An ongoing evolution of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: May 2019
If you haven't read Section 1 and 2, you may like to read those first:
Involution, evolution and the future
The need for involution preceding evolution
In the first section we looked from an Indian consciousness-centred perspective at the absolutely stunning evolution of life within matter and of mind within embodied life. In the second section we looked at what we called the post-biological evolution, the period in which there is a significant further evolution of consciousness within humanity. We will start this third section with a look at what might have happened before all this started: how the physical world has come into being. Or to say it more paradoxically: we'll try to figure out what happened "before" the big bang, if that makes sense given that with the big bang not only mass, energy and the laws of physics, but even space and time seem to have burst into existence. As we discussed earlier, the reason to start at the very beginning is that understanding our past may well give us a hint on what to expect next. So, from where did it all come?
If we look at the biological evolution as a gradual emergence of consciousness, that consciousness must have been hiding somewhere before it emerged. To use a perhaps over-simplistic metaphor, a magician cannot pull a rabbit out of a hat if he has not hidden that rabbit somewhere inside the hat before he starts. Similarly, consciousness cannot emerge out of matter if the basic principle of consciousness is not already there in some form or another. In other words, an involution of consciousness must have preceded the evolution, and this is exactly how the Indian tradition visualises the process that must have produced our present world. The combined process of involution and evolution can then be depicted as in Figure 1.
Fig. 1. Involution and evolution
As we saw earlier, the Indian tradition developed the concept of saccidānanda, a unity of true being, consciousness and joy as the nature of the ultimate reality. And since, according to integral Vedānta, the entire universe is a manifestation of that ultimate reality, saccidānanda should also be the essence of everything in existence. In other words, everything in this universe must be conscious and joyful. At first sight, this may be hard to accept as there are plenty of things in this world that to us don't look conscious and joyful at all, but if we think about it a little deeper, we have to admit that this may be due to a too narrow, anthropocentric view of reality. The history of physics shows how helpful it can be to leave such anthropocentric perspectives behind. In ordinary life we measure temperature in Centigrade and Fahrenheit, which both have positive as well as negative values because for us, as small biological creatures in a large and not always human-friendly environment, things can be too hot or too cold. But physicists have found it more helpful to measure temperature in Kelvin which has only positive values. This works for them because they understand temperature as the energy in things and in their knowledge system nothing can exist that has zero energy. The Vedic concepts of Consciousness and Joy which we will use in this book are defined in a similarly professional manner. Just as an object with zero Temperature cannot exist in any meaningful manner because it would have no energy, nothing can exist without Consciousness and Joy because without Consciousness it would not know how to be, and without Joy it would not want to be.1
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, looking at consciousness and joy in such an "inhuman" professional manner actually offers a sympathetic and encouraging perspective on the origin of pain, suffering, and incapacity in our human lives and hints at effective ways to deal with them. But we will have a look at those things later. The question we'll try to deal with here is the more theoretical question, how out of the peaceful, unchanging infinitudes of saccidānanda our kind of ever-changing, hyper-complex, and apparently chaotic lives could have arisen.
Exclusive concentration as the mechanism behind māyā
Sri Aurobindo's Vedic explanation offers not only a coherent theory about our past, but also an inspiring vision of what might be our long-term future. There are several riders to this story, which we will take up later in this book, but here is the basic idea. In the Indian tradition, right from Vedic times, the force that is held responsible for creation is called māyā, and much of the differences between the various schools of Indian philosophy and yoga centre around the way māyā is understood. In essence, māyā is simply the power of manifestation, but how this power is appreciated changed considerably over time. In later philosophical texts, māyā obtains the meaning of illusion, a power which creates an imaginary world that looks real enough to the ignorant, but that has no true existence in itself. Yoga is then described as the process through which one wakes up out of that illusion into the Truth. In the māyāvādin traditions, this position is taken to its extreme and the entire world is considered as māyā in its most derogatory sense, that is, as an illusion, a veil of ignorance or an imposition, adhyāropa, on the purity and immutability of the silent Absolute.2
It is important to note that the largely negative meaning of māyā does not yet play a major role in the earliest texts of the Indian tradition. In the Ṛg Veda, māyā is still simply a creative power of the Divine which measures out the worlds in front of itself, and the quality of the created world depends on the consciousness of origin. As a result, there are many kinds of māyā. In some places the word is used for the true power of manifestation that belongs to the divine Mother herself. In others, it belongs to a lesser light, not a fully fraudulent lie, but still dark compared to the light of Surya (the Sun, as symbol of absolute Truth) and as such an illusion to be slain (e.g. RV 5.40).
