Integral Psychology – Theorizing its Disciplinary Boundaries


Today I would like to reflect on the relationship between the ancient Indian discipline of yoga and the modern western discipline of psychology. I undertake this reflection in a spirit of a cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural dialog, so as to explore what may be the boundaries of the emerging discipline of Integral Psychology.

To begin my reflection, I wanted to start by acknowledging a piece of New Year Meditation music by Sunilda played at the start of this meeting. I would like to repeat the message embedded within this piece as something that we should keep in our consciousness through this exploration. This message says: “Thou always and everywhere Thou, nothing but Thou, in the essence and in the manifestation.” This is the message of integrality given to us by Sri Aurobindo, and this is the reality that we are groping towards in our exploration of Integral Psychology.

The theme of Integral Psychology is an inviting one. Integral Psychology brings us straightaway into the domain of integrality – integrality of experience, integrality of consciousness. As  I said earlier, my response to this invitation is this present reflection on the two fields, the ancient Indian field of yoga and the modern western discipline of psychology. I will start by looking at the western field of psychology. I am no psychologist but I look at this field as a discipline, something belonging to the whole corpus of “logies,” disciplines that emerged in Europe from the 18th century. Actually this corpus of specialized scholarly disciplines can be traced back to Aristotle. But in the form in which we have them today, its modern institutional form, as systemic fields of universal scholarship which have  structured modern society, it’s really from the 18th century that we have the beginnings of this disciplinary approach to knowledge. This approach takes its roots in the European historical phenomenon known as the Enlightenment.

The Faith of the Modern Academy

Thus, our institutional fields of scholarship may all be termed post-Enlightenment scientific disciplines, marked by a central unifying faith. This one characteristic factor marks off the initiation from pre-modernity into the modern age – a change of faith. It is not a loss of faith, it is a change of faith. This change of faith is that of the movement from a world with its faith centred in the Divine to one with a faith centred in the Reason. The faith centred in the Reason is also a faith and behind it too, as with all faiths, there are certain supra-mundane considerations. This faith starts from our observation and intuition that the world is composed of rationally understandable laws, that all around us there seem to be the manifestations of Reason. Nature itself is instinct with an Intelligence. The whole cosmos runs according to a rational plan; at the cosmic and the sub-atomic level there is the operation of Reason; so we humans, possessors of Reason, and recognisers of this fact – how easy it is for us to think that it’s only a matter of time before we can ourselves arrive at the Reason that has structured this universe?

In other words, Omniscience. It is the will to the Omniscience of Reason that is inaugurated by the 18th century Enlightenment. It is this view that spawns the entire gamut of knowledge-disciplines, the systemic and systematic search for knowledge by the reason, carried out by humanity, by the collective endeavor of human beings seeking to discover the laws of reality. We are still seeking; and whereas there was a certain initial priority given to the purity of the search, in what have been called the Pure Sciences, and only secondarily to its application, in what are called the Applied Sciences, the Technologies, today many critical thinkers are reversing this scheme and saying that from the beginning, underlying the will to Omniscience has been the will to Omnipotence.

In other worlds, it is the Will to Power, to the exploitation and enjoyment of “the Other,” for which we seek Knowledge. But even this view of the priority of Power may have its nobler side. We may counter that it is to create a perfect world that we seek for knowledge. This attempt to create a perfect world by ignorant people is in itself an aspiration. But behind this aspiration, there is much darkness. The blindness of human understanding, in trying to create a perfect world, has resulted in exploitation, in inequalities and imbalances and all the other ills of modern society. We have sought for knowledge, but we have sought for it using human reason. And human reason, while understandably a faculty that can recognize the presence of Intelligence in the universe, is not the faculty that can arrive at its integrality. The reason feels sorely its own lack as a faculty that can apprehend integrality and yet it posits itself as the master of the undivided and integral world. This is the great paradox of the rational disciplines of this era and “Psychology” is one of them.

