Sri Aurobindo on the ideal of ordinary human life vs the yogic ideal

[30 September 1925]
Dear Ramchandran,
I am answering your second letter which reached me today. And first I must say something about the very extraordinary line of conduct you propose to adopt in case of not hearing from me. I think it is because, as you say, your mind is not in a completely right condition that you have proposed it. No one with any common sense and certainly no one with a clear moral sense would support you in your intention. As to the law, it is not usual in France to take up things of this kind but only public offences against morals. The court would probably take no notice of your self-accusation and in any case it would not proceed in the absence of evidence from others which would here be lacking. But supposing it were otherwise, what would your action amount to? First, it would be putting an almost insuperable obstacle in the way of your own mental and moral recovery and of your leading a useful life in future. Secondly, it would be bringing an unmerited disgrace upon your father and family. Thirdly, it would mean, if it took any form, the ruin of the life of someone else, for, if I understand rightly what you say, some other or others would be involved, and your suggestion that you are entirely responsible would be absurd in law and could have no value and all this havoc you propose to cause merely in order to satisfy a morbid moral egoism. It would be, in fact, if it could be seriously executed, a greater immorality than anything you have yet done. The true way to set yourself right for your act is not to do untold harm to others in the name of honesty or any other virtue but to put yourself right inwardly and do otherwise in future.

I shall answer briefly the questions you put in your second para. (1) The way to set yourself right is, as I have said, to set your nature right and make yourself master of your vital being and its impulses. (2) Your position in human society is or can be that of many others who in their early life have committed excesses of various kinds and have afterwards achieved self-control and taken their due place in life. If you {{0}}[were][[MS (copy) are]] not so ignorant of life, you would know that your case is not exceptional but on the contrary very common and that many have done these things and afterwards become useful citizens and even leading men in various departments of human activity. (3) It is quite possible for you to recompense your parents and fulfil the past expectations you spoke of, if you make that your object. Only you must first recover from your illness and achieve the proper balance of your mind and will. (4) The object of your life depends upon your own choice and the way of attainment depends upon the nature of the object. Also your position will be whatever you make it. What you have to do is, first of all, to recover your health; then, with a quiet mind to determine your aim in life according to your capacities and preferences. It is not for me to make up your mind for you. I can only indicate to you what I myself think should be the proper aims and ideals.

Apart from external things there are two possible inner ideals which a man can follow. The first is the highest ideal of ordinary human life and the other the divine ideal of Yoga. I must say in view of something you seem to have said to your father that it is not the object of the one to be a great man or the object of the other to be a great Yogin. The ideal of human life is to establish over the whole being the control of a clear, strong and rational mind and a right and rational will, to master the emotional, vital and physical being, create a harmony of the whole and develop the capacities whatever they are and fulfil them in life. In the terms of Hindu thought, it is to enthrone the rule of the purified and sattwic buddhi, follow the dharma, fulfilling one’s own svadharma and doing the work proper to one’s capacities, and satisfy kāma and artha under the control of the buddhi and the dharma. The object of the divine life, on the other hand, is to realise one’s highest self or to realise God and to put the whole being into harmony with the truth of the highest self or the law of the divine nature, to find one’s own divine capacities great or small and fulfil them in life as a sacrifice to the highest or as a true instrument of the divine Śakti. About the latter ideal I may write at some later time. At present I shall only say something about the difficulty you feel in fulfilling the ordinary ideal.

This ideal involves the building of mind and character and it is always a slow and difficult process demanding patient labour of years, sometimes the better part of the lifetime. The chief difficulty in the way with almost everybody is the difficulty of controlling the desires and impulses of the vital being. In many cases as in yours, certain strong impulses run persistently counter to the ideal and demand of the reason and the will. The cause is almost always a weakness of the vital being itself, for, when there is this weakness it finds itself unable to obey the dictates of the higher mind and obliged to act instead under the waves of impulsion that come from certain forces in nature. These forces are really external to the person but find in this part of him a sort of mechanical readiness to satisfy and obey them. The difficulty is aggravated if the seat of the weakness is in the nervous system. There is then what is called by European science a neurasthenia tendency and under certain circumstances it leads to nervous breakdowns and collapses. This happens when there is too great a strain on the nerves or when there is excessive indulgence of the sexual or other propensities and sometimes also when there is too acute and prolonged a struggle between the restraining mental will and these propensities. This is the illness from which you are suffering and if you consider these facts you will see the real reason why you broke down at Pondicherry. The nervous system in you was weak; it could not obey the will and resist the demand of the external, vital forces, and in the struggle there came an overstrain of the mind and the nerves and a collapse taking the form of an acute attack of neurasthenia. These difficulties do not mean that you cannot prevail and bring about a control of your nerves and vital being and build up a harmony of mind and character. Only you must understand the thing rightly, not indulging in false and morbid ideas about it and you must use the right means. What is needed is a quiet mind and a quiet will, patient, persistent, refusing to yield either to excitement or discouragement, but always insisting {{0}}[tranquilly][[MS (copy) tranquility]] on the change needed in the being. A quiet will of this kind cannot fail in the end. Its effect is inevitable. It must first reject in the waking state, not only the acts habitual to the vital being, but the impulses behind them which it must understand to be external to the person even though manifested in him and also the suggestions which are behind the impulses. When thus rejected, the once habitual thoughts and movements may still manifest in the dream-state, because it is a well-known psychological law that what is suppressed or rejected in the waking state may still recur in sleep and dream because they are still there in the subconscient being. But if the waking state is thoroughly cleared, these dream-movements must gradually disappear because they lose their food and the impressions in the subconscient are gradually effaced. This is the cause of the dreams of which you are so much afraid. You should see that they are only a subordinate symptom which need not alarm you if you can once get control of your waking condition.

