Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 04 August 2022

A personal preamble:
why this text was written and for whom it is meant

In early 2001, a seminar was held in South India for psychologists with an interest in spirituality. There were participants from all over the world and when a therapist from California realised how few well-trained psychotherapists there were in India, he got all enthusiastic about the enormous scope for his much-loved profession in this vast country. His enthusiasm didn't last long, however. A well-respected Indian psychologist looked at him somewhat pensively and said. "When I have an issue for which I need psychological help, I go to whomever has the highest consciousness, not to whomever has the highest degree in psychology." Most Indians present on the occasion seemed to agree that they would do the same.

For those who like stories, here are two anecdotes telling how such meetings with people "with a higher consciousness" work out in practice. The first one is about a world-famous guru. The second one about a rather special "neighbourhood guru" whom I had the good fortune to know.

What happened at the end of this seminar reflected almost exactly with what had gone through my mind some 25 years earlier. After finishing my medical training, a few years worth of academic psychology and a variety of counselling courses in the Netherlands and the USA, I had come to India to learn more about yoga and meditation. But when, after a few months, it was time to return, I realised that a few months had not been enough. If I really wanted to understand how the human mind works, I could learn more in India than at the university of Amsterdam. And so I stayed on in India, first for a few more months, and then for a few more years. By now, over 40 years have passed, I'm still in India and I'm still learning.

Recently, there was a third event, that for me finally nailed how serious the problem actually is. I spoke with an old-student who had just completed one of the best professional counseling courses in India. Before she took up this course, she had already gone through an extensive spiritual education and she explained how well all the different Western techniques she had learned during the counselling course fitted into the wider understanding she had obtained earlier. At the end of our chat, she said how wonderful it was for her personally when counselling actually worked and how grateful people were for the progress it helped them make. As she gave some more detail on what she did during counselling sessions, and how simple it actually was, she suddenly giggled and said, "all this doesn't sound very scientific of course." And I thought: "Heck, if a good counselling session doesn't sound scientific, which of the two should adjust?"

Long ago, when Gallileo dropped his cannonballs from the tower of Pisa and they did not behave according to the theories of Ptolemeus, who had to give way? Ptolemeus or the cannonballs? If Gallileo and the other pioneers of modern science had shrugged their shoulders and stuck to Ptolemeus, would we have had the science and the technology we enjoy today?

This is one corner of the scientific enterprise that is perfectly simple and straightforward: when there is a gap between reality and the accepted scientific theory, it is the theory that must be adjusted. But strangely, in psychology, this is not what has happened. People live their lives and practicing psychologists use whatever techniques they have found to work, and everybody accepts that the official, mainstream, academic science of psychology, the science that was supposed to support us in our efforts to understand and improve ourselves, doesn't really help. Its stress on measurement, facts and statistics, however admirable in its own way, is not commensurate with the depth, the pain, the love, the beauty, the freedom and the commitment of real people in their real, day to day lives. In psychology, the gap between the theory and the practice is far too big.

Strangely enough, we accept that this is how it is, and we continue. Is it because most psychologist work in isolation and positivist, physicalist science is too vast a colossus for any individual to tackle? Is it because positivist, reductionist science works so well for cars, planes, and cell-phones, that we don't dare to shout? Or is it because for each one of us as individuals there is actually such a simple way out?

Using incompatible knowledge systems, each in its own separate silo

When neither the religion in which we are born, nor the standard scientific understanding of life offers sufficient support, psychologists and "ordinary people" alike tend to take recourse to one of the many alternative schools and practices that our rich, global civilization has on offer. For many of us, this works quite well: after a bit of trial and error we settle on one of them, become happier and find the meaning and direction back for our individual lives. The problem is, that these therapeutic or spiritual groups tend to live in relatively narrow, self-satisfied silos. Typically, there is a charismatic life-coach, therapist or guru who has found inner happiness and satisfaction following a specific technique or spiritual path, and he begins to guide people along the same lines that have worked for himself. Since only those for whom it also works stay around, as time passes, the group tends to develop a stronger and stronger inner cohesion; there is a growing gratitude and admiration of the disciples for their guru (or of the clients for their coach or therapist) and both the leader and the followers become more and more confident about the path they have chosen. Though most of these groups are quite limited in their understanding, nobody really minds because for the personal lives of the group's members, they are good enough: they work.

