What could be an appropriate methodology for Integral Psychology?

Matthijs Cornelissen

Keynote address presented at
The First International Conference on Integral Psychology
Matagiri, Woodstock, NY
September 1999


In psychology, as in the other social sciences, methodology has always been a crucial but controversial issue. One of the reasons for this is that the social sciences investigate the manner in which human beings arrive at knowledge. Enquiries of this type tend to cast doubt on the absolute value of the knowledge that people think to have. But as the social sciences themselves are also the result of people struggling to arrive at reliable knowledge, they get stranded in a hard-to-solve inclusion problem. If someone from Crete says that all people from Crete are liars, it is a paradox, but if someone from Crete says that all people from Crete approximate the truth, you know very little indeed. The philosophy of the social sciences has become more and more aware of this problem and it has seen a number of great upheavals, culminating during the second half of the twentieth century in the extreme self-doubt of deconstructionism and postmodern cultural relativism.

It is very difficult to do anything constructive in such an environment of doubt and confusion, and the answer of most mainstream psychologists has been to ignore the philosophical debate and to look for guidance to the methodology that has made the physical sciences so phenomenally successful. A direct consequence of this approach has been a strong insistence on objectivity. In our present culture, objectivity is considered synonymous with reliability, while subjectivity has mainly negative connotations that range from personal and private to outright prejudiced and arbitrary. Psychologists have for a long time tried to ignore the relevance or even the existence of the subjective aspect of our human existence. But the arrival of more and more sophisticated computers and brain-imaging techniques has brought about an enormous upsurge of interest in cognition. With the increasing interest in cognition, consciousness also staged a come-back as a respectable, and highly intriguing, subject for investigation. Because the question of what consciousness is came up this time in the context of a basically objective and materialistic science, there arose what David Chalmers called the "Hard Problem": the question how objective chemical processes can generate an essentially subjective phenomenon like consciousness.

There are still many committed reductionists, like Daniel Dennet, who try to explain consciousness in purely objective terms, but there is a growing consensus that this is not sufficient, that there is an irreducible subjective aspect to consciousness, and that this is worth studying scientifically. The time that psychology limited itself exclusively to the objective study of behaviour is long over, but there is still a large residue of the old stress on objectivity. Even studies that take the subjective element into consideration, like the large field studies of Csikzentmihalyi, base themselves on rather superficial, ad hoc self-observations, and focus their attention on the sophisticated statistical analysis of these rather unsophisticated data.

The philosophical foundation of mainstream modern psychology as it is actually practised, is thus typically some form of materialistic realism, though this realism is often modified to a certain degree by the introduction of more idealistic elements. A typical example of this trend is Popper who held that we cannot observe anything without having first a theory to direct our observation.


The philosophical basis of Integral Psychology

When we look at a philosophical basis for a methodology appropriate for Integral Psychology, we realise that Sri Aurobindo's ideas don't fit on the axis between realism and idealism. It is true that there are elements of realism as well as elements of idealism in his philosophy, but his philosophy does not fit neatly in either of these categories, as it is based on an entirely different tradition.

Sri Aurobindo bases his theory of knowledge on the ancient Vedic philosophy which takes consciousness as an essential, inherent element of existence. In this philosophy the essential nature of reality is Sachchidananda: the essential attributes of everything are Sat or existence, Chit or consciousness and Ananda or joy. These three are not to be seen as separate things, but as three only conceptually different aspects of one single reality: consciousness and joy are simply inherent in existence.

