The following article is based on a presentation made during the
Second International Conference on Integral Psychology,
held at Pondicherry (India), 4-7 January 2001.
The text has been published in:
Cornelissen, Matthijs (Ed.) (2001) Consciousness and Its Transformation. Pondicherry: SAICE.

Practical aspects of integral psychotherapy

Alok Pandey


I've been asked to speak about integral psychotherapy and to avoid philosophy—people can read The Life Divine for that. I'm supposed to talk about some practical aspects of psychotherapy. Sri Aurobindo has said psychology is a subtle science. And when we talk about subtle sciences, however much we may try to avoid it, even concrete practices become subtle. So I may have to get into philosophy time and again, but I'll try to keep myself on ground level. Actually, if we look at it from an integral point of view, at least as I have understood and try to practice psychotherapy, we can approach the human problem—not the problem of man, but the problem that is man —from two angles. We can touch the central point or start changing things from there and we can start solving the puzzle called man by entering from the periphery. I think a lot of psychologies are touching the periphery but are not touching the central problem. In the spiritual view, circumstances are not causes but results of our inner state. The cause of difficulty is within us, which nevertheless attracts problems from outside. Our personality is a formation thrown out by the inmost soul in us for a certain type of experience. The experience indeed is determined by the level of consciousness at which the soul stands in an ascending ladder of growth and ascent. The soul at each level gathers certain elements of nature around it and relates with the world through these till it is ready for climbing the next rung. It is the need of the growing soul in us that determines our inner personality and outer circumstances. These two act upon each other to provide the experience necessary for gradually shedding the teguments that encase the soul. This is the real armour, the armour of our ego and ignorance. That is the source of our felt suffering. Our pains are the birth-pangs of the soul waiting to be delivered from the shell of the ego. The armour prevents too rapid an ascent, which may be precipitous for world purposes. It is like a protective shell around the seed that prevents it from being burnt and wasted by too early an exposure to the light. The casing of the seed interacts with the darkness of the earth and is nourished by the waste. It splits open and is delivered to the light when ready. The law of growth is universal and is the same at all levels.

I'm reminded of a small story about someone who went to visit a psychiatric hospital. It's not a real story but in a certain sense it is a real story. It is what happens. It seems a person was ill and was constantly repeating a single word: “Nunu, Nunu, Nunu”. So the visiting person asked the doctor,

“What's his problem?” The doctor said, “Well, Nunu is his problem.”

“What does that mean?”

“This man, he was in love with Nunu, couldn't get married to her and here he is.”

Well, it happens. He moved forward. After a few months, a new patient—“Nunu, Nunu, Nunu.”

“Is Nunu his problem too?”

“Yes, of course, he got married to Nunu.”

So essentially, if we look at it, there are only two sources of psychological suffering. One is in not getting what we want. The other is in getting it. And there is a logic in this. There's a logic in Nature's arbitrary steps.

The source of psychological suffering

We can look at life like a game of hide-and-seek. We do not know what we are seeking or where to find it. All the same there is a seeking, a vaguely felt need which propels us to move. In the beginning this seeking wears the mask of desire and ambition, later of various forms of need and attachment and emotions and sentiments. We are seeking for something and in this process of seeking we play this game of hide-and-seek. We seek it here and the mask is ripped off. There is pain. We go another level, seek it there. And the mask is ripped off. There is pain. And so on and so forth until the final masks are stripped off and we discover that which we are here to discover. Now the beauty of this is that the mask is not something external. This mask is within us—-the mask of ego, the mask of ignorance. There is a beautiful prayer of the Mother—I think it's in June 1913 or thereabouts—where she speaks about how miserable is human ignorance, how miserable that obscurity which keeps men away from the very thing which gives them peace, joy, harmony. It is the ignorance and obscurity, it is the ego which is the source of all suffering. But, frankly, when a person comes to us in acute distress, many of our psychiatric colleagues will agree, we are not in a position to straightaway hit upon the central point. It's not easy. So we'll approach the same problem in another way. In fact Sri Aurobindo very beautifully says, talking about the human problem, "All problems of existence are essentially problems of harmony". And he goes on to say that the greater the discord of the apparent materials offered to us, the greater the richness of the harmony to be realised. So if you look at it like that, one would definitely agree one hundred percent with what Brant Cortright said and of course with what Jung at one point said, “Thank god I am a neurotic.” This sense of imperfection that haunts man, is what Sri Aurobindo has spoken of as the "divine discontent". It is precisely because of this that there is in him a possibility of change. And the psychotherapist is at best a catalyst for this awareness and change, especially an integral psychotherapist.