The Aspirations and Limitations of Science

I bring this up because if we are to move towards something more conscious, an alternate Psychology, something we might wish to call Integral Psychology, we have to recognize the limits of the present field, the disciplinary limits, and then from these limits we have to be bold enough to determine the possibilities of an alternate – by which the lines of a critique can be made possible, and the limitations of the discipline overpassed. So there is on the one hand a search for integrality, a search for integral knowledge implicit in Science. Science starts off with certain assumptions. That is why I said it’s a faith. The locus of its faith is that nature is rational, nature is ultimately simple and that nature’s rationality is comprehensible and in fact, identical with human rationality. In other words, a complete description of Nature can be reduced to a few and perhaps one law by which everything can be explained and human reason can arrive at that law. This Mahavakya that is sought for by Science is essentially the Logos, the unitary Divine Word. So this is one of the aspirations of Science: its instrumentality is insufficient, but this is one of its key aspirations. This epistemological aspiration (or may we say, ambition or hubris) leads also to a totalistic locus to each of its disciplines. This absolutism or will to singularity gives a paradoxical religious character to the Sciences – a competitive assumption of universal Truth. In the case of the Human Sciences, this raises in the collective imagination, the image of Humanity as a whole, definable and knowable in its subjective universality through Psychology; and within this field, each claimant to knowledge becomes a discipline with its votaries or devotees who accept it as providing the singular Truth of the Universal Human.

The other aspiration that I have already touched on is the seeking for a perfect world, a perfect humanity, the perfectability of humanity. The Enlightenment makes its beginnings with a very bold departure from the medieval ages in Europe by positing that the world we find ourselves in is not a perfect one, and that it is within human capacity to perfect this world. But it tries to go about this too with the use of the human reason, the use of the intellect, insufficient, incapable of integrality. How can that which is imperfect build perfection? It can only build endless approximations towards perfection, simulations where the variables multiply but can never arrive at the whole. Thus, in both of its aspirations, its bid for perfect Knowledge, through Science, and its bid for a perfect world, through Applied Science, Technology, it is marked by a fundamental and irredeemable lack. Moreover, this lack of wholeness in our understanding and our dealings, combined with the precarious interdependence of the world, and the impurity of our motives, introduces new dangers at each stage of our progress, dangers that become more unforgiving the more sophisticated our grasp becomes. This indeed is the condition of our contemporary world, whose ecological, economic and cultural balances have been severely disrupted by modern technological meddling.

Finally, we need to consider the method of seeking; what is the methodology of Science? The methodology of Science is that of an ignorance seeking for knowledge through trial and error and through the accumulating consensus of a variety of people investigating together the object of knowledge under acceptable standards of verifiability and repeatability. It is to be noted that the legacy of this methodology, born in the Enlightenment, defines our epoch and creates its disciplinary boundaries. It has also yoked all of mankind to this effort and this method; as touched on earlier, in its totalistic ambitions, it has for the first time in human history, created the idea of Humanity as a whole marked by a common human goal. This temporally-constructed definition of “humanity” and its epistemological and methodological bearings implicitly inform our understanding of the “Humanities,” “humanism” and “humanitarianism.” This method has led us from theory to theory, from expansion of understanding to expansion of understanding, from piecemeal understandings to larger piecemeal understandings. But it has not brought us face to face with integrality. Integrality cannot be pieced together from the fragments of understanding, however large or systemic.

The other notable aspect to the methodology of Science is its necessary distinction of the knower and the object of knowledge, or the subject and the object. As the late Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant brought out with incisive clarity in his Critique of Pure Reason, the Subject can never know the truth or reality of the Object, the Object will in-itself remain always transcendental to the Subject. The Subject can only arrive at models to explain its own subjective experience of the Object. The best such model to describe the correlation of subjective perceptions, reduced to objectively measurable and universally verifiable dimensions, is what the rational knower can aspire for, no more. This limitation is implicit to Science, yet hardly overtly acknowledged. Its implications for the “human sciences,” eg. Psychology, are even more marked, since we presume to arrive at the truth of human subjectivity itself through this knowledge discipline, a paradoxical and irreconcilable blurring of boundaries of the kind known in postmodern thinking as an “aporia.” In terms of Applied Science, this paradox extends to the disciplines of psychiatry and psychotherapy, where the “practitioner” assumes a position of knowledge dominance over the “patient,” without acknowledging that by dint of disciplinary limitations, the object of knowledge is never comprehensible.

The Disciplinary Formation of Yoga

At this point, let us turn our attention to yoga. Yoga has its own history and its own disciplinary boundaries, which are not the same as those of Science. Nor are their goals the same. Firstly, yoga’s seeking for knowledge ends with practical experience. It is not a theoretical science. It is not a total system of objectified understandings describing the laws of  nature with which one can then manipulate the world. It is a practical discipline for the attainment of truth as experience. But associated with yoga, there is a theoretical discipline, though subordinated to its practical goals. This is known as Darshana . Darshana and Yoga form an inseparable pair in the disciplinary construct of Indian epistemology. Darshana, which has been translated as philosophy, is the theoretical system that describes Reality in terms which explain the cosmology, the interrelations, the processes, the goals that are explored as a practical discipline through yoga. So Yoga and Darshana comprise the two aspects related to Knowledge and Power, which we find analogically addressed as Science and Technology in the modern western tradition.

