How assumptions and methods of enquiry determine what different schools of psychology can see
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 11 May 2021

[This text originated as an independent article, which is available here.
It still needs to be better adjusted to its new role in Infinity in a Drop.]

If you haven't read Section 1, you may like to read that first:


PART II: An approach to Psychology with roots in the Indian tradition


The two diagrams in this section are based on the type of psychology discussed in Infinity in a Drop. The terminology is derived from the work of Sri Aurobindo and will be more understandable after reading chapter two of Part One and chapter one of Part Two. The first diagrams is somewhat simpler than the second one: it depicts only what can become clear (and is useful to know) during “a first look inside”. The second diagram has some more detail.


As may be clear, the Indian psychology perspective contains many new elements, but before we can explain the details of the diagram and content of the four knowledge realms, there are a few more general observations to make.

The basic layout of these diagrams reflect that humans are rarely fully “alone”: we tend to spend our time in all kind of relationships. These relationships are not necessarily with one other person, they can also be with a group of people, a task, a thought, an element of the physical reality, they can even be with ourselves or the Divine. Fully alone we rarely are. Because of this, the common pictorial descriptions of human nature always feel a bit artificial and incomplete, and so, in these diagrams I have depicted the different parts of the being of one person in relation to those of another person. One could of course also see them in continuation of the constructionist's universe with the researcher on the left and the subject on the right, but the basic layout applies equally to two “ordinary” individuals as to a researcher and his subject.

Another thing to notice about these last two diagrams is, that they may appear to be inverted: the more superficial, “outer” regions of our psychological reality are depicted in the centre, while our inner realities are towards the periphery. The reason for this apparent inversion is that the diagrams depict two “half people": they depict a horizontal trajectory from one person's innermost Self at the extreme left, via his inner and outer nature, into the public physical space where behaviour takes place, and then from there, via the outer and the inner nature of the other, to the innermost Self of the other on the far right. A helpful side effect of the inversion is that it harmonizes with the peculiar fact of experience that as one  “goes inside", one actually enters larger and larger realities. The “inner realities” are experienced as wider, more open than the physical outer world, and the further one goes “inside” the wider one's world becomes. In fact, the more one becomes aware of the inner worlds, the more it looks as if the entire physical universe exists only within a small corner of these inner worlds.

The diagrams as a whole give the impression that the whole wide world hangs down from two little balloons that represent our ultimate Selves, and this is perhaps as it should be: In the Indian tradition the Self is the primary reality, the essence on which all the rest depends. Finally it may be noted that, although one is rarely aware of this when one is in the limited physical consciousness, the more subtle “inner” types of knowledge (Sri Aurobindo's type one and two) do influence and penetrate the more superficial “outer” types of knowledge (type three and four).    

As we human beings tend to live initially quite close to the surface of our nature, we'll describe the diagram from our outer behaviour in the central square — which depicts the physical reality — via our outer and inner nature, to our innermost Self on the left of the diagram. On the left of the diagram I've used Sri Aurobindo's English terminology; where appropriate, I've given on the right the Sanskrit equivalents. The four knowledge-realms that together cover our psychological reality are indicated in this diagram as grey rectangles. The inner three have borders in darker shades of grey; the realm of the Self has, perhaps significantly, no outer limit.


A first look inside

Objective knowledge

Objective knowledge is knowledge of type four: it is separative and indirect, and it is the most superficial type of knowledge. It consists of what we become aware of, through our senses, in the outer, physical world. In our ordinary daily life, we use a naïve, untrained form of it, while Science is its most sophisticated development. In modern times, it is this type of knowledge we trust most, possibly because it provides us with power over the physical world, and through that, with power over others. It is, moreover, the source of all our technological gadgets and comforts. In yoga it is considered the lowest type of knowledge, the epitome of avidya, ignorance. The reason for this low valuation is that it is right on the surface, and least connected with our soul.  The world of objective knowledge contains our behaviour. As the behaviourists slowly discovered, human behaviour has an extremely complex causation, and so as long as one's knowledge is limited to objective knowledge, only some limited aspects of it can be reliably predicted, and that too, only in a broad, statistical sense. To really understand individuals one has to know what happens deeper inside.

Line a separates the world of publicly observable behaviour that can be known through objective knowledge, from the parts of our nature that are, at least in first instance, only available to the individual as subjective knowledge.

Subjective knowledge

Subjective knowledge consists of naive, untrained forms of type three and type two, introspection and simple, naïve experience. It gives us all that we know about ourselves in the ordinary waking consciousness. It is all that mainstream psychology deals with. From an Indian psychology standpoint, it is not worth much, and is often described as a source of typical beginners' errors (e.g. Chandogya Upanishad 8.7-12).

