Some selections from the works of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother describing the nature of the thought process.
- All thoughts come from the Universal Mind.
- Our mind is not an instrument but an organizer of knowledge.
- We accept a certain range of ideas based on our affinity.
- What we call our self is just an amalgam of thoughts that have been trapped and keep circulating. (“I like this; I hate that; I am this kind of a person”)
- We may receive and express the same thought-idea differently due to variations in the individual mental consciousness.
- Inspiration slips in when the mind falls silent – not when the mind is making effort as is commonly believed.
All thoughts come from outside; Some thoughts get trapped and keep circulating
He will realize that he lives in a surreptitious racket, an exhausting and ceaseless whirlwind exclusively filled with his thoughts, his feelings, his impulses, his reactions–him, always him, an oversized gnome intruding into everything, obscuring everything, hearing and seeing only himself, knowing only himself (if even that!), whose unchanging themes manage to give the illusion of novelty only through their alternation. In a certain sense we are nothing but a complex mass of mental, nervous and physical habits held together by a few ruling ideas, desires and associations–an amalgam of many small self-repeating forces with a few major vibrations. By the age of eighteen we are set, one might say, with our major vibrations established. Then the deposits of the same perpetual thing with a thousand different faces we call culture or “our” self will ceaselessly settle around this primary structure in ever thicker layers, increasingly refined and polished. We are in fact shut in a construction, which may be like lead, without even a small opening, or as graceful as a minaret; but whether in a granite skin or a glass statue, we are nonetheless confined, forever buzzing and repetitive.
Eventually, after many trials and errors, we will understand once and for all and see with our own eyes that the mind is not an instrument of knowledge but only an organizer of knowledge, as Mother put it, and that knowledge comes from elsewhere.* When the mind is silent, words come, speech comes, action comes, everything comes, automatically, with striking exactness and speed. It is indeed another, much lighter way of living. For there is nothing the mind can do that cannot be better done in the mind’s immobility and thought-free stillness.
In this silent transparency, we will soon make another discovery, of capital importance in its implications. We will notice that not only do other people’s thoughts come to us from the outside, but our own thoughts, too, come from outside. Once we are sufficiently transparent we will be able to feel, in the motionless silence of the mind, little swirling eddies coming into contact with our atmosphere, like faint little vibrations drawing our attention; if we pay closer attention in order to “see” what they are, that is, if we let one of these little swirls enter us, we suddenly find ourselves “thinking” of something. What we had felt at the periphery of our being was a thought in its pure form, or rather a mental vibration before it enters us and comes to the surface of our being clad in a personal form, enabling us to claim: “This is my thought.” This is how a good mind-reader can read what goes on in a person whose language he does not even know, because it is not the “thoughts” that he catches but the vibrations, to which he then attributes his own corresponding mental form. But we should not really be too surprised, because if we were capable of creating a single thing ourselves, even a tiny little thought, we would be the creators of the world! Where is the I in you that can create all that? Mother used to ask. It is just that the process is not perceptible to the ordinary man, firstly, because he lives in constant tumult, and secondly because the process through which vibrations are appropriated is almost instantaneous and automatic. Through his education and environment, a person becomes accustomed to selecting from the Universal Mind a given, narrow range of vibrations with which he has a particular affinity. For the rest of his life he will pick up the same wavelength, repeating the same vibratory mode in more or less high-sounding words and with more or less innovative turns of phrase; he will spin around in a cage, the illusion of progress being given only by a greater or lesser extent and sparkling range of vocabulary used. True, we do change our ideas, but changing ideas is not progressing.