Consciousness based integral approach

In fact I really don't know whether “integral” is the right word, because the word integral can only be used accurately when we have the integral vision. At the human mental level where we all stand, the word integral has no meaning. We use the word integral as this plus this plus this, life plus mind plus body plus soul or spirit plus whatever. But that is not what is meant by integral. Integral means that truth from which all is born. Knowing that, having known that, all else is known. That is integral. So at our level we can use a much more simple term, and at this point perhaps a more meaningful one, a consciousness approach to psychotherapy. So if we look at what happens to a person who enters into a state of psychological distress, we see that there is a previous level of adaptation from which he goes to a point of conflict. Now conflicts are there; they are a part of human nature. But this particular conflict, either because of apparent external stimulus or for various other reasons, leads one into a state of crisis. And this crisis as we have seen is a call for change where the psychotherapist intervenes. Till now, if I understand correctly, the change has not necessarily been seen in an evolutionary direction but in the direction of more or less an adaptation to the same level from where the crisis took off, from where the conflict started. But a consciousness based approach, as I understand it, should lead to a change in the direction of evolution , towards a greater widening, towards a greater freedom, towards a greater deepening of consciousness, towards a heightening of consciousness—it should bring us a few more steps closer towards our soul.

The universal dimension of conflict

Now another point which we see often in psychiatric practice is that, as Sri Aurobindo has said, man is an abnormal seeking after his own normalcy . So the problem is, if everyone has within him difficulties of nature, why do some people go to a point where they have a psychological breakdown? Here Sri Aurobindo brings out something which we have somehow not been talking about. And I think it is very necessary to understand the role of forces, universal forces which use these weak spots to magnify their image. They are like a projector which magnifies. And this magnification is not without a purpose. The conflict is like a subtle unease, if not a disease, which indicates to us that something is wrong. It cries “Take care of it, take care of it.” But we ignore it. Or we choose to live with it. So these forces press upon and magnify the whole conflict. It gets blown out of proportion. And it's an ancient knowledge of yoga, Sri Aurobindo has talked abundantly about it, that these forces are of two kinds. There are difficulties of nature and there are forces which magnify these difficulties and there are two of these forces. The first are the adverse forces . All illness, whether physical or psychological, is essentially an attack of the adverse forces that breach through a disequilibrium that comes through some imperfection; they hang around a weak spot, press upon it and magnify it. The other ones are the hostile forces . The ancient words used to be asuric maya and rakshasic maya .

The adverse ones basically create what I could call a kind of quantitative illusion . So what kind of illusion do they create? They use a small difficulty and they make it appear so big, so big as if it is insolvable. All of us here who have obviously been doing some sort of a yoga or other, know that there are periods when things within us appear as insurmountable. And then there is an excessive focusing on the negative side. There is, as we have heard, the good mother and the bad mother. And ideally the two should be not only integrated but one transformed by the other. But we have this focusing excessively on the bad mother, on the dark side of things, on the fallen nature, on ignorance, on all of our defects. We all know what happens clinically when a person is depressed. He feels useless and worthless and no good. There is a small problem and it appears out of proportion. It's a quantitative illusion.

