How to improve the quality our psychological knowledge
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 30 April 2022

Introduction

In the Vedic ontology the universe is a manifestation of consciousness, and it holds, like Plato and many other ancient philosophers, that the knowledge that is implicitly embedded in the physical reality, is a reflection from realms of pure knowledge that exist permanently and inalienably, parallel to and in a sense ‘far above’1 the physical world. Moreover, it holds that since our individual consciousness is in its deepest essence still one with the consciousness that engenders the universe, there arises the possibility of aligning our own individual consciousness to the knowledge that is built-in in the very structure of the universe. In other words there is a possibility of genuine, spontaneous, and perfect intuitive knowledge and action, which can arise in us because the deepest essence of the world and all that is in it is one with the deepest essence of our own being.2

As discussed earlier in our discussion of knowledge by identity, the constructed representational knowledge science consists of is in this context seen as a mixture of ignorance and knowledge: the increasingly accurate models science creates of the basic knowledge structures that underlie the manifestation are on the one hand aided as well as limited by our senses, and on the other hand guided by flashes of intuitive knowledge. 3

But before we can proceed to discuss how our access to this intuitive knowledge can be made more detailed and reliable, we need to get clear on one more essential distinction. This is the distinction between ordinary introspection, in which one looks with one part of one’s mind at all the other activities that take place inside one’s nature, and the perception that occurs through a pure witness consciousness, sākṣī.

Of birds and balconies

There is a common notion, equally widespread, for example, in contemporary consciousness studies as in classical pramāṇa-based Buddhist and Indian epistemology, that one cannot at the same time observe the world, and be aware of oneself observing it. The standard logical argument against doing both at the same time is that this would lead to infinite regress: one observes that one observes that one observes, and so on, and on, and on. The simpler, but perhaps even more convincing, symbolical image is that one cannot stand at the same time on a balcony and walk in the street. So it is argued, and in ordinary introspection one can actually observe this. One realises that in introspection we switch very quickly between looking at the outside world and looking at the memory of how we looked at the outside world just a moment earlier. One possible reason for the mutual exclusiveness of perception and self-awareness in our ordinary waking consciousness might be that they function through the same inner instrumentation: In the Indian terminology, it is the same manas, or sense-mind, which in our ordinary consciousness either looks at the outside world through the outer senses, or at the inner world through the inner senses. The manas may simply not be able to do both at the same time.

There is, however, a second way of observing oneself that actually can take place at the same time as any outer or inner action. This second type of self-observation can easily be confused with ordinary introspection, but it has an entirely different character. The main difference is that it is not based on an activity by the mind, but on a direct apprehension of reality by a pure witness consciousness (sākṣī). This second type of self-observation is depicted in the ancient Indian image of two birds, good friends, beautiful of feather, who sit in the same tree: one eats the fruit while the other watches (Ṛg Veda I. 164. 2). Here what watches is not the separative, ego-centric, and sense-mediated surface mind, but a deep, silent, non-egoïc, all-inclusive, pure consciousness that allows the egoïc actions (and even the egoïc observations) to continue somewhere in its own infinitude without being perturbed by them. As there is no egoïc centre and no boundaries to this background awareness, the question of recursion does not arise. The core issue here is that the consciousness that watches must be ‘pure’ and utterly silent. If for some reason the ‘running commentary’, which is so typical of the surface mind, intrudes and one notices, ‘Hey, look, I’m watching what is going on from my deep silent inner self!’, one obviously has lost it, and gone back to the ordinary, ego-based introspection.

 

Introspection Pure witness consciousness
looking with one part of the mind at other parts of the mind (and at the rest of one’s nature) observing the workings of one’s nature from the position of a pure, silent witness
giving a running commentary; volunteering value judgements; reacting to what it observes silently watching in perfect equanimity
intrinsically prejudiced equal to all that comes up
limited to the ordinary waking consciousness able to penetrate deeper layers of consciousness and being

Table 16.2. Introspection versus pure witness consciousness.

 

In practice, these two different types of inner apprehension are not entirely exclusive of each other, and there are various in between stages. As one becomes only gradually more settled in the deeper, inner silence, it is possible, for example to arrive first at an in-between status of consciousness from which one introspectively observes what one is doing with what we have called knowledge of type 3, and yet retain some intimate contact of type 2 with a deep inner vastness of silent awareness of type 1. One is then aware of the presence of pure consciousness as a kind of background for the superficial mental activity in which one is involved, while one still identifies more with the mental activity on the surface than with the wider consciousness in the background. When one goes deeper within, one begins to centre in that vastness itself. Then one can see, support and sanction from deep within the activities of the surface mind without losing in any way one’s real ‘identity’ (if that term still applies) as the all-including vastness. One can then, for example, be aware through knowledge by intimate direct contact (type 2) of an infinite delight above, a borderless infinitude of awareness in between and a complex stream of actions and events below, all in the vastness of one’s being. It is these more inward ways of watching in an absolute inner silence, which can allow knowledge by identity to arise, not only of one’s own innermost self, but, potentially, of anything in existence.

