Towards a new foundation for psychology
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: August 2019
A consciousness-centred understanding of reality
This is the third in a series.
If you haven't read Section 1 and 2, you may like to read these sections first:
The integral Indian worldview
A central thesis of this text is that a solid integration with Indian thought would go a long way to help psychology become a more effective and quickly progressive science. Unfortunately this is 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 in fact to create a new foundation not only for psychology but for the whole of science. Obviously this is a rather major enterprise, and beyond the scope of this text, but in the following chapters I'll try to outline some of the main principles on which such a new foundation could be built before we get on with psychology as such.
The oldest Indian texts, the Vedas, hold that a divine Truth-Consciousness is the hidden essence of all that exists.3 This may sound "over the top" and it is definitely an unusual start for what is supposed to be a "down-to-earth" treatise on psychology, but as I hope will become more clear over the course of this text, starting from Truth-Consciousness actually makes more sense than starting from a purely physical "Big Bang". It leads to a comprehensive, inspiring and promising understanding of the whole of reality that does justice to our human existence in all its stunning complexity, while it is not in conflict with any of the hard sciences. In fact, it offers a coherent explanation of the reason why mathematics is such a good fit for what happens in physics, and it takes the mystery out of quantum physics. But all this is outside the scope of this text.
What is relevant for psychology is that in the Vedic view, the reality that arises out of the gradual "involution" of consciousness consists of many different typal "worlds". In each of these worlds, the divine Truth-Consciousness is manifested in a different manner and together they form a vast hierarchy of different levels of consciousness and being, a hierarchy that ranges right from the superconscious absolute spirit to the apparent unconsciousness of matter. In this complex scheme, the world of our ordinary human experience is a mixed world somewhere in the middle. Its basis is in the world of matter, but in plants and animals, their physical "stuff" is permeated and transformed by life and mind. In other words, the ancient Vedic sages, looked at the world not only as a mixed world, but also as an evolutionary world, a world which is the scene of a gradual unfolding of ever higher (that is, less concealed) forms of consciousness in a material base. It is a view which goes well with Darwin's model of the biological evolution, except that it adds to it the dimension of an all pervasive consciousness as a kind of secret ingredient guiding Darwin's "chance".
Within this vast hierarchical framework, the human individual is seen as a small centre of consciousness that typically experiences itself, at least when awake, as a mental being in a living body. But this is not our only possibility: our centre of self-awareness can be located at any of the levels. I can not only have my centre of awareness in my mind and say “I think”, but I can also center myself in the life-world and identify with my emotions part of the life world – and say, “I feel happy or powerful”. I can even identify with my body and say “I feel fit”.5. The interesting part of the story is that in this ancient understanding of the world, the ordinary human mind is considered as not more than a middle term. Authors throughout the history of Indian thought have claimed that with sufficient training it is possible to free oneself from one’s embeddedness in these well-known layers and explore what appear to be worlds of a higher consciousness than the ordinary mind. This is of course not unique to India. Mystics in all other cultures have claimed more or less the same, but the Indian civilization has clearly had an unusual focus on this effort. It has brought forth not only a staggering variety of popular schools schools and sects, but also exceptionally high quality abstract thought and a treasure of detailed inner know-how.
Sri Aurobindo's synthesis
One of the things that make Sri Aurobindo's work so fascinating for psychology is that he realised that what makes all these systems work is a specialised use of in themselves "ordinary" psychological processes.[REF] So he could make a synthesis that left their outer forms aside and concentrated instead on the underlying psychology. The result of that effort is an exceptionally comprehensive understanding of the whole of human nature, and with that of the entire inner world of consciousness, right from the completely fixed world of physics, to the most lofty, light and harmonious regions above. It is a synthesis that can at times be hard to understand, as it requires an inner wideness that we humans normally don't need and are not habituated to use. But the effort is worth it, personally because deep down we all know that there must be a truth, a deep and beautiful harmony, that goes beyond the endless oppositions that the ordinary mind produces. Collectively it is needed even more, because it is extremely harmful that science, which is the single, most progressive, creative, courageous and effective knowledge system humanity has at its disposal, is as one-sided as it presently is. Matter is not all there is to reality, and it is not all we humans can learn how to research. Most of the famous early scientists were deeply religious people. Copernicus famously thought that studying astronomy was like studying how God thinks, but if one starts with the assumption that only matter can be studied effectively and known reliably, the next step is to think that matter is the only aspect of reality that is actually relevant, and from there it is only one step to believe that matter is all there is, and then our life as human beings loses its moorings. For it is not true. Though matter is pretty fancy and marvellous, it is not all there is to reality, and we do a violent injustice to reality — and thus to ourselves — if we deny the extra, which contains all that really "matters" to human beings: love, truth, harmony, beauty, meaning. This is not only an individual problem. If education fails to respect what really matters to students, they disconnect, begin to distrust reason and we end in a society in which fake news and disharmony prevail.
So for this book, we'll start from the wide, all comprehensive understanding of reality that Sri Aurobindo's synthesis of the Indian tradition delivered, and then we'll discover that this leads all by itself not only to a manifold of ways to achieve inner harmony and peace, but also to the possibility of rigorous research in the subjective domain, which contains all the things that psychology so badly missed in the beginning of last century and that it has still not fully recovered. So, let us have a closer look at the integral, Indian worldview.
