What is psychology?
or rather: What should it be?
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: November, 2018

Psychology is, or rather should be, the science of the soul, of what we are in our innermost being and our highest consciousness. It should also be the science of our more humble thoughts, our will and our feelings, of our fears and our trust, of our pain and our joy, of our love and our loneliness, of our outer action and inner agency, and the myriad ways all these interact in shaping our lives. Above all, it should be the science of our urge for progress, of our search for a greater love, a higher truth, a deeper meaning, of our aspiration for a more beautiful life and a wider consciousness.

By nature, man is imperfect, discontented, looking for more and for better. He is not a finished product. He is, in Sri Aurobindo’s words, “a transitional being”. Biology tells us that there have been more primitive forms of life before us, and if we don’t ruin this beautiful planet, there will be more developed creatures after us. But the evolution of which we are a part is not just the development of ever more complex living bodies; it is also the slow emergence of ever greater powers of consciousness. The possibility of active participation in this evolution of consciousness is the central theme of Sri Aurobindo’s work and we have chosen it as the meta-narrative for the approach to psychology described in this text. Sri Aurobindo’s consciousness-centred psychology is the story of the growth of the soul in the world.

Mainstream psychology as an academic science has not focussed on consciousness at all. In fact, for most of the 20th century, consciousness was seriously taboo in science[REF to Guzeldere (JCS)], and Psychology, which tried to model itself on the physical sciences, kept it at a distance. Classical behaviourism, which went furthest in this direction, limited psychology strictly to what is immediately, objectively observable and banned all reference to consciousness, thoughts and feelings. It tried to predict human behaviour solely on the basis of externally visible stimulus-response loops, but of course this didn’t work: human beings are far too complex, and the same outer behaviour can have completely different psychological causes and meanings. Perhaps even more serious, almost everything that really matters to people went missing in the behaviourist's universe, because without consciousness there can be no love, no beauty, no meaning, no agency, no knowledge even.1 So over the years, reference to inner mental states and processes was gradually allowed back in; new, post-reductionist approaches developed; some attempts at integrating spirituality and science were made; and by the end of the twentieth century even “consciousness” was rehabilitated as a valid subject of scientific enquiry. But inspite of all this, the shadow of physicalist behaviourism has not been lifted yet. Psychology still suffers under the heavy burden of the demands of objectivity, public access and measurability, criteria that seem to have worked fine for physics, but that stand in the way of a fruitful study of our inner life.

There is a cute Sufi story that explains the predicament of modern psychology. It is about a man who is feverishly looking for something under a streetlight. A puzzled onlooker asks him,

“What are you looking for so desperately?”
            “I’m looking for my keys!” 
“Where did you lose them?”
            “Over there, in my house.”
“Then why are you looking here, outside?”
            “Because inside the house it is dark.
            Here at least I can see what I’m doing!”

A simple story, and perhaps over-used, but it contains a deep truth. As the Upanishads tell us, the house of our body is made with its windows (the senses) opening outside. So we tend to look outside of ourselves for the solution of our problems. But that’s not where the key to their solution is to be found. Though not meant for it, the Sufi story describes quite accurately what academic psychology has been doing so far. It has been looking at external behaviour simply because that is what we know how to research. The physical sciences have worked out their methods for centuries and they have achieved amazing successes with it, so it was tempting for psychology to follow their lead. But the methods of the physical sciences haven’t worked for psychology so far and they will not work in the future, for what psychology is looking for is not to be found in the physical world outside of ourselves. It is not even to be found, or at least not in its entirety, in our social surrounding. Culture is important, but that also is not the full story. The core of our own being is our consciousness. Consciousness is what we are, subjectively, in our own personal experience. And so a science of psychology has to be primarily a subjective science, a science of consciousness.

Can we have a science of consciousness?

Consciousness is in a category of its own. It is the one "thing" that is not out there to be studied as object. Out there, we can study its physical correlates, and perhaps its effects though the latter is not sure: many modern philosophers of science hold that consciousness is "epiphenomenal", that it cannot have any effects in the objective world.[REF] But whatever this may be, consciousness itself cannot be studied objectively and the reason is simple. Consciousness is quintessentially subjective. It is what we are "on the inside", in our experience. So the question remains: can we study something that we can only know subjectively, in ourselves? The very idea of a “subjective science” sounds contradictory to our ears, for science looks at subjectivity with suspicion. Science values the objective, outside reality as more reliable, and easier to study accurately than what we are on the inside, subjectively. Subjective knowledge is considered arbitrary, open to illusions and biases.