Sri Aurobindo compares the main process through which Brahman manifests the world out of itself with the kind of “exclusive concentration” that is part of our ordinary mental consciousness. At our human level, exclusive concentration expresses itself in our ability to concentrate on a limited sub-set of all that we can potentially experience at any given moment. When you read this text, for example, your consciousness is guided along by what you read: things like your physical posture, the room in which you sit, your programme for tomorrow, a zebra, and the house in which you grew up enter your consciousness when this text brings them to your attention.
At the cosmic level, where in Sri Aurobindo's conception consciousness includes the power of creation, Sri Aurobindo describes exclusive concentration as
a self-limitation by Idea proceeding from an infinite liberty within
He then argues that the manifestation of the world out of saccidānanda could have taken place through a simple combination of only two basic powers that must have been present in the original conscious existence, 1) the ability to split itself into many instances of itself, and then 2) the ability to apply, in each of these instances, the power of exclusive concentration (2005, p. 281).
As we saw, the first of these two is the reason why we, tiny, insignificant creatures as we are, can still in some mysterious way know the Divine: every little thing in this universe is in its deepest essence still a true portion of the Divine. This inner identity between the one and the many, might also explain those strange phenomena in physics where particles behave at the same time as if they are numerically one and numerically many.
The second is the origin of the svabhāva, the true spiritual nature of things (including ourselves). As we saw, exclusive concentration may have given different entities different qualities in roughly the same manner that our ordinary human mind thinks of different things at different times, except that it must have worked on a more solid, existential level, not creating a variety of images in one individual human awareness, but a variety of objectively existing objects within the reality of the Divine. In terms of qualities one could say that while the absolute conscious being of the Divine is inherently anantaguṇa, of infinite quality, each individual entity comes into being with the specific qualities it has, because exclusive concentration creates for it a different subset of that infinite set of qualities.
The formation of subtle worlds
Pure consciousness doesn't suddenly change into hard physical objects. One should imagine it as a gradual process of solidification by which in subsequent stages, subtle worlds are created of increasing solidity. As exclusive concentration produces the different qualities of the entities populating this hierarchy of occult, typal worlds, each entity gradually begins to express its own svabhāva, self-nature.
All this may appear strange to us as we have all undergone such a solidly physicalist education that we tend to look at things the other way around. We see the physical world as the original reality and think of ideas only as abstractions derived from that "really real" physical world. Accordingly, we think of creation primarily as a process of bottom-up construction. But this is not how the world works. It is not only poets and storytellers who create personalties and adventures in thin air. Builders, architects, and industrial designers too, start with an idea, a plan, something that exists only in their consciousness, and then detail that plan out top-down. It begins with a vague initial idea, hardly more than an intention, and it ends, after many intermediate stages, with the kind of technical detail that is required to get something actually constructed. While mass production can start only after its design has been fully detailed out, single products and prototypes tend to be made somewhat haphazardly, with the details being worked out gradually, in an interaction of top-down and bottom-up processes. A fascinating example of this can be seen in the way small children learn to draw. They begin with scribbling what look like random lines on the paper, seemingly just for the joy of the colours, or for the "kick" they get out of creating something, anything. And then, suddenly, one day, they recognise a few lines in a corner as "papa" — nobody else sees why, but they do — and in their next drawing they do their level-best to accentuate the "papa-ishness" of the lines in that corner and so, gradually, the first match-stick figure sees the light. Could it be that the awe-inspiring creation of the cosmos has proceeded in a similar way? Neither by an over-sized human-like being creating in one single gesture a perfect pot out of clay, nor by pure chance, but by a "powerful idea" slowly crystallising in an initially amorphous sea of semi-conscious existence? Could the steps in Darwin's evolution have taken place like this? An element of chance to start with, but gradually more and more of a conscious push and pull in the direction of pre-existing "ideas"? First a lot of trial and error, then, once a species is near-perfect, mass-production with all details fixed in its DNA, yet allowing for occasional minor updates?
