Towards a yoga-based research methodology

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 21 February 2024

section 3
Difficulties specific to the subjective and inner domains


In the previous chapter we had a look at how we can use rigorous, yoga-based processes, attitudes and inner gestures to make knowledge in the inner and subjective domains of psychology more detailed and reliable. In the beginning of this chapter we had a look at the communalities between the social processes that support knowledge generation in modern science and traditional yoga. In this section we will look at the unique difficulties that psychology as an academic discipline is likely to encounter when it takes up research in the inner and subjective domains.

Common objections against first person research from the side of science

The problem of 'privileged access'

One of the arguments that is perhaps most often brought up against the possibility of rigorous subjectivity as a valid research option is the notion of 'privileged access'. The idea is that each human being can have only access to his or her own consciousness. In other words, when I do objective research on some aspect of the outside physical reality, others can check my work because my data reside in the shared physical universe, while when I do subjective research inside my own consciousness, my data are only accessible to my own isolated self. This may sound at first sight plausible enough, both as an assumption and as a definite and final condemnation of the whole enterprise of yoga-based research, but neither the conclusion, nor the assumption stands scrutiny. As we will see, 'privileged acces' is not as big an issue as it may seem at first sight, and that for three very different reasons.

The first reason is that the original assertion that consciousness is intrinsically private may not be as absolute as it may seem. In spite of the limited funds available for research in parapsychology, the scientific evidence for telepathy is probably more solid than for almost anything else in psychology. There is moreover an enormous mass of anecdotal data about ordinary people becoming aware at a distance of what their close friends or relations go through. Within the Indian tradition it is widely held that a guru who knows his own deeper self well, is in a better position to know what happens in the consciousness of his disciples than they are themselves, and many a therapist would concur. This ability to know what goes on in someone else's mind is moreover considered a sensitivity that can be trained and is likely to develop spontaneously as and when one cleans up one's own consciousness.1

The second reason is that, the other way around, the outer reality may not be as fully independent and shared as it may look at first sight. Two people who have the same "standard" quality eyesight can both look at the same tree from the same physical position or at the same time, but not both. And even if they could do both, they would still have their own perceptions of the tree. We assume that the tree exists independently of the two perceivers, while inner states and processes exist — like beauty — only "in the eye of the beholder", but is this true? Could it not be that feelings, thoughts, images, attitudes, have an existence that is as 'independent' in the inner worlds as that of the physical things and processes in the outer world?

In other words, could it not be that the degree to which outer and inner realities are independently real and shared may not differ as much as people with a modern "scientific" education think? When two people share an inner experience of one specific type of joy, say the joy one feels when someone one cares for has just escaped from a potenital difficulty, who is to tell whether that joy is less or more independently real or shared than one particular type of tree? It is true that the "things" that can be perceived by outer and inner perception are of different types: After I have given a rock to someone else, I don't have it anymore. After I have shared an insight with someone, I still have it (it may in fact have become clearer because I had to explain it, and stronger since it was confirmed by the other person's acceptance). But all this has to do with the different type of stuff the entities in these two worlds are made of, not with whether they are real, or whether they are part of a single, independently existing and shared reality. As we discussed in the chapter on different type of consciousness, all aspects of reality are the result of a relationship between a subject and an object; they have neither an exclusively "subjective", nor an exclusively "objective" existence.

While these first two arguments may come across as somewhat philosophical and theoretical, the third argument is purely practical and holds even if these first two are rejected. The third argument is that even if it were true that others cannot have access to what happens inside someone's consciousness, this would, by itself, not pose any serious problem for subjective research because science is not interested in what happens in one particular person's consciousness; what science is interested in are generic processes. The standard scientific procedure to corroborate someone's findings is to have someone else reproduce similar results by using similar instruments and processes in similar circumstances. So, if in psychology someone makes an assertion about certain processes that according to his subjective judgment have happened in his own consciousness, all that is required is that someone else can reproduce similar processes in his own consciousness. Whether the first and second person's consciousnesses are private or public does not come into the picture at all. There are many checks and counter checks in science but going back to someone else's raw data is not a major part of the routine. It is used only as last resort in case of serious doubts about research that can for some reason not be replicated, and it is possible only since computers keep permanent records of events. Till computers began to record instrumental results, all one could check were manually written laboratory notes, and those one can keep of inner as well as outer events. Whether what happens in our individual consciousness is private or not does not stand in the way of rigorous, scientific research.

