Careers in Consciousness Research, Parapsychology and/or Transpersonal Psychology
Charles T. Tart
Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of California at Davis
Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Sofia University/Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Palo Alto, California
(Revision of Nov 13, 2015)
The contents of this document are Copyright © 2009 and Copyright © 2015 by Charles T. Tart.
I get many letters from prospective graduate students who want to study human consciousness, parapsychology, transpersonal psychology, or some combination of these fields, either with me or somewhere: thus this brief note, trying to condense decades of experience into a few pages. This is my perspective, and may not be up to date in some areas since I am largely retired.
Because these areas are so important for a real understanding of human nature, and have so much to potentially contribute to making our world a better place, I am inspired by students’ interest in working in these areas! I want to encourage your interests, but also give practical advice about studying these areas in order to make a career in them.
Note that I give this “practical” advice with ambivalence. I feel an obligation to give realistic assessments to young people who will have to make a living in the modern world, even though the “practical” side will often mean having to suppress or deny, to varying degrees, the interests and idealism that you have. In my own case, I followed my own ideals in making career choices because I believed, and still believe, that the application of real science (as opposed to scientism) to understand the spiritual, start to separate sense from nonsense, and make it more effective in our time is so vital. So I really appreciate the students who say “Yes, I may not make a good material living and have good job security if I follow my heart, but I will follow it anyway!” But we have to be as practical as possible.
As Tom Potterfield, a former President of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology nicely put it, when we were discussing students with spiritual interests who go to conventional graduate schools and find, unfortunately, that they have to hide their deep interests because of widespread prejudice in such schools, “It would seem unhealthy for someone to go a place where that they had to hide or stuff their deepest desires just to fit in better. Life is too short to live under false pretenses.”
And yet the experience of too many of my colleagues suggests that if you apply to a mainstream graduate school, the faculty there, and possibly the admissions committee, may well contain a member who is irrationally prejudiced against parapsychological and transpersonal interests and will automatically vote to reject you. This prejudice is almost never admitted to, it’s held by people who pride themselves on being rational and scientific, and who would be really offended if you asked them, e.g., how much of the scholarly and scientific literature in these fields they had actually read in forming their opinion. It’s certainly the case with parapsychology that the more vocal and fervent a critic is, the less of the actual literature they have bothered to read. So you’ll need to learn to tolerate irrational opposition too often…and be careful who you talk to about your interests…
To start: because I am well known in these fields, people often believe there is an active, graduate level program in one or all of those fields at the University of California at Davis where I taught for many (1966-1994) years, but, unfortunately, the truth was that I was rather alone at UCD in being interested in consciousness, parapsychology and transpersonal psychology, and UCD had hardly any course work at all in them, much less a real program. Further, I retired from the UCD in 1994 in order to devote my time to more focused teaching in transpersonal psychology and to writing, so I no longer teach or research there at all. There is interest in consciousness research there now, particularly the neurophysiological bases of consciousness, but I have not followed this and can’t give advice on that UCD program, but as conventional psychology programs go, I’m sure it is excellent. I understand there is some research on meditation there now, but I think it’s largely on physiological correlates of “meditation” for stress relief, rather than spiritually oriented.
If your interest in consciousness research can be focused on a relatively accepted aspect of it (cognitive psychology or biofeedback, e.g., or some area that is “legitimatized” in terms of current fashion, such as by appearing to have some neurological basis), you can probably find professors and programs at many mainstream universities doing research in areas that you could work with. Check reference sources like Psychological Abstracts, Psych Lit, and MedLine, and do internet searches to see who is doing work in these areas and what institutions they are at, then write the people directly. In the last few decades the study of consciousness, long considered taboo and unscientific, has gained a fair amount of legitimacy in various mainstream fields of science (although a main thrust tends to be explaining consciousness “away” in terms of brain functioning).
If your primary interest is in transpersonal psychology or parapsychology, things get much tougher. You can forget mainstream academic institutions if you really want to get involved during graduate school. A further complication arises from whether your interest originates primarily from your head or your heart.
First let me clarify some terms: When I say “parapsychology,” I mean the field of scientific research carried out by people trained, usually to the PhD level, in some recognized scientific discipline (almost none are trained in parapsychology per se, due to lack of specialized programs, but come from biology, physics, psychology, etc.), research focused on understanding the nature of phenomena like telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis (PK), psychic healing, etc. The emphasis here is on very high quality, controlled laboratory experiments that produce experiments conducted up to or (typically) exceeding the methodological standards in other recognized fields of scientific inquiry, as well as a willingness to accept negative results (psychic functioning often fails to manifest on demand in either real life or the laboratory). Some parapsychologists have strong spiritual inclinations and may personally follow various spiritual paths, but this does not interfere with the scientific quality and rigor of their work, some others have no spiritual interests or even are somewhat hostile to spirituality, but find parapsychological phenomena uniquely puzzling and challenging, since they defy conventional explanations.
Almost all investigators working in scientific parapsychology are members of the Parapsychological Association, an international organization and affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with full membership usually requiring a Ph.D. degree in some recognized scholarly or scientific field and evidence of published contributions to the parapsychology field in refereed (meaning competent colleagues have judged the work to meet basic scientific standards) scientific journals. Fairly detailed information about scientific parapsychology and generally agreed on findings to date can be found via links from my web archives or from my most recent book, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together.” Other important sources are the guides to parapsychology on the internet from the Parapsychological Association , and from the Parapsychology Foundation. I do not keep up to date on web resources, and there are many web sites of variable or dubious scientific quality, but these are high quality places to start a search.
