The Psychology of Yoga

Written by kalabin. Posted in Articles

Now, let’s come from the Indian text to the text of the West-European Middle Ages, namely, the propagations of the Dominican catholic mystic, Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), whose propagations exerted significant influence upon the development of German philosophic thought. He wrote: “But if I cognate Him (God) indirectly, I will become completely Him and He will become ‘I’! God must become ‘I’, and ‘I’ must become God; so that this He and this ‘I’ become the whole and so be…”

Here, in fact, it is described the experience close (or may be identical) to that of Atman realization from “Maytri Upanishada” and other Upanishadas where it creates the famous formula “tat tvam asi” – “You are That”, though it is presented with the help of quite an other description language.

In the trans-individual experience there are two levels:

  1. Emotional experience level identical in all the traditions of one type and stratum;
  2. Expression and description level which is different in different traditions, because the adept always transfers his experience in the categories and terms of his doctrine existing, in its turn, within the limits of a certain culture.

However, here we face the question about the principle possibility of describing or sign expressing the peak trans-personal experience. It was already characterized above as the non-conceptual experience, but any description is nothing but the act of conceptualization. We will try to answer this question.

Experience cannot be described at the time of immediate emotional experiencing it by the mystic, but can be expressed by different ways, both verbal (negative definition, symbolic description and even interpretation in philosophic notions) and non-verbal (up to the famous Zen stick stroke). Mystics often mix the paradox- nature notions of mystical experience and its non-communicability. Nevertheless, they are eager to express their experience by quite certain and specific ways.

Mystical experience cannot be completely conceptualized and cannot be fully expressed verbally while it is directly experienced, but when experience becomes a part of memory, the situation can change. Then a mystic possesses words and notions in order to speak about his experience in the terms of his tradition and culture.

At the same time it can be noted that in any case the non-conceptualized experience can be conceptualized at least as non-conceptualized (as such a definition itself is the form of conceptualization). Consequently, the non-conceptual character of trans-personal feelings cannot be absolute. So, it evidently can be said that the peak transpersonal experience is not conceptual, but to a certain extent (or relatively), it can be conceptualized.

Sometimes this problem becomes a fact understood in the religious-mystical traditions themselves. So, the Tibet Buddhists always understood the exact interrelation between two ways of cognition, i.e. between the knowledge received through critical investigation (which supposes using notions and conceptualization) and the superior form of experienced comprehension (super-normal transpersonal state of Enlightenment, or Awakening) which was assessed as the direct, extra-language and non-conceptual one. A certain contradiction between these two ways of cognition often became the source of a serious discussion between doctrines in the Tibet Buddhist tradition.

Besides, the religious doctrine can have (and usually has) the function of impulsion for doing psychic-technical practice: e.g. if Brahmanism says that liberation from the world of sansara (birth-death) is possible only through the realization of the identity of Atman and Brahman achieved due to Yoga practice, this naturally creates a sufficient motive for a Brahmanist’s conversion to this practice.

Thus, while the feelings are identical, their descriptions can be various being to a great extent conditioned by the context of the culture ‘a mystic’ belongs to; (it is clear that a Christian mystic doesn’t describe his feelings in terms of Brahmanism, but tries to find images and notions of his own Christian tradition).

So, the feelings of Unity with the Principle Origin is interpreted by an Advaitavedaist as the identity of the individual-subjective (Atman) and universal (Brahma) ‘Ego’; by a Buddhist — as the realization of Dharma Buddha Body in which all the oppositions and any distinction disappear; by a Christian – as the soul elevation to its belonging to Divine Unity (“belonging to Divine Essence” according to Apostle Peter).

One more example: Compare the description of zyan’ sin’ state (kensyo, Japanese; “nature vision” – the Buddha’s vision of nature as the united nature of the adept himself and everything existing) in Zen and satva atma bhava state in Kashmir Shivaism. You’ll see that all of them are practically identical; this is the description of experiencing the objective reality as existing ‘I(Ego)’ and experiencing ‘I(Ego)’ as the totality of objective reality, removing any edge, any alienation between ‘ego’ and objective reality. But the Kashmir Shivaists use the Hindu doctrine of Atman, eternal ‘ego’, while the Zen supporters use as if the opposite Buddha doctrine about ‘non-soul’ rejecting Atman.

