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Sri Aurobindo And Psychoanalysis

Sri Aurobindo And Psychoanalysis
By Don Salmon, PhD

“[The psychoanalysts] look from down up and explain the higher lights by the lower obscurities; but the foundation of these things is above and not below… The superconscient, not the subconscient, is the true foundation of things. The significance of the lotus is not to be found by analyzing the secrets of the mud from which it grows here; its secret is to be found in the heavenly archetype of the lotus that blooms for ever in the Light above… you must know the whole before you can know the part and the highest before you can truly understand the lowest.”
Sri Aurobindo, Bases of Yoga

[Note: There is a glossary provided at the conclusion of this essay for technical terms related to psychoanalysis and Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Psychology.]

At the time of the present writing (September, 2002), the “hot” topic in the sciences is the study of consciousness. One of the most remarkable features of the current world-wide dialogue on this subject is its wide-ranging openness and interdisciplinary nature. At conferences exploring conscious experience materialistic neuroscientists speak with Tibetan Buddhists, parapsychologists converse with hard-headed molecular biologists. Outside the realm of science altogether, artists, novelists and poets have been invited to give their perspective on conscious experience as well.

In striking contrast to the permeable boundaries of this science-based conversation, the humanities to a large extent remain mired in an objectivist, reductionist framework. This assertion will no doubt seem startlingly uninformed to those who subscribe to the various postmodernist trends – whether deconstructive or constructive. A full exposition of the subtle reductionism implicit within most postmodernist writings is beyond the scope of this brief essay. It is proposed here to examine one of the more popular hermeneutic tools of the postmodern movement – psychoanalysis – to see just to what extent the use of such a tool works against the aim of many postmodern thinkers to transcend the subject-object dichotomy and to develop a non-reductionist mode of discourse. Specifically, the result of using psychoanalysis as a lens through which to observe the writings of Indian philosophers and mystics will be shown to result in a trivial and often severely distorted reading.

Postmodern thought arose in part as a reaction to the increasing sense of meaninglessness engendered by the objectivist worldview pervading both academic and non-academic discourse. However, the requirement to maintain what is currently understood to be scholarly objectivity flies in the face of these efforts. This overly cautious, pseudo-objective approach brings about severe distortions when applied to the understanding of Indian spiritual writings. “We have become like the ten men in the Indian story who could only count themselves as a party of nine because, in counting, each left himself out of the count; of the Self of the universe, the Self of man, and the Self in the heart of the atom can be subjectively known but can never become a measurable object of experience. If we leave that Lord, the One Eye of our world, out of the count, the hearts of all things are empty, and the whole array of ordered existence, wonderful in the sheer beauty of its complex patterns as it is, becomes a sterile, purposeless and impersonal prison in which we vainly search for a meaning to our lives.”2

Psychoanalytic theory has been used to understand Indian psychology ever since Freud admitted to Romain Rolland that he could find nothing equivalent in himself to the “oceanic consciousness” which Rolland attributed to the 19th century Indian saint Ramakrishna in his states of profound silent contemplation. Freud interpreted these states as a form of regression to an infantile condition, rather than as providing access to a consciousness superior to that of the mind. It is remarkable how resilient this understanding of spirituality as a regressive phenomenon has been over more than 100 years. Edgar Levinson and Hans Loewald are two of the few psychoanalytic theorists who are sympathetic to a psychoanalytic understanding of spirituality which is non-regressive, and both have occasionally referred, in positive terms, to Indian psychology.

Psychoanalytic theory in general – from classical analytic approaches through object relations, interpersonal, Self psychology and other more modern schools – has in one way or another seen the “True Self” of the individual as characterized by some sort of biological determinism. Whereas classical psychoanalysis tended to view the patient as a “beast-baby” (a colorful phrase used by some interpersonalists) the contemporary schools of psychodynamic thought – the object relations and interpersonal schools, for example – see the suffering individual as being in a state of developmental arrest. In either case, the truth of the individual, one’s authentic psychological functioning, is understood to be grounded in emotions which have their roots in pre-human stages of evolution. Thus, when somebody asks, “Yes, when you may say you enjoy X or Y, what do you really feel?” they are engaging in what Ricoeur calls the “hermeneutic of suspicion” characteristic of psychoanalysis which results in the reduction of conscious experience to unconscious – i.e. more primitive – determinants. Sri Aurobindo refers to this as “vital subjectivism” – taking one’s vital or biological inheritance to represent one’s “True Self”. While anger, lust, greed, and aggression are the primary determinants of the personality in classical psychoanalysis, they are replaced by love, hate, attachment, sadness and joy in the contemporary schools of psychodynamic thought.

