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Yoga psychology and contemporary research: Part I

October 9, 2014


My first blog touched on the problem of physicalism (also known, strangely enough, as materialism – strange since nobody seems to know what “matter” is –  and most strangely, “naturalism”, – exceedingly odd since dead matter is perhaps one of the most unnatural, most abstract ideas anybody has ever come up with).  The problem most relevant to this site is that Yogic psychology is not likely to be widely accepted until the problem of physicalism is resolved.

But that resolution is not likely to come about through theoretical means alone.  Research is needed – but not just conventional (so-called) “third person” research (“so-called” because it is impossible to ever remove the “first” person from any form of research, particularly psychological research).

In this and the next several blog posts, I am going to present an essay from the book, “Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness” which provides a few suggestions as to how to go beyond not only third person research, but what is generally referred to as “first person” research.

About 10 years ago, when Jan (my wife) and I were in Puducherry for the 2nd Integral Psychology Conference, I heard a marvelous talk by Dr. Matthijs Cornelissen. He used some terms of Sri Aurobindo to describe different kinds of knowledge. It struck me during the talk that this was an excellent way to “invite” researchers to go “deeper”, to begin to allow the possibility of other kinds of knowledge than the ordinary extreme subject-object disparity which plagues so much of contemporary psychological research (this disparity was eloquently described by Albert North Whitehead as the Cartesian bifurcation, a division which continues to pervade not only all of science, but all of global society – a division of consciousness which, if we don’t get past it, may do us all in).

The essay uses a slightly simplified classification: (a) the ordinary separative knowledge of the surface consciousness (where the Cartesian bifurcation is most prominent); (b) the “knowledge by direct contact” of what Indian philosophy refers to as “swapna” or roughly translated as “the dream state”, in which we “know” that the objects of our “dream” environment are “made of thought” – we know this directly not by analysis but by direct experience; and (c) the “knowledge” of “sushupti” (the deep sleep state, by metaphor, not the ordinary sleep state), what Sri Aurobindo refers to as “knowledge by identity”.  If you have entered the lucid dream state (consciously entered the dream state) and from there, dissolve all objects (and subjects!) yet remain “lucidly” aware, you may have had some glimpse of this ‘causal’ state.

But the altered states of dream and deep sleep are not needed to access these ways of knowing. For an integral research protocol, what is most important – as I tried to get across in the following essay – is that we access these other, less separative, less bifurcated means of knowledge in full waking consciousness.


How might we go about reconciling the yogic view of consciousness with that of science?  In the Renaissance and post-Renaissance period, scientists chose to focus their studies on the physical world in order to avoid conflict with religious authorities. Enlarging their sphere of study over the centuries, scientists in the past 100 years have entered territory previously considered to be the province of religion. Having chosen to explore the nature of the subject – referred to variously as mind, consciousness, soul, or spirit – it is no longer possible to avoid conflict between science and religion by claiming, as did paleontologist Stephen J. Gould, that they investigate separate, non-overlapping fields of study.

From the yogic perspective, most modern versions of science, philosophy and theology have something essential in common: they all make use of the reasoning capacity of the surface thinking mind as their primary tool of investigation. Scientific investigation adds one essential factor – careful use of the physical senses, augmented by various physical instruments.

Sri Aurobindo describes the way of knowing common to the surface thinking mind as “separative knowledge.” Our knowledge of people and the things of the world is limited because we take them to be essentially separate from ourselves. Because of the limitations of this way of knowing, scientists have had to develop compensatory means of gaining information and understanding, such as complex measuring instruments, statistical analyses and painstaking peer review.

There is another kind of knowing, native to the inner or subliminal consciousness, which Sri Aurobindo refers to as “knowledge by direct contact.” By means of this way of knowing it is possible to gain intimate knowledge of people and things that are physically external to ourselves. Once we awaken to the inner consciousness, we discover we have the capacity to know things apparently separate from us in time and space. Paranormal abilities, which are manifest in an extremely limited and unpredictable fashion as long as we are confined to the surface consciousness, become normal, fully utilizable capacities.

