Transcript of Matthijs Cornelissen: Sri Aurobindo’s Theory of Knowledge (Port Townsend WA 2005)

Transcript of Matthijs’ AUM2005 talk: “Sri Aurobindo’s Theory of Knowledge”

Talk by Matthijs Cornelissen
Port Townsend, WA
June 11, 2005

Good Morning,

Why do we think we know?

What I want to discuss this morning is something that underlies what we
have discussed the previous two days and I hope that together we can go
to a greater depth and get into some of the absolute mystery that is
behind everything that we do and say. It is a mystery, and this is
another embarrassment of speaking, because we know much less than we
think. I guess I should talk only about myself, but I think it applies
to all of us. We think we know, and this naïve certainty that we can
know things is really amazing. We are supposed to make a link with
science and even science has this. Science as we now know it is to
quite an extent based on the philosophy of Descartes and Descartes is
much maligned; but actually he was an amazingly naïve and religious
man. What everybody knows is that he said “‘Cogito ergo sum”, i.e. “I
think, therefore I am” and of course everybody who knows a little about
Yoga knows that you can very well be without thinking, and that your
real existence has nothing to do with your thought. So we tend to look
down on him, but what’s most amazing is not that famous sentence, it is
one that follows a little later. His attempt was to start with absolute
doubt and then find out what would stand as certain knowledge. The
first thing he could not doubt was his own thinking. But even when he
looked outside, his doubt didn’t go very deep. When he divided the
world into two, the inner, thinking part that was to be looked after by
religion and the outer, extended part that was to be studied by
science, even for the science part, his doubt really didnt go further
than the first step. He said, all I can build upon is what the senses
give me, and then he added that the senses could not be wrong “because
God has given them to us and God cannot be that malicious that he would
give us false witnesses.” I think that’s really touching and so
incredibly naïve. The later existentialists doubted on a much deeper,
more psychological level, but even they didnt doubt very deep, because
they still took the outer existence as fully real. And of course they
took themselves far too serious.

Some ancient Indians like Nagarjuna and some Western mystics like
Eckhart carried their doubts much further. And they came to a space
where any expression became doubtful and needed to be transcended by
something higher that was inexpressible. But still that something
higher was there. So it appears that in the last instance we cannot
doubt for the full hundred percent. We always assert something and even
if we pretend to doubt fully, then we don’t doubt our doubt. So we
cannot escape some certainty at the very root of everything, even at
the very root of nothing, even Buddha’s emptiness is still a pregnant
void. We simply cannot escape having somewhere deep inside a certainty.
I have always found it very amazing that speakers, even in a group like
ours, who know that Reality is far beyond us, still all talk as if they
know, me included. I’m saying something, because I believe in it. So
that’s very, very strange.

I am very puzzled about what really is and I think collectively, we are
not remotely puzzled enough about that. Especially Science is still
living in an amazing, almost childish world of make-belief, in which we
presume that the physical reality is real, and more or less as we see
it. It proceeds as if it is sufficient to polish a little bit the
obvious defects of our senses, expand them with machinery and
equipment, and then go a bit deeper in on their interrelationships, and
then that’s it. And it is true that the models science makes of reality
are sufficient to make the gadgets we all love so much work. But it
doesn’t bring us much closer to the deeper answers to the questions of
life. The social sciences have detected the social pressures that
influence our thinking, and they do try to get at the truth behind
those pressures, but this also remains entirely on the surface.

One can wonder why it is like that. Why do we always think that we
know? and why can we not escape this tendency? Within the Indian
tradition, this amazing certitude even at every level of ignorance, is
perfectly understandable, because it follows, as so many things in
psychology, directly from the concept of Sachchidananda. Absolutely at
the very root of things, being and knowing, and joy of course, are
essentially one. So essentially we know what we are and we are what we
know. There can be no gap between the two. We are our own
consciousness, we are our own knowledge, however limited and ignorant
it is. This is the pervasive presence even in all other types of
knowledge of the special type of knowledge, which Sri Aurobindo calls
knowledge by identity.

Knowledge by identity, if you really begin to take it seriously and
begin to understand all its implications, is an absolutely fantastic
concept. Especially if you combine it with Sri Aurobindo’s insight in
the evolution of consciousness, and with the old Indian idea of many
levels and types of consciousness, arranged in layers and patterns
between the surface and the inner most psychic being.

The constructed reality of the sense-mind
So let’s see how that goes. This may seem a little bit of sidetrack,
but if you look at Patanjali’s Yoga sutras, you see that the central
point of his whole system is the need to silence the mind. Silencing
the mind is for him the very definition of yoga. Sri Aurobindo stresses
the need to silence the mind as the very first step of yoga. But how do
you do it? There are two big enemies that prevent us from silencing our
mind. The first are the desires that come up and keep us continuously
busy, and the other are our senses.

