Understanding that we have these three bodies – physical, subtle and causal – we can then ask, which of these bodies is evolving?
The soul is immutable. It is pure, absolute and unchangeable, and so the causal body does not evolve.
The physical body cannot change much. Its structure is fixed, although some minor changes can occur in weight, posture and fitness etc., but we cannot grow extra arms, wings to fly or a tail in this lifetime.
It is the subtle body that can evolve, so that we can design our destiny. It changes according to how we purify and simplify it, so that the joy of the soul shines and radiates from within, and through this process we find the evolution of consciousness.
The subtle body is a vibrational field; the heart-mind field. Depending on how we manage this field, it can either be turbulent and complex, like a roaring ocean during a storm, or, at the other extreme, it can be like a still pond where even a feather landing on the surface creates ripples. This is where a spiritual practice has a vital role to play, as it gives us the techniques to regulate, purify and simplify this field, bringing clarity, stillness and peace.
In yogic philosophy the heart is known as the field of action for the mind. This is a vast topic. Let’s start to explore what this means.
There are four main functions of the subtle body within this vibrational field – consciousness (chit), thinking and feeling (manas), intellect (buddhi) and ego (ahankar). They work in an interactive way together to make up what we know as the mind.
Of these four, consciousness is our focus here. The other three have their existence in consciousness. Consciousness is as good as a canvas to a painter, and within consciousness the play of the other three bodies is orchestrated daily.
How do we actively allow our consciousness to expand and evolve? It is not enough just to wish it so. We need to understand how a spiritual practice contributes towards this evolution by creating the conditions for stilling the mind progressively at deeper and deeper levels, and opening up the inner universe.
At a physical level, when I want to strengthen my body muscles I have to exercise my body. Similarly, for the mind to evolve so that consciousness can expand, I must use what belongs to that subtle plane of existence. First, it is important to understand that the evolution of consciousness has nothing to do with the acquisition of knowledge. Second, consciousness in itself will not expand or evolve without the help of buddhi, manas and ahankar to free it. Intellect has to evolve to help expand consciousness and ego must evolve, contributing to the evolution of consciousness.
What does meditation have to do with this? We meditate to regulate our minds. An unregulated mind is pulled by wishes and desires, fears and habits, in many different directions. The mind becomes weak as it scatters in many different channels. In contrast, a regulated mind brings focus, and promotes well- being. Unless and until we meditate properly, and unless and until we regulate our minds properly, our consciousness will not evolve.
Manas, buddhi and ahankar are all refined and developed through meditation, especially manas as we learn to simplify our thinking process from many channels to one channel, then deepen it to feeling. Thus the habit of ‘feeling’ is slowly cultivated from ‘thinking’.
Holding and nurturing the condition received in meditation throughout the day is a byproduct of good meditation, and helps us regulate and deepen the mind to an even higher level. When we are in this state of constant awareness or remembrance of the inner state, we do not allow our canvas to be spoilt, so consciousness remains afresh. The canvas remains clean and is not destroyed by the multifarious impressions we form.
Imagine the heart-mind vibrational field having a spectrum of consciousness spanning the subconscious, conscious and superconscious states. Swami Vivekananda once said, “Consciousness is a mere film between two oceans, the subconscious and the superconscious.” Or you can imagine the subconscious as being like the ocean, consciousness like the surface of the land, and superconsciousness like the sky going out into the universe. As we evolve, our consciousness expands into both the subconscious and superconscious realms, traveling through the vast infinity of the human potential. Another way of saying this is that we go deeper and deeper into the vastness of the heart, from our starting point at the surface.
In this process of diving deeper, the intellect, buddhi, becomes more and more heart-based. Intuition and inspiration develop, and buddhi becomes fine-tuned, like a sensitive antenna picking up the signals of the heart. Intellect evolves into a state of wisdom. Often we think of a wise person as someone who makes wise choices, but here we go further into a different dimension where choice is no longer required, as the heart’s wisdom is pure and correct.