There is a still deeper way of knowing, which yogis say is the source of all other knowledge. According to Sri Aurobindo, this ultimate form of knowledge  is altogether beyond the mind – “supramental” – though we can develop a reflection of it in the mind by cultivating our intuitive abilities. Sri Aurobindo describes this way of knowing as “knowledge by identity”; that is, we know something by becoming one in consciousness with that which we seek to know.

If we examine some of the latest scientific developments in the field of consciousness studies with regard to how they make use of these different ways of knowing, we may get a sense of what would be involved in developing a truly yogic science.

Separative Knowledge: Using the Outer Senses and the Surface Thinking Mind

Speculations Based on Pre-existing Research

Several scientists have offered interesting speculations regarding the relationship between consciousness and matter.  For example, physicist Freeman Dyson, describing what he considers to be evidence of the operations of mind in matter, writes, “Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom.” Dyson goes on to say that atoms and humans “may have minds that differ in degree but not in kind.”

Other scientists, reflecting on existing research, have offered more specific suggestions for possible ways that consciousness may relate to matter. Physicist Amit Goswami suggests that consciousness may make use of quantum processes to bring about the kind of creative mutations that lead to the appearance of new species. When it comes to helping a species become more stable within its environment, Goswami maintains that Darwinian natural selection plays an important role. However, he suggests that at the same time this process of stabilization is going on, potential mutations are accumulating in the form of quantum possibilities. These are passed down, in their potential form, to subsequent generations. When a change in the environment calls for it, a number of the potential mutations are then “chosen” to manifest simultaneously, resulting in a new species that will be suited to the new environment.

Aware that this makes no sense in the context of a purely materialistic perspective, Goswami proposes that the quantum possibilities for potential mutations are held in a non-physical field. Both Ervin Laszlo and Daniel Benor propose kindred theories suggesting that non-material fields of subtle energy are in part responsible for adaptive mutations. All three agree that consciousness appears to play a fundamental role in the evolutionary process.

Psychologist Alan Combs and neuroscientist Francisco Varela have developed intricate and compelling theories combining chaos and complexity theory, as well as ideas about self-organization, which they suggest may contribute to understanding the role of consciousness in the material universe.

In each of these instances, scientists have analyzed existing data using their surface thinking minds in an attempt to discern meaningful patterns. They have then, without benefit of direct, intuitive knowledge, simply asserted a causal role for consciousness in bringing about or shaping these patterns. Let’s see if there is anything more to be gained by conducting original research on the relationship of consciousness and matter while still using the surface mind as one’s primary tool for understanding.

Conducting Research Using Conventional Scientific Methods

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake has conducted research suggesting that the experience of animals is somehow recorded in non-phyiscal “morphogenetic” (i.e., form-building) fields, making it easier for future generations to acquire certain behaviors. His research builds on the observations of others, including psychologist William McDougal, “who discovered quite by chance that untrained rats were quick to learn a task (escaping from a water maze) previously acquired by many earlier generations of rats of the same strain.”  Researchers in Scotland and Australia similarly found several years later that rats that had no training picked up the task almost immediately. Physiologist Ivan Pavlov also “observed a similar effect when he trained several generations of white mice to run to a feeding station at the sound of a bell. While the first generation required an average of about three hundred trials to learn the task, the second generation required only about one hundred trials. The third and fourth generations learned in thirty and ten trials respectively.”

After conducting numerous experiments on morphogenetic fields in relation to animals, Sheldrake has since conducted research on the relationship of these fields to human beings. Sheldrake theorizes that, when we focus our attention on something, our mind extends outward to connect us with the object of our attention. Thus, when a person is staring at someone, his field of vision “extends out to touch the person he is staring at.” In addition, the person being looked at has a field around him as well, and the two fields interact – though this interaction may not be experienced consciously. Sheldrake suggests that these interacting fields may be the same as what yogis have referred to for centuries as pranic or vital energy fields.