But you must get rid of the ideas which have stood in the way of effecting this self-conquest.

(1) Realise that these things in you do not come from any true moral depravity, for that can exist only when the mind itself is corrupted and supports the perverse vital impulses. Where the mind and the will reject them, the moral being is sound and it is a case only of a weakness or malady of the vital parts or the nervous system.

(2) Do not brood on the past but turn your face with a patient hope and confidence towards the future. To brood on the past failure will prevent you from recovering your health and will weaken your mind and will, hampering them in the work of self-conquest and rebuilding of the character.

(3) Do not yield to discouragement if success does not come at once, but continue patiently and steadfastly until the thing is done.

(4) Do not torture your mind by always dwelling on your weakness. Do not imagine that they unfit you for life or for the fulfilment of the human ideal. Once having recognised that they are there, seek for your sources of strength and dwell rather on them and the certainty of conquest.

Your first business is to recover your health of mind and body and that needs quietness of mind and for some time a quiet way of living. Do not rack your mind with questions which it is not yet ready to solve. Do not brood always on the thing. Occupy your mind as much as you can with healthy and normal occupations and give it as much rest as possible. Afterwards when you have your right mental condition and balance, then you can with a clear judgment decide how you will shape your life and what you have to do in the future.

I have given you the best advice I can and told you what seems to me the most important for you at present. As for your coming to Pondicherry, it is better not to do so just now. I could say to you nothing more than what I have written. It is best for you so long as you are ill, not to leave your father’s care, and above all, it is the safe rule in [an] illness like yours not to return to the place and surroundings where you had the breakdown, until you are perfectly recovered and the memories and associations connected with it have faded in intensity, lost their hold on the mind and can no longer produce upon it a violent or disturbing impression.
Aurobindo Ghose

4 thoughts on “Sri Aurobindo on the ideal of ordinary human life vs the yogic ideal

  1. Hi – Use of the “Intelligent Will” or the “Psychic” is already a rather advanced stage as compared to where most have their starting point. The way I have interpreted “personal effort” statement by Mother and Master, is in using any and every means possible with the “topmost instrument” available at that point in time. If the unreformed vital or vital colored mental is what is available to me it is that I have to use as a means of acting or refraining, by whatever little buddhi I can bring to bear upon the situation.

    What seems to work is this, in whatever capacity one acts, to do an inner surrender..to know that the act one does could be incomplete, to aspire and be receptive to a better way of action while doing what needs to be done seems to progressively open up other perspectives.

    And occasionally there is a lucid clarity that steals in, a simple action that in hindsight seems miraculously different than what one would usually do…often it slips past and only makes itself felt in hindsight but once in a while one witnesses it as it occurs. I have taken this to be something of the psychic..always accompanied by a sense of utter self-giving.

    So the ordinary living does not seem contradictory to the Yogic aspiration anymore. In fact it feels as if the “ordinary” is fundamental to the Integral realisation that Master speaks of. The diversity of little and big distortions seem to invite their luminous opposites, as if these were a pre-condition for the higher to manifest. That is how it feels now, to be honest.

    • Hi Mahesh: Really interesting reflections. Just to focus in on one of the themes I mentioned – what is the relevance of the buddhi for the person NOT interested in yoga or even aware of such a thing?

      Jan (my wife) and I have spent the last 4 years putting together a website which is focused on this theme – http://www.remember-to-breathe.org. It is based on very ordinary, mainstream neuroscience. My understanding is that the middle region of the prefrontal cortex is associated with a number of functions which are included in the functions of the “buddhi” – decision making, judgment, understanding, etc.

      My understanding both from Sri Aurobindo (particularly what he writes at length in Synthesis) and brain science is that every human being – even those with severe dementia – uses the buddhi to some extent. If you have the capacity to say “no” (as any parent of a two year old has observed, repeatedly, often with some misgiving:>) then that is the buddhi at work.