But we should immediately see the differences – as a reverse priority to the western dscipline, the applied aspect, yoga becomes the primary concern of the Indian disciplinary formation with the theoretical aspect supporting it. And as a corollary, the theoretical aspect does not claim absolute power over the Knowledge domain, is not in seeking for an absolute epistemology, a singularity in expression, but a description of Reality which will facilitate its own experience (through yoga) for those interested in realizing it. Moreover, the theory of practice which yoga is, is not meant to be verified or applied in an objectified empirical form, but individually and subjectively, as experience. Again, neither Yoga nor Darshana is really concerned with the perfectibility of the world. I am speaking here about the pre-modern disciplinary formation of Indian yoga, not its modern post-Enlightenment variants, which have been modified through their engagement with humanistic trajectories. Here, we have to acknowledge that both science, including the science of psychology, and yoga are in transition. Neither of these is fixed. They are changing and today, more than ever before, they are in flux; and the attempt of this exploration is to express some aspects of these conscious and unconscious changes occurring within the hybrid postmodern epistemological landscape, and to also acknowledge what needs to be theorized, because it needs to be theorized. Without theorizing it, this transition is not understood, nor are its imperatives, possibilities and choices well directed. So, the next question to address would be – what are the pressures for change in both disciplinary formations of psychology and science that we are seeing today as a result of postmodern circumstances and where in this flux can we locate the possibility of an Integral Psychology?

Disciplines in Flux and a Non-Dual Epistemology

In this consideration, we need to look first at what the traditional disciplines envisaged and then predicate what is in transition. Yoga, as I pointed out, was not interested at all in the perfectibility of the human race or in humanity. Yoga was not done for humanity, nor today is it done for humanity. Even Integral Yoga is not primarily engaged in for humanity, this is in fact one of its disciplinary boundaries. Yoga is done for the attainment of the Divine and for the realization by the individual, of Reality. It may be asked where humanity fits in this, whether or not, somehow, reality is subsumed by humanity, whether humankind is not created in the image of God. This is in fact one of the founding intuitions of the western tradition, and remains one of the inheritances of Science. If there is some truth in it, nevertheless, it is the individual experience of Reality as Conscious Being which forms the primary goal of yoga, any humanistic or post-humanistic goal can only be thought of on that basis.

Again, if we look at the yogic systems, we find firstly that the methodology is markedly different from the western discipline of science. It isn’t the idea of moving from ignorance to knowledge using the mind. Whatever yoga we look at, there is the premise that consciousness is not restricted to the mental. Consciousness has locked potencies of self-assured knowledge that we have to arrive at, these awakenings of consciousness, of forms of perception and action that far overpower our human consciousness and that grant us knowledge by experience, knowledge by identity. Thus, the unbridgeable distinction of subject and object, which forms a necessary premise of rational epistemology, is replaced here by a faith in non-dual experience and knowledge based on this. Indeed, one may say this is the implication of Darshana, a seeing in which the distinction of subject and object collapses and Reality is experienced as non-dual consciousness. These are the epistemological foundations of yoga as a science, as a practical psychology.

So, in its very basis, the individual is called upon to exceed himself in yoga, we are called upon to discover, at first through intuition, and opening to knowledge, other comprehensions of Reality that move towards identity. Sri Aurobindo has a chapter in ‘The Life Divine’ called ‘Methods of Vedantic Knowledge’. In this chapter, he clarifies that the debates engaged in by the masters of yoga in pre-modern India did not proceed on the basis of the question, ‘what do you think?’ but rather, ‘what do you see?’ or ‘what do you experience?’ It is by the growth of intuitive and phenomenological comprehension that we arrive at knowledge, knowledge by identity, forms of consciousness which make Reality self evident to us. So this epistemological foundation of yoga is a major difference from the foundation of psychology as a science and this needs to be theorized and understood, if we are to engage in the cross-disciplinary dialog implicit in the building of the postmodern discipline of Integral Psychology. But, on the other hand, the traditional yogas have not really sought for integrality. Neither have they sought for perfectibility of human nature or of humanity as a whole, because they have felt these things are outside their domain. Sri Ramakrishna commented with regard to Vivekananda’s social service programmes, which the latter termed “Practical Vedanta,” that this was not really legitimate to the field of yoga.

