The Life Divine – Reading Group, Session #8 (Beginning Book Two) [7/26]

Apologies for the delay on posting the video. I had posted it to YouTube last week, and thought I added it here as well, but turns out I didn’t! Thanks to @Michael_Stumpf for the heads up. -M.


We return for Book Two of The Life Divine, chapters 1 and 2 on “Indeterminates, Cosmic Determinations, and the Indeterminable” and “Brahman, Purusha, Ishwara—Maya, Prakriti, Shakti.” John Davis leads us through an experiential (epistemological) exercise, which dovetails into further reflections on how we approach and read the text. We discuss infinite vs. finite logics, and field a question from Tony about the allowance for individuality in Aurobindo’s thought. Terri reflects on the roles played by the static and dynamic aspects in Aurobindo’s developmental conception, and offers some closing reflections on the beautiful reciprocity practiced by Aurobindo and the Mother.

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The Life Divine, Book Two, Chapters 1-2 (pps. 309-379)


John Davis
Terri O’Fallon
Doug Duff
Mateo Needham
Kim Smith
Fred Dolan
Marco Morelli
Marco Masi
Tony Sauer
Durwin Foster
Lauren Unger


I will be glad to volunteer, Marco.


Thanks, John! …

I think it unlikely I will be able to make the session today. If at all it will be at the halfway mark, but I have my doubts. Have a great session, though!

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On explanation.

“A tree evolves out of the seed in which it is already contained, the seed out of the tree; a fixed law, an invariable process reigns in the permanence of the form of manifestation which we call a tree. The mind regards this phenomenon, this birth, life and reproduction of a tree, as a thing in itself and on that basis studies, classes and explains it. It explains the tree by the seed, the seed by the tree; it declares a law of Nature. * BUT IT HAS EXPLAINED ###NOTHING### [emphasis added]; it has only analysed and recorded the process of a mystery.

“But the Supermind works otherwise. […] The tree does not explain the seed, nor the seed the tree; cosmos [cosmic consciousness, not the physical cosmos] explains both and God [the Transcendent] explains cosmos. * The Supermind, pervading and inhabiting at once the seed and the tree and all objects, lives in this greater knowledge which is indivisible and one though with a modified and not an absolute indivisibility and unity.”

In what sense does the Supermind explain whereas the ordinary mind merely records? For ordinary consciousness, I take it, an explanation is a statement of a necessary connection, for example a causal connection: given conditions X, Y, and Z, Q necessarily obtains. Now one can ask why, given conditions X-Z, Q obtains, and an explanation of that is possible, and so on to infinity. In the end we’re led to Leibniz’s question: Why is there something rather than nothing? And there cannot be a causal explanation of why there is something rather than nothing because a causal explanation explains things by appealing to the actions of other things already in existence, whereas this question asks for an explanation of the totality of all that exists and there is nothing apart from that to serve as a cause. Even if there were something rather than nothing because something necessarily exists, it would still be possible to ask why something necessarily exists.

I take it that the sense in which ordinary mind has merely “recorded the process of a mystery” is that it can explain things within the world (If X, then Y) but not the existence of the world as such. I also take Aurobindo to be saying that the Supermind can explain the existence of the world as such – but I’m not persuaded that it does. The questions that apply to the existence of the world as such presumably also apply to the Supermind. Assume that “cosmos” explains the causal processes in the world and that God explains cosmos. One can still ask why cosmos exists and why God exists. Ultimately, I think, we have to admit that there can be no causal explanation for why there is something rather than nothing, and with respect to causal explanation at least cosmos and God are in the same position as ordinary consciousness. The fact that in “comprehensive knowledge there is no independent centre of existence… [T]he whole of existence is to its self-awareness an equable extension” doesn’t explain why there is a whole existence in the first place. God may explain both the physical and the mental, but what explains God? It won’t do to say that God brought himself into existence, since to do anything at all one must first exist.

It seems to me that so far as explanation is concerned, cosmos and God have nothing on ordinary consciousness. They are all inexplicable.

Of course, it doesn’t follow from the fact that there can be no causal explanation of why there is something rather than nothing that there can be no sort of explanation at all. What sort of explanation, then, are we being offered?