However, the deeper we look, the more the distinction between the subjective and the objective crumbles; the borderline which appeared at first so clear, turns out to be rather vague and at places entirely evaporates. As we will discuss later in more detail, everything we know and are is inherently a mixture of subjective and objective elements. In fact, the stress on the difference between the two, and our present preference for “objective” knowledge is a fairly recent phenomenon which is far from universal and not as valid as we think. By itself, it is not at all evident that reductionist knowledge of the outer world should be more reliable, let alone more useful, than inner knowledge. It may appear to be so, simply because collectively we are so focused on it, and because we have put so much more effort in its development. Every child is made to grasp the basics of physics and mathematics, but how many schools teach the basics of self-observation and reflection? The world’s intellectual elite has worked hard to fine-tune the processes of objective research, it has built an ever more elaborate physical technology to extend the capacities of our physical senses, and amassed an amazing amount of detailed knowledge about the physical world, but our inner life is as primitive as ever. Its development is left to our free time, to an inherently conservative religion, or a variety of intellectually uncritical sects and subcultures.

But that modernity has not managed so far, does not prove that it cannot be done. One of the recurring themes of this text will be that subjective knowledge too, can be honed and perfected, and that effective and reliable methods to achieve this have already been developed in India, over millennia, by certain specific schools of jnanayoga, the yoga of knowledge. The techniques of jnanayoga, not dreams, are the royal road to our understanding of ourselves.

What can Psychology learn from the Indian tradition?

In the East, and especially in India, there has been, for thousands of years, a strong focus on the inner worlds and the Indian civilisation has evolved, over millennia, a rigorous and effective methodology to make subjective knowledge reliable. With that, it has created a vast range of technologies to extend the capacity of our inner senses, and a comprehensive knowledge base related to inner knowledge and wisdom.

Trees are judged on their fruits, and there has been a tendency in the West (and even in India itself) to look with a certain disdain at Indian spirituality because of the abject poverty that was typical for India during the twentieth century. But putting the blame for India’s poverty on its spirituality is putting history on its head. It was India’s legendary riches, not its poverty that brought Chinese, Roman, Muslim and Christian traders and soldiers to its shores. Early visitors to India speak in one voice about a land of unequalled beauty and wealth. India was famed not only for its spirituality, but equally for its high social order, the level of education of its citizens, and the wisdom of its rulers. So the situation is more complex than it may appear at first sight. India became poor only after a full eight hundred years of ruthless plunder and oppression, from which it has still not fully recovered. After such a long history of brutal invasions and depredations, for the invaders to blame the Indian spiritual tradition for its present economical misery is of a political hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty that is really quite hard to beat. And yet, even here there is a kernel of truth which is worth examining attentively, as it can give us an important lesson for the future. We'll come back to this in the second chapter.

Interestingly, in spite of existing prejudices, Indian philosophy, music, dance, hathayoga and spirituality are entering our new global civilisation on a large scale, but as yet, they feature largely as entertainment, the embellishment of an essentially materialist and intellectual life. The decontextualised techniques of yoga and meditation are accepted as means for coping with the stresses of corporate life, mindfulness is used in therapy and counselling, but the knowledge aspect of Indian culture has hardly penetrated the hard core of the global civilisation. At universities especially, psychology is still taught, the world over, as if the Indian systems of reliable subjective knowledge don’t exist. We can understand this perhaps as a late remnant of colonialism and the lingering dominance of the Euro-American culture in the world, but even if this parochialism is understandable, it is not excusable, for India’s well-developed inner understanding has something to contribute to psychology which is crucial if the new world order is to develop towards a more sane and harmonious future.

That the world is desperately in need of good psychology hardly needs argument. Technology is putting immense powers at human disposal, but not the wisdom how to use it, and almost all really serious problems mankind is facing at present are primarily psychological in nature.

In this text, we will look at three, closely interconnected areas where the Indian tradition can make valuable contributions to psychology.

The first is a consciousness-centred and psychology-friendly basic understanding of reality, a philosophy of existence and knowledge that doesn't stand in the way of the development of meaningful insight in human nature and its possibilities, but that actively supports them.

The second is a treasure-house of sophisticated knowledge about human nature and the psychological processes that underlie both, our experience and our action.

The third is what one could call a well-developed technology of consciousness, consisting of detailed know-how in the areas of change and transformation. Some of this is already used for therapy and personal development, but there is much more that as yet has been hardly tapped into.