Now, Sri Aurobindo envisages a perfect world, but at the same time, he, too, does not think it legitimate to travel outside of oneself to help others. The perfect world is to come about through the expansion of knowledge within, through the performance of yoga, but not through social service, not through humanitarianism or humanism, seen as the “helping of others.” And so this whole issue of humanity as the focus of sciences, of theoretic or applied science, is another area that needs to be addressed in arriving at the boundaries of Integral Psychology, that this is not what Integral Psychology is meant for.

A Cross-Disciplinary Concern

From the above discussion, we may arrive at a number of differences between the two disciplines of our consideration, which need to be acknowledged in negotiating the boundaries of Integral Psychology: If we hold that the seeking for the knowledge of an integral description of human subjectivity is the goal of this discipline, the dialog of the western “human science” of Psychology with the Indian theory of practice, Yoga, yields the following aporia for our considerations: (1) An empirical study of human behavior by objective measurement of samples of human population can at best yield statistical median characteristics as descriptors of human consciousness, that can hardly say anything about subjective experience, human potential, the submerged interrelationships of consciousness, or the limits of the human. Instead, the locus of such a knowledge must be sought through individual introspection, experience, and comparison with the constructs of others who have established adequate approaches towards such descriptions (darshanas/yogas). (2) The seeker of such an integral description of human subjectivity cannot remain unchanged in the basis of his/her knowledge as a rational subject but as part of the disciplinary method, aim at the transformation of the basis of knowing to forms of non-dual experience. (3) An integral discipline of human subjectivity cannot assume prefigured limits to human consciousness, but will seek the extension of the boundaries (if any) of human consciousness based on its refusal to limit consciousness to mentality and its openness to trans-personal experience. (4) An integral description of human subjectivity cannot remain a theoretical construct practically applicable by a rational knower of this construct in instances of therapist-patient interactions in psychotherapy or psychiatry. The proper or primary field of application of such a description is the individual practitioner him/her-self, as a dual discipline of knowledge and self-transformational practice. As a “humanistic” discipline, its extension can find its legitimate field of social application in communities of transformational intent through processes of consciousness communication and sharing (what has sometimes been dubiously called “collecive yoga”).

Vedantic Darshanas and Integrality in Yoga

Let us move on to consider the idea of integrality in “yoga.” If we attend to the traditional yogas, we find that there are three major pre-modern fields of yoga related to darshanas that exist within the corpus of knowledge called Vedanta. These darshanas are given the names Adwaita or Unqualified Non-Dualism, Vishista Adwaita or Qualified Non-Dualism and Dwaita or Dualism. Adwaita takes the stance that Reality is Transcendental, that the entire phenomenal universe, is not only irrelevant but non-existent. It is phantasmal and illusory and can be erased from the consciousness. This Adwaitic view is part of a broader system of what might be called Mayavadin philosophies and yogas. Mayavadin yogas all envisage a reality that is outside of the domain of phenomena, or a non-reality, if you wish to call it that, for the Buddhists. But whatever it is or is not, it is to be sought for outside of the phenomenal realm.

Vishista Adwaita takes a different stance. For Vishista Adwaita, Qualified Non-Dualism, there is one Reality which modulates itself in a variety of differences, and whatever we experience are  modifications or modulations of this Universal Reality. Dwaita takes a third stand. According to Dwaita, the Divine is personal, a Being with which or with whom, we relate as persons, and this relation will always be that of an inferior to a superior. We will have an ever-increasing devotion towards the Supreme Being but we will never be one with that Supreme Being. This Darshana leads to its own kind of yoga and all the Bhakti schools of India derive from it. We may even say all the dualistic devotional traditions of the world, including Christianity, could be constellated with Dwaita.

There is profound truth to each of these Darshanas and their corresponding yogas. None of them are false. The great mystic and yogi, Sri Ramakrishna, after having the Adwaitic realisastion, threw it aside saying ‘I don’t want to be sugar, I want to eat sugar’. We wish to enjoy the relationship with the Divine. Who is there to enjoy, if you are the Divine? Why did the Divine create a world in which there is the Enjoyer and the Object of Enjoyment, if this distinction was meant to be erased? At the same time, the Divine and the human are related in an integral way, so that each of us is the Divine. We are names and forms of the one Being.

