3. The Sunlit Path
There are two paths, Sri Aurobindo used to say, the path of effort and the sunlit path. The path of effort is well known. It is the one that has presided over our entire mental life, because we try to reach for something we do not have or think we do not have. We are full of wants, of painful holes, of voids to be filled. But the void never gets filled. No sooner is it filled that another one opens up, drawing us into yet another pursuit. We are like an absence of something that can never find its presence, except in rare flashes, which vanish immediately and seem to leave an even greater void. We may say that we lack this or that, but we really lack one thing, and that is self: There is an absence of self. For what is really self is full, since it is. Everything else comes and goes, but is not. How could what is ever be in need of anything else? An animal is perfectly in its animal self, and once its immediate needs are satisfied, it is in equilibrium, in harmony with the universe. Mental man is not in his self, though he believes he is - he even believes in the greatness of his self, because it must have size, like everything else, and there must be bigger and lesser selves, more or less voracious or talented or saintly or successful selves; but by doing so, man avows his own weakness, because how could what is self be more or less self? It is, or it is not. Mental man is not in his self: he is in his inventory, like a mole or a squirrel.
But then, where is that elusive self? . . . To ask the question is to knock at the door of the next circle, to engage in the movement of introspection of the second kind. And here, too, it is pointless to theorize on the nature of the self; it must be sought and discovered experientially. Now, we did say that the method had to take place in life and matter, because we can very well shut ourselves up in a room, keep out the sounds of the world, keep out its desires, tensions and countless tentacles; we can hold all these things at arm's length and, maybe, from within our little inner circle catch a glimpse of self, some ineffable transcendence, but the minute we open the door of our room and let go of our grip, everything will fall back on us again, like a mantle of seaweed over a diver, and we will find ourselves exactly as before, only less capable of putting up with the noise and swarm of little cravings awaiting their hour. It is not by the grip of our virtues or exceptional meditations that we shall clear away that mantle, but by something else altogether. We will therefore start with what we are and as we are, at the physical level of everyday life.
We are Bill Smith, a name without a meaning, a legal artifice to tie us to the great Machine and to an obscure genealogy we do not know much about, except that we are the son of our father, who was the son of his father, who was the son of his father, and that evidently we shall be the father of our son, who will be the father of his son, who will be the father of his son, and so on endlessly. And we walk up and down the great boulevard of the world, here or there, in a Los Angeles which looks more and more like Tokyo, which looks more and more like Mexico City, which looks more and more like every city in the world, just as one anthill looks like another. We can very well take a plane, but we will find ourselves again everywhere. We are French or American, but, to tell the truth, that is only history and passports, another artifice to bind us hand and foot to one machine or another, while our brother in Calcutta or Rangoon walks the same boulevard with the same question, under a yellow, red or orange flag. All this is the vestige of the hunting grounds, but there is not much left to hunt, save ourselves, and we are well on our way to being crushed out of that possibility, too, under the steamroller of the great Machine. So we go up and down the stairs, make phone calls, rush around, rush to vacation or enjoy life, like our brother under a yellow or a brown skin: in English, French and Chinese, we are harassed on all sides, exhausted, and we are not quite sure whether we are enjoying life or life is enjoying us. But it goes on and on all the same. And through it all, there is something that goes up and down, rushes and rushes, and sometimes, for a second, there is a sort of little cry inside: "Who am I? Who am I? Where is me? Where am I?"
That brief second, so vain and futile amid this gigantic haste, is the real key to the discovery, an all-powerful lever that seems like nothing - but truth seems like nothing, naturally, for if it seemed like something, we would already have wrung its neck, to pigeonhole it and harness it to another piece of machinery. It is light; it slips through the fingers. It is a passing breeze that refreshes all.
