A few preliminary words…

Welcome dear reader! You are reading my first blog post for IPI. First of all, a few words about myself. I arrived in Pondicherry about two weeks ago, coming from Germany. Just having finished my university education in psychology and cognitive neuroscience in Maastricht, The Netherlands, I was not satisfied with the kind of jobs I could apply for. However, there was still another possibility… One year ago, in November 2011, Matthijs Cornelissen gave a wonderful lecture at our university about Indian Psychology. It had left me very inspired and I felt that this link between yoga and psychology was very important for the future of humanity. So, I decided to write him an email and after a very uncomplicated exchange in which he told me that I was very welcome here I booked my ticket to India. With my background in ‘standard’ psychology and neuroscience I have to do a lot of reading in order to grasp Sri Aurobindo’s vision. I will use this blog to structure my thoughts and ideas, as some kind of public notepad from which I will later synthesize more formal articles. The idea of a public notepad might have seemed strange a few decades or perhaps only years ago but with the advent of the interactive web (the Web 2.0) it almost seems like a necessity to express one’s ideas publicly in order to get immediate feedback in a process that I would call ‘open peer-review’. In the end, with us belonging to one being, ideas and thoughts that are shared have far greater power than those that silently die away in a private notebook or diary. To me, the internet, having become something like the myelinated nervous system of our planet, is an important step towards a unified humanity and, thus, towards higher forms of consciousness. We should make use of it in the best way. With these words, I would like to invite you to also share your thoughts and ideas… After these words, the actual blog post:

As far as I understand it and to summarize it in a few words, IPI advocates that psychological research as we know it is very limited or even impoverished and in dire need of an upgrade. Most of what we know in psychology today is based on behavioral measures (e.g., reaction time), physiological measures (e.g., heart rate, brain waves, brain activation, neurotransmitters), and self-reports (questionnaires). No doubt, these approaches have proven to be very useful in order to describe and predict human behavior in many situations and they have many practical applications in technology, medicine, education, and therapy to name only a few. However, they are also limited to mechanical descriptions of behavior because consciousness has completely been left out of the picture. We still have no clue what we are actually doing on this planet and what this is all about. Or do we?

What is this thing called consciousness anyways? In the Western standard view of psychology, as I boldly call it here, consciousness is our subjective experience which is produced by our brain. According to this view, when we are awake and alive, we have consciousness because our brain is active. When we are asleep, comatose, or dead we do not have consciousness because our brain is passive. Perhaps there is some background activity happening during sleep, for instance, but we are not aware of it or only when we wake up and remember our dreams. In this view, only humans and perhaps a few animals like monkeys and dolphins have consciousness. At least one needs a nervous system to have it. A view which denies consciousness to simpler life forms and to objects or things. So far the standard scientific view.

This is where Indian Psychology comes in. India has many great traditions that have developed methods with which one can gain insight into one’s own mind and into consciousness. I will use the term consciousness in the way that it has been used in these traditions for thousands of years. This view basically says that all there is is consciousness and that all matter that exists is a momentary manifestation of that consciousness in an eternally ongoing play that has no beginning and no end to it. Everyone and everything is a manifestation of the one consciousness that is looking at itself, investigating itself from all kinds of different angles. The most famous Indian schools that hold this view are Hinduism and Buddhism, and somewhat less famous Sikhism and Jainism. The method of insight that is being used by these traditions is commonly known as yoga.

Yoga is more than just a bit of work-out, stretching, and panting. This is only one aspect of the whole discipline of yoga known as Hatha yoga, which strengthens and purifies the body. Apart from this physical component, yoga also has mental and spiritual components like meditation. In short, yoga can be defined as a set of techniques that purify body and mind and have as the ultimate aim total liberation.

Why is this of any interest to psychology and science?

For one, wouldn’t it be great if we could strengthen our prime instrument of analysis and interpretation? After all, no matter how sophisticated the technique we are using (like Magnetic Resonance Imaging or the Large Hadron Collider), we always end up using our mind to make sense of the data. Therefore, a purified and calm mind would certainly be beneficial.

But this is not all there is to it. Applying yoga to psychology opens up whole new ways of doing research. Instead of simply collecting third-person data samples about groups of people and formulating this or that theory about their behavior, yoga allows for direct and intimate knowledge of the object of study, including one’s own mind and one’s true inner self. I know this sounds a lot like the much-scolded introspection but there is an important difference in that introspection did not require the scientist to get rid of his own ego, his involvement in the observation. Yoga, however, is a discipline which does exactly that by meticulously purifying the mind. And since a real study of consciousness, of the hard problem of consciousness is only possible from within that consciousness, yoga is a prime candidate for tackling that problem.

Furthermore, what is lacking in much of today’s science is wisdom. Some of the research that is being done at universities, institutes, and companies today is potentially very harmful (think of GMOs and big pharma) and huge areas of research are more or less useless because the potential of young and clever minds/scientists is being wasted in the corroboration of outdated paradigms. What we should strive for is a change in the paradigm that is research itself. We need to let go the old materialist paradigm that treats human beings as machines that are broken and can be fixed by swallowing a pill. What research should be done for is building a better life on this planet. In most cases, we already know how to make life better for everyone but we lack the wisdom to apply that knowledge. Yoga could bring back just that wisdom to science and to society as a whole.

Well, this was obviously more than just a few words…

A short disclaimer: Perhaps not all that I say is 100% correct but it is to the best of my knowledge. I try to capture complex concepts in my own words. Be warned, at times these concepts and ideas might come out half-baked. Comments are always welcome!

One thought on “A few preliminary words…

  1. Very well written!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.