For most people, the external personality and being, the body and its needs and habits, the life-force and its desires and the mind and its particular predilections, represent “who they are”. Rarely, an individual reflects deeply on the question of ‘who am I’ and begins to understand that there is a deeper significance and reality to our lives than can be contained within this external being.

When we die, the life-force departs from the body, and the body disintegrates back into its constituent elements. If the body is the measure of our existence, then we are bounded within the period of birth and death and there is no further significance. If we identify with the life-force, we may conclude that it continues to exist after the death of the body and simply takes another body, like changing a suit of clothes, when the time for one body is finished. If that were the case, however, we would be able to identify a continuity of life-force along some specific chosen path or focus; yet, we find that there does not seem to be a coherent, organised, sustained being consisting of that life-force, but rather, that the life-force, even if it holds together for some time after death, eventually also dissolves into the constituent elements of the life-energy.

We tend to identify most closely with the mind. “I think, therefore I am.”, the famous dictum of Descartes, expresses this idea. At the time of death, what happens to the mind? Do we still identify with and ‘think’ with the mind when the life-force departs from the external being and the body dissolves? Does the mind reconstitute a new body and life-force and continue along its chosen developmental path? We have no evidence that a Shakespeare or an Einstein, or a Shankaracharya consciously continue along their specific path of mental focus and development in a new body. It appears, from what we can tell, that the mental formation that constituted a specific being and life also dissolves into its own constituent elements, or into the ‘collective unconscious’ as viewed by Jung, even if it survives the dissolution of the body for some period of time.

This is not a new line of inquiry. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, sets forth a detailed review of the stages of dissolution, successively, of the body, the life-energy and the mind of an individual who dies. What is left is the essence of the being which eventually, after shedding the body, life and mind of one being or external personality, takes a new birth and a new life without carrying forward the specific personality that existed in the prior lifetime.

The ancient Greeks held that souls that took birth had to pass through the waters of Lethe and thus, not bring with them into a new life the memories and details of the past life.

The Taittiriya Upanishad explores this question and eventually recognises that the body, the life-energy and the mind are not our true selves. There is a causal being and a being of bliss that are more central to the truth of our existence, that by which we are born, that by which we exist, and that by which we survive death. This is the true inner being that utilizes the body, life and mind for its manifestation, growth and development. The Bhagavad Gita describes this deeper true being which uses the mind, life and body as its machinery but which is not either bound by them or defined by them.

This bifurcation between the external being and the true inner spark, which is termed the Atman, the psychic being, or the soul, and the need to shift the identification from the external personality to the true inner being, and the consequent disruptions this can create for an individual based primarily in the external being initially, are the underlying issues that cause the alternations of consciousness as we become aware of and shift our standpoint to the true being and away from the external being.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “The real reason of the difficulty and the constant alternation is the struggle between the veiled true being within and the outer nature, especially the lower vital full of desires and the physical mind full of obscurity and ignorance. The struggle is inevitable in human nature and no sadhak escapes it; everyone has to deal with that obscurity and resistance and its obstinacy and constant recurrence; for the lower nature is not only persistent in its repetitions and returns, but even when it is on the point of changing, the general Powers of that plane in universal Nature try to keep up the resistance by bringing back the old movements at each step in order to prevent the progress from being confirmed for good and made final. It is true therefore that a constant sadhana persistent and unceasing is necessary if one wants to go quickly — though even otherwise one will arrive if the soul within has the call, for the soul will persist and after each obscuration or stumble will bring back the light and drive one on on the path till it feels that it is at last secure of a smooth and easy march to the goal.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter VI Growth of Consciousness, Difficulties and Pitfalls, pp. 121-122

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.