In Defence of Rigorous Subjectivity

by Matthijs Cornelissen

Introduction

Since the European Enlightenment, science has laid a heavy stress on objectivity, and for much of that time subjectivity has been suspect, particularly in psychology. Though positivism is not a philosophical system that has many supporters anymore, most hard science research is still conducted as if there was a simple, stable world “out there”, independent of the observer, waiting to be studied objectively. In the hard sciences, objective, empirical research has produced such an enormous, detailed and sophisticated body of knowledge and such an astounding flood of eminently practical devices and applications, that philosophical doubts and concerns about the theoretical possibility of truly objective knowledge tend to be swept aside by the pragmatic argument that what works so well must be true. As a result, objectivity is valued highly and as long as research is “evidence-based”, its scientific credentials can hardly be contested.

In the social sciences, and especially psychology, this stress on objectivity has come, however, at a high cost. In this more subtle and complicated terrain, objective studies tend to produce results that are, as one elderly British psychologist once remarked, either trivial or dubious1. In psychology especially, the present stress on objectivity seems to have led to a trade-off between objectivity and reliability on the one hand and validity, relevance, subtlety, and depth on the other. Social constructionism, as perhaps the most prominent challenger of the possibility of objective research, at least in the social sciences, has helped to make researchers more aware of their social, cultural and economic biases, but it has not been able to make much of a positive contribution of its own. When applied to itself, it can be charged with shooting itself in the foot and its adherents run the danger of getting lost in narratives about narratives that float freely in the emptiness of their own brilliance. If Feyerabend is right that “anything goes” (Feyerabend, 1975, quoted in Skinner 1985), then practical men shrug their shoulders and get back to work.

But for those who are interested in the more subtle aspects of the human mind, that work can be frustrating. While excellent research is done on the peripheries of psychology, especially in neurophysiology and brain chemistry, the subtle inner workings of our own nature, our consciousness, all that makes us uniquely human and that could make a well-justified claim on being the core territory of psychology seems to escape serious research. If we try to be academically solid, the subtlety and depth tend to get lost, and if we insist on staying with the subtleties, we end up with qualitative research that tends to lack the required level of certainty and precision.

This is not surprising, because the subject matter of psychology is not visible “out there” but hidden “inside”, and so, as long as we conduct psychology as an objective, third person science, we are dependent on lay-subjects for collecting the data. As I argued elsewhere (2001) such attempts are like trying to develop astronomy on the basis of what members of the general public report during their evening stroll. The main argument for using what lay-people report in questionnaires and interviews is that people are supposed to have privileged access to their own mental processes, and so if we want to study others, we can hardly avoid consulting them on what happens in their minds. As such this is the right method for population surveys that have no other objective than to map what different people report about themselves, but it is not a very good way to find out how the human mind actually works. As many 19th century psychologists already knew, and the Freudians and cognitive behaviourists rediscovered in their own different ways, most of what happens in our minds remains below the threshold of awareness. The ordinary waking consciousness has access to only a tiny fraction of all that goes on in our minds. Research that is dependent on lay self-reports is thus intrinsically limited to surface mental phenomena, and due to all kinds of social pressures and conflicts of interest, it is not very good at even that. The vast majority of qualitative methods and post-modern tools for the analysis of narratives don't help much in this respect, because though they do add detail and a certain refinement, they are still limited to the surface. The harsh reality is that “privileged” access does not necessarily imply “accurate” or “reliable” access, and there are a number of studies pointing to people's poor record at giving accurate accounts about themselves. In the end, no amount of sophistication at the level of analysis and interpretation can compensate for poor quality of the original data, and unless its data gathering itself becomes more sophisticated, psychology is unlikely to make any substantial progress.

It is at this point that the Indian tradition can make one of its most valuable contributions. It has tackled the difficulties of subjective investigation in a manner that is totally different from the Western approach, but that is logically coherent and extremely effective in terms of the insight, mastery (and happiness) that it produces in the practitioner.

