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The descending path

James Anderson

Editor’s note:

The following article describes a personal journey towards an integral healing and realignment of the entire personality through the processes of Integral Yoga.Although each of us experiences the yoga journey in a unique way, this article brings out some key elements and central processes of the Integral Yoga that stand as universal constants. It rightly points out that the ultimate way out of human problems and issues, whether of health or otherwise, is the way within. All yogic traditions recognise this need of going within and looking from within. However, the Integral Yoga teaches us also how to bring out this inmost core and exercise its influence upon the without, on our surface consciousness, our body and eventually even upon our external environment. But for this process to arrive at its fullness, there is needed, on the one side, a constant and sincere aspiration full of faith and surrender that ascends like a one-pointed flame of sacrifice from earth and, on the other side, a descent of the very highest Grace, the Peace and Wideness and Knowledge and Power and Ananda of the Divine Consciousness-Force, the One referred to as the Cit-Śakti in the Vedas and adored as Aditi, the Supreme Mother in the Tāntras and the Puraṇas. While the two processes of ascent and descent go together, the focus of this article is on the descending path.

“When you follow the ascending path, the work is relatively easy. I had already covered this path by the beginning of the century and had established a constant relationship with the Supreme — That which is beyond the Personal and the gods and all the outward expressions of the Divine, but also beyond the Absolute Impersonal. It’s something you cannot describe; you must experience it. And this is what must be brought down into Matter. Such is the descending path, the one I began with Sri Aurobindo; and there, the work is immense….

“With Sri Aurobindo, we went down below matter, right into the Subconscient and even into the Inconscient. But after the descent comes the transformation, and when you come down to the body, and you attempt to make it take one step forward — oh, not even a real step, just a little step! — everything starts grating; it’s like stepping on an anthill… And yet the presence, the help of the supreme Mother is there constantly; thus you realize that for ordinary men such a task is impossible, or else millions of lives would be needed — but in truth unless the work is done for them and the sadhana of the body is done for the entire earth consciousness, they will never achieve the physical transformation, or else it will be so remote that it is better not even to speak of it. But if they open themselves, if they give themselves over in an integral surrender, the work can be done for them — they have only to let it be done(1).”

There is clearly something very unusual about the journey one takes on the Integral Yoga. When I first came here, my initial reaction was probably not so uncommon. I had got accustomed to looking upwards for any change in my life. A need to rise higher and elevate my consciousness was clearly evident, so why on earth should I also cast my eye downwards in this search for the Supreme? I had been taught to climb the heights to attain the ultimate consciousness and, once reached, the whole task was done. So surely I should raise my awareness high above the madness of the everyday world. It seemed so obvious that the only answer was to be found there.

But gradually though, I drew a little guidance and discovered that unless a work of descent is also undertaken, any rise is likely to be very tenuous and insecure. We all need to build a solid base if we interd to climb in consciousness. Even a tree needs strong roots for its branches to reach for the sky.

More importantly though, the answer to our search is also to be found in the depths. Sri Aurobindo affirms that the godhead sits in the very heart of matter itself. Slowly I am coming to realise this fact for myself. We are told that there is not an atom in the entire universe that does not contain this presence. This, for me, is the central keynote of His path and so the work involves unlocking that hidden divinity which lies in all things. It stands to reason too, that this presence is to

be found in ourselves too: it just yearns for the fullest expression. Indeed I feel that this can be our unique agenda for life. So now it is just not possible to pursue any sādhanā without attending to the troughs of my nature.

Sri Aurobindo writes that:

“The way of yoga followed here has a different purpose from others, — for its aim is not only to rise out of the ordinary ignorant world-consciousness into the divine consciousness, but to bring the supramental power of that divine consciousness down into the ignorance of mind, life and body, to transform them, to manifest the Divine here and create a divine life in Matter. This is an exceedingly difficult aim and difficult yoga; to many or most it will seem impossible. All the established forces of the ordinary ignorant world-consciousness are opposed to it and deny it and try to prevent it, and the sadhak will find his own mind, life and body full of the most obstinate impediments to its realisation. If you can accept the ideal whole-heartedly, face all the difficulties, leave the past and its ties behind you and are ready to give up everything and risk everything for this divine possibility, then only can you hope to discover by experience the Truth behind it (2).”