When I started with yoga many years ago, I found this very surprising.
Desire I could understand. Desire obviously corrupts: when we like
something we want to hear that alone, we don’t want to hear the other
side, and when desire enters into a discussion, we begin to worry who
wins the argument, not who is actually right. So that desires corrupt
our thinking is very obvious, but why would the senses corrupt it? The
senses at their best make us see beauty, and beauty is very close to
truth, and what about systems like some forms of Zen Buddhism which are
entirely based on sharpening the senses. So I wondered why in the
Indian tradition so much is made of the need to get rid of the senses.
Once one understands Sri Aurobindo’s theory of knowledge, it becomes
very clear why our senses are a problem, and one realises it has
nothing to do with disdain for beauty, on the contrary, but it has
everything to do with the possibility of cultivating knowledge by

To put it very simply, our problem is that our consciousness is
entrapped in the workings of our sense-mind, and our sense-mind is
entrapped in the workings of our brain. To get back to the infinite
consciousness, which we actually are in our essence, we have to free
our consciousness from these entanglements. This is simple enough, but
to understand fully, not only how to get out, but also why we got
entrapped in the first place, and what might happen after we have
liberated ourselves, what the next step could be, that gets quite
complicated. The best way to sort all that out, is probably to look at
the whole thing in the framework of the evolution of consciousness. I
think all of us as we are sitting here are fairly familiar with Sri
Aurobindo’s concept of consciousness so I can just indicate it very
shortly and simply.

The typal planes
Sri Aurobindo says, in line with the entire Vedic tradition, that this
physical world is the end result of a process of exclusive
concentration by which the Divine manifests the physical world out of
himself. On the way from the absolute, indeterminate, infinite,
omniscient and all-powerful divine Consciousness to the almost totally
inconscient and fully determinate state of physical hard matter, a
whole series of intermediate typal planes of conscious existence are
created. Science ignores all these intermediate planes (except perhaps
one specific layer of the mental worlds which contains the descriptions
of a certain class of physical relations and processes). Science deals
only with the ultimate end result of that whole process of immersion of
the Infinite Brahman into inconscience, matter, and so it studies the
physical world which is made out of fundamental particles like, for
example, the electrons that circle around in atoms.

Of course these are metaphors. We should not at any moment think that
matter really consists of electrons and protons and things like that.
An electron is our human conception, our human model, of a part of the
material world. There are no such things in reality. Electrons,
protons, quarks, and so on are part of our image of reality, just like
everything else that we see is a construct of our manas, our
sense-mind. Nothing is as it seems to be.

We are so trapped in our sense-mind that we inevitably think that the
physical reality we see and feel consists of real stuff, while all that
we see as real stuff “out there” is at least partially the product of
our mind, it is the result of an interaction between what is out there
and our imagination about it. We really live in a virtual world of our
own making that is to some extent guided by the world out there, and to
some extent by our own pre-knowledge, or prejudice, of how that world
should be. It is not an entirely virtual world, there’s something out
there, but it is certainly not exactly that what we see. What we see is
our construction of reality, which is always an interaction of at least
two different types of consciousness and being, the conscious being of
ourselves as the observer, and the conscious being of what we observe.
These interactions create entirely different worlds depending on the
type of conscious being, which is there in the observing self and in
the observed nature.

I think this is something we lose track of, because we get habituated
to live in a certain manner, in a certain type of consciousness, and
then we start taking that manner absolutely seriously, but it’s
arbitrary, the worlds in which we live are the way they are, because we
are habituated to construct them that way and we can be shaken out of
them. By music, by meditation, by an encounter, by grief, by all kinds
of things, we can be shaken out of those habits. And suddenly we are in
an entirely different space.

From matter to mind
Now to come back to that electron and proton, let’s presume that the
world is more or less like scientists model it. Then there are things
called electrons, or at least wave-forms that can be considered as
little particles, that circle around protons. So those little “things”
must have some kind of built in knowledge. Everything must have. The
electron must know how to do its thing, just like we must know how to
walk, how to ride a cycle, digest food, etc. Riding a cycle is a very
good example, because to ride a cycle goes differently than most people
think. We think that we go to the left by turning the steering handle
to the left, but it doesn’t work like that. You go to the left by
shifting your weight to the left, and then, because the fork of the
front wheel is a little bent forward, this shift of weight makes you
turn left. If you try to force the steering handle left while staying
straight-up, you will fall, as all children know who ever had enough
courage, will-power (and folly) to try. So the body knows how to do it,
while our mind doesn’t know.

In a similar way as the body must know how to ride a cycle, one can
imagine that the electron must know how to turn around the proton.
Obviously it doesn’t have the type of mental knowledge that we have of
the outer world, but it has all the necessary know-how to play its
specific role in this huge world. In this context it is useful to note
that there is actually no substantial difference between a quality and
know-how: one can say that this paper is white, describing its
whiteness as a quality, or one can say that this paper has the know-how
needed to emit white light. One sounds more active and human than the
other but it comes to the same thing. So we can describe the quality of
whiteness in this paper as a kind of consciousness that involves a
certain “know-how-to-be-white”, a certain knowledge of how to be. At
the level of the physical, the consciousness is entirely involved in
its own action and in an electron the type of physical consciousness it
has, or rather is, is not more than a specific habit of form. The
electron we can presume, doesn’t go out of its way to make a model of
the world in order to decide on its action, it just is its own action.
For our type of representational knowledge, we need our sense mind, our
fantastically complicated brain and so on. All that is not there in the
electron. The electron is far too simple for all that, but, and this is
terribly interesting, what little bit it knows, it knows perfectly.
This many people have mentioned before. Matter doesn’t lie, it doesn’t
make mistakes. It doesn’t have that capacity, because it just is. Even
our body just is. It cannot pretend to be something else.

