Integrality

A talk given
by Matthijs Cornelissen,
at the Cultural Integration Fellowship
San Francisco
April 6, 2002

 

Introduction: integrality and the Purna Stotra

Integrality is an amazingly beautiful and powerful concept that, I think, is destined to play a major role in the next stage of the collective evolution of consciousness in which we all are involved. It is somewhat urgent to talk about integrality because "integral" is becoming a kind of fashion word and once words become more popular, they tend to be used more and more trivially. I have heard a reputed and influential scientist object to applying an integral approach to the relationship between science and religion because he took integrality to mean the same as amalgamation – for him "integrating science and religion" implied that they were considered to be one and the same thing. This seems to me to be a rather tragical misunderstanding of integrality. The concept of integrality in the names of the Cultural Integration Fellowship and the California Institute for Integral Studies was introduced with a very different purpose in mind. As far as I know, these names were coined to harmonise with Sri Aurobindo’s use of the word integral in Integral Yoga. Sri Aurobindo uses integral here as a translation of the Sanskrit word purna. and the word purna has a very beautiful and long history in India. Whenever the Upanishads are recited, it is a tradition to also recite the Purna Stotra:

Aum purnam adah…..

That is infinite. This is infinite.
Infinite comes from infinite.
Take infinite from infinite,
still infinite remains.
Aum. Peace! Peace! Peace!

It is a very short text in which the word purna occurs seven times. To translate purna is somewhat complex. In the context of the Purna Stotra you cannot really translate it with "integrality". In this context it is often translated with "the complete", or "the infinite". The stotra starts with, "That is infinite", meaning, "The Divine is infinite." "All This is infinite. This infinite comes from that infinite." And then it starts with a kind of mighty mathematics of the infinite. It says, "If you take away the infinite from the infinite, you still have the infinite." I think it is rather significant that whenever the Upanishads are recited, this Purna Stotra is used almost like a refrain. It realigns the listener to the infinite, and to effect that realignment is the very reason why the Upanishads are recited. The Purna Stotra is put in between other texts, to remind us that the real thing that matters is that completeness, that integrality, that totality that contains everything and that at the very same time is the inmost essence of everything. This ineffable totality exists in the aspect of That, which is totally beyond everything, and also in the aspect of This, the nitty-gritty of daily life. One cannot be without the other, for if you try, if you remove one from the other, still That One Infinite remains.

 

Integrality as epistemology

If one takes this concept of integrality seriously, then it turns upside down everything that we normally do and think. It is something extremely radical. If one really understands the concept of integrality, it gives a completely different perspective, a whole new understanding to life. The Western tradition in its basic approach, at least in the scientific sphere, is following just the opposite of an integral approach. It is rather significant that the scientific tradition has been basically reductionist, as reductionism is the direct opposite of integrality. What reductionism does, is to explain wholes out of their parts. And, interestingly, this seems to work, at least to some extent, within the technical and the physical realm, the fields which Western science is really good at. One can illustrate the difference between integrality and reductionism with very simple things. If a car, for example, is made out of parts, the construction of the car seems to be a completely technical matter, it entirely happens by physical processes. The parts are put together through processes that you can fully understand physically, whether they are executed by machines or by men. So it appears that you can explain a car completely in terms of physical processes. But after you’ve done that, and you’ve convinced yourself that the physical reality is a causally closed system, you find that somewhere there is something seriously amiss. Because most of these parts would never have existed if the concept of the car had not been there first. You cannot have a steering wheel if you don’t have the concept of a car, you cannot have a brake if you don’t have a car–even a wheel hardly makes sense without a car. So obviously this physical, reductionist explanation from down up is somewhere incomplete. There remains something that can only be explained from the top down. The secret is that if you look at reality only in physical terms, you will never find what it is in the whole that goes beyond the sum of the parts, because that little extra ingredient is not physical. The mysterious extra that is there in a car besides the parts, is the concept of the car, the design of the whole and this design is not a physical thing; it is something mental.

