A few years ago, I and a few other Western scientists had an opportunity at informal meetings with a number of Tibetan lamas to talk about how Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, might become more established and useful in modern, Western culture. I’ve just recently come across a preview of the brief talk I gave toward this end that I think others might find interesting. It’s posing questions, not giving answers, but I think we’ve learned that often asking the right questions is more important than worrying about the right answers. There will also be a great deal of individual variation because one of the things the Buddha was known for as a teacher was adapting his teachings and responses to the particular people he was teaching to.
This, of course, makes many old Buddhist scriptures quite annoying to people who think of Scriptures should be The Truth and so not show any inconsistencies… :-)
As Buddhism comes into any new culture, it must establish productive relationships with important power and value aspects of that culture, and here we will focus on Western science. While Buddhism and science can potentially assist each other, science in the West has focused almost exclusively on the material world, with great success in advancing knowledge. Many Westerners, especially scientists have confusedly mixed this material success with a philosophy of materialism. This philosophy assumes that the only things that are actually real are material things, and thus all religion and spirituality are, by definition, primitive and erroneous beliefs that we should free ourselves of as quickly as possible if we want to make progress.
Buddha Statue in CTT Treehouse
From this perspective, technically known as scientism (current scientific findings as The Truth instead of recognizing science as a method for refining knowledge), the Buddha was a nice man who learned to alter the electrical and chemical balance of his brain processes so he didn’t experience suffering. Then he died and, since the mind is, in materialism, nothing but the electrochemical functioning of the brain, he was gone. The same is true for all monk, nuns, bodhisattvas, nice folks who calmed their brains down, but then they died and were gone. No devas, dakinis, gods, goddesses, reincarnation, karma. Prayers are just talking to yourself. By studying the brain processes of successful Buddhist meditators, someday we will create drugs or electrical treatments which can reduce suffering without anyone having to spend all those thousands of hours learning to meditate…
I once created a prescription label to illustrate this perspective. No, don’t contact me, it’s imaginary, not available! ;-)
Thus Buddhism is unlikely to flourish in this climate, but I will quickly review high quality scientific data that shows that the mind is more than just brain activity and that there is thus good scientific support for ideas, for example, about how prayer might have real effects other than just psychological ones, how reincarnation may be real, how mind may indeed have a spiritual reality beyond brain functioning. In the long run, Buddhism must align itself with this more liberal view of science, not simple, reductive materialism.
[This is spelled out in my magnum opus, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, now (2115) available as an ebook as well as a hardcover. Possibly as a paperback in 2016.]
When I entered graduate school back in 1961, I signed up for the doctorate in clinical psychology track. I figured with my oddball interests in psychic phenomena, altered states of consciousness, spirituality, and the like, conflicting with the physicalism and conservatism in mainstream psychology, it might be hard for me to get a regular teaching or research job at a university after graduation. On the other hand, mental illness and psychopathology was, sadly, a growth industry. More and more ways were being discovered that people used their minds in fashions that created lots of unnecessary suffering, so psychologists who could diagnose what such maladaptive mental and emotional patterns were, and/or act as a psychotherapist to help people straighten them out, would have no trouble finding jobs. As much as I wanted to be a researcher and teacher, supporting my family came first.
I did the first two years of the PhD clinical track, and reached the point where I was doing diagnostic psychological tests on real patients, and writing up assessments of them that went on to their psychiatric doctors. These reports, to various degrees, would affect how they were treated. Yet I grew increasingly uncomfortable with this.
Photo by John Forrest Bamberger
On the one hand, I knew that while the tests I had learned to give were useful in discriminating groups of people, they weren’t very accurate in many cases when applied to individuals. On the other hand, I realize that good diagnosticians and therapists possessed a talent, a knack, that guided them in their work, and test results were secondary to that. Nowadays I would say that good diagnosticians and therapists had a high degree of emotional intelligence, although we didn’t really have that concept very clearly in mainstream psychology back then. I understood myself enough, though, to realize that while I was very bright intellectually, I did not have much emotional intelligence. Half a century later, when I’ve done a lot of work on trying to increase my emotional intelligence, I’m quite amazed at how emotionally dumb I was back then. At any rate, I knew I didn’t belong in the clinical psychology program, and switched to a new track the Psychology Department had started on personality psychology, which would primarily lead to a career of research and teaching.
Funny thing, though, I’ve actually given hundreds, if not thousands of people some psychotherapeutic type of support over the years by helping them understand that their unusual experiences did not mean that they were “crazy” or “bad.”
A colleague from a special Esalen Center for Theory and Research group I’ve had the privilege of belonging to for more than a decade, Greg Shaw, recently shared his similar experience, and he expressed the importance of this so well that I want to share his note with others. Greg Shaw, Ph.D., is a Professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College in Massachusetts.
I recently visited my mom in Santa Barbara where she lives in a retirement home… Always the promoter, my mom asked if I could give a presentation to her community and I agreed. I titled it “Extraordinary Knowing: Exploring Impossible and Paranormal Experiences.” My plan was to tell them two stories: Jeff’s story about Mark Twain and his brother and Elizabeth Mayer’s story* about the harp, just to put the bait in the water and then invite them to address these stories or to share something similar. Slowly, at first, and then for one hour, this group of 55, aged from 85 to 105, told riveting tales. A couple of them spoke of being in a car and demanding the driver stop because they saw a close relative standing in the middle of the road. After stopping and the driver seeing nothing, the individual discovered that their relative had died at precisely that time. There were several stories just like this.
One dear old woman said that in her 30’s she began to see different colored lights around men, each having a slightly different hue. She was told to dismiss it as it wasn’t real, yet she still feels it was. One man had been a college physics professor and was, he says, a complete materialist/physicalist but is no more. I was happy to be able to share with them both books we have produced, Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century and Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality, and encouraged the physicist to read Ed’s introductory and summary essays. I also encouraged them to read Mayer’s book. At the end of the lecture-which I ended after an hour but they could have kept going–I realized how deeply an entire generation of intelligent and well-educated people have been deprived of a framework that could give these experiences value and meaning. One woman, after relating a tale of seeing a recently deceased relative, thought it meant she was a “witch.” The only frames of reference available have been those rejected by our “high” culture and they carry their experiences in isolation. Enough said. … The audience in Santa Barbara was genuinely appreciative to hear that these kinds of experiences were finally being respected and taken seriously.
* From the Amazon description of Mayer’s book: Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind: In 1991, when her daughter’s rare, hand-carved harp was stolen, Lisby Mayer’s familiar world of science and rational thinking turned upside down. After the police failed to turn up any leads, a friend suggested she call a dowser—a man who specialized in finding lost objects. With nothing to lose—and almost as a joke—Dr. Mayer agreed. Within two days, and without leaving his Arkansas home, the dowser located the exact California street coordinates where the harp was found.
Deeply shaken, yet driven to understand what had happened, Mayer began the fourteen-year journey of discovery that she recounts in this mind-opening, brilliantly readable book. Her first surprise: the dozens of colleagues who’d been keeping similar experiences secret for years, fearful of being labeled credulous or crazy.
It’s been very gratifying that my articles and lectures about my and others’ research over the years have been able to both ease the minds and educate the minds of so many people who have had unusual experiences, but no framework other than “crazy” or “work of the devil” to deal with them. My own The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together in 2009 was, at one level, a scientific survey, but at an important level, my main attempt to let a wide public know that it’s not true that science has somehow shown all spirituality and religion to be false. Of course there’s superstition and nonsense mixed in with spirituality and religion, so discrimination is needed. But when you look at properly conducted science, there’s lots of evidence to show that it’s reasonable to be both scientific and spiritual in one’s approach to life.
