Many years ago, Sri M P Pandit suggested that a devotee write an article about the importance of precise bookkeeping and accounting while engaged in service. There was a prevailing sentiment that such ‘mental ideas’ were antithetical to the kind of absolute devotion and surrender that put everything in the hands of the Mother, and which thereby assumed that everything would work out, money would come as needed and everything would be properly handled.

The conscious participation in the evolutionary process which Sri Aurobindo has described as speeding up that process occurs once the self-reflective mental powers are activated. The development of any new power of consciousness in the manifestation does not, thereby, invalidate, inactivate or overturn the need and use of the earlier terms that have evolved. The mental power did not do away with the vital power. The vital power did not do away with the physical power. Rather, each one was founded on the base of the preceding terms, and modified the interaction accordingly.

As a spiritual seeker begins to grapple with the difficulties of the external nature, particularly in any attempt to transform rather than suppress that nature, he faces a complex mix of drives, emotions, forces, ideas and perceptions that threaten his ability to effectuate true change. Having a clear sense of the interplay of all these forces, where and how they arise, and how to untie the various ‘knots’ that permit them to continue unchanged is an important aid in undertaking the effort of change. This is where the use of the mental power with its ability to separate, classify and organise can be helpful. This is not a call to ‘intellectualize’ the approach to the nature, but an approach, directed by the soul’s aspiration, that takes into account the usefulness of the mental power as part of the process.

Dr. Dalal observes: “Self-understanding is the first step. As the Mother remarks: ‘First learn to know yourself perfectly and then to control yourself perfectly.’ and ‘To perfect oneself, one must first become conscious of oneself.’ “

“The distinct character of man”, states Sri Aurobindo, “is that he is a mental being.” Dr. Dalal extrapolates: “Therefore man naturally starts with a mental understanding of himself. A mental self-understanding lies in being able to distinguish intellectually the many different and complex parts of one’s being. This calls for ‘a very long training and a long discipline of study and observation’, [The Mother] to identify the respective sources of one’s thoughts, feelings, actions and moods. This means being able to give a ‘label’ to different parts of our make-up which constitute the many selves of our being. To many people ‘label’ and ‘labelling’ have a somewhat pejorative meaning, being associated with a mere mental or intellectual process, devoid of a true understanding of the thing being labelled, and often acting as an obstacle to a true understanding. However, a mental understanding is not necessarily an obstacle. On the contrary, it can be a great aid and a step towards deeper understanding. To shun all mental or intellectual understanding as mere ‘labelling’ is to ignore the fact, stated above, that the distinct character of the human being is that of a mental being, and it is but natural for one to start with a mental understanding and gradually develop a deeper understanding. It is only rare individuals who have a deep self-understanding so as to be able to distinguish the different inner movements of their many selves without have first learnt to label them mentally.”

The Mother indicated to the children of the Ashram school: “… if nobody ever taught you what the psychic or the vital is, you cannot have any notion of the thing. You may say, ‘Today I feel good, yesterday I did not.’ Till I was twenty-four I knew nothing about all these things, and yet I could distinguish very well these movements. I did not use these words because no one had taught them to me and I had never ready anything, but I felt very clearly the difference at different moments and in what state of consciousness I was.”

The Mother continues: “But you who are here, after all that you have heard and all that you have read and all that I have taught you, you should be conversant with all the movements within you and be able to fix a little label: ‘this is this, that is this other.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Our Many Selves: Practical Yogic Psychology, Preface, pp. x-xii

Author's Bio: 

Santosh has been studying Sri Aurobindo's writings since 1971 and has a daily blog at and podcast at 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.