How to improve the quality our psychological knowledge
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 04 August 2022

Introduction

In the Vedic ontology the universe is a manifestation of consciousness, and it holds, like Plato and many other ancient philosophers, 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 realms of pure knowledge that exist permanently and inalienably, parallel to and in a sense ‘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 at the level of the mind to the knowledge that is built into the very structure of the universe, so that we may 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 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 whether about physics itself or about the mathematics the physics is described in.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.

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. 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 in ordinary introspection one can actually observe oneself 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.

Of birds and balconies

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

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 Puruṣa Prakṛti, 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.

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. In mainstream psychology, a strong ego and desires are accepted as an essential part of human existence, and there is a stage in life, when assertions like ‘I’m me and not you’, ‘I like this and not that’, ‘I believe this and not that’ are needed in order to separate one's individual identity out from one's surrounding world. But at a later stage, when one's individuality is well-established and one realises that one's own existence need not be in conflict with others or the larger, underlying oneness, its separateness need no longer be defended. At that stage an ego-centric defence becomes the effective cause both of our suffering and of our inability to see reality as it is. Accordingly, in spiritual literature ego and desire are mentioned more often as factors leading to unhappiness, ignorance and distorted knowledge, and the factor most commonly indicated as leading to bliss and unbiased knowledge is perfect detachment: One is advised 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 separation of self and world fits well with the philosophy of Samkhya, but in the Bhagavad Gita, and even in some schools of Advaita Vedanta it is seen only as an effective means to get rid of the partial, ego-based identifications. It is not considered an ultimate truth or a stance that can remain, since in the end, everything, even outer things, are seen as part of oneself.

Sri Aurobindo agrees but offers besides a more technical perspective in two interesting passages of The Synthesis of Yoga. He describes here the basic defects of the ordinary human mind as 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.

The purification of the mind itself

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

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. A typical example from the physical sciences is that even now it looks to us that the sun rises from the Eastern horizon, while the movements of the sun, the stars and the planest are far more easy to calculate if we supposes that the earth turns in roughly 24 hours around its own axis, and in roughly one year around the sun. 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 intuitive knowledge and 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.

The ability to silence one's 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 or at least near one’s mental puruṣa, one’s real, innermost Self on the level of the mind, and yet remain active.

Beyond constructed knowledge

What actually happens when we reach that absolute silence is a radical change in our basic sense of who we are, what we are, and how we can best arrive at knowledge. Using the terminology given in our earlier description of the structure of the personality, we could say that if we quieten the outer mind and the inner mind sufficiently, we can shift the center of our identity from the prakṛti side of our personality to the puruṣa, and identify with the mental self (the manomaya puruṣa as spoken of in the Taittiriya Upanishad). Experientially this is a momentous shift, for while the outer and even the inner nature are defined, and as such in one way or another limited and separated from other entities, the mental self is not: it stands in a direct, open contact with the absoute Infinite which contains and inhabits absolutely everything in existence. What is more, the intensity to which one allows oneself to be aware of that Infinite in its aspects of being, consciousness, and joy is to some extent a choice, a choice which is limited only by the "bearing-capacity" of one's nature and comes from deep within oneself.

Given the difficulty of combining the finite character of one's outer nature with the Infinity one is within, there are then several possibilities. The most common is probably to fall back into the outer nature, which tends to be changed only to a minimal extent by the adventure. It is also within the range of human possibilites, to learn how to cut, for shorter or longer periods, the contact with one's outer nature and enter into a state of inner trance or samadhi. This is the last step of Patanjali's Rajayoga, and it is the ultimate aim of several other spiritual traditions in India. A third, more difficult, option is to stay in contact with the outer world while, at the same time, gradually expanding one's contact with the Infinity within. This is the path Sri Aurobindo appears to have followed.7 It allowed him to explore — with stunning persistence and rigour — the whole range of different types of consciousness and being that exist between the ordinary human mind and the absolute Ineffable beyond the manifestation.

Developing the three inner types of knowledge

Whatever way one follows, the shift of our centre of identification from the ego, which is part of prakṛti, to the Self, the puruṣa, makes it possible to perfect and develop the three inner kinds of knowledge which we discussed in the chapter called "Four types of knowledge and their roles in psychology".

A simple shift to the mental puruṣa, without opening it too far to the inner infinities can help to observe what happens in one's inner and outer nature "objectively" through a perfect knowledge of type three (3e). This is probably the most widely achievable, and as such most suitable to initiate the kind of joint projects between mainstream psychology and those who try to follow the yogic path that we will discuss in the next chapter.

A further opening inwards can help to deepen and expand knowledge by intimate direct contact (2e) and knowledge by identity (1e). 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 what is ordinarily not considered to be "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, but it can know other people, animals, 'things' and events by an effortless, perfect inner knowing. It leads to a kind of effortless, horizontal expansion of what one knows and is the source of most forms of "extra-sensory" perception that are studied by parapsychology.

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, in our silent, innermost Self. As we have seen, it exists according to the Indian tradition because in its deepest essence, everything is still One, is Brahman8. While it is considered in principle possible to know in this way everyone, everything, every event, past and future with a total perfection ‘in the way God knows it’, this knowledge will come to us at best at the end of a very long journey. The reason is that while the knowledge of these two innermost types is by itself perfect, to become aware of that knowledge in one's outer consciousness, to share it, and especially to do anything with it, one is dependent on one's outer nature, which is a product of an unfinished biological evolution and as such intrinsically imperfect.

In other words, to express this inner knowledge fully and perfectly is as yet not achievable. What actually happens is that reduced forms of that knowledge enter our system and then become active as the vertical series of gradually "more truly true" types of knowledge we discussed in the chapter on the structure of the personality. As we saw there in some more detail, Sri Aurobindo calls them Higher Mind, Illumined Mind, Intuition, Overmind, and Supermind, and warns that there are always projections or shadows of the higher planes within the lower planes which people tend to mistake as proof they have reached much further than they actually have. What makes our gradual inner development not only misleading but dangerous, is that the higher forms of knowledge also give higher powers. As a result, there are serious risks involved in a premature opening to these inner realms before the outer (and especially the inner!) nature are sufficiently purified, and it is not for nothing that the Yoga Sutras put so much stress on the first two steps of its eightfold path. Still, in spite of these risks, it appears crucial to me that humanity pursues the inner knowledge with all the energy and all the sincerity it can muster, because having the physical powers physics has given us without any solid inner knowledge may well be even more dangerous.

Where do we take it from here?

The next chapter discusses how the knowledge systems of science and yoga could collaborate to develop knowledge in the domain of psychology with the help of the methods of enquiry that are used in the yoga traditions.

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 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.
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 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.
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.’
7See the short biography of Sri Aurobindo in the Appendix.
8See the chapter on the reason why this text is called "Infinity in a drop" .