The following article is based on a presentation made during the
Second International Conference on Integral Psychology,
held at Pondicherry (India), 4-7 January 2001.
The text has been published in:
Cornelissen, Matthijs (Ed.) (2001) Consciousness and Its Transformation. Pondicherry: SAICE.
Reversal of consciousness
Thoughts on the psychology of the new birth
Sri Aurobindo uses the term “reversal of consciousness” in speaking about the evolution of consciousness. He states: “The principle of the process of evolution is a foundation, from that foundation an ascent, in that ascent a reversal of consciousness and, from the greater height and wideness gained, an action of change and new integration of the whole nature.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine , p. 724) By reversal of consciousness Sri Aurobindo means a complete “turnover” of the consciousness which takes place at each radical transition in the evolutionary ascent of consciousness: the emergence of Life from Matter, the emergence of Mind from Life, and the evolution of Overmind into Supermind.
The Mother uses the term “reversal of consciousness” for another kind of total and radical change of consciousness, the change from the normal or ordinary consciousness in which one is ignorantly identified with the ego into the consciousness in which one is identified with one's true self. She describes the phenomenon as
a revolution of the basic equilibrium, that is, a total reversal of consciousness comparable with what happens to light when it passes through a prism. Or it is as though you were turning a ball inside out, which cannot be done except in the fourth dimension. One comes out of the ordinary three-dimensional consciousness to enter the higher four-dimensional consciousness, and into an infinite number of dimensions.
The Mother, Questions and Answers 1950-51 , p. 19
Speaking about the phenomenon in less abstract terms, the Mother says:
...when the phenomenon occurs, it brings with it an inexpressible something, so new and so definitive, that doubt and questioning are no longer possible. It is truly, in the absolute sense of the phrase, a new birth.
You become a new person, and whatever may be the path or the difficulties of the path afterwards, that feeling never leaves you. It is not even something—like many other experiences—which withdraws, passes into the background, leaving you externally with a kind of vague memory to which it is difficult to cling, whose remembrance grows faint, blurred—it is not that. You are a new person and definitively that whatever happens. And even all the incapacity of the mind, all the difficulties of the vital, all the inertia of the physical are unable to change this new state—a new state which makes a decisive break in the life of the consciousness. The being one was before and the being one is after, are no longer the same. The position one has in the universe and in relation to it, in life and in relation to it, in understanding and in relation to it, is no longer the same: it is a true reversal which can never be undone again.
The Mother, Questions and Answers 1957-58 , pp. 336-37
In the same context the Mother makes a further remark which has an important bearing on transformation. She says:
And since we are speaking of that, I shall remind you of what Sri Aurobindo has said, repeated, written, affirmed and said over and over again, that his yoga, the integral yoga, can begin only after that experience and not before.
So one must not cherish any illusions and fancy that one can begin to know what the supermind is and form any idea of it or assess it in any way, however minimal, before having had that experience.
Therefore, if you want to advance on the path, you must very modestly start on your way towards the new birth, first, and realise it before cherishing the illusion that you can have supramental experiences.”
The Mother, Questions and Answers 1957-58 , pp. 337
This implies that from the viewpoint of Integral Yoga, transformation which can come about only by the descent of the supramental consciousness into mind, life and body, can take place only after what the Mother calls a reversal of consciousness.
The nature of such a reversal can be best understood by looking at some of the basic characteristics of the ordinary consciousness. One of the most fundamental characteristics of our normal consciousness is our sense of an ego, that is, of a self that exists as a distinct reality, separate from the rest of the universe. Regarding this “egoistic ignorance” as Sri Aurobindo calls it, he writes:
...the ego is a falsification of our true individuality by a limiting self-identification of it with this life, this mind, this body: it is a separation from other souls which shuts us up in our own individual experience and prevents us from living as the universal individual: it is a separation from God, our highest Self, who is the one Self in all existences and the divine Inhabitant within us.” Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 740
Regarding the effect of a reversal of consciousness on the ego, the Mother says:
When this [a reversal of consciousness] happens to you, almost all the questions you ask yourself or ask me will be solved.