Given how much psychology could gain from the type of unbiased, reliable, penetrating, detailed insights into human consciousness that the Indian tradition has developed during the last several millennia, one might wonder why its basic methodology has not been accepted as part of the scientific canon earlier, for there is access to good English texts on the Indian tradition since more than a century, and many Western scientists have used Indian practices like yoga for their own growth and well-being. Part of the resistance to taking up these methods might well be due to remnants of the amazing Western sense of civilisational superiority, or perhaps even to simple parochialism. Parochialism is tempting in science because it is so much easier to study a foreign culture from the outside than from the inside. So it is not really surprising that this is what the vast majority of Western Sanskritists and Orientalists seem to have done in their study of the various strands of Indian thought and practice. These subjects have typically been studied to find out how “others” behave and what these “others” think about reality. The outcome of such studies is that one widens one's view of humanity's possibilities, and while this feels good, it comes at very little cost in terms of one's own certainties. To enjoy Indian music, dance, and literature, to study Indian philosophy and even to engage in hathayoga and mindfulness exercises (or for the therapists, to prescribe these to their clients) is good for the individual and does not fundamentally endanger our collective way of looking at ourselves and the world. One can find this same outsider's view in almost all meditation research, which till date has focused on psychological and physiological (side-)effects of meditation that are easy to study from within the existing scientific paradigm, but that are hardly related to the reasons people meditate in the culture of origin (Murphy & Donovan, 1997). Similarly, where non-Western spirituality has entered medical training and practice it has almost always been introduced on the clients' side, but only rarely on the side of the medical practitioners.

Entering within a foreign culture and assessing human nature and one's own psychological and cultural reality with methods that are deeply embedded in a totally different worldview is a far more difficult proposal. A serious, even-handed cross-cultural exchange between the Indian and the Euro-American tradition about psychology would put into question each side's most deeply held assumptions about the nature of reality, the aim of life, the role of the individual and even the divine. It appears that in spite of these difficulties quite a large number of Western therapists have experienced and accepted the value of Indian perspectives and practices in their work and private lives, but as a collective enterprise, science has shown very little inclination to adopt the methodologies that the Indian tradition has developed to arrive at psychological knowledge. It is interesting to speculate on the reasons for this dichotomy. One reason could be that science is a highly privileged social activity and by far the most widely trusted knowledge system for the conduct of our collective life: It has a virtual monopoly as advisor for government and it is the sole provider of content and method for education in a very large part of the world. As a consequence the scientific establishment is understandably hesitant to allow tinkering with the methods and ideas that till now have functioned as guarantors to this privileged and trusted position. In response I'd argue that the sense of responsibility cuts two ways. If we agree that a better understanding of our own subjective being is crucial not only for the individual but also for the safety and progress of society as a whole, then one might also wonder whether it is not irresponsible to limit ourselves to objective research in the subjective domain, as doing so has all the trappings of Nasruddin's error.2

There is another hurdle in the way of adoption of Indian methods of inquiry which might be more difficult to overcome. The Indian methods of looking within tend to produce, not in everybody but still rather frequently, what one could call “mystical” experiences, experiences that at least appear to deal with non-physical realities, or that evoke in the observer the sense of being in contact with something sublime, absolute, or even divine. Within the Indian tradition this is no problem, as it has always looked at the world as a complex integrated whole in which spirit is the essence of matter, and matter one of the many manifestations of spirit. But within the Euro-American tradition this is a problematic and often emotionally loaded issue: Religion and science have widely been considered separate domains, and spiritual experiences are commonly held to be part of religion. The conflation of spirituality and religion on the one hand, and the stark separation of science and religion on the other has deep roots in the history of Europe but it is not a universal given. There are many strands of the Indian yoga tradition that rely primarily on experience and the rigorous application of sophisticated methods, and that have even in their decentralised social structure, more in common with modern science than with the Abrahamic religions with their dependence on the authority of a single, historical revelation.

All this being as it may, it would be a gross error to underestimate the difficulties involved in subjective science, and the hesitancy to leave the safe domain of objectivity that has produced so many clear benefits to humanity is understandable, but, as I'll try to argue in this article, I do not think that it is either necessary, or excusable to leave the subjective domain outside science. It is not necessary because humanity actually has developed rigorous methods to arrive at valid and reliable subjective knowledge. It is also not excusable because the subjective domain contains virtually everything that really matters to people: love, joy, experience, beauty, will, values, meaning, and even knowledge, which in last reckoning depends on someone's subjective consciousness to be initiated, understood and enjoyed.