This non-physical element is not only present in the creation of complex "things" — like a car made out of parts, or a cathedral made out of stones. It is also there in all kind of processes, like the very activity of science. Physics, for example, deals, supposedly, only with inanimate matter, but what we overlook in saying so, is that in its dealing with inanimate matter, physics itself is a mental activity. Physics is to a very large extent based on mathematics and there is nothing material about mathematics. Mathematics is a phenomenon of the mental plane; it is a mental play with mental rules and symbols. So when we say that physical sciences are reductionist, this itself is already a misconception. It is only because we completely identify with our mind that we don’t see it. When we think about the physical reality, that thinking as such is not a physical activity, but a mental activity; only, the mental aspect of it is hidden in ourselves. The fact remains that the total reality of a physicist looking at physical reality is not a purely physical phenomenon. It is something that is half mental, half physical, mental on the side of the subject, physical on the side of the object. So the physicist can pretend that he is working only with the physical reality, but that is only half the story.

Mainstream Western science holds that the physical reality is primary and that everything comes out of the physical reality, but that theory itself, science itself, is obviously not material, and neither is the reality as a whole. The Indian tradition has focused very much on the other side. And for the social sciences, in which the CIIS is specialised, the Indian approach is crucial, because for the social sciences the simplistic, physicalist, reductionist scheme does not work at all. When we study physical processes, we can do that quite effectively from the level of our mind, perhaps simply because the mind is a type of consciousness quite far beyond the type of consciousness that is there in matter. But when we try to study the mental processes which are the subject of psychology, from within that very same level of the mind, we get into a mess, because we are not sufficiently detached from the level of consciousness that we are studying. Reductionism doesn’t work in psychology because explaining the mind out of matter doesn’t work. There remains a "hard problem" because there is something extra in mental consciousness that is simply not present in matter as envisaged by science. I think that the social sciences are slowly getting to the point where they realise that the materialistic and behaviourist scheme does not work. That much I think most people finally agree on – perhaps not yet most people, but at least an influential group realises this. But the post-modern schemes don’t work either. Most of them are still horizontal and horizontal schemes don’t work because one is still in the system itself so one gets into all kinds of self-referential loops that don’t lead to resolution. Social constructionism which holds that whatever we say is socially determined, ends up with a self-defeating paradox. If even the theory of social constructionism is socially determined, the whole thing undermines itself, we can not get at any solid truth anymore and "anything goes", as Feyernabend says. If constructionism would be the final word, there would be no safety against derailments of social pressure in perverse subcultures, or even society as a whole, as happened in Nazi Germany, or Stalinist Russia. Now, how do we get out of this swamp?

Just as physical stuff cannot study physical stuff, we need to be a few layers above a layer of reality before we can really study it. To study something "objectively", one has to rise out of the layer to which it belongs and look at it from the outside. Only then one can see safely, purely, concretely what exactly is happening. This is certainly true for our psychological processes. We cannot study them from the mind. We have to study them from a level of consciousness above the mind, or at least free from the mind. And that is exactly what the Indian tradition has done. The whole Indian tradition can be seen as a very systematic, rigorous attempt to develop methods of going beyond our mental consciousness. If you see it as a knowledge system, then you can see it as a system of methods to purify the antahkarana, the inner instrument of knowledge. That is to say, one establishes first one’s aim as an absolutely pure, unbiased view on reality. Then one realises that to get there involves a few definite steps. The first one is purification, not in a moral sense, but as a freeing of one’s consciousness from lower physical and vital influences. The second one is a higher concentration, but the most important of them is dis-identification. One has to stop identifying oneself with the body. One has to stop identifying with one’s emotions, one’s desires, one’s vital hang-ups. One has to stop identifying with one’s mind, one’s mental processes. One has to look even at one’s own mental processes as an outsider, as from above. And then finally one has to dis-identify from the ego and even from the basic ego sense. In ordinary psychology, when people are asked to introspect on what is going on inside of them, there is always a conflict of interests, because they look with their mind at their vital or with their vital at their mind. They always look with some part of themselves at some other part. It is as if a judge is asked to judge a member of his own family. A judge or important civil servant cannot take up a job where there is a conflict of interests. As long as one identifies oneself with some part of oneself, one cannot look at one’s inner processes objectively. It doesn’t work, one has to get out of the whole thing before one can see it clearly.