In an ideal world (at least by my and most of my colleagues’ preferences), anyone identified as a “parapsychologist” would meet these scientific standards, but the reality is that many people who call themselves “parapsychologists” do not have graduate degrees in the sciences, and/or often do not understand what the discipline of science in general is about, and/or, if they have any publications, they are not in refereed journals but in popular books and magazines where some of the few truths we know about parapsychological phenomena are too often indiscriminately mixed up with personal beliefs, careless and sometimes incorrect reporting of events, and sometimes just plain fantasy or fraud. There is no legal restriction on who can call themselves parapsychologists. Because of this, the few of us who have tried to do quality scientific research on the field get considerable extra rejection from mainstream science because we are ignorantly lumped in with these others. In spite of all the work I’ve done in parapsychology, for example, work I’m scientifically proud of, when I’m introduced as a parapsychologist I almost always try to correct this to my identity as a psychologist (where there are some legal standards), part of whose research has been in parapsychology.
I am not saying that only someone with a Ph.D. should be allowed to be interested in or write about parapsychological phenomena: that would be silly. It’s just a matter of not confusing people about what is and isn’t scientific knowledge. By analogy, I am all for people who are unconventional healers (if they get results that physicians usually can’t get) calling themselves “healers,” but I’m also all for putting people in jail if they falsely call themselves physicians when they aren’t. “Physician” is well understood by people to mean many years of intense training in conventional medical disciplines, and we have general social agreement that those who aren’t so trained shouldn’t mislead others.
I’ve gone on this long to make it clear that my advice about careers in parapsychology is primarily for those who want to do scientific research. If this isn’t your primary interest, that’s OK, let’s just not be confused about it. Perhaps transpersonal psychology (which is also one of my careers) is a more appropriate professional interest for you, for while much scientific research needs to be done in it, most of its current practitioners are working as therapists and counselors, helping people with emotional and spiritual problems, a necessary and noble undertaking. Or they take parapsychological findings for granted and are interested in understanding how people can integrate psychic experiences into their lives in growthful ways. Of course it would be better if we had much more scientific knowledge in transpersonal psychology, but meanwhile real people have psychological and spiritual needs that they can use assistance with!
To partly define transpersonal psychology, here are parts of a definition I mostly wrote from an older catalog of the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology (ITP):
Transpersonal psychology is a fundamental area of research, scholarship and application based on people’s experiences of temporarily transcending our usual identification with our limited biological, historical, cultural and personal self and, at the deepest and most profound levels of experience possible, recognizing/being “something” of vast intelligence and compassion that encompasses/is the entire universe. From this perspective our ordinary, “normal” biological, historical, cultural and personal self is seen as an important, but quite partial (and often pathologically distorted) manifestation or expression of this much greater “something” that is our deeper origin and destination………Transpersonal experiences generally have a profoundly transforming effect on the lives of those who experience them, both inspiring those experiencers with an understanding of great love, compassion and non-ordinary kinds of intelligence, and also making them more aware of the distorting and pathological limitations of their ordinary selves that must be worked with and transformed for full psychological and spiritual maturity…….
Transpersonal psychology is my primary vocation, and I see my scientific parapsychology work as a subset of the transpersonal field. After retiring early from the University of California at Davis, I taught part time at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (ITP) in Palo Alto CA for 20 years, until mid-2014. ITP was a fully accredited (Western Association of Schools and Colleges, WASC), independent graduate school offering MA and Ph.D. degrees in transpersonal psychology, as well as distant learning MA and PhD degrees, programs, with a far broader range of subjects taught than in conventional psychology programs.
In 2013, ITP changed its name to Sofia University and made a wide variety of internal, programmatic and staff changes. One result of these changes was my decision to retire from Sofia/ITP. Although I hope for the best for Sofia/ITP, I do not keep up with the changes, so while I include earlier advice which has some generality, below, I do not specifically recommend or not recommend Sofia/ITP, and cannot provide further information about its programs. So my use of “I,” “our,” and “we” below reflects history, but not current reality for me.
Starting in 2009, ITP was working on modifying our residential PhD program to make it more feasible for part-time students who need to keep earning a living, and that was operationalized. We also offered a PsyD program in clinical psychology with a transpersonal emphasis, and it was aiming for American Psychological Association accreditation. To my older knowledge, that was moving along fine, but I don’t know its current status. Note that CIIS, the California Institute of Integral Studies, in San Francisco plans to start offering an online PhD program in Integral and Transpersonal Psychology in Fall of 2016. This will be offered online, with two residential seminars per year, and is a research-oriented degree. In addition, CIIS is developing a research laboratory in order to support the integration of transpersonal psychology with neuroscience—and students who choose to do so will be able to utilize this laboratory for their dissertation research. CIIS offers many other graduate programs that would be of interest to those interested in transpersonal psychology or parapsychology.
Careers in Transpersonal Psychology:
In terms of realistic career advice, I should note that transpersonal psychology is a relatively new area and still considered “marginal” (at best) or “pseudo science” (at worst) by many in (prejudicially biased) mainstream psychology. If your goal is a tenured faculty position at a major university, with the ample time for research that the low teaching loads in these institutions allow (publish or perish!), please understand that a degree from a transpersonal school will not be looked upon with favor, indeed will probably give you much less chance of being hired than a doctoral degree from most mainstream institutions. Transpersonal psychologists usually make a living teaching (often part-time, due to lack of transpersonal positions) or doing clinical-like counseling practice or leading psychological and spiritual growth-oriented work. (A fair number of ITP graduate students already had a career that they could go back to, adding a transpersonal touch to it.)