The Indian tradition has perhaps more than any other put effort into the development of rigorous subjective enquiry. The very first section of one of its oldest and most highly respected texts, the Rig Veda deals with it,3 and so do the vast majority of the major Upanishads. In fact, one could well look at the entire school of jnanayoga as a method to arrive at valid knowledge. It is clearly beyond the scope of this article to do justice to this vast literature, and all I'll try to do here is to indicate the broad principles involved in two comparatively straightforward methods of Vedantic psychological inquiry, after which I'll make a few observations about the nature of reality that seem to follow from the application of these methods. I'll start with the methods, as the different view of reality becomes visible when these methods are followed, though I am aware that there is a chicken and egg problem here, and one suspects that most people would need to feel at least a basic intuitive sympathy for the worldview before they would seriously follow the methods.

The central difference between the broad thrust of traditional Western and Eastern approaches to inquiry I have already alluded to: instead of resorting to objective studies of others, the Indian tradition has put its effort into perfecting the subjective study of oneself. For the collection of its basic data it relies on a combination of two interrelated processes, which we can describe as 1) a shifting the borders of the observing self inwards, and 2) a cleaning up of the instrumental nature. It may be noted in this context that in the ordinary waking consciousness the mind is used to construct knowledge on the basis of what comes in through the senses, aided on the one hand by all kind of technical devices, and on the other by the intellect. This is the part of the story that has been developed so successfully by modern science. What is suggested here is that to make a similar progress in psychology, we need to develop a pure witness consciousness that can gradually gain direct access to the deepest layers of one's consciousness.4 The instrumental nature is then used subsequently to express with a gradually increasing perfection the knowledge arrived at by means of direct inner seeing and hearing, drsti and shruti. As the image goes, a wild stream cannot reflect the moon; an absolutely still lake can.

 

Shifting the borders of the observing “I” inwards

One of the lines which the Indian tradition has followed to tackle the notorious unreliability of first person perceptions is the idea that the more detached we are, the more likely it is that we will see things as they really are. According to this line of thought, the core of the human predicament is that our consciousness identifies itself with a little chunk of thinking, living matter, which it erroneously thinks of as itself. In both Hindu and Buddhist traditions this identification with an intrinsically small, vulnerable and ultimately mortal creature is thus held up as the main reason that the human being suffers and cannot see reality as it is. One might think that this involvement and this identification, which seems to have arisen from our evolutionary past, is actually useful and even essential to our survival, but what the Indian tradition has found is that at least for us humans this appears not to be the case anymore. To get rid of the various identifications is obviously not easy because in our ordinary waking state our consciousness is completely entangled with our thoughts, feelings, intentions and actions, but if one manages, the resulting detachment does not seem to impair one's social functioning. In fact it seems rather to enhance it: The Buddha, as an extreme example of one who realised and preached one of the most stringent forms of detachment and championed a technique that is aimed at the realisation that there actually is not even any self that can get attached to anything, may well have been one of the most influential individuals in the history of humanity. In a similar dialectic, if one frees one's consciousness both from external content and ego-sense, it does not become small, dull, and ultimately unconscious (as Jung thought5) but it actually widens and becomes more intense, luminous and joyous to a degree entirely unimaginable in our ordinary state. It appears then that to the extent that one frees one's consciousness from the small individual ego activities, it can become one with a far wider, purer, more powerful form of consciousness that is experienced as upholding, inhabiting and transcending everything in the universe, and the resulting inner freedom and equanimity help to align one's life with the larger movements of the cosmos in a manner that allows a degree of effective and wholesome “right action” not available to the ordinary ego-bound awareness.

While in modern times yoga is often regarded only from its soteriological aspect, within the Indian tradition yoga is also, and perhaps even primarily, seen as a way to arrive at reliable knowledge. In fact, in the Indian tradition the two are insolubly linked: ignorance is seen as the main cause of suffering, and it is held that the wiser one becomes, the closer one comes to a lived experience of a subtle, but intense and situation-independent Joy, Ananda, that is then experienced as an essential element of reality as it is in itself. What stands in the way of both the unbiased seeing and the unhampered enjoyment of reality, is one's involvement with a small, separated and seemingly independent “ego” and its struggles for survival, possession, etc. Yoga could, in this context, be described as a double method to effect first the disentanglement of our consciousness from its identification with the little, constructed ego, and then its re-alignment, or even merger, with a much larger consciousness that seems to uphold, inhabit and transcend the Universe.

