Significance of workshop on Indian psychology:
A participant’s review

Sanjay Kumar
 
 

The significance of this workshop is connected with the significance of Indian psychology (IP) and the workshop’s free progress approach to education. IP is a growing attempt in the last couple of decades to emphasise the scientificity of the psychological/ practical aspects of Indian spiritual traditions. Education is a key area of application of psychology and free progress education is based on a refined understanding of Indian psychology and has been effectively implemented for more than four decades.

I participated in this workshop held at Puducherry/ Delhi during June-October, 2010. An 8-day intensive programme was held at Puducherry in June after which the participants split up into two groups for the remaining part of the workshop, held once a month for five weekends, of 2 days each, at Puducherry and Delhi.

It was conducted by the Indian Psychology Institute (IPI), based at Puducherry, run by Dr Matthijs Cornelissen and Neeltje Huppes, who are the principal facilitators of the workshop. Since its entire proceedings are imbued with their presence, a word about them is necessary at the outset. Matthijs and Neeltje have been living in India for nearly four decades and perhaps more intensively Indian than most of us participants, though they are of Dutch origin. They relate deeply to the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and are closely associated with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry.

Free progress education is the other major theme in their lives. They were/ are the principal founders of Mirambika Free Progress School at the Ashram’s Delhi branch and also work at the Ashram’s school at Puducherry (Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, which extends from kindergarten to graduate level). Both schools are based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and have stood the test of time. The Mother was herself actively involved in initiating and running the Ashram school.

I myself have had the good fortune to be part of Mirambika as a parent since 1999. Parents at Mirambika are considered part of the school and the journey through Mirambika tends to be deeply transformative for most parents. Since the Delhi leg of the workshop is held at the Mirambika premises, I have been able to also interact with them in earlier years on their visits to Delhi.

The atmosphere and quality of relations which underlie the workshop are closely connected to the free progress approach. Participants absorb the workshop in different ways/ extents. Perhaps it is essential that they do so, given that the workshop is aimed not just at information transfer but at stimulating the participants’ inner journeys. And that such journeys tend to proceed in different ways: what triggers what inner movements, with what pace is most often unique and mysterious.

It is a tribute to the facilitators of the workshop that they are able to carry along a participants’ group that is so diverse in terms of age, profession and language. Though Indian psychology may sound like a very technical or intellectual subject, we are asked to learn to listen from the heart, not get too caught up with the words or with mental understanding. Such a workshop is consequently widely accessible, to anyone with an openness and seriousness of enquiry about their inner selves.

Efforts towards propagating and developing IP as a discipline gained strength in the 1980s and 1990s, with the Journal of Indian Psychology being published since 1976. They have substantially intensified thereafter, with major conferences/ conventions being held almost every year since 2001 in Puducherry, Bengaluru, Delhi and other Indian cities. A landmark event was the ‘Pondi Manifesto’ at the IP conference in Puducherry in 2001 which stated :

“Rich in content, sophisticated in its methods and valuable in its applied aspects, Indian psychology is pregnant with possibilities for the birth of new models in psychology that would have relevance not only for India but also for psychology in general.”

According to Matthijs, IP has the potential to be the greatest contribution that the Indian tradition/ civilization has to make to the future of the world, to the further development of the world's common civilization, particularly if there is an openness and closer integration of these two radically different approaches to psychology.

We look at the significance and distinctiveness of IP in the next section. Thereafter we consider the details of the educational approach/ methodology. This is followed by a brief look ahead.

1. Significance and distinctiveness of IP

Though a term like Indian Psychology may seem a bit distancing to some people, it is really about the greatest treasures of the Indian civilization, the most essential aspects of humanity, having to do with happiness, creativity, values, feelings, with joy and beauty, with motivation and the purpose of life, and with the development of reliable knowledge in these domains. This is practiced through yoga: “yoga is nothing but practical psychology” according to Sri Aurobindo.

The propagation of the psychology aspects of this spiritual knowledge as Indian psychology serves to underline its scientificity. This should lead to its more systematic development and an enhancement of its credibility much beyond its popular western perception as an exotic Eastern tradition, in which yoga is popularly seen as a gentle physical exercise, rather than in its broadest, enlightening sense. In this way it also seeks to challenge and rejuvenate the predominant western psychology based on a narrow and rigid conceptualization of what is science, what is knowledge. It seeks to revitalise the study of the soul, inner world, consciousness, bringing spirituality back into the scientific frame and looking to great strides in the future. As Sri Aurobindo wrote:

"The traditions of the past are very great in their own place, in the past, but I do not see why we should merely repeat them and not go farther. In the spiritual development of consciousness on earth a great past ought to be followed by an ever greater future."

Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, 1971, p. 88

Another key benefit of this endeavour would be in the widespread application of psychology to most, if not all fields of human activity. Some understanding of human psychology, whether explicit or implicit, may be said to underlie not only individuals’ own perspectives towards their self-development but also human relations in diverse fields such as organizations, families, the bringing up of children and education, health-care, etc. This wide applicability may well be surprising to many readers because the dominant psychology has tended to be popularly seen as a ‘softer’ relative of psychiatry and therefore taken to be concerned primarily with abnormal human behaviour.

An elaboration of the scientificity of the psychology/ yoga aspects of Indian spiritual traditions is one of the three major themes of the workshop and one of the aims of the participants’ projects is to develop a method of research that is appropriate to this field.

Scope of Indian and Western psychology

The key differences in the scope of western and Indian psychology may be outlined as follows:

  • In general it may be said that western science has made tremendous strides in its study of matter and energy, but has not tried to grapple with consciousness to any meaningful extent. In the Indian tradition, on the other hand, consciousness is seen as the very basis of reality, of life, even matter.
  • This tradition sees reality as consisting of vast ranges of consciousness. Of these, only a very limited spectrum is encompassed by the mental level of the human being. This may be considered in a similar manner to the limited spectrums perceivable by the human senses, such as in the case of sound and colour. Western science, on the other hand, sees the mental level of the human being as the primary, if not the only level of consciousness.
  • In this Indian framework of reality the physical world is seen as one small part only. Thus the entire field of western science could be seen to fit into this one small niche.
  • There is a great gap even in the conception of what is knowledge. In western science, knowledge is something “constructed”, something you have, while in the Indian tradition knowledge is transformative, it is what you are. Most of western scientific knowledge would be seen as only the first of four stages of what is seen as knowing in the Indian tradition, these stages being as follows: information gained by listening/ reading/ objective experiments; direct experience; realization; and transformation.
  • Materialism and objectivity are the cornerstones of western science. Behaviourism, the predominant branch of western psychology, sees humans as physical entities and studies the physical expression of their interactions. Moreover, psychology studies ‘the other’, it does not consider it valid to study oneself. Clearly, this framework is inadequate for studying something as subtle and subjective as the soul, the inner world, consciousness.

Movements in scope of Western psychology

The scope of Western psychology has not been static. We may trace certain movements in regard to the inclusion/ exclusion of spirituality, subjectivity and consciousness within the scope of western science.

  • The separation of science and spirituality is traced back to the middle of the seventeenth century, when science and religion were dividing their territories. Descartes, who had an enormous influence at that time, saw man as “a thing which thinks” in a major philosophical work. By reducing man to a physical-mental object, he closes the doors to the higher states of consciousness that are independent of mental processes and pushes a whole territory of psychology into the realm of religion and philosophy.
  • Till the early years of the twentieth century, a certain kind of subjective, introspective enquiry was still acceptable even though this was superficial and confused, with one part of the mind watching another part of the mind, rather than completely stepping back from the mind. Around this time, however, psychology attempts to become an objective science like physics, and redefines itself as the science of behaviour instead of developing as the science of the soul (‘psyche’ = soul), the inner being, consciousness.
  • In the very late twentieth century, consciousness did get on the scientific agenda, but as an objective psychology related to the hard sciences including evidence-based medicine, with academic psychology being still commonly defined as the science of behaviour. Here considerable progress has been made, but this has been limited to the functional and physical correlates of consciousness.

Yoga as technology for practice/ research in IP

For studying a subjective field like consciousness the appropriate research tool/ technology is yoga, which has been extensively refined, deeply studied over millennia, with yogic sages being the profound scientists.

Since consciousness is the primary reality in the Indian tradition the ultimate proof in psychology must rest in subjective experience itself, and external, physical measurements can no longer be used as a yardstick. The Indian tradition has approached the problem of reliability by focussing on the quality, purity, and concentration of the antahkarana, the inner instrument of knowledge. Just as Western science has developed techniques to make objective measurement more reliable, the major spiritual traditions have developed different aspects of a technology of consciousness. Together they provide a solid, well-tested body of knowledge on the means and methods required to refine, purify, concentrate and intensify consciousness.