Unique atmosphere

As time goes by, I have also come to appreciate just how unique the atmosphere here* really is. There is an immense Force which drives my consciousness inwards. It continually presses this awareness onward into the truth of my being. Every time I live on the surface I act out of consonance with this energy and this situation can create an unbearable unease and friction. But this Force clearly works in another direction too, moving downward and transforming everything it touches. I have found it very advisable to follow this current. Eventually, I have found it impossible to swim against this immense tide: indeed if one has the slightest spark of sincerity it is very difficult to proceed in any other direction.

So this pressure is very evident here. Indeed it amounts to a tangible sensation that can be felt in the physical consciousness. When I first arrived at the ashram, I soon became aware of an uncomfortable vibration pressing down at the top of my head. Naturally it was the resistance that was causing this unease. I still feel a distinct sensation to this day, though the friction has gone. The feeling has now become reassuring and it is a reminder of the constant work being done. Such is the Force that insistently presses down on the lower nature and demands my fullest awareness.

A fascinating journey

Over time, I have also vividly observed how the yoga is done through (and not by) me. I often sense an unseen hand pulling me up to greater heights. But at the next moment, I might feel it pushing my attention down into the mire. This is clearly the hand that directs all our progress. Ultimately, we begin to realise that every realisation has to be eventually brought down and consolidated in matter. Surely we must rise first to gather ourselves for each descent. It is my experience that each movement, ascending and descending, occurs successively. It also takes place spontaneously and so we often find ourselves drawn into a fascinating journey of steep climbs and sheer descents. As ever however, the Mother says, such words do not totally convey the complete essence of this path:

“What I call a descent is the individual movement, in an individual consciousness... Just as one speaks of ascent — there is no ascent, you see: there is neither above nor below nor any direction, it is a way of speaking — you speak of ascent when you have the feeling of rising up towards something; and you call it a descent when, after having caught that thing, you bring it down into yourself (3).”

The reason for all this is very clear. The consciousness we gather at the summits must then come down to transmute the abysses of our nature. But it is often a journey of blood, sweat and tears. At times it is truly a war of attrition.

Sri Aurobindo says that, “there must be a descent too to affirm below what we have gained above: on each height we conquer we have to turn to bring down its power and its illumination into the lower mortal movement; the discovery of the Light for ever radiant on high must correspond with the release of the same Light secret below in every part down to the deepest caves of subconscient Nature. And this pilgrimage of ascension and this descent for the labour of transformation must be inevitably a battle, a long war with ourselves and with opposing forces around us which, while it lasts, may well seem interminable (4).”

A greater power

So in this yoga, we don’t initiate; we simply follow. We can’t expect to unlock this hidden divinity ourselves; a greater power will always act. I find that every time my mind tries to take the reins, the flow gets somehow interrupted. We evidently need a greater consciousness than the one we possess to complete the process. I feel that we have to learn to follow the rhythm of the practice and we can only collaborate by simply staying attentive and awake.

Indeed, if I do try to initiate, it really only amounts to ‘pulling’ and I am likely to come to serious grief. In such circumstances, I’m only trying to embark on work that I’m not really ready for. As the Mother* says, we have to learn to surrender. We are indeed fortunate to possess that point of surrender and we have the opportunity to lay everything at our Mother’s feet. Indeed, in this attitude, I believe that it is She who does the work through us. Sri Aurobindo says that once this knowledge is embraced, the sādhanā becomes easy. It is getting there that is more difficult.