Ananda is not just the opposite of suffering, it is the joy that emerges when all pleasure and pain have been transcended. Similarly Sat is not just our own ephemeral existence, but eternal, perfect existence. Chit, which we have here translated as 'consciousness', is not just the consciousness we have in our ordinary waking state. It is in its essence nothing less than the consciousness of the Divine, in which we human beings can at best partake in special moments of Grace. In our ordinary waking consciousness Chit manifests in the much more veiled form of our limited mental awareness. It also manifests, again quite differently, on still lower planes. In matter, for example, Chit manifests as the forms that material objects take and the laws that they obey. It has often been noted that form and the laws of physics are by themselves not physical, but it is only when we look at them as the precursors of consciousness that the whole picture fits neatly together. It is not easy to accept that subjective consciousness suddenly appears "de novo" out of the complexity of the brain. It is also not intuitive that the same type of consciousness that we have is there throughout nature, that rocks and humans have the same self-awareness. But if we accept the idea of a slowly evolving gradient of different levels of consciousness, we can recognize consciousness in its most primitive form as the largely "sub-conscious", involved and implicit habits of material nature, and also as the more evolved, but still intermediary, mental consciousness of human beings. When we regard the forms and laws of physics as the subconscious and involved habits of material reality, the problem of the relation between mind and matter remains but we have created a conceptual framework that makes it much easier to understand the appearance of mental consciousness in the human being.

From this conception of consciousness as something that pervades and is one in all nature, follows an entirely different concept of knowledge.


Sri Aurobindo's concept of knowledge

In modern science, and in our ordinary human consciousness, knowledge is constructed by individuals on the basis of their sensorial input. It is separate from the reality it describes and separate from our selves.

In the Vedantic view true knowledge is pre-existing. It is essentially one with reality, it is inherent in it, it is something seen that can be realised, and that we in the end can become.

The knowledge of ordinary science is something built up brick by brick.

The knowledge of Vedanta is something already present in us as a potential, something that arises from within. Vedantic knowledge is thus neither something laboriously constructed bottom-up out of loose elements, nor derived top-down out of some grand theory. It is rather something that gradually becomes visible like a house that emerges out of a mist when the sun rises in the morning. Knowledge can thus arise, just like a sudden insight, by itself when we remove whatever stands in its way.

Starting from this Vedantic view of knowledge, Sri Aurobindo distinguishes four different types of knowledge that are present in our ordinary waking consciousness (in his terminology: in our outer mind).

The first type of knowledge is the one that objective science generates, it is the knowledge we have of the outer world. Sri Aurobindo calls this type of knowledge indirect and separative.

It is called Indirect because this type of knowledge is mediated by our senses. It is called Separative because we experience here a difference between our self as knower and the world as known. There is here a clearly distinct and highly complex cognitive process that at the same time links and separates the knower and the known. In this mode of knowing we typically identify with some small part of the world. At the same time we disidentify with the rest of the world, which we experience as "the world out there". The part we identify with we call our self or rather our ego.

The other three types of knowledge deal not with the outer world but with what we experience as part of ourselves.

The first of them is still quite similar to the type of knowledge we have of the outer world. It arises when we look with a part of our mind at our own psychological processes like emotions, moods, desires, thoughts, etc. This knowledge of our inner processes is not indirect anymore, because we don't need the machinery of our physical senses, but it is still separative: we identify with one part of the mind and view from there another part of the mind. There is thus still a cognitive process that separates the knower from the known. In one place Sri Aurobindo thus calls it knowledge by separative direct contact.

In the third type of knowledge the separation between knower and known is still less pronounced, it is the type of knowledge that we have of our inner processes when we identify with them. This occurs for example when we are completely happy or angry and simply act from this happiness or anger. Sri Aurobindo calls this knowledge by intimate direct contact.

Knowledge by intimate direct contact is in the outer mind more or less pre-conscious and pre-reflective. When we are, for example, really angry we are so much one with our anger that our anger is only available to us implicitly, embedded in our view of the world around us: we don't say "I'm angry", but "You are an idiot". In the outer mind a real, explicit knowledge of our own internal psychological processes can only arise when we rethink about ourselves and bring the experience back into our awareness as a memory: we review it then in the form of knowledge of type two, where the mind looks at the mind: knowledge by separative direct contact.