If your interests in parapsychology and/or transpersonal psychology arise primarily from your heart, making a living helping people is no disadvantage at all! If you can work well from both heart and head, wonderful! Importantly, ITP tried to educate its students’ emotions, body, social skills, spiritual life and creativity as well as their intellectual sides, an approach unique in higher education, where putting clever words into your head is the main and usually the exclusive program.
If you are primarily interested in doing research, realize that very few transpersonal psychologists can afford to devote more than a small part of their time to research (even though it’s desperately needed). I was luckily able to do a lot of research in my career because I taught at a mainstream school, UC Davis, where faculty teaching loads are light, so faculty have time for research. I assume (I haven’t studied the proposed program yet) CIIS will give a basic, graduate level education in research methods, including exposure to many methods more suitable for transpersonal and consciousness research, but it may not be up to the level of methodological sophistication found in specialized mainstream schools: there’s only so much time in a program.
I was fairly passionate about what kind of students I wanted to come to ITP also, and I suspect some CIIS faculty will feel the same way. If job security and mainstream acceptance are your primary goals, CIIS is not the place for you. If you are sincerely dedicated to advancing and applying our growing scientific and psychological knowledge of the genuinely spiritual to helping the world, CIIS is one of the very, very few places that will not only support your ideals, but give you tools for doing this!
One way some people solve the problem of wanting the advantages of a mainstream position (they are real, although the personal costs of ignoring or denying your spiritual nature are high), versus the greater importance of the depths of transpersonal psychology, is by going to a mainstream school (where they are wisely discreet about their deeper interests – many prejudiced mainstream professors will write you off as crazy if you let them know of all your interests, or try to get you out of the program – it shouldn’t be this way, but it is), but keep up with transpersonal psychology or parapsychology by joining the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, which publishes the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and/or reading the parapsychological journals. Membership in the Institute of Noetic Sciences is also very helpful for keeping up via their annual meetings and publications.
In terms of other possibilities (few, unfortunately), especially in parapsychology, you might contact the Parapsychological Association for their current list of schools offering some (usually one) parapsychology courses or programs, the Society for Psychical Research, and the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, mentioned above, for schools offering courses or programs in transpersonal psychology. Another excellent source of info on careers in parapsychology is Irwin’s monograph. But please note that scientific parapsychology is a minuscule field, with only a few dozen people in the entire world working in it, most only part time. Unless there is an unexpected change that infuses a lot of money into the field, I must warn you that chances of a decent job, if you can find training, are small . If you are so dedicated that this news won’t stop you, that’s wonderful! But be realistic.
Note that some of my colleagues currently think people who really want careers in parapsychology should emigrate to the United Kingdom, where the academic and scientific attitude is less overtly hostile than in the United States – although there are still only a very few positions available. As one colleague waggishly put it, Americans should not have too much trouble with the language… ;-)
The Rhine Research Center (formerly the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man), the successor of Professor J. B. Rhine’s parapsychology laboratory at Duke University, used to offer an 8-week summer training program each year that was very good (and usually the only thing available) for getting a solid introduction to scientific parapsychology. It may or may still be available in any given year. They are also a good source of advice about training and careers in parapsychology.
Note again that I am busy writing and do not keep up with all that is available, especially now that it is so readily findable on the web.
In terms of keeping up with my own work in consciousness, parapsychology and transpersonal psychology, you can go to my web site where reprints of many of my articles are available. I also have a blog accessible there discussing parapsychology, consciousness, transpersonal psychology, and notes on my personal problems and insights trying to integrate science and spiritual growth. Perhaps some will follow these ideas up and develop them beyond my rough beginnings. As I age, I am tossing out many of my observations and ideas in brief blog articles there in hopes that some may be useful to future researchers, as well as people in general. While I have been very successful in publishing in high prestige scientific journals, as I age I don’t have time to jump through those hoops.
There are so many other things I could say, but I’m sure you’re overwhelmed by now, so I’ll stop. Since you are reading this, I really appreciate your ambition and idealism in wanting to work in these fields! We need you, but the opportunities are, as I’ve sadly said, more limited than is needed unless you really want to go mainstream and have the talent to work in correlating psychological functioning with brain functioning. Our current scientific culture takes the belief that the mind is nothing more than the brain as unquestioned gospel, and so spends well on brain research, especially if it will make “funny stuff” seem to be explained away. I am constantly amazed at the brain studies that claim to explain (away) apparent psychic phenomena like out-of-body experiences or near-death experiences while showing that their authors know almost nothing about these areas.
Parapsychology, transpersonal psychology and consciousness research in general are vitally important fields for understanding our nature and possibilities. It’s too bad there’s so much prejudice to fight in scientists who should know better.
Whatever you do, good luck!
Please feel free to forward this information to anyone you think may be interested.
With best wishes for your career,
Charles T. Tart, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, University of California at Davis
Professor Emeritus, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology
How do you define consciousness?
