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Consciousness and health

Consciousness — the Need for a New Paradigm

Dr. Soumitra Basu


Consciousness arises from a multi-disciplinary matrix and the scientific paradigm and needs to be complemented by the spiritual paradigm not only to fill explanatory gaps but to validate supra-physical realisations like The Mother’s description of the cellular mind as the template for the next evolutionary shift, which would necessitate a new transformative psychology.

Multiple approaches

One of the unique things about ‘Consciousness’ is that it can be the subject-matter of almost any branch of knowledge. Moreover, it can provoke conflicts not only between different disciplines but also within the disciplines themselves. That is why it is so difficult to write an overview on Consciousness Studies. The human mind loves variations and works through contradictions, progressively harmonising apparently irreconcilable opposites. In fact, if there exist multiple conflicting viewpoints for a particular subject-matter then it would be unjustified to write it off as elusive or chimerical. Rather, the different viewpoints should be acknowledged with catholicity to represent partial truths. One way to deal with such a situation could be to select a viewpoint representing a particular partial truth and generalise it, but this would be too simplistic an approach. Another way would be to make an eclectic combination of viewpoints representing many partial truths, but this could lead to a greater confusion. There is a third option available. The problem can be viewed from an altogether different poise where all partial truths are represented without loss of uniqueness in an all-inclusive and ever-expanding totality. It could be more relevant for psychology to follow the third approach if it has to deal with a multi-disciplinary subject like Consciousness.

The unenviable position of psychology

Of all the disciplines studying consciousness, psychology is placed in an unenviable position. If psychology has to deal with consciousness through an understanding of the mind, it has to acknowledge, albeit non-judgmentally, the great variety in thinking-patterns. Thus, it cannot ignore the apparently contradictory mindsets of the scientist and the mystic. To a student of the human mind, both should be equally and impartially relevant. After all, it is the ‘mind’ in the scientist that dissects the intricacies of Matter and it is the ‘mind’ in the mystic that unravels the mysteries of the Spirit. If one of the primary concerns of human psychology is the understanding of the mind, then it cannot be biased towards preferential ideas but should learn to view the individual mind as a representative or a formation of a universal or an archetypal thought-field where both complementary and conflicting ideas co-exist simultaneously. This is why the same thing can be perceived differently, even though justifiably, by different mindsets. The diversity of approaches to consciousness studies illustrates this phenomenon very well.

Scientific and spiritual paradigms

The scientist views consciousness as a concept and a phenomenon understandable in terms like energy-fields, non-physical fields, qualia, etc. analysed through diverse ways viz. cognitive, neuro-physiological, psychodynamic, computational and quantum models. The mystic understands consciousness as a truth experientially perceived in the form of a supreme value, or a Being, or an impersonal, formless status attainable through techniques like yoga. Thus, the scientist and the mystic seem practically to indicate two distinct paradigms when they refer to the usage of consciousness as a term and it would be too simplistic to make one paradigm reducible in terms of the other.

The scientific or mechanistic paradigm of consciousness works at the level of matter-energy. This is an area of interest for several disciplines and therefore admits diverse viewpoints ranging from physics to molecular biology, from mathematics to neuro-psychology. This diversity of approaches at the mechanistic level has a unique advantage in that it helps to understand a phenomenon from many angles at various points in time and thus continually enlarges our repertoire of insights. This is not a limitation because truth itself is complex and cannot be always expressed in reductionist and temporal terms.

In contrast to the mechanistic paradigm, the spiritual paradigm of consciousness is intuitive, unitary, subtle and experiential. It might be argued that as the two paradigms are fundamentally different, they should ideally be considered in isolation. The scientist should be happy with the mechanistic paradigm, the mystic with the spiritual paradigm, while poor psychology would have to be contented without any reference to consciousness just as it had to do when introspectionism collapsed with the entry of behaviourism in the early part of the Twentieth Century. However, the problem is that the mechanistic paradigm itself cannot remain strictly bound within rigid boundaries and cannot totally disregard a place for intuitive or subtle insights.

Supra-physical realities

There are supra-physical realities that cannot be merely explained as epiphenomena of physical processes. Science in its progress reaches a point where it exhausts itself and often needs some non-mechanical paradigm for bridging explanatory gaps. After all, the old physics, which believed in the inviolability of its laws, had to undergo a paradigm shift to accommodate more flexible and intuitive approaches. Sri Aurobindo clarified, “Matter itself can no longer be explained by Matter alone, for it does not appear to be self-existent”; “….. the universality of Matter can no longer be held as giving any sufficient explanation of the existence of Mind” and thus, “….. we are thrown back from this easy and obvious solution to other hypotheses (1)”.

