How to improve the quality our psychological knowledge

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 16 June 2023

This is the second section of a chapter.
If you haven't read Section 1, you can find it here:

section 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. 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 dualist philosophy of Samkhya, but even in the Bhagavad Gita, and at least some schools of Advaita Vedanta where the split between self and world is not considered an ultimate truth or a stance that can remain, it is accepted as an effective means to get rid of partial, ego-based identifications.

Sri Aurobindo agrees and offers an interesting and eminently practical perspective on the basic defects of the ordinary human mind in two interesting passages of The Synthesis of Yoga. He describes them here as immixture and improper functioning . Both can best be understood in the context of Sri Aurobindo’s vision of an ongoing evolution of consciousness.1 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 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 its own winning, even to the extent of tempting the mind to bring in false arguments.

Improper functioning
In harmony with the idealist 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.2

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.
In itself there is, of course, nothing wrong with the senses; they play a crucial role in almost everything we do. The problem consists of our lack of inner freedom and too limited mastery. When we read a book, we do not hear the street noise, but when there is no obvious focus of attention to keep the mind engaged, a tiny sound can set off a useless train of customary, and entirely trivial thoughts. What we need is to receive the input, be free to ignore it or take heed, and then remain open to what follows. Interestingly, there is hardly any relation between the quality and quantity of the input and the value of what follows from it. A sunrise can tell us that it is time for breakfast, trigger a life-changing experience of the divine Presence in nature, or evoke a sudden insight in the way the earth and the planets move around the sun and their own axis. What is more, the sensitivity for the extra can be developed. It is quite common, for example, that people sense the Sacred in the beauty of nature, whether pristine or carefully tended, but one can learn to feel the Sacred even in what earlier appeared as mundane or ugly.

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 and 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 with the help of intuition, one should always remain quiet, accept what comes, and yet remain open to what might come next . 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 pre-existent 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 inner 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.3 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 semi-spontaneous, 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 Brahman4. 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 little bits of this intuitive knowledge occasionally enter our system and there get mixed with the rest of our ignorantly constructed knowledge. The origin of these little bits of true knowledge is 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?

In the next chapter we'll discusses how the knowledge systems of science and yoga can collaborate in order to develop more sophisticated scientific knowledge in the domain of psychology with the help of insights and methods of enquiry that have their origin in the yoga traditions. First we'll have a look at the many things that yoga and science as complex collective knowledge systems have in common, and those in which they differ. At the end we'll venture one possible pathway for how they could work together.


1As 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 span of time what Nature itself is working out in her own speed on larger scale.

2At 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.’

3See the short biography of Sri Aurobindo in the Appendix.

4See the chapter on the reason why this text is called "Infinity in a drop" .