In a striking application of this way of thinking to Buddhist psychology, psychotherapist Jeff Rubin writes, “In psychological and spiritual matters, like in real estate, practically no one voluntarily trades down. The vast majority of meditators would not meditate if they believed they would lose more than they would gain. Since practically no one – save the Huck Finns of the world – enjoys his or her own funeral one wonders what are the unconscious attractions, what is the desire, underlying the Buddhist doctrine? Psychoanalytic understanding of self-protective strategies such as defensive processes can illuminate some aspects of this process and increase Buddhist understanding of some of the consequences and dangers of the self-deceptions endemic to Buddhism’s stance of self-nullification.”3 Without attempting to refute Rubin’s point of view, it will suffice here to note that in several ways, he is presenting a version of Buddhism which bears little resemblance to the Indian version. This seems to be an example of an individual, having found essential aspects of Buddhist psychology to be either irrelevant or inaccurate, picks out certain elements of the tradition, then paints a picture of Buddhism based on this incomplete and distorted understanding, and finally, criticizes what is actually his own creation.

This selective process of interpreting Indian spiritual practice leads to numerous misunderstandings of Hindu and Buddhist spiritual writings. For example, a common notion among transpersonal psychotherapists is that Indian psychological thought has no knowledge of anything akin to the Freudian concept of the unconscious – and it is true that an exact equivalent does not exist in Indian psychology. However, the reason for this is not because of any lack of insight on the part of Indian psychologists; rather, it is because Indian thought sees no room for unconsciousness of any kind: “The existence we really are, the eternal ‘I am’, of which it can never be true to say ‘It was’, is nowhere and at no time unconscious. What we call unconsciousness is simply other consciousness; it is the going in of this surface wave of our mental awareness of outer objects into our subliminal self awareness and into our awareness too of other planes of existence. We are really no more unconscious when we are asleep or stunned or drugged or ‘dead’ or in any other state, than when we are plunged in inner thought oblivious of our physical selves and our surroundings. For anyone who has advanced even a little way in Yoga, this is a most elementary proposition.”4

According to Stephen Mitchell, widely recognized within the psychoanalytic community as an expert on Freud’s writings, the dynamic unconscious involves “inaccessible, repressed wishes, impulses and memories”5 as well as defenses which are also inaccessible to the conscious mind. Is it conceivable that in more than three thousand years of rigorous inner exploration phenomena like these were never observed by the Indian yogis? In fact, a more complex knowledge of various levels of consciousness and their dynamics exists in Indian psychology than in modern psychology. However, the yogic understanding of the phenomenon which psychoanalysts term “the dynamic unconscious” is quite different.6 In addition, that understanding of inner dynamics in traditional Indian literature has often been couched in difficult-to-decipher symbolic language. Or, it has been expressed in an aphoristic form from which the yogi is expected to derive an understanding based on his own experience. Some of the insights of the ancient Upanishadic sages regarding the subtle workings of human consciousness are here described in modern language by Sri Aurobindo:

On the surface we know only so much of our self as is formulated there and of even this only a portion… even what we discover by a mental introspection is only a sum of sections; the entire figure and sense of our personal formation escapes our notice. But there is also a distorting action which obscures and disfigures even this limited self knowledge; our self view is vitiated by the constant impact and intrusion of our outer life self, our vital being, which seeks always to make the thinking mind its tool and servant: for our vital being is not concerned with self knowledge but with self affirmation, desire, ego. It is therefore constantly acting on mind to build for it a mental structure of apparent self that will serve these purposes; our mind is persuaded to present to us and to others a partly fictitious representative figure of ourselves which supports our self affirmation, justifies our desires and actions, nourishes our ego. This vital intervention is not indeed always in the direction of self justification and assertion; it turns sometimes towards self depreciation and a morbid and exaggerated self criticism: but this too is an ego structure, a reverse or negative egoism, a poise or pose of the vital ego. For in this vital ego there is frequently a mixture of the charlatan and mountebank, the poser and actor; it is constantly taking up a role and playing it to itself and to others as its public. An organized self deception is thus added to an organized self ignorance; it is only by going within and seeing these things at their source that we can get out of this obscurity and tangle.”7 …

We have within us and discover when we go deep enough inwards a mind self, a life self, a physical self… Each has its own distinct nature, its influence, its action on the whole of us; but on our surface all these influences and all this action, as they come up, mingle and create an aggregate surface being which is a composite, an amalgam of them all, an outer persistent and yet shifting and mobile formation for the purposes of this life and its limited experience. Man is in his self a unique Person, but he is also in his manifestation of self a multiperson; he will never succeed in being master of himself until the Person imposes itself on his multipersonality and governs it: but this can only be imperfectly done by the surface mental will and reason; it can be perfectly done only if he goes within and finds whatever central being is by its predominant influence at the head of all his expression and action. In inmost truth it is his soul that is this central being.”8

From the perspective of Indian psychology, the psychoanalysts’ view is limited by its Ignorance [Avidya] of the true nature of Consciousness. How can a non-existent ego (sometimes referred to in psychoanalytic literature as “the self-image”) act at all, much less defend against anything? And what is the motivation for its defensive maneuvers? Looking at this process of defense from a spiritual perspective, a completely different picture of the human being emerges from that of the psychoanalysts. Using Sri Aurobindo’s terminology, the soul, through Avidya (Ignorance of Truth or Reality) mistakenly identifies itself with a complex of mental, emotional, and physical phenomena (i.e., the surface consciousness). Yet, the surface consciousness is always aware, albeit subliminally, of the fundamental non-existence of a self separate from the Self. Thus, the raison d’etre for any defense from this perspective is to maintain an essentially false separativity – a “rock of safety against the cosmic and the infinite”9