The inadequacy of the mechanistic paradigm and the necessity of accommodating subtle insights is now explicit in all the disciplines of science. Thus, at the level of the physical sciences, it is now realised that the world described by physics is not an independently existing structure. If we do not find a new physics to account for this, then we might hazard a suggestion that the world is an empirical manifestation of a non-mechanical mode of existence (2). Similarly, the theory that space came into existence at the moment of the Big Bang cannot justify how space can emerge from non-space. If we conceptualise a pre-spatial level of reality to account for the Big Bang, then logically we have to trace the origin of consciousness to those properties of the Universe that antedate and explain the occurrence of the big bang. If so, consciousness can turn out to be older than matter in space (3).

The introduction of complementarity in quantum physics has facilitated the acceptance that various models of reality can be regarded as complementary rather than contradictory as each model represents a partial truth. It is in this context that the wave models of light were not rejected in favour of the particle models. This led to the proposition that matter-energy models and mind-spirit-consciousness models can also turn out to express complementary aspects of existence (4). Like the physical sciences, the biological sciences have also accommodated non-physical factors, marking a departure from mechanistic biology. It now seems that imitation and genetic programming cannot account for all animal behaviours. Some behaviour may be influenced by invisible morphogenic fields operating across space and time, and appearing to resonate a cumulative record of past behaviours consisting of trial and error learning of all the past generations of a particular species (5). Somewhat similar experiments in the realm of human behaviour have been conducted in para-psychological research.

Neuro-physiology has its grey areas too. Thus NDE or Near-Death-Experiences reported by subjects resuscitated from coma (in the form of traversing tunnels, seeing life-reviews, meeting Beings of Light, having a pre-knowledge of future events, etc.) and OBE or Out-of-Body Experiences reported by subjects just after anaesthesia (in the form of visualising surgical operations being conducted on their own bodies or visualising events at a distance) are reported to occur when the reticular activating system is ostensibly not under arousal. Similar experiences are also reported by conscious and healthy subjects, suggesting that non-physical worlds can be independently experienced, regardless of whether the reticular activating system is under arousal or not. It is interesting that conscious and awake subjects can also report Out-of-Body experiences if an electrode stimulates the right parietal cortex. The point is how can such experiences bring a foreknowledge of future events (showing that time is not linear) or describe events physically far away (demonstrating an experiential space which is nevertheless perceived as real and stable). Thus, there might be subtle ranges of consciousness which cannot be measured in usual neuro-physiological terms. Contemporary para-psychology attempts to investigate as objectively as possible the reality (or lack thereof) of independently existing subtle, non-physical worlds (6), though its findings are viewed with scepticism by the mainstream scientific community.

A priori denial

The die-hard materialist might argue that the inadequacies of the mechanistic paradigm are due to conceptual errors of habitual thinking and do not merit an accommodation of non-physical, subtle factors for explanatory purposes. However, a rigid materialistic standpoint has also its flaws. Firstly, the materialistic affirmation is based on sheer speculation because it proceeds from the premise that physical matter is the only reality. In doing so, such a theory oversteps the limits of the impartiality of the scientific temper. Secondly and significantly, the materialistic position affirms itself by denying whatever it cannot explain. Its logic is that if a phenomenon defies explanation within its framework, the phenomenon does not exist because it cannot exist. Such an a priori denial, bordering on dogmatism, is antithetical to the very spirit of expanding the horizons of knowledge.

Sri Aurobindo quipped, “Why I call the materialist’s denial an a priori denial because he refuses even to consider or examine what he denies, but starts by denying it, like Leonard Woolf with his “quack, quack,” on the ground that it contradicts his own theories, so it can’t be true (7).” (Leonard Woolf’s most passionate admirers would vouchsafe that his 1935 bestseller, Quack, Quack portrayed him as a rationalist with his back to the wall, as his crusade against the downturn of civilisation, that would be inevitable in Fascism, could only be countered by a victory of reason alone!)

It seems that science has to progress through resolution of doubts and hence there can logically be no place in its schemata for non-material phenomena, that cannot be doubted for being inaccessible to the senses and reason, and thus needs to be acknowledged through faith. The faith-doubt question becomes a serious issue and scientists are usually prone to view faith with suspicion. Sri Aurobindo explained that the controversy arises as faith in common parlance denotes, “… a mental belief in an alleged fact put before the mind and senses in the doubtful form of an unsupported asseveration (8).”