The fourth type is the true knowledge of Vedanta. Sri Aurobindo calls it knowledge by identity. Here there is no more separation and actually not even a cognitive process. In our outer mind we have this type of knowledge only of our own essential existence. It is entirely unstructured, it is point-like. The moment we add any detail, this detail is again part of the constructed outer knowledge of the other types and thus based on our senses and the whole machinery of memory, reason etc.

When we become a little more aware of what happens below the surface we realise however that this knowledge by identity forms the basis of all other types of knowledge and is at work even when we are not aware of it. In our ordinary waking consciousness, for example, we are aware only of what comes to us through our senses and we try to make sense out of what they offer with the aid of a complex machinery of memory, language, borrowed ideas, reason etc. But this whole agglomerate is according to Sri Aurobindo by itself not capable of producing our awareness of the world around us. Though in our ordinary consciousness we don't realise it, we always use the inner, intuitive knowledge to put the whole picture together and to give meaning to what we experience.

Knowledge by intimate direct contact is the type of knowledge we naturally have in our inner being and knowledge by identity is the knowledge proper to the inmost self. As we have seen these are in our ordinary consciousness pre-conscious, undeveloped and largely unstructured. But this doesn't need to remain so. It is possible to go inside and become conscious of the processes that are now only subconsciously at work in us. We can then train our inner instruments of knowledge to become as reliable and unambiguous as our outer senses are now.

As we will soon see, a good part of the methodology of Integral Psychology thus consists in shifting our center of identity and of our awareness from the surface to our inner being.

Before we move on to the discussion of the methodology, we should have a short look at the aim of our endeavour.

The aim of all sciences is to arrive at valid and reliable knowledge, but it might be that the type of knowledge is dependent on the area under investigation. If the territories we study are different and the basic philosophies on which our methods are based are different, then the types of knowledge we aim at might also differ.

In most of ordinary science the world is seen as consisting of independently existing and in principle knowable "things" or "processes", and the knowledge aimed at consists also of independently existing, explicit statements about these things or processes. But in Integral Psychology, where consciousness is seen as essentially one in subject and object, and truth as something inherent in us as well as in nature, the aim cannot suddenly consist of an independently existing, external description of that truth. The objective might rather consist of the very act of seeing, realising or even becoming that truth. While in ordinary science explicit statements about reality are taken as valuable in themselves, in Integral Psychology our statements about reality may never be more than hints or aids, meant to arrive at a direct perception of a truth which is hiding behind. Even our thinking process itself is not seen any more as a means to arrive at truth, but rather as a means to express as faithfully as possible a truth already seen or lived, so that the expression, by the quality of the consciousness inherent in it, can help others to experience that truth directly for themselves. Sri Aurobindo describes the difference between the two types of knowledge as follows:

the knowledge we have to arrive at is not truth of the intellect; it is not right belief, right opinions, right information about oneself and things, that is only the surface mind's idea of knowledge. To arrive at some mental conception about God and ourselves and the world is an object good for the intellect but not large enough for the Spirit; it will not make us the conscious sons of Infinity. Ancient Indian thought meant by knowledge a consciousness which possesses the highest Truth in a direct perception and in self-experience; to become, to be the Highest that we know is the sign that we really have the knowledge. 1

For the individual to arrive at the divine universality and supreme infinity, live in it, possess it, to be, know, feel and express that one in all his being, consciousness, energy, delight of being is what the ancient seers of the Veda meant by the Knowledge; 2

We would like to mention one more aspect in which the knowledge aimed at by most traditional sciences differs from the knowledge aimed at by Integral Psychology. Traditional science is reductionistic and analytic in the sense that complex things are primarily explained in terms of their constituents, which leads to a tendency to view things in isolation. This works well enough in physics and chemistry but in biology and the social sciences this gives rise to serious problems. The issue has become very relevant for example in the context of the environment, where the impact of human interventions based on a too narrow knowledge-base has often led to unprecedented disasters. The analytic, reductionistic approach doesn't seem to be sufficient to deal with the tremendous, interwoven complexity of biological and social realities: here events on a small scale can often be explained satisfactorily only in the context of the larger wholes of which they are a part.

