What Meditation/Mindfulness Does for Me – Quiet Stuff – Part 1
Charles T. Tart
“Subtle is significant” – Shinzen Young
Recently a meditation teacher colleague of mine asked me what practicing meditation did for me. Uncharacteristically, I was at a loss for words. Since I’m not a masochist, and I spend 15 to 30 or more minutes most days practicing some kind of meditation, it must be doing something for me that I value. Continuing to think about it, I think it does a variety of things but they are “quiet” sorts of things. I think there may be some people trying meditation and mindfulness in its various forms who may think, as I too often did, that I wasn’t getting anywhere with this mindfulness stuff, so I will occasionally write about the quieter effects, to share what I’ve learned and perhaps to encourage some of you.
When I first heard about meditation many years ago, I formed the expectation that it should do incredible things. This seemed a reasonable expectation, as descriptions of meditation and similar spiritual practices often talk of wonderful outcomes. In my reality, though, not much of anything happened when I tried to meditate. But I figured I was new at it and didn’t really know how to proceed. Reinforcing this feeling that I wasn’t getting anywhere with meditation, I received the gift of a variety of a psychedelically induced experiences in a psychiatrist’s studies while in graduate school, so I knew what incredible, mind-blowing experiences were like. I also got a lot of valuable insights and demonstrations into how my mind worked, which were very useful all through my career. Wasn’t that what meditation was supposed to do, give deep insight into Truth?
Many years of trying various forms of meditation followed, without much result. I then tried the Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation, as it was billed as working for anyone. The results were interesting, (see A Psychologists Experience with Transcendental Meditation) but certainly didn’t produce any fantastic experiences for me, and by the mid-70s I had pretty much given up attempting to practice meditation. It struck me that it must require a special talent which some people, like me, didn’t have.
On the other hand practicing increased mindfulness in life, along the lines that G. I. Gurdjieff taught, was very rewarding, and I’ve written about its effects and relations to other psychological understandings in several books (Waking Up, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science). The application of Gurdjieffian mindfulness in everyday life, as I understand it, became my chief growth practice, and is still central today. I’ve also noticed that in half a century of practicing mindfulness in life and eventually a fair amount of various forms of formal meditation, I have changed a lot, but, by and large, it’s quiet change. I can’t say “I sit down to meditate and have these great experiences,” but once in a while I notice that there was this stupid thing I used to automatically do, with appropriate thoughts, emotions, actions and consequences, and, gosh, I haven’t done it in years! It just quietly fell away. So I’m going to take a look at some of this quieter stuff, this more subtle change, and, if it looks interesting, share it, both as a possible contribution to generally understanding meditation and mindfulness and, as I mentioned above, perhaps as an encouragement to other people who are still waiting for fantastic things to happen as they practice, but are perhaps getting impatient and discouraged.
Level of Arousal:
One of the things various forms of meditation –
Besides trying to be more mindful in everyday life, I generally do a form of vipassana (“insight” meditation) each day that I learned from Shinzen Young. There are a variety of ways to practice this, my favorite is focusing on observing flow and change, and gently trying to do so with concentration, clarity and equanimity. When I have some success at this, even for just a few moments, it drops my level of ongoing mental activity/arousal and physical tension. I’d like to say it can drop to zero, even if only for a moment, but it’s pretty rare to hit zero. But it can drop it to a much lower level than I habitually carry through my busy days.
Something I’ve noticed in bringing mindfulness into my everyday life over the years is that when something stimulating or stressful comes along, how much it affects me depends on my level of physical and mental tension at the time it happens. If I’m pretty relaxed, the stimulus might not have much effect, I wouldn’t even call it a stressor. If I’m already fairly stressed or tensed, though, it has a much stronger and usually negative effect. The arousal effect tends to last and only go down slowly, so the next time a stressor comes along it will have even more effects. I’ll sketch that common, everyday life process in the diagram below.
Starting in the lower left of the chart, something of a certain intensity happens that I sense, represented by the downward pointing arrows. If I’m calm when it happens we can think of it simply as a stimulus, but if it’s inherently threatening and/or I’m already in an aroused and defensive state, we could often more accurately call it a stressor. For simplicity, I’ll call all the stimulating events stressors from now on.
Then there’s a reaction – sensorially, mentally , emotionally, bodily – to the stressor, represented by the upward pointing arrows, with the size of the arrow representing the strength of the reaction. That results in raising my overall level of activation, represented by the wiggly line.
So with the first stressor there’s a quick reaction – possibly tightening of muscles, tuning my senses for clearer perception, stress hormone release, mental analysis, wondering whether it is dangerous, possibly bodily preparation for fight or flight. But nothing else happens right away in this case, so I start to calm down. Calming down usually takes a while compared to the immediate response to a stressor. But by the time the next stressor occurs, my initial overall tension level is higher than it was before, so I tend to react more strongly to the second stressor, even though it’s the same intensity, than if it hadn’t been preceded by something that already alerted or stressed me to begin with. My overall activation/arousal level goes up.
Our bodies and minds have a natural, built-in tendency to calm down when our world gets calmer, but calming down generally takes longer than a quick reaction to a stressor. So as you see in the chart, the third stressor is perceived when I am at a higher level of activation and produces an even greater reactive response. After a few of these stressors, I am way over-reacting and I am considerably mentally-emotionally-physically tense.
So if I can take even a moment to come to the present, the here-and-now, even better several seconds or more of being more in the here-and-now, there’s a relatively automatic relaxation of mental tension and physical tension. When I become consciously aware, of my body state, which is the usual immediate consequence of trying to be more here-and-now, and I notice I’m being uselessly tense about something, I automatically relaxed. It’s a silly and useless thing to be unnecessarily tense.
As a concrete example, I had a traumatic history with dental work as a kid and still haven’t completely worked it through. So sometimes my dentist (who is a very nice person!) is working on me and I’ll notice that my arms are tense, almost making fists! But that doesn’t accomplish anything, so I consciously I relax them – but half a minute later I may notice I’m doing it again! But when I’m lost in mental processes (that’s what “ordinary mind” is a great deal of the time, being absorbed, lost in ongoing mental/emotional processes), I may not be aware of what a level of tension I’m carrying along, and it has its consequences.
So let me see if I can sketch what happens to my mental/emotional/physical tension level if I’m present for even a moment every once in a while.
Suppose I’m doing a formal sitting meditation, like vipassana on bodily flow sensations, or staying pretty here and now in life situations by keeping some of my voluntary attention monitoring body sensations, a Gurdjieffian approach. Left alone, that means I am generally pretty calm. There are little fluctuations occasionally, even with a pretty quiet meditation I can suddenly remember I forgot to make an important phone call, for example, should I stop meditating and make it, should I just calm down and make it later, etc. But by and large I am calm, aware of my current environment and body, not striving to do anything in particular. If asked what happened in my meditation, it would be straightforward for me to answer, “Nothing much, really.” Compared to the usual frantic state of my “ordinary mind,” though, I’m doing a lot!
The next chart shows what happens when various stressors come along while I’m being more mindful, more present.
The clear difference is that my reactions to various stimuli is such that they really aren’t the usual “stressors,” my reaction/perception stays pretty much appropriate to the intensity of the stimulus. And I’m not accumulating arousal and stress that increases my reactivity, so at the end of this time period I’m still pretty focused, calm, and equanimous, rather than stressed out and over reactive.
That’s quite an accomplishment when I can also respond when asked about my meditation-mindfulness session, “Nothing special happened.”
I think almost all of us can learn at least this much “skill” in meditation-mindfulness, so it’s worthwhile to keep practicing…
I plan to write more about these quiet aspects of mindfulness and meditation.
Tags: attention, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, enlightenment, Gurdjieff, meditation, mindfulness, mystical experiences, ordinary mind, Shinzen Young, Transcendental Meditation, Transpersonal, vipassana
Brief Review of Phenomena: The Secret History of the U. S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis
Charles T. Tart
In the last part of March, 2017, colleagues on discussion lists for scientific studies of parapsychological phenomena began discussing the forthcoming publication of Annie Jacobsen’s new book, Phenomena: The Secret History of the U. S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis. Expectations were high, as the jacket of Phenomena bills it as “The definitive history of the military’s decades-long investigation into mental powers and phenomena.” Knowing a lot about this important area, since I spent a year as a consultant on the Stanford Research Institute’s (SRI’s) original program on remote viewing, as well as having done many independent studies of parapsychological phenomena and related areas like altered states of consciousness (ASCs) and transpersonal psychology, I was very interested. But, alas, my colleagues’ main comments were about important distortions of the history in the book.
Annie Jacobsen’s name rang a bell, and I recalled she did a pleasant interview with me a few years ago, although it was mainly about my work with ASCs, rather than parapsychology. She kindly sent me a copy of Phenomena, though apologizing for using so little of that material and only mentioning me twice in the Phenomena book.
So I’ve begun reading with great interest, but caution, and my comments here are specific to what I’ve read. Jacobsen’s an excellent writer. The text flows nicely and I easily get caught up in the story lines. But a “DEFINITIVE HISTORY” requires more than a smooth flow, it requires rigorous factuality. So I’ve concentrated here on her mentions of me and my work, and, I’m sad to say, have had to question the “definitive history” categorization. Perhaps there will be a second edition incorporating fact checking.
Her first mention of me, a small point, notes, largely in passing, my attendance at a conference on human energy fields where Andrija Puharich described some of his research, and notes “Also present at the conference were several of Puharich’s former colleagues from the Round Table Foundation, including Arthur Young and Charles T. Tart.” Puharich is a controversial figure in scientific parapsychological research, although I believe some of his early research was very important. Describing me as a “colleague” from Puharich’s Round Table Foundation research is a small departure from factuality that perhaps honors me t
oo much, I was just a college sophomore then. Under most circumstances, I would not bother to point this out, but it’s that “definitive” adjective pushing on me.
I worked for Puharich as a research assistant for the summer of 1957, between my sophomore year as an MIT student and transferring to Duke University as a junior. Duke was where J. B. Rhine’s laboratory was located, and I chose it because of my interests in parapsychology. On the other hand, I am the only parapsychologist I know of who independently carried out a high quality, double-blind scientific study of one of Puharich’s basic discoveries, confirming that the electrical condition of a Faraday cage could enhance ESP ability.
