Explaining the Ascent-Descent in Integral Yoga

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Mirra Alfassa frequently spoke of ascents and descents which occur during meditation.   Ramana Maharshi, when informed of these statements, firmly denied any such occurrences.   Such puzzling contradictions can occur due to different vocabularies used by various sages as well as the varied transformations by which they attain Self-realization.  In this article, I will endeavour to outline the  resolution to this contradiction and hopefully clear the confusion.

Enlightened(2006). Painting by Hufreesh Dumasia@Auroville. Click image for artist homepage

The contradiction

Disciple: Ramana Maharshi does not believe in the descent (of the Supermind).

Sri Aurobindo: It – the descent – is the experience of many practitioners (Sadhaks) even outside our Yoga. An old Sanyasi of the Ramakrishna Mission saw a flood of light descending and when he asked he was told it was all the work of the devil and the whole experience stopped afterwards.  In Maharshi’s case he has received the thing in the heart and has worked with it, so he does not feel the descent.

[A.B. Purani, Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, 10th December, 1938]

Another recorded conversation along these lines is as follows.

Disciple: I asked Mother in Sri Aurobindo Ashram the following question: `I keep my mind blank without thoughts arising so that God might show himself in his true being. But I do not perceive anything.’ The reply was to this effect: `The attitude is right. The power will come down from above. It is a direct experience.’ Should I do anything further?

Ramana Maharshi: Be what you are. There is nothing to come down or become manifest. All that is necessary is to lose the ego. That which is is always there. Even now you are that. You are not apart from it

[David Godman, Be As You Are, p 102]

Yogic ascent-descent

It is well-known among Yoga practitioners that the Kundalini ascends through the spinal cord from the bottom of the spine(Muladhara Chakra) towards the top of the head (Sahasrara Chakra).  Sri Aurobindo, expanding on this concept, pointed out that the subtle mental and vital sheaths can also concomitantly rise up above the physical body during this ascent process.  All the planes of the Superconscient are located above the head – not in absolute spatial terms but relative to the human consciousness (God is not in the sky!).   Through the movement of Kundalini, we come into contact with these higher planes of the Superconscient and become purified.

During a state of rapture, the eyes may become unconscious of the physical world and turn upward along with a palpable feeling of something in the heart being released and rising above.  This is an example of the vital sheath ascending above the physical sheath.  Similarly, when the mind reverberates with an active silence, there is a feeling of stress release in the brain and an expansion above the head.  This is because, unknown to us, the mental sheath is ascending above the physical body. As Sri Aurobindo wrote to a disciple:

The force which you felt must evidently have been a rising of the Kundalini ascending to join the Force above and bring down the energy needed to ease the depression and then again rising to enforce the connection between the Above and the lower centres. The seeming expansion of the head is due to the joining of the mind with the consciousness of the Self or Divine above. That consciousness is wide and illimitable and, when one rises into it, the individual consciousness also breaks its limits and feels wide and illimitable. At such times one often feels as if there were no head and no body but all were a wide self and its consciousness, or else the head or the body is only a circumstance in that.

Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – III: The Triple Transformation: Psychic – Spiritual – Supramental – II

Chest and head rising higher are sensations of the subtle body – it means that the mind and heart consciousness (thinking mental and emotional) are rising to meet the spiritual consciousness plane above the head.

Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – III: The Triple Transformation: Psychic – Spiritual – Supramental – II

That [rising above the head] is very good. Such risings help to break down the lid between the higher and lower planes in the consciousness and prepare the wideness.

Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – III: The Triple Transformation: Psychic – Spiritual – Supramental – II

Correspondingly, the descent experience occurs when the higher consciousness cascades down through the body via the Kundalini, working its way through the head (mental sheath), inundating the vital sheath, bringing peace and bliss, until it reaches the last Chakra at the bottom of the spine (i.e. physical sheath).

For more on this, see the pages on Ascent experience and Descent experience.  Based on this information, one could conceivably adumbrate on the Supramental Ascent and Descent that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Mirra Alfassa underwent but we won’t go into that here.

