The Philosophy and Psychology of Yoga Practice
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 7: Our Psychological Condition

Almost bidding goodbye to cosmological discussions, we now turn to individual psychology, which aspect of study follows as a natural consequence from the fact that the individual cannot be outside the universe. The so-called individual is a cross-section of the cosmos in a miniature microscopic form; in a microcosmic form, we will find in ourselves everything that is in the world. As the Upanishad picturesquely puts it, the vast sky with the Sun, the Moon, the stars, the clouds, the lightning and the rain, is also within us. Nothing that is outside in the vast creation is absent in our own individual personality. We contain potentialities of everything that is vastly expanded in the form of this perceptible universe. Thus, we may say that we ourselves are the switchboard of the whole cosmos. In a mysterious manner, we can operate the whole world from within ourselves. This is perhaps the reason why ancients have proclaimed again and again, “Know thyself, and thou shalt know everything at the same time.” “Know thyself and be free.” The knowledge of one’s own self is at once the knowledge of the whole of creation, because in our own selves is the latency of the cosmos.

It is very important, therefore, for every one of us to know something of our own selves now that we have briefly and in a broad sense understood that we are inextricably connected with the universe. The subtlety of this subject of individual psychology arises on account of a peculiar relationship that obtains between us and the universe. By ‘individual psychology’ I do not mean Adlerian psychology of the West, though the same term is used in connection with Adler's doctrine. What I mean by the term ‘individual psychology’ is the system of the internal operations in any particular individual, and it may include the psychology of Freud, Adler, Jung, and everyone else.

The individual – yourself, myself and every other self – is a complicated arrangement. All the layers of the cosmos are imbedded in us, inasmuch as it has been made clear that we cannot stand outside the world and look at it as a stranger. We are wound up with everything that we see. The layers of the universe are also the various levels of our own personality.

Studies in psychology in India, and in the East generally, have been a little different from those studies conducted in the West. Western psychology has mostly confined itself to the waking condition of the human consciousness. It is only latterly, when psychoanalysts came to the forefront, that they began to discover that there is something deeper than the conscious. Before the coming of Freud in the West, the concern of psychology was only limited to the conscious level. The perceptual field was the field of psychology, but psychopathological conditions which were studied later on brought people face to face with deeper facts of the human individual, and it was noticed that the human individual is not merely a consciously operated mind. There are hidden impulses and so on, as perhaps you all know.

Psychological studies in the East are mostly based on profound philosophical considerations. Ethics and psychology in the East are rooted in the metaphysical doctrines – or, perhaps, the spiritual ideals – they have set before themselves. Western psychology or even analysis has been mostly empirical in the sense that it was concerned with human society, and nothing more. But Eastern psychology was not limited only to the operation within the field of human relationship, though it included that also because human life is considered as something exceeding the limitations of social relationship merely. Though we are units in human society, we are not merely that. We are not merely units who go to a polling booth and cast our vote, though that is also one of our functions. We are a greater mystery than what obtains in mere social considerations, economic relationships or political involvements, in spite of the fact that we are political citizens, socially connected individuals, and also involved economically. We are more than all these things.

The psychology of the East, especially as it could be studied from the point of view of observations made in India, can be gathered from the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita, and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These three texts give us some hint as to the way in which psychology has been studied in India. It has been considered as a branch of a vaster study in the light of the aspirations of the human individual. We are connected to so many facets of our longings that psychology cannot be considered as an independent branch of learning. Psychology is one of the facets of our studies, a very important phase no doubt, but it does not exhaust the entire field of knowledge.

The way in which we contact the world in our perceptions and our experiences is the factor that conditions our feelings and even our general individual outlook in life. The way in which we contact the world is the framework under which we operate in every aspect of our life. Just as the scaffolding of a building will give us an idea of the character of the building that is to be raised, we may also know the type of experience we can expect in this world by the type of understanding we have of it. What sort of understanding are we provided with in regard to the world of perception? What do we know about the world?

As far as the common man is concerned, or rather every one of us is concerned, the world stands outside. For all practical purposes, it is an outsider. Whatever be our rational conclusions and logical deductions in our classrooms, the man in the street may be considered as the specimen of the manner in which the man in the world thinks. Study in libraries and research in laboratories do not operate in our practical life because the natural constitution of the human personality weighs so heavily upon one’s experience that it exceeds the power of our understanding, our reasoning and our scientific researches. Thus, we may say that man is mostly instinctive and not rational because the instinctive actions of human nature seem to outweigh rational considerations in public life and even in private affairs mostly. Why does this happen?

