Several years ago I was speaking about my new book, Integral Health, with a friend in Delhi, and I mentioned to him that I was not familiar with any previous books with the same title. My friend immediately said, “I’m certain that there is a book by Aurobindo with a similar title.” Shortly after, I headed off to the Aurobindo center hoping to find it. Sure enough, there it was in the bookstore. The actual title was Integral Healing. It was a compilation of his many writings on consciousness and health.
In this book Aurobindo expressed his view that consciousness is more than a mental phenomenon. It actually descends into our cellular structure. It is inseparable from our physiology. Consciousness is physiology and physiology is consciousness. That is his point. The mind/body relationship is like the relationship of water and wetness. You cannot put water on one side of the room and wetness on the other side. They are indivisible. They go together. A harmonious consciousness leads to a harmonious physiology. An afflictive mental life leads to a disturbed physiology. Integral healing, according to Aurobindo, relies on this indivisibility of mind and body. As a result of this seamless relationship, an awakened mind has a powerful influence on the body. It is a critical factor in health and healing. It works at the subtlest level of the mind-body interface.
When I wrote Integral Health in 2006 it was my intention to present a comprehensive model of health and healing which included the four central aspects of the human experience – psychospiritual, biological, interpersonal, and social. Each of these aspects of life contributes to health, and can as well contribute to the development of disease. According to integral theory, a progressive enhancement of health is achieved by developing each of these areas of life – expanding consciousness, caring for biological needs, shifting from a focus on self to a focus on others, and bringing meaning and service to our social activities. The end result is not merely reducing the risk of chronic disease, but the progressive attainment of optimal well-being.
After I completed Integral Health it became apparent to me that in modern times the driving force underlying the expansive vision of integral health and healing was psychospiritual development – the awakening and development of consciousness. There are two reasons for this. First, in modern times we have denied and devalued inner development. As a result, for most individuals living in modern times consciousness remains relatively undeveloped, as compared to traditions and cultures which emphasize inner development. Second, the three other aspects of the integral process – interpersonal, biological, and social – develop in tandem with the growth of consciousness. By necessity, they move together.
Consider the following. You cannot have healthy relationships and selfless loving-kindness without growth in consciousness. Similarly, it is quite likely that further advances in biological health will result as well from an increasingly subtle capacity for mind/body self regulation driven by a growing consciousness. And finally, the shift from experiencing the world as serving our needs to viewing ourselves as being in service to the world also requires a leap in consciousness.
An expanding conscious drives the entire integral process. That was the central observation of Aurobindo – consciousness is the root of integral health and healing. As a result of this understanding, my work increasingly focused on the process of inner development. This does not mean disregarding other aspects of the human experience, but rather, it is a shift in emphasis and focus that is compelled by recognition of the pivotal role of an awakened consciousness. Without focusing on the growth of consciousness the other aspects of our lives cannot be fully developed. It is simply not possible.
Inner development can be divided into two main areas – mind training and wisdom teachings. Mind training focuses on ridding the mind of its afflictive and negative emotions and replacing them with healthy mental attitudes. This includes taming the overactive mind, developing mindfulness, promoting the attitude of loving-kindness, and attaining basic insights regarding the workings of the mind. Wisdom teachings focus on replacing false beliefs, which underlie afflictive emotions, with correct understandings. The latter is the basis for a precise and accurate knowledge of reality. This decisively and permanently liberates human life from the scourge of all types of suffering. Although these two aspects of inner development may appear separate, in actuality they mutually support each other and evolve together.
For the past three years I have been presenting a 10-week program at a local hospital. We have completed 14 sessions with 300 participants. This effort was initiated with the belief that integral health – the alleviation of distress and suffering and the attainment of the qualities of human flourishing – can be best achieved through inner development, the expansion of consciousness. To this end the program emphasized three components – study, reflection and practice.
10 weeks were divided into 10 areas of study. These include: clearing the mind,
identifying the root causes of distress and suffering, addressing the nature
and resolution of afflictive emotions, cultivating loving-kindness,
experiencing work as a source of service, perceiving adversity as opportunity,
knowing what to cultivate and what to abandon in the quest for optimal well
being, as well as other related issues. Participants studied these topics
through prepared readings and class handouts.In addition, two kinds of practice were incorporated into the
program – a daily sitting practice as well as a variety of specific practices
to be used in daily life. The latter includes mindfulness, meditative
listening, correct understanding of afflictive emotions, loving-kindness
practices, and so on. The point is to create an integral and integrated
tapestry of consciousness-based study and practice which utilizes all
experience as an opportunity to grow and expand consciousness.
At the current time we are continuing this core program and have instituted a second level course for those who have developed a stable sitting practice. Although most of the participants in this course have had no previous meditation experience, they have exhibited a remarkable enthusiasm and persistence in their efforts. As a result, changes are seen within weeks. These are fairly consistent among participants. These changes include – a greater presence to momentary experience, diminished reactivity, improved relationships, an increasing sense of well-being, greater understanding and compassion for others, and most importantly, a strong commitment to continue the study and practices of inner development. We can only assume that these changes will lead to a corresponding set of changes in the physical, relational and social dimension as well.
What we have learned from this informal experiment is that it is definitely possible to drive the entire integral process through consciousness- based studies. A fully integrated program aimed at inner development can establish the foundation for a progressive reduction in distress and suffering and a simultaneous enhancement of the quality of life. Over time these changes become irreversible, like a fruit that ripens and can no longer return to its unripened state.
A consciousness-based integral approach taps into the last uncharted frontier in health and healing. It builds on the pivotal realization that the expansion of consciousness is the driving force underlying a comprehensive and integral health and healing. By focusing on inner development we gain the most from our time and effort. We undertake the most important step towards assuring a larger life and optimal well-being.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty lies not in knowing how to proceed, as that knowledge is well known to past and present students of inner development. The problem is the absence of personal and cultural recognition of the importance of inner development, the unavailability of educational initiatives formalizing consciousness-based studies, and the accessibility of qualified teachers and guides who can assist individuals in achieving a healthy and expansive inner life. We cannot let this opportunity slip away.
The individual who masters his own life becomes the finely tuned instrument which serves to benefit others and care for the fate of our imperiled planet. The stakes are very high. The time is now.