But the second mention is seriously distorted, creating wrong impressions of what happened. Jacobsen had a huge task trying to capture half a century of research, much of it classified, but I regret Phenomena’s publisher (Little Brown and Company) didn’t fact check the manuscript before publishing if they were going to use that word “definitive” to describe it. I’ve had better fact checking done by the National Enquirer on a story they did on my ESP research years ago. Jacobsen writes:
“As head of the Electro-Optic Threat Assessment section, Graff was also involved in an array of brainstorming ideas, designed to beat the MX missile basing system as part of an official Air Force vulnerability assessment team. He wondered whether remote viewers using ESP could determine which transport vehicles were carrying the real missiles and which were carrying dummy warheads. He contracted with Hal Puthoff to conduct a study. Using a computer-generated shell game, Puthoff’s colleague Charles Tart of the University of California, Davis collected data from a group of psychics tasked to try to beat the shell game. Random guesses would produce a correct guess 10% of the time. On the average, remote viewers trained in SRI protocols were correct 25% of the time. One “sensitive” individual in the group produced exceptional results, Graff learned. After 50 shell game trials times, she had guessed the location of a marble with an accuracy of 80%. Hal Puthoff’s report for Graff indicated that remote viewers could significantly increase the odds in determining the location of the real ICBMs. This report was sent to the Pentagon.”
Really dramatic, yes? And mostly real and very important, but… Very briefly described: what was going on?
The “computer-generated shell game” was not a project developed or carried out at SRI, though, nor was it done with the MX missile system in mind. It was continuing work, with encouraging success, on trying to get ESP to work in the laboratory more strongly and reliably. Details can be found in a a book length report (Tart, 1976).
The year I was consulting full time on remote viewing at SRI was when we were asked to see if the MX missile system could be defeated. The basic idea was that the Soviets had a certain number of (very expensive!) ICBMs (as we did), and if they launched a first strike, they could wipe out most of our missiles before we could launch, and then take over (what was left of) the world. Neither we nor the Soviets could afford to build several times as many missiles (and there was already enough nuclear weaponry to blow up the earth several times over in those insane times!), but we could afford to build (for many billions!) a lot of silos to hide missiles in and constantly shuttle them about in a hidden way. The Soviets would not know which silos were empty, and which had the missiles they wanted to destroy. We could retaliate devastatingly if they struck first, so (hopefully!) they wouldn’t.
But if you had some way of knowing better, not perfectly but better, where our missiles were, maybe a Soviet first strike would be worthwhile? That was the question SRI was tasked with: could ESP, remote viewing by the Soviets, improve their odds of winning with a first strike?
Physicist Hal Puthoff did the sophisticated mathematical analyses, using both results from SRI remote viewing studies up till that time AND the data from my ESP training studies at UC Davis. I don’t know the relative weights given these two kinds of data, but I think my data were particularly worrisome, as I’ll explain below.
Jacobsen writes that I “…collected data from a group of psychics,“ implying specially talented people, “psychics.” Maybe there weren’t too many good “psychics” around in the Soviet Union so there wasn’t too much danger?
But my data was from ordinary college students, roughly a couple of thousand to start with, who had no thoughts of being “psychics.” They were ordinary students at UC Davis who were selected by taking a very simple and quick card-guessing test at the end of one of their ordinary classes. The ones who scored high were invited to take half a dozen formal ESP tests in the laboratory with one of my several student apprentices. Those who continued to score high probably had some ESP ability to begin with, and they were then each able to take part in 20 formal tests, with immediate feedback. If you could end up with even half a dozen people quite talented at ESP, at a level practical enough to indicate, with far-from-perfect but better-than-chance accuracy, which silos had missiles in them, finding and training “psychics” to beat the MX system looked practical. Thus the Soviets could have enough information to risk a first strike.
Thankfully the whole MX shuttle system was cancelled, undoubtedly for many reasons, but I hope my and my apprentices’ findings helped make that happen.
OK, I’ve set the record straight on that part that I was intimately involved with, but it’s certainly alerted me to be cautious and skeptical about how “definitive” Phenomena is… Jacobsen is an excellent writer and story teller, she took on a huge task of describing all that happened, I hope a fact checked version will be published someday. As I indicated, I’ve just focused on parts of Phenomena where my work was mentioned. But if my colleagues comments are correct, the book has far worse distortions than this and is not a DEFINITIVE HISTORY.
Tart, Charles (1976). Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Can be found on Amazon.
Ongoing Thoughts on Spiritual Ideas (Buddhism, e.g.) and Practices for Understanding Consciousness – 1
Charles T. Tart
I’ve always tried to get essential science (not dismissive materialism) and essential spirituality (ways of direct experience, not dogma) to interact to advance both areas. Our knowledge in all areas is far, far from complete. Advancing our knowledge, both intellectually and spiritually, is so important…
I’m focusing on Buddhism here, but consider this a general invitation to think about the usefulness of what we could generally call spiritual insights and processes in advancing knowledge.
Here are some thoughts I’m sharing with some scientist colleagues in parapsychology to see if I can stimulate to deep thinking. You can comment below if you want, and I’ll eventually read them. But I must confess I am so busy writing and the like that I get way behind on looking at comments, which is not helpful to stimulating discussion. But I will eventually see your good ideas!
Back in early March of 2017, one of my colleagues posted some interesting material on Buddhism with respect to issues about reincarnation. I was particularly interested in this approach, having long been a student of Buddhism (but not a Buddhist, mostly a pragmatist if I must be categorized), but we quickly drifted off on to other issues. I want to respond to that posting to see if others are interested in developing this line of thought re spirituality, particularly Buddhism, and consciousness and psi.
Let me simplistically sketch my general working hypotheses to show where I’m coming from. I’m sure I have a very selected, intellectual Westerner’s view, so some of you who are Indian probably have a practical, cultural as well as intellectual experience that may illuminate aspects of this better.
Way back in Gautama Buddha’s time and probably way, way back, there was (and still is) a lot of suffering in the world. Religious beliefs and practices were intended, among many other things, to give a conviction that the universe made some kind of sense and, by living in accordance with religious and moral principles, you could be happier. Worshiping the gods you were told existed, making sacrifices (bribes? gestures of respect?), and following moral principles couldn’t guarantee happiness, but increased its likelihood, and often it was believed that the gods would reward you with a good afterlife and/or reincarnation if you didn’t reap much happiness in this life. A recurring theme in human history.
One way of thinking about Gautama Buddha –- yes, I know, after 2500 years there are so many ideas and doctrines attributed to the Buddha that you can pick and choose to support any perspective you want, kind of like you can with the Bible –- is that after being shielded from the tough parts of life into young adulthood, a prince in a palace, he encountered suffering, sickness, old age and death, happening in spite of worshiping the gods. It didn’t look like religion worked very well – but there was what was touted as a better solution, spiritual practice, illustrated by wandering, ascetic yogis.
Leaving his life as a pampered prince and becoming a yogi, he learned the primary yogic practice, concentrative meditation, learning the skill of focusing the mind so intently on a single thing that an altered state of consciousness (ASC) developed. He got better at concentrative meditation than his teachers. While tranced out, you were in some sort of abstracted state, no bodily sensation, and, indeed, all suffering was gone. The problem was it was temporary. When you came out of one of the concentrative ASCs (samadhis), all your bodily and other ills became apparent again… By living a highly disciplined ascetic life you could spend a lot of your life in non-suffering ASCs, but it was a pretty restricted life…
As I’ve been taught it, Gautama’s big contribution was that his disappointment with the temporary nature of suffering reduction via ASCs led him to discover/invent/develop insight meditation, vipassana. After enough basic skill in concentration had been learned, instead of just blissing out you could use that concentrative skill to examine in depth the way your mind worked, and start discovering the root causes of suffering and solutions to them. In a sense there’s a parallel with the development of Western insight therapies like psychoanalysis. You suffer because of pathological mental processes that are normally unconscious, but with the help of a therapist you can discover their nature and motivations and change them. I’ve often thought you could see this as the therapist replaces the patient’s need to develop great concentration, the therapist is not so caught up in your neuroses and is observing you and reflecting things back that you would otherwise miss. An “outside” feedback mechanism, rather than an “inside” vipassana one.
As I have learned it, Gautama Buddha wasn’t much interested in the ultimate nature of reality, and often refused to even speculate about it. Speculating about abstract questions (like the meaning of life) was a way of avoiding working on the root causes of suffering. He presented himself as someone who could teach people to suffer less and even eventually eliminate all suffering – enlightenment.
Again oversimplifying, basic Buddhist meditation practice, especially vipassana (insight), has two main effects. One, it exposes to consciousness a lot of neurotic habits and processes, many of which can be dismantled by insight alone, others by insight plus corrective processes. Two, by quieting the many processes that create, shape, and stabilize “normal” consciousness (it is a semi-arbitrary, culturally shaped process, not “natural” – see my systems approach to states and their induction), altered states of consciousness (ASCs) may occur which provide quite different, possibly more profound (as well as possibly more deluded) ways of seeing oneself and one’s world, which can lead to very deep change.
A major problem from my pragmatic and scientific perspective: the insights in ASCs can seem so profound and obviously True that they lead to the experiencer believing that these are Final Truths about Reality, instead of a way of looking at it that might or might not be true and useful, and which needs to be tested. Ideally, like a scientific theory, it’s not enough that it’s clearly logical and brilliant and makes you feel smart, it needs to account for old data and accurately predict new things.
So, as a pragmatist and empirical scientist, I often think of Buddhism as having provided us with an “experiential microscope,” vipassana meditation, for making internal observations. That’s my dominant view when I’m feeling fine. When I’m ill or stressed with troubles, Buddhism’s potential abilities to reduce my suffering become much more prominent!
A friend mentioned the other day that the idea that 10,000 hours of practice makes you an expert in anything has become fashionable in the intellectual world. Of course that’s practice of something you basically know how to do, not learning from scratch. OK, let’s say you want to be a physicist, and your undergraduate study has shown you have the basic talents needed. Now comes, say, 4 to 5 years of graduate school. Assume about 50 hours a week devoted to learning and applying physics, 50 weeks a year (I’ll generously allow a couple of weeks’ vacation), 4x50x50, that’s 10,000 hours. I think people who put that much practice into insight meditation would be really good at observing experience deeply, and I treat their insights seriously! Seriously, but as theories for me as an outsider, of course, calling for examination and testing… Some, I’m guessing, are indeed wonderful insights into the mind and/or reality, some are probably true only as one possible way of the mind functioning, some are probably false.