These three steps, purification, concentration and dis-identification, need not be taken in this sequence. They go together, but all three are needed. It is a perfectly systematic and logical process to arrive at a state beyond the mind, from where one can study the psychological processes that go on in oneself (and others) in a pure and disinterested manner. This is the methodological part of integrality.

 

Towards perfect integrality: the evolution of consciousness

The question of integrality becomes even more interesting, I think, when one looks at it in the framework of an ongoing evolution of consciousness. According to Sri Aurobindo, over the last three thousand years or so, the Indian tradition has concentrated on methods to get out of the mental sphere directly into the Absolute. And it has shown that that is a definite possibility. It is difficult but it is not impossible. One can completely dis-identify from one’s mental processes, from one’s vital nature and so on, and kind of jump into a state of Samadhi or Nirvana, an absolute consciousness beyond everything else. It is possible to throw out everything from one’s mind and shoot off to that absolute state. But when one does that, there remains a gap between that state and one’s daily life, so one has to come back and one is more or less where one was. There is no real integration. Sri Aurobindo says that the older Vedas followed a different road. The Vedic Rishis developed all the steps in between so that there was a completely conscious path from the bottom, right up to the top and an integration of the absolute with our life in the relativity. He explains that the breaking up of the possibility of integration was a historical necessity in order to develop the mental layer to its maximum potential, with which we are so familiar at the moment. The focus on the mind has been there very clearly in the West, but it has also been there in the Indian tradition. During the Indian Middle Ages, for example, there was a tremendous development of logical reasoning. The Indian philosophers of, say, the fifth to the twelfth century surpassed what has been done in the West in terms of absolutely strict, logical reasoning – logical reasoning followed through to an almost absurd degree. They were using the mind to its ultimate end. So in India too, there has been a movement away from intuition to the purely logical mind. Still, one could argue that in the West, this development has been carried through more completely and in more areas. In existentialism, for example, the exclusive belief in the individual mind dealing with the most outward aspects of reality led to a deep alienation, an uprooting of the individual from her social and metaphysical embeddedness, which is, as yet, rare in India.

According to Sri Aurobindo this stress on the mind is a phase in a cycle that we have had to go through to get to the new re-integration, which is now becoming possible. We can now return to the level of intuitive unity with a much more developed mental instrumentation to express that intuitive truth. At least this is what Sri Aurobindo himself has done. He has not constructed speculative theories from bottom up, but he has gone to that higher consciousness and from there expressed the things that he saw, with a highly developed modern mind. He sees his work as the very first step towards a radical new stage in our collective evolution, what he calls the supramental stage. I will say a few words about Sri Aurobindo’s idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness, because it explains the fantastic way in which the concept of integrality comes back at many different levels, at many different scales.

