Conference on Integral Psychology
Pondicherry, a small town in South India, was the venue of the Second International Conference on Integral Psychology that was held between January 4-7, 2001. Situated by the Bay of Bengal about 100 miles from Chennai, this place has a special significance in the world of Yoga, in that it was the abode of the tapasya of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother who were the architects of the Integral Yoga.
In the all-encompassing vision of Sri Aurobindo, yoga and psychology are not two separate streams to be reconciled but one and the same thing, for he states, “Yoga is nothing but practical psychology.” The conference was hosted by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and was attended by participants from around the world, including participants from the Ashram and Auroville, which houses some of the most qualified scholars of Sri Aurobindo’s thought.
Matthijs Cornellisen, a physician and a long-time resident of the Ashram, set the stage by pronouncing the agenda for the conference. He emphasized the need for building a bridge between scientific psychology and Sri Aurobindo’s thought, and for bringing the mental faculties that have been trained by science under the auspices of our highest and the inmost consciousness. He also expressed his gratitude to the funding organizers, namely Infinity Foundation, Foundation for World Education, Sri Mira Trust, and Indian Council of Philosophical Research.
The keynote address was given by Arindam Basu, formerly a Sri Aurobindo Professor at Banaras Hindu University. He spoke on the reason for the transformation of consciousness, thereby stressing the need for realization of the Divine on all the planes of existence. He argued for a psychological transformation stating that a complete transformation of nature is possible only when the Divine takes charge of the sadhana. The transformation that Integral Yoga aims at is beyond the ken of human effort, for Integral Yoga is a sadhana to be done by the Divine for the realization of the Divine. The practitioners are required to open themselves in all parts of their being to the influence of the Divine, so that the Divine can become the master of their yoga.
Chhote Narayan Sharma, a retired professor and a resident of the Ashram, spoke on a topic very similar to that of Prof. Basu. To effect the transformation, he underlined the necessity of bringing the psychic being forward. Sri Aurobindo has described the psychic being as the spark of the Divine that lies behind the cave of one’s heart (hridaye guhayam). The psychological transformation is facilitated by bringing the psychic in front, which in ordinary circumstances lies behind the ordinary consciousness. Bringing the psychic forward is the first step of the triple transformation-namely, psychicization, spiritualization, and supramentalization-that Sri Aurobindo talks about. His presentation stressed the idea that upon the death of an individual, the psychic being does not perish; instead it carries on the journey from one birth to the next until it finally it realizes its unity with the consciousness-the one reality that has become many. That is the final transformation-transformation of life in ignorance to that in knowledge.
Krishna Mohan, a psychologist from Andhra University, while giving an overview of spirituality and well-being, cited many researches that have been done in the West to corroborate how spirituality and well-being are connected, and how there is a growing acceptance of spirituality in psychotherapy, health psychology, and medicine. However, there was no stress that spirituality is a science on its own accord, and the presenter represented a typical Indian scholar who looks only to the West to validate his or her point of view.
Max Welmans, a scholar from England, made some interesting points regarding the problems associated with objectivity in the study of consciousness. He challenged the observer-free myth of scientific observation, and proposed a new approach to the study using inter-subjective agreement. He quoted Sri Aurobindo as saying: “…error and delusion and the introduction of personality and one’s own subjectivity into the pursuit of knowledge are always present, and the physical or objective standards and methods do not exclude them. The probability of error is no reason for refusing to attempt discovery, and subjective discovery must be pursued by a subjective method of enquiry, observation and verification; research into the supraphysical must evolve, accept and test an appropriate means and methods other than those by which one examines the constituents of physical objects and the process of Energy in material Nature.” Given this context, and what Dr. Welmans had to say about the use of inter-subjective agreement for the exploration of consciousness, he grossly distorted Sri Aurobindo’s views to substantiate his claim. He betrayed a very shallow understanding of Sri Aurobindo’s ideas, if none at all. Sri Aurobindo has emphasized the need for subjective methodology in order to understand the working of consciousness-from the knowledge of Self to the selves of all-and not the methodology that Dr. Welmans was speaking about.
Sangetha Menon, a researcher from the National Institute of Advanced Studies located in Bangalore, challenged the classical method of consciousness-research, which operates in dualities of subject/object and experience/experiencer, and argued for a separate methodology using the insights of Advaita Vedanta of Adi Shankaracharya.
Similarly, Kundan, a Ph.D. scholar from the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), pointed to the problems associated with the methodology adopted by psychology identical to what is pursued by the hard sciences, in order to generate rational, objective, and value-free laws of human behavior. He used the postmodern critique to challenge the current methodology, and at the same time showed how the postmodern discourse deconstructs itself by turning its arguments on itself. Making references to many mystical traditions, and with special emphasis on Sri Aurobindo, he argued for a spiritual methodology for psychology in order to uncover the invisible realms of our existence that influence the psyche of a human being. His main thrust was that postmodernism, which is feared by many as nihilistic in nature, is a very potent force in that it is leading us into the next stage of research where the inquiry into the nature of reality will be made using a mystical mode.
What is Integral Psychology? According to Bahman Shirazi, Director of School of Consciousness and Transformation at CIIS, it is “a psychological system concerned with exploring and understanding the totality of the human phenomenon. It is a framework that not only addresses the behavioral, affective and cognitive domains of the human experience within a singular system, but it is concerned with the relationship among the above-mentioned domains in the context of human spiritual development. It is a system that, at its breadth, covers the entire body-mind-psyche-spirit spectrum, while at its depth dimension, encompasses the previously explored unconscious and the conscious dimensions of the psyche, as well as the supra-conscious dimension traditionally excluded from psychological inquiry”. His paper discussed the various methodological approaches that have been attempted by various scholars toward the development of Integral Psychology, citing the works of Indra Sen, Ken Wilber, and Haridas Chaudhuri.
