One of the hallmarks of Indian Psychology is the central role it gives to consciousness. But how do you study consciousness? Consciousness is quintessentially subjective, and mainstream science does its level best to be as objective as possible. Can subjective and objective research be brought together in one single framework?
During the last few hundred years, the hard sciences have produced a stupendous increase in our knowledge of the workings of the mind and the physical correlates of our consciousness, but even their most fascinating findings have failed to shed much light on consciousness itself. One could even argue that all this effort has actually diminished our understanding of consciousness, as the physicalist bias of the hard sciences has strengthened the idea that consciousness is no more then “a causally ineffective epiphenomenon of the physical processes that take place in our nervous system”. And this, to borrow Dennet’s phrase, is an exceedingly dangerous idea, because it trivializes virtually everything that is of real value in human life: meaning, truth, agency, feelings, love, beauty, ….
Social constructionism has added a radically new perspective to the world of science, as it has “problematized” the very idea of objective knowledge. Though this has led to the amusing “science wars”, constructionism and the hard sciences need not look at each other as implacable enemies: it is not hard to figure out that their views are not so much contradictory as complementary. While constructionism has focused on the first and the last stage of the scientific process — the formulation of the research question at the beginning, and the formulation of the results at the end — the hard sciences have focused on what comes in between — conducting experiments, collecting data, and using mathematics to analyze the results. It is in this middle stage that the hard sciences have made their greatest contribution to society, and it is this stage that researchers in the hard sciences value and enjoy.
There is much to be grateful for in the massive, collective labour of the hard sciences — its findings are valuable, effective and valid within their boundaries. Yet, it is also good to acknowledge its limitations and for scientists to pay attention to the wider social context in which they work. Only by working harmoniously together, the positivist and constructionist approaches to knowledge-generation can produce a harmonious picture that takes the social as well as the physical aspects of reality into account.
But what about psychology? It appears, unfortunately, that psychology has not yet found its swar, it own “song”, and its place in the collective harmony. What happens if we apply the dual perspective of social constructionism and objective science to psychology and consciousness studies? It is easy to see that social constructionism and its sister cognitive constructivism have something to contribute. Social influences do play a role in how people are aware of themselves and their surrounding, and how they “construct” (or perhaps rather give a form to) their knowledge. The hard sciences tell us about the workings of our nervous system and the physical correlates of consciousness. The quantitative methods of traditional mainstream psychology tell us reliably how large populations of citizens “behave” and what they know about themselves. The newer qualitative methods provide some insight in how individuals experience themselves. And yet, psychology has hardly scratched the surface. It has hardly gone beyond what people already know about themselves. Psychoanalysis and Transpersonal Psychology have made brave attempts to go deeper and go beyond, but their methods are not rigorous and self-critical enough, and as a result, the knowledge they provide is often lopsided and limited. Collectively we have not reached a clear understanding of what goes on within the deeper and higher layers of consciousness, the stuff most people are not aware of and that, yet, determines what happens on the surface of our being.
It is here that the Indian tradition can make its crucial contribution. Its yoga-based methods of enquiry that have been honed for millennia can do for the deep, subjective study of consciousness what the hard sciences have done for the in-depth, objective study of matter. If taken together, the three approaches may then produce complementary, and mutually enriching knowledge in all three fields, in the physical, social and psychological domains.
So, what would research in Indian Psychology look like? Its core would be the use of yoga (in its widest, deepest sense) to affect inner changes, to activate and undergo processes within the realm of consciousness, to move through and study the complex, subtle, inner worlds that our ordinary waking consciousness doesn’t allow us to see, and then to use this new knowledge to transform one’s outer and inner nature. The other half of the effort would be to share the new knowledge and know-how in a manner that helps others to do the same. Interestingly the sharing of yoga-based research can take three very different but equally effective forms: The first is an “objective”, technical, prosaic, description of a method, of something concrete and explicit which others can “do”. Good examples of this method might be the Yogasutras of Patanjali or Kamalashila’s Bhavanakrama: both give detailed, step-wise descriptions of how to reach higher states of consciousness. The second way is to describe the inner states and processes in such an evocative manner that the reader (or listener) can be carried by the language to a similar experience, or at least to a shadow of it. Typical examples of this second method are the verses of the Rig Veda and the Upanishads, the writings of Shankara, the poetry of Rumi, and Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri. All these authors did massive inner work, which then enabled them to write in such a manner that their texts carry the reader to far beyond his or her normal level of being and understanding. The third method is simply by sharing one’s “presence”, one’s style of being and responding to the world, so that the student can grow in his consciousness through some form of osmosis or “contagion”. All great yogis do this, but as typical examples of the third way, one could name Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi. Both masters wrote little, hardly ever gave systematic instructions, and yet by their very being influenced millions and increased our knowledge of the “further reaches” of our human potential.
All this may seem very unscientific, and yet it may have more in common with the way science operates, than may be clear at first sight. After all the progress of science as a collective enterprise is not only made through the publication of scientific papers. New insights are also shared through their application in technology, and through the complex process of learning that takes place in universities and other research establishments. For students who want to become the next generation of scientists, it is not enough to study textbooks and research papers. They also have to absorb the methods and practices of their discipline, and, just as in yoga, the best amongst them have to manage spending time under the direct influence of the great exemplars of the preceding generation.
Perhaps one should consider then not only systematizers like Patanjali, but also poets like Rumi as researchers in the field of consciousness: both mastered complex inner processes, developed new knowledge, and an effective way to share their findings. While acknowledging fully that it may be more difficult to reach consensus on the value of a poem than on the validity of a mathematical formula or the effectiveness of a yogic “method”, one could perhaps argue that poetry plays a somewhat similar role in the field of inner consciousness studies, as mathematical algorithms in the hard sciences: for those who can read them, they light up large and complex issues in a precise and quick fashion that ordinary, linear prose cannot match.
Finally, it may be relevant to note that in the hard sciences, one can distinguish a continuum that has, on the one side, a small number of really great scientists who help the field to make large steps forward, and on the other side a huge mass of minor researchers who corroborate the findings of the really great. The former get famous, and rightly so, and yet, the latter are also important, as they add solidity, mass and sometimes detail to the body of science, even if they add little of entirely new knowledge. Similarly, in the field of consciousness-based psychological research, one can make a difference between the really great — yogis like the Rishis of the Rig Veda, Rumi, and Aurobindo — and a large mass of “small-timers”, people who can take up the texts of the really great, try to apply them in themselves, and then, for example through the qualitative methods of collaborative research, corroborate, refine, or problematize the findings of the great.
Putting the various elements of the argument together, we could then say first that the positivist methods of the hard sciences, the constructionist approaches of the social sciences, and the yoga-based methods of (Indian) psychology may give humanity a fairly comprehensive science of ourselves and the social and physical worlds we inhabit.
The second point is that within this triple framework, psychology should employ the whole range of methodologies: objective, positivist research for the study of the nervous system and its workings; quantitative, standardized surveys for large populations (and for the relative placement of individuals within those populations); qualitative research methods for in-depth studies of individuals and small groups; and first-person, yoga-based research for those who can discern and describe their inner processes with sufficient precision for others to profit from their findings.
If you’re interested in some further reading on the subject, you could have a look here.