It’s not that my emotional intelligence has gotten so high that I could help people, but just by presenting solid intellectual and scientific evidence that these things happen to normal people, they are not inherently crazy, that’s enough to relieve so many. A few who’ve been in touch with me, of course, did seem to have major psychological and psychiatric problems, of which the apparent psychic or spiritual experiences were just a manifestation, not the cause. I could try suggesting they get some counseling, but, sadly, too often they resisted this. And our knowledge is still way too incomplete. Lots of times it’s not clear whether a person should be have counseling recommended to them or spiritual growth work. I’m hoping that transpersonal psychology and parapsychology will, over time as they develop, make us much wiser here!
Tags: belief, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, clinical psychology, dowsing, Edward Kelly, Elizabeth Mayer, emotional intelligence, emotions, enlightenment, Esalen, Esalen Center for Theory and Research, God, Greg Shaw, Gregory Shaw, intelligence, irreducible mind, John Bamberger, John-Forrest Bamberger, ordinary mind, Parapsychology, psychotherapy, religion, science, scientism, spiritual teachers, spirituality, Transpersonal, unusual experiences
My wife sometimes tells me I limit myself too much in my role as scientist, even as a scientist genuinely interested in the spiritual. My usual response is that science is where I have some expertise, and so may say things that are helpful to others in understanding our minds better, which must be a part of whatever spirituality is. But, my wife Judy points out, you may give people the impression that science is the best way, perhaps the only way, to discover truth, and so inadvertently undermine their spirituality. Ah, yes, that’s possible, and not what I want to do…
So as a small step toward more balance – – –
What Does It All Mean?
Art Work by John Forrest Bamberger
In one of my discussion groups, I saw a clear and succinct statement of what life is all about:
“Who am I?” and “What should I do about it?”
I complimented the originator on this most excellent and succinct statement of the big question of life….
And a result was asked if I wanted to take a shot at answering it….
My first reaction was that I was greatly honored and amused that anyone would think I had a chance at answering that!
But sincerity called for more than an amused avoidance of the question, so as a small answer in progress,
Ah, I love simple questions! ;-)
I’ve been working on this one my whole life, and don’t know an answer yet.
Meanwhile on the journey, I try to
– pay attention,
– be kind to others when I can,
– pray that if I can’t get clear, unmistakable divine guidance, I at least get a little help now and then to not hurt others thru stupidity or malice, and
– try to not get too attached to whatever my current level of understanding is.
One of the specialized online discussion groups I’m part of is composed of people who are supposed to be “spiritual leaders,” open to new ideas. I’ve never been quite sure why I was invited to join, as I’m certainly not a spiritual leader, but it turns out I’m the group’s only full-time scientist who is also interested in what spiritual growth is about, so it gets interesting.
One of the members recently raised a question about astrology, he didn’t know much about it, but wondered if it was a useful vehicle for spiritual growth. I thought I would bring the group up to date on the general scientific view and parapsychological view of astrology, and I’m sharing that brief description here.
Pine Needle World
– John Bamberger –
There have been a number of objective studies of the accuracy of astrological readings about individuals, almost all were non-significant. Non-significant in the sense that the readings did not yield significant numbers of correct, verifiable statements about particular individuals that were different from those for other individuals. That is, the basic questions these studies asked were if you knew the astrological data about a particular person, but nothing else about them, would you then be able to describe characteristics of that person and their life which would be a useful and valid description of that person, over and above generalities?
These kind of readings, and all sorts of psychic readings in general, tend to be full of wonderful statements like “You are very intelligent but sometimes you don’t use your intelligence to its full potential, and other people don’t give you enough credit.” Or “You have a little resentment that people don’t appreciate your full intelligence, but, out of consideration for others, you handle yourself well.”
Oops! Did I just do a psychic reading on you Jeff? Or was it on Phil? Or for David? Or you, Dear Reader? Who is going to object to being so positively and hopefully characterized? And who is going to doubt that it’s deeply true, even if some people might think we make as many mistakes as the next person.
Yes, I’m a fantastic psychic, I have to admit it! ;-)
[Please note the smiley face at the end of above line, don’t say Tart says he’s a great psychic!]
In general these kinds of readings are full of generalities that really apply to almost everybody. A good psychological argument has been made, though, that since they’re usually very positive, it’s often a great bargain to receive nice compliments for a few dollars, it makes you feel good…
Believers in astrology or other psychic systems, of course, say that when tests of any systems show a lack of significance it’s because they were of crude, popular versions of the system, rather than the real thing.
Now, switching to the opposite position, no longer the general scientific view but from the perspective of scientific parapsychology, I will say there is strong evidence that some people have strong psychic abilities, ESP, to read other people. But in general it’s very hard for many such people to just take a chance with their egos (and jealous or suspicious others) and say “I’m wonderful and can do amazing things!” It hasn’t been long in historical terms at all since we burned “witches” at the stake…. So it’s much easier to blame it on the system. So you take some complicated, relatively random set of things, the positions of different stars and planets at birth, how the tea leaves have fallen in the bottom of the cup, how the entrails of a sacrifice are laid out, etc., and claim (and probably believe it yourself) that you are reading information in those patterns. That way any fault lies in the system. You pick up some of the credit for being so smart, but you avoid a lot of blame if people don’t like your reading. It’s probably also true that projecting this way actually helps your unconscious mind, which has gotten the information by ESP, to bring it to consciousness.
I wouldn’t say absolutely that there cannot be anything to astrology, but my working hypothesis, based on what research there’s been to date specifically on astrology, and on psychic stuff in general, is that such readings are mostly generalities. Occasionally some people with working psychic talents use them to make especially good readings of others, but it’s the readers’ psychic talents, not the positions of the stars and planet or the tea leaves s. A very few people sometimes give exceptionally accurate psychic readings, as in remote viewing, e.g. See my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book for detail on that.
Now somebody will probably peg me as having been born with Skeptico rising! Except, of course, those who think of me as being far too credulous and stupid for saying there’s evidence for ESP…
Spiritual growth? I have no doubt some individuals can use a system like astrology to further their own spiritual growth, but I’d suspect the importance is in their intentions and efforts, and/or any spiritual help they get, rather than in the external signs.
There is a prayer that I’ve learned in similar forms from several Tibetan Buddhist teachers. It is normally used as a dedication prayer, a form to follow at the end of any kind of spiritual practice that dedicates the merit of your practice to the welfare of all sentient beings. The translation I’ve come to use, perhaps altered slightly from traditional translations, is
By the power and the truth of this practice,
May all beings have happiness, and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from sorrow, and the causes of sorrow.
May they never be separated from the sacred happiness, which is sorrowless.
May all live without too much attachment and too much aversion,
And live believing in the equality of all that lives.
Galactic Life Forms — John Bamberger
I use this prayer regularly at the end of my meditation practice periods, or as a general way of feeling benevolence toward all life on occasions. I sometimes leave off the first line, “By the power and the truth of this practice,” as I don’t think I do any spiritual practices so well that I can implicitly make claims about their power and truthfulness, at other times I remember to be sure to include that first line in spite of my misgivings, as I have a bad habit of overdoing humility – which, of course, is not humility.
I awoke this morning thinking it would be useful to unpack what this prayer means to me, and to share it with others.
“By the power and the truth of this practice,”
I can appreciate the psychological power of starting with “By the power and truth of this practice.” It reminds us that we are part of a 2500-year-old tradition, not just somebody fooling around on our own. It implies the support of the sangha, other people following Buddhist practices, and especially the psychological, psychic and teaching support of the more realized followers of Buddhism, including various Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Now, as someone raised as a Christian, I have an 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,” because 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. 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. I’m sure that Buddhism, indeed probably all religions, started with powerful and moving experiences, but then people invented theories, called doctrines in this religious context, to make an acceptable sense of them. As a scientist, I have the pragmatic, working belief that all theories are tentative. 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.