When I first came here, this descent seemed to start very quickly indeed. My first instructions came almost before I had taken the chance to substantially digest Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s teachings. One day, the Mother visited me during sleep and pointed me down to a dark and dreary basement and told me that that was to be my allotted place of work.

There was no mistaking the clarity of these instructions. But I did find them quite perplexing as my practice had up to that point been paving the way towards higher climbs. But it was as if I had been assured that there would be no more steep ascents until my feet were more firmly planted on the ground! Looking back, from that point, the whole nature of my work here has dramatically changed and my experiences from then on have assumed a new shape. To this day, the focus of my attention has largely shifted down to this basement and it is work that naturally gravitates down to the body.

On this descending path, the body is not something we can afford to leave by the wayside. If we ever do so, we can rest assured that it will always drag us back. There is a great war being waged and it is here that victory must be won. Sri Aurobindo himself has affirmed that man’s evolution has reached a critical stage and the body has become a crucible for the transformation itself.

The process

From the very beginning of my life here, it became very clear to me that if the state of this body was ever going to move forward my inner nature would inevitably have to change first. It would seem logical that this process of change would begin at the top and gradually work downwards. I don’t know if my example was at all peculiar, but from the outset most of my attention seemed to naturally polarise onto the vital.

But the challenges that were being faced by the body meant that work on the physical nature had to start immediately too. So from those days onward, the two sides have proceeded in an almost parallel fashion. At least that has been my intention. Furthermore I can rarely afford to look at one part in isolation; everything is so interconnected. Any work on the body inevitably follows a detailed work of aligning the whole being inside. For me, this feature makes the sādhanā truly interesting because the work of inner harmony always needs to be reinforced by a remodelling of the nature outside. This integral path is really my only way forward; it entails a combination of material and more subtle approaches. So the axiom of Sri Aurobindo, that ‘the two ends can meet’ not surprisingly comes to mind.


But it is also my understanding that only living in the soul can produce the definitive change. Getting there, we all know, requires considerable practice and an unfailing aspiration. Concentration is one very direct way. And once that essential contact is made, its radiance can be allowed to expand and change everything it touches. It is at moments such as these that our nature can become the focus of attention. Depending on our inclination, I guess, we can either look upon it from a great height or from great depth.

However, Sri Aurobindo often says that it is easier to find the psychic and achieve realisation there, before rising up to those higher reaches of the mind. But whichever way we adopt, both require a persistent and unflagging will, the sort of commitment that can only be derived from the true Source itself. Nevertheless Sri Aurobindo is quite explicit in stating that the vehicle for transformation is indeed the soul.

“The supramental change can take place only if the psychic is awake and is made the chief support of the descending supramental power (5).”

I don’t think we should delude ourselves: this can be a very long road. So, for me, taking detours doesn’t appear to make much sense. The light of the soul clearly presents me with the best guide for this difficult work of descent.

And it is precisely at the point of greatest difficulty that I must direct and keep my gaze. But something in me very often wants to veer away from that point of concentration. At such times, it simply doesn’t want to experience the difficulty and so tries to shy away. That must certainly be a sign that the psychic consciousness is not present as, I suppose, there would be no recoil if I were entirely under its influence. The soul spontaneously harmonises and it doesn’t need to immerse itself in what it sees. It always remains intact. I feel that it is largely the discomfort and distaste of the mind which brings about this retreat.

I find it a little paradoxical that the further I disengage from the ground, the sharper my focus usually becomes of the earth itself. If I want to keep myself open for any descent, my eyes must obviously be cast downwards. However, if I identify with what I see, the vision tends to get blurred and out of focus. I also become enmeshed in what I face. The key is to disinterestedly observe but not get entangled in what I witness. This kind of poise has an executive action too because the consciousness is invariably accompanied by the Force itself.

Sādhanā of the body

The point that the Mother makes about the body is generally well understood. It is when the sādhanā comes down to it that the practice becomes really problematic. Comparatively speaking, there is a rigidity in the physical consciousness that defies any true change. There can at times be an almost unbearable friction when I work with this body. However, I don’t believe I’m much of an exception, although my situation may be a little more extreme. And yes, I find that sometimes it does truly grate.

