From “Sri Aurobindo or the Adventure of Consciousness” by Satprem
Habit of Response
[The Vital: The Life-nature made up of desires, sensations, feelings, passions, energies of action, will of desire, reactions of all the play of possessive and other related instinct, such as anger, fear, greed, lust, etc.]
The first thing the seeker will detect in his vital exploration is a part of the mind whose only role seems to be to give form, and justification, to his impulses, feelings or desires; this is what Sri Aurobindo terms the vital mind. Since we already know the necessity for mental silence, we will now strive to extend our discipline of silence to this lower mental layer, too. Once this has been achieved, we will see things far more clearly — without all their mental embellishments; the various vibrations of our being will appear in their true light and at their true level. Most importantly, however, we will be able to see these vibrations coming. In this zone of silence we have now become, the slightest movement of substance —mental, vital or other — will be like a signal for us; we will immediately know that something has touched our atmosphere.
We will thus become aware, spontaneously, of the many vibrations people constantly emanate without realizing it; we will know exactly what is going on and whom we are facing (a person’s external veneer having usually nothing to do with that unostentatious vibrating reality). Our relationships with the outer world will become clear: we will understand why we instinctively like or dislike someone, why we feel afraid or ill at ease — then we will be able to correct our reactions, accept the helpful vibrations, deflect the darker vibrations, and neutralize the harmful ones. Indeed, we will notice quite an interesting phenomenon: our inner silence has power.
If, instead of responding to the incoming vibration, we maintain an absolute inner stillness, we will notice that this stillness dissolves the vibration; it’s as if we were surrounded by a field of snow in which all impacts are absorbed and neutralized. Let us take the simple example of anger: if, instead of vibrating inwardly in unison with the person facing us, we can remain absolutely still within, we will see that person’s anger gradually dissolving. Mother observed that this inner stillness, this power not to respond, can even stop an assassin’s hand or a snake’s bite. But wearing an impassive mask while we are still boiling on the inside will not do; we cannot cheat with vibrations (as animals know full well). This has nothing to do with so-called self-control, which is only a mastery of appearances, but with true inner mastery.
Moreover, this silence can neutralize any vibration at all, for the simple reason that all vibrations are contagious, from the highest vibrations to the lowest, and it is up to us to accept the contagion or not; if we become afraid, it means we have already accepted the contagion, and hence have already accepted the angry man’s blow or the snake’s bite. The same holds for physical pain; we can allow the contagion of a painful vibration to overcome us, or, instead, circumscribe the area of pain and eventually, depending on the degree of our mastery, neutralize the pain by disconnecting the consciousness from that area. The key to mastery is always silence, at every level, because silence enables us to discern the vibrations, and to discern them is to be able to act upon them.
This has countless practical applications, and hence countless opportunities for progress. Ordinary everyday life (which is ordinary only for those who live it ordinarily) becomes an extraordinary field of experience and handling of vibrations, which is why Sri Aurobindo always wanted his yoga to encompass it. It is very easy to live isolated in a flawless illusion of self-mastery.
This power of silence or inner immobility has even more significant applications, for our own psychological life. The vital is not only a place of many troubles and perturbations, it is also the source of a great energy; we must therefore try to separate the life energy from its complications, without separating ourselves from life. The real complications are not in life but in ourselves, and all external circumstances are the exact reflection of what we are. The main problem with the vital is that it mistakenly identifies with just about everything that comes out of itself. It says: “This is ‘my’ pain, ‘my’ depression, ‘my’ personality, ‘my’ desire,” and thinks of itself as all sorts of little me’s it is not. If we are convinced that all these occurrences are ours, then there is obviously nothing we can do about them, except put up with the trivial family until the attack is over.
But if we can remain silent within, we soon realize that none of this has anything to do with us: everything comes from outside. We keep picking up the same wavelengths, and becoming overwhelmed by every contagion. For example, we are with some people, completely silent and still within (which doesn’t prevent us from talking and acting normally), when suddenly, in this transparency, we feel something trying to draw us or to enter us, a kind of pressure or vibration in the atmosphere (which may cause a vague sense of unease). If we take in the vibration, we are soon struggling against a depression, having a particular desire, or feeling restless; we have caught the contagion. Sometimes it is not just a vibration but a whole wave that falls upon us. Another’s physical presence is unnecessary; we can be alone in the Himalayas and still receive the world’s vibrations. So where is “my” restlessness, “my” desire in all this, except in a habit of perpetually picking up the same vibrations?