In a very brief observation made by Patanjali in his Sutras, we are told that the modus operandi of our knowledge of the world outside – the means of communication that we establish between ourselves and the universe – is itself involved in a basic error. All logic, which is the framework of rational operations, is also therefore based on a fundamental error. Thus, there seems to be some point in our being told again and again that intellect, reason, or understanding in terms of sense observations, cannot enable us to contact reality. The basic error which is pointed out by this little statement in the Yoga Sutras is that the world cannot rightly be regarded as an object of perception. The basic error is only this much. It is simple and easy to understand that we are forced to consider the world as an object of sense perception, and that intellectual understanding and everything based on sense perception follows from this consideration.

But the truth is that the world is not such an object. It is related to us in a different way altogether, and inasmuch as this basic error in perception has become the normal way of perception, everything that follows from it as a consequence also has become a part of our nature. We act and react in the form of likes and dislikes in respect of things outside. It is not possible to avoid these results that follow from our perception of the world as an outside something. Anything that is outside has to be related to us by means of actions and reactions of the psyche. When we speak of the world of perception, we mostly limit ourselves only to that little area of the world with which our psyche is concerned, our desires are concerned, or our personal relationships are concerned. The world is larger than can be accommodated by our psychic relations; but each person has his own or her own world. I mind my business within the jurisdiction of my mental operations, and the world beyond that – whether the world is there outside or not – is not my concern. So, we are tied up in a psychic world more than a physical world. The physical world is, no doubt, the arena of our existence and our activities, but our loves and hatreds – our bondages, properly speaking – are confined to our psychic world.

What is the psychic world? There are two kinds of world experience – namely, that which is related to things as they are, and that which is related to things as we see them. In Vedanta studies in India, this distinction is very important.– These two kinds of experience are known as Ishvara-srishti and jiva-srishti. These terms imply the creation as it is in itself, and creation as it means to us. Gold and silver, money and property, persons and things, are something in themselves, but they are something else to people who are related to them. An establishment of a peculiar personal relationship gives value to things which cannot be associated with their own independent nature. The objects which mean something to one person may not mean anything to somebody else. The meaning that we read into objects is a psychic operation, and the objects themselves are what they stand in their own status. I may like you, or I may not like you. My liking or not liking you depends upon the way in which I interpret you, understand you and read meaning into you, but that is totality different from what you yourself may be in your own status. Under different conditions such as my moods, my longing, my desire, my prejudices, my instincts, my conditioning factors, I may react in a particular manner in respect of persons and things outside, but I may not react in a similar manner tomorrow on account of a change in the very constitution of my psyche and the entire apparatus of perception. So, we find that there is an important distinction between the psychic world in which we live and the physical world which seems to be the object of scientific studies. We do not look upon people as scientific objects. They are fathers or mothers, brothers or sisters, husbands or wives; that is all we can understand from people. But scientific observation of the very same object may not have to consider these relationships or sentiments.

Thus, the study of human psychology takes us into the consideration of this distinction that has to be drawn between the status that objects enjoy in themselves and the meaning that we read into them. Every one of us is compelled to read meaning into things; and here is our problem. The problem of human life in the world is precisely the problem of demarcating between the psychic world of each individual and the world as it could be in itself. For the time being, we need not concern ourselves with the nature of the world as it is in itself. Let it be whatever it is. Let us focus on how we understand the world because, for us, the world is that which we understand in our own minds and that in regard to which we act and react. This also brings into highlight a consideration of the reason why we should act and react in this manner.

Individuals are constituted differently. When we speak of individuals here in this classroom, perhaps we refer to human beings only. But the universe is not exhausted by human beings; there are many things other than men and women. All discrete individuals, organisms of every type, should be considered as percipients of the world in one way or the other. According to the tradition known to Indian culture, there are some millions of species of individuals, and it is not that the whole universe is occupied by man only. Perhaps man is not the most important creation, though it is often believed that he is the apex of God’s creation. There are wonders which exceed human understanding. The Upanishads highlight the presence of realms superior to the human world – the realm of angels, divinities, gods and supermasters, before whom we may look like swine, insects, etc.