Whether such a vast cosmic consciousness actually exists may be beyond the scope of psychology at present, but the manner by which attachment distorts perception is fairly straightforward. A few typical examples will make clear how different types of attachment can lead to different types of distortion.

  • It is natural to the emotional part of our nature to want to enjoy, possess, extend our life at will, etc. If our consciousness identifies with this part of our nature, it will tag events accordingly as pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad, etc. even though these qualities are not there in the events as such.
  • A more subtle and more pervasive distortion occurs when our consciousness identifies with our senses: Input from the various sense-modalities tends to become painful if their intensity happens to rise beyond our bearing capacity; things become pleasant or unpleasant, interesting or insignificant, according to associations arising from our personal history, etc.; and even the most basic qualities that seem to belong to the physical reality itself (right from colours to the three-dimensionality and relative solidity and stability of matter) are actually as much a product of the peculiarities of our sense-mind as of the material reality it is supposed to deal with.
  • When we identify with our most sophisticated inner instrument of knowledge, the thinking mind itself, we can still see things only through the filters of our own interests, of culturally and personally determined mental preferences and of biologically given, “innate” mental structures.

In short, our observations are coloured by our fears and desires, our physical limitations and our mental preferences. Collectively we have put a colossal and extremely successful effort into overcoming these limitations in the physical domain: right from primary school, children get a basic training in the foundations of mathematics and science, and the most gifted are encouraged to pursue these lines. But strangely enough we have not yet made a comparable effort in the subjective domain. Every child learns to master complicated external tools like cars and cell-phones, but there is hardly anyone who knows how to silence his own mind, or who can consciously choose his own emotions.

The Indian tradition has addressed this inner half of the equation and asserts that it is actually possible to separate one's consciousness from all distorting factors.6 One of the techniques the Indian tradition uses to free itself from the distorting ballast is to shift the boundary of the observing “I” inwards. That this border can be shifted is nothing new. Unconsciously we shift the borders of our “I” all the time: when I watch a cricket match I may identify with city or country; at other times I may represent my office or family; when I think I identify with my mind; when I feel love I identify with my heart; when I feel tired, I identify with my body; and I can also disidentify from all of these and watch them semi-objectively, as if from the outside. For intellectuals, the most difficult, and interesting assignment tends to be the separation from their thoughts. Intellectuals typically identify with them and Descartes may well have spoken for the entire academic community when he made his very existence dependent on his ability to think.

It is not easy to break the connection with one's thinking and as long as we look at ourselves, semi-objectively through ordinary introspection, we haven't shifted the border inwards far enough: In ordinary introspection we think with one bit of our mind about some other part of the mind, and we produce a running commentary in the process. As long as we identify with this commentator we still identify with one of the many processes that happen in the mind. What is required is to go further inside and watch in absolute silence this commentary as well as all other things that happen to be going on in one's consciousness without the slightest response or reaction. It is, in a way, quite amazing that this has been found to be possible, but it is: though it is not easy, it is doable to evolve a pure, silent witness consciousness, sakshi. From a developmental viewpoint it is interesting to note that there is a gradient from full involvement in the activities of one's mind to complete inner freedom. Initially one may still identify with the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that are taking place in the mind, while in the background there may be a growing awareness of a peace, a stillness, a luminous space in which these activities are happening. In the next phase once begins increasingly to identity with that peace, that inner emptiness, while one is still also somewhat sideways involved in the happenings in front. In itself this is already a considerable progress towards unbiased observation, but it is not far enough: the peace is still held with effort, a trace of artificiality, and it can be disturbed at any moment so that one gets entangled again in some egoic movement. There is even the possibility of a kind of dull silence to intervene in between. But if one persists, refusing any degree of identification or smallness, there comes a definite turning point, a sudden moment at which there is absolutely no involvement any more. Interestingly, a single event of this type tends to leave a permanent change in one's basic “feel” about life, reality and one's own role in it. After this “reversal of consciousness”, one is in principle a free intelligence; one has, so to say, no axe to grind anymore. In practice, however, life is not that simple. Human nature is exceedingly complex, and the “liberation” may involve more or less of different parts of one's nature. As a result, even while there is a freedom at the core of one's being, traces of egoism will still be there in other parts and they may actually dominate one's behaviour. As a consequence, liberation, or mukti, is not enough to turn one's nature into a reliable instrument for psychological observation. Sources of bias have to be removed even from the rest of one's nature, and this is a long and laborious process.