And yet, the fact that some individuals can find a way out does not make the situation alright. There is is still a problem, both for the individual and for the society as a whole. The problem for the individual is that he is likely to get stuck at a level of development where he is more or less comfortable, while he could have developed further. The nature of the collective problem becomes clear when we realise how far we might have reached if we had been as creative, clever and stunningly successful in psychology as we already are in engineering. How would it be if we had schools in which not just a few but each child would develop happily and freely into the very best human being it could possibly become; if counselling would redress people's psychological problems with the same speed and reliability that we take for granted in the maintenance of aeroplanes; if coaches could guarantee whatever new possibilities for growth and development we fancy; if politics would give us governments that would look after everybody's interests justly and equally; if businesses would make and do what the world genuinely needs; if we would develop whole new powers of knowledge, sharing and creation; and most of all, if more and more people would feel love and oneness, and live and act on that happy foundation in harmony with each other and the rest of nature? All this sounds at present completely unrealistic and utopian, but this — and much more — would be within our human reach if we were as good in psychology as we already are in physics and chemistry. With the help of the hard sciences, humanity can make things as utterly implausible as aeroplanes and cell-phones, solar panels and self-driving cars, so "why on earth" would a good, effective science of psychology be beyond us?

Part of the collective problem is that the making of isolated silos is not limited to small spiritual sects and schools of psychological practice. It also happens in the large world-religions and even in science. For the religions this is understandable enough. One of the roles religion plays in society is to pass insights and values from previous generations on to the present and future ones. As a result, they are focussed on their past, and since they provide their followers with a shared sense of purpose and belonging, they tend to be, almost inevitably, conservative and communal in outlook. But science has a very different role in society, and in science all this is not supposed to happen. Science is supposed to find new knowledge and new solutions. It is progressive by design. It accepts that its findings will always be open to revision, and it thrives on internal criticism. But unfortunately, as a whole, science is yet again a strongly siloed knowledge system. While it is open to the temporary nature of whatever truth it has established, it is extremely defensive about its basic assumptions and processes. In contrast with the religions, science does not attempt to hold on to its findings: what is sacrosanct in science is not content but the "scientific method". This again would not matter if that method worked equally well for all aspects of reality, or if science limited itself to the physical domain in which its methods and its underlying assumptions work marvellously well. But science has been so successful with the objective study of physics and chemistry, that it now uses this same objectivity for psychology, and there it doesn't fit because people are not objects, and should not be treated as objects. If one does, one misses out on too much of what it means to be human. Objective science does not know how to deal with consciousness, agency and subjective reality in general, it cannot get in direct touch with beauty, love, respect, freedom, agency or even meaning, and when it tries to deal with any of these things, it has to objectify and flatten them first, and what it then processes are only their tokens and reflections. As a result its physicalist, reductionist assumptions and processes are not only inadequate, but in many fields, like education, governance and economics, actually harmful.

Can we do better?

The good news is that humanity has already developed substantial knowledge and know-how in the inner, subjective domain. The bad news is that this knowledge is largely hidden in a wide variety of seemingly contradictory religious, spiritual and philosophical schools, where it is often mixed with ideas and practices that belong to times and cultures that have little in common with our modern lives. The largest — and possibly the most profound — treasure of inner knowledge can probably be found in India, but till now all that our global civilisation has adopted from the Indian tradition are bits of culture, stories, music, dance, and "decontextualised" methods of yoga and meditation that help to achieve physical and emotional well-being. All this is valuable, and relatively easy to adopt since it does not require a deep change in our modern way of thinking and can be researched with well-established research methods, but it is not the most valuable part of what India has to offer. The Indian civilisation has not only created an exceptionally rich treasure of practices that can help people to achieve inner happiness, but also what could become the philosophical and methodological basis for a far more effective and quickly progressive science of our inner life. And that is something humanity is in desperate need of. As I hope to show in this text, the Indian civilisation has developed a highly sophisticated understanding of how to make the different types of knowledge we humans have about ourselves more reliable and effective, and based on that, an exceptionally comprehensive and well-worked-out understanding of psychology and how we humans fit into reality as a whole.