When one starts with inanimate matter, and one tries to explain consciousness, one doesn’t get there. One gets stranded in what Chalmers called the "hard problem": how can consciousness arise out of an inanimate chemical process? There is a kind of unbridgeable gap. In the Indian tradition there is a similar problem. If you start with an absolute consciousness as the source of everything – the kind of absolute perfection the word purna addresses – how do you get to the nitty-gritty of ordinary life? When you start with the Divine consciousness, how do you get to our level of stupidity? From where can it have come? This has been the central question of Indian philosophy. How did we become so ignorant? It is similar to the Christian question where evil and the ego come from when God is good. Sri Aurobindo has an extremely neat explanation for it. He calls it a process of involution through exclusive concentration. He compares it to a boy who is reading a book. The boy is fully engrossed in reading and forgets everything else – who he is, his duties, what happens around him, everything. When one is fully engrossed – like we are now engrossed in this question of what is exclusive concentration – one forgets for the moment about Israel, the war, the traffic, one’s family; all that disappears. Sri Aurobindo takes this exclusive concentration, which is clearly a capacity of consciousness, as the fundamental process responsible for the involution of the original, divine consciousness into its apparent opposite, matter. So what happens when one starts with the ultimate divine consciousness that comprehends everything? At first, there are no limitations – only pure vastness, infinity, light. Then it separates into a multitude of separate centres of consciousness, but each centre is still infinite and containing everything. Then these units start concentrating more. They start excluding other things. And they become more and more focused until in the end they are so focused that they become, for example, electrons which know only one thing, how to turn around a proton. It is an absolute, almost point-like concentration of the formative ability of consciousness. The only thing that still betrays the presence of consciousness at that level is the habit of form – the habit of turning around the nearest proton. Consciousness is here completely limited to one single, fully fixed expression, obeying the most basic laws of physics. In between the top layer of free, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent consciousness, and the fully determined, purely physical level, all the other, typal planes of consciousness are formed. The mental consciousness is still somewhat free; it can float, it can see things from above. The vital consciousness is further involved. It cannot see things any more from above; it is bound to one point from where it interacts with others. On the lowest level there is the physical consciousness. Here consciousness is completely contained inside itself. There are physical interactions, of course, but only when different entities bump into each other. The consciousness cannot move out of its groove, cannot vary, cannot "play". So here is the end of the process of involution, here consciousness has hidden itself completely and has turned into its apparent opposite, matter.

So from where originates the complex mixture of physical, vital and mental aspects of reality that make up our life on earth? For this one needs a re-emergence of consciousness. The fantastic thing is, that this re-emergence, this evolution, is not just the mirror image of the involution. There are many people who have said that the Divine consciousness first immerses itself in a ready-made physical body and then, through a process of yoga, emerges out of it. But it is not as simple as that, because our individual lives are part of an ongoing collective evolution of consciousness in Nature. And that collective evolution of consciousness is not an evolution out of matter, but it is an evolution in matter. On earth one sees a series of physical forms that express increasingly higher planes of consciousness. If you look at a bird, for example, which can fly, which can sing and so on, it is typically a vital creature, it is an expression of the life world. But it is not just a waft of prana (life force) in a sea of prana. It is a physical bird, who somehow manages to behave like prana. The evolution is thus not an evolution out of matter; it is a transformation of matter in the direction of ever-higher layers of consciousness. In this process, the evolving life-consciousness has first evoked appropriate new physical forms that can embody life: unicellulars, plants and finally ever more sophisticated animals. Again, when in the next stage the mind develops in animals, it does not just bring philosophy or mathematics into being. On earth, the mind is embodied, so, what come into being are humans, who can play with philosophy and mathematics while still living in a physical body. And we, as human beings, have all the previous types of consciousness still in us. On the vital plane we have our interactions. We have love, hate, exchanges of business and emotions; all that takes place horizontally. On the next, mental level, we have a consciousness that emancipates a little more. I can rise "in my mind" above myself and I can see that I am a human being just like others are human beings. But I’m still looking from one point. I can see the world "objectively", but in only one way at a time, and my ideas can still be in conflict with reality and the ideas of others. If the evolution is indeed a process by which a divine consciousness gradually re-emerges from matter, it is clear that our present human state cannot be the final stage of evolution. The human consciousness is obviously not yet the divine consciousness from which the whole thing began, far from it. So the question arises: is it possible to have an incarnate existence, an existence in a living physical body that has that non-divided, supra-mental perfection of consciousness?

