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Sri Aurobindo

(in "Arya" - 1915)

Part 2: The Inconscient

The first or superficial view which the observing mind takes on any object of knowledge is always an illusory view; all science, all true knowledge comes by going behind the superficies and discovering the inner truth and the hidden law. It is not that the thing itself is illusory, but that it is not what is superficially appears to be; nor is it that the operations and functionings we observe on the surface do not take place, but that we cannot find their real motive power, process, relations by the simple study of them as they offer themselves to the observing senses.

In the realm of physical science this is obvious enough and universally admitted. The earth is not flat but round, not still but constant to a double motion; the sun moves but not round the earth; bodies that seem to us luminous are in themselves non-luminous; things that are part of our daily experience, colour, sound, light, air are quite other in their reality than what they pretend to be. Our senses give us false views of distance, size, shape, relation. Objects which seem to them self-existent forms are aggregations and constituted by subtler constituents which our ordinary faculties are unable to detect. These material constituents again are merely formulations of a Force which we cannot describe as material and of which the senses have no evidence. Yet the mind and the senses can live quite satisfied and convinced in this world of illusions and accept them as the practical truth - for to a certain extent they are the practical truth and sufficient for an initial, ordinary and limited activity.

But only to a certain extent; for there are possibilities of a wider life, a more mastering action, a greater practicality which can only be achieved by going behind these surfaces and utilising a truer knowledge of objects and forces. The discovery of the secret operations of Nature leads to a contingent discovery, the possibility of a farther use of her forces to which she herself has not proceeded, not finding them necessary for the mere preservation of existence and its ordinary workings, but has left to man, her mental being, to discover and utilise for the amelioration of existence and for the development of its possibilities.

All this is easy to see in the realm of Matter; but mankind is not yet entirely ready to recognise the same truth and follow up the same principle in the realm of Mind. It is true that psychology has made an advance and has begun to improve its method. Formerly, it was a crude, scholastic and superficial systematisation of man's ignorance of himself. The surface psychological functionings, will, mind, senses, reason, conscience, etc., were arranged in dry and sterile classification; their real nature and relation to each other were not fathomed nor any use made of them which went beyond the limited action Nature had found sufficient for a very superficial mental and psychic life and for very superficial and ordinary workings. Because we do not know ourselves, therefore we are unable to ameliorate radically our subjective life or develop with mastery, with rapidity, with a sure science the hidden possibilities of our mental capacity and our moral nature. The new psychology seeks indeed to penetrate behind superficial appearances, but it is encumbered by initial errors which prevent a profounder knowledge, - the materialistic error which bases the study of the mind upon the study of the body; the sceptical error which prevents any bold and clear-eyed investigation of the hidden profundities of our subjective existence; the error of conservative distrust and recoil which regards any subjective state of experience that departs from the ordinary operations of our mental and psychical nature as a morbidity or a hallucination, - just as the Middle Ages regarded all new science as magic and a diabolical departure from the sane and right limits of human capacity; finally the error of objectivity which leads the psychologist to study others from outside instead of seeing his true field of knowledge and laboratory of experiment in himself. Psychology is necessarily a subjective science and one must proceed in it from the knowledge of oneself to the knowledge of others.

But whatever the crudities of the new science, it has at least taken the first capital step without which there can be no true psychological knowledge; it has made the discovery which is the beginning of self-knowledge and which all must make who deeply study the facts of consciousness, that our waking and surface existence is only a small part of our being and does not yet yield to us the root and secret of our character, our mentality or our actions. The sources lie deeper. To discover them, to know the nature and the processes of the inconscient or subconscient self and, so far as it is possible, to possess and utilise them as physical science possesses and utilises the secret of the forces of Nature, ought to be the aim of a scientific psychology.

But here the first difficulty confronts us, the problem whether this other and greater self of which our waking existence is only a surface and a phenomenon, is subconscient or inconscient. And thereon hinges the whole destiny of the human being. For if it is inconscient in its very nature, then we cannot hope to illuminate ourselves with the hidden light of these depths - for light there is none - or to find and to possess ourselves of the secret of its power. On the other hand, if it is subconscient, that is to say, a concealed consciousness deeper, greater, more powerful than our superficial self, an endless vista of self-enlargement opens out before us and the human race marches towards infinite possibilities.

