Cultivating witness consciousness (Saksi Bhava) – part 2

In our daily life, our consciousness is like a constantly changing movie-screen across which various thought forms flip through, have their play and die out.  We are so busy with ourselves that these transitions normally goes unnoticed.  Traditionally, various parts of our body consciousness emit their own semi-conscious response to any stimulus and the cumulative sum of these responses is denoted as our personality.   But as we deepen our practice of witness consciousness discussed in a previous post (Cultivating witness consciousness),  this coherence of our personality begins to fall apart.   It is then that we  become aware of the time interval during which our consciousness undergoes a change while responding to an external stimulus.   These subtle changes in our reaction process are discussed here.

Stage 1 : no control over emotional turmoil !

The first stage is commonly observed in the people of the world.   It is when you are completely swallowed up by some emotion such as depression, anger, fear, pride or excitement.  You receive some external stimulus and automatically respond to it without hesitation.   You get carried away.  The interval during which this flood of new emotion sweeps your consciousness seems almost non-existent.     If you hate something, there is a sharp pulse in the heart followed by a spontaneous response.  If you are fearful, there are butterflies in the stomach followed possibly by other nervous movements.  If you are praised, your chest heaves, your face becomes flushed and your throat has an overpowering sensation of  joy and then you mumble something incoherently to acknowledge the praise.   There are variants of this response but the basic situation is the same.   This unique response is what people assume is their true personality, but that’s not true as we see later.

As Sri Aurobindo points out in the The Synthesis of Yoga – II: Purification – The Lower Mentality, the root of the turmoil here is the psychic Prana(breath), which is that part of our vitality which supports the mental processes.  (See Vital Sheath for more on psychic Prana). Ordinarily, this psychic Prana is like a turbulent sea which easily overpowers our mind and sways us to commit emotional excesses.    The first step of purification, according to Sri Aurobindo, is to rid this Prana of desire. This can be done by using the practice of witness consciousness to maintain constant awareness of our breath. Effort must be made to ensure that the breath flows slowly and regularly before, during and after the response to any external event. This simple effort coupled with regular Pranayama pays good dividends.

Stage 2 : witness consciousness develops but a struggle for withdrawal occurs

If you succeed at purifying your breath as discussed above, a temporary feeling of tranquility begins to arise within.   There is some sense of separation from worldly events but you still do not feel separate from your own personality.   If you are praised, you still feel proud but there is also another part of you which is watching your throat, heart and abdomen and observing how this feeling of pride is suffusing your body.  If you are hate something, you still turn away from it with revulsion but you are not completely swept away by anger.  You are not completely in control because so you still struggle to withdraw from the stimulus. Therefore, this tranquility is imperfect.

The cure at this stage is to continue the practice of witness consciousness and allow the power gained through meditation to permeate the entire being, especially the heart, the stomach(navel) and the throat for these parts of our consciousness correspond to the emotional mind, the receptive sensational mind and the active sensational mind respectively (in Aurobindonian termology – See The Synthesis of Yoga – II: Purification – The Lower Mentality).   Once these parts are tranquilized and purified, they have to remain immobile while responding to an external stimulus.  (See Vital Immobility)   Once this stage of immobility is successfully attained, the next field of struggle begins.

Stage 3 : reason prevails over emotion but turmoil may return unexpectedly

The next stage is when the sense of separation becomes greater and there is a noticeable time lag between the stimulus and your response.  You feel separate not only from the external stimulus but also from your own physical body (or what Sri Aurobindo called “frontal being”).  You can sense the feeling of pride, anger,etc invading your consciousness but the greater part of your consciousness remains separate from the emotional turmoil. You are able to think calmly despite the emotional distress which is rippling across your throat, heart and stomach. You begin to sense that you might be something larger than the physical body.

At the same time, you have a new problem on your hands because now you awaken to that part of your consciousness called the circumconscient.  This is a layer of consciousness around the physical body which holds all the thoughts and impulses that have been forcefully rejected and no longer (seemingly) affect you.  Unfortunately, these rejected thoughts have not completely disappeared and they slip back from the circumconscient into the active consciousness in unguarded moments just when you happen to relax a little.   (For context, see All thoughts come from outside)  Then you suddenly find yourself  flooded with some old grievance, some past dispute, some unresolved insult and you become critical, depressed, excited etc.  As you try to shake it off, you wonder where that came from.  Well, it came from the circumconscient and it slipped in through the door because you weren’t aware of yourself completely.