We have already seen that the starting point of this world view is the idea that everything is the manifestation of consciousness, but the tradition goes one step further. It holds that the essential character of the ultimate reality is saccidānanda, an absolute unity not only of sat, Existence, and cit, Consciousness, but also of ānanda, Delight. And what is more, most, if not all, Indian schools of philosophy will agree that this not just a theoretical dogma, but something that can be verified, or "realised", in experience by anyone who fulfils the psychological conditions. The reason that this is considered possible is that saccidānanda is not only seen as the essence of the absolute, transcendent Divine, but also as the essence of each individual human being, and so when we stop identifying with our superficial "ego" or "body-mind", we can kind of extend backwards into that original vastness; we can become aware that that transcendent essence is also our essence, and we can to quite an extent, become it.
All this does not seem to tally with the ordinary human experience. It looks to us that many things are unconscious, and that our own life is not always joyful, but in the Indian tradition this is attributed to a, typically human, egocentric assessment of reality. We consider everything that happens outside the narrow range of our ordinary waking (or dreaming) state as “unconscious,” and experience any input that is for us too little, too much, or of the wrong kind as “suffering,” but that doesn’t mean that consciousness and delight are completely absent in those events. Cit and ānanda are conceived as the very essence of everything in existence, and it is part of the theory that our inner, psychological instrumentation needs to be refined to detect them.
It is interesting that the Indian tradition seems to have doen the same with consciousness and happiness as what science has done with temperature. In ordinary life we measure temperature in Fahrenheit or Celsius. These two scales both have negative values below an, in itself quite arbitrary, threshold that happens to be convenient to us as human beings. But the scientific scale to measure temperature is Kelvin, which has an absolute zero and only positive values. It seems reasonable to suggest that when we try to develop scientifically useful concepts of consciousness and delight, we should also use scales that can, in the very nature of things, have no negative values, and this is exactly what the Indian system has done. What is more, this is not only a conceptual convenience, but it matches with (and is in all likelihood derived from) an experiential reality.
If one watches oneself (or others) carefully, one realises that there is some some secret satisfaction in depressions and bad moods. One can be quite attached to them.
Through contemplative practice or otherwise one can experience consciousness in situations that formerly appeared sub- or super-conscious, and if we can put aside our own interests, we can see or sense that there is some delight, some secret will to be, even in situations and processes that used to feel painful or indifferent.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Indian authors are blind to the hardships humans encounter and to the limitations of individual centres of consciousness and delight that are part of ordinary life. In the ancient texts it is stressed again and again that normal human life is a state of ignorance and suffering. But ignorance and suffering are seen primarily as characteristics of our limited view of the world, not of the world as it is in itself (that is, as it is seen by the original creative consciousness). And because they are related to ignorance and are seen as attributes of the experiencing person rather than of the experienced world, they can be overcome by an inner change. This doesn't mean we should not try to work in the outside world. The interest and commitment to do so are a valuable part of human nature and there is no need to abandon them: the idea is only to make our happiness independent from our success in achieving what we set out to do.
As mentioned before, Indian philosophy is complex and many-sided, but this is the foundation, and as we will see, we can deduct a surprisingly large number of psychological theories directly from this basic understanding of reality. If we can manage to operationalise the consciousness-centred integral philosophy, it may do for psychology what mathematics is doing for physics. The reason for this is that everything here appears to be the result of two movements: a material one rising up, and a spiritual one coming down. How it works is perhaps easiest to recognise in a building, say a temple or a cathedral. If you look only at the physical side, it is built bottom up. No magic anywhere: every brick rests on top of another one. And yet the building as a whole would not have come up if there had not been an owner of a piece of land with a plan, an architect, an engineer and an army of workers to execute the plan. We will have a closer look at how these two forces interact first on an abstract level in the next chapter, which is on integrality. We will look at it again, in more detail, in the last chapter of the introduction, which deals with the evolution of consciousness. Finally, we'll deal with it in a hands-on practical manner in the chapters on cognition and self-development. But all that is for later. To start now, first the basic idea of integrality.
3. This statement is touching upon a fundamental difference in outlook between language philosophy that perceives truth as a variable of sentences and the Vedic ontology, where Truth-Consciousness (Ṛta-Cit) is taken as an absolute standing outside and comprehending the duality of true and false statements. Compared to it, the world of philosophical language is part of the “ignorance” (avidyā), exactly because linguistic mentality is necessarily wrapped up in discriminatory categories such as the duality of true and false. Even within the relative world of ignorance, knowledge is not primarily seen as a collection of sentences but experientially as a collection of “truth-hitting episodes” or pramāḥ (Matilal 1986, p. 22).
5. Right from Descartes to many postmodern and contemporary writers (e.g., Maxine Sheets-Johnstone 1999) the embodied nature of emotions has been stressed. In man emotions also have an unmistakable mental element. Still, to the extent one accepts the existence of typal worlds, one can agree that their “centre of gravity”, their typical characteristics, belong to the life world.