(How to become conscious of the small and narrow inner space in which we live like a prisoner and the path to true freedom)
Most of us are not aware that we live in the small fringe of our consciousness, bound by inner walls, like a prisoner in a dungeon. We talk about freedom and liberty. But how can a prisoner who lives in a narrow cell without even knowing it can have any real liberty? The first step in the path to true freedom is to become conscious of these narrow boundaries of our self and feel suffocated by it. When someone asked the Mother, what are the signs which indicate we are ready for the spiritual life, she said:
“A second sign: you feel completely imprisoned in your ordinary normal consciousness, as in something extremely hard, something suffocating and intolerable, as though you had to pierce a hole in a brass wall. And the torture becomes almost unbearable, it is stifling; there is an inner effort to break through and you cannot manage to break through. This also is one of the first signs. It means that your inner consciousness has reached a point where its outer mould is much too small for it- the mould of ordinary life, of ordinary activities, ordinary relations, all that becomes so small, so petty; you feel within you a force to break all that.” 1
“This sense of one’s own person becomes a kind of cage, a prison which shuts you in, prevents you from being true, from knowing truly, acting truly, understanding truly. It is as though someone had put you in a very hard shell and you were compelled to stay there. This is the first sensation you have. Afterwards you begin to tap against the shell in order to break it. Sometimes it resists very long. But still, when you begin to feel this, that what you believed to be yourself, the person doing things and for whom they are done, the person who exists and makes you what you are, yes, when you pass from this to the consciousness that this is a prison preventing you from being truly yourself, then you have made great progress, and there is hope. You feel yourself stifled, crushed, absolutely shut up in a prison without air, without light, without an opening, and then you begin pushing from inside, pushing, pushing, pushing so that it may break.” 2
Sri Aurobindo says in an enigmatic aphorism “Ego is the helper/ Ego is the bar”, which represent two major stages in our inner progress. In the first stage when ego is the helper, we are happy and comfortable within the prison walls of our ego and never feel its limitations. As we become more and more conscious of ourselves we progress towards the stage where we begin to feel the limitations of our ego. “A bond is put on the high climbing mind/ A seal on the too large wide open heart” says Sri Aurobindo in his epic Savithri. Every aspiring seeker might have felt these lines in some stage of his paths. The bond and the seal are the walls of our ego in our heart and mind. We can feel it when we try to widen or expand our mind and heart beyond the “normal” limits and stretch it to embrace the universe or enter deep within ourselves to discover the inner layers of our being. Here is an exercise to feel the boundaries of our self.
Just lie down and try to feel the boundaries of your consciousness. Try to extend your consciousness above the head, below the feet and both sides of your body. Try to feel it through your inner sensation. Don’t use your imagination. You can easily stretch your mind endlessly in your imagination. You must make a conscious effort to keep your imaginative and thinking mind silent. Use your inner sensation, you will feel that your consciousness can’t stretch beyond a point and hits upon an inner wall or a block on every side-up, below or sideways.
This exercise will help us to feel the limits of what Zen scholar Alen Watts described as our “skin- encapsulated ego”.
In a description of a profound spiritual experience, Sri Aurobindo says “The conscious ends of being went rolling back”. The exercise we have described earlier can give us an indication of the conscious ends of our being and how much we can roll back. We must note here what Sri Aurobindo describes in that verse is neither stretching of imagination nor extension of senses. As we have said earlier, if we have a good imaginative faculty we can extend it to embrace the universe. Similarly there are people like the psychics or occultists who can extend their senses beyond their bodies to see or hear things at a distance. Both these extensions happen only in the mind and not in the essence of one’s consciousness. But what Sri Aurobindo describes is a spiritual experience in which the very substance of our being and consciousness extend beyond the boundaries of our ego to embrace the universe in identity. The main difference is the sense of identity which is not there in the imaginative or sensational expansion. There may be a certain amount of mental identity in imagination, which gives a sense of wideness and vastness in the mind. But in spiritual expansion there is a much more concrete identification by which we become one with whatever that comes within the orbit of our consciousness, feel it as part of our own self, as concretely as we feel our body as part of our own self.
However most of us are still very far from this spiritual consciousness of identity. The first step is to become concretely conscious of the boundaries of our self. When we reach this level of consciousness, next step is to make a conscious attempt to break or dissolve the walls. There are many ways of doing. One of them is to become fully conscious of the psychological content or constitutions of the wall like desires, habits, attachments and self- seeking at various levels of our being- physical, vital, mental- and try to break or dissolve it by our will or a deep insight. This is a long and difficult discipline of self- observation. There are other ways like selfless work or devotion, or prayer, calling down the help of a higher divine Power, which are also equally long inner journeys with their own unique difficulties. And the final leap to freedom comes from an inner change of consciousness which is akin to the process by which a chicken comes out of the egg. As Mother describes this change of consciousness:
“This change of consciousness and its preparation have often been compared with the formation of the chicken in the egg: till the very last second the egg remains the same, there is no change, and it is only when the chicken is completely formed, absolutely alive, that it itself makes with its little beak a hole in the shell and comes out.
Something similar takes place at the moment of the change of consciousness. For a long time you have the impression that nothing is happening, that your consciousness is the same as usual, and, if you have an intense aspiration, you even feel a resistance, as though you were knocking against a wall which does not yield. But when you are ready within, a last effort- the pecking in the shell of the being- and everything opens and you are projected into another consciousness.”3
- The Mother, CWM, Vol.4, Pg.97-98
- The Mother, CWM, Vol.6, Pg.332 – 333
- The Mother, CWM, Vol.4, Pg. 18