Mystical Consciousness in a Process Perspective

by Ernest L. Simmons, Jr.

Ernest L. Simmons, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Religion at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 1-10, Vol. 14, Number 1, Spring, 1984. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author analyzes the mystical experience of Sri Aurobindo and the "Nirvana Experience." From a Whiteheadian perspective, yogic meditation involves the silencing of symbolic reference, so that the two pure modes of perception are experienced directly.

If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken. (MT 174)

The words "mystical," "mystic," and "mysticism" have had such a very colorful and diverse history of usage in both the East and the West that it is not an easy matter to determine precisely what their experiential referents are intended to be. "Mystic" is derived from the Greek mysterion, which was, of course, associated with the secret cults of Greek religion and thus entailed a sense of mystery. Mystery is derived from an associated Creek word mysterion, which is akin to mystos, meaning one who was initiated into mysteries, ultimately being derived from mycin, meaning to close, be shut (WNCD 761f.). While there have been many different usages, there has been a growing consensus in recent years among scholars as to what mystical experience is and its varieties. In the classic work Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill says that "mysticism in its pure form, is the science of ultimates, the science of union with the Absolute, and nothing else, and the mystic is the person who attains to this union, not the person who talks about it. Not to know about but to Be is the mark of the real initiate" (M 72).

W. T. Stace offers a definition of mysicism which more precisely focuses it. He indicates, following William James’s observation of the possibility of other forms of consciousness, that the most important characteristic of mystical experience is "the apprehension of an ultimate nonsensuous unity in all things, a oneness or a One to which neither the sense nor the reason can penetrate. In other words, it entirely transcends our sensory-intellectual consciousness" (TM 14f.; italics not mine). Stace makes the point that most of our intellectual processes are tied to sensations and images but that in mystical consciousness there are no external sensations at all, for one has gone beyond the level of the consciousness which relies upon such sensory input and of the intellectual processes which demarcate and integrate this sensory input. Thus one cannot communicate the experience in such a consciousness. It is "ineffable" because all our language is tied to sensory intellectual consciousness.

One distinction which Stace makes will be crucially important for our task in this essay. He distinguishes between what he calls a "mystical idea" and "mystical experience." He concludes: "The point is that a mystical idea is a product of the conceptual intellect, whereas a mystical experience is a nonintellectual mode of consciousness" (TM 5). This distinction is an advance upon Underhill’s understanding, for it clarifies what is said about mystical experience from the experience itself. All too often mystical ideas have been confused with the experiences and then integrated into philosophical systems as if they were the product of reasoning. What can be communicated are mystical ideas, that is, intellectual formulations which mystics take to be appropriate to their experience and as accurate as it is possible to be within the limits of the sensory-intellectual consciousness. The writings of the Vedantic mystic Sri Aurobindo form such a system of mystical ideas.

For the purposes of this essay, we shall focus briefly on the mystical experience of Sri Aurobindo as a test example of mysticism itself. After summarizing several of the main mystical insights of Aurobindo we shall focus primarily on the "Nirvana Experience" and then address what would be necessary from a Whiteheadian perspective to affirm this experience as possible and real. We shall propose that from a Whiteheadian perspective yogic meditation involves the silencing of symbolic reference, so that the two pure modes of perception are experienced directly. In the perceptual mode of presentational immediacy this process leads to the experience of the objective world as illusory. In the mode of causal efficacy it results in the unified but indistinct experience of the unqualified "That." In Whiteheadian terms this "That" is understood to be the nonspecific experience of the ultimate process of reality, creativity understood as universal subjectivity. It is the experience of creativity that will then be found to parallel Aurobindo’s understanding of transcendental consciousness. It is not contended that this analysis would fit all mystical experience but rather that this particular type of experience can be affirmed within a Whiteheadian framework. As to its general application, that must wait for further tests with other mystical articulations.