Similarly, our body-consciousness also cannot go out of itself and then
make a model of itself and then deal with that model, it just does
something, or just is something. It simply is. That it has in common
with very simple things like electrons and protons. Now let us see how
the ability to respond to the surrounding gets more complicated as
things become more complex during the process of evolution. Even
electrons have the ability to react to what happens in their
surrounding. When another atom comes nearby, an electron may jump to
another orbit, so the electron reacts to some extent to its
surrounding. Even when the electron is simply racing around the nucleus
of the atom in which it “lives”, it is doing that, because it somehow
senses the presence of the protons and other electrons there and knows
how to behave accordingly, all according to its fixed habits.

As the physical aggregates get more complicated, you get plants, which
have very intricate and subtle interactions with their surroundings.
The tree moves with the wind, it breathes in some chemicals from the
air, it pulls up some chemicals through its roots, it breathes out
other chemicals; it has some very subtle and complicated interactions
going on with other plants, with the air, with the soil and so on. But
basically it is in itself. There is no reason at all to presume that
the tree makes any internal representation of what’s going on around
it. It knows only what it feels directly, and in that sense it is very
similar to our vital nature. That is probably why in the Vedic system
of classification, which Sri Aurobindo follows, the plants belong to
the life world just as our emotions. Emotions also belong to the
pranamaya kosha, to the life world, because in our emotions also we
don’t make a model of the outside world, we don’t have an objective
conception of how the world is. We react directly; it consists of
horizontal I and thou kind of relationships. Our reactions to someone
else can be very subtle, very complicated, but they are not objective
like the mind is. It is direct, in and out.

Making maps
The objective mind becomes possible when our brain-stuff becomes so
complex that it can make some kind of a map of the world around it. Our
brain is capable of making a hugely complicated representation of the
reality in which our organism lives. Of course it is not a map in the
sense of the 2D printed maps you can buy of different geographical
regions, it is also not a purely verbal map. It is something very, very
complex consisting of spatial relationships, smells, sounds, meanings,
intentions, reactions, all kind of things.

There area few things that are good to note at this stage. The visual
aspect takes up a very large part of our mapping of the world but it is
certainly not the whole of it. It is also good to realize that
perception is a very active process. Young children generally think,
like the ancient Greeks and Indians, that when we see something, a ray
goes out from the eye, envelopes the thing, takes its shape and
returns. Since the 13th century in Europe this “emissive theory of
sight” has lost out on the “immissive” theory, and primary school
teachers teach children now that nothing goes out from the eyes and
that “in reality” the light from the object falls on our retina, which
passively absorbs that light and as a result gives off a signal that
goes straight into the brain where we become conscious of it. (How
exactly consciousness comes in at this stage, is hard, perhaps
impossible to explain in this scheme of things, but that the teacher of
course does not betray.) Though there is some truth in what the teacher
says, it is only part of the story and in some respects her version is
worse than the child’s. The reason for this is that seeing is not a
passive process at all. Modern psychology is becoming more and more
aware of the extent to which seeing, and sensing in general, are active
processes. What we see, is to a very high degree determined by what we
want to see, or what we expect to see, or fear to see, but in any case,
by some kind of mental set that is determined at least partially from
inside. Even purely physiologically, seeing is a very active process.
The main centre in the brain where we do our visual imaging of the
world has more efferent neurons coming from the back, from the deeper
layers of the brain, going out, than it has afferent neurons that come
from the eye and go in. Perhaps the full story is something like this
that first our consciousness goes, as the ancients and children say,
out to the object, and negotiates with the consciousness in the object
what kind of information it will receive from it, somewhat like a
fax-machine which first negotiates with the fax-machine on the other
side of the telephone line what the highest protocol is that both
machines can understand, before the real transmission starts. The
object then sends that kind of information out and the organism
receives it: the purely physical mind gets only physical info, the
psychic gets the emotional values attached to the object, the artist
its beauty, the mystic the divine presence in its core.

For simplicity’s sake, let us for now focus on the idea that our brain
makes a map of reality, because that it does that, in some fashion or
another, seems clear enough. Someone has claimed that it can do that
because the number of connections in the brain, — there are billions
and billions and billions of neuron cells, and billions and billions
and billions and billions and more billions of connections between
them, — because the number of connections between our brain-cells is
about the same as the number of events that have taken place in the
universe till now. How anyone could make a guess of the number of
events in the universe, I don’t know, but what is sure is that the
numbers of neuronal connections are absolutely staggering, and that all
this complexity has been squeezed in these little skulls of ours is
absolutely incredible. Because of that complexity, we can make quite
sophisticated maps of reality, we can calculate the beginning of the
universe, construct mobiles, write poetry, make music, and maintain
human relationships. We can do things that are actually incredibly
complicated. But there is another fascinating aspect to this.

The universe in a speck of dust
When we look at ourselves from the outside, “objectively”, we see
ourselves as small 5-6 foot high, 60, 70 kilograms creatures on a tiny
planet in a medium size solar system, in a small milky away, somewhere
in a corner of this enormous universe. But on the other hand, it’s we
who see it like that. So if we look at things in another way, stressing
the subjective aspect, then we can say that this whole universe takes
up just one thought in our consciousness, the universe happens
somewhere in a corner of our being. And that’s true for every one of
us. We all can think of the universe, as if it were just one of our
many possible thoughts, which is absolutely fantastic. Are we inside
that, or is that inside us? There is no way to decide. Now there is
nothing special about this idea. Every twelve-year-old who takes his
own thinking a bit seriously discovers this problem at some stage, gets
worked up about it for a while and then drops it on his pile of
unsolved riddles of existence, and gets on with life.

