Towards a yoga-based research methodology
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 18 March 2022

section 4
the Indian solution: Yoga as research methodology

[NB. The plan is to expand this section and turn it into a separate chapter (the previous one) and leave here only a short synopsis.]

4.2 Introspection and the witness consciousness

In the ordinary waking consciousness, introspection is the main route by which we can look somewhat objectively at what goes on inside our own minds, but, as we have seen, it is a method that has several serious drawbacks. Seen from the perspective of the Indian tradition, these shortcomings all derive from the fact that in ordinary introspection, one looks with one part of the surface mind at what happens in another part of the same surface mind. This severely limits our capacity to look inside for three closely related reasons. The first is that the conscious surface mind seems capable of doing only one thing at a time: where we seem to be aware of two or more actions simultaneously, it is argued that we actually jump up and down between them. To use an old but clear image: one cannot be on the balcony and in the street at the same time, so in traditional introspection where one is both the spectator and the actor, one has to jump up and down between the balcony and the street below. In other words one does not really watch what happens in one's mind in real time (which would lead to problems of infinite regress) but one watches the memory trace of what happened just before. Titchener literally advised for more complex movements like anger, to let the process play itself out in its entirety, before 'retrospecting' the whole sequence in one's memory (Titchener 1898, p. 28, quoted in Adams 2000). The second is that in our ordinary waking consciousness, an entirely unbiased introspection is impossible. In Titchener's words: 'We can hardly, with the pressure of tradition and linguistic forms upon us, consider mental phenomena in a really naive way, with a truly blank prescientific impartiality.' The third factor is something of which Titchener and his colleagues seem to have been less aware. It is that even though their highly trained introspectionist observers could detail out mental processes and sensorial impressions with impressive detail, they did not reach below the immediate surface of their awareness; they did not reach the greater depths that meditation makes accessible. Though in modern psychology introspection is not any longer used on the side of the researcher [FN except perhaps as self-reflexivity, which, if done well, works differently] almost all research in psychology makes use of introspection by the researched public.

To understand the difference, the first thing to realise is that the Indian tradition does not accept the ordinary waking state in which we identify with the mind and are fully "busy thinking" as the only way in which we can be awake and conscious. It looks at it rather, in the language of Vedanta, as an unfortunate entanglement of our conscious essence, atman, with the activities of the mind, manas. It is a fact that in the ordinary waking state most people identify with their thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. The archetypal example is Descartes (1641/1931), who in his famous 'cogito ergo sum', made his entire existence contingent on being a 'thinking thing' (a res cogitans). One can find this tendency to conflate consciousness with 'thinking' throughout Western thought. One would expect that the development of machines that can imitate the information-processing part of human thought but not our consciousness might create some space for a more subtle understanding of their relationship, but for now it may well have made things worse. The philosopher of science Daniel Dennett has taken Descartes' confusion one step further by proudly declaring "we are our neurons". In other words, he shifts (perhaps unconsciously!) his centre of identification from the thinking processes to the physical organs that according to science produce those processes. The Indian tradition looked at identification with one's body and outer behaviour as a beginners' error,8 at least since the time of the fascinating story of Indra and Virochana in the Chandogya Upanishad (8. 7-12).

For the limited purpose of indicating why the Indian systems of yoga can manage where Western psychological research has failed, we need to focus only on one aspect of Indian psychology: the possibility of freeing one's consciousness entirely from the processes that go on inside it. With this we have come to the very core of what sets Indian Psychology apart from other approaches to psychology: its concept of consciousness. This is a rather complex issue with far-reaching ramifications for philosophy as well as for virtually all areas of psychology. In the introduction we looked at different concepts of consciousness and the consequences they have for our basic understanding of reality, meaning and values. We saw how a more integral and more dynamic concept of consciousness can change our understanding of the evolution, our history, and our future. In the chapters of Part Two, we saw how it can affect the ideas we have about who we are and how we function. In later Parts we will see how we can make use of it to revolutionise self-development and applied fields like education and therapy. Here in this section we will have a quick preview oof how it can help make psychological research more effective.

One finds the possibility of separating one's consciousness from one's mind mentioned in various forms throughout the Indian tradition. Most schools of Indian thought attribute human suffering to ignorance, and in the language of the Samkhya, the defining characteristic of this ignorance is an erroneous identification of our true Self, purusha with the limited movements of Nature, prakriti.9 The cure consists then of two main processes that are mentioned in virtually all schools of yoga. The first is a shift of the center of our consciousness away from prakriti, to which the processes and the contents of the mind belong, till it is fully centered in the purusha, the ultimate essence of our being. The second process takes place within the domain of prakriti under influence of the purusha: it is the purification and ultimately transformation of one's nature.