It may be noted that in spite of its 3D imagery, the street and balcony simile presumes a ‘flat’ concept of consciousness in which exclusivity reigns—one can either observe oneself or the world, one is either the observing subject or the observed world, and so on. The image of the two birds, on the other hand, is based on a totally different multidimensional concept of consciousness and reality in which the dichotomies that perplex our mind are easily resolved in a higher-order, underlying unity.

In our interpretation of this ancient image, the tree inhabited by the two birds represents the relation between the world and two major aspects or portions of our self. The tree-world of the first bird called nara (man) belongs to the ordinary waking consciousness and is exclusive, enmeshed in time and causality. This bird ‘eats the fruits’: he is fully engrossed in life and suffers the consequences of his actions. The world of the second bird, Nārāyaṇa (the Supreme), is part of an all-inclusive consciousness, containing all time and all opposites within itself. Nārāyaṇa watches in the Vedāntic, non-dual sense of the sākṣī, and remains unaffected by karma. Interestingly, and typical of the ancient, even-handed love for man and God, the birds are mentioned as good friends, and both as ‘beautiful of feather’. Though the two birds may remind one of the dualist conception of Purusha Prakriti, the relation between Narayana and Nara is more intimate: they are described as good friends!4

If there is any truth in the distinctions and possibilities mentioned so far, then the next question is, how do we move from the superficial and often erratic knowledge provided by the observation of outer behaviour and ordinary introspection, to a more penetrating and reliable insight in the deeper layers of the mind.

2. Perfecting the inner instruments of knowledge

Sources of error

Over the long history of India’s thinking about these issues, many different descriptions of the mind’s difficulties have been given and many different solutions have been proposed to overcome them. Ego and desire are probably most frequently mentioned as factors leading to unhappiness, ignorance and distorted knowledge. The factor most commonly indicated as leading to bliss and unbiased knowledge is perfect detachment.

A slightly different, and in a way, a more technical perspective is offered by Sri Aurobindo in two interesting passages of The Synthesis of Yoga. He describes here the basic defects of the ordinary human mind as essentially of two kinds, immixture and improper functioning (1999, pp. 298, 618). Both can best be understood in the context of Sri Aurobindo’s vision of an ongoing evolution of consciousness.5 Within this framework of a gradually evolving consciousness, he sees these two basic defects of the mind as essentially due to the stickiness of our evolutionary past.

Immixture. Immixture happens when an earlier and more primitive form of consciousness interferes in a higher and later form. A typical example occurs when two people discuss a theoretical question. Their minds are genuinely interested in finding out what is true, because the quest for truth is part of the basic dharma of the mind. But when the vital part of their natures interferes, things go haywire. The vital part of human nature is not concerned with truth. The natural tendency of the life-force, which we have inherited from the animal stage of evolution, is survival, self-assertion, possession. So when the vital part of the nature enters into the debate, the stress is no longer on finding out what is true, but on who will win the argument. If the vital part of our nature is sufficiently purified, it will obey the mind and enjoy whatever it offers—a pure vital nature will be happy if the truth has been found irrespective of who has won the argument. But if an unregenerate part of the vital nature dominates over the mind, it will insist on winning, even to the extent of tempting the mind to bring in false arguments.

Improper functioning. In harmony with the idealistic nature of his Vedic philosophy, Sri Aurobindo holds that for each part of our nature there are ‘ideal’ or proper ways of functioning, as well as improper ways. For the vital nature the proper functioning includes an equal, glad enjoyment of whatever happens. The mixture of happiness, pain and indifference, of desires and fears from which most of us suffer, is the result of the gradual and as of now only partially completed evolution of the vital nature out of the totally involved nescience of matter. Similarly the ideal function of the mind is to receive in a complete passivity the knowledge that sustains the world and to express it in the physical life-form it inhabits. What the unregenerate mind does instead, again due to remnants of its slow emergence out of the stupor of matter and the ignorance of the life in which it grows up, is to strive after knowledge, construct it in an ever more complicated, but never fully satisfactory confusion.

One could summarize these two defects of the mind as the ‘noisiness’ of the ordinary mind. Just as perfect joy can only be received in a heart that is wide, calm, and completely free of desire and attachment, so also true knowledge can only be received in a wide and calm mind that is completely free of mental preferences and distortions. The deeper one tries to enter into the recesses of one’s inner nature, the more imperative becomes the need for a complete silence of the observing consciousness. Just as fine physical measurements demand a vibration-free room, so also in psychology, to reach the deepest layers of one’s being, a silent mind is essential. To silence the mind is of such importance that Patañjali describes it as nothing less than the central objective of yoga and Sri Aurobindo describes it sometimes as an essential step for deeper knowledge and sometimes as the ultimate essence itself.6 If this is so, then how is it done, how do we purify and ultimately silence the mind?