Cosmic ascent-descent

As an aside, to avoid confusion, we should also mention the cosmic ascent-descent process that Sri Aurobindo spoke of, which is distinct from the yogic ascent-descent which occurs  in man.   According to him, the seven planes of consciousness are not rigidly demarcated but overlapping, interactive and influencing each other, giving rise to evolution – cultural, biological and cosmic  – which goes on over aeonic cycles.  As Sri Aurobindo wrote in the Life Divine

But how does this ascending series (of consciousness) affect the possibilities of our material existence? It would not affect them at all if each plane of consciousness, each world of existence, each grade of substance, each degree of cosmic force were cut off entirely from that which precedes and that which follows it. But the opposite is the truth; the manifestation of the Spirit is a complex weft and in the design and pattern of one principle all the others enter as elements of the spiritual whole. Our material world is the result of all the others, for the other principles have all descended into Matter to create the physical universe, and every particle of what we call Matter contains all of them implicit in itself; their secret action, as we have seen, is involved in every moment of its existence and every movement of its activity. And as Matter is the last word of the descent, so it is also the first word of the ascent; as the powers of all these planes, worlds, grades, degrees are involved in the material existence, so are they all capable of evolution out of it. It is for this reason that material being does not begin and end with gases and chemical compounds and physical forces and movements, with nebulae and suns and earths, but evolves life, evolves mind, must evolve eventually Supermind and the higher degrees of the spiritual existence. Evolution comes by the unceasing pressure of the supra-material planes on the material compelling it to deliver out of itself their principles and powers which might conceivably otherwise have slept imprisoned in the rigidity of the material formula. This would even so have been improbable, since their presence there implies a purpose of deliverance; but still this necessity from below is actually very much aided by a kindred superior pressure.

Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine – I: The Ascending Series of Substance

18 thoughts on “Explaining the Ascent-Descent in Integral Yoga

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  2. mike

    “Correspondingly, the descent experience occurs when the higher consciousness cascades down through the body via the Kundalini, working its way through the head (mental sheath), inundating the vital sheath, bringing peace and bliss, until it reaches the last Chakra at the bottom of the spine (i.e. physical sheath).”

    Yes, this is my experience too. l’ve had other things first which started a Spiritual Opening and then the Descent of Peace, Force etc. came afterwards.
    Quite often l only have to aspire or ask for a Descent and it will happen a short while after, but l believe it’s constantly working behind the veil in our inner being, until it can be constantly in front in the waking consciousness.
    l should mention that l have felt a descent or influx of strong energy from another guru called Mother Meera several times [mainly after just writing to her], but l don’t follow her, as l see her as being more of an lntermediate Zone guru.

  3. abir

    @ mike
    Do you see the action of the divine with open eyes?I too wrote a letter to SABDA rgd Ma Meera in 1997,but they said she is not associated with them.

  4. mike

    Hi Abir,
    No. l don’t see it with open eyes. l usually see it inwardly [subjectively as Sri Aurobindo might say. There is subjective and Objective vision, but l believe both are valid].
    Yes, m.meera isn’t accepted by the Ashram as far as l know. l know she has power [but l don’t think it’s what she says it is – but l’m no expert]. l think she’s probably in what SA calls the lntermediate Zone somewhere.

    1. Sandeep Post author

      They are referring to Mother Meera, who claims to be Divine Incarnation and lives in Germany.

      The Mother (Mirra Alfassa) had warned about this phenomenon:

      We’re finding some amusing things again…. Three or four people here, at the SAME time, had come (when I wrote this, I forget when), had come to succeed the universal Mother!… Three or four. Especially two from America. And there’s also one here (Mother laughs). (Agenda, Oct 14, 1970)

  5. Sandeep Post author

    From the Enneads of Plotinus (204-270 CE)

    Descent of the Soul into the Bodies

    Many times it has happened: Lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-encentered; beholding a marvellous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order; enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine; stationing within It by having attained that activity; poised above whatsoever within the Intellectual is less than the Supreme: yet, there comes the moment of descent from intellection to reasoning, and after that sojourn in the divine, I ask myself how it happens that I can now be descending, and how did the soul ever enter into my body, the soul which, even within the body, is the high thing it has shown itself to be.

