Involution

I write a lot about going “inwards”, inward-dives, self-knowledge, self-awareness, introspection, inbent-inquiries, contemplative work, and so on. The umbrella term I use for all these is involution. It’s kind of like an immaterial evolution.

I picked up the term from the Indian side of things, primarily through Sri Aurobindo and Meher Baba:

The life or lives of man may be regarded as constituting a curve – an arc of time – experience subtended by the duration of the individual Will to Life. The outward movement of this curve – Evolution, the Path of Pursuit – the Pravritti Marga – is characterized by self-assertion. The inward movement – Involution, the Path of Return – the Nivritti Marga – is characterized by increasing Self-realization. The religion of men on the outward path is the Religion of Time; the religion of those who return is the Religion of Eternity.”

– Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva (1957)

This process of involution of consciousness gradually takes place as the gross impressions of the opposites gradually become fainter and less concentrated. At this stage the consciousness of the gross-conscious human soul gradually gets dissociated from the gross world, as the involution of consciousness infolds, and gradually dissociates from experiencing the impressions of the gross world.”

* Meher Baba uses the term “gross” to refer to the physical world, “ordinary” consciousness, etc. He’s not literally talking about the ickiness of things. 

– Meher Baba, God Speaks, The Theme of Creation and Its Purpose (1955)

Sri Aurobindo developed a whole system around involution, but rather than expounding it here, I’ll just leave this Wikipedia link, because the whole thing gets really zoomed-in and requires that you buy into his whole philosophy in order to vibe with his take on involution.

I prefer a simple, robust conception. We’re all familiar with evolution, the process by which living organisms develop, diversify, and adapt to their physical environment. Involution can be thought of as simply the opposite; the process by which living organisms develop, diversify (though simultaneously unify), and adapt to their mental environment. Evolution strives for survival in the tangible world, involution strives for survival in the intangible world.

Evolution’s sole metrics of success are reproduction and longevity. These suffice, so long as the being is not concerned with how it spends its time. “How to live” is not a question that evolution cares for. Conversely, involution doesn’t quite care for how long a physical being lives, or whether it reproduces, but how it lives.

This is not an either-or thing. The two do not exist on opposite ends of the “_volution” spectrum, as so:

Involution / Evolution Spectrum

This would imply that the two compose a zero-sum game, where any advance in one is a regression in the other. This certainly isn’t the case, as it would mean that anyone progressing down involution’s path would also be on their way towards re-becoming a monkey.

In some really complex, hazy way, the two probably coexist and perhaps even co-create the worlds we inhabit. I haven’t quite worked out what I think that would look like in a corrected diagram. Coming up with one proved a way more confusing task than I’d anticipated, so I’ll have to take some time to work on that and update this section with a new and improved diagram once I’m unconfused.

Involution seems to be a uniquely human thing. We are unaware of any other species on the planet capable of concerning itself with the quality of its time spent alive apart from the survival motive. Therefore, continuing to live as animals do, driven by survival motives alone, does not lend itself towards this type of development. It requires experimenting with that uniquely human capacity for self-awareness. Ironically, people who’ve gone down this road often report back teachings that subvert the original motive, survival. The idea that we are discrete beings, egos, meat-tubes (Alan Watts’ flattering term for a human body) living our own separate lives is called into question:

“The basic thing is therefore to dispel, by experiment and experience, the illusion of oneself as a separate ego.”

Alan Watts

“The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is – the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself – can be altered or entirely extinguished…repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by ‘spirituality’…”

Sam Harris

Involution-ists repeatedly tell us that who we think we are is an illusion that can be done away with. So do with that what you will, but ultimately, introducing a complementary idea to evolution, one that takes into account not only the longevity of species development but also the quality of that longevity, can only be a good thing.

But if we find ourselves questioning the need for involution, questioning that human life is about anything other than survival, we need only turn to this cynical Leunig:

Leunig Evolution to Suicide
© Leunig
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