The hostile forces create a qualitative illusion . They falsify the sense. There's an onrush on the sense of the lower vital worlds. We use the word schizophrenia. There is a falsification of speech. I had one particular instance where a person was initiated into a particular method of yoga and he was given some five sacred names. And this man would literally come and tell me that there are the five sacred names which I am supposed to utter but these beings who harass me, they come and I just forget it. I have another girl who says, “Well, each time I sit for my prayers to Lord Jesus, I just forget my prayer. They just make me forget my prayers.” We remember that story of the Tower of Babel, how the tower was to be built to heaven and how these forces come and interlocute and spoil the speech. They falsify the sense, they falsify the speech. They destroy it, they distort it. They falsify the heart and emotions. There is terror where there should be love. The person starts feeling suspicion where there is no such intent. The person begins to feel that he is the king of the world—in megalomania—whereas the person is just like any of us. They falsify the emotions. The hostile forces falsify the will. There is an excess of appetite. Or there is an utter absence of appetite. They destroy faith. And something very interesting which happens is that they not only falsify the will over a period of time, they destroy the will . We know what happens in the natural history of a schizophrenic. Over a period of time the will is so shattered that the person becomes almost like a stone. And really, when the will is shattered to that point I suppose Grace alone can help—of course, I suppose that at all points it is really the Grace that helps. This is a shattering which takes place and there is a stonelike condition where the heart becomes cold, the thoughts become perverse, and sometimes, very often in fact, one sees either a perverted form of religiosity or a destruction of all faith . There is a hostility against the Divine. There is a sense of desecration, love for uncleanliness or lack of self-care—as we call it in modern terms. So we see that there are a lot of things which we are already seeing every day. But the way we understand them are very, very different from the way someone looking at it from a consciousness perspective might understand it. We just use the term schizophrenia without knowing anything about it. We talk about biological pathways but what are these biological pathways? They are tracks in matter which are destroyed because there is from the point of view of consciousness an interpenetration. These forces, as indeed all forces, can penetrate everywhere. They enter into the very physical constitution of our being and use it to give a different sense to world and to self.

So essentially psychological problems are about the false relation between the self and the world. And the central falsehood is: “I am the centre and everything must move around me.” And then—this is almost a universal problem—the “I” becomes too important, as in the case of an introvert who is all the time focused on his own ego, turned within, and probably has a concealed vanity and ambition. These forces want to project themselves into the physical world, use this weak spot and create a disorder. But this disorder is not without a purpose. Its aim is to project to us that which we are unable to see for ourselves. And sometimes it is because we have to return back. There is a balance between the forces of progression and retrogression. And when retrogression takes place, it is because we need to turn back to something which was left undone. There is something we have to handle which we have not done. And the task of the psychotherapist is to look into that part and help in the process of evolutionary change.

Principles of psychotherapeutic approach

How does change happen? There are three principles and three methods. The three principles are derived basically from Sri Aurobindo's essays on education. One is that basically nothing can be taught . I use it in this way, that all change must begin from within and spread outwards. Merely bringing an external change like the behaviourist would talk about doing, is of little gain.

Next, the mind has to be consulted in its own growth . So the whole complexity of human nature has to be taken into account. One cannot just give a label that this is this illness or that is that and start intervening.

   — The third is to go from the near to the far . I have heard of people who were in serious states of depression. They had gone to some place which advocated spiritual therapy. They were taught a technique of meditation. And you know how difficult meditation is even for those who are doing sadhana —we close our eyes and our mind wanders. So how much more difficult would it be for a depressed person to just sit and meditate using these techniques. Very often they enter into a state of inertia, the depression becomes worse and they may even enter into psychotic states. So one must go from the near to the far. When the patient is a person who is in a state of utter tamas , who has fallen—a case of chronic schizophrenia who has no will for anything and there is utter apathy—one doesn't teach him to meditate. One tells him, “Get up, do some physical work, start helping the household.” It may sound very practical but this approach is essentially spiritual. You start from step one. “Go and play a game.” Even that is spiritual. Swami Vivekananda once said “I would prefer the youth of India to go and play football rather than read the Gita.” So essentially it is this that if there is this utter tamas , shake it with rajas . And if there is excessive rajas , advise moderation. It's a progression. One cannot say here spiritual therapy begins and here it ends. So these are the three principles.