But the seeker who has cultivated silence will no longer let himself become caught in this false identification; he will have become aware of what Sri Aurobindo calls the circumconscient, the environmental consciousness, that field of snow around him, which can be extremely luminous, strong and solid, or become dark, corrupted, and sometimes even completely disintegrated, depending upon his own inner state. It is an individual atmosphere, as it were, a protective envelope (sensitive, enough to enable us to feel somebody approaching, or avoid an accident just before it happens) where we can feel and stop the psychological vibrations before they enter us.
Generally, they are so accustomed to coming right in, since they find such affinity in us, that we do not even feel them coming; the process of appropriating and identifying with them is instantaneous. But our practice of silence has now created a transparency within us that gradually allows us to see them coming, stop them on their way in, and reject them. After we have rejected them, they sometimes remain in the circumconscient, circling round and round, waiting for an opportunity to reenter — we can very distinctly feel anger, desire or depression prowling around us — but through continued non-intervention these vibrations will gradually lose their strength and eventually leave us alone. We will have severed the connection between them and us.
Then one day, we will happily notice that certain vibrations which had seemed inescapable no longer touch us; they are as if drained of their power and merely flash by as if on a movie screen; interestingly, we can even see in advance the little mischief trying one more time to perpetuate its trick. Or else, we will find that certain psychological states hit us at fixed times, or recur in cycles (this is what Sri Aurobindo and Mother call a formation, an amalgam of vibrations that, through sheer repetitions, tends to take on a kind of personality of its own); once we pick it up, we will see this formation unwind itself from beginning to end, like a gramophone record. It is up to us to decide whether we want to “go along” or not.
There are thousands of possible experiences, a whole world of observations. But the essential discovery we make is that there is very little of” us” in all this, except a habit of response. As long as, out of ignorance, we, falsely identify with the vital vibrations, we cannot expect to change anything in our nature, except through amputation; but from the moment we understand how it really works, everything can change, because we can choose not to respond, using silence to dissolve the troublesome vibrations and tuning in elsewhere, as we please. Hence, contrary to all the old saws, human nature can be changed. Nothing in our consciousness or nature is fixed once and for all; everything is a play of forces or vibrations, which gives the illusion of “natural” necessity by virtue of repetition. This is why Sri Aurobindo’s yoga envisions the possibility of an entire reversal of the ordinary rule of the reacting consciousness.
Having brought this mechanism to light, we will have found, at the same time, the true method toward vital mastery, which is not surgical but calming; the vital predicament is not overcome by struggling vitally against it, which can only exhaust our energies without exhausting its universal existence, but by taking another position and neutralizing it through silent peace: “If you get peace, Sri Aurobindo wrote to a disciple, “then to clean the vital becomes easy. If you simply clean and clean and do nothing else, you go very slowly for the vital gets dirty again and has to be cleansed a hundred times. The peace is something that is clean in itself so to get it is a positive way of securing your object. To look for dirt only and clean is the negative way.”
The Adverse Forces
There is yet another difficulty. The vibrations coming from people or from the universal vital are not the only ones trying to disturb the seeker (actually, distinguishing between these two kinds is hardly possible since individuals are merely ground stations for the universal vital or the universal mind, and vibrations weave endlessly from the one to the other). There is another type of vibrations, remarkable for their suddenness and violence; the seeker will literally feel these vibrations sweep over him massively; within seconds he becomes “a different person,” having totally forgotten his main purpose, his efforts, his goal, as if everything had been swept away, left devoid of meaning, disintegrated. These are what Sri Aurobindo and Mother call the adverse [occult hostile] forces.
They are highly conscious forces whose sole aim, apparently, is to discourage the seeker and divert him from the path he has chosen. The first sign of their presence is easily perceptible; joy is clouded, consciousness is clouded, every-thing becomes shrouded in an atmosphere of melodrama and gloom. Personal distress is a sure sign of the enemy’s presence. Melodrama is a favorite haunt of these forces; that is how they are able to create the greatest havoc, because they play with a very old teammate within us, who cannot help loving melodrama even as he cries out for relief.
First, they generally make a point of forcing us into sudden, extreme, and irrevocable decisions in order to take us as far away as possible from our path — a pressing, exacting vibration that demands immediate compliance; or else, they take apart, with remarkable skill, the whole system of our quest to prove that we are deluding ourselves and that our efforts will come to nothing; more often, they bring about a state of depression, playing with another well-known teammate within us whom Sri Aurobindo calls the man of sorrows: “a fellow… covering himself with a sevenfold overcoat of tragedy and gloom, and he would not feel his existence justified if he couldn’t be cohssally miserable.”