Though most of us are not aware of them, the existence of an occult hierarchy of subtle planes, objects, beings and forces is reported by mystics in all major civilizations. And it is not just the mystics who took the possibility of self-realising ideas for possible. The hypothesis of a top-down creation through exclusive concentration is in harmony with the idealist philosophy of Plato and most major philosophers in the pre-modern West. As for the hierarchy of occult planes, the descriptions given in different civilizations may look quite different at first sight, but at closer inspection it becomes clear that they have enough in common to assume that they are all descriptions of one and the same, independently existing reality of which different people in different civilizations have seen and described different aspects.
As said, for this text, I'll use the Vedic description of this inner reality as formulated by Sri Aurobindo. In its most simple form, it consists of three parts. There is an upper, divine hemisphere of saccidānanda, which is transcendent, undifferentiated and unmanifest. There is a lower world of mind, life and matter of which we all know the diminished forms that are part of the evolving physical world: thoughts, feelings, and things. And in between these two hemispheres, there is a link-plane, which is, like the world above it, perfectly divine, and yet, like the world below it, differentiated. The Vedic rishis called this link-plane, the maharloka; the Upanishads the vijñānamaya kośa; the Greeks knew it is as something that can, if at all, be known only through the highest type of non-dual knowledge, gnosis; Sri Aurobindo calls it the Supramental.
We will now have a more detailed look at the processes that may have taken place during the involution and evolution, and see why it is this link-plane that carries in it the secret of our future.
Involution and evolution revisited
As we have seen, in Sri Aurobindo's vision everything in the universe, however inconscient it may appear on the surface, is an expression of consciousness and remains forever permeated with consciousness. What is more, this conscious universe is evolving, and if Sri Aurobindo's essentially Vedic hypothesis is right, there must have been an occult involution of consciousness before the manifest evolution which science studied, as well as a determining influence of consciousness during that evolution.
If we add the main points of what we discussed so far to the diagram of involution and evolution we saw earlier, the full picture might look something like Figure 2.
Fig. 2. The process of involution and evolution till now
Ascent and Integration
In figure 2, there is on the left, in the subtle, inner worlds, an involution, a descent, a gradual diminution of consciousness from the absolute perfection of saccidānanda, via the perfect but not yet manifest supramental world, to the lesser and lesser forms of consciousness we have called mind, vital and physical, till we have, at the bottom of the picture, the near total darkness of an apparent Nescience. In the account given by science, it is here, at the bottom, that the "Big Bang" takes place. Everything to the right of this point is visible in the manifest, "gross-physical" world. An interesting aspect of the scientific account is that all the laws of physics must have been operative right from that first moment. In the consciousness-centred Indian conception, that same lawfulness is called Brahman, the consciousness of the Divine, a divine consciousness which is absolutely everywhere, even hidden deep within the darkness. We leave it to the reader to what extent this difference is substantial or just a matter of language, but where both sides agree is that from this apparent darkness, the universe begins to evolve. According to the Indian version it does this partly pushed by the hidden Divinity within, partly pulled and moulded by the higher types of consciousness that are already present in the typal worlds which were created during the involution. Both are part of the omniscience of the Divine, and it is this that creates the fabulous harmony and beauty one sees in the inanimate material universe. As Sri Aurobindo says (2005, p. 359),
the force [acts] automatically and with an apparent blindness as in a trance, but still with the inevitability and power of truth of the Infinite.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Indian description of this evolutionary process is that it is not just a re-ascent back up the same ladder of consciousness it assumes we came down from. There is also an integration of the new with the old, of the higher with the lower: when life arises out of matter, there are not just wafts of vital energy but flowers and tigers; when mind arises from life, there are not just free-floating ideas but intelligent people who hold those ideas. In short, there is not just an ascent but an "ascent and integration".3 And it is this ascent and integration that allows us humans to live in the freedom of the mind's creativity, while still being pushed by the adventurous spirit of our vital energy and supported by the sturdiness of our physical embodiment.