It is interesting that the Indian religious tradition, with its special attention to psychic practice and transpersonal experiencing, understood this fact quite well. This became apparent in the inclination to ‘via negativa’ – the negative description of the peak feeling: what is experienced isn’t expressed and described in principle – ‘neither this, nor that’ (‘neti, neti’ – the great phrase of Upanishadas).

The same tendency to the negative description can be found at Christian contemplators, especially Eastern ones, but in Indian traditions it is expressed stronger and more definitely. In Indian religions, the method itself of describing the superior states was called ‘the semantic destruction of language’ – when the description using the symbols accepted in the culture is changed by the negative (sometimes by even paradox up to grotesque as in Zen Buddhism) or even by pointing to the conditionality of the negative description.

Of course, there always were people who trying to describe adequately and express their transpersonal experience verbally went beyond the frame of their tradition and sometimes quite consciously. Then, they often became the founders of new traditions. The brightest example of that is Buddha who from the very beginning was a non-orthodox hermit-sramana, and who refused from the Brahman description of his experience. But in this case, his description and conclusions made from it also stayed within the accepted all-Indian cultural tradition.

Transpersonal, or mystical, experience is not a religion, if we understand religion as some system of doctrines, beliefs and cults. The notions ‘transpersonal experience’ and ‘religion’ are not only synonyms, but even not always relative as a part and a whole. In different religious traditions, the attitude to transpersonal experience was not the same: in Oriental religions it crowned their religious practice, whereas in Christianity (especially in Catholicism) church treated ‘mystics’ with suspicion being concerned that a mystic values his experience higher than church dogmas and interprets it in the way which doesn’t fit the church dogmatic doctrine.

In the history of religions, transpersonal experience acted as the generating pulse, and later its interpretations were surrounded by dogmatic items, doctrine speculations, cult practice forms and church institutes which, in fact, changed the original transpersonal experience.

The mystics’ feelings are connected with such consciousness states in which a human perceive time, space, causality, relations between a part and a whole, etc differently in comparison with ‘usually’; he imagines the world being much more complicated, multidimensional and at the same time a single whole than in his ‘normal’ experience. Now a natural question appears: what is consciousness if it is able to change (to such an extent) the world itself perceived by humans? Or is the world we perceive in a usual state just the derivative from a certain consciousness state which differs from the world of ‘changed states’ by general set-up conditions only?

Really, in usual life we also face ‘the changed consciousness states’. For instance, what beauty theoreticians call ‘aesthetical enjoyment’ is nothing but the form of a changed consciousness state. It is well known that music possess the brightest psychedelic (changing psychics) function; we consider the strong aesthetic feeling under the influence of music as good favouring catharsis.

All cultures and civilizations knew and sanctified the ways of achieving such states (from musical influence to fly agaric); so, the changed consciousness states are quite familiar to us, though in our consciousness most of them are not connected with any psychopathology.

But the intensity of feelings is another case. The changed consciousness states of high intensity can attract, frighten and interest psychologists and psychiatrists; some of them are associated with sanctity for religious people, the other with pathology or insanity. There is a known joke reflecting the duality of religious consciousness during secularization: “Why is it so? When we are speaking to God, it’s a prayer, but when God is speaking to us, it’s schizophrenia.” In the modern society, it is quite characteristic when a pious Christian is crying while reading about ecstasy and apparition of ancient and medieval saints, but he immediately visits a psychiatrist when such a thing happens to him.

More precisely, the changed consciousness states being the content of transpersonal experience are the consciousness states which differ from ‘ordinary’ ones and are characterized by the intensity of feelings. Not long ago, the word combination ‘the changed consciousness states’ supposed some abnormality of those feelings relative to everyday experience and ordinary psychic states. However, every psychologist or non-dogmatic psychiatrist understands the conditionality of such terms as a norm in psychiatry.