The purification of the mind

Most people who try to silence their mind soon realize that they have little control over their thoughts and that thoughts seem to come and go on their own. When one looks more closely, one sees that the vast majority of these mechanical thoughts that go on ruminating in one’s mind are triggered by sense-impressions, and that they draw their energy from often trivial physical and social needs and desires. The latter issue we have already discussed: an absolute prior condition for silencing the mind is to avoid what Sri Aurobindo calls immixture of the unregenerate vital in the mind’s workings. The necessity to overcome desires is mentioned in practically all spiritual traditions and is directly related to the two defects of immixture and improper functioning we mentioned earlier. As we discussed there, desire is itself a deformation of the vital’s true nature, and its interference in the mind’s workings is the main obstacle to direct and unbiased insight. The most obvious way to achieve silence in the mind is thus either to isolate the mind from the vital part of the nature, or, for a more lasting result, to quieten and purify the vital nature itself. Freeing the mind from negative vital influences is, however, not sufficient as the mind itself has its own defects. Sri Aurobindo mentions three conditions that need to be met if we want to arrive at deeper and more reliable inner knowledge:

Freedom from the senses. The first defect of the ordinary mind is that it is too dependent on the senses, and that it gets triggered too easily by their input. To keep the mind detached from the senses is common enough in ordinary concentration (when you read a book, you do not hear the street noise), but more difficult when there is no obvious focus of attention to keep the mind engaged. Yet, this is needed to create the space for more subtle perceptions to enter our consciousness.

Freedom from the past and future. The second defect of the mind is that it is too anxious. This form of improper functioning is in essence the same as the main defect in the vital. The vital part of our nature is too anxious to be happy, and as a consequence it loses its inherent peace and joy and gets instead lost in a jumble of desires and fears. When the mind is too anxious it first grabs intuitions (or even sense-impressions) too eagerly, then builds all kind of unwarranted extrapolations on them, and finally it sticks too tenaciously to the little it has found. To continue to grow in knowledge, one should always remain quiet, accept what comes, and yet remain open to what comes next (SY, pp. 315–316). The solution is thus the same as for the immixture and the clinging to the senses: one should retain a perfect equanimity, detachment and a vast inner calm.

Silencing the mind. Sri Aurobindo describes several methods to silence the mind (e.g. 1999, p. 324). The easiest, most commonly advocated but perhaps not the fastest method, is to let the mind run its own course but to withdraw one’s interest and sanction. If one manages to consistently refuse engagement in the thoughts that pass through one’s mind, they slowly die out. The stress, however, is on the ‘if’, and on the ‘slowly’. The second method is to enter with the centre of one’s consciousness into a realm of silence that pre-exists in an inner space deep within the heart or well above the mind.The third is to call this same preexistent silence down into one’s mind, heart and even body. The fourth is probably the most efficient, but also the most strenuous method. Here one distances oneself again completely from what goes on in one’s mind, and then one stays on guard and systematically throws out every thought as soon as it enters into one’s awareness. This is effective but it requires the ability to centre oneself in one’s mental puruṣa, one’s real, innermost Self on the level of the mind, and yet remain active. There are many other methods, but the core of most, if not all, is to distance oneself from the activities of the mind and vital and to watch whatever goes on inside one’s nature as an absolutely disinterested outsider. This is not an ultimate truth or a stance that can remain: in due time one finds that everything, even outer things, are actually part of oneself, but it is an effective means to get rid of the partial, ego-based identifications. The perceptions of ‘I’m me and not you’, ‘I like this and not that’, ‘I believe this and not that’ have their utility, and in an early stage of development they need to be cultivated in order to separate one's individual identity out from one's surrounding world, but in a later stage, when one's individuality is well-established in a higher order reality where it is not in conflict with the underlying oneness, it needs no longer be defended. At that stage its defence is recognised as the effective cause both of our suffering and of our inability to see reality as it is, and can be given up

3. Inner knowledge

If one would like to give a label to the ontology that underlies the theory of knowledge that I’ve tried to present here, then one could call it a strong form of realistic idealism. In philosophical texts there is a tendency to view idealism and realism as opposites, but Sri Aurobindo sees no inherent conflict between the two. He writes in The Life Divine, ‘The world is real precisely because it exists only in consciousness; for it is a Conscious Energy one with Being that creates it’ (1940/90, p. 22). In line with the Vedic tradition he holds that it is a conscious energy that manifests the world, and thus that knowledge is present throughout creation, even if largely implicitly embedded in the ‘habit of form’ of material objects. Just as in a rock it is consciousness that gives that rock its particular form and qualities, there is also in man a very close link between our consciousness and the form and functioning of our body — the ordinary human consciousness identifies itself with its material substrate. Physically, the main difference between the rock and the human is that in case of the human being, the substrate includes an immensely complex nervous system capable of (re)presenting to itself a small stretch of the physical and social world around it. As a result our consciousness tends to identify with the centre of that representation, and especially with our individual memories, body-sense, feelings, desires, ideas, social roles, etc. But, interestingly, in man consciousness need not remain entangled in the workings of the body and the nervous system. It appears that once our little chunk of biologically embedded consciousness is sufficiently individualised and self-aware, it can learn to free itself from its physical encasement.