Fig. 3. Involution and evolution: two options for the future
The aim of life: going back or going forward
At present, most of humanity is still focussed on the development of what in Figure 3 is called the "Embodied Mind". We have become amazingly good at physical engineering, but we haven't reached the same levels of perfection in the management of our social and psychological life.
Those with a spiritual aspiration seem to stand at the crossroads where they, as individuals, can follow a path that aims at a merger back into the featureless Transcendent from which it all started (or some other specific form of the Divine), or struggle forwards to complete the evolution of which we are a part. In other words, we seem to have two very different options for our further spiritual development. We can, as some high and lofty schools of Indian spirituality recommend, forget about the world and strive for individual or collective liberation from our suffering through mokṣa, kaivalya or nirvāṇa, or, if Sri Aurobindo is right, we can go bravely forward to the next stage in the world's evolution. It is true that this choice need not be as starkly binary as the diagram suggests. On the one hand, a certain purification of one's nature is needed before one can hope to find the Transcendent, and on the other hand, it may be necessary to have at least some sense of the Transcendent before one can successfully attempt the road towards transformation. Accordingly, as we already discussed in the chapter on concepts of consciousness, most modern schools of spirituality are somewhere on the continuum between exclusive and integral spirituality. Unfortunately this means in practice, that many of them are satisfied with the kind of compromise that used to be called the householder's path: a pursuit of spirituality that doesn't go at the cost of one's other interests and that is satisfied with making the ordinary life a bit more bearable. For most individuals this is enough, but for the future of our collective life this is not sufficient.
Given the challenges humanity is facing, our very survival may depend on our willingness to go beyond our present understanding, and on our willingness to take both paths, the scientific and the spiritual, further till they meet, not by a half-hearted compromise to their core-principles, but by a self-exceeding, a willingness to go beyond their respective traditions. What we will find if they do so is likely to be way beyond what we can presently imagine.
The reason to be optimistic is that at present all religious and spiritual traditions lead to limited aspects of the Divine. All traditions have their own scriptures and give their love to one chosen form of the Divine. To the outsider these choices may look arbitrary, but not to faithful who follow their tradition as well as their heart. Those who approach the divine through a modern, "free" intellect tend to feel superior in their pursuit of a transcendent absolute, whether negative as in Buddha's sunya and Patanjali's kaivalya, or positive as in the Advaitin's all-inclusive paramātman, but in the end even this is still only one form of the Divine, since the Divine is not only Transcendent to everything, but also a Presence within everything and ultimately even everything all-together. What we really need is to grow further into a perfect harmony with the Divine in every aspect of our nature, and this means that we should have — or rather become — a consciousness that is radically different from our imitative, constructing mind. What is more, we need this consciousness that is one with the dynamic Divine from which this cosmos originates, while remaining embodied here in this physical world. In terms of Figure 2 and 3, this is only possible by a descent and integration of the consciousness which is proper to the Supramental plane, the vijñānamaya kośa.4
Exploring this Supramental link plane experientially is far more difficult than realising even the highest "non-dual mind" below it, and after many years of inner work, Sri Aurobindo came to the conclusion that the later Indian sages failed to discern clearly how much the two types of consciousness differed from each other. According to Sri Aurobindo this was the main reason why the Indian tradition gave up on the possibility of a genuinely divine life on earth. He writes in a letter to one of his disciples:
The Indian systems did not distinguish between two quite different powers and levels of consciousness, one which we can call Overmind [the highest level of what in Figure 3 is indicated as the Mental plane] and the other the true Supermind or Divine Gnosis. That is the reason why they got confused about Maya (Overmind-Force or Vidya-Avidya) and took it for the supreme creative power. In so stopping short at what was still a half-light they lost the secret of transformation — even though the Vaishnava and Tantra Yogas groped to find it again and were sometimes on the verge of success. For the rest, this, I think, has been the stumbling-block of all attempts at the discovery of the dynamic divine Truth; I know of none that has not imagined, as soon as it felt the Overmind lustres descending, that this was the true illumination, the gnosis, — with the result that they either stopped short there and could get no farther, or else concluded that this too was only Maya or Lila and that the one thing to do was to get beyond it into some immovable and inactive Silence of the Supreme.[ref]
A more detailed description of the Supermind and how it differs form the level of consciousness just below it, is given in the chapter called "The Self and the structure of the Personality". According to Sri Aurobindo, it is only by the ascent and integration of this radically different type of consciousness that we can permanently overcome the "indignity of mortal life" (Savitri, p. 313).