And when they are all inexplicable, what do you want to have happen?

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From my perspective, try to appreciate the mystery, its character and significance. At least until we can figure out how to make sense of things in a way that doesn’t involve the idea of a necessary connection – for example by reconciling ourselves to the idea that we and everything else is merely contingent, though I don’t think that does it – it seems that at bottom existence is fundamentally unintelligible. Asserting that this is so strikes me as the essence of the tragic, Homeric, pre-Socratic/Platonic view as Nietzsche understands it, the root premise of the philosophical tradition being, for him, that the world is intelligible and can be made sense of. I’m by no means ready to jettison the tradition, but I do think that it must involve re-thinking what we mean by intelligibility – which has in fact pretty much been the central task of philosophy from Kant up to the most penetrating metaphysics of the last century (e.g. Quine, Kripke, Davidson, David Lewis), in my humble opinion.

In trying to articulate an appreciation of the mystery, I believe we can go at least some ways guided by Wittgenstein in his “Lecture on Ethics” (delivered 1929/30, published 1965):

“[I]f I want to fix my mind on what I mean by absolute or ethical value … it always happens that the idea of one particular experience presents itself to me which therefore is, in a sense, my experience par excellence and this is the reason why, in talking to you now, I will use this experience as my first and foremost example. […] I believe the best way of describing it is to say that when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist’ or ‘how extraordinary that the world should exist’.”

From these considerations we can see the existence of the world as, so to speak, a gift (but a gift from nowhere and no one), the appropriate response to which is gratitude or reverence, attitudes that may be at the source of our ideas of absolute ethical value – a line of thinking perhaps akin to Ronald Dworkin’s “religion without God.”


Take this as croaking, not lowing …

What you’re saying, Fred, makes impeccable sense, but what I think I hear Sri Aurobindo saying – and I think he says it a lot – is something along the lines of “you can’t get there from here”.

It seems to me that what he’s saying is that as wonderful as reason is, you can’t reason your way to the Origin of it all. Reason is, by its very nature, limited and it is simply unable to get passed those innate limitations. (I also personally think that he uses the term “reason” much in the way that German uses the term Vernunft.) He also talks a lot about “consciousness” and “intellect” and, even to a certain extent “intelligibility” (and the way he does this reminds me strongly of the German term Verstand, that fundamental capacity for sense-making, to put it roughly), but he is saying as well that this alone can’t get us to that Origin either. In other words, both these faculties are unable to get passed their innate limitations. This isn’t how you “know” what he’s talking about. Phrased very clumsily, they just can’t transcend themselves.

What Sri Aurobindo is talking about, however, is transcendent – if that’s even the right word, but no real alternative is occurring to me at the moment – and if you want to grok “transcendence”, you have experience it, not just think about it. The experience that I hear him describing, however, is not your everyday, five-senses-based, affective response to things; rather, transcendence, in this sense, would be a whole different order of experience … some kind of full-blown, whole-body, total-self, heart-rending, illuminative oh-that’s-what-you’re-talking-about kind of thing.

What is needed is starting to sound a lot like what Schwaller de Lubicz described as what the Ancient Egyptians were so keen on, namely, an “intelligence of the heart”; that is, a kind of alchemical melding of Vernunft and Verstand (perhaps understood as a synergy of the two) power-boosted by an intense affectivity that allows for the experience of transcendence that he seems to be talking about. It is not something that you grasp or see and thereby know, rather it is something that you feel, but not in the usual sense of the word but that’s even more intense than the “peak” or “a-ha” experiences many of us have had. It’s a different kind of knowing.

Or, it could also be that I’m just consistently misreading him, and not getting much at all. There are times I have that feeling too.



I agree with you and others who say that there are experiences that can’t be put into words. I’m inclined to go even further and say that there aren’t any experiences that can be fully and adequately put into words, for the simple reason that words are abstractions and abstract away from the fine-grained particularity and immediacy of experience. (Poetry, the novel, theater, and other verbal art forms, at least the greatest of them, are exceptions, although even here it’s not by means of concepts that they communicate their truths.) I’m especially aware of this, personally, in the case of music, where concepts and ideas seem intrusive when they arise while listening. The deepest layers of musical experience, it seems to me, must be pre-linguistic (although Steve Mithen in The Singing Neanderthals speculates that music and language have a common origin). But the same goes, I think, for our direct experience of almost everything that really matters to us: our sense of ourselves, the presence of others, their expressions of feeling for us and ours for them, our sense of responsibility and of the rightness or wrongness of various actions, intuitions of a divine presence, and the sheer feeling of being alive.