The holistic view is part and parcel of most traditions that have concentrated on "inner" knowledge. There is an interesting dialectic here, for at first sight one might expect that approaches that look outside might discover the underlying unity faster than sciences that look inside. But this is not the case, we are inwardly at least as deeply connected to everything else as outwardly. This doesn't mean of course that the inward look cannot be analytical. There have in fact been some extremely analytic approaches to introspection, for example in certain Buddhist schools, and even Integral Psychology does make use of a sharp analysis of one's inner movements in certain situations. But the core of Integral Psychology remains an understanding based on the underlying Oneness in which everything participates. As Sri Aurobindo says, "the secret of the lotus is not to be found in the mud below, but in the heavenly archetype above":

the nature of Mind as we know it is an Ignorance seeking for knowledge; it is a knower of fractions and worker of divisions striving to arrive at a sum, to piece together a whole, it is not possessed of the essence of things or their totality: a universal Mind of the same character might know the sum of its divisions by force of its universality, but it would still lack the essential knowledge, and without the essential knowledge there could be no true integral knowledge. A consciousness possessing the essential and integral knowledge, proceeding from the essence to the whole and from the whole to the parts, would be no longer Mind, but a perfect Truth-Consciousness automatically possessed of inherent self-knowledge and world-knowledge. It is from this basis that we have to look at the subjective view of reality.[stress added] 3


The methodology of Integral Psychology

If we take these considerations about the nature of knowledge seriously, then it will be clear that the basic methodology for acquiring valid and reliable knowledge in Integral Psychology must be very different from the methodology used in the ordinary, objective sciences. Sri Aurobindo writes:

subjective discovery must be pursued by a subjective method of enquiry, observation and verification; research into the supraphysical must evolve, accept and test an appropriate means and methods other than those by which one examines the constituents of physical objects and the processes of Energy in material Nature.4

What are those other methods?

The essence of the methodology of Integral Psychology is a progressive perfection of our inner "instruments of knowledge". We have to hone our subjectivity with the same meticulous care as the physical sciences have used for the fine-tuning of the objective method.

At the present stage of our evolution our inner life is comparatively undeveloped and what we know about ourselves is little and far from reliable. It is because of this that Yoga is needed. Just like the objective sciences need technology to enhance the precision and reliability of their data, the subjective sciences also need a technology, but it is a quite different one: it is the inner, consciousness-based "technology" of yoga.

The basic method to arrive at valid and reliable knowledge in Integral Psychology is thus similar to the methodology of Integral Yoga and can be said to consist of two elements:

  1. a shift of our center of identification from our surface ego to our innermost self.
  2. a progressive purification of our consciousness, inner as well as outer, which leads ultimately to a transformation of our whole nature.

The events that occur in our surface consciousness are the result of what happens in the much larger, inner parts of ourselves that are normally subconscious to us. To get a realistic understanding of what goes on, we have thus to look for ways that will allow us to enter into contact with our inner nature. The type of knowledge typical for our inner nature is in Sri Aurobindo's terminology knowledge by intimate direct contact. But as we have seen, this type of knowledge is in most of us not very well developed. It is not only that the path from the surface to the deeper parts of ourselves is missing or inaccessible, but the inner territory itself is often extremely confused so that, even when we do enter, what we see at first is a strange mixture of influences from many very different origins in which it is easy to get lost.