The fascinating point is, at least for those of us who manage to remain
forever like twelve-year-olds, that something very similar must be true
for every thing in the universe. However little the speck of dust we
take, if we turn it inside out, it shows the entire universe hiding
within it. Mystics have of course always said so. Mystics say not only
that everything is conscious, but also that they can see The Divine in
absolutely everything, in big things, in small things, everywhere. In
“God’s Labour”, Sri Aurobindo describes how the supramental is there,
hidden deep inside matter. To our ordinary mind this sounds quite
unbelievable, but then, even for the ordinary mind one can make it at
least somewhat plausible. If we take the electron as our example, the
logic runs like this:

The electron obviously does not have a mind like we have. It misses the
billions upon billions of cross-connected neurons needed to make
representational maps of reality in the way we do. And yet, in some
other way, each electron must contain in itself all the knowledge of
the universe. And this has to be so, even in a very technical pragmatic
sense. The reason for this astonishing aspect of reality is, that if an
electron wants to move exactly in the right way, which is what it does,
it must know everything: it must know all of physics because all the
laws of physics form one integrated web and you cannot understand any
part really completely, without knowing all of it. It is clear that it
must know all about electromagnetism, as its orbit is mainly determined
by electromagnetic forces, but gravity also plays a role, and so do so
many other forces. Physicists presume that even if we don’t always know
exactly how, in reality all physical laws should be interconnected and
ultimately derivable form just a few basic elements. And the electron
must know whatever laws are there completely because it never makes
errors. One of the most basic elements of physics is that if we see
something behave erratically, the fault is always ours: we haven’t
fully understood what is going on. Anyhow, in a similar way our
tiny-winy electron must know all of the world, because the whole
surrounding world impacts on it. According to physics there is no limit
to influences. If there is a force, the effect of the force becomes
smaller at a distance, but it does go on and on, in however small a
degree, right to the borders of the universe. So everything influences
everything. If our electron would miss out on even a tiny detail of
either type of knowledge, it would not move correctly. So if the
electron is to move exactly right, which is what it does, then it
should know the whole lot of it, in however and implicit manner. And so
for an electron to move exactly as it does, it must know everything,
point. Obviously not in the way we know, but the knowledge must be
there in some implicit way.

There is sill a second angle to this. Earlier, we saw that we can look
at qualities as know-how, and vice versa. This is the active side of
knowledge. But there is also a passive side to knowledge. If you look
at the knowledge available in a system, you can always look at in two
ways. One is the dynamic knowledge, the know-how that the system needs
to act according to its svadharma, and the other is the information
that’s passively present in it, and which we could extract out of it if
we would take the trouble. For the same reason that the electron must
have all the dynamic know-how in the world, it must also have all the
passive information about the universe inside.

An example on a slightly bigger scale will make this clearer. A glass
of water knows in some way how high it is located above the sea level.
The simple reason for this is that I can extract that knowledge out of
it: I can boil the water in the glass and measure the temperature at
which it starts boiling, and from that temperature I can calculate its
height above sea-level. At sea-level it boils at 100 °C, but if I take
it 10km up, it may start boiling at 70 degree, or whatever it is. The
temperature at which the water boils can tell me how high it is above
sea-level. So in some implicit way the information about its height
above the earth’s surface must be hidden in each cup of water. In a
similar way, it must contain the speed by which the earth moves around
the sun, for again, if I want to know how fast the earth turns around
the sun, I can in principle measure the speed of this glass of water
and derive the speed of the earth from there. All the basic information
about the solar system must be in there in the glass, because I can
take it out from there. In principle, certainly not in practice, but in
principle, I can study everything in the universe by studying this one
glass of water. And as everything impinges on it, it must in some way
have the effect of everything embedded in it.

As this may seem at first sight quite an outrageous idea, it should be
possible to raise loads of objections against this reasoning, but in
the end I have the feeling that it should be possible to deal with all
these objections, for intuitively, it actually does makes sense that
all the know-how and all the information in the universe, must be
present in each little part of it. Many mystics have said so, and the
idea that deep, deep within the omniscient omnipotent Divine is
secretly present in each little bit of matter is a deeply satisfying

Maps and the brain
Now let’s see how this works out in bigger things. In a cup, it is
still very much like in the electron. Implicitly, non-manifestly, all
knowledge must be there in the cup; explicitly, manifestly, there is
only a certain habit of form: the only thing the cup knows actively, in
a physically manifest way, is how to remain this particular cup under a
certain set of circumstances. If it gets too hard a knock, it cannot
maintain its form and breaks. One may wonder what happens to its habit
of form, once the physical cup has been ground back into dust. It seems
plausible to me that the habit of form remains, if not forever then
still for a possibly long time after the physical cup has gone. The
reason is that the accident that broke the physical cup, did not
destroy the habit as such, it only prevented one specific manifestation
of it to stick together. Whether this is true or not is in principle
very well testable. Sheldrake has done wonderful work in the related
area of “morphogenetic fields”, and if interest in such things
increases, we can expect much more of this type of research in the

Now what happens at our level of complexity? We have this fantastic
brain, which is continuously busy, on the one hand to help maintain law
and order within the complexity of our organism, and on the other hand
to plan and execute external action, which involves maintaining a
tremendously complex database about the outer reality, which we will
call for shortness sake our map of the world around us. It does this in
millions of ways, one of them consists of complicated word schemes like
the one I’m brewing now, and by which your poor mind is being
beleaguered when you hear or read this.