Seen in this light, the various frameworks used to understand Indian psychology may themselves be understood as defenses (though not in the Freudian sense!) against the profound implications of spiritual knowledge. Taking Indian psychology seriously ultimately requires some kind of personal transformation, an idea that seems utterly foreign to the objectivist mentality of modern thought. Addressing this issue, Evans characterizes modern thought as committed to the “dogmatic rejection of any truth claim that requires personal transformation to be adequately understood and appraised”.10

If the Indian psychological tradition is correct in asserting that a higher knowledge is required before the various dualities – higher and lower, subjective and objective, etc – can be resolved, then the psychoanalytic understanding of the so-called “unconscious” is of necessity a partial and distorted one. According to Sri Aurobindo, “[The psychoanalysts] look from down up and explain the higher lights by the lower obscurities; but the foundation of these things is above and not below… The superconscient, not the subconscient, is the true foundation of things. The significance of the lotus is not to be found by analyzing the secrets of the mud from which it grows here; its secret is to be found in the heavenly archetype of the lotus that blooms for ever in the Light above…. you must know the whole before you can know the part and the highest before you can truly understand the lowest. That is the promise of the greater psychology awaiting its hour.”11

This is an elegant description of a truly integral approach to understanding psychology – an approach which has not yet been articulated in contemporary psychology. The part can only be understood once the whole is known and the lowest only once the highest is known. Most attempts at integration leave the lower levels more or less as they are and add on the higher levels. This additive approach to the integration of psychoanalytic and spiritual models, for the most part, leaves untouched the psychoanalytic theories of defense mechanisms, object relations, etc. which are wholly derived from and based on reductionistic assumptions. This approach is in striking contrast to the intuitive and integrative methodology found in Indian psychology.

In order to make the difference between the approach of psychoanalysis and Indian psychology more explicit, I offer here a playful look at Arjuna’s predicament at the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna finds himself in crisis as he comes to a visceral realization of the full implications of engaging in a civil war. We’ll look first at the way in which a psychoanalyst might interpret Arjuna’s state of mind, as well as the advice he might offer Arjuna. Following this, we’ll look at Sri Aurobindo’s understanding of Arjuna’s plight, and consider what his “therapeutic method” might be. The contrast between the two course of “therapy” may shed further light on the true nature of psychoanalysis.

Before psychoanalyzing Arjuna, a potential objection to presenting a monolithic psychoanalytic approach needs to be addressed. I realize that most contemporary therapists who practice psychodynamic therapy (i.e. therapy in some way related to psychoanalysis) believe that their work departs in some fundamental ways from classic Freudian analytic theory. However, I believe that there are actually basic similarities in all psychodynamic schools, with the later schools practicing a “kinder, gentler” version of psychoanalysis.12 Whether it is the bestial “drives” of sexuality and aggression of the classic approach, or the seemingly more benign attachments and so called ‘primary narcissism’ of early childhood of the later ones, the basic view of the sources of human motivation remains fundamentally the same. I hope to show that all psychodynamic schools share the one fundamental premise, that our True Self, our “Real” nature, can be found in our biological or “vital” nature, what Sri Aurobindo calls an attitude of “vital subjectivism”.13

Arjuna was considered perhaps the greatest warrior of his time, a period of Indian history over two thousand years ago. When the story of the Bhagavad Gita opens, Arjuna, a member of the Pandava clan, is looking forward to fighting a civil war against the Kauravas, a clan of his kinsmen which has claimed exclusive right to the throne, which was legally the Pandavas to share. Arjuna, being fully identified with the role, or “dharma”, of a warrior, had no qualms about killing for the sake of what he believed to be the good of his people. He understands the act of fighting a righteous war to be the heroic stuff of which his caste is made. In a mood of proud exaltation, he asks his charioteer, the Avatar, Sri Krishna, to drive his chariot out onto the battlefield, where he can see arrayed the faces of the great warriors he is soon to slay.

Upon seeing his Grandfather, his gurus, his beloved friends, and kin, lined up in the opposing army, the enormity of what he is being called upon to do hits him, not just intellectually but viscerally. Arjuna is shaken to his very core: “My limbs grow weak; my mouth is dry, my body shakes, and my hair is standing on end… I am unable to stand; my mind seems to be whirling” After thus describing his anguished state of mind, he begins to engage in a series of thinly veiled rationalizations: “We would become sinners by slaying these men, even though they are evil. The sons of Dhristarashtra are related to us; therefore, we should not kill them”. He continues: “Though they are overpowered by greed and see no evil in destroying families or injuring friends, _we_ see these evils.” And finally, he calls upon a higher morality to justify his refusal to fight: “When a family declines, ancient traditions are destroyed. With them are lost the spiritual foundations for life… society is plunged into chaos… the timeless spiritual foundations of family and society would be destroyed by these terrible deeds”14 … and so on.