The essence of Yoga is the systematic use of psycho-spiritual knowledge for the attainment of higher and wider forms of consciousness and this needs to become part and parcel of psychological training and practice. Initially this may be based on any specific school or technique, but over time the most appropriate and effective theories and techniques will be found.

An appreciation of this opens us to the systematic knowledge/ wisdom of evolved yogis like Sri Aurobindo, the Buddha, etc. Sri Aurobindo, in particular, kept a meticulous record of his yoga, much like laboratory notes. Moreover, he has himself written extensively, while the work of many other sages has come to us through an oral record maintained for centuries then recorded in different versions of ancient texts and translated into English in more recent times. His writings are, moreover, complemented by the Mother’s more readily accessible conversational language. Once one is convinced about the scientific value of certain evolved yogis/ sages, it is possible to read them like a scientific text-book.

“When the ancient thinkers of India set themselves to study the soul of man in themselves and others, they, unlike any other nation or school of early thought, proceeded at once to a process which resembles exactly enough the process adopted by modern science in its study of physical phenomenon. For their object was to study, arrange and utilise the forms, forces and working movements of consciousness, just as the modern physical Sciences study, arrange and utilise the forms, forces and working movements of objective Matter. The material with which they had to deal was more subtle, flexible and versatile than the most impalpable forces of which the physical Sciences have become aware; its motions were more elusive, its processes harder to fix; but once grasped and ascertained, the movements of consciousness were found by Vedic psychologists to be in their process and activity as regular, manageable and utilizable as the movements of physical forces. The powers of the soul can be as perfectly handled and as safely, methodically and puissantly directed to practical life-purposes of joy, power and light as the modern power of electricity can be used for human comfort, industrial and locomotive power and physical illumination.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays Divine and Human, pp. 314-15

2. The free progress approach

As mentioned earlier, free progress education constitutes a key feature of the approach underlying the workshop. This is itself based on a richly detailed appreciation of Indian psychology and the facilitators have been themselves involved in setting up and/ working for several decades in the finest institutions based on this approach.

The free progress approach seems perfectly suited to the workshop’s principal aim of touching/ stimulating the individual’s inner quests/ movements, by developing consciousness-based psychological skills and attitudes towards this end. Often these are not recognized by oneself and more often not articulated.

This suitability may be more so in the present workshop, given that the participants were from a wide variety of backgrounds, not only in profession and age but also in terms of their spiritual seeking, some of whom came from specific spiritual streams. This should not be seen as reducing its suitability for a group that is outwardly ‘homogenous’ in other respects, such as university students in the same year.

Principles of free progress education

The general principles of free progress education may be summarised as follows:

  • Nothing can be taught; the need and desire to learn is inherent; what is required is an appropriately stimulating environment which allows this learning to take place.
  • The journey of each student is uniquely individual; what is needed is to facilitate the development of this individuality in the student’s own manner, direction and pace.
  • The project approach forms a cornerstone of the learning method; it promotes learning that is more individualised and deeper.
  • Learning should proceed from near to far, from the known to the unknown.
  • Students learn social and other values by example; therefore the need is to provide an atmosphere of trust and to promote appropriate relationships between the persons involved, i.e., students, faculty and parents: relationships that are warm and friendly, cooperative, participative and non-competitive.
  • Integral education is centred on the soul and encompasses education of the mental, vital and physical parts of the being as instruments for the soul to express itself in the world.

Continuity of process

The format of the workshop may be seen to be designed towards maintaining a continuity in the participants’ inner processes. The 8-day intensive programme at Puducherry in early June provides the initial stimulus. This is followed by 5 weekends of 2 days each, once a month, attended by participants at either Puducherry or Delhi. This covered a total period of 5 months this year, 2010, which was somewhat less than the 6-8 months covered in the previous three years of these workshops.

Some participants have been attending the workshop repeatedly in successive years in order to maintain their continuity. A few have attended repeatedly for three years.

In view of this need, some participants in the Delhi group have been meeting between themselves once a month after the completion of the present workshop. Three meetings have been held till date and these have proceeded far beyond expectations, being marked by the same intensity and enthusiasm as during the workshop. The handouts given during the workshop have been used as a reference point, taking a specific theme at each meeting, and there has been a great deal of interactive reflection and sharing around the readings.

Atmosphere

An atmosphere of trust was perceptible surprisingly quickly, early in the initial 8-day programme, with some participants expressing a feeling of knowing and empathy with others.

This has much to do with the personality of the facilitators, which reflects their own spiritual evolution. They are warm, friendly and sparkling, yet command respect, and they complement each other. They like not to be seen as gurus, or teachers, but rather as helpful co-travelers on an on-going journey of inner growth and development.