In the Indian tradition the layer above the mind is described as the vijnana, the gnosis. Sri Aurobindo calls it the supramental. It is a consciousness in which there is differentiation, but not yet division. There are many diminished reflections of this type of consciousness in the mind. It is not impossible for us to get to a state where we are aware of the joy of variety and oneness at the same time. A fair number of people report, for example, having felt their essential oneness with nature, or, more rarely, an experience of oneness on a cosmic scale, with the creation as a whole. Others have it with people and know deep from within that we are one in our essence. Falling in love with someone is a still more limited, focused state that includes this sense of oneness with one very special other: while in love you enjoy the being of another person as your own. But all these are only remote and diminished shadows of what Sri Aurobindo means with the supramental consciousness. These experiences one can have on much lower, mental and vital planes of consciousness. What Sri Aurobindo envisages is a state in which the veil of ignorance is shed entirely. It is a state in which there is a genuine identity with the divine consciousness in its full glory, in its passive as well as its active aspect, in its individual, as well as its cosmic and transcendent form. He sees it, moreover, not only as a change in one’s essential identity, a change in whom one knows oneself to be in the essence of one’s being. He envisages a radical transformation of every part of one’s nature, mind, vital and even body, till in the end every part of one’s being is aware of its identity with the Divine. It is a state impossible for the mind to imagine, just as impossible in fact, as it must have been for the monkey to foresee the human mind.

In a very deep and absolute sense, one could say that integrality is thus only fully possible for a consciousness solidly established on the supramental plane. Only a supramental consciousness can really see the whole and all the parts in their right place, understand every thing in its true, original value and significance, and act in perfect harmony with the whole. I have no doubt that a supramental integrality, in thought as well as action, is the future of the human race. To the extent that we can pull that off, we will survive. It is also clear that it will take time till the real, supramental way of looking at things will establish itself in our collective consciousness. Till then, all we can work for are more or less liveable approximations in ourselves and in all the different fields of our collective life.

 

Integrality in practice

Integrality always involves a higher order reality that encompasses, enriches, and combines things from a lower level of reality. In mathematics, when one integrates a two-dimensional circle, one arrives at a three-dimensional sphere. In the realm of technology, a car, for example, is a higher order unity than the parts that it contains. It not only combines them all, but it allots them their specific place and function; it makes it understandable, and appreciable, why each part is exactly as it is, what its special qualities should be and what its specific role is in the whole. Philosophically, if one wants to find a truly integral view of reality, one needs a worldview that is not just a combination, let alone an amalgamation of a hundred similar or dissimilar scientific and spiritual approaches. One needs something that rises above all of them, something that is capable of holding them all up in a comprehensive, higher order vision. The foundations for such a higher order view can be found, according to Sri Aurobindo, in what he calls the "original Vedanta", the most ancient Vedic view of reality which transcends and encompasses the many different, and often contradictory spiritual and materialist conceptualisations of reality that developed afterwards. Just as Hinduism is not itself a religion, but rather a complex social framework that supports and nurtures thousands of different religions, so also the Vedic view of the world provides a mental framework that can uphold, support and integrate many, if not all, ways of knowing the world, philosophical, scientific, religious, artistic, or whatever.

To our modern mind, it may sound counterintuitive that we would have to go back in time to find the proper philosophical foundation for the future. We are very much used to think in terms of linear or even logarithmic progress. But perhaps life is not that simple. The belief in progress itself is a recent phenomenon. Throughout antiquity, and especially in Greece, civilisation was perceived as going downhill from a Golden age in the far past, and most Asian cultures have thought in terms of recurring cycles. Of course, these different views may not be as contradictory as they appear to be. A circle looks like a line when a small stretch of the circumference is seen in close-up. A spiral looks like a zigzag line from the side and as a circle when seen from the top. In actual fact, we know amazingly little about our own history. The last 3000 years or so are fairly well known, but we have not more than a vague and largely speculative idea about the 3000 years before that, and we know virtually nothing about the millions of years since the first hominids appeared. It is, moreover, quite likely that we give a completely wrong interpretation to the little that we do know.

