Much of our pettiness and selfishness is due to the fact that our consciousness narrowly identifies itself with our physical body. The three knots which bind us to our physicality are referred to in the ancient scriptures as the Triple Cord. When this triple cord is broken through the process of Yoga, our consciousness expands into the cosmic mind, vital and physical.
To help stimulate this widening of consciousness, Sri Aurobindo & The Mother recommended some exercises in imagination. These are a few excerpts from their commentaries on this topic. The last excerpt on this page is from Sri Anirvan who calls the practice Akasha-Bhavana (Contemplation on the Sky) and traces its roots to the Upanishads.
There is also an allusion to this technique in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras,
bahih akalpita vrittih maha-videha tatah prakasha avarana ksayah
When the formless thought patterns of mind are projected outside of the body, it is called maha-videha, a great disincarnate one. By samyama(concentration) on that outward projection, the veil over the spiritual light is removed.
An excerpt from the Mother’s talks
Sweet Mother, how can we make our consciousness vast?
Vast? Ah, there are many ways of doing this.
The easiest way is to identify yourself with something vast. For instance, when you feel that you are shut up in a completely narrow and limited thought, will, consciousness, when you feel as though you were in a shell, then if you begin thinking about something very vast, as for example, the immensity of the waters of an ocean, and if really you can think of this ocean and how it stretches out far, far, far, far, in all directions, like this (Mother stretches out her arms), how, compared with you, it is so far, so far that you cannot see the other shore, you cannot reach its end anywhere, neither behind nor in front nor to the right or left… it is wide, wide, wide, wide… you think of this and then you feel that you are floating on this sea, like that, and that there are no limits… This is very easy. Then you can widen your consciousness a little.
Other people, for example, begin looking at the sky; and then they imagine all those spaces between all those stars, and all… that kind of infinity of spaces in which the earth is a tiny point, and you too are just a very tiny point, smaller than an ant, on the earth. And so you look at the sky and feel that you are floating in these infinite spaces between the planets, and that you are growing vaster and vaster to go farther and farther. Some people succeed with this.
There is a way also by trying to identify yourself with all things upon earth. For example, when you have a small narrow vision of something and are hurt by others’ vision and point of view, you must begin by shifting your consciousness, try to put it in others, and try gradually to identify yourself with all the different ways of thinking of all others. This is a little more … how shall I put it?… dangerous. Because to identify oneself with the thought and will of others means to identify oneself with a heap of stupidities (Mother laughs) and bad wills, and this may bring consequences which are not very good. But still, some people do this more easily. For instance, when they are in disagreement with someone, in order to widen their consciousness they try to put themselves in the place of the other and see the thing not from their own point of view but from the point of view of the other. This wide the consciousness, though not as much as by the first ways I spoke about, which are quite innocent. They don’t do you any harm, they do you much good. They make you very peaceful.
There are lots of intellectual ways of widening the consciousness. These I have explained fully in my book. But in any case, when you are bored by something, when something is painful to you or very unpleasant, if you begin to think of the eternity of time and the immensity of space, if you think of all that has gone before and all that will come afterwards, and that this second in eternity is truly just a passing breath, and that it seems so utterly ridiculous to be upset by something which in the eternity of time is… one doesn’t even have the time to become aware of it, it has no place, no importance, because, what indeed is a second in eternity? If one can manage to realise that, to… how to put it?… visualise, picture the little person one is, in the little earth where one is, and the tiny second of consciousness which for the moment is hurting you or is unpleasant for you, just this – which in itself is only a second in your existence, and that you yourself have been many things before and will be many more things afterwards, that what affects you now you will have probably completely forgotten in ten years, or if you remember it you will say, “How did I happen to attach any importance to that?”… if you can realise that first and then realise your little person which is a second in eternity, not even a second, you know, imperceptible, a fragment of a second in eternity, that the whole world has unrolled before this and will unroll yet, indefinitely – before, behind – and that… well, then suddenly you see the utter ridiculousness of the importance you attach to what happened to you… Truly you feel… to what an extent it is absurd to attach any importance to one’s life, to oneself, and to what happen to you. And in the space of three minutes, if you do this properly, all unpleasantness is swept away. Even a very deep pain can be swept away. Simply a concentration like this, and to place oneself in infinity and eternity. Everything goes away. One comes out of it cleansed. One can get rid of all attachments and even, I say, of the deepest sorrows – of everything, in this way – if one knows how to do it in the right way. It immediately takes you out of your little ego. There we are.
[Collected Works, Vol 6, 29 September 1954 ]
Another excerpt from the Mother’s talks
The method of relaxing the contraction may be different in the mind, the vital or the body, but logically it is the same thing. Once you have relaxed the tension, you see first if the disagreeable effect ceases, which would prove that it was a small momentary resistance, but if the pain continues and if it is indeed necessary to increase the receptivity in order to be able to receive what is helpful, what should be received, you must, after having relaxed this contraction, begin trying to widen yourself – you feel you are widening yourself. There are many methods. Some find it very useful to imagine they are floating on water with a plank under their back. Then they widen themselves, widen, until they become the vast liquid mass. Others make an effort to identify themselves with the sky and the stars, so they widen, widen themselves, identifying themselves more and more with the sky. Others again don’t need these pictures; they can become conscious of their consciousness, enlarge their consciousness more and more until it becomes unlimited. One can enlarge it till it becomes vast as the earth and even the universe. When one does that one becomes really receptive. As I have said, it is a question of training. In any case, from an immediate point of view, when something comes and one feels that it is too strong, that it gives a headache, that one can’t bear it, the method is just the same, you must act upon the contraction. One can act through thought, by calling the peace, tranquility (the feeling of peace takes away much of the difficulty) like this: “Peace, peace, peace… tranquility… calm.” Many discomforts, even physical, like all these contractions of the solar plexus, which are so unpleasant and give you at times nausea, the sensation of being suffocated, of not being able to breathe again, can disappear thus. It is the nervous centre which is affected, it gets affected very easily. As soon as there is something which affects the solar plexus, you must say, “Calm… calm… calm”, become more and more calm until the tension is destroyed.