Besides, the investigations of post-modern philosophers, especially M.Fuko, showed how the society itself forms its images of a norm and pathology in psychiatry. Here is an interesting extract from his investigation:

Psychopathology of XIX century (and the modern one also) consider that its place and measures taken are stipulated by the relation with ‘homo naturae’ (an ordinary person) who precedes to any disease experience. Really, such ‘a normal person’ is an intellective form-factor; if it has any place, it is not in the nature space, but within the system which is built on the identity of ‘a socius’ (a social person) and the law subject. Consequently, a crazy person is recognized as such not due to the illness moving him to the norm periphery, but because our culture gave him a place in the intersection point of the social isolation sentence and the judicial knowledge defining the legal capacity of law subjects. Only when the synthesis of these aspects became stable, the ‘positive’ science about mental diseases was possible, as well as those humane feelings which rose the insane person up to the level of a human being. In some sense, this synthesis is a prior definite base for all our psychopathology with its pretension of scientific character.

But is a so-called ‘normal person’ really so sane and normal? Due to the works of psychoanalysts, it can be doubted.

The word combination ‘the changed consciousness states’ are getting more and more the single terminological meaning and neutral colour; in the special literature it is defined with the abbreviation CCS. It is possible to claim that these states have nothing to do with psychiatry if they don’t influence the personality destructively and cause its degradation.

Historically, mystics’ feelings influenced the spiritual and intellectual culture intensively and didn’t degrade the personalities of these mystics (under mystics here we mean Indian yogis, Sufi-Moslemins, Daoist hermits, Orthodox and Catholic ascetics.

So, classical Yoga supposes the following abilities (sources) of human cognition.

  • Authoritative evidence
  • Perception (cognition with physiological sense organs)
  • Paranormal perception (cognition with thin sense organs)
  • Conclusion (mental cognition)
  • Irrational or spiritual cognition (intuition, inspiration, insight)

Now, let’s define how classical Yoga understands the process of cognition, i.e. the interrelation between the object and subject of cognition.

First of all, in the texts of Yoga theoreticians it is pointed that the cognition object really exists and isn’t a simple mental construction or a subjective creation like images in your dream. The object is identical to itself when it is perceived by different consciousnesses. But the contents of these consciousnesses can be non-identical to each other. In other words, while studying the same object different people can receive their different subjective images.

The reality of cognized objects and reality of cognizing subjects (consciousnesses) are quite different realities. Every subject has one’s own subjective reality of consciousness or psychic world (buddhi). That is why the same object can create different feelings and mental images in the consciousnesses of two different people.

According to Patandjali, an object doesn’t depend on the single consciousness. It is common for all individuals, Vyasa continued, and each individual has independent consciousness. As a result of their combination, i.e. the object and the individual’s consciousness, cognition appears, i.e. the experience of Universal Spirit.

Why do people have different images of the object while studying it (different contents of consciousness)? According to sankhya metaphysics, every object is the product of complicated interactions of three guns which are constantly moving. In the process of cognition, the object interacts with the subject’s individual consciousness depending on some additional conditions.

For instance, as Vyasa wrote, it depends on the subject’s ‘righteousness’, or in a broader sense, on the purity of consciousness (the influence of affects making it dirtier) which should reflect the object’s essence as full as possible and without distortions (‘being coloured’). Not every consciousness can do it and not always. In this way people get distorted images.

To explain the process of cognition visually, Patandjali and Vyasa used the metaphor of ‘crystal’s (i.e. consciousness’s) coloration’ by the colored support under it (i.e. the object of cognition). Let’s consider it in some more detail.

Patandjali says, the object will be cognized or will not depending on the fact if it influences the consciousness or does not. It is obvious and quite understandable – the process supposes some interaction between the object and subject of cognition.

Sensory objects, according to Vyasa’s explanation, attract consciousness like magnet attracts iron and ‘colour’ it according to their peculiarities. What does ‘colour’ mean? It means they influence it. And it (subject) is filled with this influence.

Vyasa comments the metaphor of ‘coloration’ in the first of his treatise. Like crystal is coloured by the thing serving as its support and gets the form of its coloured support, consciousness ‘coloured’ by the objects it rests upon in its cognitive activity as if assimilates by the object and is manifested as the visibility of the object’s own form.

For instance, if consciousness is ‘coloured’ by some thin element, it is assimilated by it and is manifested as this thin element’s own form. If it is ‘coloured’ by rough element, it reflects the rough form. So, the sensory or mental object consciousness is coloured by becomes cognized.

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