Neuroscience and Integral Yoga

John Yates, in his book, “The Mind Illuminated,” presents a way of understanding the mind that many have found supportive of their efforts to concentrate in meditation.

He’s describing two basic ways our brain has evolved to engage with the world. One is through “selective attention” (SA) – our brain selects out of an infinite array of information a specific object to attend to. “SA” tends to be conceptual, very much concerned with “me” and my desires and fears, and excludes much of the rest of experience. It is very much the kind of attention that we are conditioned to in our education, and if there is too much emphasis on it, it tends to lead to a great deal of tension and anxiety.

The other form is “peripheral awareness” (PA) and is holistic, takes in the whole field of experience at once, is much less “self-centered,” more connected to the body and to others.

One very important aspect of these two modes of engagement with the world is that selective attention tends to be more active, whereas peripheral awareness is generally a relaxed, passive, open engagement with the world.

Because of our education, many of us, when we turn to meditation, and we hear of Mother or Sri Aurobindo’s emphasis on the importance of concentration – concentrating on an aspiration for the opening to eh Force, for example – somewhat reflexively employ selective attention. If we overemphasize this, we end up in a battle with “distractions.” Culadasa has a brilliant, extremely practical and ultimately quite simple description of a gentle way of balancing SA and PA.

Ultimately, as one learns this, the “effort” to balance gives way to an effortless integration – an integration that is finally so seamless that SA and PA “merge” into “something else.”


I’ve been reflecting on how this relates to integral Yoga. I just happened, this morning (11-30-16) to turn ‘at random” to a passage from the Mother’s ‘Questions and Answers” that i think may be a distant parallel to this integration of “active” selective awareness and “passive” peripheral awareness.


“If you want to get true inspiration, inner guidance, the guide, and if you want to have the force, to receive the force which will guide you and make you act as you should, then you do not move any longer, that is — I don’t mean not move physically but nothing must come out from you any more and, on the contrary, you remain as though you were quite still, but open, and wait for the Force to enter, and then open yourself as wide as possible to take in all that comes into you. And it is this movement: instead of out-going vibrations there is a kind of calm quietude, but completely open, as though you were opening all your doors in this way to the force which must descend into you and transform your action and consciousness.

Receptivity is the result of a true passivity…

…the two things can go together, you see, there is a moment when the two — aspiration and passivity — can not only be alternate but simultaneous. You can be at once in the state of aspiration, of willing, which calls down something — exactly the will to open oneself and receive, and the aspiration which calls down the force you want to receive — and at the same time be in that state of complete inner stillness which allows full penetration, for it is in this immobility that one can be penetrated, that one becomes permeable by the Force. Well, the two can be simultaneous without the one disturbing the other, or can alternate so closely that they can hardly be distinguished. But one can be like that, like a great flame rising in aspiration, and at the same time as though this flame formed a vase, a large vase, opening and receiving all that comes down.

And the two can go together. And when one succeeds in having the two together, one can have them constantly, what- ever one may be doing. Only there may be a slight, very slight displacement of consciousness, almost imperceptible, which becomes aware of the flame first and then of the vase of receptivity — of what seeks to be filled and the flame that rises to call down what must fill the vase — a very slight pendular movement and so close that it gives the impression that one has the two at the same time.”

The Mother, Questions and Answers, 1954, p. 115

3 thoughts on “Neuroscience and Integral Yoga

  1. Hi Chris, just a follow up. I’ve met IY folks from around the world, and to date, I’ve never met anyone, in person or on line, who didn’t have more work to do on these simple things. We in IY tend – because we such extraordinary teachers – to focus on the heights, and talk about the supramental and various transformations. But if we are emotionally reactive, don’t take care of our bodies, and have difficulty concentrating on ordinary everyday responsibilities, it seems to me those are important concerns to focus on.

    In fact, when I worked in a psychiatric hospital, many people who came in with active psychotic experiences got better really quickly, without any medication, just by being in a structured environment, surrounded by healthy people.

  2. HI Chris: Great question. This has been explored extensively in the field of psychology over the past 40 years, here in the US and around the world. I haven’t published anything on this but have read much on it over the decades.

    “mental illness” is an almost useless term ,and will probably be out of use in the next 50 years or so.

    To talk about this in IY terms, it’s clearly the case that many people who are suffering from conventional psychological problems like post traumatic stress, anxiety and depression, are experiencing tamasic and rajasic states of mind. The buddhi functions poorly and is overwhelmed by the indriyas (senses or instincts) and manas (sense mind and emotional mind).

    But you’re referring specifically to psychoses. Well, first, regarding your comment about medicines, I partially agree – a very large number of people labeled “Schizophrenic” get much much worse as a result of medication.

    It’s probably the case that what we call “psychosis” includes a huge variety of conditions. I assume you’re familiar with Sri Aurobindo’s writings on the intermediate zone. He refers to people on the path who get lost in the inner worlds. There are probably very many people who are labeled “psychotic” who are lost in those worlds, can’t function in them or in this one, and would benefit from contact with a true yogi who could guide them through it.

    But again, you’re asking specifically about people on the IY path. There’s been a great deal of discussion in various Ashram and IY related journals on this. There is a healing journal that I believe Alok Pandey now edits, called MANAH (I think that’s the name – I don’t recall off hand) and various therapists and doctors have discussed this.

    My own personal sense is that it’s incredibly simple. Sri Aurobindo (and really, almost all awakened yogis) have said, get peace, shanti, establish calm, stillness, and beyond that, live a responsible life, with a strong healthy body, psychic-influenced emotions (care, kindness, love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, etc), a clear, well focused mind, and make as little as possible about the unusual experiences, focusing instead on self offering and humility and sincerity.

    That’s my understanding. Thanks much for writing.

  3. I wonder if occasions which are called metal illnesses are realy progressions on the path. Are there any investigations in applying Integral Yoga excersizes like Mother describes on people with these experiences like psychoses to go through them instead of taking there abilities away with medicines?
    What are the possibilities of people with these kind of experiences on the IY path?
    Are there any applications done in the past with these kind of things?
    Did you publicate any documents in this direction?

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