By his own evaluation Aurobindo considered himself to have had four major realizations during his lengthy sadhana (spiritual discipline leading to self-realization), and these experiences not only become informative of his yoga but also provide the experiential undergirding for his philosophy as well. In response to the comments of one of his biographers, Aurobindo concisely summarizes these realizations. Writing of himself in the third person he remarks:

Sri Aurobindo had already realized in full two of the four great realizations on which his Yoga and his spiritual philosophy are founded. The first he had gained while meditating with the Maharashtrian Yogi Vishnu Bhaskar Lele at Baroda in January 1908; it was the realization of the silent, spaceless and timeless Brahman gained after a complete and abiding stillness of the whole consciousness and attended at first by an overwhelming feeling and perception of the total unreality of the world, though this feeling disappeared after his second realization which was that of the cosmic consciousness and of the Divine as all beings and all that is, which happened in the Alipore jail and of which he has spoken in his speech at Uttarpara. To the other two realizations, that of the supreme Reality with the static and dynamic Brahman as its two aspects and that of the higher planes of consciousness leading to the Supermind, he was already on his way in his meditations at the Alipore jail. Moreover, he had accepted from Lele as the principle of his Sadhana to rely wholly on the divine and his guidance alone both for his Sadhana and for his outward actions. (OH 64)

For purposes of time, we shall center our summary of Aurobindo’s mystical experience only on the first of these realizations.

As Aurobindo became more active in the Indian independence movement, he also had been practicing pranayama (breath control) for up to six hours a day, three hours each morning and evening, but aside from some psychophysical phenomena such as luminous patterns and figures and a great outpouring of poetry, he had no other results (OH 78f.). It was at this point that he was induced to meet with Vishnu Bhaskar Lele. The meeting took place in January, 1908, while he was in Baroda to deliver several political speeches. After listening to an account of his yogic practice and experiments, Lele advised him to make a supreme effort to empty his mind completely. To accomplish this task they both went into a closed room and meditated constantly for three days. The result was not one that either Lele or Aurobindo expected or had desired.

The first result was a series of tremendously powerful experiences and radical changes of consciousness which he (Lele) had never intended -- for they were Adwaitic and Vedantic and he was against Adwaita Vedanta -- and which was quite contrary to my own ideas, for they made me sec with a stupendous intensity the world as a cinematographic play of vacant forms in the impersonal universality of the Absolute Brahman. (OH 79)

One can imagine the shock of such an experience upon one who was actively involved in the world seeking political and social liberation for his country. This was not a desired experience but was nevertheless an undeniable one.

In a letter to a disciple many years later, Aurobindo refers to this experience of the silent, spaceless, and timeless Brahman as a Nirvana experience.1 He recalled:

Now to reach Nirvana was the first radical result ofmy own Yoga. It threw me suddenly into a condition above and without thought, unstained by any mental or vital movement; there was no ego, no real world -- only when one looked through the immobile senses, something perceived or bore upon its sheer silence a world of empty forms, materialized shadows without true substance. There was no One or many --even, only just absolutely That, featureless, relationless, sheer, indescribable, unthinkable, absolute, yet supremely real and solely real. This was no mental realization -- it was positive, the only positive reality -- although not a spatial physical world, pervading, occupying or rather flooding and drowning this semblance of a physical world, leaving no room or space for any reality but itself, allowing nothing else to seem at all actual, positive or substantial. I cannot say there was anything exhilarating or rapturous in the experience as it then came to me -- (the ineffable Ananda I had years afterwards) -- but what it brought was an inexpressible Peace, a stupendous silence, an infinite of release and freedom. (OH 101)

The experience was to stay with Aurobindo for many months afterward before he began to experience other realizations, and even with them this peace remained. He remarked that,