He termed the work of Indra Sen as Integral Yoga Psychology, as he felt that it was formulated solely from the works of Sri Aurobindo, which did not incorporate the insights of other mystical traditions and western psychological disciplines. His main take on Wilber was that he juxtaposes many different philosophical and psychological systems to form one grand map while claiming that there is a place from where it is possible to view how the various psychological systems are partial attempts to uncover the nature of human consciousness, which can be reconciled into one grand scheme. Without venturing into the debate whether Wilber is right or wrong, Dr. Shirazi stated that Wilber tends to complexify more than to simplify, making his system too complex to be useful in practice. As a third system of Integral Psychology, he discussed the central ideas of Haridas Chaudhuri, which he had not been able to elaborate fully due to his untimely death. He specifically focussed on Chaudhuri’s triadic principle of uniqueness, relatedness and transcendence, which correspond to the three domains of human existence-personal, interpersonal and transpersonal.
In the final section of the paper, Dr. Shirazi discussed the concept of integral self-realization which is a key concept in Integral Psychology, thus elaborating upon the model of self that he had developed previously. According to him, there are three distinct spheres of self-consciousness: egocentric, psychocentric and cosmocentric. He opined that while the egocentric aspect of the self has been well researched by the western psychology, the psychocentric as well as the cosmocentric aspects have not been adequately dealt with. Most spiritual traditions have discussed the cosmocentric aspect but at the expense of the psychocentic consciousness, which only Sri Aurobindo has elaborated through his emphasis on the psychic being.
Brant Cortright, Director of the Integral Counseling Psychology Program at CIIS, acknowledged Sri Aurobindo as the greatest psychologist that the world has ever known. According to him, Integral Psychology is born when we fuse Sri Aurobindo’s teachings with the findings of depth psychology. Stating that the vital ego is the main obstacle in sadhana as pointed out by Sri Aurobindo, Dr. Cortright pointed out that the concern of depth psychotherapy is to deal with the vital self of the client. He commented that spiritual practice is not capable of breaking through neurotic patterns, and neurotic living is the norm in the society. He warned that until and unless there has been the formation of a healthy ego, the chances of spiritual bypassing (a condition where one uses spiritual ideas to avoid confronting one’s psychological issues) are very strong. Pointing to the similarity between yoga and psychotherapy, he said that the aim of both the practices is identical. For psychotherapy, it is to make the unconscious conscious whereas for yoga, the goal is to become conscious on all planes and parts of the being. Both psychotherapy and yoga make us turn within. However, when we do so we are faced with the difficulties of the surface self. These difficulties can be psychotherapeutically worked with, which can facilitate psychological and spiritual growth. However, he did not seem to believe that yogis have special powers to work with the psychological issues of their disciples, which can be done only by psychotherapists. For he commented: “psychotherapy is a type of vital discipline Sri Aurobindo and the Mother did not have access to, because it is only in the past 20 or 30 years that psychotherapy has come of age as a mature and effective discipline”.
In the opinion of Dr. Alok Pandey, a psychiatrist, Integral Psychotherapy is based on an integral view of human being, which views it not only as a biopsychosocial organism but also as a spiritual being. He emphasized the need for the psychotherapist to connect intuitively with the client, and stated that Integral Psychotherapy is a new and evolving field that cannot be reduced to fixed formulas. It will evolve as the human consciousness evolves. Like Dr.Cortright, he reiterated that the role of the psychotherapist is to work with the vital component of human nature, which he or she does by reflecting what is heard. For the practitioners of yoga, he said that psychotherapy could become a part of sadhana.
Michael Miovic, a psychiatrist based at Harvard, highlighted the importance of bringing the practice of faith into psychotherapy. His other very significant contribution was elucidating the fact that Sri Aurobindo enunciated the importance of a proper formation of the ego before a yogic discipline is undertaken to effect a transcendence of the same. He pointed out that psychotherapy could be very useful in facilitating the healthy formation of a fractured ego.
Dr. Soumitra Basu, a psychiatrist, examined how Integral Psychology could broaden the horizon of any system of psychotherapy, and how practices meant for sadhana could be incorporated in psychotherapy. He also spoke on how the conventional techniques of psychotherapy could be modified to serve the purpose of Integral psychotherapy.
The session on psychotherapy ended with Dr. Ananda Reddy sharing a few anecdotes on how Sri Aurobindo and the Mother instituted cures using spiritual methods, declaring further that an integral psychotherapist can only be a yogi. Similarly, Matthijs felt that there was a need on the part of psychotherapists to examine their basic assumptions, while underscoring the fact that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother never made any reference to the genesis of psychological problems in the parent-child relationship. He also noted that the real issue was not what our parents did to us but what we make out of it in order to transcend our ego. He very categorically stressed that it was the time for us to shift our focus from the lower concerns, that psychotherapy is involved with, to the larger and greater potentialities inherent in us.
In the panel discussion that took place toward the end of the conference, the message that went loud and clear to psychotherapists and psychiatrists was that Integral Psychology needed a top-down approach of integration, meaning that one had to become a yogi to incorporate the findings of modern psychology, rather than use the mind-considered to be a limited and inferior instrument for finding the truths of higher reality-to incorporate the truths of higher existence. A few participants expressed strong criticism of the bottom-up approach that Integral Psychology is involved with presently, which enables psychologists and psychotherapists to critique the potentials of yogis without having established themselves in higher states of consciousness