The realm of subjective knowledge contains an area that in our diagram has the labels, outer mental, outer vital, and outer physical. In mainstream psychology this area might have been called “inner” as it cannot be seen on the outside of the body, but from an Indian standpoint it is so close to the surface that it deserves to be called “outer”. In this outer realm, the division between mental, vital and physical may not immediately be clear as on the surface of our nature they are always mixed together. In emotions, for example, there is a physical component as emotions typically affect one's pulse rate and blood pressure; there is a vital component of feelings and assertiveness; and there is a mental component as the emotions come packed in words and thoughts. In the diagram, we have indicated this mixed character by making the borders between these three layers fuzzy. As a result, the justification for the simpler Western division between mind and body seems in our outer nature more obvious: the body is the physical stuff you can touch and see, while the mind is everything else, and the body–mind division can be compared to the easy to understand division between hardware and software.

The Indian division in three major categories is based on a more subtle observation, which gets its full justification only in the “inner” and “true” parts of our nature. The terms mental, vital and physical are rendering the Sanskrit concepts of manas, prana and annam. In the inner being these three principles are experienced as three essentially different types of conscious existence. They are seen as so essentially different and as so completely independent of each other that they are sometimes described as three worlds, three planes, or three births, and in case of the individual organism, as three sheaths. The division between the mental and the vital plane comes out most clearly in the clear difference between the svadharma, the basic law of right action, of these two planes. The mental is into thought, and it is naturally inclined to seek for, and to express truth. The vital on the other hand, is into feelings, into likes and dislikes, exchanges of various kinds, and it pursues self-assertion, enjoyment and possession. In the mind, understanding has the greatest value, just as self-assertion is the basic objective in the world of the vital. A modern way to look at it is to say that the vital comes from an earlier stage of evolution when survival and happiness were the main issues that determined our actions. Now, in us mental beings, the vital should not any longer decide what we do, but provide energy for whatever is decided by the later-developed and higher-order centre of consciousness, the mind. Once our consciousness has emancipated sufficiently out of the biologically determined centres of our being, we can leave the decision taking process to the inmost individual centre of tconsciousness, the soul, the psychic being.

It may be noted that even though each layer has elements of all three gunas (qualities), the typical guna of the mind is sattva (harmony), of the vital, rajas (energy), and of the physical tamas (inertia).

A major element of the outer being is the ego. The Ego is in Sri Aurobindo's view a temporary, provisionally constructed centre that serves as a coordinating hub for the activities of the nature, needed as long as the real Self and the Soul are not fully known and made dynamic. It may be noted that the diagram contains several smaller egos, both in the outer and in the inner nature. These are subsidiary egos that can be located anywhere in one's nature and they assume a character according to the part of one's nature they occur in. A typical example might be someone who is generous and flexible in his vital nature, inclined to adjust and share his possessions with others, but egoistic in his mind: proud of his ideas, insisting that others change theirs and acknowledge his superiority. Though necessary in the early stages of one’s individualization, all the functions of the ego(s) can be taken over by the Soul or Psychic Being which we will discuss later.

Line b is the borderline between the realms of subjective and inner knowledge.

Inner knowledge

Inner knowledge, once developed properly, consists of more sophisticated forms of knowledge of type three and two.11 Sri Aurobindo calls the realm that inner knowledge deals with subliminal because it is below the threshold of our ordinary waking consciousness (or OWC). This subliminal or “inner being” is the part of our nature that is the closest to our true Self, and it is the first to accept its beneficial influence. It is, however, still a mixed realm, and we can find here things that are higher, nobler and further evolved, as well as things that are lower and more primitive than what we find in the OWC.

Whether our surface being is conscious of it or not, what happens in the subliminal has a profound and pervasive influence on all we do, feel and think, and so its exploration and purification are crucial for our individual well-being as well as for the development of psychology. It is normally not accessible in our OWC, or through ordinary introspection, but many people have glimpses from it in their dreams. In Psychoanalysis it is accessed through “free association”, and in some other forms of Western psychotherapy through hypnosis. In both methods it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish perception from imagination and truth from falsehood, and one has to rely on somewhat arbitrary—and often contradictory—systems of interpretation. In Indian psychology, the deeper layers of human nature can be studied with much greater precision and reliability by means of the pure witness consciousness. As discussed above, of the four types of knowledge, the second type, separative direct knowledge, and the third type, knowledge by direct intimate contact can be perfected through contact with the mental Self or manomaya purusha.