All developed mental men, those who get beyond the average, have in one way or other, or at least at certain times and for certain purposes to separate the two parts of the mind, the active part, which is a factory of thoughts and the quiet masterful part which is at once a Witness and a Will, observing them, judging, rejecting, eliminating, accepting, ordering corrections and changes, the Master in the House of Mind, capable of self-empire, samrajya. The Yogi goes still further,–he is not only a master there but even while in mind in a way, he gets out of it as it were, and stands above or quite back from it and free. For him the image of the factory of thoughts is no longer quite valid; for he sees that thoughts come from outside, from the universal Mind, or universal Nature, sometimes formed and distinct, sometimes unformed and then they are given shape somewhere in us. The principal business of our mind is either a response of acceptance or a refusal to these thought waves (as also vital waves, subtle physical energy waves) or this giving a personal-mental form to thought-stuff (or vital movements) from the environing Nature-Force.
(Satprem, The Adventures of Consciousness, Chapter 4, The Silent Mind)
Why do one person’s thoughts differ from another person’s ?
But then, asked a disciple, if it is not our own mind that thinks, if thoughts come from outside, how is it that there is such a difference between one person’s thoughts and another‘s ? First of all, replied Sri Aurobindo, these thought-waves, thought-seeds or thought-forms or whatever they are, are of different values and come from different planes of consciousness. And the same thought substance can take higher or lower vibrations according to the plane of consciousness through which the thoughts come in (e.g. thinking mind, vital mind, physical mind, subconscient mind) or the power of consciousness which catches them and pushes them into one man or another. Moreoever there is a stuff of mind in each man and the incoming thought uses that for shaping itself or translating itself (transcribing we usually call it), but the stuff is finer or coarser, stronger or weaker, etc., etc., in one mind than in another. Also there is a mind-energy actual or potential in each which differs and this mind-energy in its recipience of the thought can be luminous or obscure, sattwic (serene), rajasic (impassioned) or tamasic (inert) with consequences which vary in each case. And Sri Aurobindo added: The intellect is an absurdly overactive part of the nature; it always thinks that nothing can be well done unless it puts its finger into the pie and therefore it instinctively interferes with the inspiration, blocks half or more than half of it and labours to substitute its own inferior and toilsome productions for the true speech and rhythm that ought to have come. The poet labours in anguish to get the one true word, the authentic rhythm, the real divine substance of what he has to say, while all the time it is waiting complete and ready behind.
But effort helps, the disciple protested again, and by dint of beating one’s brains, the inspiration comes. Exactly! When any real effect is produced, it is not because of the beating and the hammering, but because an inspiration slips down between the raising of the hammer and the falling and gets in under cover of the beastly noise
(Satprem, Adventures of Consciousness, Chap 16, Man A Transitional Being)
Sri Aurobindo’s answer to a Pavitra (a disciple)
Pavitra: If the images are all around us, how is it that they do not come in our mind?
Sri Aurobindo: They come often in man’s mind but he believes them to be his own thoughts. Moreover one must have something that corresponds to them, otherwise they make no impression and do not come out of the subconscient. But once you begin to open, images arise more frequently and you need to discriminate among them.
(Pavitra, Conversations With Sri Aurobindo)
The Mother explains why bad thoughts come
Question: Why do bad thoughts come?
Haven’t I told you why bad thoughts come?… For as many reasons as there are bad thoughts! Each one comes for its own special reason: it may be through affinity, it may be just to tease you, it may be because you call them, it may be because you expose yourself to attacks, it may be all this at once and many more things besides.
Bad thoughts come because there is something corresponding somewhere within you; otherwise you might see something sing like that, but they would not come inside you. I suppose the question means: why do you suddenly think something bad?
Because the stages are very different. I have already explained to you that the mental atmosphere is worse than any public place when a crowd is there: innumerable ideas, thoughts of all kinds and all forms criss-cross in such a complicated tangle that it is impossible to make out anything precise. Your head is in the midst of it, and your mind even more so: it bathes in it as one bathes in the sea. And all this comes and goes, comes, turns, collides, enters, goes out. If you were conscious of the mental atmosphere in which you live, obviously it would be a little maddening! I think personal cerebral limits are quite necessary as a filter, for a very long time in life.