An old friend wrote me that she was exploring how people define “consciousness,” and since I was supposed to be an authority on consciousness, how did I define it? I either answered or ducked the question as follows:
>How do you define consciousness? <
A cover of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, definitions of consciousness from the Oxford English Dictionary…
My first reaction is that I’ve got to try to help my old friend to not hurt herself too much, so you should find a nice soft pillow, fasten it securely to the wall, and as you start banging your head against the wall, be sure to stay where the pillow is so you don’t hurt your head too much… The finest minds of humanity have been banging their heads against the wall on this one for a long, long time, and my short answer is that you can’t “define” consciousness. By giving up on that myself, I haven’t needed to keep a pillow fastened to the wall of my study for some time… :-)
Getting serious — well actually I was quite serious — the first big problem is that all sorts of people talk about consciousness, and awareness, perception, and so forth, as if they were all talking about the same thing, but generally they’re not. What person A means when she or he talks about consciousness is not necessarily what person B means, etc., but since we like to agree and find support from each other, we’re tempted to assume they mean the same thing, and then things get really confusing!
My impression is that when someone talks about consciousness they’ve settled on one or two aspects of the many aspects of consciousness, and are thinking and talking as if that’s all there is to it.
To illustrate, how do you “define” an automobile? No, you can’t take the easy way out by pointing out your window at one of those things sitting in the driveway. I want a logical, unambiguous, and un-confusing definition.
Well, an automobile has tires. Almost always true, so we’re starting out pretty well, but obviously there’s a lot more to it than that. Okay, an automobile has seats. An automobile has a windshield. An automobile usually uses gasoline or diesel fuel. An automobile can move, under the direction of a driver, from one place to another. And, and, and…
Which of the above characteristics is most important? None, of course. Yes, an automobile has parts, but it’s the way those parts relate to each other, both statically and dynamically, that is much more representative of what the concept of automobile is about. Our language makes us tend to habitually think in terms of things, solid, unchanging things, but really an automobile is a process using things.
Can the windshield, by itself, understand what an automobile is? How about the tires? How about the gasoline? How about the process of combustion of the fuel inside the cylinders? We’re asking if the part can comprehend the whole, when the whole exists only because of the interaction of many parts. In technical terms, the whole is a systems emergent, emerging from a specific pattern of interaction of sub-systems, but the properties of the whole can’t necessarily be deduced from knowledge of the parts, the sub-systems.
So I regard “defining” as one of the many parts or subsystems of consciousness. Consciousness has other parts, like perceiving, feeling various emotions, planning, remembering, etc. People who write and talk about consciousness usually, as I mentioned above, are most interested in one aspect of this but then tend to treat it as if it were the whole. But I don’t see how the part can understand the whole, so while defining can be a very valuable function of this much larger process we call consciousness, I don’t really expect that it can somehow comprehend the whole of consciousness.
But wait, don’t throw your hands up in despair! While consciousness itself may be too big a process for the part called “defining” to comprehend, we can still communicate usefully about the actions of some of the parts, or the interactions of some of the parts, even if we can’t comprehend, “define” the whole from any particular parts perspective or qualities. What we can do if we’re reading someone’s writings about consciousness or hearing them talk is get them to define what they mean by “consciousness” in this particular instance. If we could get people to do that, we could have much clearer communications. But as long as we’re talking about different things while always using that word “consciousness,” communication is pretty inefficient and often totally misleading.
Okay, is your pillow still fastened to the wall? If you want to bang your head some more, please use the pillow, but if you’re feeling less puzzled, take the pillow down and sit on it, get clear about what particular aspect of “consciousness” you went to learn more about, and think and observe…
If I come across as too sharp, sorry, that’s not my intention, and I’m really quite optimistic about us getting a lot clearer about some aspects, at least, of consciousness. In my years of studying altered states of consciousness, listening to many people’s accounts of what had happened to them, one of the smartest things I learned to do was stop assuming I understood that I knew just what they meant when they used common words, and ask them to get more specific about it.
From Sarcasm To Blessing: Setting The Perceptual Filters
I was looking for something to read with my breakfast today, and found a book by Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, which I had picked up from our local library’s free box. Who can resist a free box? And I’ve always admired Mark Twain for his wry wit.
This is a collection of Twain’s writings which were published after his death, according to his wish. He figured he would be arrested if they were published while he was alive.
For example, he’s talking about the way humans have invented their own concepts of God and heaven, and writes
“You know what the human race enjoys, and what it doesn’t enjoy. It has invented a heaven out of its head, all by itself: guess what it is like! In 1500 eternities you couldn’t do it. The ablest mind known to you or me in 50 million aeons couldn’t do it. Very well, I will tell you about it.”
- “First of all, I recall to your attention the extraordinary effect with which I began. To wit, that the human being, like the immortals, naturally places sexual intercourse far and away above all other joys – – yet he is left it out of his heaven! The very thought of it excites them; opportunity sets him wild; in this state he will risk life, reputation, everything – – even his queer heaven itself – – to make good that opportunity and ride it to the overwhelming climax.… Yet it is actually as I have said: it is not in their heaven; prayer takes its place.”
Or another paragraph further down,
- “In man’s heaven everybody sings! The man who did not sing on earth sings there; the man who could not sing on earth is able to do it there. This universal singing is not casual, not occasional, not relieved by intervals of quiet; it goes on all day long: in every day, during a stretch of 12 hours. And everybody stays; whereas an earth the place would be empty in two hours. The singing is of hymns alone.…”
And two paragraphs further down,
- “Meantime, every person is playing on a harp – – those millions and millions! – whereas not more than 20 in the thousand of them could play an instrument on the earth, or ever wanted to.”