To go beyond this stage, the consciousness has to go deeper into the heart, awaken the subtle body and also expand above the head and awaken the higher planes of the mind.   This brings in the greater illumination that is necessary to pacify and nullify the subconscient and the circumconscient.   This can only occur after  strenuous all-round daily effort during which one learns to exercise fine-grained control in daily activities like talking, eating, watching movies, etc.  More generally, one has to live by what the Mother called the four austerities.

Stage 4 : glorious cessation

In the next stage, you find yourself completely in control.  If you have Divine Grace, you might even experience the psychic transformation or the spiritual transformation with the awakening of the Kundalini.  The subconscient disappears, the circumconscient ruptures and the subtle body expands into the cosmic zones.   The problems which bedeviled you earlier no longer have any play.  Your consciousness is now pure and lustrous.  You stand back and reject all emotional turbulence.  The flood of emotions which previously invaded you are now hardly a ripple. You have become a robot sans emotions like R2D2 .

Image of R2D2 by Andreas Rueda via flickr (Creative Commons).  Click for source

..just kidding on the last one! Actually, you have become conscious of your True Self, which is distinct from the physical body consciousness or the frontal personality.

Further reading

Part 1 of this article is based on a talk by Kireet Joshi.  See How to cultivate Witness-consciousness or Saksi Bhava

Satprem‘s book The Adventures of Consciousness (amazon) discusses all this in much more detail.

The four stages mentioned above are discussed in Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine – I: Knowledge by Identity and Separative Knowledge, where they are the four states of knowing :

  1. knowledge by identity.
  2. knowledge by intimate direct contact.
  3. knowledge by separative direct contact.
  4. wholly separative knowledge by indirect contact.

12 thoughts on “Cultivating witness consciousness (Saksi Bhava) – part 2

  1. SS Lahiri

    Dear Sandeep,
    A very good posting indeed.

    While the first sentence(The first step of purification, according to Sri Aurobindo, is to rid this Prana of desire. ) is totally correct as stated in Synthesis of Yoga. I will be obliged if you can guide me to some of Mother or The Master’s writings where we can find the balance portion of the text pasted below(drawn from the posting above).

    ‘The first step of purification, according to Sri Aurobindo, is to rid this Prana of desire. This can be done by using the practice of witness consciousness to maintain constant awareness of our breath. Effort must be made to ensure that the breath flows slowly and regularly before, during and after the response to any external event. This simple effort coupled with regular Pranayama pays good dividends.’

    Thanks & regards

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Dear Mr Lahiri,

      Sri Aurobindo divides Prana into psychic Prana (the breath that supports the mind) and physical Prana (the breath that supports the body). See Vital Sheath

      When Prana is no longer deformed by desire, it becomes a transmitting channel for the Higher Will and brings about mental clarity and physical tranquility. These are a few passages from the Synthesis of Yoga which expatiate on Prana.

      Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – II: The Instruments of the Spirit: …This mentality is pervaded by the life-force, which becomes here an instrument for psychic consciousness of life and psychic action on life. Every fibre of the sense mind and basic consciousness is shot through with the action of this psychic Prana, it is a nervous or vital and physical mentality. Even the Buddhi and ego are overpowered by it, although they have the capacity of raising the mind beyond subjection to this vital, nervous and physical psychology. This combination creates in us the sensational desire-soul which is the chief obstacle to a higher human as well as to the still greater divine perfection.

      Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – II: Purification – The Lower Mentality : …But this purification cannot be effected without a preliminary clearing of its natural obstacles in the other lower parts of the antahkarana, and the chief natural obstacle running through the whole action of the ahtahkarana, through the sense, the mental sensation, emotion, dynamic impulse, intelligence, will, is the intermiscence and the compelling claim of the psychic Prana. This then must be dealt with, its dominating intermiscence ruled out, its claim denied, itself quieted and prepared for purification.

      Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – II: Purification – The Lower Mentality: The deformation which enters in and prevents the purity, is a form of vital craving; the grand deformation which the psychic Prana contributes to our being, is desire. The root of desire is the vital craving to seize upon that which we feel we have not, it is the limited life’s instinct for possession and satisfaction. It creates the sense of want, — first the simpler vital craving of hunger, thirst, lust, then these psychical hungers, thirsts, lusts of the mind which are a much greater and more instant and pervading affliction of our being, the hunger which is infinite because it is the hunger of an infinite being, the thirst which is only temporarily lulled by satisfaction, but is in its nature insatiable. The psychic Prana invades the sensational mind and brings into it the unquiet thirst of sensations, invades the dynamic mind with the lust of control, having, domination, success, fulfilment of every impulse, fills the emotional mind with the desire for the satisfaction of liking and disliking, for the wreaking of love and hate, brings the shrinkings and panics of fear and the strainings and disappointments of hope, imposes the tortures of grief and the brief fevers and excitements of joy, makes the intelligence and intelligent will the accomplices of all these things and turns them in their own kind into deformed and lame instruments, the will into a will of craving and the intelligence into a partial, a stumbling and an eager pursuer of limited, impatient, militant prejudgment and opinion. Desire is the root of all sorrow, disappointment, affliction, for though it has a feverish joy of pursuit and satisfaction, yet because it is always a straining of the being, it carries into its pursuit and its getting a labour, hunger, struggle, a rapid subjection to fatigue, a sense of limitation, dissatisfaction and early disappointment with all its gains, a ceaseless morbid stimulation, trouble, disquiet, asanti. To get rid of desire is the one firm indispensable purification of the psychical Prana, — for so we can replace the soul of desire with its pervading immiscence in all our instruments by a mental soul of calm delight and its clear and limpid possession of ourselves and world and Nature which is the crystal basis of the mental life and its perfection.

      Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – II: Purification – The Lower Mentality: To rid the Prana of desire and incidentally to reverse the ordinary poise of our nature and turn the vital being from a troublesomely dominant power into the obedient instrument of a free and unattached mind, is then the first step in purification. As this deformation of the psychical Prana is corrected, the purification of the rest of the intermediary parts of the antahkarana is facilitated, and when that correction is completed, their purification too can be easily made absolute. These intermediary parts are the emotional mind, the receptive sensational mind and the active sensational mind or mind of dynamic impulse. They all hang together in a strongly knotted interaction. The deformation of the emotional mind hinges upon the duality of liking and disliking, raga-dvesa, emotional attraction and repulsion. All the complexity of our emotions and their tyranny over the soul arise from the habitual responses of the soul of desire in the emotions and sensations to these attractions and .repulsions. Love and hatred, hope and fear, grief and joy all have their founts in this one source. We like, love, welcome, hope for, joy in whatever our nature, the first habit of our being, or else a formed (often perverse) habit, the second nature of our being, presents to the mind as pleasant, priyam; we hate, dislike, fear, have repulsion from or grief of whatever it presents to us as unpleasant, apriyam. This habit of the emotional nature gets into the way of the intelligent will and makes it often a helpless slave of the emotional being or at least prevents it from exercising a free judgment and government of the nature. This deformation has to be corrected. By getting rid of desire in the psychic Prana and its intermiscence in the emotional mind, we facilitate the correction. For then attachment, which is the strong bond of the heart, falls away from the heart-strings; the involuntary habit of ragadvesa remains, but, not being made obstinate by attachment, it can be dealt with more easily by the will and the intelligence. The restless heart can be conquered and get rid of the habit of attraction and repulsion.

      Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – II: The Perfection of Equality: A perfect equality not only of the self, but in the nature is a condition of the Yoga of self-perfection. The first obvious step to it will be the conquest of our emotional and vital being, for here are the sources of greatest trouble, the most rampant forces of inequality and subjection, the most insistent claim of our imperfection. The equality of these parts of our nature comes by purification and freedom. We might say that equality is the very sign of liberation. To be free from the domination of the urge of vital desire and the stormy mastery of the soul by the passions is to have a calm and equal heart and a life-principle governed by the large and even view of a universal spirit. Desire is the impurity of the Prana, the life-principle, and its chain of bondage. A free Prana means a content and satisfied life-soul which fronts the contact of outward things without desire and receives them with an equal response; delivered, uplifted above the servile duality of liking and disliking, indifferent to the urgings of pleasure and pain, not excited by the pleasant, not troubled and overpowered by the unpleasant, not clinging with attachment to the touches it prefers or violently repelling those for which it has an aversion, it will be opened to a greater system of values of experience.

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  4. ihaiva

    Sandeep – might be useful to clarify that the use of ‘psychic’ in relation to prana is not the same as ‘psychic’ in Sri Aurobindo’s later writings.

  5. arpanrox

    This is a good resource for those who have a problem in grasping the concept of witness consciousness. It explains how to “do nothing” what many ppl of an active nature cannot grasp.
    Basic instruction is of 2 steps:
    1. Let whatever happens happen.
    2. Whenever there is an Intention(conscious will) to control your Attention, drop that intention.
    One must not keep rechecking whether one has an intention or not, not fear losing time day dreaming..but just let the awareness of the intention arise.
    Sorry if this is off the mark..but it’s his rendition of Shikantaza/just-sitting technique of the Zen tradition…so might not fit accurately with the witness tech described in this post…but belongs to the same family by and large.
    I find it very useful in days whn I tend to lose the “knack” of being the “witness”. It’s neant to solve the semantic problem in explaining the process.


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