What is psychology?
or rather: What should it be?
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: March 2019

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

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 I 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 As a result, 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 in spite 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?”
    “I’m looking for my keys!”
“Where did you lose them?”
     “Over there, in my house.”
“Then why are you looking here, outside your house?”
    “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 one of the Upanishads tells 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 meant as a warning for "the common man", 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 surroundings. 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 that is not sure: many modern philosophers of science hold that consciousness is "epiphenomenal" and cannot have any effects in the objective world.[REF] But however that 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 with true scientific rigour something that exists only inside our own consciousness and that we can only know subjectively? 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. It is not at all evident that reductionist knowledge of the outer world is always 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 into 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 to develop rigorous research in the domain of our inner life so far, does not prove that it cannot be done. One of the recurring themes of this text will be that subjective knowledge, like objective knowledge, can be honed and perfected, and that effective and reliable methods to achieve this have already been developed in India, over millennia, by the various schools of jnanayoga, the yoga of knowledge. The techniques of jnanayoga, not dreams, are the royal road to understanding 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 a rigorous and effective methodology to make subjective knowledge reliable. Using those methods, it has created a vast range of technologies to extend the capacity of our inner senses, and produced a comprehensive knowledge base related to inner knowledge and wisdom.

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, as embellishment for 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 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 saying. Technology is putting immense powers at human disposal, but not the wisdom how to use them well, and almost all really serious problems mankind is facing at present are primarily psychological in nature.

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

The first is a consciousness-centred, 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 into human nature and its possibilities, but 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 a well-developed technology of consciousness, consisting of detailed know-how in the areas of change and transformation. Some of this know-how is already used for therapy and personal development, but there is much more that as yet has hardly been tapped.

There is a fourth application of Indian psychological know-how, one that till now has not been used, though it has the potential to revolutionise psychology in a manner similar to the way physical technology has revolutionised the hard sciences. Many factors must have played a role in making the incredibly fast, cumulative progress in the hard sciences possible, but from a technical standpoint, the creation of ever better instruments must have been one of the major contributors. 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. Interestingly, the Indian tradition has developed something 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 yoga-based rigorous knowledge of the inner domains operational on the scale modern academics allows, our collective progress in psychology may well become as quickly cumulative as it already is in the hard sciences. Sri Aurobindo envisaged in fact that in due time progress in psychology and spirituality would dwarf the progress we have made in the material sciences. [EXACT QUOTE AND REF]

It is not impossible that our collective progress in yoga-based psychology will 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 everything is unique in its own special way, it is the oneness of matter that makes it possible to 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 love and delight as an essential, and inalienable, property of one's own being. This is no small thing, because to the extent that this unconditional, pure love and delight of being penetrates and transforms the different parts of one's nature, it gives one the freedom to act dispassionately for the benefit of the whole and to study without bias.

The intent behind writing this text

In its outer structure, this text is like any other introduction to Psychology. It starts with with some philosophical background, looks at cognition and methodology, personality and emotion, relationships, motivation and development, and then introduces a few of the usual applications of psychology, like education, counselling, therapy, etc. In what it says on these issues, it is substantially different, however, because it is based on the centrality of consciousness which one finds in the Indian traditions. Accordingly, its approach is predominantly first-person, and in the words of Don Salmon one could say, that it presents psychology as if consciousness matters.

The aim of this text is admittedly rather ambitious. Infinity in a Drop2 hopes to show that it is possible to develop a genuinely integral,3 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.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.


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 an 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 have a look at one of the last chapters of this Introduction.

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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