 

Cleaning up the “inner instrument” or antahkarana

If one wants to use the witness consciousness for the development of psychology (or for any other practical purpose for that matter) detachment of one's centre of consciousness from one's outer nature is an essential, but not sufficient condition. One also needs a pure “inner instrument”, antahkarana: first to find out and then to express the more subtle events that are going on inside one's consciousness. It is possible to distinguish three distinct stages in the progressive process of perfecting human nature into a good instrument of knowledge: the purification as preparation for realisation; the adjustment of the inner and outer nature as an immediate and automatic consequence of the central realisation; and finally the complete transformation of the nature that, if one puts sufficient effort into it, can follow on the inner realisation.

There are three major reasons why almost all yogic disciplines insist on an extensive outer discipline as preparation for the yogic practices proper. The first reason is simply that the inner freedom can be reached most easily when the outer nature is in a relatively harmonious, sattvic, state. The second reason is that if realisation does happen while some parts of the nature are not yet in harmony with the new inner status, the fundamental change in how one experiences one's essential Self can lead to a serious psychological imbalance. The third and final reason is that the powers, which the realisation and the path towards it inevitably bring about, can be dangerous if there are unregenerate impulses in the rest of the nature that misuse them. The painful frequency in the US of “spiritual emergencies” seems to be at least partially due to the use of decontextualised and poorly guided spiritual practices. Within the Indian tradition, powerful “techniques” for mediation are rarely stressed, and tend to be given only after many years of subtle psychological preparation. If you want to drive fast, you better know how to drive well. Interestingly, this purification of the outer nature is not absolutely indispensable: It does happen that a full inner liberation is achieved, while the outer nature is still in some sort of a mess, and it is not unusual that the inner realisation increases whatever remaining disharmonies there are in the outer nature: there is then a blissful inner freedom in the midst of an abysmal chaos outside. More commonly however, the inner realisation brings about a positive change at least in the more subtle inner parts of the nature: a greater gentleness, patience, light, love, and an imperturbable will for the welfare and growth of other people dominates the character. Occasionally both results coincide and the inner realisation leads to a beautiful inner gentleness combined with a rough and chaotic outer behaviour. For work in the world, and definitely for a fruitful study of psychological processes this obviously will not do. If we want that, then it is needed to purify and harmonise the outer nature as well as the inner essence.

 

Beyond the flatlanders' slit

As one carries the detachment further and learns to watch one's inner nature and outer life with an increasingly pure consciousness, one is likely to discover many aspects of the fabulous complexity of reality that are hidden from the ordinary waking consciousness. Though the various Indian schools of thought have worked out in quite different ways how exactly the world-as-we-see-it arises from the interaction between the Self and Nature, there is a fairly well-defined common background understanding of reality which explains both the communality and the differences between the various ways people see and live “their” particular reality. One of the important elements of this common understanding is the idea that there are several different types of conscious existence that though ultimately one in their essence, are entirely different in their manifestation. Contemporary science has paid very little attention to these different modes of being conscious, and in consciousness research the subject is often presented as if our ordinary waking consciousness were the only type of consciousness available. In the Indian systems that are based on the methodology of self-observation discussed above, the ordinary waking state is seen as not more than one type of consciousness near the middle of a long scale of different types of consciousness, somewhat like our visual range covers just some tiny part of the enormous range of different types of light that exist in nature. Material objects, feelings, volitions and ideas are all seen as manifestations of conscious existence, and there are supposed to exist all kinds of subtle phenomena besides, that our fixation on the material world prevents us from perceiving.

