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 .
..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.
Part 1 of this article is based on a talk by Kireet Joshi. See How to cultivate Witness-consciousness or Saksi Bhava
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 :
- knowledge by identity.
- knowledge by intimate direct contact.
- knowledge by separative direct contact.
- wholly separative knowledge by indirect contact.