So I regard the doctrines and belief system of Buddhism, indeed of all religions, as theories and practices that probably 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 also forget the tentativeness of theories also, believe their science has found The Truth, and get emotionally attached to these apparent truths. But, believing that the methods of essential science can help us clarify many things, I respect doctrines, but ask questions. Hopefully my questions are always based on a desire to be clearer about what more and useful and not just emotional reaction to what I don’t like.
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 better life. As to the metaphysical aspects of psychic blessings from the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, I hope that those are real, would be glad to receive them, and will be happy to treat them with respect, but I don’t know whether they are ultimate truths or just good, but perhaps not fully adequate theories, so I can and do ask questions.
The next two lines,
“May all beings have happiness, and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from sorrow, and the causes of sorrow.”
This is a straightforward wish and generally I am wholehearted in wishing it. It’s certainly my intellectual conviction. I must admit though that occasionally when I hear about people who’ve done really nasty things to other people and animals, I am angry and feel they should be punished and suffer, and have feelings of delight when they have suffered for what they’ve done. I then usually feel guilty that I have such vengeful feelings, but I remember to recognize that I’m just being human and those kinds of emotions are built into the human package. But I try not to hold on to negative feelings about anyone. If there were practical consequences, such as being careful in dealing with someone who’s been shown to be manipulative and untrustworthy, for example, I would certainly keep those facts in mind and be careful around them, perhaps needing to take forceful action against them if needed.
“May they never be separated from the sacred happiness, which is sorrowless.”
The two lines of wishes that beings may be happy and not suffer are conventional, but this one about never being separated from the sacred happiness is, I believe, much deeper. Indeed Buddhism considers helping someone else to become enlightened is the greatest gift possible, more important than all others. Although I’ve never personally had any deep mystical experiences, my psychological studies have shown me that it’s possible for human beings to have profound experiences of connection, unity, and love for all life, to feel that the universe is actually harmonious, alive, intelligent and progressing in the right direction in spite of apparent evil, and that such experiences can radically change a person’s life. The changes are in the direction of not simply personal happiness but a wisdom and kindness in dealing with others that is very deep.
My understanding of what this dedication wish is about may be limited, but I certainly wish that all of us could have at least a taste, if not a full realization of the sacred happiness, which makes life sorrowless.
“May all live without too much attachment and too much aversion,”
The previous parts of the prayer had been rather general, but I think of this as the practical advice line. Buddhism is very good in recognizing that attachment and aversion, “I want it, I must have it!” “I can’t stand it, take it away!” create all sorts of unnecessary suffering. Indeed, the usual translation of this line is absolute, “May all live without attachment and aversion.” But this strikes me as extreme and impractical, so I prefer Sogyal Rinpoche’s early translation wishing beings to live without too much attachment and too much aversion. It is possible to be resting quietly and peacefully and not particularly wanting or rejecting anything. But if I’m starving, freezing, or in great physical pain, for example, I’ll quickly discover that I am attached to adequate nutrition, warmth and comfort.
Perhaps I don’t begin to understand Buddhism anywhere near enough to appreciate the power of wanting to live with no attachment and no aversion at all, but I’ll certainly go along with the practical advice to anyone to be careful about attachment and aversion and to live moderately. If I’m outside and the weather is very cold, I need warm clothing to keep from freezing. If I will only accept a fashionable brand of outdoor clothing because I’m attached to the stylish impression I make on others, and it’s not readily available, I’ll freeze to death. If I refuse to wear some raggedy looking but otherwise warm clothing somebody offers me, again because I’m attached to how I appear to others, I’m similarly stupid and freeze to death.
“And live believing in the equality of all that lives.”
This last line of the prayer seems quite good intentioned to me, but I have difficulty with it. We human beings are the top predators on this planet. Even if we are vegetarians, and hold the belief that vegetables have no sentience and so cannot suffer when we kill and eat them, we cannot live without treating other beings as less than us and using and killing them. We take in thousands, if not millions of bacteria from outside every day and our immune system kills them off, with no effort on our part. Perhaps, one could argue, there are degrees of sentience, and bacteria and vegetables, as well as “lower” animals are so much less conscious than we are that they don’t suffer enough for us to worry about, but this strikes me as a slippery moral slope that we have to be very careful of. It is, sadly, the venerable human tradition to consider people of other tribes as significantly less human than you are and therefore it’s all right to kill them.…
My primary formal spiritual practice is in various kinds of meditation. I’m not particularly skilled at it, but I’ve come to enjoy various forms of meditation, and I generally do at least a few minutes of it every day. The above is the prayer I end my formal meditation periods with, and while I don’t know with certainty about the reality of possible psychic effects of such a dedication directly helping other people (I hope they do), I do value the mind set it gives me. My intention is that I’m not meditating simply from my personal benefit, I am doing it to be part of a general field of good intentions for life. I have that feeling about some of my scientific work also, that it may benefit all.
Praying to Who or What?
So who or what, you might ask, am I praying to?
The answer to that is highly variable, and depends on my psychological state at the time.
There certainly times, for example, when the conditioning from my childhood Christian religion adds a flavor to my prayer that I’m hoping there is a super-powerful God somewhere who is listening to my prayer and will respond favorably to it. It’s generally not my conscious intention to have that flavor be in my prayer, although I don’t feel a need to suppress it either. That would dishonor my younger self.
I generally have a more intellectual flavor to my prayers that I don’t understand the universe very well, and I’m not sure there are higher beings that listen to our prayers and respond to them – although I hope so – and I hope they are benevolent. If they exist, the dedication prayer is a gesture of respect to them, as well as a psychological way to help keep me connected to humanity and life as a whole. If the enlightened Buddhas and bodhisattvas who are no longer physically with us still exist as active spiritual beings somewhere, I hope that they hear my prayers and others’ prayers and help us all move toward happiness and enlightenment. And, implicitly, I hope that they are not stuck on formality and respond to my good intentions even, though I’m not a “good Buddhist” in the sense of believing all the doctrines or engaging in traditional ritual behaviors.
Note that I called the above an intellectual attitude of my prayers, but it’s also a deeper emotional tone.
I don’t know how much the truth and power the above writing has, but I do pray that it may help at least some beings have happiness and the causes of happiness, be free from sorrow and the causes of sorrow, connect to that deep, sacred level of being, and treat all beings with wisdom and compassion.
Tags: belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, dedication, emotions, enlightenment, gods, John Bamberger, materialism, meditation, mind science, mindfulness, prayer, Sogyal Rinpoche, spiritual teachers, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal
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The folks at GlideWing.com who make this mindfulness web workshop of mine available occasionally have created a nice little video describing it. If I understood how, I would fix it to run automatically here, but if you click on this link http://www.glidewing.com/ctt/mindfulness_home.html it will run.
It promotes the workshop more directly than I would, but my friends tell me I’m too retiring. My mother raised me to think that any admiration of one’s own work, much less boasting about it, was crude and egotistical, so I’ve always tried to do good work and hope that people who might find it useful somehow discover it on their own. I hear that’s not how it is done in our overly -advertised society…. Stupid, actually, if I have learned some things that can help people I need to let them know they exist… ;-)
Anyway I offer a good introduction to becoming more mindful in everyday life, where we really need it, as well as learning fundamental meditation skills, so if you’re interested, take a look. This workshop lasts 3 weeks and starts May 30, 2015, that’s a few days from this posting.
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Is Meditative Observation Fast Enough?
Charles T. Tart
Initial Draft: May 11, 2015
One of my tasks as a transpersonal psychologist is to compare knowledge and theories about observations and beliefs/theories from traditional spiritual paths with modern scientific knowledge, hopefully to the mutual benefit of both. The following is some speculation along that line. I start from two foundations.