The malleability of the mind

A more serious difference between outside and inside 'stuff' — roughly, matter and mind — is that the mind is so much more malleable than matter. Measuring rainfall is unlikely to change the actual rain that falls, but asking whether you are happy or not may change how you feel, and asking whether you are thinking about yellow elephants is almost guaranteed to flip the switch to 'yes'. By itself this is a great asset of the mind and it can become a legitimate object of study, but it makes studying mental processes considerably more complex than the study of matter, which appears to be this sensitive only at the quantum level.

The combination of the malleability of mental states, the often highly complex and largely subconscious interests that we have in the outcome of our inner enquiries, and the limited knowledge we have of our own motives and inner processes, makes that our own inner states and drives can influence the processes we want to study to a far greater degree than in our study of the physical world. But as I've tried to show in the previous chapter, the Indian civilisation has not walked away from this difficulty, but has tackled it in an intellectually coherent manner. It suggests that we can improve the quality of our "inner instrument of knowledge" by means of a three step process. The first consists of reducing distorting influences in one's nature and becoming aware of the remaining ones. When this is done to a sufficient degree, it allows one to move from the ordinary waking state, in which one's consciousness is involved in the workings of one's personal mind, to a state of pure consciousness from where error free observation is possible. In the third stage one's increased purity and awareness of remaining errors helps to express one's observations as accurately as one's nature allows. It may be noted that even though a claim is made for the possibility of perfect knowledge, no claim is made for perfect expression of this knowledge: unless something changes radically in the human condition, expressed knowledge will always suffer from individual and collective limitations, like those imposed by culture and language.

Is pure consciousness possible?

Since finding a place from where one can watch what happens in one's own mind without any personal bias or preference is crucial to achieve the rigour that science demands, the next question that then arises is whether the state of 'pure consciousness' is actually achievable. The very possibility of pure consciousness has been doubted on theoretical grounds by authors like Steven Katz (1978), who argue that all experience is socially mediated, and, somewhat unexpectedly, by Carl Jung who argues that all consciousness has to have an ego at its center. The arguments of Katz have been countered, I think effectively, by Robert K.C. Forman (1990, 1998), who shows on the one hand that the whole idea of the inner exercise is to empty the consciousness of all content, whether culturally mediated or not, and on the other that there is no good reason to presume that none of the many authors who describe the state of pure consciousness had actually experienced it. The objection by Jung is at closer scrutiny not a logical argument at all, but a mix of an unfounded prior assumption and an acknowledgement of the limited range of states of consciousness that he had personally experienced, or rather, as H.G. Coward (1985) suggests, that he allowed himself to have.

Collectively, such theoretical arguments tend to get undone in due time by a growing collective experience, just as happened with the theories of the 19th century physicists who argued against the possibility of a 'horseless carriage' or a 'heavier than air aeroplane'. Their theoretical arguments were quietly forgotten once the first trains moved and the first planes flew. Just like the trains, aeroplanes and cellphones increase our faith in physics, even if the science behind them is beyond us, in the inner domain too, acceptance comes when a certain critical mass is crossed so that even those who have no direct inner opening to the more sophisticated possibilities of yoga themselves, will begin to see that practices that have their origin in yoga-based research actually work. In India this happened by the practical support people received from of those who are perceived as having a yoga-based higher consciousness. And one can, in fact, quite well argue that something similar is beginning to happen in Europe as well. All over Europe churches stand empty, while yoga studios thrive even in the remotest of villages.

What has the silent inner consciousness of the yogi to do with the ordinary mind?

