Why this book was written
and for whom it is meant
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: May 2019

A personal preamble

In early 2001, a seminar was held in South India for psychologists with an interest in spirituality.1 There were participants from all over the world and when a therapist from California realised how few well-trained psychotherapists there were in India, he got all enthusiastic about the enormous scope for his much-loved profession in this vast country. His enthusiasm didn't last long, however. A well-respected Indian psychologist looked at him somewhat pensively and said. "When I have an issue for which I need psychological help, I go to whomever has the highest consciousness, not to whomever has the highest degree in psychology." Most Indians present on the occasion seemed to agree that they would do the same. (For those who like stories, here are two anecdotes telling how such meetings with people "with a higher consciousness" work out in practice. The first one is about a world-famous guru. The second one about a rather special "neighbourhood guru" whom I had the good fortune to know.)

What happened at the end of this seminar reflected almost exactly with what had gone through my mind some 25 years earlier. After finishing my medical training, a few years worth of academic psychology and a variety of short counselling courses in the Netherlands and the USA, I had come to India to learn more about yoga and meditation, which I wanted to use in psychotherapy and counselling. But when, after a few months, it was time to return, I realised that it had not worked as planned: a few months had not been enough. If I really wanted to understand how the human mind works, I could learn more in India than at the university of Amsterdam. And so I stayed on in India, first for a few more months, and then for a few more years. By now, 42 years have passed, I'm still in India and I'm still learning.

Recently, there was a third event, that for me finally nailed how serious the problem actually is. I spoke with an old-student who had just completed one of the best professional counseling courses in India. Before she took up this course, she had already gone through an extensive spiritual education and she explained how well all the different Western techniques she had learned during the course fitted into the wider understanding she had obtained earlier. At the end of our chat, she said how wonderful it was for her personally when counselling actually worked and how grateful people were for the progress it helped them make. As she gave some more detail on what she did during counselling sessions, and how simple it actually was, she suddenly giggled and said, "all this doesn't sound very scientific of course." And I thought: "Heck, if a good counselling session doesn't sound scientific, which of the two should adjust?"

Long ago, when Gallileo dropped his canon balls from the tower of Pisa and they did not behave according to the theories of Ptolemeus, who had to give way? Ptolemeus or the cannon balls? If Gallileo and the other pioneers of modern science had shrugged their shoulders and accepted Ptolemeus' hegemony, would we have had the science and the technology we enjoy today?

This is one corner of the scientific enterprise that is perfectly simple and straightforward: when there is a gap between reality and the accepted scientific theory, it is the theory that must be adjusted. But strangely, when it comes to psychology, this is not what happens. People live their lives and practicing psychologists use whatever techniques they have found to work, and everybody accepts that the official, mainstream, academic science of psychology, the science that was supposed to support us in our efforts to understand and improve ourselves, doesn't really help, that its stress on measurement, facts and statistics, however admirable in its own way, is not commensurate with the depth, the pain, the love, the beauty, the freedom and the commitment of real people in their real, day to day lives. In psychology, there is a huge gap between the theory and the practice.

Strangely enough, we accept that this is how it is, and we continue. Is it because most psychologist work in isolation and positivist, physicalist science is too vast a colossus for any individual to tackle? Is it because positivist, reductionist science works so well for cars, planes, and cell-phones, that we don't dare to shout?

Using incompatible knowledge systems, each in its own separate silo

For the individual, the problem can be solved. When the standard scientific understanding of life is no longer sufficient, psychologists and "ordinary people" alike tend to take recourse to one of the many alternative schools and practices that our rich, global civilization has on offer. For a few, this works really well: after a bit of trial and error they settle on one of them, become happier and find the meaning and direction back for their individual lives. The problem is, that these therapeutic or spiritual groups tend to live in relatively narrow, self-satisfied silos. Typically, there is a charismatic therapist or guru who has found inner happiness and satisfaction following a specific technique or spiritual path, and he teaches that same method to his disciples. Since only those for whom it works stay around, as time passes, the group tends to develop a stronger and stronger inner cohesion; there is a growing gratitude and admiration of the disciples for their guru (or of the clients for their therapist) and both the leader and the followers become more and more confident about the path they have chosen.2 Underneath the satisfaction amongst the members of these groups, there is however a rather embarrassing piece of reality: most of these groups are limited in their understanding, many plain flawed, but nobody really minds because for their own personal lives, they are good enough: they work.

