Three concepts of consciousness
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 01 August 2022

section 4
the integral concept of consciousness used in Infinity in a Drop

If you haven't read the earlier sections,
you may like to read them first:


Integral Spirituality

In the debate about consciousness, the poles of materialism and exclusive spirituality both have their strengths and greatness, but both deny part of reality. As quoted earlier, Sri Aurobindo wrote almost a century ago:

In Europe and in India, respectively, the negation of the materialist and the refusal of the ascetic have sought to assert themselves as the sole truth and to dominate the conception of Life. In India, if the result has been a great heaping up of the treasures of the Spirit, — or of some of them, — it has also been a great bankruptcy of Life; in Europe, the fullness of riches and the triumphant mastery of this world's powers and possessions have progressed towards an equal bankruptcy in the things of the Spirit.
— Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p.11

So how do we combine the deep love for the material world that has given the West its strength, with the lofty aspiration for the spirit that has given the Indian tradition its wisdom? The answer is certainly not in some half-baked compromise, with materialism guiding public life during working hours and religion private life after five and on the weekend. It isn't either in leaving the science of psychology to do evidence-based, statistical studies on the (side)effects of meditation practice, while private post-academic practitioners follow whatever guru or practice they happen to feel comfortable with. The real solution has to come from a deep integration, for which we need an ontology that is based on a complete acceptance of both matter and spirit and research methods that combine the rigour and open-mindedness of the hard sciences with the deep understanding of the spiritual realms and the effective use of intuitive knowledge that developed in the Indian traditions. This is possible only in a consciousness on the side of the researcher that goes beyond the dualism that is typical for the ordinary mind. This may strike the materialist as way too far up in the sky, and many traditional spiritualists as preposterous, but as long as one's attempt at understanding involves the slightest denial either of the silent spiritual or of the dynamic, material pole of reality, it is still part of the world of dualities, and it misses the perfection, the completeness one is looking for.

The absolute, impersonal emptiness of pure consciousness described in the previous section plays a major role in almost all spiritual traditions, especially in India, and there are elements of it even in streams that are normally considered dualistic and theistic. But still, it is not the only form, aspect or type of perfect consciousness, and the oldest and most authoritative Indian texts point to something else that at least in some respects can be seen as going beyond even the purest forms of pure consciousness.

There are different ways in which the "extra" has been formulated. In the Gitā, for example, one finds the concept of the puruṣottama, the absolute Person, the parāpuruṣa, the Being who exists beyond the dualities of saguṇa and nirguṇa, kṣara and akṣara (manifest and non-manifest, moving and unmoving). With a different stress, there is the idea of sarvam Brahma, the ultimate who is all. More abstractly, there is the concept of saccidānanda, the absolute oneness of true being, consciousness and delight that is seen as the source of all there is in the universe. This all-inclusive integrality which has been expressed with such exquisite beauty throughout the oldest scriptures of the Indian tradition, is so central to Indian thought that even the māyāvādin schools, who deny the reality of the physical world, still, somewhere in the background, have to accept that ultimately everything has its origin in Brahman. As we will see in more detail in the chapters on the application of Integral Indian psychology, it may well be this ability to link absolutely everything in existence up to the Transcendent, that gave India that unique "secret ingredient" which was responsible not only for its spiritual depth, but also for the legendary wealth that brought in the previous millennium so many plunderers to its shores.

As I alluded to in the previous section on exclusive spirituality, if one begins by excluding things in one's quest for purity, one may find the Absolute, but one risks remaining stuck in a limited understanding of it. The good news is that one doesn't need to. It is also possible to persist in one's search till one reaches — at the other end of absolute emptiness — another space and time, a "world", or way of being, which includes absolutely everything while avoiding the usual egoïc limitations and distortions. There are two interesting conceptual consequences that follow from the integral realisation one can arrive at in this manner: the first is that consciousness must be everywhere, even in seemingly unconscious matter; the second is that consciousness cannot be limited to awareness, but that it must also have power. We will now have a look at both.

Consciousness in Matter

For most of the twentieth century, physicalist monism was taken for granted in science, but before that most famous philosophers, even in the West, held that consciousness exists throughout creation, even in physical things. Though "panpsychism", as this position is called, is rare amongst contemporary philosophers of science, it used to be common enough. The consciousness and knowledge embedded in physical nature can, of course, not be of the same type we find in the human mind, but the fabulous beauty, order and lawfulness of matter does suggest that there must be some kind of built-in intelligence, some kind of subconscious know-how supporting the world. To recognize the inner structure of matter as the result of some kind of consciousness, one might look at the knowledge-constituent of matter as a subconscious habit of form and function, a tendency to act in harmony with the basic dharma, or inner law, of the physical entity in question: an electron needs to “know” how to behave like an electron, a hydrogen molecule how to behave like a hydrogen molecule, a rock like a rock, and a river like a river.