An unyielding persistence is always required. But I feel that I don’t really have an alternative. Surely it is a Grace that I have been blessed with it because, to be quite honest, I’m not sure whether I would have ever assumed the work in the first place had the physical been in prime condition. In a very true way, the body has actually carried me to the Mother’s feet. It also teaches me humility. I even have the feeling that many of its lessons might even become imprinted on my consciousness forever.

Gradually my relationship with the body has changed. In my eyes now, the body fully completes the circle. Whatever the difficulties, it offers me the prospect of a greater integrality and wholeness. There is a feeling of totality whenever I consciously live and work with it. Whenever I separate from the body, I now feel an important part of me is actually separating from the Divine itself. Whenever I try to sit up in the clouds, a crucial link becomes missing. From time to time, I find myself quite often disengaging from it and I then wonder why the same joy and plenitude are absent. So that is clearly one important reason: to be wholly present in my body brings me so much closer to my true base.

In my work with the body, so much time is spent going back and recovering lost ground. But I feel that this is very important; there is an enormous task of preparation and rebuilding after all. I believe that is the essence of work with the body. But I am aware that if I intend seeing the process through to its end I eventually need to go beyond. But that stage is entirely outside the range of any personal effort. It takes more than effort to unearth the truth inside and it is only by living in this truth that any spontaneous shift can be made. It is only by keeping this consciousness entirely intact that the ‘perpetual miracle’ can manifest.


The Integral Yoga teaches us to look at the whole. It clearly demonstrates that every part of our instrumental nature is intricately connected and any disruption inside will inevitably surface on the outside too. No part can be looked upon in isolation: we have to learn to integrate our awareness too.

On this descending path, I also find that so much time is spent in the task of alignment. It is my understanding that every part of our nature needs to be harmonised around its true centre. If the body is to be made plastic enough to open to the descending Force, I believe that this work must be repeatedly undertaken. Nothing can really be taken in isolation and if the lower nature is overlooked, the body too will become encrusted with neglect. Eventually, that essential light will disappear. A light may, of course, still shine and even dazzle from inside but eventually the exterior will only become grey and lifeless, a little like a soiled rag.

The subconscient

Sooner or later though, as we work on the body, we inevitably come up against a colossal block of resistance. Sometimes, in my experience, as I manage to move an inch forward, I have eventually felt a counter-weight that presses to push me back. I don’t believe my ordeal is in any sense unique. According to Sri Aurobindo, if we embark on a path of growth, it is one universal hurdle we all have to overcome:

“The subconscient is the main cause why all things repeat themselves and nothing ever gets changed except in appearance. It is the cause why people say character cannot be changed, the cause also of the constant return of things one hoped to have got rid of for ever. All seeds are there and all Sanskaras of the mind, vital and body, — it is the main support of death and disease and the last fortress (seemingly impregnable) of the Ignorance. All too that is suppressed without being wholly got rid of sinks down there and remains as seed ready to surge up or sprout up at any moment (6).”

Unless we give attention to our physical consciousness, I feel that it is inevitable that the body will get caught in this net of habit. From a personal perspective, I am becoming increasingly aware of how habit so stifles the body. Somehow the cycle has to be broken. The subconscient is the source of most of this habit and its twisted patterns can only be erased by an unflinching will to accept the Force and Light into our whole being. It is simply too big a battle to take on single-handed:

“When the physical consciousness is being changed, the chief resistance comes from the subconscient. It is constantly maintaining or bringing back the inertia, weakness, Obscurity, lack of intelligence which afflict the physical mind and vital or the obscure fears, desires, angers, lusts of the physical vital, or the illnesses, dullnesses, pains, incapabilities to which the body-nature is prone.