Sheldrake has developed a simple experiment to test this theory. He has two people sit together, one designated as the starer, the other the person to be stared at. In each round of the experiment, the starer tosses a coin to decide whether he will look at the other person or not. He then signals the initiation of a ten-second period, during which the other person has to guess whether or not he is being stared at. Among the many trials Sheldrake has conducted, by far the largest number were carried out in Amsterdam, Holland, involving more than 18,700 pairs of subjects. He reports that “the statistical significance of the positive results is astronomical: the odds against chance are 10376 to 1.”

The work of psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, while also relying primarily on the use of the ordinary thinking mind, presents a strong challenge to conventional notions of the relationship between consciousness and matter. Over the course of several decades, Stevenson has conducted several thousand case studies of individuals (usually children) claiming to have recollections of a previous life. His work presents a strong challenge. The prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association has written of his “meticulous and extended investigations,” in which he has “painstakingly and unemotionally collected a detailed series of cases in which the evidence for reincarnation is difficult to understand on any other grounds… He has placed on record a large amount of data that cannot be ignored.”

As a young psychiatrist, prior to beginning this research, one of Stevenson’s major interests had been psychosomatic medicine, the study of the relationship between mind and body. Later, in the course of conducting reincarnation research, he became intrigued by the many cases in which birthmarks in a current life could be correlated with wounds reportedly received in a previous life, suggesting the “mind’s influence on the body across the gap of death.”   In many cases, medical records, including autopsy reports, were found describing the precise location of a wound incurred by the person the child claims to have been in a previous life, and which matched the precise location of a birthmark in the current life. Sometimes a child in his current life was found to have a specific disease identical to that of the former personality, and which was entirely absent in the child’s current genetic heritage.

In a particularly dramatic example, “a child in Turkey recalled being a bandit in his former life. He had committed suicide when about to be captured by the French police, [by wedging] the muzzle of his long rifle under the right side of his chin, resting the handle on the ground, and then [pulling] the trigger. In his new life, the boy was born with a huge gash mark under his chin. While Stevenson was investigating the case, an old man turned up who had remembered the bandit’s death and seen the condition of his dead body.”

Thinking as a physician. Stevenson conjectured, “if the bullet had gone through the brain in the manner described, there must be another scar where the bullet exited.” During his investigation, he asked the child if there was another scar, and one was found just to the left of the crown of his head, hidden under a thick crop of hair. In a presentation at the United Engineering Center in New York, Stevenson showed a slide tracing “the line of trajectory the bullet should have taken in its passage [from the gash under the jaw] through the brain…[which] was in perfect alignment with the scar mark on top of the head.”

Interesting though these observations and experiments may be, none of them involve the direct perception of the workings of consciousness. As physicist Arthur Zajonc notes,

Physics, chemistry, and neuroscience provide accounts for the mechanism of consciousness but say nothing about the experience of consciousness itself … Every science, if it would move beyond purely formal mathematical relationships, must incorporate qualities [i.e., subjective experience] into itself. All meaning inheres in qualities. The qualitative connects the formal treatment with experience… If our interest ultimately is consciousness, then we will require a means of investigation that is able to include the full range of conscious experience, and not merely a reduced set of variables easily amenable to quantification.

As long as  researchers continue to rely on the outer thinking mind and outer senses as the primary means of gathering and analyzing data, they will not gain an understanding of the nature of consciousness that is substantially different from that of mainstream science. Limited to the surface consciousness, which takes things to be essentially separate from each other, we have no direct awareness of the relationship between consciousness and the object of study. Even more fundamental, we cannot, using only the surface mind, develop a truly comprehensive understanding, because

[m]ind in its essence is a consciousness which measures, limits, cuts out forms of things from the indivisible whole and contains them as if each were a separate integer. Even with what exists only as obvious parts and fractions, [m]ind establishes this fiction of its ordinary commerce that they are things with which it can deal separately and not merely as aspects of a whole.

NEXT: PART II:  Knowledge by Direct Contact: Research Using the Inner Mind and Inner Senses 

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