Towards a new foundation for psychology
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: August 2019
Sri Aurobindo's concept of integrality
Integrality, in the sense of the Sanskrit pūrṇa, is an amazingly powerful concept and the word pūrṇa has a very beautiful and long history in India. Whenever the Upaniṣads are recited, especially the Isha Upaniṣad, it is a tradition to also recite the Pūrṇa Stotra:
oṁ pūrṇam adaḥ pūrṇam idaṁ
pūrṇāt pūrṇam udacyate
pūrṇasya pūrṇam ādāya
oṁ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ
That is infinite. This is infinite.
Infinite comes from infinite.
Take infinite from infinite,
still infinite remains.
Aum. Peace! Peace! Peace!
Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (5.1)
It is a very short text in which the word pūrṇa occurs seven times. To translate pūrṇa is somewhat complex. In the context of the Pūrṇa Stotra you cannot really translate it as "integrality". In this context it is often translated as "the complete", or "the infinite", but it is the infinite in a very special all-inclusive sense. The stotra starts with, "That is infinite", meaning, "The Divine is infinite." Then it says, "All This is infinite. This infinite comes from that infinite." And then it ends with a kind of mighty mathematics of the infinite. It says, "If you take away the infinite from the infinite, you still have the infinite."
It is rather significant that whenever the Upaniṣads are recited, this Pūrṇa Stotra is used almost like a refrain. It realigns the listener to the infinite, and to effect that realignment is the very reason why the Upaniṣads are recited. It is as if the Pūrṇa Stotra was put in between other texts, to remind us that the real thing that matters is that completeness, that integrality, that totality that contains everything and that at the very same time is the inmost essence of everything. This ineffable totality exists in the aspect of That, which is totally beyond everything, and also in the aspect of This, the nitty-gritty of daily life. One cannot be without the other, for if you try, if you remove one from the other, still That One Infinite remains. If one takes this concept of integrality seriously, then it turns upside down everything that we normally do and think. It is something extremely radical. If one really understands the concept of integrality, it gives a completely different perspective, a whole new understanding to life.
Mainstream science tends to follow just the opposite approach. The scientific tradition has been largely reductionist, and reductionism is the direct opposite of integrality. What reductionism does, is to explain wholes out of their parts. And, interestingly, this seems to work, at least to some extent, within the technical and the physical realm, the fields which Western science is really good at.
One can illustrate the difference between integrality and reductionism with very simple things. If a car, for example, is made out of parts, the construction of the car seems to be a completely technical matter, it entirely happens by physical processes. The parts are put together through processes that you can fully understand physically, whether they are executed by machines or by men. So it appears that you can explain a car completely in terms of physical parts and physical processes. But after you’ve done that, and you’ve convinced yourself that the physical reality is a causally closed system, you find that somewhere there is something seriously amiss. Because most of these parts would never have existed if the concept of the car had not been there first. You cannot have a steering wheel if you don’t have the concept of a car, you cannot have a brake if you don’t have a car — even parts that have an existence independent of the car, like the lights, have changed beyond recognition when incorporated in this particular whole. So obviously this physical, reductionist explanation from down up is somewhere incomplete. There remains something that can only be explained from the top down. The secret is that if you look at reality only in physical terms, you will never find what it is in the whole that goes beyond the sum of the parts, because that little extra ingredient is not physical. The mysterious extra that is there in a car besides the parts, is the concept of the car, the design of the whole and this design is not a physical thing; it is something "supra-physical", which we, with our human mind, can best understand as an idea, which as such is not part of a world of "physical things", but of a world of ideas or "mental things". And these two worlds are not the same, they follow fundamentally different laws.
Integrality always involves a higher order reality that encompasses, enriches, and combines things from a lower level of reality. In mathematics, when one integrates a two-dimensional circle, one arrives at a three-dimensional sphere of which the circle is a section. In the realm of technology, a car, for example, is a higher order unity than the parts that it contains. It does not only combine independent, pre-existing parts, but it influences the exact form and structure of each part according to the specific place and function that part will have in the whole. In other words, to quite an extent, it is the whole that makes the part what it is. And so, to appreciate why each part is the way it is, what its special qualities, form and structure are and should be, you need to know the whole to which it belongs. And this goes much further than one might realise at the beginning. To understand the details of say the steering wheel or the lights you need to understand the human body and human psychology. To understand the materials that are used, you need not only understand chemistry and material sciences but also the economy, and so you have to take even politics into account. For the lights, you need to understand the weather and the legal structures in the different countries where the car will be sold. In fact, to fully understand anything, you need to understand everything. And if you tie the whole and the parts together in the right manner, you'll find that understanding the whole enriches and deepens your understanding of the parts. What is more, the parts find their fulfilment in the way their unique qualities contribute to the whole of which they are a part. In this respect it is the opposite of amalgamation. In amalgamation different things are also put together, but the end product is a more or less homogeneous mass in which the parts lose most if not all of their original qualities and identities.
When one applies this to psychology, one realises that when one looks for a comprehensive, philosophical framework for psychology one needs an integrality that is absolute: it needs to encompass absolutely every aspect of human existence and this can only be done if one integrates all these aspects into something that is beyond absolutely everything, in other words, the One without a second. If one wants to find a truly integral view of reality, one needs a world view that is not just a combination, let alone an amalgamation of a hundred similar or dissimilar scientific and spiritual approaches. One needs something that first of all rises above all of them, something that is capable of holding them all up within a comprehensive, higher order vision, and second, something that clarifies the entire ladder from the top to the bottom and back. The foundations for such a higher order view can be found, according to Sri Aurobindo, in what he calls the "original Vedanta", the most ancient Vedic view of reality which transcends and encompasses the many different, and often contradictory spiritual and materialist conceptualisations of reality that India developed afterwards.
Integrality is not only a matter of abstract understanding. Integrality describes the way the world works, and the core of that working is a conscious force: it is a power of harmony. If you invite that Force in yourself — or in any situation for that matter — it has a harmonising influence. The difficulty is that one must avoid distorting it with the partialities that come from the smallness of one's egoic consciousness. But if one manages this and calls this highest consciousness, being, force — which is in the end the same as the Divine Presence of all the great religions — into any aspect of reality, there is an influence towards harmony and perfection. To understand why this apparent magic actually works, one needs a wider and deeper understanding of consciousness than the one that is presently most commonly found, so that is the next thing we will take up.