In making these statements, clearly there are processes the psychoanalysts refer to as ‘defense mechanisms’ at work. It might be fruitful to consider the question, “‘Who’ is defending against ‘what’ and ‘why'”?

“Who” is being defensive? “Who” is it engaged in this process of rationalization? Is it the conscious ego? According to Freud, the conscious “ego” is hardly more than a superficial outgrowth of a vast unconscious ego, much like the tip of an iceberg, the body of which is mostly hidden beneath the ocean surface.

Let’s leave the question of “who” for a moment and turn to the question of “what”. From the psychodynamic viewpoint, something is being repressed, some emotion which is too strong for the conscious ego to face without suffering serious ‘harm’ to it. Is it then the “conscious” Arjuna that is repressing the emotion? According to Freud, it is not the conscious ego that engages in the process of repression, but rather an unconscious part of the ego that makes the decision to protect the conscious part of the ego from threatening emotions in this case, attachment and fear. So, from this perspective, the unconscious portion of the ego is repressing these emotions which come from… somewhere else.

What is this “somewhere else”? Let’s look further, as pursuing this question will lead us to what it is Freud considers to be most ‘real’ in the human being.

Let’s consider the ‘id’. According to Freud, the instincts lying in the portion of the unconscious which he called the “id” are forever inaccessible to the conscious mind. It is only images and forms of these unconscious instincts that rise up into the part of the personality he called the conscious ego. The unconscious is _UN_conscious; completely and forever inaccessible to the conscious ego. Keeping this in mind, consider the question, “What” is it that Arjuna is defending against?

Arjuna may be avoiding awareness of his attachments as well as his feelings of fear and weakness, all of which stand to threaten his image of himself as a brave and fearless warrior. A Freudian might go on to suggest that Arjuna may also be defending against more deeply hidden feelings of rage and aggression toward family and friends for siding with his enemies, thus forcing him into this agonizing conflict. Such feelings would be even more threatening to his self image and therefore more difficult for him to acknowledge. In response, Arjuna’s unconscious ego coopts his conscious ego, crafting these various rationalizations in order to hide the dangerous Truth of his inner nature (its basis in the id) from him.

Arjuna is defending against the awareness of these painful feelings because they would threaten his self image. But why? Why does he defend himself in this way? What is it about these out of awareness feelings that makes them so powerful, and why is it that his very self is so easily threatened?

Let’s look at Freud’s answer. First, why is this self of Arjuna so easily threatened? Why can’t he simply acknowledge to himself these various attachments and feelings? What would happen if he did? Freud tells us that the underlying reason the conscious ego erects these defenses which perform such a pervasive function in our lives, is that the ego is not in itself “real”, it is a mere construction. In fact, the ego, both conscious and unconscious, originates in the id. And we recall that most of the ego remains in the unconscious, leaving only a tiny portion which is available to our consciousness. This superficial ego, being inherently unstable and unreal, cannot tolerate a full awareness of the powerful impulses of the id, because that would mean acknowledging its own fragility and ultimate unreality.

What then, according to Freud, is real? Freud, being a materialist, didn’t believe in any sort of consciousness and certainly not any kind of vital force apart from matter. So it might appear to be that what Freud takes to be real is matter.

But wait Freud does not seem to be a materialist in the same way many of our contemporary neuroscientists or behavioral psychologists are materialists. He is not like the famous neuropsychologist Paul Churchland, for example, who wants to replace all talk of “feelings” and “thoughts” with references to activation of the amygdala or the anterior portion of the left temporal lobe. Even though intellectually, Freud saw himself as a materialist, declaring throughout his career that physiological cures for mental illness would one day be found, in practice, he seemed to see the id as the driving force behind conscious activity.

Despite his espoused belief in materialism, Freud’s “theory in use”, of which he may not have been fully aware, was a belief in the supremacy of the vital. It is the id, therefore, that is Real. It is this vital subjectivism that pervades both Freud’s theories and clinical practice, and which can be found not only in his writings, but as a thread, more or less hidden, in the writings and practice of most analysts and psychoanalytically oriented scholars up to the present day.

The unconscious portion of the ego has to defend against the impulses of the id, because the ‘ego’ is only a superficial outgrowth of that which is really Real, the id. The conscious self, whether distorted or well adjusted, is forever at the mercy of the id and forever condemned to the necessity of erecting defenses of one kind or another against it. The forces of the id are more powerful than the conscious ego because they are more Real. Thus, the psychoanalytic approach, whether classic Freudian or its most modern revision, leads to seeing the human being as inescapably controlled by physiological predispositions. Even the most extreme psychoanalytic revisionists understand the human ego to be in need of defending itself against the awareness of these all-powerful subterranean forces, making the ideal of true self-knowledge impossible.15

To obtain a profoundly different understanding of Arjuna’s situation, let’s consider again – now from Sri Aurobindo’s perspective – the question, “‘Who’ is defending against ‘what’, and why?”