And yet, the fact that some individuals can find a way out, does not make the situation alright. There is is still a problem for the society as a whole, and the nature of that problem becomes clear when we realise how far we might have reached if we had been as creative, clever and stunningly successful in psychology as we already are in engineering. How would it be if we had schools in which each child would develop happily and freely into the very best human being it could possibly become; if counselling would redress people's psychological problems with the same speed and reliability that we take for granted in the maintenance of cars and aeroplanes; if politics would give us the best possible governments; if businesses would do what the world genuinely needs; if more and more people would feel love and oneness, and live and act on that happy foundation? All this sounds at present completely unrealistic and utopian, but this — and much more — would be within our human reach if we were as good in psychology as we already are in physics and chemistry. With the help of the hard sciences, humanity can make things as utterly implausible as aeroplanes and cell-phones, solar panels and self-driving cars, so "why on earth" would a good, effective science of psychology be beyond us?

Part of the problem is that the making of isolated silos is not limited to small spiritual sects and schools of psychological practice. It also happens in the large world-religions and even in science. For the religions this is understandable enough. One of the roles religion plays in society is to pass insights and values from previous generations on to the present one. As a result, they are focussed on their past, and since they provide their followers with meaning and belonging, they tend to veer, almost inevitably, towards a conservative outlook and a sense of communal identity. But science has a very different role in society, and in science all this is not supposed to happen. Science is supposed to find new knowledge and new solutions. It is progressive by design. It accepts that its findings will always be open to revision, and it thrives on internal criticism. But unfortunately, as a whole, science is yet again a strongly siloed knowledge system. While it is open to the temporary nature of whatever truth it has established, it is extremely defensive about its basic assumptions and processes.

In contrast with the religions, science does not attempt to hold on to its findings: what is sacrosanct in science is not content but the "scientific method". This again would not matter if science limited itself to the physical domain in which this method and its underlying assumptions work marvellously well. But unfortunately science has been so successful in its own domain, that it now also provides the basic paradigm for psychology and many of its applications, like therapy and education, where it misses out on too much of what it means to be human. Since science does not know how to understand consciousness and subjective reality directly, it cannot get in direct touch with beauty, love, respect, freedom, agency or even meaning, and when it tries to deal with any of these things, it has to objectify and flatten them first, and what it then processes are only their tokens and reflections. As a result its physicalist, reductionist assumptions and processes are not only inadequate, but actually harmful.

Can we create a science of subjective reality?

The science we have at present knows very well how to work with objective reality, with what Descartes called "measurable things", and there can be no doubt that these are important. What objective science does is immensely valuable, but it is only half the story. We also need a serious, progressive, rigorous and self-critical science of subjective reality. For in the end, we humans are not objects, we are not machines, we are conscious, living beings. The good news is that humanity already knows how to create a science of subjective reality. In fact, all the ingredients for such a science are there; the only hitch is that they are not to be found in the West, they are there in India.

India and the future of psychology

There are four major contributions which the Indian civilisation can make to science. Together they can help science to become worthy of the vast role it plays in our newly evolving global civilization.

  1. The first is a genuinely integral understanding of reality as a whole. Its earliest formulations can be found in some of the oldest Indian texts like the Rig Veda, the early Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. The "Vedic paradigm" given in these texts functioned like a loving grandmother to the enormous variety of spiritual, philosophical, religious and cultural schools which India later brought forth. Outside India, it has been mainly these later traditions that have made an impact, and there can be no doubt about their value for therapy and self-development. The older, more integral tradition is, however, interesting for a different reason. It is its ability to support and nurture in an impartial (and often surprisingly modern) manner the entire range of human efforts at understanding and improving the world and ourselves, whether religious, cultural, spiritual, or scientific. As science and technology are removing the distances that used to keep people and cultures apart, it is hard to exaggerate how much humanity needs such an integral framework for understanding all aspects of reality, and all the different ways people in which people deal with them. In modern times, Sri Aurobindo is the main exponent of the integral Indian tradition.
  2. The second major contribution India can make to modern science consists of effective methods for the rigorous study of consciousness and the core territory of psychology. It is these that have produced the techniques of yoga and mindfulness of which decontextualised forms are are now used on such a large scale in counselling and therapy. If modern science would adopt the Indian understanding of the basic nature of reality and knowledge, as well as the Indian methods for the study of the subjective domain, this could revolutionise psychology and with that, in due time, the whole of our existence on this planet.
  3. The third contribution the Indian civilization can make to psychology is an amazingly detailed and perfectly coherent psychological understanding of human nature. One of the neat things of the Indian approach is that it provides a logically coherent map of human nature which covers a much wider territory, including things that are entirely beyond the grasp of mainstream psychology and that we at present are forced to describe as "anomalous phenomena".
  4. The fourth consists of a wide range of effective techniques for change and all-round development. As mentioned earlier, "decontextualised" versions of two of these, yoga "exercises" and mindfulness, are already adopted by mainstream psychology on a fairly large scale, and while that is nice for those who use them, it is not enough to take psychology further as a science.