. . . in the end it began to disappear into a greater Superconciousness from above. But meanwhile, realization added itself to realization and fused itself with this original experience. At any early stage the aspect of an illusory world gave place to one in which illusion is only a small surface phenomenon with an immense Divine Reality behind it in the heart of everything that had seemed at first only a cinematic shape or shadow. Amid this was no reimprisonment in the senses, no diminution or fall from supreme experience, it came rather as a constant heightening and widening of the Truth; it was the spirit that saw objects, not the senses, and the Peace, the Silence, the freedom in Infinity remained always with the world or all worlds only as a continuous incident in the timeless eternity of the Divine. (OH 102)

Thus the qualityless Brahman, while radical and overpowering at the time, did not remain as the final and ultimate realization for Aurobindo. This experience continued as a basis for tranquility and peace within but the illusoriness of the world which had arisen at the time of its initial realization became supplanted by other more inclusive ones. It is because of these later experiences that Aurobindo could not embrace the Mayavada doctrine of Advaita Vedanta.

Aurobindo does not deny the experience of the qualityless Brahman nor that in this experience the world appears as illusion. His own experience validated that. What he rejects is the Advaita Vedantist contention that this is the only experience and indeed the highest.


For Whitehead, "consciousness presupposes experience, and not experience consciousness so that experience is the primary reality; it includes relatedness to the entire universe (PR 53/ 83). Consciousness is a later emergent phenomenon of experience which highlights certain aspects of it but cannot in any way be exhaustive of it. How then can such a position be related to that of Aurobindo? The key is in the nature of the experience of concrescence, which for Whitehead is pure subjective immediacy. In the first part of this section, we will undertake a Whiteheadian analysis of yogic method followed by an understanding of the experience of Nirvana from a process perspective. It will be shown in the second part of this section that Whitehead’s understanding of creativity defined as universal subjectivity parallels very closely what Aurobindo intends to describe by the category of transcendental consciousness.

Whitehead on Yoga and Nirvana

Whitehead in his empirical theory of knowledge has two pure modes of perception, causal efficacy and presentational immediacy, which in ordinary perception are combined in the mixed mode of symbolic reference. In Symbolism; Its Meaning and Effect he defines presentational immediacy as "our immediate perception of the contemporary external world, appearing as an element constitutive of our own experience" (S21). Presentational immediacy is clear and distinct and presents to our awareness the immediate "buzzing" confusion of the world around us. It is the "there" and "now" element in human perception. Causal efficacy, on the other hand, while being more massive as the conformation of our experience to the reality of the past as it impinges upon the present, is also vague and a fairly undiscriminating mode of perception. Causal efficacy is the more fundamental mode, however, for it is the perception through which the interconnectedness and causal influence of one actuality upon another is experienced. Causal efficacy is also the basis for "the yet vaguer relata ‘oneself’ and ‘another’ in the undiscriminated background" (S 43). In ordinary perception these two pure modes are connected through symbolic reference where the experienced influence of a past occasion is referred to a particular vivid sense in the immediately presented duration. It is with symbolic reference that thoughts enter into the perceptual process and also error (PR 168/ 255). Most of what we experience in conscious perception is a product of interpretation and referential judgment, so that the possibility of error is introduced. But what would happen if the processes of symbolic reference could be silenced and the two pure modes were experienced directly? Would this allow for focusing upon the concrescent process itself? This is where yogic practice enters in.

The most important first step in meditation for Aurobindo is to achieve the quieting of the mind, the stilling of thought. In Whiteheads conceptuality this could involve the stopping of the process of symbolic reference. Aurobindo indicates that this silencing can come through the practice of pranayama and other forms of concentration which focus on a repetitive process such as breathing or the sound of a mantra. This would be an attempt to focus more precisely upon the causal influence of the organs of the body. By this concentration the process of connecting the felt influence of the world upon oneself to a specific locus projected in the world is reduced until, as yogic experience bears out, the process of reference is stopped completely. With the stopping of symbolic reference the connection between oneself as experienced through the causal influence of the world and the world of the ever fleeting present moment is lost. The two are perceived as functioning independently and one s connection to the present world may take on a certain artificiality because presentational immediacy lacks the intensity and connectedness of causal efficacy. Perceiving the present world as only so much continual change, without sensing any of this change as applying or connected to oneself, would perhaps be to perceive the present world as less real, more of a passing show of forms or shadows.

