Psychology and Spirituality

On a Quest to Understand Consciousness

Psychology and spirituality, prima facie, appear as two diverging fields. The concepts formed in psychology are based on empirical observations and reasoning and the concept of Ultimate Reality does not fit into its framework. On the contrary, in spirituality the concepts do not seem to have underpinning of reasoning and empirical observations, the observations are internal, subjective experiences or mystical experiences. The concept of Ultimate Reality is central to spirituality. Despite so many basic differences in psychology and spirituality what binds them together and what is that strong bond which has been carrying two disciplines together and has become even stronger in modern times after the comeback of spirituality in the West. This bond is of ‘mind and consciousness’. Both exist in reality and both occupy supreme position in psychology and spirituality. Within the domain of mind, there is also a concept of ‘the self’, which is also of central importance in psychology and spirituality and that determines the behaviour of a person. The concept of ‘the self’ is much older than the history of psychology. Until middle of nineteenth century, the discipline of psychology was non-existent and its concepts such as mind, consciousness, the self, human behavior and ethics were discussed in a branch of philosophy. But as  new concepts and new experimental methods began to develop in Natural Sciences, the empiricism of science outweighed the rationalism of philosophy and with efforts of 3 W’s; Wilhelm Wundt, William James and Watson, Psychology came into existence, just 150 years ago! Psychology treats ‘consciousness’ as a literary term and the ‘self-consciousness’ is a personality trait in which a person is excessively conscious of her / his looks, appearance or manners, which when escalated can become a psychological problem. In positive context, a person can be self-conscious of his weaknesses and tries to overcome it by improving himself and in turn achieves boosted self-confidence. Further, details of ‘self-consciousness’ can be found in any text books of psychology.

Apart from the psychological usage of ‘self-consciousness’. There is a philosophical and spiritual usage of ‘self-consciousness’. It is the awareness that, one exists as an individual being. From ‘self-consciousness’ derives a concept ‘the self’. It is a congregation of one’s life-experiences, learning, values, thinking and everything that is stored in subconscious mind and it determines the behaviour of a person. I have specifically underlined the meaning of ‘the self’ because many other religious and spiritual interpretations exist in literature. Since psychology has emerged from a branch of philosophy, it is imperative to discuss thoughts of western philosopher on ‘mind, consciousness and the self’. The most ancient concept of the ‘the self’ can be found in the aphorism ‘know thyself’ that is inscribed in the forecourt of temple of Apollo at Delphi Greece. The interpretation of this aphorism attributed to Socrates is as follows: ‘We should examine our life, as the unexamined life is not worth living’. Persian scholar and physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna) suggested that self-awareness (consciousness) is not sensory in nature, a view different from psychology and neuroscience, which treat consciousness as related to sensory system of body only. He devised a thought experiment to prove it. ‘A person floating in air and cut off from all sensory organs can still be aware of his self-existence’. Italian scholar, thinker and theologian Thomas Aquinas stated that ‘ for self-awareness, only the presence (existence) of mind is required and no sensory organs are needed’. Great mathematician and philosopher Rene’ Descartes said ‘I think and therefore I am’.

In Hinduism the concepts of ‘the self, mind and consciousness’ has been existing since prehistoric times. One of the most significant messages of Bhagwad Gita (the most read Hindu scripture worldwide) it that ‘self-knowledge’ (Atma-Gyan i.e. knowledge of ‘the self’) alone eradicates misery; self-knowledge alone is the means to highest bless and that self-knowledge alone can lead to perfection in life. According to Advait Vedanta, the mind is an internal sense organ (in Sanskrit Antarindriya) which senses the presence and content of thoughts in a similar way it senses signal from five sense organs. Every normal person can know and can communicate to the external world what thoughts are running in the mind. It sounds paradoxical that modern psychology does not recognise mind as a sensory organ.    As a scientist my analysis is as follows: The thought is a phenomenon in mind, which is of subjective nature. It is not possible empirically to measure a thought i.e. to read a thought within specified accuracy, although its presence can be detected by its physiological effects. On the other hand, functions of five sensory organs can be verified empirically. For example, if N number observers are observing a flower, then all the N number of observers will describe the flower in the same way within considerable accuracy. This is not true in case of a thought because the thought is observed by a single person who also describes it. His description cannot be verified. This is not a true empirical method of observation in natural science. Inspite of the fact that mind exists in reality and thought process is a natural phenomenon, the functioning of mind is not subject of study in natural sciences and still a philosophical issue.