So I see methods and ideas of (some forms of) Buddhism as potentially very useful for studying the nature of the mind, as well as studying psi. “Some forms,” as, of course, much of Buddhism has turned into ordinary religion, doctrine to be believed and followed without thinking, rather than dedicated practitioners of meditation. And even among dedicated meditators, there are real issues of how much the meditator stays open to observing more closely what actually happens in the mind as opposed to automatically forcing the experiences into culturally and religiously prescribed “correct” and “spiritual” experiences…
Personally perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from my practice of various forms of insight meditation is how rare it is for me to be able to observe any aspect of my experience openly, without attachment to it being some “right” way according to people who are supposed to be way more spiritually advanced than me, or seeing aspects of my mind quietly “pushing” in the background to make it the “right” kind of experience…
OK, that’s enough, let’s see if this is of interest.
Tags: belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, enlightenment, essential science, gods, materialism, meditation, mindfulness, ordinary mind, Parapsychology, psychotherapy, science, suffering, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, vipassana
A Visit/Tease from the Trickster?
Charles T. Tart
A funny thing happened this morning (1-26-17). I awoke around my usual time and was lying in bed half-asleep, not quite dreaming, but thinking rather loosely, and found I was thinking about “ampere,” both the measure of electrical current, and the French scientist Ampère, for whom that unit is named. I realized that while I knew a lot about early scientists, I didn’t really know anything about Ampère. What was his first name, I wondered? So I made a guess that it was probably René. While realizing that you can hardly go wrong guessing that a Frenchman would be named René…
My fantasizing/thinking went on to wonder if Ampère had had a daughter. If so, would she have been named Milly Ampère, a rather forced pun on the female name Mildred or Milly and ampere? A deliberate pun on the electrical unit of the milliampere, one thousandth of an ampere. I shared this silly punning with my wife Judy, who indeed thought it was silly! (But she’s used to me…)
Fully waking and getting up, I found my thinking/fantasizing amusing, and I had no idea why I would’ve been thinking about ampere or Ampère. I doubt that I’ve ever thought about them on waking before, although back in my days half a century ago as a ham radio operator and then a radio engineer, I was often concerned with the size of currents, measured in amperes or milliamperes.
After breakfast I wanted to learn more about the scientist Ampère, so I googled him and got the Wikipedia entry for Ampère. As I wrote my wife,
“I was wrong in guessing René. It’s André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836), but both first names rhyme well with René…”
I thought about this event occasionally on and off through breakfast, thinking there were no recent events in my life that would have me thinking about electrical currents and so lead to the word Ampère.
Then as I was getting dressed, I remembered a pleasant lunch with parapsychologist colleague Lloyd Auerbach yesterday, and we touched on the topic of the too common unreliability of paranormal effects actually occurring when you are ready to investigate them. I told Lloyd that some of the older parapsychologists I had known back in the 60s and 70s sometimes thought that perhaps there was something of a “trickster” factor controlling paranormal events, they were allowed to happen often enough to keep us intrigued, but not often enough to let us make any real progress in understanding them. For reasons perhaps known to whatever the “trickster” was, but not to us. I also mentioned my parapsychologist colleague, Russell Targ, one of the pioneers in creating the remote viewing paradigm, who had once told me that although he has probably seen more instances of very strong ESP happening in remote viewing sessions than any other parapsychologists, once in a while he finds himself having doubting thoughts, is this psychic stuff really real? Then he needs to see another example of strong psychic functioning to remove this nagging doubts. He told me this in the context of a discussion we were having about the enormous cultural pressure in our times to deny the paranormal, and how it could affect even those of us working with the paranormal.
And then it hit me. This Ampère business. It might’ve happened as an illustration that indeed things happen for reasons beyond our understanding once in a while, to keep us interested, but this set of events was clearly too easy to write off as coincidence, not really demonstrating anything. Darn! Does it actually mean anything? I wouldn’t claim anything definite for it. Have I been trickstered? Or is my mind just having further fun with a little nonsense?
Reading further in the Wikipedia entry, I find that Ampère had a son, but no daughter. Goodbye Milly.
An interesting way to start a day.
Pain, Leaving the Body, Spiritual Realities or Illusion?
© Charles T. Tart 2016
Why are we here? What should we do? Why does it hurt so much sometimes? Can’t we just be given Certain Answers from Spirit? And….
One of my friends, let’s call him Ralph, is a very interesting and thoughtful person. He has had out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs), done some remote viewing (RV) under conditions which have shown ESP is involved — it’s not just an interesting but subjective, imaginary experience of viewing a distant place — and had physical problems much of his life that have forced him to deal with intense pain. I think the following excerpts from my recent correspondence with Ralph would interest some people.
Personally, I would much rather deal with pain in a distant, intellectual way, but biology too often takes away that luxury… I was going to put a wry smiley face ;-) after the previous sentence as I found it amusing, but of course a wry frowny face is just as or more accurate… ;-(
Talking about a life of pain and his experience of OBEs, why they happen to him, Ralph notes that he had a great need to completely disassociate from his body when he went in for frequent surgeries, as the usual pain killers pretty much stopped working for him.
I wrote Ralph that I get upset just reading about the level of pain he’s had to deal with in his life, oh my God! “Although it’s not your intention, you also make me feel like a real wimp! What, I complain because for years now I’ve had headaches essentially all day long, only partially helped by medication, massage and other methods.” Nothing compared to what Ralph deals with.
I don’t know if you’re aware, Ralph, that I did hypnosis research for the first decade or so of my career. Although pain wasn’t of that much interest to me back then, it wasn’t impacting me personally, I was amazed that 20 to 30% of ordinary people had enough hypnotic talent to experience considerable pain reduction when it was suggested, and maybe 10 to 20% could completely cut off pain. One example that dramatically brought it home to me was a standardized test item widely used in research to assess very high levels of hypnotic talent. After a subject was hypnotized, for about a minute I would suggest that she couldn’t smell anything, and then asked her to take a good sniff to see that she couldn’t smell.
Then I uncapped a bottle of household ammonia and held 1 inch below her nose.
The result always amazed me. Not only did talented hypnotized subjects report that they didn’t smell anything when I asked them if they had, they didn’t show any sign of pain! To me, sniffing household ammonia that way is like a thousand tiny pitchforks come into your nostrils and start jabbing away!
[If you’re curious, do not try this at home this way, start with the ammonia bottle further from your nose so you’re not overwhelmed with pain…]
And for the really talented hypnotic subjects, we purchased laboratory ammonia that was 10 times as strong as ordinary ammonia…
Absolutely mind blowing! And I was always a little envious, I’d like to be able to turn off pain that way, but I have very little talent for being hypnotized, although the meditative techniques I’ve learned from Shinzen Young help me deal with some kinds of pain to a useful degree, but far from not feeling pain at all. As to lack of hypnotic talent, probably for all my intellectual open-mindedness, some part of me says “No way is anything outside my precious ego going to exert control over what goes on in my mind!”
A nice, intellectual hypothesis, but the reality of it was strongly demonstrated to me back around 1959 when I was one of the first WASP Americans to take mescaline. It was given to me by a visiting Austrian psychologist, Professor Ivo Kohler, who had done some research in Europe on it, but didn’t know of any literature about the reactions of Americans to mescaline. I had read Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception” so was really interested and open (I thought), and Kohler gave me what I realize later was a very strong dose, 400 mg of the chemically pure mescaline.
And nothing happened…
I had even skipped breakfast to take the mescaline on an empty stomach. At that time in my life, that was a big sacrifice!
So he told me I could go home, we could call it a day — I guess he figured Americans were different from Europeans — or he could give me some more. Luckily for me, I chose the latter option and got another hundred milligrams, and little while later suddenly went from being perfectly straight to the peak of the psychedelic experience! It’s been more than 50 years, but oh wow oh wow oh wow!!!
I realized later that for all my intellectual openness, some control freak part of my mind had basically clamped down on all the chemical changes so they weren’t sufficient to actually affect my consciousness, but I was finally overwhelmed by the increased dose. God bless mescaline, God bless Aldous Huxley for his psychological programming of my first trip!
I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about how our socialization and cultural context affects how we interpret experience. I took the mescaline already being deeply into science, knowing that a drug was affecting my brain, so I had a kind of psychological safety valve that I didn’t really have to take anything about the experience too seriously if I didn’t want to, I could just call it altered brain functioning, chemical illusions. But if I had been raised in a non-scientific culture, a religious culture, the obvious interpretation would have been that my experiences were clearly a gift from God, and I might very well have become a mystic.
In my conventional role as a psychologist, I learned an enormous amount about the way the mind could work from that and some later psychedelic experiences a local psychiatrist was conducting. Some of those experiences translated into concepts I could talk about or use in my research, but some experiences still struck me as obviously sacred, not the kind of thing I would talk about to hardly anyone. Indeed, there were a few (luckily I don’t really remember them consciously) where it was clear to me that I was not ready to handle them and I asked if they could please be “put into storage” as it were, and only come back if ever I was ready, but otherwise to stay out of sight, they might just inflate my ego. I’m not sure it’s right to even mention these, but my commitment to using science properly stresses being complete about data…
Ralph goes on to write that pain medications are of little help to him now, so he has to dissociate from his physical body in order to handle the pain. This kind of “dissociation,” an OBE or “astral projection” is typically experienced as leaving his physical and traveling “out” or “in” to elsewhere into the cosmos, and experiencing whatever happens. But, Ralph notes, these “other world” journeys are confusing for him, as he can’t tell if they are “real” worlds in our space/time dimension or worlds in “other dimensions…” Or….
Real or not real? What is “reality” anyway? But in terms of his happiness, escaping overwhelming pain, I wish Ralph bon voyage! Who gives a damn whether their “real” or not when they can help him so much?
But looking a little deeper, that question of the reality of these kind of internal experiences is a real tough one. I certainly take, as a working hypothesis, that there may be other kinds of “spiritual” or “non-physical” worlds out there that people may contact sometimes, as well as knowing of our ability to imagine things. But please don’t ask me to rigorously define what I mean by “spiritual” or “non-physical”… And note I say working hypotheses, this is an interesting and perhaps useful way to think about these things, it’s the scientific way, but I have no idea what the ultimate nature of Reality is…
What complicates interpretation for me of such ostensibly OBE experiences is knowledge from my own research with hypnosis, some of my own meditation experience (which isn’t very “deep,” but informs me) and the work of others, which leads me to see our ordinary consciousness experience as life in a virtual reality, like in some kind of computer game.
The clearest experience of what we might call a pure virtual reality is nighttime dreams: I’ve almost never heard of anybody say they’re consciously working at creating and running a dream, but there you are in another world, things happen, characters act. We have been taught to question dreams’ reality when we wake up, but while we’re in them we usually automatically accept them as real (we won’t deal with lucid dreams here). In the kind of vipassana meditation I usually do I slip down to hypnagogic experience all the time, and in an instant a world and a scenario is created (not quite as vividly as my nocturnal dreams, but usually totally absorbing at the time it happens), things happen, it disappears and suddenly another world and scenario is created, and on and on.