The sophistication of the first recovered cities, the first pyramids in Egypt and especially the earliest preserved texts in Greek, Sanskrit and Tamil, belie the idea that earlier times were psychologically more primitive than our own. The most ancient texts, the Sanskrit Vedas and Puranas, mention explicitly that they were composed because an earlier, much greater wisdom was getting lost. They seem to consider their own text as a crutch that has become a necessity because people are becoming less and less truthful and intuitive. There is a long tradition in India that considers all technology a sign of weakness rather than a sign of strength. After all, if we can stand storm and rain, we don’t need a house, if we are telepathic, or simply contented, we do not need a mobile. The tribals in South India even consider the building of a temple an insult to the deity. They reason that by building a separate house for God, you throw him out of your own house; by making an image of God, you alienate the God in your own heart. Perhaps we got into all this nitty-gritty of building houses, inventing electronics, speaking even, because we have lost the true word, the true knowledge. Perhaps we need all these artefacts only because we have lost the true consciousness. But even if this is true, or partially true, this still doesn’t mean that technology is an aberration we have to throw away. Even if we have developed our fantastic mental and physical instrumentation out of weakness, we could still use it for larger, nobler ends, once we have recovered a higher state of consciousness and inner power.

It might well be that we have reached the end of the long and painful period in which the West has dominated with its, inherently ignorant, attempts at building things up from the bottom. The time may have come to re-integrate this whole individualistic, mental development in the much wider ambit of the spirit. Perhaps, when one talks about the integration of East and West, it is not just that one needs to combine Western and Eastern ideas. The time may have come to find the appropriate place of the physical and mental development that the West has carried to its zenith, into the much wider, vaster and more beautiful framework of the Spirit. With the Spirit I don’t mean, however, the exclusive spirituality of Theravada Buddhism or Mayavadin Advaita, but the much more comprehensive and life-affirming spirituality of which the Vedas and early Upanishads have given us the foundations.

Perhaps one has to go to the vast, cyclical idea of the yugas before one can really understand the next step in our collective evolution.

If we look only at the surface, then it appears rather dubious that collectively we would be ready to make the colossal jump needed to arrive at a higher consciousness. We are still predominantly physical beings – or rather mental beings completely engrossed in the physical reality – and we still believe in mental, technical solutions to our problems. But our problems are huge, and perhaps too huge for the mind to solve. So perhaps we have reached the stage where we will have to move beyond our present, mental level of consciousness, whether we like it or not.

The first sign of such a change might be that for more and more people, the presence of their soul would become a more concrete and influential force than their physical surrounding. In a way, this is the real turning point that has to take place–that one doesn’t experience oneself anymore as a temporal, physical creature, but that one knows one’s own eternity, one’s own infinity. Perhaps we are reaching the point where a larger section of humanity will begin to develop a higher, spiritual consciousness and will see how the whole physical development takes place as a relatively small process within the perfect Oneness of the Spirit. This would have tremendous implications for every field of science, but especially for the social sciences and, of course, most of all for psychology. It would change, for example, the whole concept of motivation, which can then be seen as a reflection in the individual of the same basic forces and processes that are also at work in the much vaster movements of cosmic evolution of consciousness. It would change the concept of emotions, which can then be seen as different deformations of the original ananda due to the many partial and limited identifications of the ego. It would completely change the principles of cognition, in which a primary knowledge by identity would become the key to our understanding of consciousness and knowledge. This would revolutionise science: if each individual centre of consciousness is in essence a centre of the absolute, omniscient, and omnipotent consciousness of the Divine, separated off from its source by not more than a process of exclusive concentration, then one might have, in principle, the possibility to reverse this process and recover these higher powers. There are quite good indications that the different processes of yoga can actually help us in that direction. It seems quite well within our range to know and influence things and other individuals from within, through an intimate identification with their centre of consciousness. It is something, which one can, at least in part, already experience. Obviously this could lead to possibilities for the inner sciences that could lead far beyond what we are now tinkering with in physical technology. But perhaps, even more important than all this, is the change it will bring in our picture of who we basically are. If more people begin to realise our essential Oneness with each other, with nature, with the Divine, we’ll have, finally, a realistic chance of peace, of harmony and a new Satya Yuga.

This is the very short outline of what I think the word integrality as used in the Purna Stotra and Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga basically means. It will require extensive inner development. So the question is how far we have reached individually and collectively. Whether this is something that will happen in the next ten years, hundred years, or thousand years – it is very difficult to say. But that this is the direction we are going collectively, I have no doubt.