To the extent that the first movement can be completed, our consciousness frees itself from its habitual entanglement in egocentric thoughts, feelings and sense-perceptions and becomes peaceful, silent, joyful, and capable of watching whatever happens in the nature as a pure witness, sakshi, without bias, reaction or involvement. We will discuss in the next section whether achieving an entirely 'pure' consciousness should be considered theoretically possible or not, but for the practical purpose of research this is not required. If we take astronomy as a model science, we can see that astronomy does not need lenses with an absolute perfection, all it needs are lenses that are either pure enough for the work at hand, or lenses of which the errors are sufficiently well-known to compensate for them electronically. The same holds for our inner instrument of perception. If we can manage to watch the inner world with a 'pure-enough' witness consciousness, or with a witness consciousness of which we know the errors with sufficient precision, we can achieve the same level of reliability, impartiality, precision and clear-headedness in the perception of our own inner psychological processes as science is already used to in its measurements of physical processes. It may be noted that once one has freed one's consciousness sufficiently from its identification with one's thoughts, feelings, sense-impressions, etc., one develops an extraordinary ability to watch one's outer and inner movements dispassionately and thus to dissect, and compensate for one's own inaccuracies.

What is more, one also gains the power to make one's consciousness do things that in the ordinary waking state are not possible, at least not to the same extent. Typical examples mentioned in the literature — and verifiable in personal experience — are the ability to move around at will in types and layers of consciousness that are totally different from the ordinary mind. More difficult, and contentious, are the ability to feel and even influence, as if from within, what others experience. It may be clear that if such skills (or siddhis) would be found practically achievable, they would be invaluable for psychological research, though not without danger: If the outer nature is not 'pure' enough, these inner powers can lead to serious abuse, no less than our outer technological powers. Lack of purity can also lead to all kind of distortions and limitations during the secondary phase of expressing what has been observed during the period of pure inner silence, so for serious research in the inner domain both the detachment and the purification of the nature are crucial.

I'll discuss the methods to achieve a pure witness consciousness and the powers that go with it, as well as the processes needed for the purification and transformation of the instrumental nature in the chapters on Self-development. Here I'll indicate only the basic principle. Before proceeding, it may be useful, however, to say a few words about the somewhat peculiar, circular relationship between purification and detachment.

4.3 The relation between the liberation of the Self, and the transformation of the nature.

As a very general rule, some preliminary purification of the nature is required for the consciousness to be able to extricate itself from its surface activity: Strong desires, fears, aggression, ego-sense, mental rigidity and ambition all make it more difficult for the self to stand back and watch. Absolute purity is not essential however, and even a complete liberation of the purusha from the prakriti is possible while the outer nature is still in a more or less chaotic state. If all we want is an inner sense of freedom, then this does not matter, and keeping the outer nature sufficiently quiet to reach the state of a pure witness consciousness is enough. However, if we want to use yoga to increase our knowledge of psychology, then it is necessary to go further and turn one's outer nature into a reliable instrument with which one's innermost Self can express itself. A certain initial change of the nature takes place automatically as an immediate result of the inner freedom, but this is not sufficient for this specific purpose. If we would compare the complexities of our psychological nature to that of an army, then one could say that a change of 'chief commander' will have an effect on the behaviour of the army as a whole, but the individual troops will not immediately change. For that a new chief commander who watches what is going on in his army with a benevolent smile is not enough; a sustained and skillful effort from the central command is crucial. To come back to the language of yoga, one has to move from the witness consciousness (sakshi), which is only the passive purusha, to the purusha who is also the 'upholder' (bhartri), the sanctioner (anumantri), and finally the knower and master (jñata ishvara) (Aurobindo, 1972, pp. 610-612). The further one moves in this direction, the more it becomes possible to bring each little element of the nature under control of a higher consciousness, turning it first into an obedient instrument and ultimately into a expression of the Self. This involves, undoubtedly, an exceedingly difficult transformation of the nature. As such, it also involves an effort that goes beyond the already difficult project of individual liberation that some more limited forms of traditional Yoga and Vedanta are content with. But it may be clear that to the extent that it can be done, it will provide us with a sophisticated 'inner instrumentation' for psychological research. It is now time to see whether all this is just a little cloud of idealistic moonshine, or that it is, as I think it is, a practicable approach to psychological research.


8In psychiatry, not to 'own' your thoughts etc. is commonly considered a sign of serious pathology, and considering the population that psychiatrists typically deal with, this is understandable. A useful way to look at this apparent paradox, is to consider normalcy as an intermediate layer in which it is indeed healthy to identify with one's own thoughts. Some people cannot sustain this identification and fall out of this layer downwards and seek help. Others climb out of this layer upwards with the strength of their soul, but they rarely visit the psychiatrist. Things are not that simple of course and some people do a mixture of both. A useful analysis of the differences between pathological and yogic deviance from normalcy can be found in Liester (1996)
9The difficulty is often formulated as avidya, seeing division, in stead of vidya, seeing oneness. This comes however to the same because when one identifies with one's small surface being, which is separated from everything else, one cannot help but see division around oneself, while when one identifies with the real inner Self, which is one with the Absolute and with everything else, then one cannot but see oneness wherever one looks, even where there is apparent differentiation.