I think our ordinary waking consciousness exists within the virtual reality that is created by the hardwiring of the brain, the way it has been a socially and personally programmed, hopes and fears, etc. I’ve detailed some of this in the article in the pic. But what’s different from the nocturnal dream and hypnagogic stuff is that there are massive amounts of sensory input coming in all the time, and so the virtual reality you exist in, the 3D model of world and self, must constantly and rapidly adjust to reflect the state of that external reality, your body sensations, your thoughts and feelings. Otherwise you bump into things or walk off the edges of cliffs and don’t last very long. Survival and happiness require us to make our internal model, where we experientially live, an adequate reflection of external reality.
So somebody reports a spiritual experience, it’s very real and important to them. Is it just something created in our virtual reality theater, just our “imagination,” or is it a relatively accurate perception of an independent reality?
A remote viewing in which the viewer gets really involved with the distant target is an interesting case. The viewer may start to feel like he’s there at the target site, rather than staying, as is typical in remote viewing, anchored in his physical body but seeing visual imagery he hopes is of the distant target. In so far as what you experience as being at the target site actually corresponds to what’s physically there and represent psi functioning, I find it useful to think of it as involving actual (para)”sensory” contact with the target site. But how much other stuff in the “visit” is merely the creation of our virtual reality process?
I think successful remote viewers have developed some rules of thumb to give less attention to certain kinds of things they experience when remote viewing than others, as that style of things has turned out to seldom correspond to the target. An example with successful viewers is the emphasis on avoiding “analytic overlay:” if it feels like your mind is running associations to a viewed element rather than actually paying further attention, getting further and further away from the basic psi impressions of the target, tone that down. Other kinds of stuff you want to “look at” more closely…
OK, feel like you’ve been introduced to some very interesting questions? OK, so far so good, but where are The Answers?
I know so much more than I did as a teenager very interested in matters of spirit, of science…and know even more deeply how little I actually know….
But what interesting questions! ;-)
Tags: Aldous Huxley, astral projection, attention, awareness, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, dreams, hypnagogic state, hypnosis, hypnotizability, Ivo Kohler, meditation, mescaline, mindfulness, multiple personality, OBE, OBEs, ordinary mind, out of body experience, pain, psychedelics, remote viewing, Shinzen Young, spiritual experience, Transpersonal, vipassana, virtual reality
Gods and Goddesses and ???
Charles T. Tart
A number of parapsychologists and I discuss many contemporary research issues on a private discussion list. Recently we’ve had some discussion about Srinivasa Ramanujan, a Fellow of the Royal Society (1887-1920), a self-taught Indian mathematician. Self-taught in that he had no formal training in mathematics, but claimed that most of his ideas were not created by him but given to him by an Indian goddess. Ramanujan was an ardent devotee of the goddess Namagiri Thayar.
Today many parapsychologists are physicists by training and, as you can imagine, gods and goddesses are not popular in mainstream science! I’m a product of modern culture too and understand (and often, but not always) share this attitude. But, I thought, could scientific method, ingeniously applied, provide any evidence, even just probabilistic evidence, for or against the existence of gods and goddesses, rather than just having their possible existence dismissed implicitly, if not explicitly, in science education and practice?
I’ve thought about this issue, inconclusively, off and on for years, but maybe I could stimulate some of these very bright parapsychologists to think about it?
So here I share the post I sent off to my colleagues today. If some interesting ideas evolve, I’ll share them in some later blog post, and readers here may have some good ideas to share in the Comments area…
Existence of Non-Physical Beings? NPBs
Our recent discussions about inspiration, gods, and goddesses have suggested to me that we could have an interesting methodological exercise. We’ve got some very sophisticated methodologists here, and while our scientific culture “prejudice” (literally pre-judgment as that’s the way we were educated/indoctrinated by and large) instantly rejects any reality to gods and goddesses, it’s always interesting to challenge one’s prejudices and see if your mind can break free in interesting ways
So suppose we seriously consider that there might be what I’ll call non-physical beings, NPBs. That’s about as emotionally neutral term as I can think of right now, much less loaded than gods and goddesses.
We wonder if certain of those NPBs actually exist, or we only imagine them. With physical beings, we can literally physically check up on their existence, go and look at the person, talk to them, etc.
What people have or haven’t believed about NPBs in the past, whether belief in the concept of NPBs is good for you matter your bad for humanity is not the issue. The issue is could we acquire evidence that argued more strongly for or against their existence.
I say argued more strongly for or against their existence rather than “prove,” as this is a very complex subject. I don’t expect any absolute answers in my lifetime (maybe “I” will know after I die?), but I could envision additions to knowledge that make the idea of their existence more or less likely. So what could we do?
We already have a similar question, with evidence pro and con in the question of whether some aspect of a living person survives death in a form that we could say the “person” survived. The most direct form of experimental evidence consists of using mediums, who we assume have the relevant psi abilities, to ostensibly communicate with these surviving entities, and then question these entities to see whether they can provide us with physically checkable facts about the life of the deceased person that they now claim to be, facts which would ordinarily not be known to the medium.
Those of you familiar with this research will know how complex it is, and many factors that have been checked so far. Some mediums, for example, are fraudulent, and either do cold readings to mislead sitters that they are in contact with deceased loved ones, actually hire detectives to find out information, etc. Most mediums seem to honestly believe in what they’re doing and not be consciously fraudulent, but we can worry that they’re simply unconsciously picking up on the body language of the sitters, so the best technique, long ago developed, was to use proxy sitters, people who will give the medium the deceased person’s name but otherwise know nothing about them, so the sitter can’t give any information away. If we still get good information suggesting this is the deceased person somehow surviving, then we can worry about super-ESP, the medium’s unconscious mind using ESP to connect, via the proxy sitter, via who knows how many links, to wherever the relevant information is, combine it with a subconscious impersonation, and seem to be the deceased communicator, but that’s not what’s happening. Some of us worry a great deal about the super-ESP alternative, some of us, usually including me, don’t worry much about it since super-ESP is too vague to be ruled out and so is not really a scientific hypothesis.
To greatly oversimplify more than a century of such research, we could say that many mediumistic readings give material that is comforting to the sitters, but is nowhere near specific enough to make a strong case for any kind of survival. In some cases the ostensible communicating spirits give excellent factual information, as well as some incorrect information, about the deceased person they claim to be the surviving spirit of, and in some cases also show mannerisms that further match the deceased person. This kind of evidence has convinced some people that we survive death, and left other people worrying about the complexities of assessing the evidence.
While we can learn much from survival research, I think the problem is harder when we ask about the reality of NPBs. I’ve defined an NPB here as possibly having a “real” existence on “some other level of reality,” but not on the physical level, so there are no physical databases you can check to see if the NPB is who she or he claims to be.
It’s been a while since I’ve read much channeled material (Arthur Hastings’ and John Klimo’s two books are the best sources I always recommend), but my impression is that some ostensible NPBs show enough inconsistency from one channeling to the next to make one doubt that there is some “real” entity behind it, but some others show a great deal of consistency.
So, our fun challenge.
Assume you have access to several “channelers” who reliably “contact” some NPBs, and these NPBs show enough consistency and are interesting enough that you really wonder if they are “real.”
What do you do to collect evidence for or against their apparent “reality?”
I look forward to our discussion. Here on OUR LIST we have some very bright people who I don’t think have given much thought to the survival question or the reality of NPBs, but who thus, in some sense, can start thinking about it in a more open-minded way. Who knows what will come up with?
PS: some people “believe in” or “have fun with” interpreting associated events as messages or oracles. So as I open my computer to start writing this this morning, I noticed I had an email from tinywords email@example.com, a bit of literary creativity I get each day for stimulation. Here’s what today’s tiny words, that I read just before starting to write this, were:
on the battered pier
fishing for ghosts
-Paul David Mena http://tinyurl.com/zbgtl2q
Encouraging? Discouraging? Certainly interesting…
Years ago I gave up attempting to learn to meditate. I’d tried it many ways and decided that meditation must call for some special talent that I lacked. Then my wife Judy and I met Shinzen Young at a conference — and decades later I’m still meditating regularly, even teaching a basic webinar on meditation and mindfulness occasionally. Shinzen and his students offer monthly telephone conference call style meditation retreats for both beginners and advanced students, and he’s recently published a brilliant book, The Science of Meditation, which I will review when I get a chance. Meanwhile, these notes, as a peek at the kinds of things that I, someone who once gave up meditation for lack of talent, am playing with on one of these telephone retreats. Not that I’m an “advanced” meditator by any means, but it’s gotten quite interesting… ;-)
Pure Awareness and Expansion/Contraction:
Reflections on Shinzen Retreat 10/14-15/2016
Charles T. Tart
Basic instruction from Shinzen: Don’t focus on the ongoing content of experience, as in most practices of meditation, let the (specifics of the) content go (not suppress, just don’t focus on) and be aware that you are aware. When you lose awareness that you are aware, (gently) come back.
Various observations I made and took notes on during the practice:
– Practicing “pure awareness,” I exist. There are many particular sensations that comprise me. I don’t mentally and explicitly say “This is me” to any of them, but this ongoing flow is what I attend to when I think about “I” am experiencing.
– I can selectively direct my attention and tune into some sensations more than others, and I can get lost in those sensations.
– In this deliberate practice, it’s only intermittently that I tune in to being aware that I exist. I tend to get lost in particular content and drift off into it.
– When I try to go deeper into what it means to know I exist, I usually just have some particular sensation(s) become more intense, I haven’t been able to find an “independent” quality, independent of sensations. The mental thought “I am aware” is a quasi-sensory experience of hearing rather than some “abstraction” beyond sense experience. Intellectually I can always reason that I exist as a basis for experience, but that’s not a separate, distinctive I exist quality. Or maybe there is such a quality but it is so pervasive and common that I don’t notice it.
– When I get sucked into some simulation that’s created, it’s like the total amount of my consciousness gets squeezed down to less than it was before the suck in, as well as consciousness becoming almost or totally wrapped up in the simulation*.
– It seems to me that noting, and especially labeling, are designed to prevent full absorption in ongoing experience. “Noting” and “labeling” are here used as Shinzen uses them.