In the traditional approach, these three poises of yoga have been seen as distinct. There have been many schools that have grown up out of these and out of certain combinations of these. But there has been no attempt to seek for an integration. The seeking for integration, for one Reality, for an integral Reality, is intrinsic to the human being. This is why Science starts with the assumption that Nature is ultimately simple and we can arrive at a single Law. It is the faith of Science. How can we posit such a faith? We can posit it because we intuit it. At the origin of the birth of modern Science, there is an intuition of this kind. On the other hand, when we look at the yogas, we find that the founders of these fields have appealed to a certain body of knowledge that went before them, the Vedanta. That’s why they have all named themselves after Vedanta. Each of the founding figures of the Vedantic Darshanas has interpreted the Vedanta, and through their interpretation has tried to validate himself. They have selectively interpreted the Vedanta to support their poise of experience. It is because the Vedanta contains more, is more fertile and not exhausted by any of these interpretations, that other schools can also find support in it. So each of these Darshanas is true but each of these is partially true. Yet the very fact that they look back at the Vedanta means that they see there the source of an integrality, an integral source to which they must subordinate themselves. The Vedanta itself is pervaded and penetrated by this intuition and experience of the integrality of Reality. Yet there has been no attempt to integrate the darshanas since there has been no totalistic epistemological demand in Indian philosophy, no seeking for an exclusive statement of Knowledge which is absolute. The preferential right of individuals to approach Truth in a variety of ways through the disciplines of yoga (adhikara-vada) and the subordination of darshana to yoga as a cognitive aid to praxis has diluted this demand. It is not that sectarian rivalry and antagonism has not existed in India because of this, but they have been relatively contained prior to the modern period with its politicization of religion.

Neo-Vedanta, Inclusivism and Integrality

Modernity however has brought, among its problems, a clash of civilizations (in Samuel Huntington’s now celebrated though controversial terms). In the Indian context, it has meant, among other things, a yoking of the social destiny with the knowledge goals of the Enlightenment – the need to assert a totalistic knowledge system as absolute. This, combined with the need for firmly defined disciplinary boundaries and a national identity construct based in religion, has led to the deplorable formation of an exclusionary Neo-Vedantic Hindutva. Hindutva is clearly a modern phenomenon, but it hides the seeking for an integral description of reality which was implicit but not realized in pre-modern Indian Vedantic darshanas. Neo-Vedanta itself is a term coined in the modern academic discipline of “Religious Studies,” to account for formulations based in Vedanta but under the impress of an Enlightenment epistemology. Scholars like the German Paul Hacker or closer to our time, Wilhelm Halbfass, have pointed to other totalistic possibilities for Neo-Vedanta. Whereas we may think of Hindutva as exclusivistic, Hacker and Halbfass have indicated the presence of an inclusivistic Neo-Vedanta in modern formulations of Advaita Vedanta, such as with Vivekananda, or following him, Radhakrishnan or closer to the present, Chinmayananda. An inclusivistic Neo-Vedanta would make the Enlightenment claims of absolute Knowledge for itself by “including” all other descriptions of Reality under it. Modern Indian Neo-Vedanta does this, in fact, by fielding the schools of devotion, will, etc. as stages or rungs of a journey leading to the experience and description of an illusionistic Adwaita Vedanta. In fact, this approach was already adopted by Shankara and the modern version of this is merely a re-working of an old thesis in updated terms. Looked at from this viewpoint, Hindutva can be seen as deriving its power of integration from an inclusivistic version of Adwaita Vedanta, as formulated by Chinmayananda, the founder-figure of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The problem with this formulation is its insidious subordination of philosophies and experiential/transformational approaches other than its own, based on the priority of a mental or ideological principle.