The lowest, most primitive part of the subliminal, where we store the stuff we do not want to see, is what Freud called the “unconscious”. We call it here the “subconscious” as in the Indian view it is not entirely without consciousness, but only characterized by a very low, primitive type of consciousness.12 It is from this subconscious realm that the poisons arise during the churning of the ocean in the Puranic story.

In this diagram, the subconscious has stretched downward and is now connected with the subconscious of “the other”. It has been depicted this way to indicate two interesting phenomena. The first is, that as one's consciousness grows and rises, one also sees more clearly into the depths. It is as if the increasing inner clarity lights up more and more dark corners in one's nature. The second is, that one's subconscious is not entirely personal: we are all connected. This is true for all layers, but in the subconscious it is perhaps the most prominent and definitely the most troublesome: To arrive at peace and harmony, one has to clean up not only one's own past confusions, but, at least to some extent, even those of others.

In analogy with the subconscious, Sri Aurobindo sometimes calls the higher regions of the inner being the superconscious, but this part of the nature we'll discuss in the next section. The inner being is also the realm where we are in direct contact with other beings and a wide variety of occult, cosmic powers.

Immediately above the subconscious we have the inner physical, inner vital, and inner mental. These three layers are here fully separated and coloured differently as in the inner nature each plane can actually be experienced in its unique, distinct, flavour. Emotions, for example, can in the inner nature be experienced as pure energy, and feelings need not be rendered into words and may be unconnected with the body.

As mentioned in our discussion of the subconscious, the inner mental, vital and physical are not purely individual: at this level we are all directly connected with each other. As a result, we can, within the realm of inner knowledge, know each other through knowledge of type 3. It is held, in fact, that the reason we normally do not know each other directly, from the inside out, is not because we are separated from each other: we are not. The reason is that within ourselves, there is a wall between our outer being, which relies on objective and subjective knowledge, and our own inner being in the subliminal realm that can only be known through inner knowledge. In other words, as we get to know our own inner being better, we find that more and more often we begin to understand others as well, in what seems to be an entirely direct, non-mediated, non-constructed way.

Line c in the diagram separates prakriti, Nature, from purusha, the Self. The Self is the carrier of one's consciousness and the centre from where one is aware of everything. It is worth noting that in the Samkhya philosophy, which Patanjali follows in his Yogasutras, everything that can be made an object of observation — even thoughts and feelings — belongs to (universal) Nature, and only the pure, silent, witnessing and supporting consciousness belongs to the Self. In the later dualistic philosophy of Samkhya, this line of demarcation is seen as absolute: purusha is pure consciousness, and prakriti is entirely unconscious. In the older more flexible Samkhya of the Bhagavad Gita, in Vedanta, and especially in the Tantric writings of Abhinavagupta, it is stressed that in the end all is One, and as such, nothing can be entirely unconscious: prakriti is moved by a personalised and conscious female force, Shakti, which is initiated, sanctioned, supported, ruled and inhabited by the consciousness of the Ishvara, her Lord.

Line c also divides the realms known through objective, subjective, and inner knowledge, which are all at least to some extent constructed, from the realm of knowledge by identity, which is direct and inherent.


Self-knowledge, which is a knowledge by identity, tends to become manifest first in one of the three embodied centres of consciousness, the mental, vital and physical Self, which preside over one’s individual existence in the three major planes of existence, the manomaya, pranamaya and annamaya kośa. The Self of the mental plane (the manomaya purusha) deals with knowledge; the Self in the vital plane (the pranamaya purusha) is the centre and supporter of exchange, possession, energy and enjoyment; the physical Self simply is, and supports the body.

For psychology as a science, the mental Self is perhaps the most interesting as it is the seat of the sakshi, the pure witness consciousness which allows a completely unbiased sharp perception of everything that happens in our individual nature. The vital Self is characterised by an undisturbed and seemingly unlimited joy and energy and has as such its own role to play, but it is perhaps most known for the fact that it is so often mistaken for the soul. The physical Self is well-known to athletes at moments when they “enter the flow” and their body consciousness handles everything fully on its own without any interference from the mind or vital.13

While the Self is the carrier of the ultimate svabhava and svadharma of the individual, the soul may choose to express only a subset of this svabhava during one particular birth. An example may make this clearer. If it is part of a subsequent destiny of an individual to express subtle, inner realities in the form of poetry, it could choose first for a life as painter, as this would enable it to develop the capacity to hold things up to the mind’s inner eye with subtlety and detail. In a subsequent life it could retain this inner ability of detailed visualisation, while suppressing its capability to paint, exposing itself instead to wide variety of literary expression. Through this particular combination of supporting and limiting influences, it could then develop the capacity to express rich inner visualisations through the medium of poetry.

