If we reflect carefully, we will recognise that much of what takes place in our lives occurs without our conscious awareness, participation or control. The activity of the cells, the nervous system, the internal organs are all virtually automatic functions that elude conscious oversight. Very rare exceptions, involving extreme disciplines, bring an individual the ability to slow down the heartbeat or respiration. Normally, these things take place unconsciously.

If we move to the more ‘purposive’ actions, we will note that much of what we do is driven by automatic response, habit or instinct. Consider that life-forms on earth generally are known to have elaborate behavioral routines that cannot be explained by conscious intentional activity, but which seem to be ingrained in them. Certain species of birds, for instance, can build elaborate nests. One generation after another creates the same type of nests. Salmon return to the stream in which they were hatched, swimming sometimes thousands of miles across the ocean and against the flow of a river, to reach the location to lay their clutch of eggs. Monarch butterflies have a migration pattern between Mexico and Canada that spans four generations of butterflies without the possibility of one generation educating the next. These are all instances of activities that seem to exhibit a focus and purpose, but which in fact are outside the realm of conscious intention.

Human beings similarly have a large segment of their lives orchestrated by instinctive and habitual responses. Add to this trained behaviours through socialisation and education and we can account for an overwhelming proportion of what we believe to be our conscious lives. Some have gone so far as to call our normal human life a form of ‘sleep-walking’. Rarely are we attendant and conscious enough to make deliberate decisions and carry them out with a goal or purpose in mind that goes beyond the fixed boundaries of our ordinary lives. Rarely do we even recognise consciously the unconscious drives and the unseen forces that are moving us through our daily life.

The Mother notes: “People usually do things so automatically and spontaneously, without watching themselves doing them, that if they were to ask themselves how it comes about, they would require some time before the process becomes conscious to them. You are so used to living that you don’t even know how it happens. All the gestures and movements of life are made spontaneously, automatically, almost unconsciously, in a semi-conscious state, and one doesn’t even realise this very simple fact that in order to do something, one must first know what one is going to do and then must want to do it. It is only when something goes wrong with one of these elements — for instance, the ability to make a plan in one’s mind and the ability to carry out this plan — when these two begin to go wrong, one starts worrying about whether one’s being is in good order. For example, if one morning on waking up in bed you did not know or remember that you had to get up, wash and dress, have your breakfast, do this and that, you would say to yourself, ‘Why, what’s the matter? Something is wrong — I don’t know what I ought to do any more; something must be out of order.’ “

“And if, later, knowing what you have to do — you must get up, go for your bath, dress — you know you have to do it but you can’t do it: there is something, the stimulus of the will, which is no longer working, has no effect on the body; then once again you begin to feel anxious, you say, ‘Well, well, could I be ill by any chance?’ “

“Otherwise you are not even aware that the whole of life is like that. It seems quite natural to you, it is ‘like that’. That means that you act in a way which is hardly semi-conscious; it is automatic, it is a kind of spontaneous habit and you don’t watch what you are doing. And so, if you want to have some control over your movements, the first thing is to know what is happening.”

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter I Emergence from Unconsciousness, pp. 3-4

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.