“Who” is Arjuna in reality? Is ‘he’ the conscious ego, is ‘he’ the conscious mind, is ‘he’ the unconscious ego or the unconscious id, or some combination of ego, id and superego? According to the Sri Aurobindo’s “Integral Psychology”, “Arjuna” is the Self; in the evolutionary context he is an evolving soul. Then “who” is making all these rationalizations? Is it what Sri Aurobindo calls the ‘desire soul’? An easy answer might be to say yes, but then, we have to remember that the outer desire soul or outer ego has no “being” it is not something self existent, it does not “exist” in the way we, living in the Ignorance, take it to exist. So how can such a non existent “thing” DO anything?

“Arjuna” (the soul, the Real ‘Arjuna’) has in his consciousness become identified with a certain surface formulation of mental/vital/physical phenomena. But not for one moment does the soul cease to be the soul, and not for one moment is this outer self Real, in the sense of being self existent. But because of the false identification (in other words, because of Ignorance), a feeling of “Reality” is lent to the outer self, and it is for the sake of this “self/Self” that this “defense” is being mounted.

[Note: I’m using the term “self/Self” to refer to the separate “self” that we, still living in Ignorance take ourselves to be, something self existent and not dependent on the Divine, and at the same time inseparable from our True Self, of which we in our better moments have a more or less hidden intimation.]

So much for the “who”. Now, “what” is this “self/Self” defending against? The partly subconscient vital ego made up of a loosely connected assortment of subconscient vital/mental formations recoils in fear and horror in response to this situation. At the beginning of the Gita, it is these painful feelings arising from the subconscient vital ego which the central ego (what I have somewhat clumsily called the ‘self/Self”) is “defending” against attempting to protect itself, taking itself to be Real (a reality resulting from the reflection of the Light of the Self on the surface mental/vital/physical consciousness).

Now as to “why”: Why is this ‘defense’ being mounted? Remember the Freudian response that the outer self, the conscious ego, is superficial, and, in a fundamental way, “unreal”, and the vital reaction is coming from a truer, more real because more primitive part of the nature. But here, the reason for the ‘defense’ is just the opposite. It is because the outer self has an intimation even if mostly hidden and distorted of its connection to the Self, that it strives to maintain its current formulation of physical/vital/mental consciousness.

It gets a little bit more complicated. Not only does this “ego” or false self defend itself against the vital fears and attachments because they threaten the false sense of its own “reality” (a reality lent to it by its True Self), but it also and this is much more important for an understanding of the Gita defends AGAINST the Reality of the True Self. In the Gita, Arjuna is not only defending his constructed warrior identity against the humiliating feelings of fear and selfish vital attachment, he is also for much of the story defending against the call of his higher nature to abandon these very same fears and attachments.

According to Sri Aurobindo, [Sri Krishna] seizes [Arjuna] at a moment of his psychological development by egoistic action when all the mental, moral, emotional values of the ordinary egoistic and social life of man have collapsed in a sudden bankruptcy, and he has to lift him up out of this lower life into a higher consciousness, out of ignorant attachment to action into that which transcends, yet originates and orders action, out of ego into Self, out of life in mind, vitality and body into that higher nature beyond mind which is the status of the Divine.”

It was mentioned earlier that the use of psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic tool to understand Indian spiritual writings may itself be a kind of “defense mechanism” against the full implications of a spiritual vision of Reality.16Scientists are slowly, if reluctantly, awakening to the fact that the world is impossible to understand as a purely objective observer. The Indian tradition – truly “postmodern” for more than two millennia” – has always seen fundamental understanding to be achieved by means of inner transformation (though not in opposition to reason, as is generally the case in the Western religious tradition). How might one present the kind of view which Sri Aurobindo offers – one which takes terms like “Self”, or phrases like “status of the Divine”, to represent not merely ideas, conceptions or hermeneutic tools, but rather, “Reality”?

In recent years, the discipline of psychology – scientific psychology, not only the more clinically oriented theories of psychotherapy – has become more receptive to research methodologies which integrate experiential components. In order to engage in scientific research from this integrative stance, one needs a great deal of flexibility and transparency in regard to the use of language. Sri Krishnaprem describes in the following passage the confusion that often occurs in scholarly discussions because of the common inability to direct attention towards that to which the words refer. He mentions the work of Rudolf Otto, who asks whether the “Vedantic Brahman, the Buddhist Nirvana and Eckhart’s Godhead are the same or different.” Despite the fact that Otto’s work was written over 60 years ago, and Sri Krishnaprem’s comments are over a half century old, the very same confusion identified by him persists to this day, as evidenced in numerous attempts to engage in the comparative study of religion: “What is different? The words, of course, are different: the groups of ideas referred to by the words are also different, to some extent at least. But that is not the end of the matter. That to which these words refer is neither a word nor an idea, and no one who thinks that it is can possibly come at the root of the matter. There are not half a dozen of these mystical absolutes floating about in the universe. There is not even one true and several false ones. There is just one Reality which has been symbolized in various ways, each symbol expressing more or less inadequately some one particular aspect of it. ‘The Real is one; men describe it in many ways’ (Rig Veda).”17