My first foundation is general knowledge of the nature of states of consciousness. Studies of various altered states of consciousness (ASCs), such as hypnosis, drug induced states, dreaming and the like have been a central theme in my career. My current best working hypothesis about the nature of ordinary consciousness, resulting from all this, has been that waking consciousness, ordinary consciousness, is a semi-arbitrary construction, is basically the same as nocturnal dreaming, but with one massive difference.
In both cases, mind creates a world and an enveloping space-time framework for it, and events unfold within that experienced world. In the case of nocturnal dreaming, this is accompanied by sensory deprivation, so the constructive and creative processes in nocturnal dreaming, while shaped a lot by the habits of our life experience, are relatively free running, unconstrained by sense input, so occasionally we talk about the bizarreness of dreams, even though dreams reflect ordinary life most of the time. In waking consciousness, on the other hand, while a basic space/time/world framework is created as in dreams, it has to constantly deal with massive amounts of information input from our senses. Its creation must be modified and updated on the fly to adequately represent those. It’s one thing to dream of an attractive road that you wonder across while looking at the wind in the leaves of the lovely trees. When you reach such a road in waking life, your experienced world had better be modified by the oncoming car and the danger it represents if it hits you!
My second foundation was originally drawn from Gurdjieff’s teachings about the Fourth Way spiritual path, supplemented and basically validated by my own experiential observations, namely that we have three kinds of data processing processes or “brains,” as Gurdjieff called them. One is (a) intellectual, words and the logic of words, a second is (b) emotional, a feeling kind of processing, although it may also employ words and images, and the third is (c) body/instinctual processing.
Gurdjieff taught that the emotional brain is faster than the intellectual brain, and may reach a conclusion about a situation you are in and spur you toward action before the intellectual brain has hardly begun to understand the situation, much less work out a sensible course of action. I’ve observed this in myself many times. This distinction has now been validated in terms of neurophysiological studies. Our sensory pathways split in two. A shorter neural pathway goes to older, more “primitive” parts of the brain that can trigger emotions, while a longer (more time-consuming relays from one neuron to another) pathway goes to the “higher” reasoning processes in the frontal cortex. Thus the emotional brain perceives the world quicker, although generally considered to do so in a cruder, less discriminative way than our higher functions. If it sees danger it may “hijack” overall brain processes by massively increasing the level of activation, stimulating hormonal production, and producing imagery and words that are a major part of an emotion. Someone walks into your peripheral visual field, for example, who resembles, but not actually is, an enemy of yours that you realistically have to be wary of. Before you can take a good look and realize this is not your enemy, you have a jolt of fear or anger or both, your body starts getting ready for flight or fight. It’s hard to calm down once your mind has been hijacked like that, and your ongoing perceptions may be further distorted to support the activated emotion.
The speediness of the emotional brain can be adaptive as well as crazy-making. Eastern teachers, for example, use a traditional analogy that you’re walking along a jungle path in the twilight and you see something that looks like a snake. You’re frightened and leap back. It turns out to be a piece of colored rope lying on the ground. This is used as an example of misperception, but it could be just as well used as an example of adaptation. It’s much better for the emotional brain to crudely but mistakenly think it’s a snake and have you jump back before you can be bitten than to stand there while waiting for higher brain functions to get clearer about it and perhaps get bitten and die.
Now my question about how fast meditative observation can be.
I’m thinking about the emotional brain’s function from an engineering perspective, in terms of efficiency. Insofar as you want it, when perceiving possible danger, to react as quickly as possible and so get you away from the danger, the output of the emotional brain, images (in any sensory modality) and emotional feelings and words should be powerful and easily and quickly displayed. For our example of the possible snake on the path, you don’t want to take a long sequence of moments to display, say, any small harmless snake, which in several stages morphs into a bigger, fairly poisonous snake, you want a poisonous snake in a threatening posture to display as close to instantly as possible. An extra tenth of a second delay in getting the information to consciousness may be the difference between jumping back in time or getting bitten. Then you jump back or, unfortunately, are paralyzed with fear. After that initial message, the emotional brain and/or higher centers can work on presenting more accurate information, a visual image of the actual kind of snake it is.
Now I’ve been told that practitioners who are really good at Vipassana meditation have learned to detect briefer and briefer events, including their rising, staying, and fading. Or you could say able to detect a larger number of brief events per second.
I’m not good at this personally. In my normal Vipassana practice, I prefer and probably implicitly will a slower rate of change, say one event per second or even several seconds per event, so that I can equanimously take in particular events in more detail (detect — grok with equanimity — allow to stay, morph or go). If I set my intention to looking for faster changes, I can work up to perhaps three or four per second, but by then my actual perception of the individual events has become quite blurred. By analogy, I could listen to a series of click-like brief sounds, each one of which was slightly different, at a slow speed and hear the differences, but at several per second it just becomes a kind of buzz.
So my question (not expressed as clearly as it could be as I’m still groping for something here), for those much more skilled than me, is, when doing Vipassana, and an event arises which has some emotional significance, is the initial information generally “generic,” rather than specific? And then after a few instants it is further processed and becomes more accurately specific?
To make up a possible example, I’m meditating and a car backfires on the street outside. I’ve been shot at in the past, so sounds like this are threatening. Perhaps, for example, a generic image of a man with a rifle rises in my mind, to be corrected a few instance later by an image of a car with a puff of smoke coming out of its tailpipe? Visual imagery is easiest to describe, of course, but I ask this question with respect to all sensory modalities.
I’m particularly curious whether any skilled meditators actually experience things this way. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are Buddhist scriptures that make relevant claims, but I tend to have a suspicion that when you have a tradition that has had 2500 years of scholars associated with it, many of whom may not have actually meditated much themselves, the concepts-to-reality ratio may have gotten rather high.
I suspect that electrophysiological studies will eventually be able to measure when a generic information presentation by the emotional brain gets replaced with something more specific, although that may be a subtle enough transition to not be detectable for a long time. Indeed my best guess about the nature of consciousness is that there is some real but “dualistic” component, so that a complete understanding will not come from neurophysiology or the introspective disciplines alone, but from a study of both components and the outcomes of their interactions.
Meanwhile, I wonder….
March 18, 2015. This needs more expansion, refinement, editing, but since I’m going off on a meditation retreat in a couple of days I’m liable to lose track of this (samsara sucks, as you’ll see) so want to get something up here.
Samsara Sucks… But Attention/Intention Can Unstick It
Thoughts on automatization, samsara, freedom, meditation, enlightenment, awakening, noting, labeling
Charles T. Tart
In the way he teaches basic meditation, Shinzen Young asks us to first note an experience as it arises and progresses, and, if it is helpful, to also apply a label to it. Noting is to consciously realize you are having a particular experience at the moment, and, as much as possible, to be aware of it with concentration, clarity, and equanimity. That is, you steady your attention on it, “look closely” at it as it were, which leads to more clarity. Neither try to make the experience last and be better than it is or to push it away if you don’t like it. Be equanamous about it.
As our minds, to put it mildly, tend to drift with no respect to our conscious intentions, it’s helpful to add the process of labeling to noting, although it may not always be necessary. Labeling means applying a word to the experience, classifying it. At its most basic, an experience could be labeled as visual (seeing), auditory (hearing) or tactile (feeling). The most minimal amount of labeling would be mentally applying a single label word to an ongoing experience. The attention and effort involved in labeling could be increased by, say, actually whispering that particular word aloud (in a completely matter-of-fact tone) up to saying that word aloud loudly enough so that someone else could clearly hear you. Having a student speak the labels aloud for a particular meditation processes is commonly used by Shinzen when he individually interviews and coaches a student to get a more direct report of what the student’s experience is like, possibly leading to procedural suggestions to make the meditative process more effective.