    From Enneads 4.8.1

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  10. Al

    These 2 beings, Sri Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi, although spiritual giants in their own regard, were quite different. Interestingly enough, they lived most of their lives a few hours away by train or car from each other, and obviously admired each other. Through the years, relationships developed, some people visited both ashrams (or asrama in the case of Ramana). There is the Kavyakhanta Ganapati Muni connection through Kaphali Shastri and its culmination in MP Pandit, the Shastri’s disciple, who finally settled in that house across the street from Mother’s veranda.

    Those, like me, who have spent time in Ramana Asrama, and Arunachala, know the tremendous spiritual power of that place, the strong tanmatras, the holiness of little Skanda Asrama or Virupaksha cave on the hill. The majesty of Arunachaleswara Shiva Temple in Tiruvannamalai. That hill, Ramana Maharshi said, is one end of the spiritual axis of the world, verily a Shiva Lingam (the other end of the axis comes out near the Macchu Picchu in Peru).

    Ramana Maharshi, a Jnani, wasn’t looking for any spiritual realization. It came down on him like a bolt of lightning around the age of 17. After that, he was in one of the cellars of Arunachaleswara Temple (now a shrine) where that saint and Mahatma Seshadri Swami (asrama next to Ramana’s nowadays) and others took care of him while he did not speak for many years until a certain professor Shivaprakash Pillai from Madras went up the hill and took down in sign language “Nan Yar”. He was, and still remains in certain higher astral plane, an alien in principle, with very little humanity in him, mostly removed from the human plight and condition. Notice that Ramana did not leave much in a way of instructions, and his classical “vichara” into the Self, is as difficult a Sadhana as it gets.

    As per Sri Aurobindo, his exploits and life are well documented in this website and other places. Not much to add, only that he is documented as having sustained the same spiritual realization of Ramana, plus a few more. Enter the realm of the Avatar. Kalki?

  11. Pete

    “For a real transformation there must be a direct and unveiled intervention from above; there would be necessary too a total submission and surrender of the lower consciousness, a cessation of its insistence, a will in it for its separate law of action to be completely annulled by transformation and lose all rights over our being.” P 956 The Life Divine

    The question is how do we obtain this “intervention from above”? I guess the short facile answer would be to pray for it, ask for it, request it, call for it. But a more complex answer would be to live a life that already aligns with what we know of the higher “law of action”. Work on self mastery and transcendence of the go to become an adequate and effective recipient of the intervention.

    But for the aspirants on the sadana what is practically needed, is prayer and patients for the intervention from above. It seems to me.

  12. Arpan

    @ Sandeep:
    There’s a verse in Isha Upanishad:

    12. ॐ अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति यॆऽविद्यामुपासतॆ ।
    ततॊ भूय इव तॆ तमॊ य उ विद्यायाó रताः ॥ ९ ॥

    Into a blind darkness they enter who follow after the NonBirth, they as if into a greater darkness who devote themselves to the Birth alone.

    Sri Aurobindo wrotes about it in his own commentary:

    “Those who are devoted entirely to the principle of indiscriminate Unity and seek to put away from them the integrality of the Brahman, also put away from them knowledge and completeness and enter as if into a greater darkness. They enter into some special state and accept it for the whole, mistaking exclusion in consciousness for transcendence in consciousness. They ignore by choice of knowledge, as the others are ignorant by compulsion of error. Knowing all to transcend all is the right path of Vidya.”

    Does: “Those who are devoted entirely to the principle of indiscriminate Unity ” this description refer to people like the Maharshi ?

    1. Sandeep Post author

      “Those who are devoted entirely to the principle of indiscriminate Unity ” this description refer to people like the Maharshi ?

      I don’t want to spend my time in this intellectual exercise of determining who had reached what level.
      You can assume what you wish

      1. Arpan

        “I was essentially asked the meaning of what the verse means, but I don’t have the time for answering something else.
        You can assume what you wish, but I will also correct by unasked”.

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