The Soul is the very centre of the embodied individual, and as such a representative presence of the ultimate, immutable Self beyond time and space. In the beginning of one's individual evolution, Sri Aurobindo describes it as no more than a “psychic entity”, a spark of Divinity, but over many lives it gathers experience and so it forms around itself what he calls an evolving soul-personality or “psychic being”. The psychic being consists not only of the original spark or divine presence, but also of all those elements of the inner nature that have come permanently under its influence.  The Sanskrit term that comes closest to what Sri Aurobindo calls the psychic being is chaitya purusha. Antaratman is another term used for the same centre of consciousness as it is found deep behind the heart, but most authors who use this term stress its eternal and immutable, rather than its evolving characteristics. Psychologically, this centre contains both: it is the immutable Self as it expresses itself in time. Once the soul takes over as the centre of the embodied individuality, there is according to Sri Aurobindo no longer need, or place, for the ego.

The ultimate Self or atman (in the diagram at the top left corner) is the absolute essence of the individual. Like the Divine, which we can in this context perhaps look at as the Self of the Universe, our ultimate identity exists simultaneously in the individual, the cosmic and transcendent aspects of reality. If the Divine is anantaguna, of infinite quality, the individual Self, being an inalienable and eternal portion of the Divine, has a subset of that infinity. It is this subset that determines the individual's svabhava and svadharma and they, in turn, determine the individual’s destiny, its role and position in the manifestation.

The reason that the lines connecting the Soul and mental Self with the Self above have been staggered like the Empire State Building is, that the Self tends to be experienced as vertically straight above each. One should not take any of this too serious though: the inner worlds are not dimensional in our ordinary physical sense, and the various Selves can also be experienced as concentric or in many entirely different relationships. 

Sachchidananda (Existence, Consciousness, Bliss) in the centre at the top of the diagram is the traditional way to describe the nature of Brahman as the original source and essence of the manifestation. It reflects the psychological fact that if one manages to empty one's consciousness from all relative and temporary content in an aspiration to find the absolute essence of reality, one can experience overwhelming intensities of what feels like perfect, absolute, true being, consciousness and delight.  

The term “transcendent” is traditionally used for that what goes beyond all manifestation. This and the processes and states leading to it have been given many names, all with slightly different meanings and connotations, e.g. sunya, nirvana, mukti, moksha, samadhi and so on. Psychologically, the concept of the transcendent is peculiar, because the transcendent is by definition entirely beyond the manifestation, while still, we can have at least subjectively the sense of entering into “it” and coming back from it. What is more, doing so is a life-changing event: it leaves one with a permanent certainty of having found the absolute, the ultimate, That, and with this, the certainty that ultimately all is well, and that all that happens “down here” in the manifestation can never take away anything of that ultimate perfection and supreme “wellness”. It is for this reason that both in yoga and in Buddhist practice so much importance is given to this “experience” (or rather “non-experience"?). For psychology it is important as it helps one to be detached and impartial in one's perceptions and actions.

It may be kept in mind that while there is an enormous variety in the ways different schools have described the relations between what we have here called our outer nature, our inner nature, our highest, innermost Self, the outer cosmic reality, and the Divine, it is not impossible to find the common core, even though one may not be able to describe it without choosing sides in some of the many quibbles about what describes it best. Fortunately, our consciousness is not limited to what can be known and expressed explicitly.  

We'll now fill in some more detail in the inner and higher worlds.


Some more detail

Subdivisions in the vital and mental

The first thing one may notice when one compares the following diagram with the former, is that the inner vital and inner mental have each been divided into three sub-planes. This may seem a useless complication, but it does correspond to an influential aspect of our inner reality, and the sub-divisions are helpful if one wants to understand the source of contradictory feelings, thoughts and motives. The subdivisions of the vital and the mind correspond to the higher six chakras, whose Sanskrit names I've indicated in the diagram on the right. (I've not given Sanskrit words for the higher levels of consciousness as the Sanskrit words used to indicate these worlds have different meanings and connotations in different schools, so that the whole exposition would become far too complex for this introductory overview. Personally I've found Sri Aurobindo's divisions and terms eminently clear and practical.)