Then the question sinks a little deeper. In fact, it is not that it sinks or intensifies; it is as if a first breath of air enabled us to appreciate better the daily suffocation we live in and revealed deeper layers to our eyes, other, subtler coverings. We are indeed Bill Smith, a legal and national artifice, a little mechanized cog that would like to get out of the machine. But what is behind Bill Smith? There is a man walking a boulevard, going up and down the great mental roller coaster, humming with a thousand thoughts, of which none truly matters, none remedies his sorrow or desire; there is what the latest book thinks, what that billboard or those headlines scream, what the professor or schoolmaster or friend or colleague or neighbor said - a thousand passersby milling in the inner street - but where is the one who does not pass, the lodger of the dwelling? There is yesterday's experience, which ties in with the accident of the day before, which ties in with . . . a gigantic telephone network, with switches, relays and instant communications, but which really communicates nothing, except the same rehashed and self-contained story, which keeps swelling up and swelling up and curling back onto itself and unrolling a sum of past that never makes a true present, or a future that is but the sum of a million acts adding up to zero - where is the act, where? Where is the self of that addition, the minute of being that is not the result of the past, the pure touch of sunlight that escapes that machinery, even more merciless than the other one? There is what our fathers and mothers have put into us, and books, priests, partisans, grandfather's cancer, great-uncle's lust, the good of this one, the less good of that one; there are the Tables of the Law of iron, the thou-cannots, thou-should-nots, Newton and the churches, Mendel and the law of gestation of germ cells - but what germinates in all that? Where is the Germ, the pure unexpected seed suddenly bursting open, the Thou-Can like a stroke of grace in this implacable round conditioned by the fathers of our fathers inside the mental fortress? There is this little man walking along a boulevard, going up and down the same avenue a thousand times; inside, outside, it's all the same, like nothing walking in nothing, anybody inside anything, John or Peter with only different neckties: between this lamppost and that one nothing has happened. There was nothing, not a single second of being!
But, suddenly, on this boulevard, there is a sort of second-degree suffocation. We stop and stare. What do we stare at? We don't know, but we stare. All of a sudden we are no longer in the machine; we are no longer in it, we never were! We are no longer Bill Smith or American or New Yorker, the son of our father or the father of our son, our thought, or heart or feelings, or yesterday or tomorrow, or male or female or anything of the kind - we are something else altogether. We don't know what, but it stares. We are like a window opening.
Then it vanishes; the machine takes over again.
But, alone in our room that night, if we go over the day, review the thousand gestures and steps and faces, the coming and going in that whirling grayness in which nothing seems to have happened, a day among a thousand others that are like a deserted semidarkness, we suddenly notice a little spark of light rising to the surface, oh, so tiny, so fleeting that it is almost like a passing firefly, and it is that lone little second when we stopped in the midst of the frenzy, that little second of nothing, that useless misstep, that faltering of thought, that snag of being - that's all that remains of the day, the only existing second, the only inhabited moment. That's all that was among a million empty seconds.
From then on, the suffocation becomes very effective. It is as if our being had begun to feel an imperceptible fissure in the dark, some crack we do not even know lets light in - and what light, since it seems even darker than before? But we come back to it despite ourselves. There is like another air circulating, an impalpable change of density, and at the same time like a fire being lit, an obscure black fire which knows nothing except that it needs, needs something else so very much.
Out, out with the mind and its candle flares,
Light, light the suns that never die!
So Bill Smith - who is no longer anything really, who is less and less something, who escapes through all the pores of his skin - stops again, stops more and more often in the midst of the great bustle, and he does not even ask a question anymore, he does not even expect an answer: he has become the question, a living fire of nothing, a pure, pounding question, a growing absence, so poignant it is almost like a presence. He stops here, stops there, raises unseeing eyes to this street poster, that man dressed in brown, those millions of shadowy humans; he is no longer even a thought, not even a feeling: he is one step removed from himself, from the something that stirs, goes up and down, relays thoughts and feelings and memories and desires, and runs like a well-oiled clock - wound up since when? - unwinding and unwinding, inside, outside, it is all the same. He is that site of sudden stillness, that cry of suffocation, that blind stare of a newborn from a world yet to be, it seems, but which beats as the only existing thing in this nonexistence. He is in a no-man's land of being, at times a tearing state of nonself, so tearing it seems that tear is the only measure of being in him.
Now the waste-land, now the silence
A blank dark wall, and behind it heaven.
So at night, alone in his room, he looks again at those brief seconds that shine inexplicably, that even radiate as though projecting beyond themselves, suffusing everything they touch with drops of their light; the man in brown, the absurd poster, the ray of sun on a park bench are as if imbued with special life, captured, photographed down to the least detail - they live, they are. All the rest is like dust swallowed up into a limbo of nonexistence. Yet there was no thinking in him, no feeling, no memory, not even any I, especially not any I; it was the one second when all that was gone, when he had stumbled upon a rather dizzying non-I.