There is a big difference between an intellectual person and a wise person, and here the spiritual practice of prayer helps us to move from mere intellect to wisdom. Prayer takes us into the heart, connecting us to the Source, where we are able to let go of any mistakes we have made, deciding not to make the same mistakes again. Is this not wisdom? Whereas if we succumb to making foolish mistakes day after day, hour after hour, we are not becoming wiser. We become wiser when we wish to change from the bottom of our hearts and ask for help to do so. When we live with this attitude every moment, wisdom flourishes.
Wisdom is to utilise all our faculties at their best. Wisdom is to have the maximum output with the minimum input. With minimum action we have the maximum result. Only with a meditative mind, only through meditative acts in our day-to-day life, can we expect to have such good results.
For this to happen, the heart-mind field has to be purified, otherwise it is like expecting to see the bottom of a lake through muddy, turbulent water. There is no clarity in a turbulent mind. The spiritual practice of cleaning past impressions is therefore also necessary for consciousness to evolve.
The third aspect of the subtle body is ego, ahankar. Ego plays a vital role in whether or not expansion or evolution of consciousness occurs. Ego is often seen as the bad guy by spiritual practitioners of all traditions, but ego is also essential for our evolution. It is the active function of the mind – the doing, thinking function – and we need it in every apect of daily life, even to have the craving to evolve. It gives us our identity. It is the activating or initiating force. If it is used wisely, it serves us well, like any other resource, but it is often misused, and this is what we commonly refer to as being egotistical. When ego is used for selfish purpose, we become arrogant and self-important, whereas if we constantly refine the ego, consciousness develops very rapidly.
What does it mean to refine the ego? The more humility we have, the less the egotistical proliferations. All great spiritual teachers have given so much importance to this aspect of character formation. They have valued this quality so highly that humility at any cost must be maintained, whether towards a child, a poor person or a stranger. The philosophy here is that there is nothing wrong in thinking yourself to be great, but always think the other person in front of you is greater.
Ego can be like a black hole. It can have the greatest gravitational pull upon our consciousness. It will not allow consciousness to expand. Just as the earth’s gravitational pull does not allow us to fall into infinite space, likewise our ego can hold consciousness to its core. An example of this is a very narcissistic person, who is undergoing a devolutionary process where consciousness contracts in on itself to its core, and can become like a stone. In contrast, by transcending the relationship with the ego by refining it, becoming more and more humble, consciousness can expand infinitely.
Ego manifests in many ways. For example, in a music concert, when I am happily playing my flute as a performer, it gives so much joy and the audience reciprocates accordingly. But as an artist, I will not be happy unless I surpass my previous performances all the time. The manifested ego makes me perform well. But to think that no one can play the flute better than myself is not a welcome manifestation of ego. Ego can be our best friend in helping us outperform our own past records.
The fourth function of the subtle body is manas, which is the function of contemplation. During meditation, the first step is to bring the mind from many and varied thoughts to one thought, for example in Heartfulness it is the source of Divine Light in the heart. But it is not necessary that all throughout the meditation this thought should haunt us. The thought should leave at some point so that the object of thought can be felt in the heart.
If all you do is think this one thought throughout the meditation, you will have a headache and consciousness will not expand. This initial thought is just the springboard, to take us deeper so that we dissolve in the feeling of the presence of the Divine Light. You have to feel that presence and while you are feeling that presence slowly you disappear, and even feeling is gone. The ego is gone; you are not even there to experience it.
So as manas evolves through a meditation practice, feeling develops, and eventually we go beyond feeling to a state of being, then to a state of becoming, and finally unbecoming to merge into the Absolute state of existence.
So buddhi, manas and ahankar evolve through spiritual practice, and with this the subtle body becomes lighter, purer and simpler, like the still pond with minimal ripples. With this, consciousness is able to expand and evolve.
What do we then do with this expanded consciousness we receive? Let’s say I have a particular state of mind, and I am aware that the condition is so good. After meditation, I go off to work. It is not enough just to hold that condition; I must be able to radiate that condition wilfully, consciously, and with the confidence that wherever I go it will spread its fragrance on its own.
So after meditation think for a while that, “The condition which is within me is also outside me. Everything around me is absorbed in a similar state. When I look at people, or talk to them, or listen to them, or I am silent, let that condition spread everywhere.” Let consciousness expand wherever it can go.