The chakras have been subject to much useless mystification and pseudo-spiritual sensationalism, but they refer to a set of experiences that occur sometimes spontaneously and that are fairly common amongst those who meditate or do yoga. Even the rising of the kundalini, the psychic energy, from the muladhara at the base of the spine to the sahasrara at the crown of the head does occur sometimes without any specific effort or training. Perhaps more importantly, the chakras relate to different types of consciousness that are fairly easily accessible to almost everyone. For some reason these different types of consciousness seem to be stacked up one above the other in our inner, subtle physical body, and there are clear references to the highest five in the English language.

When you read a difficult text or think about some complex abstract problem, the centre of your awareness tends to be located in the centre of your forehead. When you stop reading and try instead to feel love or compassion, it shifts automatically to your heart.
   It is interesting to see if you can feel love or compassion while looking at the world from some place behind your forehead. Most people find this impossible: if you insist on the feeling of compassion, it is as if you are pulled down to the middle of your chest. Similarly, when you force yourself to stay in your heart while reading a difficult text, you'll notice that the ideas don't register, they go, in a most literal sense, “over your head” (or rather “over your heart”).
   In martial arts and contact sports like boxing, it is crucial to centre yourself in the centre of your body, your hara, as otherwise it is too easy to push you over.
   When one has difficulty controlling one's anger, it often helps to splash some water over one's face or walk around the block. This helps not only because it “cools you down”, dissipates the energy, and forces a little break; it also forces your consciousness into your physical being which in itself is not angry: the anger is located in the vital part of the nature. Counting to ten helps for the same reason: it forces you away from the vital, into the mind.

  • The lowest chakra, at the bottom of the spine, is the muladhara, the seat of the kundalini energy, and the physical consciousness.
  • Just above it, is the svadhisthana, the chakra of the lower vital consciousness where we find sexuality and the search for minor, personal comforts.
  • Above that, we find the manipura, housing the middle vital with our larger ambitions for power and possession. This is the Hara of Japanese martial arts, and also the source of what businessmen call “gut-feelings”. Interestingly, “having guts” means being courageous and daring, qualities that occur when one's consciousness is powerfully present at this level.
  • The anahata at the level of the heart, with the higher vital consciousness, carries the more sophisticated human emotions of love, compassion etc. If you want to encourage someone to be more generous or compassionate you don't say: “open your head”, you say, “open your heart”.
  • Above the heart, at the level of the throat, comes the vishuddha in the lowest mental layer, the expressive mind. Its character depends on what it expresses: it can express vital feelings coming from below as well as thoughts and inspirations from above. It is not only concerned with verbal and vocal expressions, it is also active in other forms of expression.
  • One further up is the ajna chakra, the thinking mind proper located behind the forehead. This is the location where philosophers and academics feel that their consciousness resides. Again, a child who needs to think more clearly is asked to use his head, not his heart, let alone his guts.
  • The last chakra, the sahasrara at the crown of the head, houses the spiritual mind, and is for obvious reasons not much mentioned in the English language, though there may be a vague reference to it in the fact that highfalutin ideas are said to go “over one's head”. It is through here that inspirations are most often felt to enter.

Interestingly, the different layers are in English also used to indicate specific kinds of unease: there is a commonly understood difference between butterflies in one's stomach, a heartache, a lump in one's throat, and a headache.

Finally it may be noted that the gutsy(!), flowery language in which these various centres of consciousness are addressed in English suggests that though they are part of our common understanding of human nature, and though they have quite a prominent place in literature, they have not been given much attention in academics. This is unfortunate, because a clear understanding of these different centres can help considerably with the development of insight and mastery over one's drives and motives. The ability to locate the centre of one's consciousness in any of them at will should in fact be considered an important life-skill, which could quite well be taught in school. It appears that the idea that consciousness is generated in the brain has stood in the way of psychologist paying any attention to this otherwise interesting phenomenon.

There are other useful subdivisions of the vital and mind, and there are several subsidiary chakras in between the seven major ones given here, but they have not been mentioned here. 