Going on to Expansion/Contraction Practice:
– Noting that something is both expanding and contracting at the same time is a complicated pair of words and mental operations. It would be helpful if we had a word that indicates morphing in general, flowing in general to use, that included mixtures of expansion and contraction. I experience such complex morphings at numerous times, part of an ongoing experience is contracting, e.g., while part is expanding. I use expansion and contraction as Shinzen used them in this guided meditation to include not only changes in spatial extent of an experience (bigger, smaller, leftward, rightward, etc.) but any perceived changes, such as amplitude, color, intensity, etc. Using “expanding-contracting” as a single phrase to promote noting or, especially to verbally label, takes attention away from the phenomena per se for a longish time compared to some single, simple word label, so things can be missed.
– I think now that a useful distinction in my consciousness that can be made moment to moment is am I consciously present, with or without various sensory experiences going on? Or not? And are there experiences going on that are “tugging” at me, to absorb me into a world-simulation that has been created? Or am I completely absorbed into whatever world-simulation is being created at the moment? Actually there is a continuum of degree of absorption here, rather than simply all-or-none.
– Simply knowing that you’re part of a system (Buddhist meditation in this case, but any spiritual/psychological development system), that you’re practicing a system that you believe will make you more effective, is likely to increase your competence and self-worth, and produce a certain amount of happiness and crowd out some unhappiness all by itself. Lots of ways to cut the pie, as it were, but knowing that you are actively cutting it, exerting more conscious observation, appreciation and control is ego syntonic.
* I say “simulation” here as shorthand for a technical term I used in my writings, “world-simulation process,” to indicate that the (my) mind produces, well-night instantly, one world of experience full of various qualities, which slowly or suddenly dissolves to be replaced by another simulated world, etc. Normally the simulation is of ordinary reality, what the room behind me looks like even though I’m not looking at it just now, e.g., etc. This can be elaborated at length from my articles…
End of notes
Prometheus and Atlas – Great Book Number 1
Charles T. Tart
This month has been a rich time for receiving books that I not only ought to, but definitely want to read! This is to tell you about one I received today and have already done some reading in, Prometheus and Atlas, by Jason Reza Jorjani, a philosopher on the faculty of the New Jersey Institute of Technology who teaches on science, technology and society. It’s about that theme that is become so central in my life, building bridges between the best of science and the best of spirituality.
I don’t usually even attempt to read books by philosophers anymore. When I was young, I picked up a relatively accurate image of philosophers as very wise people who thought deeply about human life and the nature of reality, and who shared their reflections and understandings with us. I thought of them as driven by that old maxim attributed to Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
For most of my adult life, however, I’ve found that most philosophers now seem to be caught up in word games.
In some ways, that’s OK and important. We are verbal creatures, and deeper understandings of the way we use words (and the way words use us!) can be very useful. One of the most important aspects of psychological and spiritual growth in my own life has been realizing that I’m too good with words, I can get entranced by them and lose touch with reality. But it’s apparently too easy for philosophers too to get caught up in the formal, intellectual, grammatical properties of language and forget that what we really should look at if we want deeper understanding is the reality that those words either point to and/or distort our understanding of.
Jorjani’s book is not casual reading, but it’s not a swamp of philosophical jargon and word games either. If you’re interested in the roots of both Eastern and Western cultures, and the conceptual systems driving so much of modern culture, including spiritual culture, it’s an excellent book. Particularly, Jorjani is aware of parapsychological phenomena, the specters as he calls them, which official culture tries to banish, but which are very important to our full understanding of humanity and reality. These “ghosts” just won’t go away in spite of our extensive use of “magic words,” masquerading as reason, to banish them!
I looked for his book when I received a notice that the Parapsychological Association, the professional group devoted to scientific and scholarly study of the paranormal, gave it an award for the best book in the area this year. I can see why they did. As I initially thought from a lunch conversation with him several years ago at one of the annual Parapsychogical Association meetings in Concord, Jorjani is very comprehensive in his understandings, so much so that I felt able to tease him about it after I started reading the book. I wrote him, “For example, are you certain that you haven’t missed some relevant footnote by some obscure Western or Eastern philosopher that is relevant to your theme? You seem to have gotten everybody and everything else!”
I started reading systematically from the first page, and quickly found I wanted more, I wanted to skip around sampling little gems here and there. For instance Jorjani talks about how we had such rigid ideas that there are real facts out there facts that we have to distinguish from our theories from, whether they are just theories given us by our enculturation or with the prestige of modern science, but, as he notes on page 14 of the introduction,
“Theories produce “facts” on account of observational ideologies that are deeply implicated by them, so it is deluded to think that the validity of theories can be tested against “the facts of Nature”– as if these had an autonomous and objectively accessible existence.”
Part of me strongly objects to that statement, I want, I insist that there be facts, to check all our concepts on… But I do know an awful lot about how our psychological processes selectively construct the apparent “facts” we perceive…
As another example of Jorjani’s insights, I wrote him:
“As you know from our conversation back in Concord, I certainly am in great general agreement with you. We love to feel smart, and that’s even better if we get along well in the world because of our apparent smartness, so it so easy to become overly attached to one’s intellectual concepts. I don’t agree with all aspects of Buddhism, e.g., but I certainly admire the emphasis there on the dangers of attachment, although I would argue against the dangers of over-attachment, rather than any kind of attachment at all.
You may remember that I routinely carry two knives on my belt, one of the big models of the Swiss Army Knife, and a Leatherman tool. People sometimes ask me which one is better, and I asked them better for what? There’s no absolute better or worse, it depends on the task. And sometimes I find that I have to use both of them at once to adequately do a task. But I also get lots of demonstrations of attachment. I like both of them so much that I tend to automatically reach for them when there’s some mechanical problem, even though it should be immediately obvious that there’s some specialized tool that I will need, and I’d better go down and talk to the people in the hardware store…
I also have frequent demonstrations of how overly attached I am to the way I’ve been taught to perceive. When I’m looking for some misplaced object in the house and can’t find it (of course I have to ask my wife where it is and she marvels at my inability to find things, it’s so stereotyped!), I’ve reflected on this and realized I call up a visual image of the missing object in my mind, and I’m projecting that image around the room with the expectation that when it’s projected on the actual object I will feel a sensation of matching, “mental bell” will ring, and then I’ll actually look and see the object.
It’s not a bad technique in some ways, but a lot of times it doesn’t work because my visual image is slightly different from the orientation of the real object. Then I have to fight my habitual attachment and look in a more comprehensive and open-minded way.
One other example of where I’m sure we’re in agreement, years ago I came up with a systems approach way of theorizing about what was meant by a state of consciousness and altered states of consciousness (described in my States of Consciousness, not to be confused with my earlier Altered States of Consciousness book). I still use this conceptual approach in my thinking, although it didn’t generally get picked up, it’s too complex rather than having the simplicity people crave. But eventually I realized that the structure of my theoretical approach was essentially identical to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigms. A particular paradigm/state can be very useful when dealing with stuff that is actually behaving the way the paradigm/state calls for, but is a real blinder when that’s not the case.
A highly recommended book! And also an incredibly unusual book, because almost all modern philosophers totally ignore the existence of paranormal phenomena, and insist on trying to explain everything in material terms. That leads to a lot of very forced and incorrect explanations…
[At the www.paradigm-sys.com site you can sign up for Professor Tart’s occasional mailings. Go to CTT Discussion Lists, sign up. If you have a spam filter, then pre-authorize email from firstname.lastname@example.org. ]
Tags: attention, awareness, belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, death, emotions, enlightenment, God, intention, Jorjani, materialism, meditation, Parapsychology, perception, precognition, reincarnation, science, scientism, spiritual teachers, suffering, telepathy, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, waking up
This is a modification and addition of draft version of a chapter to appear in Kaklauskas, Clements, Hocoy, & Hoffman (Eds.), Shadows & Light: Theory, Research, and Practice in Transpersonal Psychology, to be published in 2016 or 2017 by University Professors Press
The Importance of Curiosity:
In Transpersonal Psychology, in Spiritual Development
Charles T. Tart
While participating in a meditation intensive practice led by Jeff Warren recently, he introduced the session with a word that I have seldom heard used or given very given much importance by many, perhaps all meditation teachers I have received instruction from. The word is curiosity. I have been thinking about curiosity for years, as one of the main reasons I have been interested in meditative and similar practices: curiosity about my mind, about other people’s minds, about how minds work, about how they can work better, etc. Of course that is just one motivation among many: I certainly would like to reduce my suffering and reach “enlightenment” (whatever that is). Hearing Jeff Warren use the word curiosity, though, stimulated me to write about curiosity, Buddhism, and modern psychology. I thought more deeply about my own curiosity and became curious about what brought me into transpersonal psychology and related fields. This something that I haven’t shared often, and it is nice to share it here. This will be in the style of personal storytelling, rather than didactic, academic lecturing, as I think it will more effectively communicate some points that way.
Becoming A Transpersonal Psychologist
To my conscious knowledge, there were two major forces in my becoming a transpersonal psychologist. The earliest was my childhood religion, Lutheranism. My parents weren’t religious but my maternal grandmother, Nana, who lived in the apartment downstairs from us, was very much so. Grandmothers, as many of you may personally know, are sources of unconditional love. She took me to church and Sunday school. We had a special bond, and I naturally felt that what was good enough for her in religion was good enough for me! –As a child and early teenager, then, I was quite devout and followed the practices and explored the beliefs of being a Lutheran and a Christian.
The second major force was science. As early as I can remember, I loved everything connected with science. As a teenager I read about science all the time, including a lot of “adult” books. In my basement I created chemical and electrical laboratories, became a ham radio operator, built my own equipment, and planned to be a scientist or engineer.
The teenage years are a time of starting to question what you’ve been taught and to think for yourself. I became aware, as most idealistic teens do, of the apparent hypocrisy of adults. Some of those church people were not living what they preached! Worse yet, I knew enough science by then to realize that most, if not all, religious ideas and beliefs were quite nonsensical from the point of view of science–just old superstitions. How could I reconcile this with the deep religious feelings that had begun in my childhood?
From an adult perspective, I know many teenagers go through similar conflicts between science and religion. A common “resolution” is to go to one extreme or the other: religion is all nonsense and materialistic science is right, or religion is the ultimate truth and science can be ignored when it’s inconvenient. I put “resolution” in quotes, for as a psychologist, I see this extremism as usually an incomplete and often psychologically costly way of dealing with the conflict, too much suppression of parts of our nature are involved.