I also agree that among these ineffable or not-fully-effable experiences is something we can call for lack of a better word “transcendent,” in the sense that it seems to go beyond our ordinary apprehension of a world of physical objects obeying uniform causal laws. For me the most accessible version of this experience is quite common: it’s the apprehension of a person, what used to be called the soul, in a body. No purely physical causal description of someone’s body (their height, weight, hair and eye color, etc.) could capture the sense that in apprehending this body one is also apprehending a person, a subject, a center of consciousness and agency. One proof of this is the difficulty we have in saying “where” the person is located in space and time. Is the person or the soul inside the body? Apparently not – I’m immediately certain of the presence of the person just by seeing the body; I have no way of getting “inside” and no need to do so. Is the person partly constituted by what he or she has done in the past and will do in the future? It looks that way, but how is that exhibited in the present? “Where” (or “when”) is his or her past and future? And when we relate to persons as we should, we of course treat them very differently than we treat physical objects: we “meet” an individual in an experience of mutual acknowledgement, in the second person singular “you” and not as an “it.” As I see it we’re experiencing the transcendent whenever we’re relating authentically (in this sense) with one another.

But granting all that, names and descriptions and concepts and representations aren’t useless. If they are, why read The Life Divine? We may not be able to fully eff the ineffable with words, but we might be able to at least get in the vicinity. And if that’s the case then values such as coherence, clarity, etc. are relevant. I’m probably exaggerating, but I’m a little suspicious when problems in an argument are dismissed with the claim that the author has some very deep point that can’t be understood by those of us still hobbled by reason. I don’t doubt that Aurobindo has a deep point, but that’s not a convincing way of establishing it.


Is it necessary to go beyond logic to arrive at deeper truths?

It seems to me that that’s an unfortunate way of putting it because it commits us to holding that intuition, imagination, metaphor, etc. are illogical or a-logical or non-logical – an unnecessary concession, I would hope. A metaphor, for example, invites us to consider whether what’s predicated of one thing can help orient us to another thing. There’s nothing illogical about this; on the contrary, the operation is inconceivable apart from our ability to understand and apply ordinary predicate logic. Ono no Kamachi isn’t defying logic when she writes:

Doesn’t he realize
that I am not
like the swaying kelp in the surf,
where the seaweed gatherer
can come as often as he wants.

Rather, she’s inviting us to consider the similarities and differences between what we predicate of seaweed gatherers and what we predicate of Lotharios. The same applies to Bateson’s “men are grass” metaphor: there’s nothing illogical about the proposal to consider the similarities and differences between men and grass. When you formulate this as an identity claim and write it up as a syllogism –

Men die
Grass dies
Men are grass

– it’s clearly invalid as is obvious when it’s put in symbolic form:

X = P
Y = P
X = Y

But it strikes me as misleading to think of a metaphorical proposition as the conclusion to a deductive syllogism. The syllogism doesn’t express the function of the metaphor, which is to provoke us to consider that there are interesting similarities between men and grass, starting with the fact that they’re both mortal. We don’t need to free ourselves from logic to engage in this consideration – in fact it’s our ability to think logically that frees us for the consideration.

A metaphor does assert the identity of two things, and taken literally the assertion is, not illogical, but simply false: when Romeo says that Juliet is the Sun, what he says isn’t strictly true. But of course Romeo doesn’t mean that Juliet is a plasma sphere 93 million miles from the Earth. And because we know that in metaphorical speech the “is” of identity functions as an intensifier, we interpret Romeo correctly, as saying that his life revolves around Juliet, that he couldn’t live without her, that she enables him to see things that would otherwise be hidden, etc. Again, there’s nothing illogical or post-logical here.