For last three decades, neuroscience is playing the role of a objective science to study a subjective phenomenon, the mind and consciousness in a hope to get a treatment for mental disorders which appear to be consciousness related, such as schizophrenia, with help of brain imaging techniques such as functional MRI and PET scan. Neuroscientists are trying to understand consciousness in terms of neural activities induced by a train of Action Potentials, triggered by a stimulus through computer computation and modelling. Even if some valid pattern of neural activity is recorded and its relation with stimulus is also established through some algorithm, how it can provide any clue about consciousness is a big question. Scientists do not even know the causal property of consciousness: Is it a ‘cause’ or is it an ‘effect’. Though large number of papers on research on consciousness is being published in scientific journals and many dedicated research institutes for study of consciousness have come into existence, scientists are very far from understanding consciousness. Some scientists are sceptical while others who are optimistic say it may take another 100 years to understand consciousness.

According to me, if a scientist is exploring the nature of consciousness, he should have a first-hand experience of it, after all it is so easily accessible. We, all are, in very close touch with consciousness even then scientists are relying heavily on technologies such as fMRI, PET scan etc. Most of neuroscientists are materialistic who believe that the consciousness emanates from matter and their entire approach rests on this proposition. Whereas the great scientists who were also spiritual have the opposite views. According to Max Planck, originator of quantum theory and founder of Modern Physics: “[I regard consciousness as fundamental, I regard matter as a derivative of consciousness ……]” Eugene Wigner, who laid the foundation for theory of symmetry in quantum mechanics stated “ It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum theory in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.” American neurosurgeon who experienced the Near Death Experience  asserted that consciousness is non material. Thinker E.F. Schumacher writes in his book “ Guide To The Perplexed” for the materialistic scientists “There is need for such scientists to take recourse to seeking self-knowledge of inner world.” In this scenario, spirituality can play decisive role because the consciousness is the central theme there. The experiences of spiritual practitioners and neuroscientific experiments on these practitioners can reveal a great deal of information about consciousness. By spiritual practitioner, I mean those mediators who have attained the extreme meditative states such as Samadhi or those who have fully awakened their Kundalini because these meditators have full control on consciousness and they can play with it. Also, these meditators can maintain a meditative state for sufficiently long time required for experimentation. This idea prompted me to pursue  spirituality  very  seriously and in fact, views of Max Planck and Eugene Wigner about consciousness have greatly influenced and inspired my spiritual journey. Now, I find that ‘Mind and Body’ is a great laboratory to study consciousness. I remember, during the school day I used to attend Satsangs with my father and Guruji used to tell “whatever you are searching in outer world is present in the inner world and there is need to open the inner eye”. At that time, I could not understand the hidden meaning of this piece of preaching but now I am able to understand the hidden meaning  and also experience the truth of it.                                                                                                                     


In the beginning, I found spirituality very perplexing because many of its concepts I found irrational, unrelated and even contradictory with each other and out of tune with science. Soon, I realised that spirituality is an umbrella term which encompasses various activities and concepts and it might be the reason why spirituality could never be defined uniquely. I treat spirituality as having many dimensions so that it could be studies systematically without perplexing any one. These dimensions are as follows:

  1. Religious Dimension
  2. Tantric Dimension
  3. Intellectual Dimension
  4. Personality Dimension
  5. Philosophical Dimension
  6. And the latest, Adhyaatmic Dimension

The ontological description of spirituality is very useful for a beginner for understanding and creating interest in the subject. I will be discussing these dimensions of spirituality in detail later in my posts in this blog, at present I am giving only a brief account of each dimension.