Since I woke up with a headache, the negative attitude of Twain’s sarcasm fit right in. Indeed, there was what psychologists call a secondary gain, I might be in pain and somewhat ashamed to be part of this ridiculous human race, but, on the other hand, I was one of the superior ones who appreciated the insanity of it all.
I finished breakfast, put down Mark Twain, and went on to the work of the day. Mostly forgetting about what I’d read, but with a certain negative undercurrent running through things. Then after lunch, since my wife is away, I went shopping for groceries. I had negative expectations, I don’t like crowds, and Twain had reminded me what idiots all us human beings are anyway. But, to my amazement, after I’d been a few minutes in the grocery store, I noticed how many smiling people were talking to other smiling people. I noticed the clerk in my line, who must’ve been working for hours by then with one customer after another, talking with them and smiling at them, and it looked completely genuine! She was enjoying her day. All these people around me, who must be subject to the normal vicissitudes of human life were demonstrating – – not really “demonstrating,” they were just living it – – the simple pleasantries that we can have from being human.
My 50th year had come and gone
I sat a solitary man
In a crowded London shop
An open book an empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and Street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And 20 minutes more or less,
It seemed so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
Now I wish I could say that I was experiencing some incredible feeling of blessing myself, but no, I was quite within the range of ordinary human happiness, and I liked the people around me and indeed blessed them in my quiet way.
What a simple demonstration of how our beliefs and feelings can selectively alter our perception to coincide with our ongoing beliefs and feelings. This morning, a headache, witty sarcasm, a reminder of what a shitty world we live in, the horrible way people treat each other, their foolishness about it, and so what if I was a little superior to the great mobs, I was caught in it too. This afternoon, a simple rejoining of the human race, there’s a lot of nice people out there and I like/love them and wish them the best!
Tags: belief, blessing, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, emotions, enlightenment, intention, Mark Twain, mindfulness, mood, ordinary mind, perception, perceptual bias, Samuel Clemens, sarcasm, Transpersonal
PASCAL’S WAGER: To Believe or Not Believe in God. Or?
Yesterday (9-28-15) there was an excellent opinion article by philosopher Gary Gutting in the NY Times on Pascal’s wager. I think my reflections on it, emailed to Professor Gutting, might spark some interesting thoughts.
PASCAL’S WAGER: the argument that it is in one’s own best interest to behave as if God exists, since the possibility of eternal punishment in hell outweighs any advantage of believing otherwise.
Dear Gary Gutting, Date Composed: September 28, 2015
I greatly liked your opinion piece in the NY Times today, as I discovered you had described the essence of my own pragmatic approach so well. You might be interested in my similar formulation from an essential science perspective.
I’m a psychologist and former radio engineer who has focused on building bridges between the best of spirituality (basic experience rather than concretized religious doctrine) and the best of science (genuine empiricism and open-mindedness rather than a commitment to absolute materialism as if it were Revealed Truth), drawing on research in altered states, psychology and parapsychology, as well as some personal work in various spiritual growth systems. I’m one of the founders of Transpersonal Psychology, a small branch of psychology that takes the spiritual as at least partly about something real and important, not just some weirdness suitable for study in only abnormal psychology…
The rough outline of my current working approach is
1- Recognize that, like just about everyone, I have strong hopes and fears in this area, and these may affect my perception and thinking even though I’m not consciously aware of them. Try to be objective, be on the lookout for biases…
2- People have powerful personal experiences, often “more real than real,” that they interpret as spiritual experiences, and their lives often then drastically change
3- If that was all, these experiences would still be worth much study as they are more powerful than many, if not most, change agents
4- But also rigorous experiments in scientific (not popular) parapsychology powerfully argue for the existence of processes like telepathy, remote viewing, psychic healing, etc. (details in my last book The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together), so spiritual experiences may be more than merely subjective experiences. There is an enormous amount of irrational resistance to accepting any of these psychic phenomena as real, however, with the degree of resistance being, unfortunately, directly proportional to the denier’s ignorance of the actual scientific literature, so I will not emphasize psychic phenomena more here.
5- We humans have powerful drives to understand and explain everything, so spiritual experiences get turned into Doctrines, Tenets, Beliefs which, over time and as social and psychological forces work on them, become too fixed
6- In my pragmatic approach to science (and life in general), it’s fine to develop working hypotheses about the meaning of these experiences, but psychological knowledge (and common sense) tells us that too much attachment, making them True Doctrines, can lead to a lot of trouble and suffering
7- So my version of Pascal’s wager is that lots of evidence (not much personal experience for me) points to the importance of and some kind of “reality” of “spirit,” so while trying to clarify what these spiritual experiences are and mean is vitally important, there’s a lot to be said for trying to live by the values implicit in such experiences
8- As one specific example of my personal wager, I have a working hypothesis that the evidence for some kind of postmortem survival of consciousness is strong, so really long-term improvement of my personality and action is worth investing in, rather than deciding “I’m 78, probably won’t be around much longer, it all disappears with death, so there’s no point wasting my energies on self-improvement…”
And if death truly is the extinction of consciousness, I run no risk of being embarrassed about my incorrect beliefs about survival… ;-)
As to denying the existence of any spiritual beings or God, I don’t have a big enough ego to declare that I am the smartest creature in the universe and can thus confidently say there couldn’t be any creatures smarter than me… Although I will admit that that Jehovah fellow from the Old Testament doesn’t meet my criteria for godliness, but my emotional denial of his particular existence is more of a childish “Nyah nyah!” than a reasoned position… ;-)
As I usually sum up in my The End of Materialism, the idea that science has somehow proven there is no reality to the spiritual is factually wrong, and when you actually review the empirical evidence and its implications, it is reasonable to be both scientific and spiritual in one’s approach to life. While exercising lots of discrimination, as there’s certainly plenty of nonsense associated with the spiritual (as there is with all areas of life).
