The path of Yoga begins with an imperfect understanding of the working of the Divine Power which pervades the Universe, as well as the planes and parts of one’s own consciousness. This understanding grows with spiritual experiences and expansion of consciousness. Under such circumstances, what is crucial is the attitude of liminality or ambiguity towards Truths uttered by past prophets and passed down through extant scriptures.
What do you do when a great personality – a prophet or an enlightened master – makes an assertion? If you accept it as true, then you are a believer. If you reject it as false, then you are a skeptic. The right approach is neither to believe nor disbelieve but to hold it outside the mind as a proposition which will be resolved later. The British poet John Keats called this attitude “negative capability” (see wikipedia) and considered it crucial for higher development. Another word for it is liminality.
I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.
The spiritual path is somewhat like the path of science – one takes all ancient assertions as hypotheses and performs the Yogic experiments in order to verify the truths in the laboratory of one’s own consciousness. In this path, the liminality in consciousness is of much value because all truths cannot be grasped at once. Comprehension occurs gradually as the individual consciousness, hitherto limited to the physical body, expands into other realms of the Universe and experiences new states of consciousness. It is only when one stands below a waterfall that one knows how it feels; no amount of talk can convey that experience. This is why Sri Aurobindo asked his disciples to distinguish between intellectual understanding and experiental understanding. It is the latter that the aspirant must cultivate:
Besides there are two kinds of understanding—understanding by the intellect and understanding in the consciousness.It is good to have the former if it is accurate, but it is not indispensable. Understanding by the consciousness comes if there is faith and openness, though it may come only gradually and through steps of experience. But I have seen people without education or intellectuality understand in this way perfectly well the course of the yoga in themselves, while intellectual men make big mistakes, e.g. take a neutral mental quietude for the spiritual peace and refuse to come out of it in order to go farther. It is necessary to curb the mind’s impatience a little. Knowledge is progressive—if it tries to leap up to the top at once, it may make a hasty construction which it will have afterwards to undo. The knowledge and experience must come by degrees and step by step.
Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – III: Transformation of the Mind – I
In our daily life, we form a certain set of beliefs inferred based on how the phenomenal world operates. These mental anchors give us the illusion and relief of living in a stable world. But such mental anchors are of no use in the Yogic path because the Universe does not function based on any human laws. The only support one has in such uncharted waters is faith in the Master and a calm equality in oneself.
The integral Yoga aims at a knowledge not merely of some fundamental principle, but a knowing, a gnosis which will apply itself to and cover all life and the world action, and in this search for knowledge we enter on the way and are accompanied for many miles upon it by the mind’s unregenerated activities before these are purified and transformed by a greater light: we carry with us a number of intellectual beliefs and ideas which are by no means all of them correct and perfect and a host of new ideas and suggestions meet us afterwards demanding our credence which it would be fatal to seize on and always cling to in the shape in which they come without regard to their possible error, limitation or imperfection. And indeed at one stage in the Yoga it becomes necessary to refuse to accept as definite and final any kind of intellectual idea or opinion whatever in its intellectual form and to hold it in a questioning suspension until it is given its right place and luminous shape of truth in a spiritual experience enlightened by supramental knowledge.
Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – II: Faith and Shakti
- Interplay of Faith and Doubt in Yoga
- Developing discernment on which actions are spiritual
- Equanimity as the foundation of Integral Yoga.
- The existence of vital signs during sleep or coma
- Four epistemic methods of consciousness
- The greater powers of the sense-mind (Manas)
- Vidyas in the Upanishads – part 2
- How does the mind change with Yoga?
- Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 1
- Syncretism in Sri Aurobindo’s thought – part 2
- Jnana Yoga : the ego blocks that have to be dissolved
- Meditation techniques from the Yoga Upanishads