To arrive at reliable knowledge about ourselves we have to go still deeper until we identify with our innermost self, what Sri Aurobindo calls our psychic being, or chaitya purusha. It is only from there that we can watch our inner processes with the absolute precision and "objectivity" that only knowledge by identity can give. Because we don't identify here any longer with the ego or any other small part of ourselves, our observations are not any longer distorted by any partial interests. Yet we can still know all the details of what we are and do by a sense of identity, because these inner processes are still experienced as (partial) expressions of ourselves. The only difference is that we are not any longer engrossed in them. Here again there is an interesting dialectic. When we identify with our ego which is only a small part of the world, we live not only separated from all the rest of the world, but we also remain unconscious of the greater part of our own nature. It is only when we refrain form this limited identification on the surface, when we withdraw to our innermost self, that our whole perspective changes. We can there not only become aware of the much greater part of ourselves that remains normally below the threshold of our awareness. We also realise a much greater connectedness with others: a larger and larger part of the world begins to feel as if it is a part of ourselves. We begin to see that our own "self" is one with the self in everyone and everything, and it becomes easier and easier to look at the world from the viewpoint of others. In the end we begin to know people and even things from inside: by identity. This is however the end of a long journey.

The methods and processes that are used to arrive at the larger and cleaner perception needed for Integral Psychology are largely the same as those of Integral Yoga, but the aim and scope are somewhat different.

The aim is not oneness, though oneness is the very foundation on which direct knowledge is based.

The aim is not Moksha, though liberation from the attachments and limitations of the ego is a prerequisite to develop true and unbiased knowledge.

The aim is also not a full transformation, though a thorough transformation at least of all aspects of one's nature that can interfere with the attainment and expression of reliable knowledge is essential.

The aim of Integral Psychology is a full, detailed and reliable knowledge of our psychological nature, structures and processes. For this we do need a thorough perfection of the mental nature which in its turn requires a considerable perfection of all the other parts of ourselves. In final reckoning real knowledge is only possible to the extent that we have followed the path of yoga: the ego and all its distorting influences must be surpassed and must be replaced by our innermost psychic being as the center and guide of our enterprise. And even after that is done, the whole of our nature must still be transformed into a reliable instrument to express the new knowledge.

There are many difficult issues that arise from the acceptance of an intrasubjective approach to knowledge. It is clear, for example, that fully reliable and detailed knowledge by identity will come only right at the end of the path, so we may need a whole plethora of intermediate techniques on the way. Approaches that come immediately to mind are the iterative, intersubjective exchanges of Peter Reason and John Heron, counterchecks against objective data like the ones used in parapsychological research, appropriate variations on the triangulation methods used in sociology, dream work, structured guidance and interpretation of experiences by people who have reached further on the path, some of the exercises the Mother explains in her talks. A good beginning in the right direction has also been made by the interview techniques of Claire Petitmengin-Peugeot in which the interviewees are helped to actually enter into the intuitive state of mind while being interviewed about it. Many different intermediate protocols will have to be developed, accepting that none of them will lead to the ultimate Truth, but that each of them in its own way will help us a little further ahead.



The methodology for Integral Psychology sketched here is based on a particular view of the relationship between Integral Psychology and Integral Yoga.

Integral Psychology is in this view both a general approach to Psychology as a scientific discipline, and an essential knowledge base for Integral Yoga. These two objectives are not contradictory because Sri Aurobindo sees the whole of life as an unconscious yoga of nature. Any psychology worth its salt must thus shed light on the slow, ongoing evolution of consciousness that takes place in every human being, even when he or she is not aware of it. At the same time Integral Psychology is even more essential for the specific, conscious evolution that is the path of Integral Yoga. It is true that extensive mental knowledge is not essential for everybody on this path, but it is essential for bringing the realisation to some degree of completeness:

