When an individual takes up the spiritual path, there is considerable focus on the idea that the life of the external world is an ‘illusion’ and needs to be abandoned in order to achieve spiritual liberation. He sees that a focus on the external personality, its needs, desires, satisfactions, joys and sufferings is a distraction to his spiritual concentration. The answer is then generally to avoid the external focus as much as possible to allow the spiritual discipline to bear fruit. There is not much attempt, generally, in this approach, to distinguish different elements of the external being or surface personality, as it is all meant to be put aside. The fact that there are different drivers of understanding and action in the surface being does not enter into the discussion. If everything is an ‘illusion’, what difference can it make to distinguish the sub-elements of that illusion, after all? This is, however, an implied acknowledgement of a duality between the “illusory” outer world and the spiritual reality.

When one comes to the understanding that the duality so created is itself artificial, and that there is an omnipresent reality that encompasses both the unmanifest Absolute and the manifest creation, then one can recognize that it is not the world that is the illusion, but our relationship to it and our absorption in it. The object, then, is not to try to cancel the world and our relationship to it, but to gain an understanding of it through a new standpoint and perspective. As one steps back from the absorption in the outer personality, one can begin to observe it and see how it is really made up of a number of different aspects based in the physical, vital and mental levels of consciousness that are interwoven with each other. Developing a new relationship to the world then requires a reconfiguring of each of these elements to directly represent the deeper reality and not the illusory reality that we have imagined.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “A psychical (n.b. ‘Psychical’ here means ‘inner’ or ‘deeper’. — Ed.) self-knowledge tells us that there are in our being many formal, frontal, apparent or representative selves and only one that is entirely secret and real; to rest in the apparent and to mistake it for the real is the one general error, root of all others and cause of all our stumbling and suffering, to which man is exposed by the nature of his mentality.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Our Many Selves: Practical Yogic Psychology, Chapter 1, Our Manifold Being, pp. 1-2

Author's Bio: 

Santosh has been studying Sri Aurobindo's writings since 1971 and has a daily blog at http://sriaurobindostudies.wordpress.com and podcast at https://anchor.fm/santosh-krinsky He is author of 17 books and is editor-in-chief at Lotus Press. He is president of Institute for Wholistic Education, a non-profit focused on integrating spirituality into daily life.