O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—

I doubt that most audiences understand the simile but a good enough actor, attuned to the affective field, creates a sense of beauty, in the moment. Romeo creates an aura around Juliet through the language.The words can make the actress start to glow.

Robert Gibbs, a cognitive linguist, said we should drop the word ‘literal’. There is nothing, he claims, that we can take literally.

I think we do need treaties and language that can be defined strictly. Anyone who has done jury duty knows how boring that can be . We also need to accept that language can be ambiguous, and have multiple meanings. Words can be magical or diaboliical.

When I was in acting school we were taught about the logic of dramatic action. You put actions in a sequence. If you fuck up the sequence there is no drama, there is no modulation of affects.

I imagine that is really what Sri Aurobindo is inviting here. That logic and imagination can co-create novel blends. We can open to this possibility.

I can be afraid. I can be courageous. I can be afraid and courageous. I can be neither afraid, nor courageous. And I can be all of this at the same time.

That is what I get from Bateson, that it is good to have multiple descriptions. And multiple metaphors. And metaphors map some aspects across and leave some aspects behind. Each person has a different brain and may process language in a unique way. Indeterminate. Avoid premature cognitive commitment.

Visionary experience is not easily translatable. It is much more like song than speech. especially when it is already over. Such experience can fade fast. It is hard to capture a mood in a words, especially something as wierd as cosmic love or discussing death with someone who has recently died or have acausal synchronicity event occur. We can get lost in the field, an ever present danger that Sri Aurobindo warns against. But attempts at communication can be co-creative. Even if they dont explain anything. We do our best.

I have my complaints about Sri Aurobindo, he can be needlessly obscure but he wrote for a different culture, a very formal culture. I am not that interested in some of the cultural baggage but I can enjoy the word-music.


Thank you for this, Fred. This is actually what I had in mind in my last post. (There are a couple of folks around here who express more effectively what I’m thinking than I do myself, which I greatly appreciate.) For me, this is where it starts, and for me, this is what matters most.

It is certainly not my contention that Sri Aurobindo is expressing a deeper point than anyone else. I think, in his own way, he’s saying (or is trying to say) something that a lot of others have tried to say, and, for my personal tastes, have said it “better” or clearer or more effectively, or whatever. How one reacts, I suppose, depends a whole lot on where one starts and what one assumes about it all to begin with. The metaphors used will be certainly different, and will be differently accessible to different individuals.

For my simple mind, it is easier for me to start where I am and when the occasion presents itself to go back farther toward that Origin, but I’m also not sure just how much it matters that we actively pursue it all the way back. I’m sure it will have varying degrees of interest for different persons, but I am also sure that the more aware we engage what is “here”, the more the “there” makes itself known.

It has always fascinated me that most religions sing their services: the Jews sing the Torah; the Mass is sung; even the protestants do a lot of singing, but not the service itself. I think, as you point out, musical experience is one we have all had, and it is probably one of the surest openings to transcendence.


Do you mean Raymond Gibbs? I had a couple of encounters with him back in the 80s. In context, I understand why one would want to say that there’s nothing we can take literally. But there’s also Donald Davidson’s argument (in “What Metaphors Mean”) that there’s no such thing as metaphorical meaning: a metaphor, he says, means just what the words in the sentence that expresses it literally mean. That’s because a metaphorical utterance is an invitation to think about similarities and differences, not an attempt to convey a determinate meaning. What we call “a” metaphor is a way of using (meaningful, in the literal sense) words to evoke new perspectives on or insights into things. This chimes, I think, with your point about the value of plural and ambiguous meanings, except that Davidson would say, I suppose, that strictly speaking we’re talking about plural perspectives not meanings.


Thanks for the correction, Frederick, I did mean Raymond.

And what kind of chime is that? And where does that chime come from?

I am drawn to differences that make a difference, as Bateson used to say.

And where do plural perspectives, according to Davidson, come from, strictly speaking?

Even in jurisprudence, it takes a lot of words, before we can agree on what a concept is. Imagining that all Rational actors would agree is, perhaps, a necessary fiction?

And how does Davidson know the difference between plural perspectives and multiple meanings?

I read Davidson’s essay many years ago and should perhaps read him again.