But it must be acknowledged, the problem described in this essay – the unwillingness to engage with Indian spirituality on its own terms, the need to reduce it to safe proportions by means of such distorting lenses as psychoanalysis, is ultimately not a matter for intellectual disputation. Rather, one needs something along the lines of a “spiritual appreciation” course to prepare the scholar for the full radiance of a text like the Isha Upanishad, just as the musical neophyte may need a “music appreciation” course to fully understand and experience the St. Matthew Passion of Johannes Sebastian Bach. Perhaps it was this need that the philosopher Gabriel Marcel was acknowledging when on one occasion he attempted to respond to scholarly incomprehension. According to Lawrence Leshan, Marcel was giving a lecture “to a group of American Logical Positivists on grace and transcendence. They kept telling him to speak more clearly and to ‘say what he meant.’ Finally Marcel paused and then said, ‘I guess I can’t explain it to you. But if I had a piano here, I could play it.'”18

One might hope that the religious scholars do not find themselves in the position of the long time skeptics of parapsychology who are finally being forced to retreat from their century-old diatribes against research into paranormal phenomena:

“Neither the testimony of all the Fellows of the Royal Society; nor even the evidence of my own senses, would lead me to believe in the transmission of thought from one person to another independent of the recognized channels of sense.” (H.L.F. von Helmholtz, psychophysiologist, late 19th century);19 “Why do we not accept ESP as a psychological fact? Rhine has offered us enough evidence to have convinced us on almost any other issue….. I cannot see what other basis my colleagues have for rejecting it….. My own rejection of his views is in a literal sense prejudice.” (Psychologist Donald O. Hebb, 1951);20 “This is a subject that is so intellectually uncomfortable as to be almost painful… I end by concluding that I cannot explain away Professor Rhine’ evidence and I cannot accept it.” (Warren Weaver, mathematician, 1963);21 “There are some things we know are not true, and precognition is one of them; therefore, in this case, experimental data is irrelevant.” (Director of a major nuclear physics institute);22 “I wouldn’t believe it even if it were true” – (contemporary scientist speaking to researcher Willis Harman upon being told of successful remote-viewing experiments).23

As leading parapsychologist Dean Radin recently summed up the current state of affairs:

“When psi [parapsychological] research is judged by the same standards as any other scientific discipline, then the results are as consistent as those observed in the hardest of the hard sciences… Informed opinion even among skeptics, shows that virtually all the past skeptical arguments against psi have dissolved in the face of overwhelming positive evidence… chance is no longer a viable explanation for the results obtained in psi experiments.”24

What then, will it take to honor the Indian spiritual tradition, to allow oneself to be transformed by its study, to take it seriously?


Psychoanalytic Terms:

Ego: according to psychoanalytic theory, the organizing principle of the personality. The ego is partly conscious, but the larger part of it is unconscious. It is the unconscious ego which has the task of repressing manifestations of the id.

Id: in early psychoanalysis, simply “the instincts”, or physiological predispositions. The term “id” went through many transformations in the course of Freud’s development, but “instincts” remains a helpful word to give a sense of what the “id” refers to

Superego: the internalized rules and morality of family and society

Psychodynamic: There are numerous schools of thought and therapeutic practices that have based themselves on the writings of Sigmund Freud. There are also numerous debates as to whether or not any one school maintains a close enough connection with Freudian thinking to have the right to refer to itself as an heir to psychoanalysis. In recent decades, the various schools have adopted the blanket term of “psychodynamic therapy” to refer to any therapy which accepts the notion of the unconscious, and sees at least one of the primary curative factors in therapy to involve the exploration of the dynamic interaction between id, ego and superego. It may be helpful to keep in mind that Freud – along with the majority of his followers – remained a materialist to the end, and believed that one day psychiatry would find a purely physiological explanation for all mental illness.

Sri Aurobindo’s terminology:

The Divine: The Absolute Reality, a Reality not separate from or in opposition to the manifested universe. In one instance, Sri Aurobindo describes the realization of the Absolute in terms of knowing that “All are in the Divine, all are the Divine and there is nothing else in the universe”.25

Self: The “Self” according to Sri Aurobindo, has three aspects – individual (Jivatman), universal (Atman) and transcendent (Paramatman), and yet is One. Unlike much of modern Vedanta, the individual Self, according to Sri Aurobindo, is as “real” as the universal and transcendent Self, though it is in no way separate from these aspects of the Self, nor is one “Self” separate from another – at all times and in all ways, the Self is One.

Soul: Again, the meaning of “Soul” in Sri Aurobindo’s writing is quite different from the common understanding of modern Vedanta. The Soul is the evolving expression of the Self. After awakening (Sri Aurobindo doesn’t use the term “enlightenment”) the Soul does not merge completely with the Self, but remains in the “evolution”, while the Self remains “above”, unborn, infinite, eternal and unthinkable. The evolving “soul-personality” is usually referred to in the Integral Yoga as the psychic being; “psychic” deriving from the Greek “psyche” – with no reference to “psychic” or paranormal phenomena. With the awakening of the soul, the individual realizes the personal aspect of the Divine. Knowing the Divine to be everywhere and everything to be the Divine, the soul is filled with the “peace that passeth understanding” and an unshakeable bliss beyond imagining.