The English language contains hints that in folk-psychology there is a basic awareness of these different modes of being conscious within the ordinary human range: We speak of “using our head” when we want to think more clearly; of “opening our heart” when we need more compassion; and of “trusting our gut-feelings” when immediate survival is at stake. These are very crude distinctions, however, compared to what is available on these issues within the Indian tradition, and to what is available to direct inner sight once we silence the mind and free our consciousness from its slavish involvement in the incessant hum of our senses, desires, intentions and thoughts. Charles C. Tart is one of those who have tried to introduce some of this wider range into academia with his proposal for “state specific sciences” (1972). However, his decision to keep his theory largely separate from the enormous amount of work that has already been done in this area by the various spiritual traditions, and perhaps also the fact that much of the insights he cites are derived from the chaotic world of drug-induced alternative states, have arguably deprived his theory of sufficient concreteness, internal harmony and complexity. It does not seem to have been taken up and developed to any great extent in the 40 years since it was first published. Perhaps it came simply too early.

If we can use once more the development of astronomy as a metaphor for the development of psychology, then our mainstream academic psychology seems to compare to the Indian tradition somewhat like pre-Copernican to Einsteinian astronomy. Just as Ptolemy took the Earth as the centre of the physical universe, mainstream psychology takes the ordinary waking state (OWS) as if it were the one and only standard of all things psychological, everything else in this wondrous universe is judged exclusively from that, very limited, OWS-centred perspective.

 

Flat-landers

 

Limiting itself to how the world appears to humans in their Ordinary Waking State, 19th century physics and 20th century psychology took it for granted that the world consists primarily, if not exclusively, of a space-time continuum in which material objects move and interact. Theoretical physicists have long ago begun to doubt that this is a very good model of reality, but it is still implicit in much of social science, and even in consciousness studies where it stands squarely in the way of serious progress. There is nothing like a real consensus in the field of consciousness studies, but the idea that consciousness “emerges” at a certain level of neurological complexity is presently so widely accepted that even those who differ from the mainstream tend to use it as the baseline from which they differentiate their own theory. What seems to escape attention is that “emergence” is not at all a valid explanatory category; it is in fact no more than an admission of ignorance. To stay within our metaphor, astronomy would have reached nowhere if it had simply accepted that the sun “emerges” every morning out of the Eastern horizon. In fact, “emergence” typically reminds one of what happens to Flatlanders when a 3-dimensional object passes through their two-dimensional space, and it is tempting to think that what is missing in the field of consciousness studies is the awareness of the multi-dimensionality of consciousness.

 

Ego-centricity

I'm inclined to think that though social constructionism has done a good service in making the social sciences more aware of the influence of social factors in the way we “construct” reality, it has not helped in this area. The different viewpoints social constructionism deals with are still differences within the OWS, and as such it still describes variations within the Flatlanders' world.


Still flatland

 

Multiple truths?

Criticising is not much use unless one has something better to suggest, and one may doubt that the Indian system of which I have indicated some basic methodologies fares any better than the one psychology uses at present. The most common objection is that the various spiritual and religious systems that have developed within India seem to have come up with entirely different maps of the subtle worlds they all claim to describe. Interestingly, the Indian tradition itself has no difficulty with this. At least 2500 years before Katz, the Taittiriya Upanishad (2.6) cheerfully declares: “Whoever envisages it as the existence, becomes (or finds) that existence, and whoever envisages it as the non-existence, becomes (or finds) that non-existence”. Interestingly, this was not taken as a sign that both parties where imagining things. It was taken as a consequence of the fact that the ultimate reality goes beyond our mental differentiations, and that we humans can do not much more than give our different approximations and indications of That, according to our nature and circumstances, while acknowledging that none of them will be perfectly perfect or complete. One of India's most well-known mahavakya, “great words”, says, “Truth is one while the wise give it many names”. The ancient phrase does not ridicule the many different ways in which the truth is seen: it is not blind men but “the wise” who use different names. The logic behind is that the ultimate reality is ineffable, or, in the much nicer Sanskrit expression, anantaguna, of infinite quality, while our minds are too small to grasp that infinity. So to express the One whom we can become or know in a deep inner sense but not understand in a superficial mental way, all we can do is describe some penultimate experience, which points to an indescribable that is far beyond itself. Consistent with the idea that to get at the truth one should be detached from one's own thinking, ideas, philosophies and even the most sublime experiences are used only as tools to get in contact with a reality that surpasses them. While fully acknowledging that there is only one ultimate Truth, the Indian tradition sees no point in trying to arrive at a single universal formulation of that Truth.7 This deep respect for variety is one of the great achievements of the Indian tradition, which humanity might well take note of if we want to keep our conflict-ridden, multicultural world together!