Hence, the individuality that is the subject of our study is a principle of understanding the very location of perceiving anything that is external. The fantasy in which we are involved right from our birth to death, by which we regard a thing as totally outside us, creates certain undulations in our psyche – disturbances which try to set themselves in order by a reaction – and that is the kind of life we live in the world. All our day-to-day activities are certain reactions we set up in relation to things, to adjust and adapt ourselves to the conditions prevailing outside. Therefore, we may say that throughout our life we are in a state of tension; we are not natural any day because we have to adjust ourselves before other people. We have to put on a circumstance of our psyche which should not come in conflict with the presence of another individual or another circumstance in life, whatever it be. This necessity that we feel to adapt and adjust ourselves to outer circumstances from moment to moment is a great strain on us, and so we are tension-ridden and emotionally disturbed individuals.

No person can be said to have real peace of mind. Though it appears we have some peace, it is mistaking the disease itself for health. When we are sick for years and years, we seem to acquiesce ourselves to that condition and pass it for a state of health. The human psyche reacts in respect of outer circumstances, and the instruments that the psyche manufactures for different types of reactions in respect of the world outside are what we call the psychic apparatus. Just as warriors have various weapons – guns, knives, swords, spears and what not, as necessity demands – so is the instrument that the psyche manufactures. According to the condition that we have to pass through in this world, we manufacture the type of apparatus to deal with it. These interesting antennae of our psyche are the well-known nomenclatures in psychology.

In the West we have, broadly, the section-wise thinking of the human psyche in terms like ‘understanding’, ‘willing’, ‘feeling’, and there the matter ends. Understanding, willing and feeling are the principle subjects of psychological studies in the West. But, though we may broadly categorise our functions in this manner, we seem to be more complicated in ourselves than can be visualised by these categories only. There is, coming back to the point of Indian psychology, the basic presupposition of human nature, namely, self-assertion. We are, principally, self-assertive individuals. Before we do anything else, we first assert ourselves. “I am something; this has to be accepted first. If you cannot accept that I am something, especially as I understand myself, then I cannot be your friend. It is not enough that you accept that I am; you also have to accept that I am as I understand myself.” This is a type of super-arrogation which each one foists upon oneself, and this is why there is tension in society. How could it be possible that everyone would agree with everyone else in this type of assertion that we should understand them only in the way they understand themselves, and they should also understand us similarly? If the whole world thinks in this manner, how could there be any peace of mind? Yet, we are somehow living in this hell. We are somehow getting on, dragging the bullock cart of this body through this mire of life, day and night, and feeling that every day is weighing heavy like an iron hill on our heads. This is not life; this is a great torture that we are undergoing in the form of living in the world. Why should this torture be? Can we free ourselves from this illness we call life? The way in which we are living in this world can be considered as a great malady that has grown over us, with which we have somehow accommodated ourselves in such a way that the dacoit has become our friend, because we cannot escape his clutches.

Yoga psychology goes deep into this matter and probes into the secrets of our sorrows. Why should we like and dislike things? What do we mean by saying, “I like this” and “I do not like this”? Why should this situation be there, especially as it does not seem to be a universal feature associated with particular objects? Why is there this peculiar irreconcilable attitude of the individual by way of assertions of this type? And why do we cling to our body and fear death, in spite of these difficulties with which we have to pass our life? Whatever may be our sorrows, let hell itself descend on us, we would like to live in this world. We would like to prolong life as much as possible by any amount of medication and treatment, even if we are rotting with an illness that cannot be cured. What is this clinging to existence in this physical frame? Why does it arise? This is briefly studied in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Broadly, in greater detail, we are given information about it in the Upanishads, and there is something about it in the Bhagavadgita also.

As I mentioned, our personality is to some extent a cross-section of what we see in the world. If we cut a tree crosswise, we will find rings and patterns in that cut piece which we can find in any other piece that has been cut from the tree in a similar manner. We are likely to mistake ourselves for this gross body only, mostly speaking. In our daily life we identify ourselves with this body only – this bony frame, this flesh and this entire physiological structure. Not only that, we do not believe, even for a moment, that this physical body is not a solid substance. Firstly, it is not true that we are only this body. Secondly, it is also not true that this is one compact structure. It is an arrangement of little pieces of different types of elements – call them physical, physiological, chemical or whatever – and as a house is built of brick, mortar and many other things, this body, which appears to be a solid substance, is really constituted of little pieces, organisms, cells, and such stuff as would make us feel ashamed of ourselves; yet, our consciousness gets so attached to this medley of arrangement we call the physical body that it looks like a compact indivisible substance. As the cement that we use to hold bricks together may make us feel that the whole building is one indivisible mass, notwithstanding the fact it is made up of little pieces, the pervading character of an indivisible consciousness within us, which permeates through every cell of the body, makes us feel that we are one compact whole from head to foot.