The Ignorance (Avidya): Sri Aurobindo describes the Ignorance as an exclusive concentration that leads us to live on the merest surface of our consciousness, unaware of the vast ocean of consciousness in which we swim, subconcient, subliminal and superconscient. This exclusive concentration is also the cause of our splitting up the seamless web of Reality into so many apparently separate objects, which in turn appear to be separate from our “selves”. The phenomena which psychoanalysts take to be functioning as defense mechanisms are elucidated in a more profound manner by Sri Aurobindo in relation to the Ignorance.

Mental, Vital, Physical and Subconscient planes of consciousness: Sri Aurobindo, like the seers of many of the world’s spiritual traditions, takes the universe to be made up of many “planes” of reality. These planes, when understood as an aspect of the Divine manifestation, are not illusory but real expressions of the Divine. Rather than being creations of human beings, the human consciousness is one particular focus of a vast, infinite network of planes of consciousness. “Plane” is perhaps an unfortunate word, as it brings spatial, geometric connotations to mind that bear little if any resemblance to the reality which the word “plane” intends.

Sri Aurobindo defines a plane of consciousness or existence this way: “We mean a general settled poise or world of relations between the [Self] and Nature [i.e. between the subjective or “stable” unmoving consciousness of the “Self” and the objective or “moving/changing” consciousness of Nature].”26 He distinguishes seven major planes of conscious-being – Existence (Sat), consciousness (Chit-Tapas), bliss (Ananda), truth-consciousness (supramental plane or Vijnana), mind (manas), vital (prana) and physical (annas). Below the physical – at least, the physical consciousness of the human being – are two more planes – the subconscient (the realm in which impressions of the mental, vital and physical consciousness are stored) and inconscient – the almost entirely darkened consciousness hidden in matter.

The “mind” in Sri Aurobindo’s usage refers specifically to the cognitive aspect of our consciousness. The “vital” has 3 layers – higher, central and lower. The higher vital is characterized by feelings such as love, hate, sadness, happiness, etc. The central vital is the seat of power, ambition, domination, etc. The lower vital is the seat of our everyday desires, greed, fear, etc. Note that “higher” and “lower” are not evaluative, but simply representative the relative “position” of each mode of consciousness.

The Outer (Sanskrit: jagrat), Subliminal (Sanskrit: swapna) and Superconscient domains of consciousness: Our ordinary externalized or “outer” consciousness tends to be focused on both “self” and “world” as independent and self-existing. In the subliminal or inner consciousness, there is a direct contact (though not yet a knowledge by identity) between self and other. The mental and vital consciousness is “universalized”. According to Sri Aurobindo, people of ancient cultures had a greater access to this realm than modern individuals, who tend to be shut up in the external consciousness. Much of the phenomena of interest in “New Age” circles (parapsychological phemonena like telepathy and clairvoyance, out-of-body experience, awareness of subtle energy, etc) are accessed within this subtle realm. Sri Aurobindo describes the superconscient in terms of an increasing recognition of the Self constituting and permeating the universe. The first realization of the Self is in what he calls “the Higher Mind”; the further levels of the superconscient are the Illumined Mind, Intuitive Mind and Overmind. It should be noted that according to Sri Aurobindo, it is not necessary to ascend beyond the ordinary mind to for the experience of Nirvana or the realization characterized by Buddhists as “no difference between Nirvana and Samsara”. These experiences, he says, can be realized in the silent mind. Perfect knowledge by identity is attained only at the level of the Supermind, which is as different from mental consciousness as the mind is different from the vital.

Desire-soul: The confused, disharmonious mixture of surface mental, vital and physical consciousness which we take to be our true, soul-personality.

Ego – mental, vital and physical: According to Sri Aurobindo, there is in each individualized plane of our consciousness a formation which he calls ‘the ego”. In fact, it is not a “thing” but an activity of defining and separating a particular complex of mental, vital and/or physical vibrations with which the soul identifies. In the mind it is the ego-idea, in the vital and physical it is a feeling or even sensation of ego. It exists already in seed-form in matter but only comes to “awareness” in the human being in the course of evolution. In the inner being (sometimes referred to as the subtle sphere) the mental, vital and physical consciousness can be perceived directly and distinguished as quite different forms of consciousness. Each has its own line of development, and as there is a complex mixture of these planes (mental-vital, physical-mental, vital-physical, etc) there is an embarrassment of riches in terms of the developmental possibilities of each evolving soul. Sri Aurobindo describes these “lines of Karma” in great detail in his book, “The Problem of Rebirth”.

Note: It may help to keep in mind that these planes are universal, not merely individual. So one can speak of the mental, vital or physical consciousness of a nation, just as one might speak of the soul of a nation. According to Sri Aurobindo, the “soul” of a nation is not merely an abstraction but a living and breathing Reality.