Unfortunately, I’ve found that very few people are interested in applying a pragmatic/scientific approach to spirituality or religion, we’re too attached to the apparent security our hardened beliefs give us. Science is nice when it seems to validate our beliefs, but science also allows all hypotheses and theories to be doubted and questioned, and it’s too scary to think of what that openness to questioning might do to our precious doctrines. So no science allowed!
I assume you have similar problems in getting anyone to think philosophically about religion and spirituality… ;-(
Again, thank you for an excellent article!
Tags: belief, Blaise Pascal, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, death, emotions, enlightenment, God, materialism, mindfulness, mystical experience, Parapsychology, Pascal, precognition, Spirit, spiritual, telepathy, Transpersonal
Talking with my wife Judy about dreams a few days ago, I partly remembered a fascinating dream from years before that may have been telepathic. I knew my memory was not quite complete, though: maybe I had notes somewhere? Yes! Here it is, and it’s fascinating.
One day as I was teaching my Altered States of Consciousness (Psychology 137) class at UC Davis, I was lecturing on dreams as an altered state. I lecture from rough outline notes to remind me of things to cover, but most of the particulars of what I say are created on the spot.
Talking about the qualities of dreams as a state of consciousness, I was making the point that dreams are not random ramblings, they are organized, there’s a world, a plot, actions fitting the plot, etc. As I was lecturing it occurred to me that this statement was rather on the abstract side, I really should give the students an example to illustrate this. So while continuing to talk, I sort of “opened” my mind (I remember a “reaching upward” aspect) to try to come up with an example of disorganization, to contrast with organization. One almost instantly came to me, so I mentioned that you don’t just have random, disconnected elements in dreams, like a gorilla, an ice cream cone, and a Volkswagen, things in a dream generally go together.
Students often came up to ask and tell me things at the end of class. In this case, one of my students, an excited and rather indignant young lady, came up to me and demanded to know, “Where did you get that dream of a gorilla, an ice cream cone, and a Volkswagen?”
I told her I had just made it up, I’d never used anything like it before.
“Well,” she indignantly replied, “I used to have this recurring, scary dream about how I and my family were at home, and we started thinking about going out for some ice cream. But then we found out this gorilla was loose on our street, so we all went to hide. Strangest of all, my father decided to hide under the Volkswagen in our garage – and we’d never owned a Volkswagen!”
What could I say, but that it just came to me, from I don’t know where….
Isolated instances seldom prove anything, but I’ve known there is lots of evidence, both spontaneous cases and laboratory studies for telepathically obtained information to influence dreams. So I had made a semi-conscious request for information, while most of my consciousness was involved in talking, lecturing, part of me “reached up” wanting an example of organization in dreams. My lecturing on dreams up to this point may well have stimulated this student to think about her recurring, frightening dream, so it was probably on her mind with a substantial emotional charge. Need on the “receiving” end, me, emotional charge on the “sending” end, her. A classic example of the situation in thousands of “spontaneous” instances in everyday life that look like telepathy…
Tags: altered states, altered states of consciousness, attention, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, dreams, emotions, gorilla, ice cream cone, intention, Judy Tart, Parapsychology, perception, telepathy, Transpersonal, UC Davis, unusual experiences, Volkswagen
Grappling with the Angel/Devil of “Non-Duality”
[An expanded version of this essay will be published in 2015 in the journal Creativity & Collective Enlightenment]
As one outcome of my posting an essay on the origins of my proposal to create the state specific sciences, in the previous post, my friend and colleague, Russell Tart, physicist and parapsychologist, sent me some very stimulating comments. He is not only one of the pioneers of the remote viewing technique, which was used by US government intelligence agencies for decades, but also a student of Buddhism and other non-dual spiritual paths. The core of his comments had to do with “non-duality.”
Non-duality is a big deal in a spiritual seeking circles in the West today, such a big deal that you could call it a buzzword. Put “non-duality” in the title of something and it immediately looks like the highest kind of spiritual material, deserving special attention. But, I’ve never felt I understood what the idea is really all about, much less experientially understanding it. Sometimes when I don’t understand something I write about it, in the hope that having to write clearly will clarify my own thoughts, and I’ve done that occasionally with non-duality.
This is one more attempt to grapple with non-duality. Has it made me clearer? Well I think I’m somewhat clearer on what I don’t know, and that’s probably progress. I present it here for whatever stimulation value it has, and hope someday I will write something based on a real understanding of it. Whatever I don’t understand, I do know that the people who write and talk about it say non-duality is very important!
Here (with his permission) is my correspondence with Russell Targ, with his excerpted words in blue.
