How to improve the quality our psychological knowledge

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 01 March 2024

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

section 3
Beyond constructed knowledge

What actually happens when we reach that absolute inner silence is a radical change in our basic sense of who and what we are. Using the terminology given in our 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 Nature, prakṛti, side of our personality to the Self, 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 finite and 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 absolute 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 ideally 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. Most people simply fall back into the outer nature, which, in spite of the deep inner change, is rarely changed more than to a minimal extent by the adventure. It is, however, also within the range of human possibilites, to learn how to go back, cut for shorter or longer periods the contact with one's outer nature by entering into a state of inner trance or samadhi. This is the last step of several 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 has followed.1 It enabled him to explore — with stunning persistence and rigour — the enormous 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 ways of acquiring knowledge

The shift of our centre of identification from the ego, which is part of Nature, prakṛti, to the Self, the puruṣa, which is a portion of the Infinite, makes it possible, at least in principle, to perfect and develop the three inner ways of acquiring knowledge which we discussed in an earlier chapter. To what extent one can also express this inner knowledge depends, however, on the quality and training of one's outer nature.

A gradual shift to the mental puruṣa, without opening too far to the inner infinities can already help considerably to observe what happens in one's inner and outer nature 'objectively' through a purified knowledge of type three (3e). This is probably the most widely achievable, and as such most suitable method 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, even though it can know other people, animals, 'things' and events by an effortless, and in some sense 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 Brahman2. 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’, bits of this knowledge will come to us at best at the end of a very long journey, and to express them 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 will discuss in the chapter on the structure of the personality. As we will see 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 nature is 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 collectively 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 then at those in which they differ. At the end we'll venture some possible pathways for how they could work together.


1See the short biography of Sri Aurobindo in the Appendix.

2See the chapter on the reason why this text is called "Infinity in a drop" .