A third objection against the use of pure consciousness as a research tool in psychology is that the process of withdrawal and becoming a pure witness involves serious changes to one's inner state, which makes it unfit to study the ordinary processes of the mind which are far from silent and pure. It is often held that as a consequence this is not a good method to see how the ordinary human nature really works by itself. The answer to this objection runs on similar lines as the answer to the problem of privileged access; here also it is useful to consider the way research in physics is organized. Physics hasn't achieved its amazing mastery over electromagnetism, for example, by focusing exclusively on the spontaneous, and complex manifestations of electricity and magnetism in nature. What science is interested in, are, again, not the surface phenomena as such, but the underlying processes. So one studies electromagnetism by making use of the little one knows, to create a piece of equipment that shows how electromagnetic forces work in some entirely artificial and constrained circumstances. From the results, one gains some further knowledge and mastery, and on this basis one can construct two very different types of new things. One of them is to make things for use in the world outside the lab. These are the things that produce new questions (and the money to work on them). The other consists of more sophisticated laboratory instruments that can answer more complicated questions. In this fashion one gradually builds up an increasingly sophisticated and comprehensive instrumentation, mastery, and knowledge. With all that new knowledge, one can then come back to natural processes like lightning or the magnetism of the earth, or produce things that change the world, like aeroplanes, cell-phones and internet-based computing. Progress in Yoga takes place in an essentially similar fashion: with the little one knows about oneself one tries to 'stand back' and watch oneself dispassionately. While doing this, one encounters various problems and in one's attempts to overcome them one learns more about one's own functioning, and so one slowly builds up an increasing clarity of inner perception and mastery over the subtle psychological processes that take place inside oneself. With that increasing inner clarity one can then look in more detail at oneself and help others — whether one-to-one or in the form of contributions to the shared knowledge base of humanity. As the process continues, one's insight, self-mastery and ability to help others gradually increase.

Yoga is too hard to use as a tool for psychological research.

A fourth objection one hears frequently is that reaching the state of a perfectly detached witness consciousness is not easy and that it would mean that doing research in psychology would only be for 'realised yogis'. There is some truth to this, if only for the simple reason that human beings are not purely physical, we do have an inner, a spiritual core, and so to understand human nature fully, we do need to understand that inner core. But it is no reason to complain: physics and mathematics are not easy either.

Fortunately, it is not true that one can start doing meaningful yoga-based research only as an accomplished yogi. Useful research can start long before this. As each individual is at the same time unique and prototypal for a certain type of problems and possibilities, each individual has his or her own talents and difficulties to conquer, and as such a unique area of research cut out for him or herself, something special that is in harmony with the peculiarities of his or her svabhava and svadharma (one's soul-qualities and the law of one's individual being) as well as with the circumstance he or she lives in. And yet, because we are all connected, and because we are in so many ways built on similar plans, such individual findings will be of interest to at least some others. It is clear that spiritual giants like Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, will produce more psychologically interesting knowledge than others, but even beginners may discover insights and techniques that are useful for others in search of psychological insight and mastery. Even if most of such beginners' work may be of use to only a few, or fill in only a tiny corner of the entire picture, all this inner labour together will add up in one way or another to our collective understanding of human nature. Again a process with obvious parallels in the hard sciences.

Entry into the ineffable

The ineffability of inner states is another often-cited argument against research in yoga, and it points at a genuine though not entirely intractable difficulty. The first thing to take into account is that ineffability is a relative term. At one extreme, one could argue that all experiences are 'inner' and as such ineffable: who is to say whether your experience of green is the same as mine? Doing so would, however, invalidate all experience-based sharing, so it is more practical to stick to the perhaps naïve idea that one can actually communicate with someone else about one's experiences to the — admittedly limited — extent the other recognizes them as similar to his or her own. The first occasion where the problem of ineffability then arises more seriously, comes when the other never had a similar experience. The crude, ablist, but archetypal example of this kind is the impossibility of fully explaining the experience of a person who can see colour to a person who is genetically colour blind. In a similar vein, it is argued, one cannot share an inner experience with someone who never had anything like it. There is no doubt some truth in this, but, as usual in the subjective domain, things are not that simple. In yoga it is widely held that knowledge comes basically from within, and as a consequence people can sometimes have a kind of pre-knowledge, a vague sense of what the real, all-out experience might be, long before they actually have it. This explains for example why some otherwise 'ordinary' people may still like to read mystical literature. They have not had the kind of experiences the mystic had, but still there is something in them that resonates when they read about these experiences. There are also certain experiences of which at least a shadow can be transferred by someone who had that experience to the mind of someone who has not actually had that experience. There are of course limits to the extent that this is possible, and there remains a gap between reading about a country, visiting it, and actually living there, and the gap increases if the 'other country' is not just another mix of known elements, but something of a radically different character. But then again: limiting our collective knowledge to what everybody can understand would negate all culture and all possibility of collective and individual progress.

Limitations on the side of the receiver are, however, not the only place where the problem of ineffability arises. The most difficult situation arises when the ineffability exists inside the person who has the experience that is to be conveyed. There is a weak and a strong form of this. In the weak form, the experience is difficult to describe due to lack of clarity on the side of experiencer. This can happen for example due to its complexity: describing an experience may simply take more time than can reasonably be expected to be available; or due to the fact that there are no commonly agreed terms for the sensations felt. The latter can be because the sensations don't occur commonly enough, but it may also happen simply because describing is not really needed. (Can you describe the difference in taste between a pear and a mellon?) In many of these cases, but not always, someone more familiar with the inner state, or simply more capable as word-smith, can help the experiencer to find the right words to express the experience.

Beyond all this, there is the intellectually more intractable strong form of ineffability: the situation where the state itself is ineffable, not just in the weak sense of being hard to describe, but in the strong sense of a consciousness that has no content in any known sense-modality. There is then in a most literal sense nothing to describe, while yet the differencce between the states just before and just after indicates that the state in between must have been a state of increased, not of diminished consciousness. Sri Aurobindo seems to indicate that this type of strong ineffability can, in certain cases, still be due to a simple lack of inner skill. This is the case for example when one carries no memory of certain higher states due to an undeveloped, unconscious stretch on the way into and out of that alternative state. As one's experience increases one can then learn to bring more back from these in-between inner states and in the end one can 'bring down' their essence so completely that one can actually be simultaneously in the higher state and in the ordinary consciousness, which obviously facilitates writing about it.2

One could argue that with this, we have definitely left the terrain of science in favour of some vague, mystical heavens far beyond the shared reality, but as mentioned before, it would be an error to limit psychology to what is understandable by everyone. After all, astronomy would have got nowhere if it had limited itself to what the average lay person can see with his unaided eyes, and neither would have physics if it had limited itself to as much of mathematics as the average postgraduate remembers from primary school. If we consider it good for physics if physicists are allowed to study the extreme limits of where the human intellect can reach, we have little reason to deny psychology the option of exploring the extreme limits of what human consciousness is capable of.



1It is a fairly common experience that once the surface noise of one's mind stills, one becomes not only more aware of what happens deep inside oneself, but one can also begin to become more aware of what happens inside others. One discovers then that the physical world is not the only shared reality; feelings and thoughts belong to shared worlds of their own. It is as if people are only in their surface consciousness fully 'skin-encapsulated', while on these deeper layers they are quite closely connected. It appears that some people can even sense in remarkable detail the consciousness of physical things that on the surface appear to be "inanimate".

2Still, even Sri Aurobindo leaves a place for completely ineffable states and the related yogic trance of Samadhi. He writes:

It is true that up to a point difficult to define or delimit almost all that Samadhi can give, can be acquired without recourse to Samadhi. But still there are certain heights of spiritual and psychic experience of which the direct as opposed to a reflecting experience can only be acquired deeply and in its fullness by means of the Yogic trance.

The Synthesis of Yoga (1917/1999), p. 526