All the vibrations of disorder that we call “our” sorrow or “our” troubles have the immediate result of weakening or disintegrating our protective “field of snow,” which means that the door is wide open to the adverse forces. They have a thousand and one ways of attacking us — for we are indeed under attack — and the more determined we are, the more relentless they become. This may seem like an exaggeration, but only one who has never tried to make progress would doubt it.
As long as we move with the common herd, life is relatively easy, with its moderate ups and downs; but the moment we want to get out of the rut, a thousand forces rise up, suddenly very interested that we should behave “like everyone else,” then we realize how well organized the imprisonment is. We even realize that we can go as far downward as we can ascend, that our downward movements are in exact proportion to our capacity of ascent; many scales fall from our eyes. If we are a little honest with ourselves, we see that we are capable of anything, and that, as Sri Aurobindo says, our virtue is a pretentious impurity. Only those who have never gone beyond the frontal personality can still harbor any illusion about themselves.
These adverse forces have been given all sorts of devilish and “negative “names through the world’s spiritual history, as if their sole aim were to damn the seeker and give decent people a hard time. The reality is somewhat different, for where is the devil if not in God? If he is not in God, then there is not much left in God, because this world is evil enough, as are quite a few other worlds, so that not much would remain that is pure, except perhaps for a dimensionless and shadowless mathematical point. In reality, as experience shows, these disturbing forces have their place in the universe; they are disturbing only at the scale of our constricted momentary consciousness, and for a specific purpose.
Firstly, they always catch us with our defenses down—yet were we firm and one-pointed, they could not shake us for a second. In addition, if we look into ourselves instead of whining and blaming the devil or the world’s wickedness, we find that each of these attacks has exposed one of our many virtuous pretenses, or, as Mother says, has pulled off the little coats we put on to avoid seeing. Not only do the little, or big, coats conceal our own weaknesses, they are everywhere in the world, hiding its small deficiencies as well as its Enormous conceit; and if the perturbing forces yank the coats a bit violently, it is not at random or with wanton malice, but to open our eyes and compel us to a perfection we might otherwise resist, because as soon as we have grasped hold of a grain of truth or a wisp of ideal, we have the unfortunate tendency to lock it up in an hermetic and impregnable construction, and to refuse to budge from there.
For the individual as for the world, these rather ungracious forces are instruments of progress.”By what men fall, by that they rise,” says the Kularnava Tantra in its wisdom. We protest against the apparently useless and arbitrary “catastrophe” that strikes our heart or our flesh, and we blame the “Enemy,” but [as Sri Aurobindo pointed out] “is it not possible that the soul itself — not the outward mind, but the spirit within has accepted and chosen these things as part of its development in order to get through the necessary experience at a rapid rate, to hew through, durchhauen, even at the risk or the cost of much damage to the outward life and the body ? To the growing soul, to the spirit within us, may not difficulties, obstacles, attacks be a means of growth, added strength, enlarged experience, training for spiritual victory?” We complain against evil, but if it was not there to besiege and defy us, we would long ago have seized the eternal Truth and turned it into a nice, tidy piece of platitude. Truth moves on; it has legs; and the princes of darkness are there to make sure, however brutally, that it does not slumber.
“God’s negations are as useful to us as His affirmations” says Sri Aurobindo. “The Adversary will disappear only when he is no longer necessary in the world”, remarked Mother. “He is undoubtedly necessary, as is the touchstone for gold, to make sure we are true.” Indeed, God may not be a pure mathematical point, external to this world; perhaps He is all this world and all this impurity laboring and suffering to be-come perfect, and to remember Itself here on earth.
The method for dealing with these adverse forces is the same as for the other vibrations: silence, inner stillness that lets the storm blow over. We may not succeed the first time in dissolving these attacks, but more and more they will seem to take place on the surface of our being; we may be shaken, upset, yet deep down we will feel the “Witness” in us, unscathed and unaffected — he is never affected. We fall and get back up again, each time becoming stronger. The only sin is discouragement.
In practice, the seeker of the integral yoga [or any other integral esoteric work with the aim to awaken] will be far more exposed than others [since the seeker’s aim is a threat to the negative realm agenda] (Sri Aurobindo often said his yoga was a battle), because he seeks to embrace everything in his consciousness, without rejecting anything, and because there is not just one passage to open up to the bliss above, not just one guardian of the treasure to subdue, but many passages, to the right and the left and below, at every level of our being, and more than one treasure to discover.