He elaborated that faith could be made “a most desirable preliminary” for the seeking of knowledge if its meaning changes to denote “a dynamic intuitive conviction in the inner being of the truth of supersensible things which cannot be proved by any physical evidence but which are a subject of experience (9).” Such an experiential faith cannot merit an ‘a priori denial’ on the ground that it contradicts scientific theories because “it rests on a great mass of human experience which has been accumulating through the centuries and the millenniums as well as the personal intuitive perception (10).” Rather than denouncing faith, it would be more judicious to study and understand the supra-physical and supra-rational techniques of acquisition of knowledge which have hitherto remained in the domain of mysticism.

It is expected that the first rule of science should be to account for all the data, experience, information, and facts that can be gathered for a particular topic. If a scientific theory cannot account for all the facts, it may represent a limited, even if useful way of thinking, but not the final truth. The materialistic equation of mind with the brain is inadequate as it does not take into cognisance all the data, facts and experiences. Even from the scientific point of view, it is an incomplete endeavour to simply acknowledge materialism without considering all the evidence (11).

Ostensibly, the whole gamut of evidence cannot be accounted using materialistic tools; a significant amount can only be acknowledged through non-materialistic paradigms, albeit, through some technique of consciousness.

Pre-programmed antecedents

It is true that science has been able to demystify many of our myths that have emerged from ignorance. That is how psychiatry was freed from the clutches of witchcraft. There are also unique situations when science itself ends up with puzzles which can be illumined by spiritual insights. One is reminded of the famous experiment by neuro-surgeon Benjamin Libet and physiologist Hans Kornhuber, who demonstrated that the brain was in a state of readiness potential a full three-quarters of a second before a subject exercised his free-will to initiate a particular action.

Ramachandran generalised that it is the brain who is really in charge and what we call free-will is in all possibility a post-hoc rationalisation, albeit a delusion (12)! Even without this experiment, many people all over the world would vouchsafe that a moment before a vehicular accident, one sometimes felt uncanny or uneasy and made the correct movement to prevent a mishap. This fact, that the brain is in readiness potential even before an action is conceived and executed, was not unknown to the spiritual tradition.

One of Sri Aurobindo’s Aphorisms written in 1913 stated that, “Men see events as unaccomplished, to be striven for and effected. This is false seeing; events are not effected, they develop. The event is Brahman, already accomplished from of old, it is now manifesting (13).” This remarkable spiritual insight indicates that all actions at the material plane are supplemented by pre-programmed antecedents in the subtle plane. It seems that not only actions but even objects that exist have subtle precedents in a fourth-dimensional supra-sensorial world.

However, Sri Aurobindo also cautioned that the presence of invisible forces behind the visible manifestation had nothing to do with predetermination (14). In fact, Sri Aurobindo believed that the visible manifestation was neither due to rigid predetermination nor an act of blind inconscient Chance but a play in which there was a working out of possibilities in Time (15). Mystics describe that such play of forces working out different possibilities has been sanctioned by a creative Intelligence and allowed to be worked out by a guiding Will. The possibilities that are sustainable have to be acknowledged, the possibilities that are not sustainable have to be ignored or rejected, in the saga of existence. When Sri Aurobindo was told about Ouspensky’s view (in his Tertium Organum) that for each solid form we see here, there corresponds a subtler form of it in the fourth dimension, he had quipped that that was true and the cube would not be held together and therefore would not be solid if something in the subtle dimension did not maintain it; only it was not discernible except to the subtle vision (16). Without the presence and direction of a higher force or guiding will, molecules by themselves could not build a cell and similarly cells by themselves would not build a body; their growth would result in an amorphous mass (17). Finally, yogic insight reveals that knowledge itself is pre-existent and there is a subtle plane of consciousness — “….. the mind of knowledge in which all things and all truths are perceived and experienced as already present and known and immediately available by merely turning the inner light upon it (18).”

It cannot be denied that one of the hallmarks of modern science is its perceptible shift towards subtleties to fill in explanatory gaps. It is not surprising that great physicists like Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Max Planck and Eddington acknowledged that the universe could not make sense or be satisfactorily explained by excluding consciousness.(19) It is against this background that the characteristics of the spiritual paradigm of consciousness should be studied and seen how it enriches our understanding of the scientific paradigm at the level of matter-energy and psychology. We shall attempt to construct a model of consciousness which gives due recognition to both the paradigms.

Unified-field theory in the consciousness perspective

It is also interesting that the spiritual paradigm can not only expand our repertoire of knowledge by illumining the explanatory gaps left out by our reasoning mind, it can also validate through supra-rational realisations, hypotheses which are empirically difficult to be established. Thus, Einstein failed to validate his own ‘unified-field theory’ through a single mathematical equation that would describe the movements of both planets and atoms.