The ancient philosophical foundation of the Indian civilisation is very different from that of mainstream materialism, and in some subtle but actually crucial ways it is also quite different from the better-known Indian systems that came later. One of its core characteristic is its inclusiveness, and it is this integrality that bestows on it an amazing capacity to support and enrich the more sophisticated but also narrower knowledge systems that came later. While it is not in conflict with their findings, it expands and enriches their foundations, and indicates new methods of enquiry and new applications. By providing a single ontological and epistemological foundation for the study of the outer and inner domains, it enables humanity to study the subjective domain with the same combination of rigour and open-mindedness that has made science so incredibly effective and quickly progressive in the domains of physics and chemistry. As we will see, it also offers a fascinating perspective on the future of humanity.

A full integration of this ancient knowledge system with the later ones is, however, not easy. One reason is that many of the later knowledge systems have over time become extremely complex and require an immense, focused, life-time commitment to understand them in their full depth and detail. For those who have given their lives to these other systems and who have received virtually all they really value from them, it can be hard to accept that there might be something beyond. It is risky and uncomfortable to change one's moorings, and this is true for those in science as well as for those who feel more at home in any of humanity's many spiritual traditions.

Still, it is worth it, because all these later systems were created with specific, and ultimately limited objectives in mind. The Buddha's central objective was to overcome psychological suffering; Shankara wanted to free us from the illusions in which we live; science is to quite an extent in the service of material comfort, defence and commerce; other systems developed to support one specific community, one set of values or one way of thinking. As such, none of these systems is likely to provide the best starting place for the development of a broad philosophical and methodological framework for the whole of human knowledge, a framework that includes all of science, psychology, religion, and spirituality. And yet, due to our increasing interconnectedness and the near unlimited technical powers science has bestowed on humanity, we need such a comprehensive understanding perhaps more than ever before.

Given our modern belief in linear progres, it may seem strange that one of the oldest human knowledge systems might offer the most comprehensive way of understanding reality. But it actually makes sense that in the earliest period of our present cycle of development, the wisest amongst us had still a largely intuitive and implicit, but essentially true understanding of the whole of reality. It also stands to reason that in the next period of more abstract thought, individual thinkers, groups and ultimately whole civilisations focused on different aspects of that reality, gaining more and more detailed, but also more and more specialised and ultimately one-sided knowledge. Perhaps the time has come for at least some of us to go back to the underlying oneness, to the secret that supports all our efforts at understanding, and to find there, what it is that gives meaning and direction to our existence.

For whom this text is meant

This text is meant, then, for those who have realised that there is something missing in the way modernity explains the world, and that neither our present physicalist, positivist science, nor any of the exclusive spiritual or religious traditions on its own offers a sufficiently comprehensive and progressive understanding of the world in all its complexity. In other words, this text is meant for those who feel that there should be something more, something that makes sense of the whole of reality, something that can tell us not only how it all hangs together but also where it is heading and what is meant to happen next in our individual and collective evolution.

This text is also, and perhaps primarily, meant as a call for action. Our present humanity is clearly not good enough for the powers we have and for the challenges we are facing. Whether we like it or not, we have to learn how to do better, and we have to learn fast. One of the things that might help on the way is a better map of reality as a whole. As already hinted at, the basic outline of such an understanding is already available in the Indian tradition, and in this text I'll try to present Sri Aurobindo's version of it. But by itself this is not enough. We also need a large, collective effort to develop this integral way of thinking into a proper science of the inner, psychological and spiritual domain. We need to learn how to master and develop human nature in the same effective and quickly progressive way we already have for the physical domain, and more importantly we have to learn how to develop individually as well as collectively in tune with the harmony of the whole. If Sri Aurobindo is right, we already have the basic ingredients for such a science and we are moving towards a fundamental change in what it means to be human, far beyond what our present science and spiritual traditions can even envisage. We better get ready for it!