Modern psychological experiment and observation have proceeded on two different lines which have not yet found their point of meeting. On the one hand, psychology has taken for its starting-point the discoveries and the fundamental thesis of the physical sciences and has worked as a continuation of physiology. The physical sciences are the study of inconscient Force working in inconscient Matter: a psychology which accepts this formula as the basis of all existence must regard consciousness as a phenomenal result of the Inconscient working on the inconscient. Mind is only an outcome and, as it were, a record of nervous reactions. The true self is the inconscient; mental action is one of its subordinate phenomena. The Inconscient is greater than the conscient; it is the god, the magician, the creator whose action is far more unerring than the ambitious but blundering action of the conscious mentality. The tree is more perfectly guided than man in its more limited action, precisely because it lives unambitiously according to Nature and is passive in the hands of the Inconscient. Mind enters in to enlarge the field of activity, but also to multiply errors, perversities, revolts against Nature, departures from the instinctive guiding of the Inconscient Self, which generate that vast element of ignorance, falsehood and suffering in human life, - that "much falsehood in us" of which the Vedic poet complains.

Where then lies the hope that mind will repair its errors and guide itself according to the truth of things ? The hope lies in Science, in the intelligent observation, utilising, initiation of the forces and workings of the Inconscient. To take only one instance, - the Inconscient operates by the law of heredity and, left to itself, works faultlessly to ensure the survival of good and healthy types. Man misuses heredity in the false conditions of his social life to transmit and perpetuate degeneracy. We must study the law of heredity, develop a science of Eugenics and use it wisely and remorselessly, - with the remorseless wisdom of Nature, - so as to ensure by intelligence the result that the Inconscient assures by instinctive adaptation. We can see where this idea and this spirit will lead us, - to the replacement of the emotional and spiritual idealism which the human mind has developed by a cold, sane, materialistic idealism and to an amelioration of mankind attempted by the rigorous mechanism of the scientific expert, no longer by the profound inspiration of genius and the supple aspiration of puissant character and personality. And yet, what if this were only another error of the conscient mind ? What if the mistaking and the disease, the revolt and departure from Nature were itself a part, a necessary part of the wise and unerring plan of the profound Inconscient Self and all the much falsehood a means of arriving at a greater truth and a more exalted capacity ? The fact that genius itself, the highest result of our developing consciousness, flowers so frequently on a diseased branch is a phenomenon full of troubling suggestions. The clear way of ascertained science need not always be the best way; it may stand often in the path of development of a yet greater and deeper Knowledge.

The other line of psychological investigation is still frowned upon by orthodox science, but it thrives and yields its results in spite of the anathema of the doctors. It leads us into by-paths of psychical research, hypnotism, mesmerism, occultism and all sorts of strange psychological gropings. Certainly, there is nothing here of the assured clearness and firmly-grounded positivism of the physical method. Yet facts emerge and with the facts a momentous conclusion, - the conclusion that there is a "subliminal" self behind our superficial waking mind, endowed with surprising faculties and capable of a much surer action and experience, conscient of the superficial mind, though of it the superficial mind is inconscient. And then a question rises. What if there were really no Inconscient at all, but a hidden Consciousness everywhere, perfect in power and wisdom, of which our mind is the first slow, hesitating and imperfect disclosure and into the image of which, the human mentality is destined progressively to grow ? It would at least be no less valid a generalisation and it would explain all the facts that we now know considerably better than the blind and purposeless determinism of the materialistic theory.

In pursuing psychological investigation upon this line we shall only be resuming that which had already been done by our remote forefathers. For they too, the moment they began to observe, to experiment, to look below the surface of things, were compelled to perceive that the surface man is only a form and appearance and that the real self is something infinitely greater and more profound. They too must have passed through the first materialistic stages of science and philosophy. For we read in the Aitareya Upanishad that entering upon possession of the material world and the body, the Purusha, the Conscious Soul, asks himself, "If utterance is by speech and life by the breath, vision by the eye, hearing by the ear, thought by the mind," if, in short, all the apparent activities of the being can be accounted for by the automatic functioning of Nature, "then what am I ?" And the Upanishad says farther, "He being born distinguished only the working of the material elements, for what else was there of which he should discuss and conclude ?" Yet in the end "he beheld this conscious being which is Brahman utterly extended and he said to himself, Now have I really seen." So too in the Taittirya Upanishad Bhrigu Varuni meditating on the Brahman comes first to the conclusion that "Matter is Brahman" and only afterwards discovers Life that is Brahman, - so rising from the materialistic to the vitalistic theory of existence as European thought is now rising, - then Mind that is Brahman and then Knowledge that is Brahman, - so rising to the sensational and the idealistic realisation of the Truth, - and at last Bliss of Existence that is Brahman. There he pauses in the ultimate spiritual realisation, the highest formulation of knowledge that man can attain.