The interesting thing is that just like the electron is the electron,
infinite inside but on the outside limited to being electron-like, and
just as the cup is inside the Infinite, and yet on the outside only
busy manifesting its specific form of cuppiness, so we are infinite
inside, but on the outside we are a peculiar mixture of a basic
body-sense, feelings, volitions, intentions, thoughts, memories, plans
and what not that seem to be engendered by our brain on the basis of
the millions of inputs that reach it at any given moment. In our
ordinary physical consciousness, our consciousness simply aligns with
whatever the body-embedded mind does, or perhaps rather, as all the
mind does is far too complicated, it aligns with a tiny “executive
summary” which the mind regularly sends to its own surface. And in its
turn, what the mind does in our ordinary physical state is largely what
the brain and the rest of the nervous system do, and our consciousness
is thus still embedded in a little chunk of matter, even though that
chunk of matter is fabulously complicated and capable of “mapping”, or
presenting the world around it.

Beyond the maps
Now the fascinating thing is that at this stage in our evolution, we
cannot only make an objective map of ourselves and the world around us,
but we can also free ourselves from the sense mind, just enough to open
up to some environmental influence, as in telepathy, or even, and there
it gets really interesting, to enter a state of pure consciousness. The
latter especially is not so easy, because the attachment to the
sense-mind is an old habit that comes from our evolutionary past. So by
habit we identify with our nervous system, or more accurately, with a
tiny surface summary of the billions of mental processes that take
place in our brain-based sense-mind, but it is not by necessity so, we
have the capacity to refuse our thoughts, to throw out anything that’s
not absolute, to quieten the mind and to enter into an absolute
silence. Mystics of all times and cultures have done that, and if one
really puts oneself to it, it can be done. There is the famous
description of how Sri Aurobindo silenced his mind; most people take
slightly longer, but in principle it’s something that can be done and
many people have reached a state where at least for sometime, when they
look inside, there’s nothing but a wide open inner space. This is
something that can be done. Most people, when they begin to look
inside, see an endless flow of useless thoughts popping up
continuously, but it’s not necessarily so. There can be quiet.

In many esoteric traditions this seems to be the main aim, to get out
of the web in which the ordinary consciousness is caught, so that one’s
consciousness is not tied any longer to the small map that our body
makes of the reality around it, and to reach a kind of absolute inner
freedom. At this stage many interesting questions can be asked. The
main question is perhaps why a consciousness without content brings
with it such an overwhelming sense of liberation, of having reached the
Absolute, the Truth, or even The Divine. But our immediate aim in this
talk is something much more mundane, and perhaps more immediately
practical, and we will concentrate on that. The topic of this talk is
knowledge and our immediate next question is what the relation is
between this fully automatic, brain-based map-making business, silence
of mind, and knowledge?

Now it gets very interesting. We know how to make these maps. Because
we do it all the time, and in our ordinary consciousness we identify
with our map of reality, and we know also that we can get out of maps
altogether in some absolute silence of mind. Now what is knowledge in
this context?

What is knowledge?
When people talk about the increase in scientific knowledge, or about
the knowledge society, what do they mean by knowledge? It seems to me
that much of what we nowadays take for knowledge is at best a poor
symbolic reflection of what people used to mean by knowledge.

The confusion probably began when we started writing. Think of a book
with a story. What is this book, is it a bound pile of paper with ink
dotted all over it in the form of letters, is it the long string of
words formed by those letters, or is it the story that somehow got
caught in those words and that will remain hidden forever in the
patterns of the ink on the paper unless someone reads the book? Does
Hamlet exist only in patterns of ink on paper, does he come into
existence for as long as someone somewhere reads or watches the play,
or is he part of a story that exists in itself, in its own realm of
stories, quite independent of individual books and human minds? It
appears quite obvious to me that the essence of the book is not the
paper but the story printed on it, and that this story exists in its
own realm and is only reflected, imprisoned in the letters that are
printed on paper. In other words, I’m inclined to think that once
created, Hamlet does exist quite independent of printed books and human
minds thinking of him.

Since stories got printed, and thousand times more so since computers
can process the digital rendering of information, we are getting
increasingly confused between maps and the reality they represent. We
make a presentation of reality, and then we somehow think that that map
is the reality. And then we say that we can store knowledge in
libraries, computer disks, and the internet. This is total confusion,
because it is not the knowledge that is stored. Computers don’t process
knowledge. They process bits, they process electrical current. It is we
who give the meaning to the patterns they store and process. It is we
who put meaning in, it is we who get it transformed in some material
substrate according to rules we have made, and it is we who take the
meaning out. The meaning is in our consciousness, the meaning is not in
the computer. Someone gave the good example of a thermometer. The
thermometer doesn’t measure the temperature. It is we who measure the
temperature by looking at the thermometer. Computers are far more
complex, they process patterns of electrical currents that represent
information, but it is only in us that the streams of information
finally turn into knowledge. Now it’s conceivable that if computers get
complex enough, they also begin to know consciously like we do. In the
AI community many people believe so, but I have no idea whether that is
true or not. I don’t experience my computer as more conscious than my
pencil, but I may quite well be wrong. As far as I can see, the camera
which is recording the whole proceedings is not more aware of what it
is recording than the ceiling. The camera is just a bunch of
electronics registering sound and light inputs. But we are conscious,
and the more I think about it, the more amazing it appears to me.