And anyway, your attitude in life will be so different that you will understand what is meant when one speaks of living spiritually. And at that moment you will also understand a great thing, a very great thing: how to live without ego.
Until then, you cannot understand it. The whole of life is so dependent on the ego that it seems absolutely impossible to live and act except with or by the ego, but after this new birth you can look at the ego with a smile and say to it, “My friend, I don't need you any more.''
The Mother, Questions and Answers 1957-58 , p. 338
The difficulty of conceiving an egoless state in our normal consciousness has been perhaps most clearly expressed by Carl Jung who states:
To us, consciousness is inconceivable without an ego.... If there is no ego, there is nobody to be conscious of anything. The ego is therefore indispensable to the conscious process... an egoless mental condition can only be unconscious to us, for the simple reason that there would be nobody to witness it.... I cannot imagine a conscious mental state that does not relate to a subject, that is, to an ego. (Jung, 1958, p. 484)
An egoless state which Jung regards as inconceivable is experienced only by a total reversal of consciousness, as a result of which one comes to identify with what is divine in oneself instead of the normal identification with the ego. We will return later to the subject of identification with the Divine.
A second basic characteristic of the ordinary consciousness is what Sri Aurobindo describes as our “psychological ignorance”. This, he says, “consists in a limitation of our self-knowledge to that little wave or superficial stream of our being which is the conscient waking self.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 732) The conscient waking self is only a fraction of the total psyche, which Freud compared to an iceberg, nine-tenths of which lie submerged below the surface and constitute what he called the unconscious. From the viewpoint of Integral Yoga psychology, the parts of our being of which we are unconscious are far more enormous than what Freud conceived as the unconscious. For we are unconscious of all that lies below, behind, around and above the surface consciousness. We are unconscious of what lies below the surface consciousness, the subconscient, which Sri Aurobindo describes as a
quite submerged part of our being in which there is no wakingly conscious and coherent thought, will or feeling or organized reaction, but which yet receives obscurely the impressions of all things and stores them up in itself and from it too all sorts of stimuli, of persistent habitual movements, crudely repeated or disguised in strange forms can surge up into dream or into the waking nature. (Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, p. 353)
We are unconscious of what lies behind the surface consciousness, the subliminal, from which, says Sri Aurobindo,
come all the greater aspirations, ideals, strivings towards a better self and better humanity without which man would be only a thinking animal—as also most of the art, poetry, philosophy thirst for knowledge....
(Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, p. 360)
We are unconscious of what lies around the surface consciousness, surrounding the body, what Sri Aurobindo calls the circumconscient or environmental consciousness which, he says, “each man carries around him, outside his body, even when he is not aware of it,—by which he is in touch with others and with the universal forces” and through which “the thoughts, feelings, etc. of others pass to enter into one—...also... waves of universal force—desire, sex etc. come in and take possession of the mind, vital or body.” (Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga , p. 1602)
Lastly, we are unconscious of what lies above the surface consciousness, the superconscient, which Sri Aurobindo describes as “...successive states, levels or graded powers of being overtopping our normal mind—higher ranges of Mind, degrees of spiritual consciousness and experience” from which “...the secret spiritual Power acts upon the being and by its pressure brings about the psychic transformation or the spiritual change.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine , p. 933)
Freud's metaphor of the iceberg is therefore too inadequate to convey the infinitesimal nature of what we are conscious in relation to that of which we are unconscious. Employing a more adequate metaphor, Sri Aurobindo says: “Our mind and ego are like the crown and dome of a temple jutting out from the waves while the great body of the building is submerged under the surface of the waters.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 556) Using a still more powerful metaphor, he states: “We are not only what we know of ourselves but an immense more which we do not know; our momentary personality is only a bubble on the ocean of our existence.” (Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p. 556)