The Conscient therefore and not the Inconscient was the Truth at which the ancient psychology arrived; and it distinguished three strata of the conscient self, the waking, the dream and the sleep selves of Man, - in other words, the superficial existence, the subconscient or subliminal and the superconscient which to us seems the inconscient because its state of consciousness is the reverse of ours: for ours is limited and based on division and multiplicity, but this is "that which becomes a unity"; ours is dispersed in knowledge, but in this other self conscious knowledge is self-collected and concentrated; ours is balanced between dual experiences, but this is all delight, it is that which in the very heart of our being fronts everything with a pure all-possessing consciousness and enjoys the delight of existence. Therefore, although its seat is that stratum of consciousness which to us is a deep sleep, - for the mind there cannot maintain its accustomed functioning and becomes inconscient, - yet its name is He who knows, the Wise One, prajna. "This," says the Mandukya Upanishad, "is omniscient, omnipotent, the inner control, the womb of all and that from which creatures are born and into which they depart." It answers, therefore, closely enough to the modern idea of the subliminal self; for it is inconscient only to the waking mind, precisely because it is superconscient to it and the mind is therefore only able to seize it in its results and not in itself. And what better proof can there be of the depth and truth of the ancient psychology than the fact that when modern thought in all its pride of exact and careful knowledge begins to cast its fathom into these depths, it is obliged to repeat in other languages what had already been written nearly three thousands years ago ?

We find the same idea of this inner control repeated in the Gita; for it is the Lord who "sits in the hearts of all creatures and turns all creatures mounted on an engine by his Maya." At times the Upanishad seems to describe this self as the "mental being, leader of the life and the body", which is really the subliminal mind of the psychical investigators; but this is only a relative description. The Vedantic psychology was aware of other depths that take us beyond this formula and in relation to which the mental being becomes, in its turn, as superficial as is our waking to our subliminal mind. And now once more in the revolutions of human thought these depths have to be sounded; modern psychology will be led perforce, by the compulsion of the truth that it is seeking, on to the path that was followed by the ancients. The new dawn, treading the eternal path of the Truth, follows it to the goal of the dawns that have gone before, - how many, who shall say ?

For, this knowledge was not first discovered in the comparatively late antiquity that gave us the Upanishads which we now possess. It is already there in the dateless verses of the Rig Veda, and the Vedic sages speak of it as the discovery of yet more ancient seers besides whom they themselves were new and modern. Emerging from the periods of eclipse, the nights of ignorance which overtake humanity, we assume always that we are instituting a new knowledge. In reality, we are continually rediscovering the knowledge and repeating the achievement of the ages that have gone before us, - receiving again out of the "Inconscient" the light that it had drawn back into its secrecies and now releases once more for a new day and another march of the great journey.

And the goal of that journey cannot be other than the "highest good" which the ancient psychologists proposed to the life and growth of the soul. Man, the mental being, once aware that there is this deep, great and hidden self, the real reality of his being, must necessarily seek to enter into it, to become conscious in it, to make there his centre instead of dwelling on the surface, to win and apply its diviner law and supreme law and supreme nature and capacity, to make himself one with it so that he shall become the Real instead of the Apparent Man. And the sole debate that remains is whether this great conquest can be achieved and enjoyed in this human life and terrestrial body or is only possible beyond - whether in fact the human consciousness is the chosen instrument for the progressive self-revelation of this "Inconscient", this real self within us, or only a baulked effort with no fruition here or a haphazard and incomplete sketch that can never be perfected into the divine image.


Sri Aurobindo

In SABCL, volume 16, "The Supramental Manifestation and Other Writings"

published by Sri Aurobindo Ashram - Pondicherry
diffusion by SABDA

Lotus Light Publications U.S.A.
pages 322-329

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