last revision: 25 September 2023
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. Mainstream psychology doesn't really help to understand, find meaning, live happier and more harmonious lives.
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?
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 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 all children would develop happily and freely into the very best human beings they could possibly become, into people who would do good things, and choose, for example, politicians who would do what is genuinely best for humanity? What 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 counselling would redress people's psychological problems with the same speed and reliability that we take for granted in the maintenance of aeroplanes; if we would learn how to 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. And why not? With the help of the hard sciences, humanity can make things as utterly implausible as aeroplanes and cell-phones, chat-bots, 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 method and its underlying assumptions work marvellously well. But in practice, that is not how it is.
The physical sciences are so undeniably effective and provide us with such astounding miracles on an almost routine basis, that the type of knowledge they collect is increasingly seen as the only type of knowledge that is truly reliable and that cannot be reasonably doubted. As a result, science — and with it the entire academic system built around it — is entrusted, almost everywhere, with education, right from the most advanced centers of academic research down to the smallest neighbourhood level kindergarten. It has also become the only knowledge system that can be used almost unquestioned by governments, corporations and large NGOs all over the world. But if we are honest, we have to admit that mainstream academics as we have it at present is not up to that role, because the progress in the human and social sciences is nowhere near the progress we see in the physical domain. And the reason for this discrepancy is not hard to spot.
The methods that science uses to create and share new knowledge work well for the outer, physical domain, but they don't work for love, meaning, feelings, thoughts, agency, attitudes, values, relationships, since none of these are physical "things", and they cannot be measured by physical instruments. They belong to an inner world, a world that exists "only" in our consciousness, and they follow very different laws that cannot be described in the language of mathematics. All that our present science can study are their physical correlates and verbal tokens, and that is not good enough to understand how they work themselves, in their own domain.
So, what we suggest in this text is that academics and the educational system that depends on it, should not be based on one, but on two fundamental sciences:
In terms of research methods and instrumentation, physics is presently doing extremely well, while psychology still has to learn how to develop appropriate methods and instruments that can produce rigorous, precise and reliable knowledge in the inner domain. Psychology also has still to develop an effective technology of consciousness to apply this knowledge for the good of the individual as well as for society at large. The question then becomes whether all this can be done and how to go about it.
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 in many ways 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, but it is not enough and 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 practical methods to achieve happiness, but also a highly sophisticated understanding of how to make inner, intuitive and "subjective" types of knowledge more reliable, precise and effective, and based on that, an exceptionally comprehensive and well-worked-out understanding of human nature and reality as a whole. It is this that could become the philosophical and methodological basis for the more effective and quickly progressive science of psychology that humanity is in such desperate need of.
The most ancient, Vedic thought that supports the entire Indian civilisation, and that we intend to use as the philosophical foundation for this text is very different from that of mainstream materialism, and in some subtle but actually crucial ways, it is even quite different from the better-known Indian systems that came later. But as we will see, one of its core characteristic is its inclusiveness, and it is this integrality that bestows on it an amazing capacity to support and enrich other knowledge systems. While it is not in conflict with their findings, it expands and enriches their foundations as well as their methods of enquiry and action. What is more, and of special interest for our present objective, is that it is genuinely "psychology-friendly" and offers a fascinating perspective on our possibilities for future development.
A full integration of science and the various spiritual and religious traditions within this ancient knowledge system 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 the effort, 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; Christ's to spread love and faith in the personal Divine; Shankara wanted to free us from the illusions in which we live; modern 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, humanity needs 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.
This text is meant, then, for those who have realised that there is something missing in the way modernity explains reality, and that neither the physicalist, positivist hard sciences, nor the constructionist, post-modern social and human sciences, nor any of the major spiritual or religious traditions can give us 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 how it all hangs together and how we can align ourselves better to the harmony of the whole.
This text is also a call for action. Humanity is at present clearly not wise enough for the powers it has and for the challenges it is facing. So this text is meant especially for those who have not only realised that our present way of thinking and doing things is not remotely as good as it should be, but who are willing to help change the way our proud global civilisation thinks, acts, and brings up its children.
To start we'll begin with a very quick look at what kind of a science Psychology is at present , how it became this way, what we would gain if it changes, and what it is that modern psychology can learn from the Indian knowledge traditions.