However, The Mother (Mirra Alfassa, Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator) had concrete spiritual experiences (recorded on 15 May, 1962) which in a way validated the ‘unified-field theory’ in terms of consciousness. Her description of experiencing a great undulating wave of consciousness, expanding and contracting in a vast, calm, tranquil and harmonious rhythm, as the very movement of life, fits in with the description in space of a sinusoidal wave. A gripping spiritual experience identifies her material and cellular body as the ‘wave’ that carries the universe in its infinite undulating movements and governs the existence of atoms and galaxies. Such a realisation not only means ‘living’ the unified-field theory in experiential terms but opens the possibility of a poise of consciousness where one can not only be simultaneously conscious at different points in the universe, but one is actually capable of ‘being’ at every point in the universe (20).

Such a poise is not ordinarily possible unless we admit Sri Aurobindo’s vision that an evolution in consciousness can lead to a transformation and transmutation of the present human being into a greater being with hitherto unmanifest Supramental faculties. In his magnum opus, The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo elaborated how the individual cognitive field would get linked up with a global cognitive field and this enlarged cognitive repertoire would evolve to an integral poise (supra mental cognition) where any creative movement in consciousness would fulfil its trajectory. In short, this would herald the appearance of exceptional qualities that would practically characterize a new species in terms of consciousness. We would then need a new approach to understand the mysteries of life evolving beyond the capacities and capabilities of the present human being. A new and greater psychology would become the pressing need of the hour.

Cellular mind

When the mind-principle began to be conspicuous in the evolutionary journey, the ape-mind developed to become an important milestone acting as a template for the progressive unfolding of conscious mental faculties that reached its acme in the human being. The Mother in her spiritual journey that traversed the depths of consciousness unravelled the secrets of the ‘cellular mind’ that holds the key to the next evolutionary change through a transformation of consciousness so as to act as a template to facilitate “the emergence upon earth of a new race which will be to man what man is to the animal (21).” Naturally, the new manifestation would need a completely new understanding and therefore a new and dynamic psychology based on a new paradigm of consciousness.

Transformative psychology

Thus, an exploration of the consciousness paradigm to unravel the mystery of an evolving life that transcends the mind as we know it today can provide a template for the synthesis of Spirit and Matter and construct a framework for a greater, futuristic and transformative consciousness-based psychology. Fortunately, the experiential explorations of the realms of Consciousness by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother have ensured that the work of transformation has been initiated in the earth “to enlighten all those who are capable of receiving and listening to it (22).”


1. Sri Aurobindo. The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volumes 21-22. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; 2005, p. 773.

2. Bilodeau DJ. Physics, Machine and the Hard Problem. Journal of Consciousness Studies 1996 3:5-6: 386-401

3. McGinn C. Consciousness and Space. Journal of Consciousness Studies 1995. 2:3: 220 – 30.

4. Hartman W. Global Mind Change. Indiana: Institute of Noetic Sciences;1988.

5. Sheldrake, R. A New Science of Life. 1st ed. Los Angeles CA: J.P. Tarcher; 1981.

6. Ed. Tart CT. Body Mind Spirit. Exploring the Parapsychology of Spirituality. USA: Hampton Roads; 1997, p. 214.

7. Sri Aurobindo. Complete Works, Volume 28; 2012, p. 347.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ed.Tart CJ. Body Mind Spirit, pp. 174-75.

12. Ramachandran V. The Emerging Mind. The Reith Lectures 2003. South Asian ed. UK: Profile Books Ltd; 2004, p. 101.

13. Sri Aurobindo. Complete Works, Volume 12; 1997, p. 465.

14. Sri Aurobindo. Complete Works, Volume 28; p.. 562.

15. Ibid., p. 563.

16. (Recorded by Purani AB) Evening Talks. 4th ed. Pondicherry: Sri Auobindo Ashram Trust; 2007, p. 102.

17. Ibid., p. 433.

18. Sri Aurobindo. Complete Works, Volumes 23-24; 1999, p. 888.

19. Wilber K. The Eye of Spirit. Boston: Shambala; 1997, p. 2.

20. The Mother. Mother’s Agenda, Volume 3. Paris: Institut de Recherches Evolutives; (English translation) 1979, pp. 145-48.

21. The Mother. Mother’s Agenda, Volume 11; 1981, p.15.

22. Ibid.

Dr. Soumitra Basu, a practising psychiatrist and member of SAIIIHR, is the Director of a school of psychology, Integral Yoga Psychology. He is also one of the editors of NAMAH.

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