Luckily the Trenton City Library was my second home, and it had many books on spirituality, religion, psychical research and parapsychology. My curiosity found a thousand ways to be stimulated, and sometimes fulfilled. I discovered in reading that many intelligent people had gone through conflicts similar to mine, and the founders of the Society for Psychical Research had come up with a brilliant idea. Instead of a wholesale rejection of all religion and spirituality and adoption of materialism in whatever form was then scientifically fashionable, why not apply the methods of science, the insistence on accurate data collection, logical theorizing, testing of theories, and the collegiality of full and honest sharing of data and theory, to the phenomena of religion and spirituality? Why not examine and refine the data and devise more adequate theories? I was inspired by this idea, and it has been the central theme of my professional work and personal life ever since. Look at the data of spirituality*, see how to observe it more accurately, create and test theories about it, share these with colleagues, and slowly work our way toward a spirituality based on as many observable/experiencable facts as possible.
* I switch now to talking about spirituality rather than religion, using “spirituality” to refer to the primary kinds of transpersonal experiences individuals have that, when turned into theories, beliefs, dogmas, become” religions.” Religions are more the province of social psychologists.
Of course there are deeper reasons, but let’s not stray too far from my (relatively) conscious mind… ;-)
Psychic Experiences: A Reality Underlying Spirituality?
My more active probing of possible realities underlying spirituality began when I was a sophomore at MIT, studying electrical engineering, I conducted my first parapsychological experiment, using hypnotic suggestion as a (hoped for) way of producing out-of-body experiences (OBEs), so my subjects’ “minds” or “souls” might leave their bodies temporarily and see and accurately describe a target locked in the basement of a distant house. Looking back, the experimental design wasn’t bad for a teenager, although I didn’t have an objective way of evaluating the data I hoped to get, a qualitative description of an unusual target (nor did the field of parapsychology as a whole at that time). I didn’t formally write the results up until many years later (Tart, 1998), by which time I had carried out five others studies of OBEs.
While at MIT I met other students interested in parapsychology and we formed a student club to talk about it and ask speakers to lecture us. One of those speakers was Dr. Andrija Puharich,
whom Eileen Garrett (one of the world’s most famous spiritualist mediums and head of the Parapsychology Foundation) had told me about. Puharich was a physician researcher who not only claimed to have a way of making quantitatively measurable (hits above chance in a matching test) telepathy work better or to block it, he was doing it with electrical devices, Faraday Cages. Invented by renowned British physicist Michael Faraday, such a cage is an all metal enclosure that keeps electromagnetic waves from penetrating to its inside. What could rouse the curiosity of students of electrical engineering and physics than this? Some of us visited Puharich’s laboratory in Maine and thought his work seemed basically sound. He gave a lecture on his findings at MIT for our club, and I was intrigued enough – and needed the money! – to ask him for a summer job. So I saw some of his research up close for three months in 1957.
I was young and, of course, rather naïve, so didn’t fully realize that, in spite of being rejected by mainstream science, the few parapsychologists around did not all band together in a friendly way to present a united front to irrational criticisms. There was a parapsychological “establishment,” centered in Professor J. B. Rhine’s laboratory at Duke, and Puharich was definitely not part of that establishment; he was a “bad boy.” I had already met Rhine when he came to lecture in Boston several times and had corresponded with him. I wanted to switch from electrical engineering to psychology, to prepare for a career in parapsychology. MIT had no psychology programs at that time, but Rhine helped me transfer to Duke as a psychology major, and had indicated he would find a part-time job for me in his laboratory. However once he discovered that I had spent the summer working for Puharich, and would not admit I was foolish to have done so, he decided I did not have sufficient discrimination to make a scientific parapsychologist, and the promised job disappeared. I was, a friend told me, put on the list of people to be discouraged from visiting Rhine’s lab. I was a “bad boy” now myself, in a minor way. And discovering that curiosity might have lip service paid to it by an otherwise pioneering scientist, J. B. Rhine, but there were strong social and psychological forces channeling it into approved directions, away from non-approved directions.
Still an idealistic young man, I was naturally miffed over this treatment, although, as I matured, I realized I would probably have acted the same way as Rhine in a similar situation. If I had devoted my life to making a case for my field, based on very careful, methodologically sophisticated research, I would discourage wild young people from getting involved and undermining my work with questionable work of their own!
On the other hand, J. B. Rhine had given a talk to the entering freshmen women and invited any of them who were interested in parapsychology to visit his lab. So there I was reading books in the Parapsychology Laboratory’s library (I did not accept Rhine’s ban) when this beautiful young woman came in and asked me, “Do you believe in ESP?” More than 50 years of marriage later, Judy tells me I still use the same response I did with her way back then: “It’s not a matter of belief, it’s a matter of evidence…” said with a subtle, but certain air of snootiness… So Rhine was the proximate cause of far more happiness than unhappiness for me, and he did decide after another 20 years or so that I had enough discrimination to make a good parapsychologist….and the next 50 years were quite interesting….
Curiosity about the female mind was, of course, a big factor in dating and getting married – and I’m still trying to figure out the female mind… Wonderful, puzzling, delightful, frustrating… ;-)
And just to put a cap on these beginning threads of my career pursuing my curiosity, Puharich became even more of a “bad boy” to the parapsychological establishment by getting involved with things like UFO studies, while I became a part of that tiny parapsychological establishment. Puharich eventually got too far out for me with this (“What? I have some rigid, conservative beliefs? Me?”), but it’s a shame that his basic finding, that Faraday cages may amplify or shield psi have been ignored, as they may be a key to a major advance in getting reliable psi in our laboratory work. As far as I know, I’m the only one who did even a partial replication study of his work, with supportive results. Two former students of mine are now starting to continue this work with Faraday cages.
As I have gotten older I would like to think that I have stayed curious about the many questions that are very difficult to answer, to re-question any answers I think I may have found, and to question the answers others promote with certainty. Despite my curiosity and uncertainty about most things, and my immediate knowledge of how little I actually know, others often see me as an expert, though, and I often receive inquiries from others looking for answers about parapsychological and spiritual matters.
Can I illustrate using words to stimulate curiosity and possibly help understanding without getting too caught in them?
Defining the Non-Material
As an example, recently a colleague emailed me that he was on a Quixotic quest for a definition of the non-material. He elaborated that it seems like defining or describing consciousness itself is Quixotic in that everyone seems to recognize it when they see it (I assume you, dear Reader, have consciousness yourself and can recognize that simply by turning your attention inward for a moment), but have no clue what it specifically is. I think some folks would find my response interesting. Words can stimulate and really help curiosity, and can also derail us and drive us kind of crazy…
The Email on Defining Non-Material:
Dear Colleague, yes, that makes consciousness just like pornography, like the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart who said he couldn’t really define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. So for some fun off the top of my head, without going to any authorities like the Oxford English Dictionary, I did an exploration myself about how I may go about defining such ideas at this point in my life.
I like to look at what is implicit or assumed in questions and ideas, so let’s start with the assumption that we ought to be able to “define” the “non-material.”
At one extreme we can get into a rigid kind of arrogance, we humans are the smartest things in the universe and we can define everything! We can make everything make sense in terms of our human conceptual systems — with the usually unvoiced corollary, that if we can’t satisfactorily define it, it doesn’t exist and/or isn’t important, so let’s ignore or suppress it. I’m all for giving things a good try – but also think it’s a good idea to practice a little humility and remember that we may not be smart enough to figure everything out. And/or maybe we’re just temporarily stuck and a new approach will arise later, or a new tool be developed to work on the problem. But I won’t be surprised if we run into some things we never make any progress in explaining properly.
At the opposite extreme, I have no interest in the ideas of those who claim a-priori that we cannot know about X and should not try. That’s an uninteresting recipe for failure. As Henry Ford is reputed to have said, “Those who think they can and those who think they can’t are both right…”
So we may not be smart enough to ever “define” the “immaterial,” or maybe just not smart enough to do it now, but I’m pretty sure there’s something there of interest and importance.
Now on to “define.” To me that means come up with a verbal (or special language, like math) formulation about a phenomenon, X, that makes “sense,” that makes it fit “logically” into the rest of our valued knowledge base. As with the implicit aspects above, there’s an implicit assumption that we ought to be able to do this and that our current knowledge base is correct enough and expandable enough to handle X. To which I have the same maybe as above.
I get a lot of headaches and I’m also good at using language fairly precisely, but if you ask me to exactly define “what” or “where” my headaches are…well, damn it! They move around, some qualities change, and have lots of qualities I just can’t find satisfactory words for! Yet I know it when I have a headache, it’s certainly real – and it’s not like pornography!
So if I say something is “non-material,” without making any absolute or final statement, I’ll make a pragmatic one, given what we/I know currently or reasonable extensions of that knowledge. It is important to remember that such a statement is subject to change if the right new data comes along.
Let me try to illustrate with respect to psi, the general term now applied in parapsychological research for acquiring information about or affecting observable processes when there is no reasonable explanation in terms of what we know about the physical world. If I ask you to tell me the order of a deck of thoroughly shuffled, ordinary playing cards on a table in a locked room next door, e.g., you ordinarily have to use known physical energies like light to determine this, or if I ask you to watch, via video, a machine in that locked room throwing dice, but I want you to make more threes come up than would happen by chance, you have to apply physical energies to the dice to affect them. If you are too correct in calling the cards or affecting the dice just by wishing, determined by statistical analysis, we talk about psi. We could call your correctness with the cards the form of psi we call clairvoyance or, if someone in that locked room is looking at the cards, telepathy. If you significantly affect the outcome of the dice rolling, we call that form of psi psychokinesis (PK).
As an example, I would say that psi is “immaterial” or “non-material” compared with our current knowledge of electricity or reasonable extensions of that knowledge, it just doesn’t show the kinds of qualities electricity does. Translating that into pragmatic decisions, I would say that if someone says they want to take all of what little money currently supports psi research and put it into buying more sensitive radio receivers to detect psi, “That’s almost certainly a waste of time, you can’t have the money.” When I say psi is “immaterial” in the larger sense of the term “material,” I’m saying that what we currently know about the physical world and reasonable extensions of it does not offer any satisfactory explanations of psi. My criteria of “satisfactory” would be both that the physical theory of psi makes conceptual sense in terms of our physics database and allows someone to build a material gadget, working according to known physical principles, which would significantly amplify psi*: the old-fashioned prediction and control criteria for judging scientific theories.