One can widen oneself in thought also. For instance, you are reading something and come across a thought you don’t understand – it is beyond you,you understand nothing and so in your head it lies like a brick, and if you try to understand, it becomes more and more like a brick, a stiffening, and if you persist it gives you a headache. There is but one thing to do: not to struggle with the words, remain just like this (gesture, stretched out, immobile), create a relaxation, simply widen, widen. And don’t try to understand, above all, don’t try to understand – let it enter like that, quite gently, and relax, relax, and in this relaxing your headache goes away. You no longer think of anything, you wait for a few days and after some days you see from inside: “Oh! How clear it is ! I understand what I had not understood.” It is as easy as that. When you read a book which is beyond you, when you come across sentences which you cannot understand – one feels that there is no correspondence in the head – well, you must do this; one reads the thing once, twice, thrice, then remains calm and makes the mind silent. A fortnight later, one takes up the same passage again and it is clear as daylight. Everything has been organised in the head, the elements of the brain which were wanted for the understanding have been formed, everything has been done gradually and one understands. I knew many people who, when I used to tell them something, argued, they did not understand anything at all. They were shut up in their mind which could not catch the thought, which threw it out, refused it violently. You have said something, you don’t insist; you have said it, that’s all; if need be you say it a second time, but you don’t insist. A week, a month later, those very people come looking for you and tell you with strong conviction, “But things are like that, you don’t understand, things are like that !” It is exactly what you have told them, you know. But they tell you, “I thought about it, now I know, it is this, it is truly this.” If you have the misfortune to tell them, “But this is exactly what I had told you”, they pull a long face ! And they don’t understand any longer.
[Collected Works, Vol 4, 31 March 1951]
Sri Aurobindo on this method
This realisation of all things as God or Brahman has, as we have seen, three aspects of which we can conveniently make three successive stages of experience. First, there is the Self in whom all beings exist. The Spirit, the Divine has manifested itself as infinite self-extended being, self-existent, pure not subject to Time and Space, but supporting Time and Space as figures of its consciousness. It is more than all things and contains them all within that self-extended being and consciousness, not bound by anything that it creates, holds or becomes, but free and infinite and all-blissful. It holds them, in the old image, as the infinite ether contains in itself all objects. This image of the ethereal (Akasha) Brahman may indeed be of great practical help to the Sadhaka(aspirant) who finds a difficulty in meditating on what seems to him at first an abstract and unseizable idea. In the image of the ether, not physical but an encompassing ether of vast being, consciousness and bliss, he may seek to see with the mind and to feel m his mental being this supreme existence and to identify it in oneness with the self within him. By such meditation the mind may be brought to a favourable state of predisposition in which, by the rending or withdrawing of the veil, the supramental vision may flood the mentality and change entirely all our seeing. And upon that change of seeing, as it becomes more and more potent and insistent and occupies all our consciousness, there will supervene eventually a change of becoming so that what we see we become. We shall be in our self-consciousness not so much cosmic as ultra-cosmic, infinite. Mind and life and body will then be only movements in that infinity which we have become, and we shall see that what exists is not world at all but simply this infinity of spirit in which move the mighty cosmic harmonies of Its own images of self-conscious becoming.
[Sri Aurobindo, Synthesis of Yoga, Realization of the Cosmic Self]
Sri Anirvan on Akasha-Bhavana (Contemplation on the vast sky)
A fundamental aim of Yoga is to make the mind serene, clear, luminous, and blissful. One way of doing this is to contemplate the sky…..
The yogins say that for perfection in asanas, the immobile postures of the body, two things must be mastered: relaxation and expansion into the infinite….
(When one is in) contact with the vast earth, the sublime sky, the meditative mountains, the flowing rivers, there is a tendency to loosen up, to spread out naturally, and be at ease. This tendency, this feeling is often inspired in the minds ofmen who come in contact with nature. Among these aspects of nature, the one most conducive to mental contemplation (bhavana) is the sky (akasha)-the daytime sky resplendent with light or the nighttime sky full of stars.When the mind spreads itself out into the infinite expanse of the sky, the two qualities of relaxation and expansion are easily realized. Such was the ancient method of Vedic practice. There are also references to it in the Upanishads. Dwelling in mind upon the sky (akasha-bhavana), the outer sky should be brought down into the heart (hridaya), freeing it from rigidity and constriction. There rises then in the heart a faint illumination as of dim moonlight or of starlight….
Through contemplation of the sky (akasha-bhavana), holding the image of the sky in mind and dwelling upon it, the image of the sky eventually becomes firmly imprinted on the mind; and when this happens, the mind’s poise of calm wideness remains unimpaired even when one comes into contact with others. This is one way that a universal relationship with other men can be established.
[Sri Anirvan. Inner Yoga, Sandpoint, ID : Morning Light Press, 2007, pp 40-45]