Yogic discipline would also seem to concentrate upon the sheer unified presentedness of concrescence by separating presentational immediacy from causal efficacy. The activity of concrescence, the very process of becoming in distinction from any specific case of concrescence tied to a referential particular, is devoid of qualities. It is that aspect of creativity which is the "many becoming one" but separated from the other aspect of creativity as being "increased by one." To "still the mind" would then be to have no thoughts or referential connections but nevertheless still to be involved in the actuality of the concrescent process itself, particularly as this concerns the unified impact of the past actual world. The separation of the two pure modes would then allow for focusing upon the actuality of this experience in the pure mode of causal efficacy rather than on the projected referents as we do in the normal thought processes of symbolic reference. This would open the individual to the sheer presentness of the unqualifiable unity of actuality in one’s own existence as a participant in the universal character of creativity. One is opened up to the character of concrescence as pure unified subjective immediacy rather than referring it to some objective referent in the immediately presented duration. This unqualifiable experience of unity would then also have the character of the pure "That" of existence, real and yet indescribable.

Whitehead on Consciousness

What Aurobindo had realized in the Nirvana experience was the cessation of the ego-consciousness in the all-pervading peace of the silent Brahman. The sudden disappearance of the ego is what gives the sense of the unreality of the external world, but for Aurobindo this experience lasted only a short while, being replaced by more integral experiences of an "immense Divine Reality" behind, above, and within everything that had at first appeared to be illusory (OH 102). Through these experiences the "That" was realized as pure, transcendent, unqualified Consciousness, such that Aurobindo could conclude that, "Consciousness is a fundamental thing, the fundamental thing in existence -- it is the energy, the motion, the movement of consciousness that creates the universe and all that is in it -- not only the macrocosm but the microcosm is nothing but consciousness arranging itself" (LY 236). Consciousness is then the fundamental reality in the universe of which all existence is a manifestation yet which itself is beyond any final qualification. "Consciousness" for Whitehead has a more restricted use applying to the subjective form of particular types of intellectual feelings; thus something much broader in Whitehead’s conceptuality must be found. Is there anything in Whitehead’s system which would compare to this experience of the qualityless reality? The answer is yes. It is creativity experienced as universal subjectivity. The closest parallel to the experience of the silent Brahman as pure consciousness is the experience of creativity as the pure subjectivity of the universe. Consciousness is absolutely fundamental for Aurobindo, and creativity is for Whitehead, so it is the purpose of this subsection to compare the experience of these two fundamental realities.

In a letter to a disciple Aurobindo clarifies what he means by consciousness in the Brahman state. He writes:

When Yajnavalkya says there is no consciousness in the Brahman state, he is speaking of consciousness as the human being knows it. The Brahman state is that of a supreme existence supremely aware of itself, svayamprakasa, -- it is Sachchidananda, Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. Even if it be spoken of as beyond That, paratparam, it does not mean that it is a state of Non-existence or Non-consciousness, but beyond even the highest spiritual substratum (the ‘foundation above’ in the luminous paradox of the Rig Veda) of cosmic existence and consciousness. (LY 234)

For Aurobindo the "highest experience" of Reality is as Sachchidananda, and yet even this does not exhaust the Reality (LD 32). So the Nirvana experience of Nothingness indicates not the unreality of Brahman or Brahman consciousness but rather "something beyond the last term to which we can reduce our purest conception and our most abstract or subtle experience of actual being as we know or conceive it while in this universe. This Nothing then is merely a something beyond positive conception" (LD 28). The experience of the pure consciousness then is experience of the Chit of Sachchidananda, and, while ultimately unqualifiable, it is nevertheless real.