* You may wonder, then, if the Faraday cage effect is real, does it mean psi is electrical in nature? Probably not, given other factors, but it may cut down ordinary noise in our physical brains which thus allows us to pay better attention to faint psi signals…
At present we have some odd and occasional correlations of psi with physical variables (e.g., local sidereal time, geomagnetic weather, a possible Faraday cage effect)* but they don’t really make “sense” of it as far as I can see. Note that I don’t buy into what philosophers long ago termed promissory materialism here either, I’m not much for untestable faith that someday they will explain psi in terms of physical principles. Maybe, but that’s faith, not science. Someday is always in the future, and you can never prove that someday it won’t happen, or that someday it won’t all be explained by invisible, tiny green angels.…
Note too that by saying psi is “non-material” by present knowledge standards, I’m not saying it does not obey any laws or that we can’t figure out how it works or what it means someday. That is I have no “supernatural” theory of a non-understandable god meddling to change things sometimes – although I’m not arrogant enough to say that I’m so smart myself that I can declare there are no beings more intelligent or powerful than me.
The pragmatic bottom line for me is that I’m not saying don’t look for physical correlates or explanations of psi – I love those attempts, I’m a nerd and fascinated by technology! – but I am saying don’t sit back and fail to investigate what the actual characteristics of psi (or other transpersonal phenomena) are because you assume “they” will explain it all someday in terms of physics.
This is exactly the same position I have about consciousness in general. Yes, the brain is heavily involved in what we ordinarily experience as our consciousness, but don’t ignore those characteristics of consciousness that don’t readily fit into a physical, neurological model; get on with investigating them on their own terms.
So “immaterial” pragmatically means real phenomena that do not follow known physical laws and which should be investigated in a variety of ways until we find some that make a new kind of sense out of them. And of course it’s more complicated than this, but enough! See how you’ve overstimulated my brain/mind first thing in the morning? ;-)
With best wishes,
End of the Email on Defining Non-Material:
* After my response I did go check in with an authority, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and here is the essence of each definition rather than the whole thing: material: an adjective – Of or pertaining to matter or substance; formed or consisting of matter; corporeal, and immaterial: An adjective – not material; not consisting of matter; spiritual.
Curiosity as Blessing and Curse:
Even after writing the above email, my curiosity about and musings on defining immaterial and consciousness have not, of course, ended. My interminable supply of curiosity has been a gift for me, albeit not an unmixed blessing – it gets me in trouble sometimes – and one that can be extended to contemporary spirituality and psychology. Later in my life, for example, I increasingly developed a somewhat dedicated routine of Buddhist practices. But as someone raised as a Christian, I have a strongly conditioned idea that to be a “good” member of a religion you are supposed to believe all aspects of it. In that sense, I’m not a “good Buddhist” or a “dedicated Buddhist.” While I have great respect for this tradition, and make it one of my main sources of practical guidance in life, I don’t have a blind faith that all aspects of Buddhism are true. Many followers of Buddhism act as if that’s the case, of course, although Gautama Buddha, in his Sutta to the Kalamas*, warned people not to take any of his teachings on faith, but to thoroughly test them to see if they indeed made sense and worked for them. Using one’s curiosity, and being pragmatic about it. I also am someone who is very scientifically oriented. I realize that we humans make observations and have experiences and then we come up with intellectual explanations, theories, to explain them. It’s one of the most important aspects of being human. I’m sure that Buddhism, indeed probably all religions, started with powerful and moving transpersonal experiences, but then people invented theories, then called doctrines in religious context, to make an acceptable sense of them. As a scientist, though, I have the pragmatic, working belief that all theories are tentative, working hypotheses, never The Truth. They are the best we can do intellectually at the time with the data we have, but it’s important not to get overly attached to them because new data/experiences/understandings coming in may show that they are inadequate and need modification or replacement. This has manifested many times in the history of modern science. All that was important in some field of study was perfectly understood, everyone felt very smart and smug, and Bang! Data came in that required an overthrow of the reigning paradigm and a new one to be formed. Thomas Kuhn documented this so well in his work on the history of science.
* A translation by Gates (1989) that I like is:
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
My Curiosity and Buddhism:
So I regard the doctrines and belief system of Buddhism, indeed of all religions, as theories and practices that undoubtedly have some usefulness and truth value, yet are probably inadequate and need revision in other ways. It’s more complicated than formal science, though, as most people in a religion are really strongly attached to doctrines at an emotional as well as an intellectual level. Questioning any of the religion’s doctrines is generally not valued, indeed may be considered heresy. People who think of themselves as scientists may forget the tentativeness of their theories also, believe their science has found The Truth, and get emotionally attached to these apparent truths. What makes this transition from science as a method leading to working hypotheses to the ossification of believing we know the all the important truths is that the people to whom it happens generally don’t know it’s happened, they continue to think they are open-minded scientists. But, believing that the methods of essential science can help us clarify many things in the spiritual area, I respect doctrines, but ask questions. Hopefully my questions are always based on a desire to be clearer about what’s more or less useful and not just an emotional reaction to what I don’t like.
I tried to find an image of a Buddha who looked curious, who was wondering what else there was, but couldn’t find one. The Buddha seems to be always depicted as content, not wondering… Although with all the variations of Buddhism in the world I’m sure there are some curious Buddha images somewhere…
So, I find that a lot of Buddhist ideas and practices make sense and work for me. I can see in my own life experience that I’ve come to understand my mind better and live a somewhat kinder and wiser life. As to more metaphysical aspects, such as psychic blessings from the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, I hope that those are real, I would be glad to receive them, and will be happy to treat them with respect. I, and most of us, can use all the help we can get! But I don’t know whether Buddhist world view and formulations are ultimate truths or just good theories given the present state of our empirical knowledge. Perhaps not fully adequate theories, so I can and do ask questions, and continue being curious.
I also believe (I should say I treat as a useful working hypothesis, to follow my own advice above) is that the implicit and explicit background of the Buddhist worldview, in common with any spiritual system’s detailed worldview, may basically inhibit curiosity. I worry that some believe that Gautama Buddha figured out everything of importance, pointed out the one important goal in life – the cessation of suffering – and mapped out the best way to get to that goal by becoming enlightened in a Buddhist style. Consequently some may believe there are no other important questions, so why waste your time on anything that isn’t following the traditional Buddhist path as much as you can? There may be technical questions on using the methods most effectively, or adapting them to a particular individual’s strengths and weaknesses, but there are no basic questions.
This is the reason why I have long technically characterized Buddhism and other spiritual systems not as spiritual sciences, but as spiritual technologies*. A scientist, in principle, can be curious about anything and everything. A scientist is initially educated in certain basic principles and findings considered fundamental to her field, but may well go on to question these basic principles and find them erroneous or in need of revision. A technician, on the other hand, is trained in the application of basic principles, in applying them in an effective technical and practical manner, not in questioning these basic principles.
* Note I am not downplaying the immense value of accomplishments on various spiritual paths but, if you believe in progress, as I do, realizing that accepting any world view and spiritual goal as final, ultimate Truth, may seriously discourage you from looking for alternatives that might even be more valuable, and certainly a part of reality…
Of course a lot of people socially designated as scientists actually behave as if they were technicians, never really asking any fundamental questions, but just creating and implementing small, technical improvements within the worldview they were already given. This valuable work is essential and important to the progress of any field of science. When a field of science is dominated by a theory that has implicitly or explicitly accepted as the Truth and habitually molds thinking and action, the famous historian of science, Thomas Kuhn (Kuhn, 1962) called this normal, paradigmatic science. But this scientist/technician distinction is useful. If you’re working in a spiritual tradition that already knows all the important answers, no basic curiosity is needed. But we may want to be curious about that, especially if we are transpersonal psychologists, dedicated to expanding spiritual knowledge, not just applying it.
Similarly, I am curious about curiosity in contemporary psychology. In the late 1800s, when psychology began differentiating itself from philosophy, one of its primary methods was introspection. This was basically a method of examining inner experience, and some of the early psychologists wrote about having “trained observers” examine and report on their experience. Unfortunately, psychology failed to establish itself as a useful discipline with this approach. There was simply too much disagreement among the results from various laboratories as to what was observed in the mind and why these things were observed. Introspection became discredited as a method, and replaced by behaviorism. Behaviorism produced much more objectivity. Did a person do external, behavioral act A or not? You could get perfect agreement among observers about that. But this left out the whole interior side of human experience.
As I have written about elsewhere (Tart, 2005), with the wisdom of hindsight we can see many reasons why this introspective approach didn’t work. There was no understanding of the importance of individual differences, for example, but rather a naïve belief that each of us possessed what we might call a “standard mind,” so anyone’s observations and experiences could give basic insight into the way a standard mind worked. I assume there is some really basic core to mind at some deep level, but the semi-arbitrary qualities added on top of that through enculturation and personal experience may keep it quite hidden. There was also no understanding of the vital importance of experimenter bias, an issue still largely avoided even in modern psychology as we cling to the idea of being “objective observers.” Most importantly, when “trained observers” were talked about, this usually meant people who might have had 10 to 20 hours of training on how to report a particular aspect of experience. With our current familiarity with meditation systems from Buddhism and other spiritual disciplines, however, I’ve heard Buddhist teachers estimate that it generally takes at least 5,000, if not 10,000 hours of disciplined practice to become a really good observer of one’s own experiences. This 10,000 hour figure has been applied now in many fields as a foundation for real mastery (Gladwell, 2008). Thus the fact that untrained, introspecting observers did not produce reports which agreed with one another is hardly surprising (Tart, 2005).
In the last couple of decades psychology, particularly clinical psychology, has discovered that aspects of meditative practices can be therapeutically helpful in relieving a variety of conditions. But note that we have a close parallel to what I said about Buddhism above, namely we have an overall belief system, our culture’s beliefs, about what is normal and how a normal mind should operate. Meditative methods are now seen as an adjunct to other forms of therapy which are designed to help patients’ minds operate in accordance with our views of normal. It’s wonderful that aspects of traditional meditation systems have been adapted in ways that reduce human suffering, but a general curiosity is not there. The exciting question, for me is what would happen if we developed a lot of people trained in spirituality, mediation, psychology, and related fields and then tasked them, in the sense of essential science, to investigating all aspects of experience, all aspects of reality? Not simply those that help people be “normal” and get rid of their specific kind of suffering? Could we develop a new introspective psychology that actually worked? Could we expand upon what we currently know and open new doors to new areas of study and knowing.
For me, curiosity is the heart of science, psychology, and spirituality. At their best, these fields search for truth, or at least a deeper and fuller understanding of ourselves, others, and our world. Curiosity embodies all our senses, our mind, brain, and spirit. Everything we see and all things unseen. What do we think we know, how do we think we know it, what else may be also seem true, and what may we be overlooking? Curiosity has filled my life with confusion at times, but also vital life energy. I humbly suggest you try it.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers. Boston: Little, Brown and Company
Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.