I have just completed a four hour telephone retreat with Shinzen and other students on a simplified version of his noting and labeling system, a very rich experience. It stimulated a number of reflections I’ve had about the process to come together.
Living in Illusion, Samsara:
My understanding of the ordinary human condition, gained through my reflections on personal experience, my formal education in psychology, and especially working in the Gurdjieff tradition and in basic Buddhist meditation, has been that in many ways we live in a state of illusion and lack of freedom, what has been called samsara. “Illusion” in the sense that we often do not have an accurate perception of the world around us, or our own internal psychological world for a variety of psychological reasons. Lack of freedom in that many possible avenues of action are cut off to us by lack of knowledge of them, prejudice against them, or neurotic barriers. A major consequence of living in samsara is that every life is filled with a great deal of suffering that is unnecessary. Some suffering will occur: if you break your leg it’s going to hurt! But much suffering wouldn’t arise, or would not be of any real consequence if we had a clearer perception of the reality of the external world and ourselves, and so were freer to choose appropriate responses and styles of living.
Although my knowledge of meditation then was shallow, back in the 70s, when I lectured on meditation in my popular altered states of consciousness class at the University of California at Davis, I over-simplistically said it had two main purposes. One was to induce altered states of consciousness (ASCs) because the experience of being in such states and/or the insights gained from them had important values. The other was to “purify” the functioning of ordinary consciousness, to reduce the distortions and perversions of perception, emotional feeling/thinking, intellectual thinking, and action so that our ordinary lives became more effective and happier. Decades later I know the meditation can involve much more than these two dimensions, and they interact strongly anyway. The remarks I want to make now are about this latter dimension, purifying ordinary consciousness.
Fourth Way teacher G. I. Gurdjieff encapsulated a lot of truth in his simple and blunt statement, “Man is a machine.” He meant that our mental lives are dominated by rigid, mechanical reactions. Build a machine in a certain configuration or push a certain button on it and the outcome is certain, there is no question of choice or freedom. In more modern psychological terms, I would say that much of our mental life is built of conditioned reactions, if A, then B, with no real choice. We also have culturally biased and conditioned perceptions, feelings, and thoughts and/or with neurotically biased perceptions, feelings, and thoughts added to the mixture. I would not state it as absolutely as Gurdjieff, and of course he did not really mean it in an absolute sense, for if we had no conscious choice at all, there’d be no hope of doing anything about it. Still, it is extremely hard to develop enough understanding of the way your mind works, to be able to see more adaptive ways it could work, and to develop the willpower to do so. So I would put it, we human beings are highly automatized in our perceptions, intellectual and emotional evaluations, and actions, but there are methods which have a chance of making these freer, giving us clearer perceptions and more choices as to actions.
One aspect of this, based on years of psychological and meditative observation of my own mental processes, as well as general psychological knowledge , could be put bluntly as saying that “Automatized processes suck!” That is, when circumstances (external events, or reactions to external events) trigger many highly automatized processes of perception, thinking, feeling and reaction, those processes not only run and progress, they tend to suck up most or all of our consciousness in ways that reinforce these processes. Somebody looks at you funny from across a room, for example, which triggers automatized perceptions and reactions that “People don’t love me!” In the first second or fraction of a second, this is a relatively low intensity reaction, but in many cases it kind of sucks up more and more of consciousness, and within two or three seconds you are feeling really bad about nobody loving you, and your perceptions are now further biased so that, for example, you’re more likely to notice anybody looking at you with an unpleasant expression on their face, further strengthening the process of feeling rejected. A funny look from somebody lasting half a second might make you feel miserable the rest of the day.
When I practice Vipassana meditation (mostly in the way Shinzen Young taught me), I’m usually relatively passively observing the flow of whatever experiences come up. My practice can be allowing seeing, hearing, or touching modalities, or whatever mixture of modalities happens to arise at a particular moment. I’ll use the visual modality as an example here.
A visual image arises, and sometimes I’m able to observe it with relative concentration, clarity, and equanimity. It passes, or morphs into another image, I observe the next one, etc. But frequently I cannot keep up this somewhat independent, intentional sequence for very long, as a particular visual image sucks in the rest of my mind. What was primarily an emotionally neutral visual image, located in my habitual image space (behind my closed eyes), rapidly, instantly it often seems like, turns into a brief dream, a dreamlet, sometimes a longer dream, where I’m absorbed in the world of that evolving image, things are happening in it, and relevant thought (internal speech) may become a part of it. It may take several seconds (or sometimes a minute or two) before I realize that in terms of my starting intention to observe the flow of a modality with concentration, clarity, and equanimity I’ve lost it ! I’ve been sucked into a little dream, losing track of the rest of me and my intention. That’s why I talk about the sucking power of ongoing internal processes, that automatized processes suck.
Now, my reflection on being caught in samsara versus freedom or awakening.
Consensus Reality Orientation (CRO) Activity:
My experience suggests that there is a continuous generation process of images, thoughts, and feelings going on all the time outside of the central focus of ordinary consciousness. (Shinzen once suggested to me that this is what the Hindus called the Bhavanga, but the more I read about the Bhavanga, the less I become sure there is any one clear definition of what’s meant by that term) This process could be what has been called the unconscious in Western psychology, and it becomes more pre-conscious when I’m practicing Vipassana. In my own formal theorizing about the nature of the mind, I think of this flowing stream as the action of the Consensus Reality Orientation (CRO), a part of our mind devoted to rapid simulations of “What if?” scenarios, based on what’s happened recently and what might happen soon, and that it may have a useful function in bringing knowledge that could be useful in the immediate future closer to consciousness, so it can be more rapidly retrieved than if it had to be brought out of deeper storage layers. Whatever….
If you’re interested in understanding how your mind functions, as I have been all my life, it’s been a great blessing to learn how to observe this ongoing CRO stream. It’s not that it’s given me specific “insights” in the Western psychotherapeutic sense of that term, so much as a feeling for an important process of the mind.
It’s hard for me to observe this ongoing imagery process in my ordinary waking state, but with my eyes closed, intending to observe it in the Vipassana-like way, it becomes much clearer and stronger. This makes it more observable, but remember that it sucks! When I “get closer” to it to see it more clearly, I’m more likely to get sucked into it.
I’ve been fairly good at times at being able to go somewhat further “in” and still realize, in spite of the overall fuzziness of consciousness such “penetration” creates, that I am there to observe it with concentration, clarity, and equanimity, but it isn’t easy. I’ve likened the CRO stream to a valley running through my mind, with all sorts of events happening in the Valley, more events the deeper you go. As I get close to the “rim,” I can start to see some of these deeper events, and if I start down the gentle slope of the rim it gets clearer and clearer: except the chance of slipping and being totally sucked into ongoing dreams gets greater and greater! Sometimes I’m pretty good at going part way down the sloping rim and still staying aware, other days I have to stay further from the rim, even if the observation isn’t as good, or I just can’t maintain my balance.
So my basic observation process of this ongoing stream is vipassana plus noting. Adding labeling to that noting definitely stabilizes me. I can get more into the phenomena, but the need to keep my “balance” means that at the very least I must mentally apply a label to it, and, even more so, saying a label out loud tends to keep me from slipping and getting lost.
There’s a whole technology of labeling involved here for me. For example verbally complex labels, those of several syllables or several words, interfere with my observations too much, I don’t like to do them, and they tend to make me so alert that the imagery tends to disappear. Single syllable, easily pronounceable labels are the best. Hear. See. Feel. (I’ve been experimenting lately with adding other single word labels that I’m finding useful. Try. Blur. Clear.)