Spiritual realisation and experience, an intuitive and direct knowledge, a growth of inner consciousness, a growth of the soul and of an intimate soul-perception, soul-vision and a soul-sense, are indeed the proper means of this evolution: but the support of the reflective and critical reason is also of great importance; if many can dispense with it, because they have a vivid and direct contact with inner realities and are satisfied with experience and insight, yet in the whole movement it is indispensable. If the supreme truth is a spiritual Reality, then the intellect of man needs to know what is the nature of that original Truth and the principle of its relations to the rest of existence, to ourselves and the universe. The intellect is not capable by itself of bringing us into touch with the concrete spiritual reality, but it can help by a mental formulation of the truth of the Spirit which explains it to the mind and can be applied even in the more direct seeking: this help is of a capital importance. 5

The other side of the relationship between Integral Yoga and Integral Psychology is that Integral Yoga is an essential support for Integral Psychology. Yoga is needed both as a power and as a protection. As a power, because the techniques of Yoga are indispensable to arrive at detailed and reliable knowledge of the inner worlds. As a protection, because inner knowledge is dangerous. It is not for nothing that in all ancient societies the inner knowledge was considered not only sacred but also secret, and that great care was taken to give the techniques only to those who had shown to be fit vessels for the knowledge and the power it would entail. The powers that come with inner knowledge can easily be abused when the lower motives of ambition and sex have not been sufficiently overcome. Too much stress on the dangers stifles progress but a too naive faith in subjective experience can be an open road to all kinds of delusions and madnesses. In the end it is probably only the sincerity of individuals that can provide real safety, but a realistic awareness of the risks helps, and it is good to embed the dissemination of Integral Psychology as much as possible in the protective framework of yoga, of contact with the soul and the Divine.

A second issue is how this type of knowledge is to be integrated into the educational system. Can we visualise the teaching of integral psychology and thus of yoga as an inalienable part of the teaching of psychology? and subsequently even as part of the standard high school curriculum?

In spite of all efforts to the contrary, Psychology as taught in the universities at present is still heavily biased towards what we have in common with animals and computers. It seems unbelievable that in the present time of global communication psychology is still being taught as if the Asian tradition and its tremendous storehouse of psychological and spiritual knowledge simply doesn't exist. If Psychology wants to take up the central role it actually should play in society, it will have to look beyond the little corner of human life on which it has concentrated till now. I have no doubt that many traditions can, and will, contribute to this development. Tibetan Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, Christian Mysticism, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Sufism, Zen, Shamanism and many other paths can enrich the present field of psychology with their insights. But there may be a special place for Integral Yoga and the psychological system inherent in it. Sri Aurobindo's framework is vast, it encompasses the greatest heights as well as the deepest abysms of human consciousness and it is based on a very deep understanding of both the Western and the Eastern tradition. Sri Aurobindo integrated the Western feel for evolution and collective progress with the Eastern understanding of consciousness and spiritual growth, resulting in the magnificent vision of an ongoing evolution of consciousness for the individual as well as for society. The way Sri Aurobindo has worked out this idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness is probably the most inspiring and fruitful perspective from which we can look at the great mystery of the human psyche and its adventure in time. It offers a framework through which the different traditions can enrich their understanding of themselves and each other. It can become an essential part of the theoretical foundation for the new, integral science of psychology.

A last, not very urgent but rather intriguing question is, whether we should regard the inner knowledge as a specialised type of knowledge needed specifically for psychology, just as mathematics is needed specifically for physics, or as a general approach to knowledge that in due time would be needed even for other branches of science. Sri Aurobindo writes about this in The Life Divine:

It may even be found that a supraphysical knowledge is necessary for the completion of physical knowledge, because the processes of physical Nature have behind them a supraphysical factor, a power and action mental, vital or spiritual which is not tangible to any outer means of knowledge. 6

In short, many more questions than answers. We are just in the beginning of a very long, and I believe very beautiful journey. It is a true "Adventure of Consciousness and Joy", in which our only guide will be our psychic being, this innermost self which is in its essence one with the Divine.



1. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine(Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1970), p. 650

2. Ibid. p. 685

3. Ibid. p. 686

4. Ibid. p. 645

5. Ibid. p. 878

6. Ibid. p. 652