You’ve put that word “non-duality” in my mind with your email of the 6th, Russ, and while I usually try not to confuse myself by thinking about it, I’ve decided to grapple with it some here in the hope that that might clarify things for me, and if I put this is an essay on my blog, perhaps clarify things for someone else. I would value your response, of course, but if this is more than you wanted I understand! :-)
Grappling with the Angel/Devil of “Non-Duality”
For the reader who understands something of this, the title, evoking the dualistic image of a grappler and something to be grappled with, may make you think the following will be a sophisticated discussion of non-duality, or immediately demonstrate that this writer doesn’t have a clue as to what non-duality is about. I don’t know which it is. Hopefully it will be useful in stimulating thought.
Duality and Non-Duality:
> I am emphasizing the importance of experience to internalizing non-dual teachings. So, I felt it was a big coincidence for me, to immediately come upon your e-mail on state specific consciousness, which I take to be the same thing. <
Ah, you challenge me nicely Russ! When you say “… take to be the same thing,” my rational mind is used to dealing with that sort of statement, but, as you point out later in your email, I don’t think our ordinary rational mind can never satisfactorily define or understand what we mean by non-dual teachings. My ordinary mind has certainly tried it over and over again for decades and not gotten anywhere!
I’ve never been sure exactly what “duality” means.
In some contexts, the meaning is obvious. If I’m meeting someone for the first time, for example, and besides what I hear from them and say to them I’m desperately thinking and worrying about “Am I making a good impression? Will I be liked? Am I making a fool of myself?” I’m certainly in a highly dualistic state of mind, evaluating most, if not all of my perceptions of the moment in relation to how it reflects on me and my hopes and fears.
While there are certainly occasions in real life when you do need to be concerned with what kind of impression you’re making on people, as it has consequences for the relationship and your life, to have this kind of thing happen compulsively much of the time can certainly be a source of useless suffering. If someone says to me “Look to the north, there’s some really beautiful cloud formations there,” and I look to the north and to see and enjoy those beautiful cloud formations, I’m fairly well centered in ordinary reality and functioning well. If I don’t really perceive those clouds very well and am caught up in my worries about the impression I’m making, it’s totally useless suffering. I’m missing something beautiful, and reinforcing my habit of worrying about what kind of impression I’m making.
So far I’ve been talking about what we might call in conventional Western terms neurotic dualism, and it’s quite understandable. We think it’s generally helpful and intelligent to pay some attention to how you are presenting yourself in various situations, but neurotic or downright crazy to be stuck in that.
Mystical Experience of Unity and Flow:
On the other hand, I know there are numerous reports of “mystical experiences,” at the other end of the spectrum, where people report that they felt at one with the universe and that this feeling of unity was quite wonderful. Not having had that experience myself, I doubt that I understand it very well, even though it sounds very desirable. And I suspect there may be a variety of experiences that are all described as “non-dual” but may be significantly different. Extraordinary experiences are rare for most of us, and we aren’t trained in a good vocabulary for describing them or discriminating one from another.
In between these two ends of the spectrum, neurotic duality to mystical oneness, I think we’ve all had lots of experiences that, in retrospect, we might describe as at least a somewhat non-dual, because all of our conscious experience for a while was involved with our perceptions of the situation we were in and whatever actions we took that, hopefully, were appropriate to the situation. I think this is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow experience that started getting described in psychology a few decades ago, and I’m sure we’ve all experienced such flow occasionally. At the times it’s happened to me, I don’t particularly think of it as any special kind of experience, I’m involved in what I’m doing, I’m usually doing it reasonably well, that’s nice, but it’s no big deal.
I can imagine a person having more and more flow experiences, and that would be very rewarding. Is continuous flow experiences what is meant by “enlightenment?” Of course that word enlightenment is used in a variety of ways, but I imagine this may be a part of what is meant sometimes.
My understanding falters, though, when what we’re talking about seems to jump from qualities of experience to ultimate statements about the absolute nature of reality. I know people who have had mystical unity experiences certainly think that’s the way reality really is, but what that means for those of us who haven’t had it, I don’t know. And when the Tibetan Buddhists especially go on and on about it, I find it kind of inspiring, but it doesn’t really make any sense to me. Sometimes when they stop talking so grandly about the absolutely pristine and wonderful nature of rigpa and also casually mention that it’s all quite “ordinary,” I think they mean something like a flow state — which, at least in my limited experience, is no big deal at all at the time that you’re in it. Although sometimes I think they’re using “ordinary” in a prescriptive, rather than a descriptive manner, you’re supposed to develop in a way so you’ll always be in that kind of state. Except of course you shouldn’t be striving for anything, as any kind of striving is inherently dualistic and prevents that state from happening….and intellectual honesty for me when I think about that is to say “Huh?”
Thinking about duality from an ordinary perspective, the practically useful working perspective that the physical world has a reality independent of our beliefs about it, duality is essential for life. If a friend says “Let’s eat!” it’s important that I instantly discriminate that my arm, even though it’s made of meat, is me, and it would be very bad to take a bite of it, whereas the sandwich on the table is not me, and it’s fine to eat it.
Along another line, thinking about duality and non-duality from a spiritual perspective I’m somewhat familiar with, Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way teachings, the primary way of psychological and spiritual growth I understand there is to deliberately split your awareness into several aspects, you could call it a dual or triple. Typically you keep about 10% of your moment to moment awareness on body sensation, such as from your arms and legs, about 40 or 50% on what you’re seeing, and the rest on what you’re hearing. In my experience, this produces a very useful form of what we might call dualism, in that there is a clear distinction and more accurate perception of sensory input, primarily vision and hearing, while keeping some consciousness grounded in immediate body sensation. Although there is no conscious emphasis on striving for the following outcome, this makes you, in my experience, more sensitive to fleeting feelings and emotions that might otherwise be missed, and so more accurate in your engagement of the world, as you’re less likely to be carried off by emotional reactions that if you weren’t doing this practice.