Planes above the ordinary mind

Above these layers of consciousness we all know, Sri Aurobindo distinguishes four more layers that still belong to the mental plane, but that most people have limited or no direct access to.14 The Higher mind, closest to the normal intellect, is a plane where ideas still take the form of thoughts, and are “clad” in words and sentences, though such thoughts are not any longer constructed in the ordinary way: they come, more or less ready-made from above. On this plane it is always immediately and intrinsically clear how different and seemingly contradictory thoughts hang together in a higher order synthesis. This is the plane where holistic and “integral”15 philosophers get their ideas. Above this plane we find the Illumined mind where ideas are not so much rendered in words as in luminous images. Truths seen on this plane tend to be, in a quite special way, luminous, convincing, subtle and precise, but difficult to render into language, which can from here look clumsy and artificial. Above these two, Sri Aurobindo positions Intuition, a plane of intrinsic truth, from where the lower levels get whatever core of truth they contain. Drops and glimpses falling from here into the ordinary mind are often called intuitions, but by the time our ordinary physical mind has rendered them, they are again at least partially “constructed” and as such prone to error.16 It may be noted that an ascent through these planes goes together with the sense of increasing intensities of light, truth and bliss. The highest mental level, the Overmind, has been described as a golden lid, and as an ocean of lightning of such blinding intensity, that one cannot see through it and discern what is beyond. The overmind is, moreover, completely cosmic in its nature, and to reach this level, every last trace of limited, egoïc individuality must be completely gone. And yet, as Sri Aurobindo often says, there is a beyond.

It may be noted that line c, which divides purusha from prakriti, has not been shown beyond the level of the illumined mind. This is somewhat arbitrary, but not fully. The higher one rises in consciousness, the less absolute the division between purusha and prakriti becomes. While the distinction is perfectly clear and extremely useful for the practice of yoga at the level of the ordinary thinking mind, it has no real meaning any more on the level of the perfectly unitary supermind. The reason to end the line at this specific level between the illumined mind and intuition is, that in Sri Aurobindo's system, the type of knowledge that exists on the level of intuition is thoroughly of the fourth type, knowledge by identity, where there is no real division any more between knower and known, but at most some kind of potential, pragmatic distinction. In this sense, both intuition and overmind can thus be looked at as planes of true knowledge. Intuition is still predominantly individual; overmind is predominantly cosmic, though it still contains the special kind of “cosmic individuality” that is typical for the Gods. Shadows from the overmind onto the plane of the ordinary thinking mind are supposed to have created the major organised religions.

Supermind is an entirely non-mental plane of gnostic consciousness. It is the Maharloka of the Puranas, which separates the higher hemisphere of sachchidananda from the lower hemisphere of mind, vital and physical. As it is entirely above the mind, it cannot be apprehended from a mental consciousness, and it has been given scant recognition in the later philosophical systems. According to Sri Aurobindo, it contains three different types of knowledge, always operating at the same time: samjñāna, prajñāna and vijñāna. Samjñāna is solidly immerged in a sense of oneness; prajñāna is still dominated by oneness but does apprehend differentiation; vijñāna is also still rooted in oneness but the apprehension of differentiation is its main function (which might explain why the term gets later used in the much diminished sense of intellect). Real divisions are not yet there at the level of the supermind; they become possible only on the highest level of the mind, the overmind. On the level of the supermind, chit and tapas (consciousness and force) are also not yet distinct: knowledge is here still directly and inevitably creative and dynamic. While truth at its highest is satyam, truth of being, supermind is predominantly the layer of the dynamic truth, ritam chit, the truth that manifests, through “real ideas”, the order of the worlds. In short, supermind is a world where absolute oneness, truth and perfection go together with differentiation, creating a world of perfect harmony. Being entirely beyond the mental plane, perceptions of the physical world need not run through the sense-mind anymore, so even the physical reality as seen from here has an entirely different appearance. For several detailed descriptions, see Sri Aurobindo (2005). It may be noted that while the Supermind is frequently mentioned in the Puranas (as mahas) and in the Ṛg Veda> (as the realm of Surya), it seems to have been forgotten in later texts. It looks as if people learned to jump straight from one of the higher levels of mind into the anandamaya kośa.




A few disclaimers

Before we conclude, some words of caution. First of all, all this is no more than a crude simplification. As mentioned in the beginning, none of the “things” on these diagrams are remotely like “things” in the simple dimensional, physical sense. It is, for example, true that the psychic can be found deep, deep inside, behind the heart, and one can feel there the presence of the Divine (or one's inner Guru), yet one can also feel entirely surrounded and invaded by the Divine or by one's Guru's presence. Similarly, one can feel one's Self as eternal and infinite, way above one's outer nature, but one can also experience it as thoroughly interwoven with it, and yet, within fraction of a second, one can equally sense the absolute absurdity of speaking of a “self” and experience the total emptiness of the very idea of it. The oppositions that have occupied and divided philosophers for millennia can in a higher, more subtle psychological experience be combined or juxtaposed as equally real without any difficulty or contradiction. Sri Aurobindo says of these dualities that from the standpoint of a higher consciousness, “they are so simply and inevitably the intrinsic nature of each other that even to think of them as contraries is an unimaginable violence” (The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 283).