Religious Dimension

Though the spirituality has sprung from religion (by religion I mean institutionalised religions), the two are quite different from each other. There are two aspects of a religion. The first one deals with rituals, beliefs, prayer and services and majority of followers believe in performing  rituals  with a hope that by performing  rituals  God will be pleased and offer his blessings. This is the most prevalent aspect of a religion. The second aspect deals with preachings and improving the quality of life by subsuming the preachings. This second aspect of religion is related with spirituality but rituals and beliefs greatly affects the spiritual practices. For example in India, many schools of meditation teach concentration by chanting the names of deities or mantras. In ISCON devotees meditate on ‘Hare Krishna’ Mantra. The consumption of alcohol and non-vegetarian food is strictly prohibited following a belief of the religion.

Tantric Dimension

This dimension of spirituality has its root in religion but the focus is on attaining so-called spiritual powers ( and not the peace of mind ) by using various bizarre techniques as support for meditation ( called Sadhana in this dimension ) such as Yantras (instruments), animal sacrifice, use of taboo substances such as alcohol, meat, cannabis, maithuna (ritual sexual union). People who involve in this type of sadhana live ascetic and very disciplined life. Aghori Babas of India also practice similar spiritual techniques. They use human skull and human bones as yantra. They meditate on cremation grounds and smear cremation ashes on their body and allegedly consume human flesh of parts of body left unburnt. I also include in this dimension paranormal activities such as calling the spirit of dead person and claim treating some psychological disorders by tantric techniques. This dimension of spirituality is really mystical and its techniques are esoteric. There is no rational and scientific explanation for its activities and concepts.

Intellectual Dimensions

The intellectual dimension is the most popular dimension of spirituality, which has developed into billion dollar industry in America.  Spirituality is inherently experiential, but it is being presented as an intellectual discipline mainly through internet, where one can find tons of blogs on spirituality discussing mysticism, esoteric techniques, awakening, enlightenment, non-attachment and Samadhi state of meditation without having any experience of it. Bloggers use alluring text to impress and attract customers. They convince them about  large number of benefits of meditation. They are teaching various techniques of meditation with the aid of mobile apps, which is the only innovation in meditation by the West. But meditation is not only about learning different techniques of concentration: this  reduces stress, anxiety and depression only marginally and for short time. Long term peace of mind, equanimity and other health benefits are possible only when individual purifies his cognitive processes, overcomes  ego, becomes empathetic  and surrenders to the Ultimate Reality. Many brands of meditation with intellectual knowledge can be found in market of spirituality. These  brands are so powerful that they have made their entry into clinics and big hospitals of America despite the fact that American Medical Association has not accepted the claimed efficacy of this type of meditation and refused to recommend meditation for the treatment of mental disorders. As pointed out earlier that the commercial  form of meditation is a mere practice of concentration, a mental exercise and one should not expect the benefits or the results of an exercise as equivalent to that of a treatment. For example, a physical exercise may lower the glucose level in blood but can not cure the diabetes. A 2013 research by the scientists of John Hopkins University published in Journal of American Medical Association confirms this.

Personality Dimension

The personality dimension of spirituality is personal in nature. The seat of spirituality is in the mind of a person and not in literature. As I quoted earlier that most of great philosophers and scientists whom I have read were inherently spiritual which implies that persons are born spiritual. Not all great thinkers might have sat for meditation. They need not to either because they are spiritual by nature, by their thoughts and by their behaviours. All spiritual persons have almost the same personality traits. They are cool, reserved, calm, relaxed, stable, sober, serious, conscientious, imaginative, forthright, experimenting, self-sufficient, self-disciplined, kind and full of perseverance. These traits serve as markers on the scale of spirituality and by studying these traits in a person, the extent of spirituality in that person can be assessed. If I am asked to arrange the great thinkers on the scale of spirituality, then I would rank Max Planck on the top. Max Planck, father of modern physics and the originator of quantum theory was deeply spiritual and considered spirituality and science as the two sides of a coin. His thoughts were instrumental in my transformation from an atheist to what I am today. The potential and importance of spirituality in life and in science can be understood from some excerpts from his book titled ‘Where is Science Going?’ (In the following text word religion is used for spirituality).’’There can never be any real opposition between religion and science, for the one is the complement of others. Every serious and reflective person realises, I think, that the religious element in his nature must be recognised and cultivated if all powers of the human soul are to act together in perfect balance and harmony and indeed, it was not by accident that the greatest thinkers of all ages were deeply religious souls”.