We do have this secret ingredient that makes us aware of what we see,
and touch and hear, and do, and we are aware of all those things in a
highly peculiar manner, we experience it as a 3D world, largely visual
but spruced up with the other senses, and in a rather strange and vague
way mixed with verbal meanings, a world of which we accept part as our
“self” and part as “not-self”, a world forever in flux. Somehow we can
get out of that presentation, experience an absolute purity, emptiness,
and then have an acute, exhilarating awareness of truth, of reality.
And this capacity to get out of the map, this ability to enter the
void, become consciousness pure, is the central point of yoga and
perhaps the turning point that can make human life really worth the

Planes of pre-existing knowledge

For knowledge the important point is that once our consciousness is
free and in itself, we can try explore these inner realms of conscious
being and to tap directly into those typal planes that precede the
whole physical manifestation. Sri Aurobindo has several chapters in The
Life Divine devoted to these issues, but the most directly relevant is
the chapter on “Separative knowledge and knowledge by identity”. He
says here that it’s absolutely crucial at some stage to become aware of
the inner worlds in ourselves. Because that has to be the beginning of
an entry into the subtle worlds from where the outer manifest and
material worlds are actually being determined. Once we are in those
inner worlds then there’s no limit to our possibilities for evolution
into a higher harmony, beauty and truth. Sri Aurobindo here also says
that even our knowledge of the outer world which seems to be
constructed by the sense mind on the basis of the workings of the
senses and the nervous system is actually possible only because we know
subconsciously already what the world looks like. The sense-based input
is only an excuse that triggers a pre-existent knowledge which is
already there.

Sri Aurobindo says that all that’s there in The Life Divine, all the
knowledge that’s there in The Synthesis of Yoga, the Foundations of
Indian Culture, The Human Cycle and so on, all those things he wrote in
the Arya, just came to him pouring down. Historically, physically it
must indeed have been like that, because he wrote the Arya in a rather
special manner. The Arya came out every month for about 6 years. Sri
Aurobindo serialized in each 64 page issue of the Arya, typically one
chapter of The Life Divine, one of The Synthesis of Yoga, one of Secret
of the Vedas, one of The Ideal of Human Unity and one or two of other
books, in total some 5-6 chapters every month. And he did not work on
that the whole month. He asked on of his disciples to warn him a week
before the text had to go the press, and then he must have written
something like one full chapter a day. Many of you must have been
writing at some stage, but to write one chapter of The Life Divine in a
day is almost physically impossible, it’s really amazing. And he did
not make mistakes; we have many of his manuscripts, and they clearly
just came, to perfection. Later he did make changes, but again in those
changes there were hardly ever mistakes; there were, once in a while,
but extremely rare, and always minor things like commas.

Sri Aurobindo describes the higher mind as a state in which knowledge
comes entirely ready-made from above. And it has the unitary vision of
the global whole. The higher mind is not partial or one-sided, the
higher mind understands the harmony of the whole. And if you go there,
it is quite fancy, because the answers come first and the questions
afterward, and the answers come with all their connections. Like a huge
interconnected web that straight away gets the whole point. How to put
that kind of knowledge into words may also be given, or it may remain a
problem, but that broad understanding is there straight away. All that
was written in the Arya, Sri Aurobindo ascribes to the higher mind,
which in Sri Aurobindo’s later hierarchy is only the lowest plane above
the ordinary mind. There are many people who seem to have reached
similar levels, because we can see from their writing that they have
that global vision, but Sri Aurobindo discovered later a whole
hierarchy of worlds of a higher consciousness above it.

Top-down and bottom-up
What should we understand by knowledge pouring down? Cognitive science
says that we generate knowledge by the chemistry in our brain, on the
basis of the input from our physical senses, probably in the form of
patterns of synapses or whatever the physical substrate is. The social
scientists add another layer of complexity saying that everything we
know is a social construct. But Sri Aurobindo says that the knowledge
in these books descended like that, as a continuous stream of intuitive
thoughts. In standard science, when intuition is discussed, it is seen
as a very fast subconscious processing of known facts, but that is
something entirely different. Sri Aurobindo calls that
pseudo-intuition, because the real intuition, doesn’t come
horizontally, it also doesn’t come from below; it comes ready-made from
above. Once more, what does that mean? Is that a real possibility? And
if it is, how does that relate to the constructed knowledge in the
physical brain?

There is a more or less similar phenomenon within the physical plane
itself. Here the outer physical reality seems to be only the final
expression, the final condensation of what manifest first in the subtle
physical. It seems to be like that because when you contact the subtle
physical you can sometimes see there things that are bound to happen in
the future, because in that subtle plane they have already happened.
Similarly there are subtle mental planes where the ideas are already
ready before they crystallizes in our language. Sri Aurobindo says that
all knowledge is basically already there, it pre-exists our human
awareness of it. And if you silence your mind you can sometimes see how
ideas enter your mind from other realms.

I had one student who described it very nicely. We were doing a little
silencing exercise in the class, and most students then described how
the mind goes on buzzing, darting off, then on this sidetrack and then
on that, but this kid said, “it’s not difficult, you just stop these
thoughts from coming in” and she meant it. I don’t know if she had read
Sri Aurobindo about this, she may have or may not have, but you could
clearly see that she was simply describing what she was actually doing.
She apparently identified with the pure Purusha, and in that inner
silence, she was seeing how thoughts come in, and she could stop them
right there at the point of entry. It’s rare that someone of that age,
20 or so, can do that and can see it so clearly, but that’s what she
did. The idea comes in, very thin and ethereal, and once it is in the
mind, it clothes itself, it dresses itself up with words, and then it’s
too late, then you cannot get it out anymore. Most of us miss that
first part, so we know what we think only after we have thought it,
after the idea has solidified itself into words. We don’t catch the
idea at the moment that it comes in.

