How to improve the quality of our psychological knowledge:
towards rigorous subjectivity

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 13 June 2023

This chapter may not be fully understandable if one has not read
the preceding chapter on different types of knowledge

section 1

When you are asked what a building is made of, you will in all likelihood think of bricks, cement, iron, timber and so on. But if there had been no conscious intent, the building would never have been constructed. Are the aspiration, energy, goodwill, and collaborative effort that went into the building less real than the sand and the iron-ore?

As we have seen in the preceding chapters, in the Vedic ontology, it is the consciousness of the Divine that manifests the physical world in and out of itself. Plato saw the origin of the world in a similar manner, and many, if not most major European philosophers supported "panpsychism", a philosophical view which holds that consciousness must be there throughout the manifest reality.[REFS] To us in the 21st century, the world does not look like this any longer. We think of inanimate matter as primary and take matter to be unconscious. Medical science looks at consciousness as a by-product of the nervous system, something that "emerges" out of the physical brain, or that is no more than a kind of subjective "flavour" or appearance of what are actually chemical processes. With the rise of neuroscience, even the academic discipline of psychology seems to veer more and more in this direction. But is it right to assume the primacy of unconscious matter and physical energy? The connotations of "objective" tend to be positive; those of "subjective" negative. If something is important, we say it "matters", if it is not, we call it "immaterial", but does all this make sense? Even if beauty, love, joy, meaning, and ethical values are more difficult to measure than physical things, is it justified to see them as less real and less important? It may be good to realise that if we lived in a purely physical world without awareness, we might as well not live, while if we were aware in some subtle world without matter, we woud be quite fine.1

The presence or absence of consciousness in matter is not only of abstract, philosophical interest. On the basis of the importance and pervasiveness of consciousness, the Indian tradition holds, like Plato and mystics in virtually all past civilizations, that there is a kind of knowledge, or perhaps one could better say, a know-how, embedded in the physical reality, which also exists in independent, paralel realms of pure knowledge. 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 individual mental consciousness to the knowledge that is built into the very structure of the universe, so that we can know in our ordinary, embodied human way, bits of that inner knowledge. In other words there is a possibility of genuine, spontaneous, and perfect intuitive knowledge (and thus action), which can arise in us because the deepest essence of our own being is still one with the deepest essence of the world and all that is in it.2

One could look at the increasingly accurate models science creates of the physical world as informed on the one hand by disciplined, impartial observation of artificially simplified physical processes and on the other by a highly structured form of intuitive knowledge, mathematics. Except for statistics, mathematics has not yet(?) played a major role in the modelling of psychological processes, but there is another "trick" that has helped to make scientific knowledge so quickly cumulative, and that is the construction of ever more sophisticated instruments. In this chapter we will try to see whether the same can be done in the domain of psychology: can we create instruments for the detailed and reliable study of what exists primarily in our consciousness, or as the Chandogya Upanishad says, "behind our eyes"?

The instruments used to discover new things about the the physical reality, are physical instruments, which have been constructed with the help of prior knowledge physics discovered at an earlier stage. In the same way, the instruments that psychology needs are "inner", psychological instruments that are built with the help of psychological knowledge that was gathered earlier. To get a better idea of what we mean by such "inner instruments", it is useful to have a look at two very different ways of looking inside: ordinary introspection, in which one looks with one part of one’s mind at what happens in another part of one’s mind, and the pure witness consciousness, sākṣī which looks at what happens in the mind as if from the outside.

Of birds and balconies:
from introspection to puruṣa-based self-observation

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. To use a simple symbolical image, one cannot stand at the same time on a balcony and walk in the street.4 So in ordinary introspection one does not do that and one actually tries to observe oneself by switching 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 has obviously 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

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, sanction and ultimately master5 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 knowledge is separative and exclusivity reigns: one can either observe oneself or the world; one is either the observing subject or the observed reality; 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 two different types of knowing are used and the dichotomies that perplex our dualistic surface mind are easily resolved in a higher-order, underlying unity.

In our interpretation of the ancient image of the tree inhabited by the two birds, the tree represents reality, and the birds are two major aspects or portions of our self that employ two very diffrent ways of knowing: 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 Puruṣa Prakṛti, the relation between Narayana and Nara is more intimate: they are described as good friends!6

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 erroneous 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. What is needed for this is to perfect our "inner instrument of knowledge", the antahkarana.


1While it is fairly straight forward why a purely physical world without consciousness would not make sense, it is more complex why creation needs physicality. We had a quick look at possible reasons when we discussed the evolution of consciousness and the three gunas. We'll come back to it in more detail when we discuss suffering in Part V, Working on oneself.[Add internal Refs]

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 also 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 it. 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.

4One of the main logical arguments against observing oneself through simple introspection is that doing so would lead to infinite regress: one observes that one observes that one observes, and so on, and on, and on.

5In the Indian tradition the consciousness of the purusha is often described as entirely passive. As we saw in the Introduction, Sri Aurobindo argues extensively for the power aspect of consciousness since he found that as one goes deeper one realises that underneath the pure witness there is a tacit approval of whatever one is aware of, and underneath that, a mastery which is entirely non-egoïc and in perfect harmony with the divine whole. Here is a passage from The Yoga of Self-Perfection in which Sri Aurobindo describes the three stages.

6Such 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 Puruṣa and Prakṛti. For the relationship between Nara and Narayana one could also think of this passage about the relationship of man and the Divine.