Layers of the Mind

The true basis of education is the study of human mind. Any system of education which ignores the instrument of study is more likely to hamper and impair intellectual growth than to produce a perfectly equipped mind.

- Sri Aurobindo

There are distinct layers in our mind, which are mapped out with great clarity in Indian Yogic Psychology. This article describes the nature of these different layers of the mind.

Chitta: the Mental Substance

The lowest layer of the mind is what we call the chitta, the substance of which the mental awareness is made of. It is this which holds all the impressions that come into your mind as a memory. The substance is extremely plastic. It can take impressions of all the events that happen in your life and there is an automatic subconscious memory which records everything that happens. Our problem is when our intellect tries to search for a specific memory and cannot always find it. Our conscious memory is not very effective; but our subconscious memory is automatic and perfect. If I asked you, “How many steps have you taken since you woke up this morning?” You will surely not know. But if I put you under hypnosis and ask your subconscious mind how many steps you took, it will say exactly 516 (or whatever) because every single detail of what happened to you is automatically registered in the subconscious memory of the chitta. When we speak of a poor memory, we mean by it the conscious memory that has to access the subconscious memory and pull out information. It depends on the clarity and calm of the chitta. Stilling the mind makes it more capable of observation as well as recalling precisely in detail. So it is in the chitta that the basic memory of observation is held.

Manas: the Sense Mind

The next layer is the manas which is the sense mind, the mind turned to sensory experience, living by it and in it. What does it do? From the observation it makes a comparison, association, orders, and organizes and even throws up sense-driven and sense-dependent thoughts. Let us follow its working as you wake up from sleep, which is the time when the sense mind is most dominant. At first you feel only sensations: you feel hot or cold. Then this throws up a sensory emotion, you are comfortable or uncomfortable. Your logic is not yet operational, just the senses throwing up an idea of discomfort.

Then a crude logic comes in and asks why. It commands the senses to look and listen and concludes from their observations and related associations, “Oh, the fan has stopped! Why is that? Oh, there is a power failure!” You see how that comes later. All of this sense-based thought process takes place in the manas. The sensory logic of manas acts as a first filter taking information to the next layer of mind which does the real thinking.

Buddhi: the Intellect

This third layer of the mind is the buddhi, the intellect proper. This is the part of the mind which is self-aware. In the lower layers there is sensory awareness, but not self-awareness. That is why, when you wake up from sleep, at first you are not aware of yourself as a self-conscious person you know yourself only by your sensations. The experience of “I am thinking” only happens when you are fully awake. Then you can say, “Oh, I am thinking, but my thoughts are confused right now.” This is the part of the mind that can stand back from itself, observe itself, and even change itself! No other creature on earth, apart from humans, has this ability. It is this self-awareness that makes us capable of changing ourselves and exceeding our own limitations. Its development is therefore of crucial importance for us.

How do we know that other animals do not have self-awareness? By a simple experiment: place the animal in front of a mirror. Most animals think that the mirror image is someone else because they live only in the sense-mind! The more sophisticated animals recognise that it is not someone else, but an image somehow connected with them. But they cannot see themselves in it as we do. How can we test that? You put a spot on the animal’s tail and then put it in front of the mirror. When it sees the spot on the image of the tail, the self-aware animal will immediately turn to look at its own tail because the sense of “I-ness” is there and it identifies the image with itself.

There are only three creatures which can do that: the chimpanzee, the dolphin and the human being. No other animal has it. This is such a precious gift. But neither the chimpanzee nor the dolphin has it to the extent that they can think for themselves, “I want to change myself. I want to learn better. I want to concentrate. My mind is not clear today, and so I am going to will myself to become more clear and concentrated.” It is the buddhi that makes us capable of conscious and unending progress.