Tart, C., (1988). Effects of electrical shielding on GESP performance. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 82, 129-146.
Tart, C. (1998). Six studies of out-of-the-body experiences. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 17 (2), 73-99.
Tart, C. (2005). Future psychology as a science of mind and spirit: Reflections on receiving the Abraham Maslow award. Humanistic Psychologist, 33(2),131-143.
Tags: Andrija Puharich, behaviorism, belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, curiosity, curiousity, dismissive materialism, Duke University, Eileen Garrett, Einstein, emotions, enlightenment, essential science, experimenter bias, Faraday cage, God, Henry Ford, history of science, hypnosis, immaterial, intention, introspectionism, J. B. Rhine, Jeff Warren, Judy Tart, Kuhn, Lutheranism, materialism, meditation, Michael Faraday, mind science, mindfulness, MIT, non-material, OBEs, out-of-body experiences, Parapsychology Foundation, perception, PK, psi, psychic experiences, psychokinesis, Puharich, religion vs spirituality, Society for Psychical Research, spiritual teachers, spiritual technologies, Sutta to the Kalamas, Thomas, Thomas Kuhn, Transpersonal, Trenton City Library
Bottom Line Spirituality: What Works, What Might Work Better
Charles T. Tart
I was reading along, without too much enthusiasm, a discussion held online by a group of informed people aiming to advance spiritual development a discussion about what various spiritual teachers, especially the historical Buddha, actually taught. I say without too much enthusiasm, as the only material we have to work with are written accounts which were often not actually written until dozens or hundreds of years after the spiritual leader had died, from the memories of various followers. This kind of discussion may be interesting in trying to figure out what was really meant by certain spiritual ideas, but without actual written expression by the person who said it originally, and a profound knowledge of the culture and language that it was written in, we’re pretty much just speculating. That may help, that may not. My enthusiasm waned more as I saw some of the people involved in the discussion beginning to manifest a sort of dogmatic quality, a largely hidden quality on the order of “My spiritual path is more profound than yours.”
Experts devoted to improving our spiritual life shouldn’t get caught up in that kind of sectarianism, of course, but, we’re human, it happens. I wanted to steer the discussion back toward practical matters, so I wrote:
I don’t know what the historical Buddha actually taught, but the bottom line for me is that he essentially said that if (a) you hold a certain world view, (b) live by certain sensible and moral rules, and (c) sharpen your mind with specific, learnable skills involving concentration and insight, you can reduce a lot of the suffering that we humans are subject to. Indeed he took the last part further and claimed you could eliminate ALL suffering. I have no idea if that’s true, but personal experience and what I know of others says you can certainly reduce suffering a lot in this way, and, combined with the bodhisattva commitment to help others, it works well for at least a significant number of people – and that’s wonderful!!!
Whether it’s the ultimate truth about things, I have no idea, but it’s a good way for some people to live. By my values, of course, which value intelligence, kindness, openness. But what is the “best” spiritual path for particular individuals? Wow, that’s a tough one! Trial and error at this time, maybe someday we’ll know better and be able to test people and say things like:
“The odds for your particular kind of person are a 60% high satisfaction for Path A, but a 5% psychosis rate and a 19% disappointment rate that nothing worthwhile happens, while for your particular kind of person Path B leads to….
That sort of thing is not any kind of ultimate answer, but can be figured out empirically if we put a lot of effort into it and track what happens with a lot of people of different types on different spiritual paths.
This is the task of a transpersonal psychology, yet to be developed….
One of the discussants, who is a recognized Buddhist scholar, made me feel very good by commenting that my post was entirely synoptic with the Buddhist teachings, that it was Buddhavacana.
What could I say but thank you!
Well, of course, there was a lot more I could say toward expanding this line of thinking. And while I’m glad I understood this part of Buddhism correctly, I don’t know about its “ultimate” truthfulness…
Given how much I admire Buddhism as a spiritual path, I’m glad I’ve got at least some of it right! And a real Buddhist scholar telling me that, wow! With a really impressive word that I had to look up: Buddhavacana, consistent with what scholars understand the historical Buddha would’ve taught.
Meaning: We’ve Got to Have It!
To expand a little, what I said was my practical self writing. If it’s one thing I’m pretty darn sure of, it’s that we human beings need to have meaning. We need to feel that the world we live in makes some kind of sense and that we have a sensible and valuable place within that world. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a lot of ways for that to work.
You can have a worldview that the universe is, as the poet Tennyson phrased it, red in teeth and claw, it’s all dog eat dog, and so your job and satisfaction is to gain glory by eating them before they eat you! Since at least some of our human capabilities are things like bravery, cleverness, and fighting ability, that certainly produces at least partial satisfaction. It also produces a lot of karma, karma in the sense of given the way we are, when you beat the shit out of other people they are just waiting for their chance to beat the shit out of you… That’s not my preferred worldview, but I understand how it can work for people.
I do have another self that looks for a deeper, truer understanding of reality, and that usually has to work in different ways than the self that likes to be helpful to other people. If I have a Buddhist friend who is dying, e.g., I’m going to do chants and say prayers to Buddhas and bodhisattvas with her or him, and not talk about cultural relativity, that there’s a certain arbitrariness about the Buddhist worldview it could be constructed in other ways, etc. If my dying friend is a Christian, I’m happy to pray with her or him to Christ or to God. And I’m not going to engage in discussions with them about how much our concepts of God the Father (or God the Mother) are based on projections of our human biological characteristics, our history of being helpless and depending on a man and a woman who were godlike in their capacities compared to us as infants and children, etc.
In a general sense I think that almost all belief systems give power. When you’re unsure how the world works, or what your capabilities are, or what you should do, there’s a lot of “stuttering” in your actions and reactions, such that they’re not very effective. “I should, no, maybe I shouldn’t, but, and what about, why aren’t I actually doing it, but…” When you’re ready to give everything for The Cause, for a particular religion that’s promised you salvation, it gives direction, courage, social support, etc.
Belief and Reality:
More deeply, I assume that in general the closer your belief about reality comes to the way reality actually works, the more likely it is to be effective. I’ve read that in one of those colonial wars in Africa, e.g., the local shamans gave their people amulets which they promised would deflect British bullets so they couldn’t be hurt… and then the British machine guns mowed them down by the hundreds… So on a practical, everyday level I prefer to support people to reduce their suffering in whatever reasonable (my value judgment, of course) belief system they operate in, but as a caring being and as a transpersonal psychologist, I would like to understand reality more deeply so as to help shape belief systems to be more and more effective. I consider “effective” in terms of my own values, of course, but that’s another issue to understand my own values, decide when they are helping me or others, when they are hindering me, etc.
As an example of applying this attitude to Buddhism, I notice that many of my Buddhist friends and a lot of Buddhist teachers believe the historical Buddha was fully enlightened, that Gautama Buddha at least knew everything that was important to human happiness, if not everything, period. As an element of world view, of faith, that’s empowering! Remembering those endless hours of attempts at meditation, I was often convinced I would never get anywhere with it and wondered if this was all a lot of crap anyway. The idea I tried to hold that the Buddha at least knew far, far more than me, and if I kept meditating it would eventually work, kept me sitting on the cushion.
On the other hand, as an educated Westerner, as a trained psychologist, as someone who spent a lot of time trying to figure out how my mind works, I realized that Gautama Buddha lived at a particular period in history in a particular culture, and that the way he was raised and what he saw around him shaped his thinking and experiencing to various degrees. The obvious difference I see from my own childhood was that I was raised in a culture that believed in Progress, and that belief has been validated strongly in my own life. Yes, lots of bad things still happen in the world, but my ancestors were peasants and factory workers, and I’ve not only been to college, I’m a professor! I like to learn about things, think about things, and share my understandings of other people—and, by gosh, the University pays me to do that! That sure is Progress in my book!
As I understand it, Gautama Buddha, on the other hand, lived in a culture which was relatively static. A few people got ahead in life, some people’s situation got worse, but, especially as Buddhism continued to grow over the ages, the caste system meant that most people were going to be doing the same thing all their life, which was the same thing their ancestors had done, which was what their children would do. Particularly if you were lower caste, that easily leads to a view that existence is per se pretty bad, and the idea of getting out of here is very appealing. Then you add in a common belief in reincarnation: not only are you inevitably suffering now, you’re going to continue to suffer lifetime after lifetime after lifetime, unless you really follow the Buddhist system to get enlightened, and that’s hard to do and may take many lifetimes. Okay, let me out!
When I first heard about reincarnation as a Western child of Progress, my thoughts were more on the order of “I like to learn things, there’s so much more to learn than I possibly have time for in one lifetime, but wow, I’ll have lifetime after lifetime to learn more and more and get better and better!” (Yes, I was one of those nerdy children who likes school.) An attitude that was reinforced by my reading as a teenager about autosuggestion and actually practicing the system of autosuggestion developed by Emile Coué in 1922 a whereby many times each day you repeated the suggestion, like a mantra, “Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better. Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better… Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better.” And gosh! I think it’s worked!
So when you have a deep belief in progress, you can believe Gautama Buddha knew a lot of very useful and valuable information, but it’s hard to imagine he knew everything. And the kind of enlightenment that Buddhism may lead you toward, and possibly even reach, sounds like a wonderful accomplishment, good for all of us, not just the person who gets enlightened, but is it the ultimate possible for us?
In the everyday material world, old-fashioned Newtonian physics works just fine. Solid objects are solid, you don’t have to deal with weird ideas that they actually are practically all empty space with incredibly infinitesimally small particles or processes or waves or strings or curves in space-time or whatever actually underlying it all. Yet I doubt we would have developed computers and cell phones, e.g., if we continued thinking only in terms of Newtonian physics. It’s a complex process, of course, but I really do think that with the proper application of open-minded science and scholarship, we can achieve deeper understandings of the spiritual as well as the rest of reality, and develop more effective ways of spiritual development.
Okay, my Buddhist scholar friend, I don’t know if this is wandering too far, but thank you again for a wonderful complement. I’ll take as my preferred working hypothesis that Gautama Buddha himself knew that he had something great to share with people, but tried to stay open-minded about the possibility of more. And I hope that the great religious figures of other traditions also remembered the virtue of humility, even if their teachings have way too often been distorted into tools for social control.
And I’ll admit that it’s not easy to switch between two or more perspectives, “This is the Holy Truth, I give it my Head and Heart and All!” and “Good, but let’s look deeper.”
Tags: belief, Buddha, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, emotions, enlightenment, Gautama Buddha, God, intention, Jesus, karma, meditation, ordinary mind, perception, reincarnation, science, Transpersonal, waking up