On the one hand it is good to realise that the knowledge aspect of inanimate matter is not as small as it may appear at first sight. Since matter makes no mistakes, every part of it needs to have the know-how required to act perfectly according to the laws that guide its movement. As the laws of physics are supposed to be interrelated and derivable from each other, this may well mean that in some extremely involved way, matter has to know all the laws that the science of physics tries to discover. What is more, as matter’s movements are influenced, to whatever small degree, by everything else that occurs in the universe, each part has to be perfectly aware, in however minute a measure and implicit a manner, of everything that has any bearing on it. Together this amounts to a special kind of subconscient omniscience which in a fully automatic fashion self-limits itself to the very simple set of dumb but perfect actions that are proper to each portion of reality however small. On the other hand, it may also be clear that the kind of sensorial awareness of the physical world which is so typical for our human kind, can indeed, as the neurologists never tire of pointing out, under normal circumstances not exists without a healthy nervous system of the kind we humans typically have.

Consciousness as power

Another crucial element of the integral view of consciousness is that it holds that for the consciousness in things to determine their qualities, their consciousness must have power. To use an argument by example, there is no effective difference between the quality of "being yellow" and the power to reflect (or radiate) yellow light. In other words, if it is the consciousness in things that gives them their different qualities, then that consciousness must also give them the power to express these qualities.

This needs saying as so many spiritual traditions take consciousness purely as passive awareness. That they do so is in itself understandable enough: power corrupts, and it is infinitely easier to find the Divine in absolute, silent purity than in action. But in the end this will not do. The climate crisis shows the mess we get ourselves into if we leave action outside the ambit of our spiritual endeavour. To use a Christian metaphor, if we "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's", Caesar will end up destroying the world. If, on the other hand, we combine the idea that our individual consciousness is ultimately one with the Consciousness of the Divine, with the idea that consciousness is also conscious-force (cit = cit-śakti or cit = cit-tapas), then we open the road not only to a more integral understanding of who and what we are, but also to a new kind of individual and collective action which is in perfect harmony with the whole.

Realising in one's direct personal experience the absolute purity of spirit in its aspect of passivity and receptivity is presently well within human reach. It is not easy but it is doable because it does not necessitate a complete transformation of one's nature: one's nature has only to get out of the way so that one can receive the splendours of the Infinite in the silence that one is in one's innermost essence. But if this world is not an illusion or an imposition on the Divine, but a progressive manifestation of the Divine itself, then the kṣara must be as true as the akṣara. The dynamic becoming must then be as much divine as static being; the absolute Delight can then manifest itself dynamically as a perfectly divine, all-powerful Love. If our consciousness is in its essence still one with the consciousness of the Divine, then it should be possible for the individual to learn how to identify, at least to some extent, with the dynamic as well as with the passive consciousness of the Divine. It may be clear that this is much more difficult than the purely passive identification, as it needs for its manifestation not only a liberated self but also a, far more difficult to attain, perfect, ego-free, "divinized" nature. If we accept this as our ultimate aim and destiny, then the spiritual evolution of humanity has only just begun. Traditional mokṣa is then not the end of our search, but rather an essential pre-condition, a first step towards the greater dynamic realizations of the future, realisations that will transform the whole of life into a powerful, dynamic expression of the truth, love and delight of the spirit.

Just as one may accept the dualism of Sāṁkhya not as a statement of the ultimate reality, but as a necessary step on the way to a higher realization, so also the absolute oneness of the Advaitin and the śūnya of the Buddhist may then be accepted not as the ultimate reality but as essential steps towards the still greater realizations that are hinted at in India's most ancient texts, but that for their full consummation are still awaiting the future.

The oldest and perhaps most powerful expression of this possibility, is given in the Vedic concept of integrality, pūrṇa, which stems from the more ancient and heroic period in Indian history when the highest ideal had not degenerated into the wish "not to be reborn" but had still the simple strength of "True Being, Light, and Immortality". One could look at the coming together of the materialist intellect of Europe and the spiritual intellect of India — after so many long centuries in which they developed in opposite directions — as a sign that the manifestation of the Vedic concept of integrality, pūrṇa, has finally become a realistic possibility. In the field of psychological knowledge, this might lead to developments compared to which the immense achievements of the physical sciences we are now witnessing may just be the first beginnings. As Sri Aurobindo says:

The first necessity is to know the One, to be in possession of the divine Existence; afterwards we can have all the knowledge, joy & power for action that is intended for our souls, — for He being known all is known, tasmin vijnate sarvam vijnatam, not at once by any miraculous revelation, but by a progressive illumination or rather an application of the single necessary illumination to God's multiplicity in manifestation, by the movement of the mahat [the vastness of the supramental consciousness] & the bhuma [the largeness of the manifest world], not working from petty details to the whole, but from the knowledge of the one to the knowledge of relation & circumstance, by a process of knowledge that is sovereign & free, not painful, struggling & bound. This is the central truth of Veda & Upanishad & the process by which they have been revealed to men.
— KU, p. 429

In the next section, we'll discuss the idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness as meta-narrative for psychology.