The physical body is one vesture of the individual makeup. In Sanskrit we call this annamayakosha, a vesture that is principally constituted of the food that was eaten by our parents and also the food that we eat every day. Annamaya means constituted of material substance; this is the body. But, for reasons we have observed sometime back, we cannot be this body only. We noticed that for certain important reasons this body cannot be 'we'. We have more important things to consider than the requirements of the body. For example, our psychological requirements are of greater consequence to us than the needs of the body. Don't we think that the satisfaction of the mind has a greater significance for us than the satisfaction of the body? If the mind is agitated, how could the body be satisfied with any delicious diet? We lead a mental life more than a physical life. People live for honour and respect more than for food and drink, as we know very well. We cannot brook being bereaved of honour and respect for a moment, though we may physically fast for months. This shows the extent to which we are psychic individuals more than physical bodies; and our psychic individuality is, again, a makeup of different particulars such as understanding, self-arrogation, volition, feeling, emotion, love, and the like.

The instincts that we generally refer to in our studies are vitally connected with our emotions. When the instincts operate, the emotions automatically operate also. The form in which instincts act and react, or operate, is the way in which emotions function in us. Emotion is an undulation in the psyche, waves in the sea of our psychic personality. We are mainly, basically, instinctive, and therefore emotional. We are prone to be emotionally disturbed more than intellectually or rationally convinced. It may be difficult to convince us intellectually or rationally, but it is easy to disturb us emotionally. In a minute we can be disturbed by certain events that can take place or a word that is uttered. A word cannot convince us rationally, but a word can upset us for months and years. Therefore, certain students of psychology and even political science and sociology have concluded that the human individual, whatever be the rationality that he or she may claim to have, is emotional and instinctive at the root – which is not a great credit for us. This is another way of saying that we have not become wholly human. We are hiding the secrets of our nature, which is not human, for the sake of appearing human for the purpose of an outer existence in social and political fields.

But occasionally, even in our political associations and social relationships, the hidden secrets come out. We cannot always hide ourselves. This hidden nature of ours is a problem for every one of us and, therefore, we become problems to others also. Each is a problem to another in this world, and so each has a fear of the other. Everyone is afraid of everyone else; this is why we want governments, police, army, bodyguards, and locks and bolts on our doors. We cannot wholly trust another individual. Though we can partially accommodate ourselves to the belief that everything in the world is in a friendly atmosphere, we are terribly afraid of even the movement of a leaf, and that is why we guard ourselves very carefully with every blessed thing possible. This is the law of the jungle that seems to be insinuating itself into our blood, and if we are to relate this circumstance of our present life with the doctrine of biological evolution, which tells us that we have come from lower species – from matter to life, from life to mind, and from mind to intellect, or rather, more prosaically, we have come from vegetable to animal and from animal to man – we may conclude the animal and the vegetable are still with us and in us, in an important proportion.

We are biologically like vegetables and instinctively like animals, but rationally we propose to be like human beings. The characteristic of an animal is selfishness; the whole world is within itself only. For the beast, the world is only prey, food for its physical sustenance, and it has no consideration for another. The character of Homo sapiens is supposed to be the capacity to understand another as one understands one’s own self. Where we are not prepared to understand another as we understand ourselves, where we are not prepared to be as charitable to another as we are charitable to ourselves, to that extent we may say we are not human beings, we are still animals. An animal is not so considerate; when it is hungry, it will eat anybody. If man also can eat his own brother under pressure of circumstances, we may say that the biological evolution has not been complete in the intellectual evolution of man.

The Upanishad tells us that there are higher stages of evolution than the stage man has reached. Darwin’s theory is not a complete picture. It is not that we have come from vegetable to animal, from animal to man, and there the matter ends. Nothing ends. The very fact that we are still aspiring for something more than what is available in human life shows that evolution is not complete. We are still on the journey. We are pilgrims on the path, and the Upanishads are guiding lights for us here, which tell us that there are realms and realms beyond the human kingdom, that our aspiration will not cease and our finitude cannot be exhausted, and we can never be happy until Supreme Universality is attained.

Our present psychological condition does not seem to be wholly ready for the reception of divine light. We cannot so easily become yogis unless we become wholly human beings first. It is difficult to believe that an animal can jump to God at one stroke; there seems to be a necessity to pass through various stages of evolution. The animal has to become man. Are we really men? Yes, perhaps, if we can convince ourselves that this humanitarian feeling is present in us and we are not mostly animal-ridden.

This is a little light that I tried to throw upon the way in which human nature seems to be involved in the operations of the psyche, and loves and hatreds are included in this circumstance.