If there is any truth in all this, then the fact that there are such big differences between the various spiritual traditions does not have any decisive bearing on the question whether spiritual experiences are in the end only brain-states or genuine pointers to a non-physical, but nevertheless objective, shared reality that truly exists “out there”. The question will probably be settled in due time by accumulating evidence of the existence or absence of shared experiences and perhaps especially of incidents where people can accurately observe what other people do in shared inner spaces. It looks to me that such evidence exists aplenty even now, both in the spiritual and the parapsychological literature. Of these two, the former is rich in content but vulnerable to the objection that some of it might be due to conscious or subconscious deception. The latter body of literature is much poorer in content and structure but also relatively solid: academic parapsychology has probably done more to arrive at fraud- and deception-proof evidence than any other branch of science. The fact that after more than hundred years of such “fraud-proof” research there is still a group of vociferous sceptics seems to show that, at least for some people, personal experience (or the lack of it) plays a more decisive role than objective research in shaping their opinion.

But in the end, answering these questions may not be as important or urgent as it seems. Interestingly, not knowing whether these differences are differences of fact or interpretation does not stand in the way of developing a good science of inner exploration that consists both of generic rules and methods, and of state-specific knowledge and advice. It may be too early to arrive at definite conclusions about the exact geography of the inner realms, but we may have reached the stage where we can at least begin to develop the methods that will enable us to explore the territory effectively. It would be utter folly if for this highly important enterprise the newly arising global civilization would ignore the philosophical insights, the theoretical knowledge and the practical know-how already developed in Asia.

 

Endnotes

1    This happened at the 2001 annual conference of the Consciousness and Experimental Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society in Oxford. Everybody present nodded in solemn agreement.

2    Nasruddin tells the story of a man who is searching under a street light for keys he has lost inside his house. When questioned the man replies, “What to do? Inside it is dark!”

3    The Rig Veda is from a very early period of human history and its language and symbolism are open to different, even conflicting, interpretations. Traditionally the symbolism is understood to allow interpretation at three levels: the most outward, Ādhibhautika, where it is appears to deal with the technicalities of various sacrifices; an intermediate level, Ādhidaivata, where the various godheads and forces of nature are involved; and a deep inner level, Ādhyātmika, that deals with subtle spiritual processes, powers and realisations. Most non-Indian and even many Indian academics have limited themselves to the first two levels, though it is only at the third level that the text becomes fully understandable and internally coherent. It is also only an interpretation at this level that explains the high esteem in which this text has been held throughout Indian history. For a short introduction, see “The Doctrine of the Mystics” and for a further exposition, The Secret of the Veda (both: Aurobindo, 1995).

4    The Indian tradition asserts that if one does so, one discovers that in the end all consciousness is one, so that if one goes deep enough inside oneself, one can also access the consciousness of others and even the subtle knowledge structures that underlie reality itself. This seems a bold claim, but one could argue that in Western science something akin to the latter is done with mathematics.

5    “To us, consciousness is inconceivable without an ego…. If there is no ego there is nobody to be conscious of anything. The ego is therefore indispensable to the conscious process….an ego-less mental condition can only be unconscious to us, for the simple reason that there would be nobody to witness it…. I cannot imagine a conscious mental state that does not relate to a subject, that is, to an ego.” (Carl G. Jung, 1958, p. 484, quoted in Dalal, 2001)

6    In his little masterpiece, “The Problem of Pure Consciousness” (1990), Forman has made an excellent case for the possibility of an entirely “pure consciousness” and he seems to have refuted effectively the various arguments Katz (1972) and others have brought in to argue the opposite.

7    This is not to say that there have not been fierce philosophical disputes during India's long history, especially during the middle ages, but one does not find them in the older scriptures, like the Vedas and the older Upanishads. In modern folktales acrimonious debates are systematically scoffed at: uneducated but pure at heart little girls typically outwit pedantic and arrogant scholars.

References

Aurobindo, Sri (1995). “The Doctrine of the Mystics” in Aurobindo (1995); accessed on 20-12-2006 at http://www.saccs.org.in/texts/sriaurobindo/-sa-doctrine-mystics.php.

—— (1995), The Secret of the Veda, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

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