      The 8 year old child who is learning to restrain his behavior when angry is using the buddhi. The teenager who is learning to focus his attention during school when he is restless, and starting to understand the experimental method in science, is using his buddhi. College students learning to navigate the more complex social world of the university are using a more refined part of the buddhi, just as advanced students in music, theater, art and creative writing are making use of a very complex integration of the synthetic and analytic functions of the prefrontal cortex, the intelligent will, the understanding

      The millions of people learning mindfulness in a secular fashion who are not really interested consciously in anything we might recognize as “yogic” are learning to direct their attention in a way that can integrate the body and emotions and memories and all kinds of desires and thoughts, etc which is, I think, quite close to what Sri Aurobindo describes in chapters 5 to 7 in The Yoga of Self Perfection.

      Coming now to psychotherapy, most good therapists who use cognitive behavioral therapy are actually quite close at times to employing a yogic method to help people step back from troublesome thoughts, emotions and behaviors and to create a greater mind-body integration, and at their best, may evoke something of the psychic influence.

      Or, at least, that’s how it seems to me:>)

      • In fact, this story just came to mind – I think it helps us recognize how accessible the buddhi is to all of us. There is a program called “MindUp” in which contemporary neuroscience is taught in the schools. One story touched me in particular. A kindergarten child, aged 5, was being bullied by another student. The child was moved to another class to get him away from the bully. Several weeks after he was moved, some teachers spoke to him to see how he was doing. They asked him, “Are you ok, and are you angry toward the child who picked on you?” “Oh no,” the 5 year old child replied. “I understand that his prefrontal cortex is not very well developed, and so he doesn’t’ have much ability to control his amygdala” [one of the parts of the brain that gets activated when we are afraid and lash out in anger as a result of that fear).”

        I would say, if a 5 year old child, after learning about the brain for only a few months, could exhibit that kind of insight, then the “buddhi” (which is what the child was employing to exhibit such empathy for the other child who tormented him) is at least potentially available to all of us.

        (I have to add, to be fair, if you’re talking about the enlightened buddhi as described in the 2nd chapter of the Gita, which through discernment recognizes the distinction between the Self and not-Self, then of course we’re talking about something different. But as I said in the original post, I’m directing my attention for now to people who are NOT doing yoga. As best as I understand the traditional meaning of “buddhi” in Indian philosophy as well as Sri Aurobindo’s use in chapters 5-7 of The Yoga of Self Perfection, I think when he speaks of it as our ‘topmost” instrument he is, at least initially, referring to it in the ordinary sense, not the “enlightened buddhi” of the Gita. In the chapters on “the purified understanding” (in the yoga of knowledge) and the chapter near the end of the book on intuition, he describes a process of cultivating the buddhi which sounds much close to the Gita’s description, but again, that’s a different topic and not completely relevant to the life of the ordinary person not interested in yoga – though even there, there’s a lot of room – and I suspect that both inner and higher forms of intuition come into play in our daily lives – even the most “non yogic” of us – than we might at first imagine.

  2. This is the entirety of a letter that is excerpted in Letters on Yoga – it’s one of the clearest statements I’ve ever seen by Sri Aurobindo the difference between the highest ideal of the non yogic life and the yogic life.

    The question I’ve been relentlessly pursuing on Auroconf – these past 2 years and back in the 90s – and which has been the focus of my life’s work – is how do these two interact?

    What relevance, if any, does the yogic ideal (or yogic knowledge, actually) have for those only interested in living the ordinary human life (the vast majority of whom have absolutely no interest even in the highest human ideal, but even for those interested in developing a highly sattwic life)

    The ovewhelming consensus among most psychologists and therapists who are interested in the yogic life has been, for years, that it has no relevance at all. You get to the sattwic, and then go on to the spiritual.

    I’ve always believed that even the develop the sattwic nature, the deeper spiritual knowledge is profoundly important (for those therapists, counselors, teachers and others who are responsible for supporting people in developing a more sattwic nature)

    But the other question more relevant to auroconf – what is the relevance of the ordinary means of developing a sattwic nature for those consciously doing yoga? The overwhelming consensus seems to be that it has no relevance at all. Whereas Sri Aurobindo says the key to developing the ideal nature for one devoted to the ordinary ideal of human life is a strong mind and will (the sattwic buddhi of traditional Indian psychology) the IY catechism seems to be to hold up one’s finger sin the form of a cross as if warding off the devil himself when the question of using one’s mind to harmonize the nature.

    Mother and Sri Aurobindo have made clear, countless times, that until surrender is complete, some personal effort is necessary. By “personal” I suppose one could say they are referring to the psychic being, but what if the psychic is not awake? (or at least, at times when one has little or no contact with it). I don’t see any other way of understanding the means of personal effort than to say it is the “topmost instrument” (as Sri Aurobindo refers to it in Synthesis) – “our intelligent will”, the executive functions, the capacity of our mental consciousness to attend calmly, holistically, empathically, and compassionately, from a place of inner quiet, to allow the various parts of our nature to naturally, organically become more and more integrated so as to thin the “crust” of the surface nature in order to allow more and more of the psychic Light to shine through.

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