What then might the experience of this consciousness be like? It is most often described as a "white existence" or a "golden light" which begins to descend as soon as the mind is stilled of all thought. According to Arabinda Basu this experience is undeniable.2 He states that "the deepest insight is the autonomy and independence of the Chit."3 The actual experience in the meditative consciousness is the sheer self-dependence of that "white existence" of consciousness. This consciousness is experienced as self-causing, requiring nothing else and indeed underlying all existence (the Sat), but it is also experienced as in dynamic self-reflective movement which gives rise to self-awareness (the Sat). There is thus an experience of both a static and a dynamic consciousness which is at the base of all existence and consciousness even in the other levels of awareness. Aurobindo relates:

In the state of pure consciousness and pure being we are aware of that only, simple, immutable, self-existent, without form or object, and we feel that to be alone true and real. In the other or dynamic state we feel its dynamism, to be perfectly true and natural and are even capable of thinking that no such experience as that of pure consciousness is possible. Yet it is now evident that to the Infinite Consciousness both the static and the dynamic are possible; these are two of its statuses and both can be present simultaneously in the universal awareness. . . . (LD 345)

This is the realization of what Aurobindo calls the "integral Brahman," of Brahman as both silent and active. For Aurobindo, then, Consciousness is the fundamental reality for the manifested universe and is understood as the energetic force present in all physical existence. It is, if you will, the ultimate ontological category and is the material cause of all that exists.

For Whitehead the only existents are subjects, "apart from the experience of subjects, there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness" (PR 167/ 254). Everything that exists is an experiencing subject as this subjectivity becomes in the process of the movement from disjunction to conjunction. The over-all flow of this movement – "of the many become one and are increased by one" -- is creativity. Every existent is an instantiation of creativity, or, to put it another way, creativity is the category descriptive of the universal subjectivity of reality. As such, creativity is the material cause of the universe. For Aurobindo consciousness ms much broader than the ego-consciousness, whereas Whitehead uses consciousness" to refer only to that type of consciousness. The term "consciousness" is restricted in Whitehead’s philosophy to the description of the subjective form of particular types of intellectual feelings, namely those that experience the affirmation-negation contrast. Thus, a conception which is much broader than "consciousness" is needed to compare with Aurobindo’s use, but one which also categorizes individual experience. Creativity understood as universal subjectivity is such a category. Creativity, however, cannot be found through analysis, for analysis abstracts from the concreteness of the occasion and creativity is the concreteness. Thus, for Whitehead, "the sole appeal is to intuition (PR 22/32). It is only through the faculty of intuition that this universal subjectivity can be grasped, and it is this faculty which is heightened through yogic meditation. With the removal of symbolic reference and its concomitant abstract analysis, there may be a direct experiencing or envisioning through heightened intuition. Through intuitive perception in the pure modes of presentational immediacy and causal efficacy this universal subjectivity could be experienced, the very heart of reality itself. It could be experienced as the inherent dynamism, the "energy" or "motion" of the universe, and yet it is also unified, for it is the process of this diversity in unity. The direct realization of creativity would be possible because one’s true actuality in each moment is creativity or universal subjectivity. The realization of’ oneself as universal subjectivity might very well be an experience of light, because it could possibly be the realization of the pure energy of becoming. This would not be an outward physical light but could be the inner light of awareness as such constituting one sown subjectivity.

This subjectivity could also be understood as the awareness of pure subjective immediacy as the universal character of concrescence. This subjective immediacy is realized not as an external reality but as the very depth interiority of the process of creativity itself. Thus in Whitehead’s system this universal subjective immediacy of concrescence would perform an analogous function to that of consciousness in Aurobindo. It is the motion of creativity as the subjective immediacy of concrescence that is productive of the universe and is the process which is inherent in every moment of becoming. This would not constitute an ego-consciousness, for it is the awareness of the root process formative of all reality by which everything exists and is not seen as external or objectifiable. It would be the awareness of the pure energy of reality as it is constituted by subjective becoming. It is the movement of creativity as subjective immediacy that is productive of the universe not only as the individual moment of the actual occasion but of all macrocosmic processes as well. Here then the momentary immediacy of the occasion would mirror the universe not only through its universal relatedness but also because it is an instance of that which constitutes all instances in the cosmos. It is omnirelated as well as omnideterminative. Most importantly it is a participant in the universal character of creativity for it is creativity in its immediate instantiation.