Then the vain walker discovers something else. He notices that those scattered little drops of light (is it light? it is rather like a sudden eruption into something else, a vibration so swift it escapes our habitual perceptions and colorful translations; it vibrates, it is something vibrating, like a note of another music for which we have no ear yet, colored brush strokes of another country for which we have no eyes yet), those tiny little landmarks of a blind geography, are indestructible, as it were. They live and go on living long after they have passed by, as if they never passed away. And indeed they never pass away; they are the only thing that does not pass. It seems as if that little tear there, in front of that poster or park bench, that sudden stare before nothing, maintains its own intensity; that drop of something else, that sudden little cry for nothing, goes on being, as if it had settled into a secret cleft in us and kept on vibrating and vibrating, one drop added to another without ever dissipating, without ever being lost; and it keeps building up and building up like an unfailing reservoir in us, a haven in the making, a set of batteries gradually being charged with another intensity, and which is like a beginning of being.
We begin to set out upon the sunlit path.
We are no longer quite in the machine, although it may still snag us from time to time, but only to make us feel its crushing tension, its dark rotation in a nothing which connects with nothing which connects with nothing - we have felt another air, even if it seems like nothing, and we can no longer put up with this nonexistence, which rambles from one end of the planet to the other, from one phone call to another, one appointment to another, which goes up and down the endless grind where nothing ever happens, except the same sempiternal story with different faces and different names and different words, on this boulevard or another - it has to be! Between this lamppost and that one, this third floor and the fourth, this 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. of a clock that times nothing, something has to be, to live, this footstep has to have its eternal meaning as if it were unique in the millions of hours on the dial, this gesture has to be borne by someone, this newspaper stand we pass, this rip in the carpet, this doorbell we ring, this second - this second - has to have its own unique and irreplaceable wholeness of existence as if it alone were to shine till the end of time - oh, not this nothingness walking in nothingness! Let it be, be, be! . . . We want to remember, remember all the time, and not just drift down the boulevard like a jellyfish. But remember what? We don't even know what has to be remembered - to be sure, not I or the machine, or anything that again connects one thing to another. A pure recall, which ends up becoming like a call, a fire burning for nothing, a little vibration of being that accompanies us everywhere and permeates everything, fills everything, each step, each gesture, each second, and which even extends behind us, as if we moved within another space, with that little fellow in the foreground who keeps going on, but who is no longer totally in it, who has already absconded, filled his lungs with another air, who hearkens to another song, runs to another rhythm - and it is almost like an eternal rhythm, very vast and soft. And all of a sudden, he raises his head in the middle of that boulevard; he pokes his head above the frenzy; and it is such a clear look, so luminous, almost joyful, sparkling, wide and sunny, taking everything in at a glance, so triumphant and sure and crystalline - instant royalty. We are! It is! We are on the sunlit path, as if carried by that growing little vibration of being.
We had no need of silence, of a well-insulated room, of keeping life's tentacles at a distance. On the contrary, the tighter they grasp and try to suffocate us, the more deafened we are by all that racket of life, and the more it burns inside, the hotter it is, the greater the need to be that and only that, that other vibrating thing without which we cannot live or breathe - forgetting it even for a second is to fall into total suffocation. We are treading the sunlit path amidst the world's darkness - inside, outside, it's all the same, alone or in a crowd we are forever safe, nothing and nobody can take that away from us! We carry our secret royalty everywhere we go, moving ahead gropingly within another geography, which gradually reveals secret harbors and unexpected fjords and continents of peace and glimpses of unknown seas reverberating with the echo of a vaster life. There is no more wanting or not wanting in us, no more compulsion to acquire this or that, no struggle to live or become or know: we are borne by another rhythm that has its spontaneous knowledge, its clear life, its unforeseeable will and lightning effectiveness. A different kingdom begins to open up to us; we cast another look at the world, still a little blind and unknowing, but insightful, as if pregnant with a reality yet unborn, made wide by a knowledge still unformulated, a still shy wonderment. Perhaps we are like that brother ape of not so long ago who looked at his forest with a strange look, at his mates who ran and climbed and hunted so well but were not aware of the clear little vibration, the odd marvel, the sudden stillness that seemed to sunder the dark clouds and stretch far, far away, into a vastness vibrating with creative possibilities.
(5)Sri Aurobindo, "Musa Spiritus," 5:589.
(6)Sri Aurobindo, "Journey's End," 5:570.
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