Even with regard to our outer being, the personality or the mask , which Sri Aurobindo compares to a bubble on the ocean of our total existence or being, we are only partly aware. Essentially, psychological maladies arise due to unconsciousness or lack of awareness, and the various psychotherapies may be looked upon as methods of enhancing awareness, because awareness in itself has some therapeutic value. As Ken Wilber states:
A common thread to all these levels of treatment... psychoanalytic, cognitive, humanistic, transpersonal... is this: awareness in and of itself is curative.... Every therapeutic school... attempts, in its own way, to allow consciousness to encounter (or reencounter) facets of experience that were previously alienated, malformed, distorted, or ignored. (Wilber, 1999, p. 531)
But, as is well known, a mere intellectual awareness or insight is not enough to bring about a therapeutic change in one's behaviour, still less can it change one's feelings. This was well expressed by a psychiatrist who after undergoing psychoanalysis remarked to his friend: “Before undergoing analysis I was a son-of-a-bitch; now I am a well-analysed son-of-a-bitch.” So Wilber rightly adds a note to his statement about the curative effect of awareness. He states: “...when I say awareness is curative, this includes working through; awareness needs to be stable and pervasive; it needs to permeate the problem.” (Wilber 1999, p. 676) However, from the viewpoint of yoga, the insights gained through psychotherapy leave the ordinary consciousness fundamentally the same, that is, more or less totally unconscious. For Sri Aurobindo remarks: “It is only by a change—not a mere readjustment—of man's present nature that it can be developed, and such a change is not possible except by yoga.” (Sri Aurobindo, Essays in Philosophy and Yoga , p. 73) 1
The change of consciousness that Sri Aurobindo speaks about here, the change aimed at by yoga, is precisely what the Mother describes as a reversal from the ordinary consciousness into the divine consciousness. As she says,
...the true consciousness is the divine Consciousness. If you cut yourself off from the divine Consciousness, you become absolutely unconscious; that is exactly what has happened. And so, everything there is, the world as it is, your consciousness as it is, things in the state they are in, are the result of this separation of the consciousness and its immediate obscuration.
The minute the individual consciousness is separated from the divine Consciousness, it enters what we call the inconscience, and it is this inconscience that is the cause of all its miseries...
And the conclusion is this, that the true transformation is the transformation of consciousness—all the rest will follow automatically. (The Mother, Questions and Answers 1956, p. 77)
One consequence of the psychological ignorance due to which our self-knowledge is limited to the superficial waking consciousness is that in our ordinary consciousness we live most of the time on the circumference rather than the centre of our being. As a result, the ordinary consciousness is what is described as a dispersed consciousness. Distinguishing the higher concentrated consciousness from the ordinary dispersed consciousness Sri Aurobindo writes:
The higher consciousness is a concentrated consciousness, ...not dispersed and rushing about after this or that mental idea or vital desire or physical need as is the ordinary human consciousness—also not invaded by a hundred haphazard thoughts, feelings and impulses, but master of itself, centred and harmonious.(Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, p. 744)
The Mother gives a psychologically vivid description of the date of dispersion which characterises the ordinary consciousness.
One throws oneself out all the time; all the time one lives, as it were, outside oneself, in such a superficial sensation that it is almost as though one were outside oneself. As soon as one wants even to observe oneself a little, control oneself a little, simply know what is happening, one is always obliged to draw back or pull towards oneself, to pull inwards something which is constantly like that, on the surface. And it is this surface thing which meets all external contacts, puts you in touch with similar vibrations coming from others. That happens almost outside you. That is the dispersal of the ordinary consciousness. (The Mother, Questions and Answers 1956, p. 193)
It is in connection with the dispersion which is characteristic of the ordinary consciousness that the Mother speaks on one occasion about the reversal of consciousness.