He further writes his observation on complementary relation between spirituality and science. “The one does not exclude the other; rather they are complementary and mutual interacting. Man needs science as a tool of perception; he needs spirituality as a guide to action”.

Philosophical Dimension

Philosophical dimension deals with ethical aspects of spirituality and is very significant for the progress on spiritual path. Starting with Socrates, Aristotle, Stoic philosopher Epictetus, Kant, Rene Descartes and Spinoza posited their ethical systems and resolved the questions of human morality by defining the concepts such as ‘good and evil’, ‘right and wrong’, ‘Virtue and Vice’, ‘justice and Crime’. This is now an independent branch of philosophy known as Moral Philosophy and is related to Moral Psychology. The significance of moral Psychology in spirituality lies in the fact that when the behaviour and thoughts are ‘right’ (Positive), the wandering of mind is less and it is easy to focus the attention and for more duration of time, because there are no worries about the consequences. In Hindu Philosophy the place of ethical system is taken by Dharma (not to be mistaken for institutionalised religion). It is a Sanskrit word meaning Duty. Dharma is an inseparable part of Indian spirituality and not an intellectual discipline as in the West. In India Dharma was an essential part of Vedic education system because ancient scholars (the Rishis) realised that the spirituality and hence the meditation was incomplete without the knowledge of Dharma. This could be the reason why meditation was in such an advanced stage at that time. There is no place of Dharma in contemporary meditation and it is the reason why today the meditation is lacking behind very far from the original form of meditation as described in ancient scriptures. I will elaborate ‘Dharma’ in a separate post entitled ‘Dharma, Religion, Purusharth and Renunciation’.

Adhyaatmic Dimension of Spirituality

Adhyaatmic dimension of spirituality is the result of rigorous study of mind and consciousness with perspectives of psychology, physics neuroscience and Advait Vedanta through the practice of Yog. I am systematically advancing the on research on Yog with an objective of coalescing neuroscience, psychology and spirituality into a novel discipline.

To understand the Adhyaatmic dimension of spirituality it is necessary to know the real meaning of the word Adhyaatm. The word ‘Adhyaatmic’ should not be confused with ‘spiritual’. According to English dictionary both words are equivalent to each other, but in fact this is not so. The Sanskrit word Adhyaatma is a composite word comparising of two words ‘Adhya’ and ‘Atma’. The word ‘Adhya’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Adhyayan’ which is equivalent to English word ‘study’ or ‘to study’. The word ‘Atma’ is translated into English as ‘the self’. Thus the meaning of ‘Adhyaatma’ is ‘to study the self’. In this way ‘Adhyaatm’ is a discipline under which one studies the self through Yog to find out if his thoughts and behaviour are according to Dharma or not. Adhyaatm is very near to science and not connected to any religion, hence secular in nature. On the contrary, the word spirituality is derived from ‘spirit,’ the soul and has its roots in religion and so it is not secular in nature and unlike Adhyaatm, it is poorly defined word. In this way the word ‘Adhyaatm’ and ‘Spirituality’ convey altogether different information and meaning   therefore they cannot be equivalent to each other. I consider the translation of ‘Adhyaatm’ as ‘Spirituality’ in English as a serious etymological mistake. Therefore, in order to preserve the meaning of Adhyaatm I will continue to use this Sanskrit word as it is in the English text. The use of Sanskrit word in English language is inspired by the tradition of adopting Latin and Greek words in English text of science and it is a homage to ancient Hindu scriptures Vedas and Upnishads which are composed in Sanskrit and from where the present work is inspired. In fact carefully studying the Vedic literature reveals that in ancient India Adhyaatm was a discipline in the education system and Indian scriptures, Veds and Upnishads were the ‘Text Books’ of the discipline Adhyaatm. The purpose of Adhyaatm was to study the thoughts and behaviour of ‘the self’ in order to identify ‘Mental Distortions’  (known as Vikaras’ in sanskrit) and to rectify them through Yog. According to Vedanta there are five Vikaras of mind which are main obstacles in spiritual and physical progress of human beings. These are: (1) Kama (the Lust), wish to get or getting things unethically, in wrong way, (2) Krodha (the Anger, irritation), (3) Lobha (the Greed),(4) Moha (the Attachment with worldly things; money, property etc.),(5) Ahankar (the Ego), I am only right. During Yog, it is not possible to concentrate without overcoming those vikaras. These five vikaras are components of a single word of Sanskrit ‘Agyaan’ the nescience, lack of knowledge which is the cause of stress, anxiety and human suffering. In short, Adhyaatm is a way to overcome our shortcomings, to work with our full potential, and to live a happy life. Adhyaatm conjugates well with Humanistic Psychology. It teaches how to execute in practice the concept of ‘becoming fully functional person’ posited by psychologist Carl Rogers and the concept of ‘Self-actualisation’ put forward by Abraham Maslow. Rogers and Maslow posited their concepts but could not explain how to execute their concepts and now Adhyaatmic dimension will complete this task. One of the founders of modern psychology Wilhelm Wundt introduced the concept of ‘introspection’ in psychology, which is also a concept in Adhyaatm.