The instruments and process of change

And what are the instruments? We'll just rush through the whole thing. Essentially three again: words, example and influence . It is very interesting that while we say that the psychotherapeutic process is an interaction between the psychiatrist and the client, a whole lot of books are written about clients and their problems, but very little is written about what a psychiatrist should be. Because if the psychotherapist's words have to be the catalyst of change, the psychotherapist needs to change himself first. Otherwise he will be like the teacher who tells the students, “Don't shout” and shouts. That doesn't help. He should have gone through, experienced these difficulties in some measure, worked them out in his own nature. Then only he qualifies for being a psychiatrist from the consciousness point of view. You can't be like an armchair psychiatrist talking about things which are very abstract. And words—there are two sides to words—-the sound and the substance . I've seen so often in my experience that the sound of the patient's words changes. And if you really observe the sound and not the content of what the patient is speaking, just the sound, you can understand a lot about the level from which he is operating. I've not systematized it but it's easy to observe it. One can make an observation. One observes the sound when we are in a particular mood and the sound when we are in another mood—and then of course the substance.

There are a few techniques which we can talk about when we talk about using words to help a patient. First, reflection . Reflection is cutting the adverse forces to their size. What are they doing? They are exaggerating things, real or unreal difficulties. Put it to the right size. A person comes and says, “Oh, I am a failure.” A small reflection, “Are you a failure, or are you failing your exams?” Now this is putting the problem to the right size. “I am not a failure just because I fail in these particular exams.” Next is introspection . “Is it that I have failed in my exams?” One goes still deeper. “What am I really looking for? Success in exams?” And from introspection we move on to insight . “Is success the goal of life? Is that the parameter?” So gradually from the outer difficulty we are approaching the within, the root of the difficulty. “I want success. Unless I succeed I cannot be happy.” So sometimes I do remind this person,

“Look, when you were five years old were you happy?”

“Yes, I was happy.”

“What did you have?”

“Nothing.” Yet joy entered through every gate of sense.

So why can't one be like that? Why are there these barriers between me and joy, between me and peace? So it's like entering those barricades which have closed us inside.

Next illumination . From insight we move on to illumination. What would be that? Well, let us say somebody talks about Nunu, someone who failed in love. Well, what is love about? Not just about attachment. True love is a process of self-giving. Realising that is illumination.

And then there is guidance . Guidance in psychotherapeutic parlance is not spiritual guidance. Spiritual guidance carries you like a babe in the arms. A psychiatrist can't do that. He can simply point the way, “Look, here is the way towards discovering your own deeper self.”

Next is example . Example creates a problem. People talk about dependency and transference. But even dependency can be used. Essentially the psychotherapist is like an image of the self that the client is looking for . And if there is no hypocrisy and if there is sincerity, the being and the conduct and everything of the psychotherapist can be a catalyst for change, not just the words he speaks or the guidance he imparts through instruction. And gradually through a number of techniques through which he can work out the release of mind, heart, life, physical self, even working on the subconscient he can probably make the patient himself become an example unto himself.

And, finally, the influence , which I feel is the most important. As The Mother has said, “A person who is in touch with his own psychic brings into play the forces which heal, the forces which harmonise, the forces of peace, the forces of joy, of love.” And I think if the process of transformation is going on within the psychiatrist then spontaneously, not just by words not just by example but just by his mere presence, his silence, he communicates something which cannot be seen, cannot be described, cannot be spoken of, and yet that heals.


So I think we can close here. And probably this is just the beginning of the journey because there is a whole lot more to it.

Let us end here with a few lines from Sri Aurobindo which are like a key to the whole thing:

There is a need within the soul of man

   The splendours of the surface never sate

     For life and mind and the glory of debate

Are the slow prelude to a vaster theme

   A sketch confused of a supernal plan,

     A preface to the epic supreme.

  — Sri Aurobindo, Collected Poems, p. 137


Psychotherapy is the process of reading the script called life whose symbol key has been lost by the client. The psychotherapist aids the client in finding this inner key which can open to him the doors of a higher, greater and truer consciousness.