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, the gap between the theory and the practice is too big.
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? Or is it because we don't care enough, since for us as individuals there is actually quite a simple way out?
Using incompatible knowledge systems, each in its own separate silo
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 many of us, this works quite well: after a bit of trial and error we settle on one of them, become happier and find the meaning and direction back for our 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 not just a few but 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 make and do what the world genuinely needs; if we would develop whole new powers of inner communication and creation; and most of all, 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 a shared sense of purpose 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 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 at times actually harmful.
Can we do better? Can we build a real, rigorous and progressive science without physicalist bias?
The good news is that humanity already knows how to develop reliable knowledge of subjective reality. The bad news is that this know-how is not to be found in the West, it is available in India. And there are two problems with it. The first is only a problem for those with a Western-trained mind, but nowadays that includes almost everybody. It is that the Indian intellectual tradition has a very different philosophical foundation with different assumptions about the nature of reality and knowledge. If we could manage to look at them impartially, we would discover that though they are different, they actually make sense, hang better together and cover a wider range of phenomena. Most importantly, while they work far better for psychology and the inner life of man, they are not in conflict with the hard sciences. As a consequence, they can provide a philosophical foundation for science that does justice to both, to the objective, physical side that modern science has developed so well, and to the spiritual, subjective side of reality on which the Indian tradition has focused. But to have a fully open-minded look at the Indian way of understanding reality requires a readiness to change, if needed, one's basic assumptions about what is real and what makes for reliable knowledge. And to change one's entire mode of thinking is not easy...
The second difficulty is, if possible, even more challenging. It arises primarily for those with a deep allegiance to Indian thought. It is that the Indian tradition itself needs overhauling. The reason for this is that the three Indian traditions that have had the vastest impact — Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, and Patanjali — have in some way or another given up on the manifestation. If not always in theory, in practice their ultimate aim is "not the reborn", nirvana, kaivalya: a complete merger into the infinite Absolute, emptiness and purity. And that works for the individual as it leads, in the Buddha's phrase, to the end of suffering. But what about the world? What happens to this marvellous creation? Oneness, emptiness and purity are not enough. We also need beauty, love and commitment. If our ultimate destiny is to become like the Divine, then we need not only his happiness, freedom and vastness, but also his energy and the tremendous creative drive that has created this stunningly beautiful world.
For all those who have received virtually all they really value from the spiritual tradition they pursued, it is hard to accept that there might be something beyond, but there is. In the end the major spiritual traditions are, like science, shortcuts: they work for their limited ends but there is more, and that extra is at present urgently needed. As Sri Aurobindo said:
In Europe and in India, respectively, the negation of the materialist and the refusal of the ascetic have sought to assert themselves as the sole truth and to dominate the conception of Life. In India, if the result has been a great heaping up of the treasures of the Spirit, – or of some of them, – it has also been a great bankruptcy of Life; in Europe, the fullness of riches and the triumphant mastery of this world’s powers and possessions have progressed towards an equal bankruptcy in the things of the Spirit.
And yet, humanity needs both science and spirituality. And the best way for them to come together is almost certainly for science, which is the most open, progressive and influential knowledge system we have, to widen and include the spirit. For this to happen, the broad, comprehensive philosophical foundation of the Indian civilization is needed, but it is not enough. We also need the methods which the Indian tradition developed to obtain true knowledge. For yoga was not meant only for happiness. Right from its earliest texts, it is mentioned that yoga is seen as a means to obtain true knowledge. So far, modernity has only adopted a few Indian methods for self-development and happiness, but that is only a small part of what India has to offer. What is even more needed is to see how we can integrate its methods to arrive at effective psychological knowledge. And this may be more difficult. For we have still to discover how modern science and the traditional methods for the acquisition and sharing of spiritual knowledge can work together in the best way possible.
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 offers a comprehensive and progressive understanding of the whole of reality. It is meant for those who feel that there is something missing in the way modernity explains the world and that there should be somewhere, something more, something that makes sense of the whole of reality, that can tell us how it all hangs together, and where we are heading. So one thing this text hopes to offer is a picture of the whole that shows how incredibly well it is designed and how well everything is working together towards a greater destiny than what most spiritual traditions at present even dare to hope for.
But this is not all. This book is also meant as a call for action. Humanity needs a knowledge system which is suitable for the whole of reality and that can help humanity to fulfil all its aspirations, including the highest. In other words we need "a new science of psychology", somewhat on the line of Sheldrake's A New Science of Life,[REF] but because humans are so much more complex than other life forms, this is needed on a scale that can only be developed by a large collective effort. For this we have to develop ways to bring science and spirituality together that enhance both, and that can finally produce a science of psychology that will help us to master and develop human nature in the same effective and quickly progressive way we have already managed in the physical domain. To this end I've included in the section on cognition several chapters on the different types of knowledge we humans have at our disposal and how we can make them more rigorous and effective, but it is just the beginning.
I hope that the philosophy and the research methods offered in this text will help science and the many different spiritual and therapeutic communities to develop more mutual appreciation and a deeper understanding both of all that has been achieved and that has still to be done. For humanity is in a crisis out of which we can only come safely if we all work together.
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 — painful situations are avoided by keeping their acquaintances from the different groups separate and by keeping a close tab on which issues can be discussed in each group.