Sri Aurobindo provides an alternate solution to this implicit seeking for integrality under the universalist drive of Enlightenment epistemology and teleology. This is the basis of Sri Aurobindo’s darshana, what has been called Purnaadvaita Vedanta or Integral Non-Dualism and expressed in his magnum opus, The Life Divine. According to this, the three streams of darshana and yoga, as possibilities of consciousness and experience are co-existent in the Vedanta as conterminous and convergent realties. This is a description which transcends Mind. Mental existence seeks for mutually contradictory realities to be distinct, with only one description which can be absolute and true while the rest must be relative or false. Pre-modern formulations of darshana have relativized these three distinct descriptions of Reality, nominally asserting each to be absolute for the purposes of experience through its corresponding yoga. Modern Neo-Vedanta asserts Advaita Vedanta to be absolute and true, the other darshanas and yogas to be relative phenomenological stages towards its achievement. It is only thus that a description of Reality can be valid to the mind. But one may conceive of an organ of Knowledge in which multiple descriptions of Reality can all be equally true and simultaneous experiences. This is what Sri Aurobindo calls Supermind.  With Sri Aurobindo, we find the positing of this organ of experience and Knowledge, something which can hold these different possibilities of experience together – the transcendental, the universal, the individual as three simultaneous poises of the supramental existence. We may extend this idea beyond the cultural boundaries of Indian epistemological discourse and see all spiritual disciplines and/or religions of the world in terms of a convergent pluralism when seen thus. However, it is important to realize that this is not the convergence in a new religious or ideological principle which seeks to supplant all previous religions in its superior totalistic truth-claim of integrality. This openness to a rupture beyond rational predictability or assimilability into the terms of mentally bound human experience is critical to any formulation of an Integral Yoga Philosophy or an Integral Psychology. The unspeakable dimension of the culminating possibility of an Integral Psychology must be acknowledged and not reified into discourse as dictated by the disciplinary and regulatory requirements of the modern Knowledge Academy or the ideological nation-state. In terms of yoga, this requires of any spiritual approach to admit of an integral status of experience in which its own reality overpasses its reasonable or interpretable limits, into a supramental experience without subordinating or supplanting any other approach but rather discovering its identity with them beyond Mind.

This is what makes for the integrality of the Integral Yoga. We may say that this is also the truth which  answers also to the aspiration of the early 18th century European notion of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment is the full experience of integrality and the release that comes from this. If our intuition of integrality is true, it can only be in an experienceable reality beyond Mind, to be had in its fullness in a Supermind. This is the other daunting aspect of what we might call an integral psychology, that we have to recognize. Once we recognize this, we see then that the possibility of a perfected life on earth becomes a part of yoga. It becomes a part of yoga because the bringing down of this kind of possibility makes the world a field of perfection, because a field of integrality – ‘only Thou in essence and in manifestation’ as we contemplated at the beginning of our present consideration. We will then need to look at this field of humanity, this field of the earth not as western science has structured it, not in terms of the relations, the roles that we play as specialized experts of various kinds who have come out of institutions with higher educational or terminal degrees and book knowledge, some unqualified amount of relative experience and consciousness, and who presume, on that basis, to “help others” through a posture of superior knowledge.

The oneness consciousness is not something which is mediated through hierarchy and through economics. The oneness consciousness has to be experienced and can only be given to those who are ready for the experience. This does not mean that what psychologists/psychotherapists do is irrelevant. But if we are to arrive at a legitimate description for the scope and field, the disciplinary boundaries and legitimate applicability of a postmodern discipline of Integral Psychology, we must establish new conditions for its discursivity. When we talk about Integral Psychology, it is necessary to see the totality of what it holds as its possibility. As someone who opened up the possibility for such a supramental discourse and praxis and provided his own general description of integral consciousness and the means to its realization, Sri Aurobindo can be seen as the founding figure of this discipline. But perhaps, if the discipline is to develop its own corpus of verifiable experiences and descriptions, it must open itself to a variety of cultural formulations and their dialog of mutual translatability and irreducibility.  Science aims at a universal description, a value-neutral and culture-neutral languaging which can assimilate all possible specific expressions into its vocabulary and syntax. We may think of the vocabulary and usage of the Integral Yoga given by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as an attempt at such a universal description of integral human subjectivity and the way to its attainment. But freedom from value and culture, which develop inevitable orthodoxies over time, would necessitate the generation of new descriptions, interpretations, translations and dialogic encounters which arise from continuously renewed attempts at the formulation of such a discipline seen through the perspectives of individual subjectivities, whether utilizing partially, entirely, or not at all, already established systems of expression.

Experience of Integrality in Integral Psychology

Now, to move to the question of human accessibility to the integral consciousness, we need to ask whether, apart from specific instances of the numinous, which can be compared/contrasted, there is any direct consciousness within human access which can be considered integral. When we consider the sources of integrality in Sri Aurobindo’s teaching, we see that he has explicated not only this vast, distant and supreme source of Supermind, he has also opened an inner possibility of integral consciousness, not directly theorized in the traditional yogas or other spiritual disciplines. This is the psychic being. In Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s teaching, we can find two approaches to integrality, one within and one above. Undoubtedly, the single root of integrality in the Integral Yoga is the Supermind above, but the psychic being, within, too has its own power of integrality as a primary key to transformation of consciousness. Interestingly, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother teach that we have some access to each of these.