To help psychology become an effective and quickly progressive science, we need a solid integration with Indian thought, and this is unfortunately not as simple as adopting a few neat techniques that "just happen" to work. As the Indian knowledge system is wider and more complex than that of modern science it cannot be accommodated as a small separate niche within existing science, and adopting "Indian psychology" as one more school or subsection within modern psychology will not do. For a successful integration we need to create a new foundation for the whole of science, a foundation which can support physics as well as psychology in all its complexity. Obviously this is a rather major enterprise, and in the following chapters we'll discuss some of the main principles on which this new foundation could be built before we get on with psychology as such.

What about this text?

As a result of all this, this text is somewhat of a hybrid. It starts with an introduction in which an attempt is made to set out an integral[FN] foundation for science that works for the objective reality of the hard sciences as well as for the subjective reality of psychology. I hope to show that the ancient Vedic[FN] understanding of the role of consciousness in nature can support something that could be described as "rigorous subjectivity" and that has the potential to make psychology as quickly progressive as the hard sciences already are. As far as I can see, this Vedic view of realty is not in conflict with the findings or procedures of the hard science as we have them at present. On the contrary it might shed some light on the intriguing question why we humans can understand nature so well and why inanimate nature actually follows relatively simple fixed laws. The rest of this text is in its outer structure more or less like any other introduction to Psychology. It starts with an introduction to cognition and methodology, then looks at the self and the structure of the personality, relationships, emotion, motivation and self-development, and finally it looks at a few of the usual applications of psychology like education, counselling, therapy, etc. In what it says on these issues it is, however, substantially different from most mainstream texts because it is based on the centrality of consciousness which one finds in the Vedic tradition. Accordingly, its approach presents psychology, in the words of Don Salmon, as if consciousness matters.

In some sense, this Introduction to "Indian psychology", if we can call it that, is only a proof of concept. I've kept the main text as simple as I could, and I've given most of the context, arguments and details in little side-notes and appendixes. The reason I have done it this way is that this approach to psychology is not yet well-established and people with different backgrounds and objectives may want to go into detail about different issues. I hope that my attempts at explaining core concepts in psychology and Indian philosophy are not too offensive to those who know more about them than I do.

As may be clear, the ultimate aim of this text is ambitious. Infinity in a Drop4 hopes to show that it is possible to develop a genuinely integral,5 consciousness-centred approach to psychology, based on Indian philosophy, theory and practical know-how, that yet fulfils the demands of rigour and intellectual rectitude developed by modern science.

For whom this book is meant

This book is meant, then, for those who have realised that neither our present physicalist, positivist science, nor any of the exclusive spiritual or religious traditions on its own can offer a sufficiently comprehensive and progressive understanding of the whole of reality. Each tradition highlights its own special corner of reality, and many of them work extremely well, whether for technology or for personal growth and well-being, but they are not comprehensive enough to serve as a foundation for science as a whole. Especially, if we want to understand how we humans function in all our stunning complexity — physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually and spiritually — we need to know how it all hangs together, and most important of all, we need to know where humanity is going and how we can learn to act more wisely, happily and harmoniously with everybody involved. In other words, this text is written for those who would like to see a science which is suitable for the whole of reality, a science which will help humanity to fulfil all its aspirations, including the highest. In the process I hope that the picture offered in this text will help science and the many different spiritual and therapeutic communities the world has fostered to develop more mutual appreciation and a deeper understanding both of the common ground and of the differences. For humanity is in a crisis out of which we can only come safely if we all work together.

The role of Sri Aurobindo

There is one more aspect of this text that needs mention before I bring this Preface to a close. The Indian tradition is extremely complex and so one has to choose between a selection and a synthesis. As may be clear, I have chosen for a synthesis, but instead of attempting to make my own, for which I am ill-equipped, I'm making use of the synthesis Sri Aurobindo made in the first half of the last century. Those who don't know his work may wonder why I have put so much faith in one single author, but I hope that as we proceed, whatever initial scepsis the reader may have will be dispelled by the sheer quality of Sri Aurobindo's work. There is a slightly more detailed explanation of Sri Aurobindo's influence on this book in the Epilogue, and there is a short biography of Sri Aurobindo in the Appendix.

End notes

1.   Second International Conference on Integral Psychology, Pondicherry India, 4-7 January 2001.

2.   Over time, the closeted nature of such systems hardens because within each of these systems, people tend to talk mainly with other members of the same group. When people are involved in two or more systems — which is actually quite frequent, for example one for work and another for private life — they tend to keep their acquaintances from the different groups separate.

3.   [Get original quotes from Galileo's book.]

4.   For an explanation of the strange title of this book, the reader is invited to have a look at this chapter.

5.   For a more detailed discussion of this concept, please see the chapter on "integrality".

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