“If light, strength, the Mother’s Consciousness is brought down into the body, it can penetrate the subconscient also and convert its obscurity and resistance (7).”

Initially, I feel that this is the only way. If we attempt to open our whole nature to this Force, and particularly our bodies, sooner or later it is going to filter down into this realm below. The stress of the practice will determine this.

Going deeper

But perhaps, with a more probing consciousness, one can go even further. If we can somehow consciously trace the source of these repetitive patterns, I believe that the knowledge we receive will inevitably bring light even to this most dismal fortress. For me, the light of this knowledge is just another aspect of the Mother’s Consciousness. If we can sincerely identify with That, I am certain this Light will eventually prevail.

Even on a more superficial level, we can become at least partially aware of how this hidden presence so ambiguously impels our lives. An attitude of introspection and enquiry is bound to help. It is certainly interesting to try. From my experience, I find it fascinating to see how many of my movements, inside or out, can be tracked back to this part of my nature. But that is what a little drop of knowledge gives us: it helps one to understand the origin of all one’s movements. And I believe that once the knowledge of this consciousness fully reigns over our entire being, all obscurity will naturally dissolve. Ultimately, after all, an important aim of this descending path is to go down and make everything awake. Ultimately, I believe, the Truth can only descend where consciousness resides.

Inner work

So in time, an understanding has slowly deepened. Sometimes, when I work inside, I find my attention goes down to these ill-lit domains. I don’t try to steer the awareness into any particular direction; rather it tends to happen of its volition. Very often too, I have felt a guiding hand escort me through this difficult terrain. Each one of us has our own unique point of reference. Mine happens to be the Mother. Looking at this truth candidly, I have no need of anyone or anything else. For me, it is the touch of the Mother that illumines every part of the nature.

As I scan from top to bottom, my attention may be drawn to a breakdown of the Force running through the body. That point of focus may well be one of weakness or pain. If I am attentive enough, it will then try to follow that distortion back to its hidden source. At the very root of the constriction, I might discern some darkness trying to bury itself away from the light. I don’t need to label it, but by watching closely, a spontaneous knowledge emerges and I find myself looking down close to the bottom of my being. Words aren’t really necessary and I then direct all my attention onto that spot and wait for it to gradually open and unfold. A patient attitude is always required. When that happens, the darkness recedes and a light and peace inevitably intervene. At the end, there is such an intimacy in the work: it is truly exquisite. As this Presence comes, such a force and light invariably descend into the body. Eventually it goes right down to the feet and into the earth.

These are precious moments and it is then that the body can awaken to its own true nature. I do feel that these moments can be extended. I always try to be mindful of disengaging slowly from any work inside. In the end, everything will draw back to the surface but if the transition can be performed in a more seamless way, the action of the Truth can persist on the surface too. It is a matter of consolidation and the solution, I feel, is to try to make a link between these two sides of our nature. It is also a question of always widening our usual boundaries. So if we allow this awareness to expand as the inside becomes aligned, the outer nature will also broaden into a greater sense of freedom.

The lifeline

I believe that one essential key is never to lose hold of our lifeline with the soul. Without the psychic poise, I only stumble around in the darkness. Invariably too, the further down I go, the more resistance I shall usually meet. So this lifeline becomes increasingly imperative. Eventually I will arrive at a zone where nothing changes unless something very radical is done. It is quite out of my hands. Sometimes the scenes which confront me can be very bleak; but that often comes with the work. We sometimes have to keep an inner smile amidst the grimmest surroundings. Something inside has to remain centred and true amidst the chaos and madness. We can all picture our worst nightmare: but is it still possible to keep this station in such a setting? An abiding trust is our ultimate safeguard.

At first I found that I needed to align myself each time this path was resumed. Really though, the path never ceases and I now realise that this poise must eventually be kept at all times, irrespective of circumstances or conditions. That is the gauntlet each of us ultimately has to take. We have to meet a greater call as we walk further down this path. That is the call of the Mother and of the soul and our response to it surely provides the basis for all progress and growth.