Okay bringing this back to what I experienced a lot of today, noting and labeling both need to vary in their intensity from moment to moment for optimal effects for me. At some of my best moments, I don’t have to consciously “note” a particular experience, I just am experiencing it steadily and clearly and with equanimity. At many, if not most of my moments, the sucking power of ongoing experience is pulling at me though, so I can lose “me” in the ongoing stream of experience, get absorbed* by it, which doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment, since I get distracted in ordinary life all the time. As I feel the sucking power be too strong, though, I can add deliberate noting, in the sense of running a parallel process from just experiencing something to using one of those classificatory noting words, and, if the sucking power is really strong, adding a verbal label, particularly a spoken label, helps me keep my observational balance.
[* Something I’ve never understood properly, incidentally, is why “absorption” is often spoken of highly in spiritual/mystical literature. I get sucked into stuff all the time. If my automatized habits are good ones that may simply mean I do what work is needed well, but the automatization of ordinary life can too easily lead to useless suffering. Probably there is some special meaning of “absorption” but I don’t begin to get it.]
Okay, there’s someplace else this needs to go yet, but I don’t know what it is yet, so I’m stopping writing for now…
Samsara Has Demonstrated Its Ability To Suck:
Waking in the middle of the night, I realized that samsara or the CRO process had demonstrated its ability to suck the more conscious parts of my mind into what was happening in the very course of my writing about it. I had gotten absorbed in, sucked in by the details of the above, fascinating lines of reasoning, and had totally forgotten a main dimension that I wanted to talk about through this discussion.
One of my prime understandings of what it means to be “asleep,” “waking sleep” in Gurdjieff’s terms (similar to but probably not identical to “unenlightened” in Buddhist terms), is that practically all of our mental, emotional and physical life can be sucked up by subroutines that largely run automatically. Attempts to change these, and creating more desirable subroutines, habits, themselves become automatized, and so we become more asleep while having interesting ideas about waking sleep.
I recall the time half a century ago, reading Ouspensky’s book In Search Of The Miraculous, about Gurdjieff’s ideas. One day I actually applied Gurdjieff’s technique of directing my attention both inward and outward simultaneously (“self-remembering”) and, compared to my usual state of consciousness, I “woke up!” My recollection of it is not too dependable at such a time distance, of course, but for a few seconds I was what seemed fully alive and aware. In that period, all the rest of my life, by contrast, seemed to have been just a bunch of mechanical sequences. Nobody was “home.” After a few seconds at the most of this, I slipped right back, hardly realizing I slipped back, into my usual automatized, “normal” consciousness. While I thought about the experience and talked about Gurdjieff’s ideas about awakenings once in a while, it was many years later that I actually tried and successfully made the self-remembering effort which gave me more moments of awakening.
To be more accurate, I call my early experience a “relative awakening,” relative to my ordinary state of consciousness, as I have no direct, experiential idea what more is possible beyond this heightened state of awakeness and alertness. But if that early, momentary state could feel so much more aware and alive compared to my ordinary state, are there states even higher? “Enlightened” states?
I’m resisting the sucking power of samsara now, although it would be interesting and useful to be drawn along in the direction we were just going in. Back on track!
Freedom of Attention/Intention vs Automatization Dimension:
The dimension of conscious functioning I want to introduce is this.
At any given moment, as well as on average and for longer stretches of time, how much of our consciousness is sucked up in automatized experiences and reactions to experiences, and how much is relatively free to have a wider, clearer perspective and possibilities of action? At this moment, for example, my background mental processes, the CRO, have a bunch of interesting memories and ideas ready if I want to pursue them, but part of my mind is remembering that I want to write about… Struggling to find the best words here, come on, CRO, do your thing!… the use of deliberate intention and attention to unstick ourselves from these samsaric, automated processes and so let us live, at least for moments, in a consciousness that has* a clear perception of the world around it and its own inner workings, is able to focus more clearly and intentionally, and is better able to resist the sucking pull of ideas and emotions.
[* I say “has” as that was the immediate experience, I was obviously much more awake, but, to be more objective, I should say “seemed to have.” I don’t know of any objective tests of ostensibly more awake states of consciousness that actually demonstrate more accurate perceptions, styles of thinking, etc.]
This is an interesting struggle I’m going through right this moment… Concepts and words are not coming to me readily, they’re taking longer and I have to keep pushing for them, and it’s very tempting to just sip my coffee, go look at my e-mail, allow myself a pleasant ride along with the habitual patterns of my mind.
Okay I’m just going to say it straight, instead of staying lost in trying to figure out the best way to say it.
To the degree to which you learn to use deliberate attention and intention, you have an opportunity (results not guaranteed) to become clearer and more awake. Although I’m not a totally convinced believer of any religious/spiritual doctrines, my working hypothesis here is the Buddhist idea of original purity, that our nature is basically that of any Buddha’s nature. So to the extent that we unstick ourselves from automated, samsaric life, we will naturally not only become more perceptive and intelligent, but more compassionate and wise. This will be a natural progression, wiser and more compassionate actions will just become the obvious thing to do, not a bunch of “shoulds” forced on us from the outside.
This ratio of available, conscious intention/attention to automated processes dimension is not a dimension I hear of in formal Buddhist teachings very often, although it may be there expressed in ways that I don’t fathom. Thus it’s not so much the specific form of meditation, what you focus or don’t focus on, etc., that matters, it’s the practice at creating and holding deliberate attention and intention that builds strength of these areas, thus increasing the ratio of conscious processing to automatized processing, and is a major factor responsible for any psychological and spiritual growth.
Open Exploration versus Reinforcement of Conceptual System:
Above I said “To the degree to which you learn to use deliberate attention and intention, you have an opportunity (results not guaranteed) to become clearer and more awake.” We might distinguish here a kind of “pure” use of attention and intention whose only goal is purer, perhaps totally pure, perception of what actually happens, a kind of scientific curiosity. But in real life we use attention and intention, both in ordinary life and in specialized ways like meditation, to discover and understand better ways, happier ways to live, and to guide ourselves to evolve in that direction. To recognize its actual complexity, meditation is not simply a variety of techniques for studying and using the mind, it’s a variety of techniques done within conceptual, philosophical frameworks about the way reality is and what is desirable for human beings. To the extent that there is a single, absolute Truth about reality, and to the extent that a particular conceptual framework in which meditation is taught and practiced mirrors that Truth well, no problem if the conceptual system tends to mold your experience. To the extent that the conceptual system does not mirror that absolute Truth, or that there may not be a single Truth, problems can arise. While believing we are understanding the operation of our minds more clearly, we may be also shaping and conditioning them to operate in other ways, which may seem like self-evident truths, but which are distortions of reality, which are samsaric, deluded.
From my earliest exposure to techniques of meditation, I was already firmly in love with the ideal of science being a search for Truth per se, no matter what you wanted it to be or preferred it to be. This was it’s great nobility, the transcendence of personal beliefs and desires, often with the personal sacrifice of knowing you could find out you were Wrong about things, in the search for Truth. (Or, since Truth was probably far down the timeline, for better and better understandings that lead toward Truth) Thus when I was exposed to vipassana meditation teachings, the common translation of the vipassana as “insight” meditation sucked me right into the scientific framework: vipassana was another way of nobly searching for Truth, regardless of what you wanted or believed.
Yes, I also wanted to be happier, more intelligent, wiser, more compassionate, etc., but I always thought of those sorts of things as relatively automatic effects of having deeper and deeper insights into Truth, especially its spiritual nature. Thus I was somewhat surprised and shocked in reading Braun’s 2013 scholarly book (The Birth of Insight. Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw. ) about the origin of the modern vipassana meditation tradition by the Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw. Ledi Sayadaw recommended great familiarity with the basic Buddhist texts, especially the Abhidhamma, before even starting meditation practice. Indeed, it was best if you had memorized the Abhidhamma. Then when you practiced vipassana meditation, you were to immediately recognize the nature of each experience that arose in terms of these preset Buddhist philosophy and categories.!