As far as the seven major planes (sat, chit, ananda, supermind, mind, vital and physical) are concerned, the Ṛg Veda contains several references to the fact that each layer, plane or world, contains all others in itself. In the peculiar psychological maths of these scriptures, this leads them to talk about 7 * 7 = 49 realms. It is not hard to realise that this is indeed as it must be. By its own nature, the mind, for example, is flexible and open to the new. The physical, on the other hand, is characterised by tamas, inertia: once a physical object has a certain shape or movement, it will maintain its own shape and movement unless forced in some other direction. There is a mechanical part of the mind, however, that has the characteristics of the physical: once a thought occurs there, it is repeated endlessly. Most people experience these useless and annoying repetitive thoughts only occasionally when their mind is somewhat half-awake and insufficiently engaged in other things, but when the mechanical mind dominates our daily life, we suffer from what in modern parlance is called an obsessive-compulsive syndrome.  On a more positive note, the opposite also occurs. The human body not only knows how to conduct the most intricate biochemical processes, but it has also an amazing grace in its movements. Just think of the way one's two hands cooperate in a simple-looking but actually quite complex physical task like the opening of a bottle, or how a cat runs over uneven ground. It is hard to escape the impression that in all such feats there is a marvellous physical intelligence at work. We leave the other 47+ combinations to the reader, who will have no difficulty finding many other, more intricate ways in which these different centres and layers can be woven into a variety of other ever more complex patterns. Though this may not need saying, human nature is exceedingly complex.

There is one more, somewhat tricky way, in which these diagrams are a simplification, and this is that there are shadows or reflections of the higher planes on the lower planes. A typical example is that in a perfectly ordinary, thinking mind, we can have the reflection of a unitary sense of oneness. From a completely ordinary mental conclusion that “all is one”, we can then derive a certain satisfied mental sense of oneness, and if we combine this with a sufficient dose of egoïc vanity or ambition, we can mistake the combination for having reached the blissful oneness of a much higher plane. One needs only to read some of the popular new age and yoga literature to see how common such mistakes are and how deceptive it all can be.

Finally, the divisions in the inner nature given here are just one way of doing it amongst many others. The same territory can be described, and has been described, in many, very many different ways. This does not necessarily indicate lack of clarity or internal contradictions within the system as a whole. As mentioned above, many of the disputes philosophers have had about these various systems, can actually be resolved by acknowledging that the same reality can be looked at from different viewpoints, producing completely different pictures that yet clearly describe the same underlying reality. I've given this particular one, which is based on Sri Aurobindo's work, because I have found it the most practical and comprehensive, but clearly we all have to create our own understanding. 


Why is all this useful?

The first and main reason is that if the scheme outlined here is basically true—in fact, I would say, even if it would be found to be only partially true—it would still be very much worth exploring, for it would expand our understanding of the scope of reality in many crucial ways. The second is, that this scheme gives numerous guidelines and suggestions for application, for effective methods of inner growth and healing, for solving individual and social problems, for therapy and for education. This is not the place to go into this extremely promising but complex field, but the core of its methods is so amazingly simple and consistent, that it is tempting, and hopefully worthwhile, to try to formulate the gist of it in a few more sentences.

The way towards greater freedom, happiness and deeper psychological knowledge needs two elements: the first is relocating the centre of one's consciousness by lifting it out of its entanglement in the activities of the ego, and by moving it into some more eternal, equal, immutable state. The second part is changing one's nature, taking it as an instrument for the soul to do its work in the world. There is a tendency to start with the second part, and one generally has to do a bit of it to enable the first step, but it is safer and easier to concentrate first on the first step, as the second is only fully possible once that detachment has been achieved. Interestingly this gradual finding of one's own highest Self generally goes together with an increasing familiarity, knowledge of and love for whatever one wants to call the Self of the universe. Connecting one's own consciousness with the highest consciousness one can conceive, in whatever way, facilitates and enhances then every aspect of life.