Many people who have studied the history of science say that science
moves in leaps and bounds. Someone has one bright idea which gets
formulated more or less perfectly right at the beginning, and then
there are hundreds of other scientists who just corroborate that idea.
So it moves in spurts. The people who initiate those jumps are the ones
that really bring science further, and some of them have described how
they got to their ideas in a sudden intuition.

A mathematician friend of mine, who is not doing any form of yoga, told
me once that he was very concerned that in the teaching of mathematics
people stress so much the proving stage where you try to show that the
thing is really true. This is a laborious and technical process, and
though it takes time, it is generally not that difficult. But, he said,
what we don’t teach at all is how to get at the initial intuition.
Another mathematician I know expressed the same idea, when he told me
that in mathematics people first “see” the solution and then with their
knowledge and their experience they fill in the details on how to get
there, but they don’t get at the solution by the same road by which
they prove it afterwards. The initial insight comes ready-made from
above, and then the proof is built up from the bottom. Perhaps it is
somewhat like with a building: the owner starts with a vague idea, then
the architect makes exact building plans and the engineers work them
out in all technical detail, and then finally the craftsmen build it
from the bottom up, brick by brick. But the original plan did not come
from the bottom up, it came just like that from above, and was refined,
detailed out in a series of mixed up-down and down-up interactions. I
think we’ll get in the afternoon to education and obviously, if one
really grasps this, education should be entirely different. We should
allow children to stay in contact with the inner, higher knowledge much
longer, so that they can get used to it, trust it, and learn from

There are many interesting aspects to this dual process. We tend for
example to think of science, especially physics as dealing with the
physical reality, but this is only half of the truth. Physics is half
mathematics. Math is not a physical reality at all, it’s a purely
mental stuff. Physics moves ahead sometimes by mathematics going ahead
first and sometimes by experiments getting there first, but in the end
both are needed to make a solid step forwards. What we see at the
moment is a fast increasing knowledge of the physical domain and at the
same time we are become more and more sophisticated mentally. We become
better and better at playing in those mental worlds that somehow render
in the mental domain, in the mental substance, some aspects of the
physical world.

The Psychic Being
To close, I still want to say something at least about the psychic
being because that’s really the most important part of us. As we all
know, in Sri Aurobindo’s yoga the psychic being came to occupy a larger
and larger place as time went on. And it’s quite interesting why this
is so, and why this is different from the previous systems of yoga and
meditation. If you just want to reach the absolute, you definitely
don’t need the psychic being. You can go there, it is one path, but
there are 1000s of other paths. You can follow any path, and as long as
you follow it to its absolute end, it reaches the absolute, and whether
you reach the absolute this way or that way, really doesn’t matter that
much because what you want is to get rid of the relativities in which
the ego gets entangled.

But the psychic being, as the centre of our own nature, is absolutely
crucial for the transformation and indispensable for a new creation
that’s fully conscious. The main reason for this is simply that the
psychic being is the divine kernel in us. So it is the most important
part of us, it is what we actually are in the very core of our
incarnate being. But to get there we have explore all those in between
layers that determine our outer nature. And it’s only when we have that
full knowledge that we can begin to think of transformation. We have to
know why we say what we say, why we do what we do, everything that’s
going on inside. We have to become entirely transparent, there can be
no dark spots left, because as long as they are there, the supramental
cannot get in. It’s simple, straightforward. We have to go to that
secret that’s behind all this, to our absolute kernel, and from there
we can begin to work on the rest of our nature. This psychic reversal
is essential, but it is not sufficient because we have also to reach
those higher layers of consciousness above the ordinary mind. In other
words, we have to get the full spiritual transformation as well,
because only then will we have the full knowledge which Sri Aurobindo
obviously had, and even that full knowledge again is not sufficient. Is
like what Ron said in the morning: Integrality is not a joke, it is not
just amalgamating things

There’s a chapter in The Life Divine where Sri Aurobindo goes on
saying, that higher and higher layers of consciousness are still not
integral enough. He first describes the higher mind and when you read
the description you think, wow, that’s it. And then he says that’s not
enough, and then he describes the illumined mind where you have direct
visions of the truth beyond verbal thought. He describes it as a sea of
lightning. It’s very far beyond a simply inspired mind, and then again
he explains why that’s not integral enough. Then he goes to the
intuitive layer, the source of the two previous layers, where there’s
absolute truth beyond words and forms. It is beyond the vision mind, it
is beyond the unitary mind, it is beyond thought, it’s absolute truth,
as high as you can reach on an individual level. Then again that’s not
yet it, and then he describes the Overmind, which is entirely beyond
the ego, which is cosmic, which is vast, which has a full opening to
the transcendent. But even that is not integral enough. And then when
you are completely blasted and spaced out, he says something about the
Supermind which I won’t even quote because I don’t understand it. Only
then he says that that’s the real truth that creates the worlds. Now
that supramental reality is entirely beyond our sense mind. So you
should never think that we can have a supramental consciousness as long
as we look at the world from outside. The supermind does not need the
sense-mind. We are caught in that sense mind, which is in principle the
same mind that dogs have; we have our intellectual super-layer, but, in
a way, that’s just making life complicated. Our higher faculties help
us to jump out of our routine once in a while, write a piece of nice
poetry, do something special, but as far as most of our life goes, it
is not that different from the way dogs live. We haven’t got much
further, we do things in a more complicated and sophisticated manner,
but the basic principle is still the same. For the supramental this
will not do. We have to go entirely beyond the sense-mind. Even
physically, literally, the sense-mind is based on reflections, it is
based on seeing surfaces, and the supramental consciousness is not
reflective, it is a knowledge that comes directly from within. Sri
Aurobindo describes it as a consciousness where every little particle
of our being, every little cell of the body is itself conscious of its
divine origin; it knows its connection with the world, and from that
inner strength and Light, does its true job in the world.

