another contemporary of Sri Aurobindo, takes the jīvātman to be in essence identical to the paramātman, and as such only seemingly different from person to person as long as they are lost in the Ignorance. He writes:
Jivatman is the individual soul, a reflection of Brahman in Avidya [Ignorance] or the mind. Paramatman is the Supreme Soul, Brahman or the Atman. From the empirical viewpoint, the Jivatman is a finite and conditioned being, while the Paramatman is the infinite, eternal, Sat-chitananda Brahman. In essence, the Jivatman is identical with Paramatman when Avidya is destroyed. (1997, p. 34)
Many in the tradition of Advaita Vedānta would agree, but for Sri Aurobindo this is just one of two possibilities. He wrote:
Some of us, it has been said by a great teacher,10 are jivakotis, human beings leaning so preeminently to the symbol-nature that, if they have lost it utterly for a while in the Reality, they lose themselves; once immersed, they cannot return; they are lost in God to humanity; others are ishwarakotis, human beings whose centre has already been shifted upwards or, elevated in the superior planes of our conscious-existence from the beginning, was established in God rather than in Nature.
Such men are already leaning down from God to Nature; they, therefore, even in losing themselves in Him yet keep themselves since in reaching God they do not depart from their centre but rather go towards it; arrived they are able to lean down again to humanity.
Those who can thus emerge from this bath of God are the final helpers of humanity & are chosen by God & Nature to prepare the type of supernatural man to which our humanity is rising.[ref]
Elsewhere, Sri Aurobindo seemed to wonder whether jivakotis actually exist, and whether it is not in the nature of things that in the end, all souls will turn out to be ishwarakotis.[ref]
The main point remains, however, that Sri Aurobindo held that the eternal, unchanging jīvātman above has a unique spiritual individuality and that it sends a representative of itself, the psychic entity, down into the incarnate life, where its role is to bring, gradually, over many lifetimes, more and more of the inner and outer life under its influence, slowly becoming the center of a unique "evolving soul" or "psychic being".11
It is now time to see how the horizontal and vertical systems and the various centers of identity are related to each other.
7. Sri Aurobindo holds that there are also “beings” in the various typal planes: conscious formations and forces that have some degree of independent agency, though no individual Self in the human sense.
8. Ṛg Veda V.81.5 as translated by Sri Aurobindo.[ref]
9. In his time, Swami Sivananda was considered by many in India to be of similar spiritual accomplishment as Sri Aurobindo.
10. In a few letters about this distinction, Sri Aurobindo identified this “great teacher” as Sri Ramakrishna.[ref]