The Indian tradition has found that once the consciousness emancipates sufficiently from the body, several forms of inner knowledge open up to it, that can be grouped under the first two of the four types of knowledge I discussed in the beginning of this chapter, knowledge by intimate direct contact and knowledge by identity. As discussed earlier, these two are closely related: there is a gradient of intermediate forms of knowing in between them, and an increasing proficiency in one often, though certainly not always, leads to a more frequent occurrence of the other. Still, for the sake of mental clarity it is good to distinguish them, if only because they belong to two entirely different epistemic realms: knowledge by intimate direct contact is still, just as sense-based knowledge and introspection, the result of a contact, however direct and subtle, between the self and something considered not oneself. As a consequence it is, in the radical language of the Vedic tradition, still considered to be a form of avidyā, no-knowledge or ignorance. Knowledge by identity, on the other hand, is the pure faculty of knowledge, vidyā, that is inherent in all being. In humans, it is to be found in its pure form only in the puruṣa, our silent, innermost Self. The aspect of knowledge by identity we will discuss in this section is the possibility to know as if from within things that ordinarily are not considered to be part of one’s own individual self. According to the Indian tradition this is possible because in its very essence everything is one, is Brahman. The condition however is, and this is a difficult condition, that we must have disentangled our consciousness completely from the little chunk of nature we ordinarily identify with, our ego. From that absolute freedom it is considered possible to know everyone, everything, every event, with a total perfection, ‘in the way God knows it’.

Endnotes

1As we have discussed in the chapter on the structure of the personality, there is inwardly, subjectively, an interesting vertical dimension to our awareness of different types of consciousness: we tend to visualise the heavens above and the dark, subconscious realms below. It is well within the human range to learn how to centre our consciousness at different vertical levels, and more or less deeply ‘inside’
2Sri Aurobindo claims that it is actually possible to cultivate intuitive knowledge to such an extent that it can take over all ordinary mental functions and become one’s normal way of knowing reality. We know from the diary Sri Aurobindo maintained during a few years of intense yogic practice, that he made this amazing claim not on the basis of literary exegesis or philosophical speculation, but on the basis of meticulously carried out experiments, of which he maintained a detailed day-to-day record. The ‘laboratory notes’ in this Record of Yoga (2003) are full of examples of detailed knowledge even about trivial events in the outer, material world, that would be extremely difficult to explain as constructed on the basis of sense-impressions and memories alone. For an interesting study of yogic powers and parapsychology, see Braud (2008).
3One can discern indications of such direct intuitive knowledge in a wide variety of human endeavours: in mathematics and logic, in the sudden insights that lead to a new revolution in technology, and in lines of poetry that haunt the reader because of their unearthly perfection, their ‘inevitability’ as Sri Aurobindo calls this highest type of poetry.. On a simpler, more directly dynamic level, one can perhaps even find traces of direct, intuitive knowledge in moments of ‘right action’, when one simply knows from within what is to be done at a given moment.
4Such details are significant as the Vedas, from where this simile hails, are extremely terse; they are like mathematical formulas of the spirit, and there is never a word too many. Here is an interesting short passage about how the relationship between Ishwara and Shakti differs from that between Purusha and Prakriti. For the relationship between Nara and Narayana one could also think of this passage about the relationship of man and the Divine.
5As we have seen in the chapter on the ongoing evolution of consciousness, Sri Aurobindo looks at the Darwinian evolution as gradual emancipation of consciousness. He holds that just as life has developed in matter, and mind has developed in embodied life, still higher forms of consciousness are bound to develop in embodied mind. Sri Aurobindo looks at yoga as a concentrated attempt in the individual to achieve in a short period what Nature itself is working out in her own speed on larger scale.
6At the end of a passage where he describes several ways to silence the mind, Sri Aurobindo says, ‘In a complete silence only is the Silence heard; in a pure peace only is its Being revealed. Therefore to us the name of That is the Silence and the Peace.’ I’m not aware of hard statistical data on this issue, but both tradition and personal experience tell that ‘enlightenment’, which is closely related to one’s capacity for knowledge by identity, tends to bring with it some degree of telepathic capacity, even though clairvoyants are certainly not always enlightened.