1. Sri Aurobindo, Bases of Yoga, p. 97. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

2. Sri Madhava Ashish, (1970). Man, Son of Man, p. 2. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House.

3. Rubin, Jeffrey B. (1993). “Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: Toward An Integration” pp. 249-266, in Comprehensive Handbook of Psychotherapy Integration. New York: Plenum Press.

4. Sri Aurobindo, (1972). The Synthesis of Yoga, Centenary Library, Volume 20, Part 1, p. 386. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

5. Mitchell, S. & Black, M., (1995). Freud and Beyond, p. 19. New York: Basic Books.

6. The psychologist Charles Tart says that he has spoken to many Buddhist and Hindu teachers and that none of them were able to point to anything in their literature resembling the Freudian dynamic unconscious (personal communication). However, it is possible that the Indian psychologists and Freudian analysts were observing similar inner dynamics but employing quite different theories to understand these phenomena. If this is the case, then it is conceivable that the teachers Tart spoke with simply weren’t familiar enough with the assumptions underlying psychoanalytic theories to discern parallels with their own writings.

7. Sri Aurobindo, (1972). The Life Divine, Centenary Library, Volume 18, Book 1, p. 532. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram. A symbolic example of the same knowledge can be found in the character of the 10-headed, 10-armed Ravana, from the Indian epic The Ramayana. Ravana, representing the shape-shifting character of the human ego, was considered to be undefeatable in combat because whenever one of his heads is chopped off, another grows back in its place. It was only when the hero, Rama, used his secret weapon, the “Brahma-missile”, and aimed it directly at Ravana’s heart – the symbolic source of the false-ego – that Ravana was finally killed. To give a very simple and mundane example of this phenomenon, imagine a meditator observing the workings of his mind. He discovers to his surprise a deeply entrenched complex of arrogant pride of which he had not been previously aware. In the course of observing this set of emotions, he does not realize that, although this complex appears to have started to dissolve, he is now feeling a great deal of pride in having discerned this subtle working in himself. It is not by intellectual introspection that emotions such as arrogant pride can be uprooted, but by tracing them back to their source – the Ignorance of one’s True Self – and, more important, by centering oneself in the consciousness of that Self, and calling on the energy of the Divine (Rama, in the Ramayana) to transform the emotion.

8. Sri Aurobindo, (1972). The Life Divine, Centenary Library, Volume 19, Book 2, p. 897. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

9. Sri Aurobindo, (1972). The Life Divine, Centenary Library, Volume 18, Book 1, p. 229. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

10. Evans, D. (1993). Spirituality and Human Nature, p. 101. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

11. Sri Aurobindo, (1972). Letters on Yoga, Centenary Library, Volume 24, Part 4, p. 1608. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

12. In fact, after years of trying to relate what he was doing to classic psychoanalytic theory, Heinz Kohut, just a few years before he died, finally had to acknowledge that his view of human nature represented a complete break from psychoanalytic theory and practice

13. Sri Aurobindo used the term “vital” to refer to the life force. In Sanskrit, this is known as “prana”, though it should be noted that Sri Aurobindo’s use of the term “vital” refers to a wide range of sensations, emotions and feelings (covering roughly the area in the human being controlled by the second, third and fourth chakras).

14. All Gita quotations from Sri Aurobindo’s translation, “Essays on the Gita”, Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

15. To test out the ideas presented in this essay, here is an experiential exercise you might wish to try over the next several weeks. Listen carefully to conversations around you, look closely at commentaries in newspapers. journals, and other media; think back to comments people have made in regard to their motivations for various activities. For example, in the 1980s, just prior to the stock market crash of 1987, NY Times conservative columnist William Safire wrote a column entitled “An Ode to Greed”, celebrating this emotion as the reason for the success of the US economy, and calling upon citizens of other countries (and in particular, other political persuasions) to join in this celebration. , See to what extent this perspective taking the forces of desire, fear, greed, attachment, competition and aggression to be more ‘Real’, more fundamental, than the emotions and ideas of the higher vital and the mind – colors the way in which people understand themselves and society. How often do you hear people saying (or perhaps find yourself thinking), “Yes, yes, that’s very nice, but what do you REALLY feel?”

16. I write “Reality” with a capital “R” with full awareness of scholarly skittishness of such a practice.

17. Sri Krishnaprem, (1976). “Symbolism and Knowledge”, in Initiation Into Yoga, Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House.

18. LeShan, L, and Margenau, H. (1983). Einstein’s Space and Van Gogh’s Sky, p. 152.. New York: Collier Books.

19. Cited in Heywood, R. (1971). The Sixth Sense, p. 10. London: Pan.

20. Cited in Radin, (1998). The Conscious Universe. San Francisco: HarperEdge.

21. Weaver, W., (1963). Lady Luck: The Theory of Probability, p. 360ff. New York: Doubleday.

22. In Hayward, J., 1984. Perceiving Ordinary magic: Science and Intuitive Wisdom. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala.

23. In Harman, W., (1998). Global Mind Change, p. 61. Sausalito, CA: Institute of Noetic Sciences.

24. Dean Radin, (1998). The Conscious Universe. San Francisco: HarperEdge.

25. Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 104. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press.

26. Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 429. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press.