Towards a yoga-based research methodology
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 12 March 2022

section 3
problems with knowledge in the subjective and inner domains.

3.1. The problem of 'privileged access'

'Subjectivity' has presently such a strong connotation of arbitrariness and of being beyond (or rather below) public scrutiny, that many a guardian of science will reject the whole idea of rigorous subjectivity offhand as an irremediable self-contradiction. One of the arguments that is perhaps most often brought up against rigorous subjectivity as a valid research option is the notion of 'privileged access'. The idea is that each human being can have only access to his or her own consciousness. In other words, when I do objective research on some aspect of the outside physical reality, others can check my work because my data reside in the shared physical universe, while when I do subjective research inside my own consciousness, my data are only accessible to my own isolated self. This may sound at first sight plausible enough, both as an assumption and as a definite and final condemnation of the whole enterprise of research in yoga, but neither the conclusion, nor the assumption stands scrutiny.

Contrary to what may appear, even if it were true that others cannot have access to someone's consciousness, this would, by itself, not pose any serious problem for subjective research. The reason is that science is not interested in what happens in one particular person's consciousness; what science is interested in are generic processes. The standard scientific procedure to corroborate someone's findings is to have someone else reproduce the same results by using similar instruments and processes in similar circumstances. So, if in psychology someone makes an assertion about certain processes that according to his subjective judgment have happened in his own consciousness, all that is required is that someone else can reproduce similar processes in his (the other person's) own consciousness. Whether the first and second person's consciousnesses are private or public does not come into the picture at all. There are many checks and counter checks in science but going back to someone else's raw data is not a major part of the routine. It is used only as last resort in case of serious doubts about research that can for some reason not be replicated, and it is possible only since computers keep permanent records of events. Till computers began to record instrumental results, all one could check were in any case laboratory notes, and those one can keep of inner as well as outer events.

Interestingly even the original assertion that consciousness is intrinsically private may not be as absolute as it may seem. In spite of the the limited funds available for research in parapsychology, the scientific evidence for telepathy is probably more solid than for almost anything else in psychology. There is moreover an enormous mass of anecdotal data about ordinary people becoming aware at a distance of what their loved ones go through (esp. at a time of crisis). Within the Indian tradition it is widely held that a guru who knows his own deeper self well, is in a better position to know what happens in the consciousness of his disciples than they are themselves. This ability to know what goes on in someone else's mind is moreover considered as a sensitivity that can be trained and is likely to develop to spontaneously as and when one cleans up one's own consciousness.4

3.2 The malleability of the mental consciousness

A more serious difference between outside and inside 'stuff' — roughly, matter and mind — is that the mind is so much more malleable than matter. Measuring rainfall is unlikely to change the actual rain that falls, but asking whether you are happy or not may change how you feel, and asking whether you are thinking about yellow elephants is almost guaranteed to flip the switch to "yes". By itself this is a great asset of the mind and it can become a legitimate object of study, but it does make studying mental processes considerably more complex than the study of matter.

The combination of the malleability of mental states, the limited knowledge we have of our own motives and inner processes, and the often highly complex and largely subconscious interests that we have in the outcome of our inner enquiries together form the core of the difficulty with ordinary introspection. Because of the flexibility of the mental consciousness and the limited knowledge we have of our inner states and drives, the latter can influence the processes we want to study to a degree and in directions entirely outside our knowledge and control. This is probably the main reason why most academic psychologists are suspicious of the whole idea of subjective research. It is, however, also the reason why we feel that the Indian tradition may manage where introspectionism and psychoanalysis have failed: It has not walked away from these difficulties, but, as we will see, it has tackled them in an intellectually coherent and exceedingly radical manner.

We will have a detailed look at yoga-based methods for making inner enquiry reliable in a later chapter, but in the next section we will have a quick preview of one of these methods and see why it can be expected to deliver the rigorous, reliable knowledge in the subjective and inner domains we are looking for.


4.      It is a fairly common experience that once the surface noise of one's mind stills, one becomes not only more aware of what happens deep inside oneself, but one can also begin to become more aware of what happens inside others. One discovers then that the physical world is not the only shared reality; feelings and thoughts belong to shared worlds of their own. It is as if people are only in their surface consciousness fully 'skin-encapsulated', while on these deeper layers they are quite closely connected.