Okay, insofar as there is one ultimate Truth and Buddhism is an excellent reflection of that, that’s probably helpful. We automatically and intellectually analyze experience practically all the time normally, and to have that analysis be in a correct philosophical and reality framework as opposed to an incorrect one is generally bound to be useful. But it’s not science, it’s training yourself to habitually see things in terms of a dominant mainstream (in Buddhist cultures) theory, rather than observe as carefully as possible and then think about your observations in whatever sorts of ways turn out to be useful. Indeed, many of the most important advances in science have occurred because scientists have noticed that their observations, the data, did not fit with the prevailing mainstream theory (the field’s paradigm), and so a totally new overarching view, a new paradigm, was called for and was created. At its worst, then, vipassana meditation in this original form can be seen as a form of reconditioning, of “brain washing.”
Okay, drifting, getting sucked in various directions again…, Time for a break…
To be continued sometime…
Tags: abhidhamma, attention, attention/intention, awareness, belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, Consensus Reality Orientation, CRO, emotions, enlightenment, Gurdjieff, illusion, intenstion/attention, intention, Ledi Sayadaw, maya, meditation, mind science, mindfulness, ordinary mind, Ouspensky, perception, samsara, Shinzen Young, Shor, spiritual teachers, Transpersonal, vipassana, waking up
John Forrest Bamberger – Psychedelic Sunset 2
As mentioned in a variety of places, years ago I gave up meditation practice, having decided that it apparently took a certain kind of talent that I didn’t have, so it was a waste of time for me to continue. Then I met meditation teacher Shinzen Young at a scientific conference, found that he explained basic meditation in a way that made sense to me and that I could actually carry out, and I’ve been practicing meditation for many years since then. I say practicing, rather than doing, for many of my meditation sessions are still primarily times of frustration to me, as I don’t think I’m doing it correctly or it doesn’t come out the way I’d like it to, but at other times it flows nicely.
I’ve now reached a point where I’m wanting and able to follow Shinzen’s and Sogyal Rinpoche’s advice to not slavishly follow any particular style of meditation practice, but explore various ways and focus on practices that “work” for me. I won’t try to define just what work” means here, let’s just roughly say that after most of my meditation sessions nowadays I feel both relaxed and feel as if something useful has been done.
I want to put up this record of what I’m now working on as of early March of 2015. Perhaps I can find earlier records of what meditation is like for me and see what the difference is now . My main reason in posting this is in the hope that it may give other people some useful ideas, especially other people who want to understand the workings of their own minds.
The following is adapted from a letter I just wrote to Shinzen Young.
Dear Shinzen, Date Composed: March 3, 2015
The kinds of practices you’ve taught me over the years, basic vipassana meditation and many variations on it, have made me much more sensitive to my own internal processes. This is rewarding, as I’ve always been curious about how my mind (and other minds) work. I’m now becoming confident enough about my ability to observe that I’m experimenting with tailoring my meditative tasks. Particularly as I’ve long suspected that what I’m doing, even if only semi-consciously doing, is often more important than the content of what I’m experiencing. What I’m going to describe here is something I’ve been playing with for a few weeks that, to broadly describe it, shifts the observational focus from content to process. That’s an oversimplification, of course, as there is much overlap with the way you taught me this originally and with the rough labeling) categories I’ve thought of so far.
(An important distinction here is that basic Vipassana calls for noting aspects of experience with concentration, clarity, and equanimity. You observe something arising, you try to “look” at it or “feel” it or “hear” it more clearly, without being distracted, and without being caught up in desiring more of it or rejecting it, wishing it would go away. An aid to this basic noting is labeling. It is usually your choice as to whether to add labeling, just mentally or (quietly) out loud, to help your concentration. For me labeling is usually mentally saying to myself, albeit in a quiet, matter-of-fact mental tone, a simple label that further clarifies what you’re experiencing. In what follows I tend to talk as if active labeling is going on all the time, but what I’ve said can apply to simply noting.)
Now I’ve become more humble about what I think I know as I’ve gotten older, and try to think of my “knowledge” more scientifically as working hypotheses, useful formulations about reality, but hypotheses, subject to alteration as they are tested against what happens in reality. That is I’m trying to remember that my world view is just that, a world view, undoubtedly containing some truth, probably wrong about some things, but biasing my perception, thinking and experience, so I need to stay alert to actual experience.
There are several working hypothesis behind what I’m doing.
The first (1) is that an awful lot of our suffering in life comes from relative unconsciousness and lack of clarity about the way our minds work. I think I’ve written about Shinzen’s clear formulation of this in some earlier post where Suffering (experiential reality) is a multiplicative product of the actual Pain interacting with you Attitude or Resistance to the pain.
Thus while there are real reasons for obstacles and suffering, (2) our unskillful understanding and (3) consequently unskillful reactions greatly and needlessly increase our suffering.
The fourth working hypothesis is that (4) almost any method to bring more deliberate, conscious attention to the way our minds work is useful for psychological and spiritual growth, thus making us more insightful, comfortable, and effective in the way we use our minds. A footnote that last working hypothesis is that (4A) even if the categories that guide our observation are not ultimately accurate, the very fact that we are deliberately making observations is useful.
If I had to roughly and over-simply characterize Shinzen’s approach (very difficult to do because he ingeniously experiments with different approaches for his students) his most recent set of primary categories are see, hear, feel, visual experience, whether of the outside world or internal visual imagery, auditory experience, whether of the outside world or internal auditory imagery, and tactile experience, whether of the outside world touching our bodies or internal bodily feelings. As I’ve understood Shinzen’s directions (and I know I may have my personal biases in this) I would say he has taught us to pay more conscious attention to those three primary categories of experience, and using categories gives us specific things to anchor in the present with at any moment. At this moment, e.g., I’m seeing a computer screen in front of me, I’m feeling the vibrations of my voice speaking aloud as I dictate these words, I feel the movement of my body as I play with something from my desk in my hands while still talking, I hear the noise of the fan in the heater (although it’s probably the slight tinnitus I have in my hearing). I’m more present in this moment, and much (all?) of this presence comes from my trying (and succeeding to various degrees) to more clearly experience the various contents of experience from moment to moment.
In saying the approach I’m experimenting with emphasizes shifting the focus from content to process, there is still plenty of content to anchor with in any experience, but the observations I would now make, in addition to seeing the computer screen, feeling the vibrations of my voice, feeling the movement of my hands and hearing the noise of the fan are that I had a desire to illustrate the general point I was making, I deliberately shifted my attention to seeing to get a visual example, then again deliberately shifted my intention/attention to feeling, then to moving, and then to hearing. That is I’m still intending to be aware of the content of ongoing experience, but I’m focusing more of what I’m doing, intending, attending to…
I’ve listed a whole bunch of categories below that I have used to various extents to date, with one-word labels for various processes. ( Even when the label is merely an aural, mental image, I find the closer it is to a single syllable, the easier it is to use it without interfering with what I’m observing.) I suspect most, if not all of the categories and labels below will turn out to be subsets of some of Shinzen’s more detailed categorizations, but it’s what feels interesting to me at present.
I’m actually kind of amazed that I can stay pretty much on top of process observation, not just noting but using a short verbal label about once or twice every breath when I really concentrate.
Where will this take me? Am I getting anywhere? I don’t know, but it feels like I’m shining more light into the driving/creating/causing but normally unconscious parts of my mind, and it’s interesting!