Firstly, the psychic being: The psychic being is the soul personality or what may be called the true person, the source of the sense of personhood within the human being. Many spiritual paths have talked of or dealt with the soul, but the fullness of treatment and description of development, content, function and purpose of the psychic being in the human subjectivity theorized by Sri Aurobindo is unprecedented. To recognize the inner door to integrality represented by the psychic being, we need to first recognize that consciousness is of many forms and modalities. In the hegemonic modern definition of “consciousness,” we think of it as rationality, but consciousness is of a variety of kinds, all different from one another. The human being carries within him/her the marks of a discontinuous evolution of consciousness on earth through matter, plant, animal and human expressions, and their characteristic modalities of respective consciousness – material, vital and mental. Mental consciousness is different from vital or material consciousness, vital consciousness is different from mental or physical consciousness; they don’t understand each other. Within the human being all these modes of consciousness co-exist. Even in common parlance, this is acknowledged in calling man a “rational animal.” Our body consciousness is a kind of living matter with its own consciousness, we carry in ourselves the animal consciousness of sensational or brutish drives for possession and enjoyment, or of more refined feelings, sentiments and aspirations which constitute our vital existence; and we are also reasoning beings who can seek disinterestedly for the meanings and causes of things. Yet all these aspects of our life are separate and independent. They co-create through cooperation and competition what we experience as ourselves. The mind can justify the desires of the life force or curb them with its own moral preferences and ideologies. We can spend our whole life trying to police the vital with our minds, and in fact, “civilization” can be read as a long history of that kind. But it doesn’t serve any real purpose. All it does is suppress the vital.

How then can we bridge these differences, how can we arrive at an integrality of consciousness? We can come to integrality at the human level through integrating all the varieties of consciousness within us around the psychic being. The reason this is possible is because the psychic is consciousness itself. The psychic is not a kind of consciousness that is different from other consciousness modalities and thus cannot understand them. The substance constituting the psychic can be thought of as the most basic and primordial form of consciousness, which can modulate itself into all the other modalities. There can thus be a psychic mentality, a psychic vitality, a psychic physicality. The psychic being can psychicise the mind, psychicise the vital, psychicise the physical. The psychic being is a portion of pure consciousness that comes out of the original Consciousness Force, what in yogic terminology is referred to as chit-shakti, and what Sri Aurobindo also calls the Mother – the consciousness body of the Mother planted in each of us. Therefore, when we talk about integrality at this human level, we cannot talk about it without acknowledging the psychic being and again giving it that place of priority in our alternate science of human subjectivity, Integral Psychology.

To talk about theorizing the psychic being, we must yet realize that the psychic being is not a theoretical construct, nor is it something accessible selectively as a quality of the subjective life. It is a distinct reality that can be experienced and its experience as a reality makes possible the beginnings of what one might call the psychic integration. There can be experiences of psychic influence in one’s life, but until there is a true opening of the psychic being and an experience of the psychic as an independent reality of consciousness different from mind, life and body, one can’t really talk about integrality, the cornerstone of Integral Psychology in any authoritative way. This, again, implies a rupture in experience, something which does not lend itself to assimilation or translation. The incessant repetition of the term “psychic being” in Integral Yoga or Integral Psychology or Integral Theory, like that of the term “Supermind” has a desensitizing effect, not too dissimilar from the bombardment of the mind and senses with  images of sex, violence and death transmitted universally in contemporary media. Its effect is to render these experiences in domesticated terms, as imagined and surrogate realities through which a social world can be structured and ordered morally and ideologically. An Integral Psychology which seeks to hold its ground of truth must be conscious of this unavoidable pressure and find ways to evade the appropriation of experience by the will to power posing as knowledge or truth.

Finally, we may consider what access we have to the original source of integrality according to Sri Aurobindo – the supramental consciousness. It seems very distant to us. But it is necessary to address this in some way in theory and practice if one wishes to approach integrality. What I wish to posit here is its accessibility at our level of humanity. Deriving from Sri Aurobindo, we may say, it is accessible as the Mother, because the Mother is the consciousness and force of the Supermind present in the Ignorance and embodies that integrality, which we can never arrive at in our foundational ignorance. Thus we can invoke this integrality through our surrender to the Mother. It can enter actively as a power in our lives, it can organize our thoughts and expressions, it can lay out the steps and the directions that lead us imperceptibly towards the knowledge that we call the Supramental, towards its experience; and as we proceed, our perception, our seeing , darshana, becomes more and more integral. It is perhaps the most difficult thing to theorize, because it is the Name in which the most rampant falsehoods may be authorized; but that also needs to be accepted as a pillar of what one might call Integral Psychology.