It appears then that the tremendous creative power behind the evolution will not allow humanity to be satisfied till it has a complete understanding of all of reality, and if that is to happen, science cannot afford to leave the highest ranges of consciousness out of its purview, and spirituality cannot limit itself to its too limited, too one-sided understanding of the Divine. In Figure 3, the path to the left depicts what we described in an earlier chapter as the path leading to the immersion of the drop back into the ocean from where it came, while the path to the right represents the attempt at transforming the drop into a dynamic centre of the Light, Truth and Power of the infinite ocean. It is this path to the right which is the adventure of consciousness and joy5 that forms the central theme of Infinity in a Drop and the raison d'être of its integral approach to psychology.6
1. We are so used to see the world as purely physical, that attributing consciousness and will to inanimate objects may look as an erroneous anthropomorphic attribution, but it is the other way around. To think that only we humans have consciousness and will gives us a strange exceptional position in the universe and makes both our own existence and the existence of the universe incomprehensible. The moment physicists realised that gravity must work in the same manner throughout the universe, they could not only better understand the place the earth occupies within the rest of the universe but also develop a better understanding of how gravity works on earth. Similarly, the Vedic assumption that consciousness and joy are universal properties of everything, makes it not only clear how we humans fit into reality as a whole, but also allows us to develop a more realistic and effective understanding of how these two crucial aspects of human existence work in our own daily lives.
2. To give one striking example of the traditional entirely negative interpretation of māyā, Swami Sivananda, who was in his time considered by many to have the same spiritual stature as Sri Aurobindo and Sri Ramana Maharshi, quotes in one of his books, and clearly in agreement with it, a recommendation by Adi Shankara to look at everything, good and bad, as no better than “the excrement of a crow”. (Adi Shankara, as quoted by Swami Sivananda, 1983/1998).
3. The term "ascent and integration" is often attributed to Ken Wilber, but Sri Aurobindo used it many years earlier in the title of one of the chapters of The Life Divine (a book which Ken Wilber refers to in his earlier writings).
4. The term vijñāna can easily be misunderstood as over the ages it slowly lost its original meaning. While it meant originally a type of consciousness way beyond even the highest levels of the mental plane, one finds it used in later Sanskrit in the sense of "intellect" and in modern Hindi it simply means college-level education.
5. Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p. 2.
6. I'm not sure whether this needs stating, but while I do hold that for the development of a new foundation of psychology, the integral position Sri Aurobindo developed is the most promising, the choice of one's individual path or guru is a very different and purely personal issue that each individual has to deal with in his or her own way.
For a more detailed description of the planes of
consciousness listed in Figure 2 and 3
For a one-page overview of the integral concept
of consciousness as used in Infinity in a Drop:
For a few lines of Sri Aurobindo's epic poem Savitri,
which describe the evolution of consciousness: