Towards a yoga-based research methodology
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 08 May 2021

section 5
Discussion of common objections

There are four objections that are frequently brought up against the idea of using inner silence as a research tool. The first is that it is simply not possible. The second is that even if it were possible, it would still not be able to say anything much about the noisy ordinary consciousness. The third is that even if it were both possible and useful, it would still be too difficult to be practicable as a research tool: it would require psychologists to be enlightened before they could do any useful research. And finally, that if it were possible, useful and feasible, it would still lead in its ultimate pursuit to the ineffable, and the ineffable has, intrinsically, no message for science and practical life. We'll take them up one by one.

5.1 Is pure consciousness possible?

The very possibility of pure consciousness has been doubted on the one hand by authors like Katz (1978), who argue that all experience is socially mediated, and on the other by Jung who says 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 culturally mediated content, 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 did succeed. The objection by Jung is actually not an argument but a simple statement of the limited range of states of consciousness that Jung was willing to recognize as such. Both get in the end undone by 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. Experience tells that a state of clear consciousness without an egoic center is possible, and that once that state is established, it can discern what happens in the mind with far greater reliability, accuracy, and detail than what is possible with the noisy, ego-centric ordinary consciousness. The only hitch is the word 'experience': About whose experience are we talking? Experience recorded in ancient texts are looked at with suspicion by the modern mind, and, in contrasts to the trains and planes brought up earlier, one cannot just tell an unbeliever to see that it works with his own eyes. Unless the person happens to have a silent mind as a rare innate gift, his or her inner eyes need training, and even with training not everybody gets it. Again, by itself this is not an insurmountable hurdle. Even in the hard sciences one can trust or disbelieve what is said by science without testing it for oneself, or one can do the needful and get one's own experience, and the latter may not necessarily be easy. Not everybody can understand advanced mathematical proofs, and certainly not everybody has the skill and the equipment to replicate sophisticated biochemical experiments or astronomical observations. Yet people tend to take both seriously, and rightly so. Similarly not everybody is equipped to test the claims of yoga, as not everybody who starts yoga manages to silence his or her mind effectively. But the fact that not everybody can experience or do something does not at all go against it being real. If that were true, not only higher mathematics and astronomy, but even the ability to read and write should be distrusted.(10) Collectively, the acceptance will come probably only when a certain critical mass is crossed so that even those who have no direct inner opening to the possibilities of yoga themselves, will still begin to see the benefits of yoga-based research in the people around them.

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

The second 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 details of 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 is 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 electrical lighting, 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 trying 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 one 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.

Central to this argument is the nature of 'pure consciousness', an unfortunate term, as it seems to imply a single state, while it is actually a family of states, of which the members differ according to what exactly the consciousness is free from. The form of 'pure consciousness' that psychological research needs does not demand that absolutely nothing happens in one's consciousness; it only demands that the observer does not get 'carried away' by whatever happens in the consciousness: the observer needs to remain centered in, and identified with, a deep inner silence, irrespective of what happens on the surface. Mental processes can then come up in different ways for observation or action, dependent on the situation, the intent of the observer, and the extent to which the functioning of the mind is still operating on the basis of old groves or already under influence of a higher consciousness.

A few examples may make this more clear. One way is to proceed with one's ordinary activities while trying to watch — from a position of inner silence — how the movements of one's nature take place. It may take considerable time before one can actually do this and watch oneself without getting carried away by one's own inner and outer actions. How much time depends on the balance of power between on the one hand one's aspiration to become silent and on the other the strength of one's old habit of identification with one's nature. One can also try to silence one's mind while one is not outwardly active. In that case, one's thoughts are rather likely to increase initially, as if to assert their right to be there, do what they like, and take you along on the ride. With sufficient patience and persistence, the activity of one's mind will, however, reduce, till thoughts occur largely as small ripples in the otherwise silent consciousness of the observer. In the process one can begin to understand how one's nature actually works, what drives it, how many different elements it consists of, how many things there are in it of which one had no idea beforehand. One can even try to follow a third path, and attempt to act under the highest determination one knows or better still, under one that is higher than all one fully knows and understands. A counsellor who feels none of the techniques she has learnt is likely to work with a particular client in a particular situation might, for example, try to say whatever her intuition suggests. When one sincerely tries to do one's best, similar occasions to open up to intuition occur in all professions. As long as there is sufficient sincerity and mental rectitude, one will find that true intuition does exist, but also that there are many ways to go astray, and that the transformation of one's nature is not a simple, straightforward process. Together, the transformed and untransformed elements in one's nature offer the ground for a rich psychological understanding.

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

The third objection is that reaching the state of a perfectly detached witness consciousness is not easy and that it can be reached at best at the end of a long road. As discussed, useful research can start long before this. As each individual is at the same time prototypal for a certain type of problems and possibilities and unique, each individual has his or her own possibilities, his or her very own difficulties to conquer, and thus a unique area of research cut out for him or herself, something special that should be in harmony with the peculiarities of his or her svabhava and svadharma (one's soul-qualities and the law of one's individual being) and 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 others.(11) 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.

5.4 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, 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, 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: 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. Ineffability can also arise at the level of the language used, and even during the experience itself. Language problems are frequent in the spiritual field, partly because mystics and mystical schools often communicate within their own limited circle and develop their own specialized use of common words. This is so not only in English, but even in Sanskrit where words like samadhi, manas, vijñāna, and even yoga have been used with very different meanings by different schools in different periods. Though this is at present the source of endless confusion, especially when people try to compare schools from different periods, this problem can in principle, even if not always in practice, be solved by simple intellectual rectitude and willingness to listen to the other side.

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 on the side of the experiencer: 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 facilitates writing about it.(12)

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.