The Two Brains

The buddhi has two branches of faculties which are identified with the biological divisions of the left and right brains. The left brain is primarily analytic, while the right brain is primarily synthetic. The left brain handles numbers, quantities, grammar, logic, structure, information, analysis. The right brain handles meaning, feeling, understanding, intuition, comprehension, imagination, creativity, synthesis. The left brain divides information to study it. The right brain unites it all in order to understand. Which is more important? If you do not have the power of comprehension and creativity, life will stagnate in a repetition of old information and habits. There is no question of progress. That is why the right brain is called the master of knowledge. It knows the oneness of knowledge. The left brain cuts up experiences into smaller and smaller pieces, to acquire knowledge over details. The left brain is the one that expresses what the right brain knows. That is why it is called the servant of knowledge. Modern education emphasises the left brain faculties almost exclusively. Naturally our knowledge will be fragmented and defective. You will find that most extraordinary people have the right brain faculties equally developed. But what happens if only the right brain is developed? I would be a great poet with great inspiration but I would not be able to express them well because my vocabulary and logical skills would be poor; I would have no clarity in the expression of my thoughts. What is the use? We want to develop both sides and harmonise their complementary working.

Courtesy: Introduction to Integral Education, Sri Aurobindo International Institute for Educational Research, Auroville.

Sraddhalu Ranade

The author is a well-known exponent of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and yoga and an inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

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3 thoughts on “Layers of the Mind

  1. Evolved souls are identified by their way of life in all walks of life. We must therefore create congenial environment for progress of evolution right from the childhood in the process of educational system. This automatically helps the child for self realisation expressed in the real life. This only can help development of cultured society in which corruption disappears automatically

    1. It’s god’s will son, that’s what he wants. The guru on the other hand smiled and said It was your denstiy. Now let me explain you what is denstiy? The bishop answered right away God’s will. Thats what denstiy is. The guru to that said It’s not god’s will. God is not impartial as said by every religion in the world. It’s the account that god keeps of your karma. God is making you face the ill consequences of your paap karmas and you will continue to fail the exam untill you have faced the equity for your paap karmas. I will give you an example. A person after not drinking alcohol for days says to himself that he has ceased himself for a long time and thinks that he has some sort of certification for drinking. But he has to face the consequence of doing that paap karma (drinking alcohol is not having prasadam). Thus there must have been something bad that you might have done and it is the consequence for that. The atheist metaphorically pounced on the guru and said So you are trying to say that i’m a bad person . The guru to this answered calmly You are atman and thus are neutral, neither good nor bad. Only your karmas are bad which is clearly visible in your falas (fruits you are bearing). A knowledgeable person never gets reluctant in accepting that his/her karmas were bad. To this the atheist asked So what do you think i should do? I mean if i’m going to fail then what’s the use of doing anything? The guru replied Do your job. Right now you are a student and your job is to study and get gyan (knowledge). Continue giving your test and don’t be afraid of the fruits. Even you fail again, continue giving your tests as of one day you will have faced the equity of paap karmas and you will start bearing sweet fruits. This is what is meant by Karmanya Vadhika raste, Ma faleshu kadachana- Only do you job, don’t think about fruits Aum

  2. Interesting post. Indeed, it is necessary to some dgreee at least to question in order to spiritually advance, but that questioning should be done in a sincere spirit of inquiry and pursuit of the knowledge of the ultimate truth, and not so much in an accusatory, fault-finding spirit. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explicitly gives the process of asking SUBMISSIVELY from those who have seen the truth to understand it. Then, by practicing the truth, it eventually becomes realized knowledge (vijnana).Gaudiya Vaishnavism / the Hare Krishna spiritual tradition explicitly gives this checks-and-balances system: that any truth should be verifiable by the mutual agreement of guru (spiritual teacher), sadhu (great souls on the spiritual path), and shastra (scriptures). This checks-and-balances system ensures that one is kept in line.Want to know if your guru is valid and bona fide? See what the scriptures and sadhus say about the qualities of a true guru, and whether or not your prospective guru in teaching AND in personal practice aligns with that.Want to know if your accepted shastras, shastric quotes, and/or understandings of those shastras, are correct? Just submissively consult the sadhus and especially your guru to verify it.Want to know if the sadhus with whom you associate or seek guidance from are on the right track? Again, simply consult with guru and shastra, and your answer shall be confirmed.It’s a very nice process. And if you don’t know where to start, as far as which gurus, sadhus, and shastras to follow, simply pray from the heart for proper guidance from within and without, and it shall be given to you by the grace of the Lord. Hare Krishna!

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