Adhyaatmic dimension of spirituality is a vast and multidisciplinary field encompassing psychology, neuroscience, technology, physics, electronic, philosophy of Advait Vedanta and understanding of religions. There is a complete theory of Adhyaatmic dimension of spirituality which can be referred to as Adhyaatmic Vigyan but I have chosen a simple name, Yog Science. There will be measurable parameters to monitor the progress of process of Yog and the theory of Yog also defines a parameter, a quotient and a mathematical expression which defines and quantifies the progress of Yog. Approximate value of this quotient can be measured experimentally by a device, specifically developed for this purpose. The device records the breathing pattern during the Yog and generates an output which is called EBG (Electro Breathing Graph) which is similar to ECG used for Cardiac investigation. A software analyses EBG and can assess the long term progress in Yog during a specified period of time. The device will be known as breathograph and it will be mandatory for all who opt to learn the Yog and for this reason the device is made very cost effective, costing less than an ordinary smart phone. The mental state of meditator recorded in EBG will be stored in the memory of smart phone and can be used later for comparison to assess the progress in Yog. This entire theoretical, experimental and technological development is an effort to present Yog as a discipline for academic learning and providing an alternative system to ancient and an ultimate tradition of teaching the Yog by Guru-Shishya Parampara which is not feasible in the present context.

Adhyaatmic discipline is not only about the scientific transformation of Yog it will also scrutinize earlier concepts and aspects of spirituality on a rational and scientific scale, in order to put forth a true, clear and easily understandable picture of spirituality. Unfortunately, there had been a tradition according to which earlier philosophers, spiritual gurus and religious authorities have intentionally presented spirituality a field of esoteric techniques, shrouded in secrecy; they made explanation of its concepts mind boggling and presented the path of spirituality an extremely difficult to follow and that it was meant for the privileged ones only, to prove themselves and present themselves as possessing supreme knowledge and supernatural powers. The scriptures in India on spirituality too are composed in the forms of verses with multiple meanings. There  has  never been any sincere and serious efforts for teaching Yog in a simplified manners for an attempt to make humanity free of stress, anxiety and suffering and to foster love among human beings. Unfortunately, all self-proclaimed spiritual gurus of India who popularised and exported meditation to West, only cultivated their personality in the name of meditation and piled up wealth. They only preached meditation(yog). Meditation should not a thing for preaching, it should be a thing for teaching:  This has been my sole motto and an inspiration force behind developing the science of Yog. Along with developing Adhyaatmic discipline, I am also constructing a Brain Mind model to explain psychological and transcendental functions of mind. During the construction of this model, I found psychology and spirituality converging into path, which may lead to understanding and explaining Consciousness.

NOTE: I thank Sri H.S. Vora, my friend and colleague from earlier organisation Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore who is collaborating with me in the development of technology and software of Breathograph. I am also looking for a collaboration from the field of experimental neuroscience for advancing this work further.