Two ways of applying Indian Psychology

There are two distinct ways in which Indian Psychology can be applied; there is a gradient between these two approaches, and many mixed forms are possible, but conceptually it is useful to distinguish them. The first could be called instrumental or pragmatic, the second essential or paradigmatic.

In the first approach, decontextualised ideas and techniques from the Indian tradition are used as adjuncts to existing ways of dealing with human beings that are standard within the present global civilization. Typical examples are the way yoga-asanas are used as fitness exercises that increase physical beauty and lower blood pressure; the rebranding of meditation as a relaxation response that helps to cope with the stresses of corporate life; and the use of vipassana as a stabilizing adjunct to psychotherapy. All these are, no doubt, for the good, but one cannot help but feel that they miss out on the essence, on the most beautiful, and in the end most important core of the Indian tradition.

Of the second, the essential or paradigmatic use of the Indian tradition, it is much more difficult to find good examples. One could perhaps think of the philosophical stance of some post-Newtonian physicists like Erwin Schrödinger, the educational experiments based on the work of Krishnamurti and Sri Aurobindo and, of course, certain developments in Transpersonal Psychology.

For those who try to apply the theoretical core of the Indian tradition to their psychology practice in fields like education, psychotherapy, counselling, inner growth and self-help, it is useful to make one further distinction. This is the distinction between approaches that emphasize the outer, instrumental nature[1] , and those that focus on finding the Self. There is natural tendency to start with changing one’s outer nature, and in strongly structured paths like that of Patanjali, an extensive list of social and outward practices are mentioned as first steps that need to be taken up seriously before one can safely embark on the higher and more inwardly oriented steps of yoga. The reason for this sequence is that a certain harmonisation of the outer nature, even if not essential for finding the Self, is still likely to make the inner quest more safe and secure. But the argument should not be taken too far. It is true that too early, too exclusive a quest for the Self can lead to what the Americans call “spiritual by-passing”. But it is also true that too early and too exclusive a stress on outer perfection, if it succeeds at all, tends to lead to hypocrisy and to a hard to break spiritual ego. If it fails, it is likely to lead to endless and completely unnecessary frustration. The fact of the matter is, that a real and lasting change of one’s nature is only possible once one has found a safe haven in one’s eternal Self. It is not for nothing that in the Puranic stories, the devas, the divine powers of the mind, only win their eternal battle with the asuras, the darker sides of human nature, once they have acquired knowledge of the Self. On a more mundane level, this is the inner reason that mindfulness helps in CBT: even a little stepping back, moving just a tiny bit closer to one’s eternal Self, helps to face one’s inner demons more effectively.

It is a subtle balance and one of many areas where Buddha’s middle path may offer the safest option.


  1. The term “instrumental nature” is based on the idea that we are not so much clever animals that may or may not have a soul, but that we are souls who may or may not have a body and mind. In other words, in our essence we are a conscious, eternal and immutable Self; in our naïve, unregenerate state we tend to identify with our body-mind; but as we develop we can learn to identify with our eternal Self, and then use our body-mind as an instrument to manifest ourselves in the socio-physical world.  ↩

2 thoughts on “Two ways of applying Indian Psychology

  1. In fact, just to add one more thought, i think the single greatest impediment to the acceptance of Indian psychology is the persistence error of thinking that “science” requires a materialist/physicalist/naturalist foundation. Because of this, we spent 5 chapters challenging materialism in our book on yoga psychology, and in fact will be spending several years developing a site challenging materialism. Alan Wallace, Tom Mcfarlane, Dean Radin, Rupert Sheldrake and many others are working very hard to challenge this error, and I think their work is gaining ground every year. I doubt if materialist thought will survive past the middle of this century.

  2. Thanks Matthijs, this is very helpful.

    I’ve been feeling ambivalent about creating a website that uses yogic (intuitive) knowledge in an instrumental, pragmatic way (www.remember-to-breathe.org – it needs to be typed in as the site has not yet been submitted to the search engines).

    We’ve taken Dan Siegel’s “interpersonal neurobiology” and applied it to a wide variety of “applications” (lowering blood pressure, reducing physical pain, anxiety and depression, developing healthy habits, etc). Dan talks about developing the mid prefrontal region of the brain (the mid prefrontal cortex or “MPFC” for short) in order to develop a sense of a calm, peaceful, contented and (quietly) joyful “core”. He also speaks of this “core” as a “place” from which one can calmly observe the movements of the mind, body and environment.

    Our whole site is about contacting this core (the term “remember to breathe” is both metaphorical – “remember to contact the core”; and literal – remember to breathe during the day, during calm and stressful moments). But we’re talking about the core primarily in what you refer to as a “pragmatic” or instrumental way. I comfort myself by thinking of sites we plan to build in the future which take Indian psychology in a more direct way to challenge materialistic science and after that, to celebrate integral vision of Mother and Sri Aurobindo.

    But another justification for the site, I believe, is that there are many people who are kind of ‘sitting on the fence’ about Indian psychology. It’s just a bit too “far out” or non materialistic for them. I don’t know what it’s like in India, but among the Indian professionals I meet here in the US, there are many who are quite modernized and have been educated in a scientific (?) or more correctly, materialist/physicalist outlook and have difficulty accepting the full beauty and profundity of Indian psychology. I hope our current “pragmatic/instrumentalist” site can serve as a bridge for at least some of those. Thank you very much for this helpful clarification.

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