There is one more application of the Indian psychological know-how that till now has not been used at all, though it has the potential to revolutionise psychology in a manner similar to the way physical technology has revolutionised the hard sciences. The know-how of the physical sciences allows them to make instruments that help them to create new know-how of the same type but of ever greater power and sophistication. One can think of many factors that may have played a role in making the incredibly fast, cumulative progress in the hard sciences possible, but from a technical standpoint this creation of ever better instruments must have been one of the major contributors. Interestingly, the Indian tradition has developed something quite similar for psychology. The yoga-based technology of consciousness was not only meant to find infinite delight, but also to develop true knowledge, and one of the ways it worked towards this end was by converting our own human nature into a more reliable and precise instrument for the generation of psychological knowledge. One of the central themes of this book is that if we can make this operational on the scale modern academics allows, our collective progress in the psychological domain may well become as quickly cumulative as the hard sciences already are. Sri Aurobindo envisaged in fact that in due time progress in this area would dwarf the technological progress we have made in the material sciences. [EXACT QUOTE AND REF]

It is not impossible that our collective progress in yoga-based psychology may go further faster than the technological progress we have been witnessing over the last couple of centuries. The reason to think so is to be found in a peculiar quality shared by both consciousness and matter: their ability to bridge oneness and multiplicity. In this hugely complex world, where every single thing and event is utterly unique in its own special way, it is the oneness of matter that makes it possible to yet formulate simple physical laws that are valid for all matter. The reason why one can expect the progress of psychology to go faster once it has started in the right direction is, that this essential oneness seems to be easier to reach and make operational in consciousness than in matter: the deeper one goes inside, the more one is connected not only to others, but also to the conscious energy that supports the universe. As a result, "doing yoga" tends to lead to an influx of infinity. This can happen in innumerable ways, but many of them carry within them an element of delight as an essential, and inalienable, property of one's own being. This is no small thing, because to the extent that this unconditional inner delight of being penetrates and transforms the different parts of one's nature, it gives one the freedom, if one is so inclined, to study and act in the world dispassionately for the benefit of the whole.

What about this text?

From a certain angle, one could say that this text is like any other introduction to Psychology. It starts with personality, cognition, emotion, relationships, motivation and development, and then introduces some of the usual applications of psychology, like education, counselling, therapy, HRD, etc. From another angle, it is totally different because it is based on the centrality of consciousness which one finds in the Indian traditions. As such its approach is predominantly first-person, and in the words of Don Salmon one could say, that it is a psychology as if consciousness matters.

As such, the aim of this text is seriously ambitious. Infinity in a Drop2 hopes to show that it is possible to develop a genuinely integral,3 consciousness-centred approach to psychology which is based on Indian philosophy, theory and practical know-how, and yet fulfils the demands of rigour and intellectual rectitude developed by modern science.4 What is more, it claims that such an approach to psychology is needed to do justice to the magnificent complexity and potential of human nature. And finally it suggests that a more widespread study and implementation of this approach to psychology can lead, both for the individual and for the society, to levels of harmony, beauty, love and happiness that at present are all but unthinkable.

The role of Sri Aurobindo in this text

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. I have chosen for the synthesis, but instead of attempting to make my own, for which I would have been 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 those who have made a thorough study of his work will immediately understand why. Within India, Sri Aurobindo is widely known and highly respected.

To clarify how his work in the field of psychology relates to other Indian systems of psychological theory and practice, the Introduction to this book contains besides this Preface, three additional chapters. The first is about why mainstream psychology needs the Indian tradition; what it can gain from it; why it has not happened yet; and why certain aspects of Sri Aurobindo's work could make it work now. The second is about consciousness as that is the real crux of the matter. This chapter consists of two sections. The first gives a short overview of the different ways consciousness has been understood in mainstream science and in the various Indian traditions and then explains how Sri Aurobindo's synthesis of all these could lay the foundation for the radical revolution that is needed to make psychology, the humanities and the social sciences finally take off. The second gives a short outline of Sri Aurobindo's concept of an ongoing evolution of consciousness. This could not only become for psychology what Darwin's theory has been for biology, but it also indicates the future, and with that allows for a fascinating naturalisation of values. And finally there is a short chapter on integrality which is another crucial element of ancient Vedic thought. It permeates every aspect of Sri Aurobindo's work and comes back in every area of psychology we deal with in this book.



1.   For a more detailed analysis of what the four main schools of psychology have contributed in terms of basic epistemological territory, and where they still fail, see Appendix 1-1-1. For a more detailed critical assessment of Classical Behaviourism one could have a look at Appendix 1-1-2.

2.   For an explanation of the strange title of this book, the reader is invited to move on to the next chapter.

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

4.   For a more detailed discussion of yoga-based research in the subjective domain, please see the chapter on "research in yoga".

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