...to live the spiritual life is to open to another world within oneself. It is to reverse one's consciousness, as it were. The ordinary human consciousness, even in the most developed, even in men of great talent and great realisation, is a movement turned outwards—all the energies are directed outwards, the whole consciousness is spread outwards; and if anything is turned inwards, it is very little, very rare, very fragmentary, it happens only under the pressure of very special circumstances, violent shocks, the shocks life gives precisely with the intention of slightly reversing this movement of exteriorisation of the consciousness.
But all who have lived a spiritual life have had the same experience: all of a sudden something in their being has been reversed, so to speak, has been turned suddenly and sometimes completely inwards, and also at the same time upwards, from within upwards—but it is not an external “above”, it is within, deep, something other than the heights as they are physically conceived. Something has literally been turned over. There has been a decisive experience and the standpoint in life, the way of looking at life, the attitude one takes in relation to it, has suddenly changed, and in some cases quite definitively, irrevocably. (The Mother, Questions and Answers 1957-58, p. 415)
It was stated earlier that an egoless state can be attained only by a reversal of consciousness and the consequent identification with the Divine in oneself instead of the normal identification with the ego. Regarding identification with the Divine, the Mother once remarked that such identification can be swiftly obtained if one becomes master of the power of identification, and, alluding to Ramakrishna she said: “Ramakrishna used to say that the time could vary between three days for very slow people, three hours for those who were a little swifter, three minutes for those who are used to it.” (The Mother, Questions and Answers 1953 , p. 225) Perhaps referring to this remark, a disciple once commented that a radical change of consciousness in a few minutes would be a revolution. And the Mother replied: “Yes, but a revolution can occur in half a second; it can also take years, even centuries, and even many lives. It can be done in a second.” (The Mother, Questions and Answers 1955 , p. 195) She spoke in a similar vein on another occasion when someone asked her as to when and how one becomes an instrument of the Divine. The Mother replied:
In each one, I believe, it happens in a different way. It may happen suddenly, in the space of a moment, by a kind of inner reversal; it may take years; it may take centuries; it may take several lives. For each one there is a moment when it happens: when he is ready.
And I think he is ready when he is completely formed. The purpose of existence of the ego is the formation of the individual. When the individual is ready the ego can disappear. But before that it does not disappear because it has still some work to do. (The Mother, Questions and Answers 1955, p. 366)
The paradox that the reversal of consciousness can take many lives and can also be done in a second is due to the fact that on the spiritual path, changes first take place below the surface consciousness and, preceding any marked visible change in the outer consciousness, there is a more or less long period during which very little if anything seems to be happening. Referring to this fact, the Mother once made a striking statement when someone asked her what one should do when in spite of one's efforts one does not see any progress and feels discouraged. She said:
...the first thing to tell yourself is that you are almost entirely incapable of knowing whether you are making progress or not, for very often what seems to us to be a state of stagnation is a long—sometimes long, but in any case not endless—preparation for a leap forward. We sometimes seem to be marking time for weeks or months, and then suddenly something that was being prepared makes its appearance, and we see that there is quite a considerable change and on several points at a time.
(The Mother, Questions and Answers 1957-58, p. 316)
This explains why the radical change which the Mother calls a reversal of consciousness is a long and gradual process. The sadhak may see many indications of progress on the spiritual path, such as a growth in one's aspiration, faith, devotion, calm, quietude and equanimity, and one may also have what are regarded as spiritual experiences, but before the radical phenomenon of a reversal of consciousness, there is no fundamental change in one's outer nature: one still feels imprisoned in the ordinary consciousness, tied with its knots of ego and desire, and submerged more or less totally in unconsciousness. The Mother states this by using the metaphor of the incubation of an egg. She says:
This change of consciousness and its preparation have often been compared with the formation of the chicken in the egg: till the very last second the egg remains the same, there is no change, and it is only when the chicken is completely formed, absolutely alive, that it itself makes with its little beak a hole in the shell and comes out. Something similar takes place at the moment of the change of consciousness. For a long time you have the impression that nothing is happening, that your consciousness is the same as usual, and, if you have an intense aspiration, you even feel a resistance, as though you were knocking against a wall which does not yield. But when you are ready within, a last effort—the pecking in the shell of the being—and everything opens and you are projected into another consciousness.