Mother describes that at the end of her life she could see better with
her eyes closed than with her eyes open. There are many people who have
had that experience, she is not the only one. Our knowledge about
reality does not need to come through our senses. We can live from
within and we can have that Truth in every little part of our being.
The transformation Sri Aurobindo envisages is very much more radical
than people think. This doesn’t mean that people cannot work even now
on their bodily consciousness, that they cannot work on the
consciousness of the cells. The Divine, I think is, is in a hurry, she
is very busy, and she works on all those planes simultaneously. Even
our increasing knowledge about the physical and mathematical reality,
is part of the process. She is working that out so that we can do there
things, it’s a cliché, but we can do there things that have never been
done before. When you travel, for example, it’s fantastic, you get into
an airplane which is just like a cinema hall and you don’t travel, at
least you have no sense of movement except a little bit at takeoff and
landing, otherwise you just get in and you get out somewhere else. And
this is very significant, it is getting very close to gross-physical
bi-location, being in one place and being in another place at the same
time, and this is now common place. Anybody who watches TV is instantly
somewhere else. The farmer in India spends half his time in Bombay and
a quarter in NY and then only the little rest in his own village. We
all live in a loose virtual space, we have left our bondedness to
earth. We begin to do things with matter that are quite far out. Where
are you when you talk through a telephone, are you here, are you there,
are you no-where? Our whole sense of space has collapsed. Even time is
becoming strange. Any time you have a moment of infinity in your day,
one second of eternity in your experience, your whole perspective on
the day changes. If for a minute you enjoy your eternal soul, then it
looks that anything before that was ages ago, so a day can look
infinitely long, while years can just pass by like that. Both time and
space have disappeared. Something essential is changing even in our
stupid physical sense mind.

The Divine is working on all those things at the same time but the
saving grace is in the finding of the eternal being in yourself. There
is no way we could get an immortal body before we know we are immortal
in any case. There are these beautiful stories in the Upanishads where
Indra comes to Prajapati to learn the knowledge that makes immortal.
They are strange stories because Indra is already immortal as it is.
But in the story he wants to get “the knowledge that makes immortal” so
that he can fight the Asuras better. It must mean that he wants to find
his eternal being, so that from that sense of eternity he can fight the
dark forces in his mind. He stands for the lord of the mind and the
mind can fight the darkness in itself only when it knows its eternal
origin. And in us that is the knowledge of the psychic.

The “ordinary” world of which our sense-mind makes such entrancing
representations, is a mixed world in which ever more sophisticated
types of consciousness are embodied in ever more complex physical
substrates. Besides this evolving mixed world, there are also typal
worlds, where different types of consciousness form static worlds of
their own. Everything in existence, whatever its size, and whatever the
plane of consciousness on which it exists, carries deep within it all
the knowledge, power and joy of the Divine.

The symbolic, representational knowledge that plays such an enormous
role in our knowledge-society is actually the symbolic rendering of one
particular form of knowledge, somewhere half-way between the totally
embedded knowledge that we find in matter’s “habit of form”, and the
truth-ideas of the supramental plane which are the ultimate blueprints
for all that exists. Our ordinary waking consciousness identifies
itself with the workings of the sense-mind, which is in its turn
largely determined by the workings of the nervous system which through
the immense complexity of its interconnectedness can embody complex
maps of reality. Still, even the knowledge of this sense-mind is
secretly informed by our pre-existing knowledge from within. All our
knowledge, whether outwardly triggered by our senses and laboriously
built-up by our sense-mind, or inwardly triggered by ready-made
intuitions from the higher planes of pre-existing knowledge, is in the
end not more than an evocation, an awakening of the knowledge we have
already within us. To the extent that we can silence the brain-based
sense mind, we can become more aware of the inner knowledge in its
purity and intrinsic power. The silent brain-based mind can then be
used as a passive instrument to express that inner knowledge in the
outer physical world.

If we approach the higher knowledge through a movement in our subtle
body upwards towards the sahasrara, we open ourselves to the impersonal
knowledge planes above the ordinary mind. Though liberating and
exhilarating, the higher knowledge obtained here is of a general,
impersonal nature, and does not help us directly with the conduct of
our individual lives. For this we need to go inwards to psychic being
deep behind the heart, where our individual divine kernel is situated.
It is this centre that can guide our individual transformation from a
being living in ignorance to a fully divinised centre of consciousness
in matter. To accomplish this we need first a full psychic conversion,
not only of our essential being, but also of our instrumental nature,
and then to bring the higher types of consciousness down into every
corner of our being, right into the lowest recesses of the inconscient.

There is still much to do. Happy Journey!

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