The individual can realize the universal precisely because it is the universal in momentary immediacy. To achieve this awareness the momentary occasion focuses upon its sheer immediacy and does not project this upon some external object. By so doing, it is aware that this immediacy is all that there is and that it is self-existent or as Whitehead said, causa sui. The awareness of intuitive realization of the subjective immediacy of concrescence then is the awareness of the energetic force present in all existents and as such serves the same ontological function as consciousness in Aurobindo. It is the material cause of all existence. As the subjective instantiation of creativity, it could also perceive creativity as divine precisely because creativity is experienced as ultimate. The ultimate character of the universe itself as pure subjectivity could then also be experienced as the pure, transcendent, unqualified "That" of existence.


What then has been shown? First of all, not only that Whitehead’s conceptuality can be used to analyze the processes of yogic meditation but that also it can make sense of Aurobindo’s experiences of Nirvana and transcendent consciousness. It was shown that through the separation of the two pure modes of perception by the stilling of symbolic reference, Aurobindo’s experience of Nirvana could be explained. The pure perception in the mode of presentational immediacy without reference to causal efficacy could result in the experience of the objective world as illusion. Perception in the mode of causal efficacy understood as the interrelatedness of the universe as it impinges upon the individual without the specificity and clarity of presentational immediacy could yield an experience of an unqualifiable unity at the base of all existence as one perceived the actuality of concrescence. Secondly, it was indicated that the experience of an all-pervading consciousness could be understood in Whiteheadian terms as the self-awareness of every becoming moment as an instance of creativity understood as universal subjectivity. In each case consciousness and subjectivity is manifested in the individual and is the pure awareness of the individual’s existence. Creativity could be experienced through the individual’s own instantiation of it, but it can also be realized through the primordial instantiation in God. In the latter case, creativity could be experienced as qualified by the divine existence, consciousness, and satisfaction in an analogous way to Sachchidananda. This indicates that reflection founded in exoteric experience can be useful in illuminating at least certain forms of esoteric experience. This may not be a "meeting of the twain," but at least it may be an acknowledgement that the twain exists.



LD – Sr. Aurobindo Ghose. The Life Divine. Two volumes. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1973.

LY -- Aurobindo Ghose. Letters on Yoga. Three volumes. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1971.

M -- Evelyn Underhill. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. Twelfth edition. New York: New American Library, 1955.

OH -- Sri Aurobindo Ghose. On Himself. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972.

TM -- Walter T. Stace. The Teachings of the Mystics. New York: New American Library, 1960.

WNCD – A Merriam Webster. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Eighth edition. Springfield: C. & C. Merriam Co., 1977.



1Aurobindo understands Nirvana, in the literal Sanskrit meaning as nir-va-na, meaning extinction, "blowing out," the blowing out of the vital flame. He does not, however, equate this with the total annihilation of being. In The Life Divine he defines Nirvana as "Extinction, not necessarily of all being, but of being as we know it; extinction of ego, desire and egoistic action and mentality" (LD Glossary 22). He thus differs in some respects from the Buddhist use of this word, particularly as it was developed by Nagarjuna. See Frederick J. Streng, Emptiness, Study in Religious Meaning (New York: Abingdon Press, 1967), especially Chapter 5. See also Arthur Anthony Macdonell, A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 143.

2 Arabinda Basu is Director of the Sri Aurobindo Research Academy and Professor of Philosophy at the Sri Aurobindo, International Centre of Education in Pondicherry, India. He is one of the leading expositors of Aurobindo’s thought to the West.

3 This statement was conveyed in personal conversation in Claremont, California, in January 1978.