The atmosphere of the location/ setting of the workshops needs to be also underlined. It is difficult to say too much about the spiritual atmosphere of Puducherry. The Park Guest House there is one of the premises of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (there is no single unified campus there as in its Delhi branch) and some of the earliest saadhaks of the ashram have lived there. It is situated, moroever, next to the sea. The atmosphere of the Delhi branch of the Ashram generally and of mirambika in particular, may not be as strong as Puducherry but it is also substantial.

This contributes considerably towards one’s serenity and receptivity and to a comfort in voluntary sharing of inner movements, sometimes to a degree that astonishes even the person sharing.

Self-reflection through personal writing/ interaction

The workshop is designed to also encourage self-reflection through personal writing and individual interaction. One-on-one sessions are scheduled with either of the facilitators during the weekends, and during the initial programme, to discuss personal issues and progress, including those related to participants’ individual projects. The facilitators also welcome individual emails between the weekends, should there be a need.

Participants are expected and encouraged to maintain personal diaries (‘notes on the way’) for their personal reflections. This helps us focus on our inner movements and also in learning to identify and express these feelings. It provides a record of inner movements from time to time, which are very difficult or impossible to recollect later. These help in writing the monthly reports expected to be emailed to the facilitators before each weekend and, of course, also in the participants’ projects.

Projects

Each participant undertakes two projects during the workshop: a ‘mini-project’ during the 8-day intensive and a larger project thereafter, to be carried out over the duration of the workshop (this is often a further development from the mini-project). The emphasis of the projects is related to participants’ own inner search, inner progress, rather than being of an exclusively intellectual or theoretical character. They do entail, besides the self-observations, reading from a variety of source materials, searching indexes, and a write-up with references to texts consulted, followed by a presentation.

The principal aim of the participants’ projects is to ensure the assimilation and integration of the learning that takes place, but they help also with the development of new models and methods of subjective research in the processes of yoga/ consciousness/ inner self-development.

Some of the ‘mini-projects’ chosen by the participants during the initial 8-day programme were on the following topics: consciousness and awareness, happiness, silence, culture of psychological systems, East/ West, responding and reacting, pleasing others/ pleasing myself, self-realisation, from equality/ equanimity to surrender, oneness, psychic being.

Connecting to presentations

As expected, participants tend to absorb the workshop in different ways according to their own seeking and inclinations. The absence of any competitive feeling ensures that this done at an adequate level of comfort.

With the emphasis on interactiveness, following from the individual/ free progress approach, questions were taken up and discussed at some length in the middle of presentations. This was accorded greater priority than delivering the planned content of the presentation, so as to facilitate each participant’s individual journey.

One did not always absorb each presentation in its full depth and detail. Some ideas were sometimes too novel or complex and it did not seem possible to do so in a single session. Yet, something percolated that was significant and substantial. Thus the collective sessions were able to address each of the diverse participants.

Connecting to oneself and sharing

Participants are stimulated to frequently connect the generalities to themselves, their own situations and inner movements. This is not only through projects, reports and individual interactions.

Some exercises for self-reflection were given during the collective sessions, aimed at provoking the participants to connect the generalizations discussed to our own specificities, our individual tendencies and efforts. Three examples are given below, entailing different combinations of privacy/ sharing. The first entailed reflections that might readily be shared while the third involved matters that were more deeply personal.

  • This snowball exercise started with individual reflection. This was then shared/ discussed between two persons and the key points noted. These were then successively shared between four persons, eight persons and then the full group. The question was: What Helps, What Hinders in my individual attempts to progress. The answers were generally one-word and easy to share. Some of the answers collected for What Helps: aspiration, patience, effort, humility, offering, precise insight into reason for problem, simplicity, sincerity, music, nature. Some of the answers collected for What Hinders: laziness, ego, desire, ill-health, resentment, imagining all that can go wrong.
  • In this exercise the snowballing was less repetitive than in the one above: from individual reflection to sharing with one small group to sharing with the full group. The question was: How am I applying yoga to the world around me, How I intend to change this. This came towards the end of the weekend with the theme of Applying Yoga to Life and Work. It enabled the participants to move from the generality of the discussions to personal reflection on one’s specificities and thereafter to see how others were seeing this question.
  • This exercise entailed personal reflection only. Participants volunteered their reflections before the whole group if one desired. The reflection followed/ continued from a meditative silence of about 10-15 minutes. The question was: What are my strengths in terms of what works for me, how do I tend to respond to situations of problem/ anxiety, how I deal with my ‘pet problem’, how do I need/ wish to change this? Some of the answers volunteered were, e.g., reframing the problem from different perspectives, sharing/ discussing with a friend, sleeping over it, writing/ jotting, stepping back, offering to the divine.