It is here that the equivalence or even transcendence of Truth as Person over Truth as Principle presents itself to us. What is beyond the Mind may yet be intimate to our relationship; yet such relationship cannot be allowed to speak in generalities outside of personal experience. The Mother as supramental Shakti in an Integral Psychology is best described first and foremost in terms of negative theology. It is what is illegitimate to assert about her and in her name that concerns us foremost. Yet a corpus of collective experience in an Integral Psychology about what is possible and how, cannot but speak of her and must find the languages to do so. These languages may be impersonal, personal but ahistorical or personal and historical or all of these (as in Sri Aurobindo’s own case, in his varied narrations). But without this attempt, the formulation of an Integral Psychology will remain impractical and incomplete as a core possibility within the (post)-human.

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2 thoughts on “Integral Psychology – Theorizing its Disciplinary Boundaries

  1. ned says:

    This essay is one of my favorites on this topic — thanks for posting it here. However, can something be done about its formatting? The headings aren’t showing up clearly which makes reading a bit confusing. Thanks!

  2. donsalmon says:

    Very interesting Debashish. This essay calls to mind many of the struggles I’ve been through over the decades in articulating an integral psychology.

    I’ve always found that I never really understood Sri Aurobindo and the Mother until I’ve at least attempted to put a passage of theirs into my own words – and ultimately, done so in a variety of styles, “languages”, etc.

    Take the passage you cite from the Kena Upanishad. Just a few lines of it (SrI Aurobindo’s hint of the infinite Kingdom of “riches” we might find when we begin to discover the functionings of mind and consciousness when we explore those workings subliminal, subconscient and superconscient to our ordinary mental functions of sensing, perceiving, willing and knowing – these lines expanded to our 400+ page book on “yoga psychology” (the term we used after our agent warned us that now Ken Wilber “owned” the phrase “integral psychology”.

    In the course of working on the book, we expressed “integral thought” (experience/yoga/knowing/feeling/etc) through the mediums of complexity and chaos theory, evolutionary biology, affective, cognitive and volitional neuroscience, history, various forms of political theory, occasionally even psychotherapy (which despite the attempts of the existentialists, phenomenologists and transpersonalists remains mired in a variety of dualistic and “techno” assumptions), just to name a few.

    Your warning to approach the shakti in terms of “negative theology” – describing what it is not – is very well taken. In fact, I think I spent perhaps a year or two in research on the last 12 chapters (mostly involving more direct expressions of yogic visioning) and 3 or more years on research on the first 4 or 5 chapters, devoting to challenging positivist/(dualistic) materialist/physicalist seeing/non-thinking.

    In the years since the book came out, I’ve come to feel the almost suffocating limitations of the book format – what you write in a book becomes old so fast – that we’ve focused more on the web and in particular, on the need to bring in non-verbal means of communication; in our case, music and video (especially animation rather than “live” video).

    I’m very happy with the results in our online article over at – “Shaving Science With Ockham’s Razor” – in particular with the follow up article which includes a brief view of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata. What is particularly interesting is the fact that some readers ‘get it” right away, wheereas others have the most difficult time imaginable getting the notion that “Shaving Science” is a non-position; whereas they see it as advocating an idealist view – ignoring the repeated warnings that an idealist view is not being promoted, and in fact, is being vigorously challenged (as is every other metaphysical view).

    Well, this is a quite a rambling post, sorry – but you’ve inspired some very strong reflections. i’m glad to see the kinds of warnings you’re putting forth. I hope over at my blog at I’m able to keep them in mind.

    You might look more closely at the specific names of people like Jim Carpenter an Dan Siegel, just to name a few (and Siegel more than almost anybody else) who are attempting to break through to a wholly different way of approaching the psyche. For more on Siegel’s “interpersonal neurobiology” (his emphasis on “interpersonal” and the brain throughout the body rather than just the brain in the “head” might be quite to your liking – and also his emphasis on integration as the primary concern of a practical psychology – and his reference to the hub of the “wheel of awareness” as at least hinting at the reality of the psychic being without hypostasizing it), you might enjoy our, particularly “The Most Important Page” and the story of “Blue Zones”.

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