(The Mother, Questions and Answers 1950-51, pp. 18-19)
Though the more or less imperceptible changes before the reversal of consciousness occur gradually over a long period, the Mother has said on more than one occasion that the actual reversal of consciousness is always a sudden happening. “It is not,” she says, “like a convalescence after an illness: you must change worlds.” (The Mother, Questions and Answers 1957-58 , p. 135) In other words, it is not a gradual passage like that of recovering from an illness, slowly changing from a state of illness to a state of health. It is more like abruptly ceasing to live in one world and being born into an altogether different world. Using the same metaphor of the hatching of an egg, she says:
...one is shut up in a shell, and inside it something is happening, like the chick in the egg. It is getting ready in there. It is in there. One doesn't see it. Something is happening in the shell, but outside one sees nothing. And it is only when all is ready that there comes the capacity to pierce the shell and to be born into the light of day.
It is not that one becomes more and more perceptible or visible: one is shut in—shut in—and for sensitive people there is even that terrible sensation of being compressed, of trying to pass through and then coming up against a wall. And then one knocks and knocks and knocks, and one can't go through.
And so long as one is there, inside, one is in the falsehood.2 And only on the day when by the Divine Grace one can break the shell and come out into the Light, is one free.
This may happen suddenly, spontaneously, quite unexpectedly.
I don't think one can go through gradually. I don't think it is something which slowly wears and wears away until one can see through it. I haven't had an instance of this so far. There is rather a kind of accumulation of power inside, an intensification of the need, and an endurance in the effort which becomes free from all fear, all anxiety, all calculation; a need so imperative that one no longer cares for the consequences.
One is like an explosive that nothing can resist, and one bursts out from one's prison in a blaze of light.
After that one can no longer fall back again.
It is truly a new birth.
(The Mother, Questions and Answers 1957-58, pp. 135-36)
In a passage quoted earlier from the Mother, she stated that Sri Aurobindo's yoga, implying the yoga of transformation, can begin only after the experience of the new birth. This is apt to make one view transformation as a rather bleak prospect in an unforseeable future. There is, however, an encouraging note in what the Mother has said about the preparatory work of transformation which is already imperceptibly taking place beneath the surface of things as a result of the supramental manifestation which has been witnessed on the earth. This preparatory work of transformation, the Mother has said, will have a sudden manifestation when the prerequisite condition—the new birth—has been attained. So after dissipating the illusion that one can have supramental experiences before the new birth, she says:
To console you I may tell you that by the very fact that you live on earth at this time—whether you are conscious of it or not, even whether you want it or not—you are absorbing with the air you breathe this new supramental substance which is now spreading in the earth atmosphere. And it is preparing things in you which will manifest very suddenly, as soon as you have taken the decisive step.
(The Mother, Questions and Answers 1957-58, p. 337)
The decisive step is a new birth through a reversal of consciousness.
1 “But what precisely do we mean by the word Yoga? It is used here in the most general sense possible as a convenient name including all processes or results of processes that lead to the unveiling of a greater and inner knowledge, consciousness, experience.” (Sri Aurobindo, Essays Divine and Human , p. 329 ).
2 “Falsehood” here has a spiritual, not a moral connotation; the Mother defines “falsehood” as “a domain of what is not true, what is not at all the experience of the truth of a being, and yet it is of this that he is almost solely conscious.” (The Mother, Questions and Answers 1954 , p. 165.)
Jung, C. G., 1958, Psychology and Religion: West and East , Collected Works, Vol. XI, Bollingen Series XX, Pantheon Books.
Wilber, Ken, 1999, Integral Psychology , The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, Vol. 4, Boston & London: Shambhala.