In the individual sharing before the group at the beginning of each weekend, participants volunteered key movements, progress, difficulties and issues. Most participants surprised themselves at the extent they opened up. Some found it easier to articulate their own feelings listening to others. Others frequently felt an identity with the sharing of others, as if their own situation was being articulated. Matthijs and Neeltje also provide their own sharing at the end of these sessions, and sought to underline that they are also similarly engaged with their own difficulties, seeking to progress further from whatever point one was at.

3. Looking ahead

This workshop has a vast and deep significance, not only for propogating something as critical for humanity as IP, but also as a model of an approach to education in this field, a model whereby one can simultaneously reach out to spiritual seekers from different spiritual traditions.

As such there is a strong need for a more detailed documentation of the workshop and for considering more advanced work with previous participants. Some initial reflections in this direction are given below:

  • There is a need for more detailed documentation of the workshop. Attention may be accorded, in particular, to the little exercises, both the meditative type and the snowballing/ sharing type, some of which can be replicated more readily than others. This would be useful for previous participants also, apart from other potential workshops of this type.
  • There is a need for a documentation which focuses on the applications of IP to different fields, particularly those outside the discipline of psychology. It might be a little early to expect concrete applications after only four workshops but a beginning might be made by monitoring responses of participants towards this direction.
  • Some of those who have participated in earlier workshops come back for the entire workshop, others come back only for the weekends. Previous participants might participate in projects with a stronger emphasis on subjective research, projects that are more rigorously defined towards developing models of scientific research in Indian Psychology. Interactions in a group of such participants might gain a different focus or quality. Perhaps there might be additional or more advanced modules also for such a group.

In view of the significance of the educational approach underlying this workshop, one may end with a suggestion that can be readily taken up by many ‘spiritual centres’ if one may use the term, and not the least by those connected with Sri Aurobindo (such as the Sri Aurobindo Ashram/ Society), a suggestion to initiate education programmes based on a free progress approach and aimed at reaching out to seekers who are groping for answers. Many of these already have the requisite infrastructure and personnel. Some are running renowned educational institutions at the school level and have committed ashramites and devotees.

It is a question of reaching out, rather than any notions like spreading the message of Sri Aurobindo with a missionary zeal, a reaching out to those who are looking for answers, who are open and inclined in this direction, it is to help those who are seeking, who are trying to change from the directions/ dynamics of the ‘ordinary outer life’. The need for this is more so in a fast-paced, ‘outwardly-inclined’ environment like that of Delhi. This may not be readily obvious to saadhaks who have ‘naturally’ grown up into Sri Aurobindo’s teachings.

The need is not only for guidance but also for a support-structure, i.e., a continuing programme, senior persons and other seekers with whom participants can be frequently re-connecting in order to share our efforts, progressions/ regressions, obstacles/ difficulties; also meeting senior people often/ occasionally to guide us. As Matthijs has written , “It is also essential to organise support groups to deal with experiences as they develop, and capable resource people in case of spiritual emergencies.”

References

Cornelissen, M. (2000). The Integration of Psychological Knowledge from the Spiritual Traditions into the Psychology Curriculum (in Journal of the Consciousness and Experiential Psychology section of the British Psychological Society, Volume 4, August 2000); copy at http://ipi.org.in/texts/matthijs/mc-cep-2000-spiknopsycur.php

Cornelissen, M. (2001a). Introducing Indian Psychology: the Basics (paper presented on 22nd October, 2001 at Kollam, Kerala, at the National Seminar on Psychology in India: Past Present and Future); copy at http://ipi.org.in/texts/matthijs/mc-kollam-2001-introindpsybasics.php

Cornelissen, M. (2001b). Towards an Integral Epistemology of Consciousness: A radical proposal based on Sri Aurobindo's Work (paper presented at the International Seminar on Consciousness and Genetics, NIAS, Bangalore, India, June 23, 2001); copy at http://ipi.org.in/texts/matthijs/mc-nias-2001-epistemology.php

Dalal, A. K., & Misra, G. (2010). The Core and Context of Indian Psychology (in Psychology & Developing Societies, 22,1, March, 2010, pp. 121-155, Sage, New Delhi)