What is it that makes one form of life more advanced than another? From one point of view, we can say that some beings are literally more alive than others. This ‘aliveness’, that the French philosopher Henri Bergson called the ‘elan vital,’ has manifested itself more powerfully within them. As living beings become more ‘vitalised’ the intensity of their consciousness increases; so another parallel way of looking at evolution is to see it as a process by which living beings become more and more conscious.
Thus, we can say that because the ‘elan vital’ is relatively weak inside them, plants only have a small degree of consciousness, which manifests itself in the way they react to changes in their environment; while animals like sheep and cows are more conscious than, say, insects, because they have a much fuller awareness of their surroundings. And we human beings, as the latest products of the evolutionary process, are more ‘vital’ and also more conscious than any other animal: we’re the only animals that have self-awareness, for example, the only animals that are conscious of death to any degree, and also the only animals that are conscious of the past.
The ‘elan vital’, or ‘life force’, is inside us all. It’s the vital energy which we give out as we go about our daily lives, which we expend when we think, when we work, when we use our senses to perceive what’s happening around us, and which we also need to maintain the healthy functioning of our bodies. It’s this energy which is recharged inside us when we sleep, which drains out of us when we’ve been doing too many things and our senses have been overloaded with external stimuli, and which also passes out of us when we die. The Chinese word for this ‘life energy’ is Chi, and acupuncture and the exercises of Chi Gung and T’ai Chi are based on it, while in Sanskrit the word for it is Prana, and it’s the principle underlying the exercises of hatha yoga. Strangely, even though everybody accepts its existence on an everyday level (for example, when we say that we feel ‘run down’, that our ‘energy levels are low’ or that we need to ‘recharge our batteries’), the concept of a ‘life energy’ is alien to our materialistic Western culture, and our scientists and doctors refuse to believe that there’s any such thing. But we too have a word for ‘life energy’, even if it’s not used much nowadays: vitality.
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It’s very important to look at the ‘elan vital’ in both these areas, in connection with evolution and in connection with ourselves, because there’s a very close relationship between the evolutionary process as a whole and the personal evolution which can take place in our own lives. In exactly the same way that evolution as a whole can be seen as a process by which living beings become more and more ‘vitalised’, we can also see personal spiritual development as a process of making ourselves more and more ‘vitalised’ as individuals.
In ordinary life there’s always an outward flow of vitality. Our senses are always busy taking in sights and noises, doing our jobs or performing other tasks and chores, and our minds are always busy processing information or chattering away to themselves. These three things – sensory activity, thought processes, and mental or physical activity – are like three channels through which our vitality is continually drained away. But when this outward flow is halted for some reason, and as a result we’re able to build up a higher than usual concentration of vitality inside us, something strange happens; in fact it’s in these moments that we’re liable to experience higher states of consciousness.
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This can happen when we meditate. It’s possible to see meditation as a technique specifically designed to halt the usual outward flow of vitality so we can feel more ‘vital’ or spiritual within ourselves. As a result, when we open our eyes again we may feel we’re looking at a different world then we saw before. Everything around us looks more real and more beautiful, there may seem to be a harmony or a unity amongst the whole of our surroundings, and we may feel a strong sense of connection with our surroundings.
Another, more subtle, way in which we give away our vitality is by ‘attaching’ ourselves to external things. Most people depend on external things for their sense of well-being: their possessions and comforts, their hopes and ambitions for the future, other people, their status in society, security, and so on. By depending on these things we give part of our selves away to them. We become aware of this when something we depended on is taken away from us – when we give up an addiction like smoking, for example, or when a person we’ve depended on leaves us. At first we experience a terrible sense of loss and emptiness, but after a while, if we stop ourselves giving in to the addiction again, we feel ourselves become stronger and more whole.
There is a simple reason why building up a higher concentration of inner vitality – either by blocking the channels through which it normally drains out of us, or by detaching ourselves from external things – can lead to spiritual experiences. In the 1960’s, American psychiatrist Arthur J. Deikman investigated the changes in consciousness which meditation brings and decided this happens because meditators often experience a ‘de-automization’ of perception. Under our ordinary consciousness the things we see around us don’t look particularly beautiful or interesting, and the world seems to consist of ‘things’ which are just inanimate and exist in separation from each other and from us.
I’d always believed that a life of quality, enjoyment, and wisdom were my human birthright and would be automatically bestowed upon me as time passed. I never suspected that I would have to learn how to live - that there were specific disciplines and ways of seeing the world I had to master before I could awaken to a simple, happy, uncomplicated life. ” -Dan Millman (author of The Way of the ...
We take it for granted that this view of the world is true, that we’re seeing things exactly as they are; but it may be that the only reason we have this view of the world is because, as Deikman noted, our normal perception is automatic. It means that normally we don’t put any energy into our perceptions – it’s almost as if a kind of ‘autopilot’ is doing it on our behalf. But what happens when we meditate or when we’re in a state of ‘detachment’ is that we have the enough energy accessible to dedicate to perception.
The important thing about spiritual development, or self-evolution, is that it aims at the same thing as the process of evolution itself. For five billion years evolution has been making living beings more and more ‘vital’, and as a result living beings have developed a more intense consciousness of reality. And this is exactly what we do in our self-evolution – we take evolution into our own hands, and try to make ourselves more ‘vital’ and more conscious. We can see the mystics as more advanced in evolutionary terms than ordinary people, because they were more ‘vital’ and more conscious than others, in the same way that ordinary people are more ‘vital’ and more conscious than animals. And by developing spiritually we’re attempting to transform ourselves into a ‘higher’ form of life as well.
But I do not think it is really ‘we’ who are doing this at all, it is the force of evolution itself which is doing it, working through us, and trying to push life forward to a higher level of development. Those who try to develop themselves spiritually are sometimes criticized for being selfish, for just concerning themselves with their own well-being instead of other people’s. But this is untrue; they aren’t doing it for their own sake, but on behalf of evolution itself, and by extension, on behalf of the creative principle of life itself.
"Knowledge" Knowledge can be interpreted in many different ways. Some may see knowledge as learned education. Others may see education as intelligence. None of these perspectives of knowledge are right or wrong. Every person is entitled to their own definition, source, and use of knowledge in their lives. I view knowledge as the wisdom and insight that one may acquire over time, by personal ...