Would I recommend this focus of meditation to anyone else? Don’t know. I think it’s harder than the usual start of vipassana instruction and it’s only years of practice that let me do it moderately well, but maybe that’s just my kidding myself. Anyone wanting to get really serious about meditation, I can give them a start with my mindfulness books (Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science ) and online webinar (http://www.glidewing.com), but if they want to go deeply, they should work with an accomplished meditation teacher like Shinzen Young or some of the many other fine teachers now available.
My semi-organized knowledge as of 3-3-15
|Brief Label||Explanation||Synonyms, Comments|
|Attend||Deliberately paying attention to some particular experience|
|Blank past||Retrospective realization of blankness|
|Blank now||Concurrent recognition of blankness|
|Noticing that a particular experience is getting less sharp, less clear, blurry for visual, fuzzier body if auditory, more vaguely defined if feeling||Fuzz|
|Body Adjust||Deliberately adjust posture/position|
|Check||Consciously checking on how well I’m following the instructions I’ve given myself for a particular meditation session|
|Converse|| An internal conversation, both hearing “thoughts” in words and intentionally creating words in response, like
in a real conversation
|Very communicable in that the words can be repeated|
|Create||Deliberately making something happen, it didn’t just happen by itself|
|Daydream||Combination of visual imagery and internal talk that’s catching me up to some degree, and has a sort of plot of its own, even if it doesn’t last very long, not random, unconnected sensations||For me, daydreams have vision and sound, but rarely if ever have any touch or emotional component|
|Desiring||Wanting something in particular to happen|
|Dream||A visual and auditory inner experience with plot that you could relate, that you’re almost totally involved in while it’s happening: you don’t know it’s a dream.|
|Dreamlet||A shorter version of a dream, as above||Exact boundary between dreams and dreamlets is hard to define|
|Emote||Clearly an emotion, not just a tactile experience|
|Evaluate||Deliberate thinking about and evaluation of an experience or a pattern of experiences|
|Exhale||Deliberately and consciously exhale|
|Fantasize||A broader category that could include daydreams, dreams, and dreamlets|
|Feel||Any tactile experience|
|Fixate, active||Using deliberate intention/attention to keep a particular experience stable and lasting|
|Fixate, passive||Observing that something has spontaneously become relatively fixed and lasting|
|Flow||Any and all kinds of experiences, such as seeing, hearing, feeling, changing and morphing one into another|
|Go deeper||A somewhat vague category of using intention/attention to make an experience more profound, such as an increase in its clarity or emotional tone|
|Gone||Realizing with instants of it happening that some experience has had a major change in quality||Not just relatively continuous flow|
|Hear||Any auditory experience|
|Intend/Attend or Attend/Intend||Recognizes that attending to something is often a way of intending it to be fixed or changed in a desired direction, and intending those things for something always involves some degree of deliberate control of attention. Intention/attention is always some mixture, even if mainly more one than another||Use when it’s not obvious that what’s happening is more attention or intention|
|Judging||Judging, evaluating other people, or any pair or set of experiences|
|Narrowing||Intentionally narrowing field of attention/intention||Not just flow to tighter field|
|No satisfaction, Dukkha||The general feeling that some particular experience is in some way or other unsatisfactory, incomplete, hasn’t reached a useful or acceptable conclusion||Dukkha|
|Opening||Intentionally opening to, accepting some fact of experience more than normally||Not just flow to wider field|
|Please||A yearning that something come about with the help of “something” or “some processes” or “beings” that is different from the meditator’s conscious mind. Poorly defined prayer, hoping “something” or “someone” will help||Bringing in god and goddesses…|
|Pull||Attachment, desire for something to become stronger or better or last|
|Push||Attachment, desire for something to become weaker, go away, or to end|
|Pray||Conscious, deliberate prayer to something other than your own mind for help|
|Question||Wondering, questioning what you are doing in this moment|
|Relax||Both mentally and physically and emotionally|
|Relax into Flow||Discovering there was an effort, intention, intention/attention, to control experience and then relaxing, letting go so that experience flows as “it wants to.”|
|All-Rest||Rest in all modalities|
|See||Any visual experience|
|Self-monitor||Process monitoring, how you are doing with the practice at this moment|
|Sinking||Getting drowsier, duller, sleepier||This is recognizing the general loss of clarity and energy that comes with sleepiness, rather than more specific phenomena like visual imagery or dreamlets or blur|
|Spread||Intentionally widening the incoming experience channel, attending/intending to more|
|Startle||Being surprised by some experience and having a kind of physical “jump” in one’s body.|
|Stretch||Physically stretch, deliberately|
|Suppress||Conscious awareness that you are suppressing something|
|Talk||Internally talking to yourself, the sequence of words that could be repeated out loud so others could understand what happened. [Maybe distinguish active and passive talk?]||The most precisely describable aspect of internal experience.|
|Tightening||Feeling of tenseness, muscular action, stiffening|
|Wait||Feeling that one is waiting for something to occur|
|Wake up more||Increasing clarity, sharpness, energy|
|Widened field||More different kinds of experience being experienced or more sharpness and clarity within the kinds of things being experienced||Could occur passively as well as from intention|
End of rough draft as of 3-3-15
Tags: attention, awareness, belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, dreams, emotions, enlightenment, God, Gurdjieff, gurus, intention, karma, Living the Mindful Life, materialism, meditation, mindfulness, ordinary mind, pain, peace, perception, Shinzen Young, Sogyal Rinpoche, spiritual teachers, suffering, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, unusual experiences, vipassana
People send me a lot of books and articles they would like me to read. I choose to believe they are honoring me, thinking I am influential or important and it would be good for me to know some things.
Or I suppose they might think I have really taken a wrong turn in my thinking and need a course correction, but let’s not go there…. ;-)
As interesting looking as most of these books are, I seldom have time to more than glance at them, even when I think they are about something I’d really like to know more about. That’s sad, but that’s reality…
Yesterday an envelope containing a little book came in the mail – and the instant I opened it, I was sold! “This looks good, I’ve got to get into this.” Here’s what I saw:
Being a grandfather myself, the author, Reverend Karen Herrick, had plucked my heart strings.
What do you tell a little kid about death? And what do you tell the little kid still inside all of us about death, especially as we personally approach our own death?
I can do my scientist number and objectively discuss the evidence, probabilities for and against some kind of soul surviving, etc., but that’s useless for really little kids and only a little useful for dying friends. I’ve had too many friends die in the last few years. Most of them know I’ve studied that kind of evidence and some talk about how it gives hope for some kind of survival is OK, even encouraging, but what I’ve found most people want is encouragement to face death and hope for a good outcome, not an attempt at “objectivity” about it. So I’m not at all sure, e.g., about the way Tibetan Buddhists have mapped out the dying and after death processes, or how accurate communications from Western mediums about the after death states are, but for my dying friends who are into that kind of thing I’ll draw on them as useful road maps and try to help them prepare to use them.
Little kids, though? I’m lucky to not have experienced that directly, but even reading about it really touches me. Reverend Herrick has a Western spiritualist approach, but not that far off from what my scientific self thinks is a useful way to think about things, and what she’s written in Grandma, What Is A Soul? is touching, helpful, and can reach young kids..
As an example, her grandson wonders about the soul having something to do with the unconscious. Grandma replies
“When your brother was nine years old, he told me that he had read about the unconscious in his Calvin and Hobbes book. He said it’s scary down there; you need a flashlight to see, and all this old stuff is piled up. People don’t like going down there.”
The second section of her book is for grown-ups, giving a brief overview of spiritualist writings on the subject of survival and some suggestions for further reading. As to the evidence for postmortem survival and a reincarnation, I can also, blushing slightly at not being more modest, recommend the relevant chapters in my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book.
All in all, delightful and helpful!