Metaphors come in clusters, usually, and have relations among each other and other kinds of figures of speech, that amplify and dampen impact, which create vast fields of influence, among many characters. Tracking a big speech from Shakespeare reveals a wide range of affects and intentions, and it can make you dizzy.

I notice Sri Aurobindo uses the Magician Metaphor twice, once to identify the Over Mind as he crafts different logics, and then puts a veil between different identities as they descend. The veil is lifted on the ascent. Divine amnesia? Divine dementia? Divine peek a boo?

He uses Magician again, to describe the Scientist, who appears precise but is fundamentally unintelligible.

Similar? Same? Different? Not sure.

Ordinary conversations, as you are well aware, is full of metaphors. Children come up with some fabulous ones!


The difference it makes for me concerns how to read Aurobindo. If we believe that metaphors have as it were two meanings, a literal meaning and a metaphorical meaning, we presumably will try to understand the metaphorical meaning intended by Aurobindo. Assuming that can be paraphrased, it raises the question of why Aurobindo would choose to express himself metaphorically when he could have done so literally. But if we adopt Davidson’s view that there is no distinction between literal and metaphorical meaning because metaphor concerns a distinctive use of words (or meanings), we’re presumably less inclined to ask what Aurobindo means and more inclined to respond to the invitation to think, i.e. to use the source (in your example, the Magician) to map the target (the Over Mind). And that embarrassing question about why one would use a metaphor doesn’t arise.

Of course the question of Aurobindo’s intention in using the specific figure of the Magician doesn’t go away. That he uses it to describe both the Over Mind and the Scientist (who I take it offers only the appearance of knowledge) suggests to my no doubt rather naive mind the two senses of magic: supernatural ability on the one hand, the ability to fabricate illusions on the other. An intriguing ambiguity – something essential, in Aurobindo’s view, for us to keep in mind as we follow the path?

What if, instead of a magician, we thought of the Over Mind as the force that through the green fuse drives the flower?


The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.

And is there anything else about that force?

And does that force have a size or shape?

And is there anything else about fuse that drives the flower?

I am asking questions about your metaphor for Over Mind and invite us to continue perhaps on the next call? It is fun to do this kind of inquiry live.

I would encourage each of us to come up with our own metaphors as we read the text. And if that is useful, we can re-enact our own metaphors as did Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

I, for example, am not attracted to the Mom and Pop dynamic of the asrham and find it totally unsuitable for our post modern living arrangements.

I am much more interested in a Whitmanian body electric. We dont need a Patriarch and his consort to bring about this kind of contact with the Divine. I contain multitudes!

So I would imagine that we could all have different metaphors for knowing this text and we have already noticed some of them starting to emerge in our last experiment. Perhaps we can learn, as Bloom says, to misread creatively? As we break out of deductive syllogistic logic ( defiicent mental?) we make more abductive moves. Educated guesses. And we prepare our minds for eureka!

Thanks for attuning to the field ( another metaphor) and as our metaphorical landscapes develop I expect we can re-connect nature and mind, which is one of the major themes of this book.

How do we divinize matter? That is a very weird idea. Sri Aurobindo might call it a plastic idea. Another odd idea. I think he is full of odd ideas which makes him worth studying seriously.


I think you’ve explained things pretty well, actually. Transcendence is something, I would add, that seems to “come to you” rather than anything you can directly pursue, control, and the like. Involves an acausal quality of grace that you can prepare for by practicing awareness, etc, but you/we are in no way in charge of how, when, where.
(Why, though, is a lifelong work… at least!)


“whenever we’re relating authentically…with one another” . Does “one another” mean humans? If yes, I would
like to add “and/or with any other beings or aspects of our world” or something like that!


“One another” means entities of any kind with which (or I suppose it should be “whom”) you can have a personal relationship. In my experience the deepest relationships of this sort are with other human beings. But Christians, of course, think that God is a person and that they have a personal relationship to God. I assume there’s a continuum – surely some people have authentically personal relationships with animals, even plants, even certain places. I don’t think you can determine whether something is a person from the “outside” as it were, by observing whether it possesses certain defining properties. You have to try to get personally involved with “it” to discover whether it’s also a “thou/you.”