In my experience, opening the body to the Force is, quite simply, the essence of this descending path. But in truth, that presence is already there: it just has to be truly acknowledged for the body to express its innate divinity. Everything must be made conscious. What is involved must necessarily evolve but it is my understanding that the shift will hasten enormously through our detailed observation. It is well known that yoga means ‘joining’ and we also know that the Integral Yoga involves a joining of spirit with matter. So the two ends must meet for the path to reach its complete destination. It is a detailed fusing. At that point, if we open ourselves wide enough, we may even find that they were not so far apart after all. Indeed at the point of realisation, we will probably see that the two ends are indeed one.

I believe that this opening is a function of the soul. However, I sometimes find it so tempting to shut the doors and keep that presence locked away inside my heart. It seems so sublime that there sometimes appears no point in releasing it! But that presence can descend; it can also radiate outwards. It can expand too. In fact I feel that if one is walking this path, this is what it must do. The gaze has to widen so the same intensity can spread throughout and beyond the body itself. That, for me, is opening.

Calling the peace

So when I engage in this work, I might initially notice a certain feeling of reticence as I start my process. For example, when I call peace down into the body, at the beginning, I might initially sense the presence getting diluted. But it is not the presence that causes this movement. It is evidently the receptivity of the body itself (and other nature) to the new light and force. However, I try to persist; I need to experience the infusion to the very end. So I call peace into every part of the body, from top to bottom. I even call it into all my nerves, tissues and cells. I call it into the breath too. I invariably end at the feet. I actually say the words and that presence tangibly pervades each area. In the end, there is such a feeling of expansion and wholeness. Ultimately there is no sense of diminution, only a quite dynamic vastness.

Actually it is this peace that is the salvation for this body. It not only replenishes but its unique action helps it to move ahead with much greater confidence. This peace must always be nurtured; it is our birthright but somehow gets lost in the madness of the everyday world. But I believe that this Peace can be brought down into everything, not least the world. The Mother has demonstrated how her peace and consciousness can be infused and locked away inside the smallest cell. This single cell can even symbolise the earth itself and surely that is a key to the immortality that lies waiting in man.

The final bar

It is indeed interesting to notice how faithfully this body reflects whatever is contained inside. The further I proceed, the more precise this mirror-image becomes. I now believe that, at least for myself, a complete state of normality will only be achieved once everything is aligned and purified inside. That is called harmony. But the ego is always the final bar. We spend years and years consciously constructing our individuality but then eventually we find that we have to give it all back for the final work to unfold.

But I have a feeling that a long time ago the soul accepted this challenge, for this lifetime at least. It is such an intriguing test. I am now convinced that only the Grace supported by the soul has the capacity to transform, let alone radically change the body. That is why we are surely best advised to make some attempt to live in it. I guess that attaining this knowledge can be a long undertaking, maybe spanning several lives, but as we travel along the road we will surely begin to understand that every trace of separation must be effaced. One thing is certain: when all is said and done and as the last remnants of ego are finally laid to rest, we will want to pause a while and pay homage to her beautiful, descending path.


1. The Mother. Mother’s Agenda, Volume 1. Paris; Institut de Recherches Évolutives, 1978, p. 300.

2. Sri Aurobindo. SABCL, Volume 23. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970, p. 505.

3. The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 8. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, pp. 134-5.

4. Op. cit. SABCL, Volume 20. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970, p. 123.

5. Op. cit. SABCL, Volume 22. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970, p. 288.

6. Ibid.. p. 355.

7. Ibid., p. 357.

*At the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry.

* Mirra Alfassa, born in Paris in 1878 and later known as the Mother, came to Pondicherry and developed the Integral Yoga with Sri Aurobindo. She is, in my eyes, the Divine Mother.

Mr. James Anderson, a sadhak, is following the Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and working at SAIIIHR, Pondicherry.

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A descending path


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Beautiful descending path