To be able to get out of all that and live fully in the mental atmosphere as it is, seeing it as it is ― it is the same for the vital atmosphere, by the way; that is perhaps yet uglier!― to live in it and see it as it is, one must be strong, one must have a very steady sense of inner direction. But in any case, whether you see it or not, whether you feel it or not, it is a fact, it is like that. So one cannot ask where bad thoughts come from ― they are everywhere. Why do they come? ― where would they go? You are right in the midst of them!
What governs this filter of consciousness which makes you conscious of certain thoughts and not conscious of others, is your inner attitude, your inner affinities, your inner habits ― I am speaking of the mind, not of the psychic ― it is your education, your cerebral development, etc. That is a kind of filter formed by your ego, and certain thoughts pass through it and others don’t ― automatically. That is why the nature of the thoughts you receive may be quite an important indication for you of the kind of character you have ― it may be quite subconscious for you, for a man is not in the habit of really knowing himself, but it is an indication of the general tendency of your character. To put things in a very simplified way, if you take an optimist, for instance, well, in general, optimistic ideas will come to him; for a pessimist they will generally be pessimistic ideas ― I am speaking very broadly ― for a person with a rebellious nature, they will be rebellious ideas; and for a very sheepish person, they will be sheepish ideas! Granting that sheep have ideas! That is the usual normal condition.
Now, if it so happens that you have decided to progress and if you enter the path of yoga, then a new factor intervenes. As soon as you want to progress, you immediately meet the resistance of everything that does not want to progress both in you and around you. And this resistance naturally expresses itself in all the thoughts that correspond to it.
Suppose that you want to make a progress regarding attachment to food, for example; well, almost constantly there will come to you thoughts particularly interested in food, about what should be taken, what should not be taken, how it should be taken, how it should not be taken; and these ideas will come to you, they will seem quite natural to you. And the more you say within yourself, “Oh! how I would like to be free from all that, what a hindrance to my progress are all these preoccupations”, the more will they come, quietly, until the progress is truly made within and you have risen to a level of consciousness where you can see all these things from above and put them in their place ― which is not a very big place in the universe! And so on, for all things. Therefore, your occupations and affinities are going to put you almost contradictorily into contact not only with ideas having an affinity and relation with your way of being, but with the opposite. And if you don’t take care from the beginning to keep an attitude of discernment, you will be turned into a mental battlefield.
If you know how to rise to a higher level, simply into a region of the speculative mind which is not quite the ordinary physical mind, you can see all this play and all this struggle, all this conflict, all these contradictions as a curiosity which does not touch or affect you. If you rise a step higher still and see the goal towards which you want to go, you will gradually come to discern between ideas favourable to your progress which you will keep, and ideas opposed to this progress which harm and impair it; and from above you will have the power to set them aside, calmly, without being otherwise affected by them. But if you remain there, at that level in the midst of that confusion and conflict, well, you risk getting a headache!
The best thing to do is to occupy yourself with something practical which will compel you to concentrate specially: studies, work or some physical occupation for the body which demands attention ― anything at all that forces you to concentrate on what you are doing and no longer be a prey to these ramblings. But if you have the misfortune to remain there and look at them, then surely, as I said, you will get a headache. For it is a problem which must be resolved either by a descent into practical life and a concentration on some practical effort or else by rising above and looking from above at all this chaos so as to be able to bring some order into it and set it right.
But one must never remain on the same plane, it is a plane which is no good either for physical or moral health.
The Mother, Questions and Answers (1956): 27 June 1956
Explanation by Paramahansa Yogananda
All thoughts vibrate eternally in the cosmos. By deep concentration, a master is able to detect the thoughts of any mind, living or dead. Thoughts are universally and not individually rooted; a truth cannot be created, but only perceived. The erroneous thoughts of man result from imperfections in his discernment. The goal of yoga science is to calm the mind, that without distortion it may mirror the divine vision in the universe.
(Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, Chap 15)