Second, each layer and each part of our nature has a true or ideal mode of functioning and an imperfect mode that is deformed due to its gradual and partial liberation out of an original ignorance, or to use the language of evolution, a mode that is proper to itself, and an atavistic mode that actually belongs to a more primitive life-form. For example, an ideal mind receives its knowledge directly from above, gives form to it, and always remains open to new, more perfect knowledge. In its atavistic, evolutionary mode it constructs knowledge on the basis of what its physical senses tell it, and then clings to whatever little it has managed, however imperfect it may be. Similarly, the true function of the vital is “cheerful endeavour”: an equal joy in whatever comes its way and an ability and willingness to give energy to whatever is required from it. Its deformed mode is driven by egoistic desires and fears, and an unquenchable thirst for drama. Finally, the ideal body maintains an immortal and ever-beautiful balance between stability and flexibility in service of the higher elements of the individual existence. In its ordinary, evolutionary state it is limited in its capacity, and all too easily out of balance.  In short: in a true state the lower and outer always follow the higher and inner: the vital obeys the mind, and both obey the psychic. In the as yet more common atavistic state, it is the vital that rules both body and mind, ignoring the psychic presence.

Combining these two ideas gives one very simple and effective guideline to make life more harmonious: centre one's life as far within as one can manage, and invoke from there the energies, the wisdom from above to shape and guide every aspect of it. This may again sound rather magical and religious, but if the world is not a purely mechanical, chance driven accident, but a gradual evolution in matter of higher and higher forms of consciousness, driven on the one hand by an evolutionary force in matter, and on the other hand guided and drawn to itself by a pre-existing presence of that higher consciousness, then it is perfectly rational. The fact that it works might then, in good American fashion, prove that it is true.



11  Both Freud and his student and colleague Carl Gustav Jung, considered dreams the “royal road” to this area, while from and Indian perspective it would have been more accurate to describe dreams as incidental cracks in its boundary wall.

12  Jung, who had studied various schools of Asian philosophy, used the word “unconscious” for a much larger part of the subliminal. The difference in nomenclature between unconscious and subconscious is related to the fact that in Western psychology, consciousness is only a property of the individual, while in the Indian perspective which we follow here, everything is conscious — the different parts of the personality being conscious in different degrees.

13  Good artistic descriptions of the physical Self can be found for example in “The loneliness of the long distance runner”, and in some passages from the movie “Peaceful warrior”.

14  It is good to be aware that manas, the Sanskrit word that comes closest to the English mind, is used in a narrow and in a wider sense. In the narrow sense it is used for the sense-mind, the mind that is engaged in the coordination of the various sense-modalities, both receptive (or rather perceptive) and active. It is then taken as occupying a level below that of the buddhi or intellect. In the wider sense it denotes the entire mental plane, including the buddhi and many even higher spiritual types of conscious existence, right up to what Sri Aurobindo calls the overmind. Similarly vijñāna in modern Hindi simply means the intellect, but in the older meaning in which Sri Aurobindo uses it, it is an entirely different, gnostic type of consciousness, positioned between the lower hemisphere of body, vital and mind, and the higher, divine hemisphere of sat, chit and ananda.

15  The word “integral” has been put in between quotation marks because it has been so extensively misused, that for some it seems to mean no more than a kind of comprehensive amalgamation. We use it as the translation of the Sanskrit purna. For a more extensive explanation, see Cornelissen (2002).

16  Mainstream psychology takes it for granted that all knowledge has to be constructed. Accordingly, it explains intuition as “expert knowledge”: the outcome of a mental process that is too complex to be presented in its entirety to the surface consciousness. The idea is that in this case the underlying processes take place subconsciously, while at the end only an “executive summary” is presented to the conscious mind. As the outcome is high quality and pops up as if it comes ready-made out of nowhere, it then looks like intuition. From an Indian psychology standpoint, this phenomenon does exist, but should be called pseudo-intuition. For a more extensive explanation of the reasons why genuine intuition might also exist, see Cornelissen (2006/2011).



Aurobindo, Sri (1940/2005). The Life Divine. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Retrievable from

—— (1920/1995). “The Doctrine of the Mystics” in Sri Aurobindo. The Secret of the Veda. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Retrievable from

Cornelissen, R. M. M. (2007). “In Defence of Rigorous Subjectivity”. Transpersonal Psychology Review, 11(1). Retrievable from

—— (2006/2011). “What is Knowledge? — Reflections based on the work of Sri Aurobindo”. In Cornelissen, R. M. Matthijs, Misra, Girishwar, & Varma, Suneet (eds.). (2011). Foundations of Indian Psychology, Volume 1: Concepts and Theories. New-Delhi : Longman. The slightly longer, earlier version can be downloaded from

—— (2002). “Integrality”. An informal talk given at the Cultural Integration Fellowship in San Francisco, linking the concept of integrality back to the Sanskrit word “purna”. Retrievable from

Petitmengin-Peugeot, Claire (1999) The Intuitive Experience. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6 (2-3), p. 43‑77

Skinner, Quentin (1985), Introduction in The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences, Quentin Skinner (Ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.