> Padmasambhava, in the Eighth Century is teaching the non-dual view that mind is spaciousness, just as there is no separation between waves and the ocean. Mind as spaciousness is what he means by naked awareness, in his great meditation guide book.<
While I have a lot of conceptual trouble with “non-dual,” I’m much happier thinking about and using the word “spaciousness.” Spaciousness (and, more usually, lack of it) is something I have direct experience of. My ordinary mind is not spacious. Perceptions of the outside world or my body keep coming in, each generates one or more internal reactions, and there may be no apparent gap between these internal reactions, so my conscious experience seems continuous but hardly spacious.
I remember years ago when I took a class (several times) from Lama Tarthang Tulku at the Nyingma Institute in Berkeley on basic meditation. He occasionally used the phrase “the gap between thoughts.” I thought that was a fascinating concept! But it was only a concept for me, there were certainly no gaps between any of my thoughts! Back then when trying to learn various basic forms of concentrative and insight meditation, I thought one had to learn to create quiet spaces between thoughts, and I was so bad at it that I eventually gave up even attempting to meditate, assuming it took some kind of special talent that some people had for creating a quiet mind, but which clearly I didn’t have. It was only years later after instructions from meditation teacher Shinzen Young, who I think is one of the best meditation teachers in the world, that I actually found vipassana meditation to be a pleasant and useful activity, and now I do it regularly. And while I don’t make a big deal of it, I do occasionally observe gaps between thoughts. It’s possible, and spacious.
Qualities of Spaciousness:
Returning to the idea of spaciousness, though, I would distinguish at least two qualities of spaciousness in my own experience. One is the obvious one of less active thoughts or even apparently quiet temporal gaps between distinct thoughts. Not unconsciousness, as I’m still aware that I exist in a quiet way, and I may be receiving sensory input, but there are noticeable drops in the intensity of my internal processes, sometimes such that I would even call my mind momentarily quiet. The second quality of spaciousness deals with the way I experience what I might call the “stickiness” of thoughts. My ordinary experience is that one thought automatically and forcefully generates other thoughts, reactions to sensations generate more thoughts or emotions, the process is continuous and seems like it will never end. But sometimes when I’m experiencing some spaciousness, the quieter periods between ordinary thoughts and perceptions are not empty, there may be other thoughts or perceptions that come and go, but they don’t automatically grab my awareness and force further reactions the way they normally do. They are just less sticky, they flow through my mind without stimulating other thoughts that stick to them…
Naked Awareness, Finding Mind:
>Mind as spaciousness is what he means by naked awareness, in his great meditation guide book.<
If I take “naked awareness” to be the basic nature of mind to experience things, things get interesting. There is a meditation exercised used in Tibetan Buddhism where the student is asked to try to find their own mind. I have tried it occasionally, and, as the texts state, I can find anything in particular! If my mind is in its usual active state I can certainly find content of mind in any instant, and that content is normally pretty continuous even if I’m not particularly aware that I’m experiencing content at the moment. Sometimes I suddenly look for mind when my mind is relatively quiet and I still can’t find anything, that is I can’t find any thing in particular that I would say this is mind*. Yet I am aware that I’m aware, but this awareness is, while kind of obvious and not at all special when I practice it, not at all like the kind of awareness of mental content, of specific things, either specific things perceived through the senses or generated internally.
* In some ways I am intellectually convinced, though, that if I could mentally “spin around” fast enough I would catch something that might be my mind, but I can never do it.
There is a spacious quality to this kind of awareness of mind. In my limited experience I wouldn’t say there’s any specific quality to it, like ordinary things or thoughts or emotions have, and yet it’s there. The table to my right as I write this, for example, has a specific size and location, my looking for something to illustrate had intentional qualities, there’s a slight feeling of satisfaction that this is a good illustration.
Sometimes when I wonder about the value of meditative training that lets you experience spaciousness more often, I find myself creating an analogy that it’s like a button early home computers had on the front panel labeled Reset. Early computers often froze up because too many programs were running simultaneously and conflicted with each other for limited resources, and pushing the button cleared out all running programs from memory, so you were reset back to zero, back to the full spaciousness of your computer’s capacity.
This is certainly parallel with what happens in ordinary life. So often we have several things on our mind at once, they get into recursive loops that are sticky and drawing more and more of our mental resources, attempts to quiet things down and focus create more reactions, and were stuck. To be able with some skill, that I think develops from gaining some proficiency at concentrative or vipassana meditation, to “back up” to the spaciousness the constitutes the basic nature of mind may let those things die down, may reset your mind so you can now focus in a more useful and desirable way. So, yes, ”Mind as spaciousness is what he means by naked awareness, in his great meditation guide book.” Makes some sense to me, although I’m sure there’s far more being referred to by Padmasambhava* than what I’ve written about here.
* Amusement note: my Dragon Dictate program on hearing “Padmasambhava” typed in “pod my some Baba.” :-) Pretty good try!
…. the importance of experience to internalizing non-dual teachings. So, I felt it was a big coincidence for me, to immediately come upon your e-mail on state specific consciousness, which I take to be the same thing.<
Picture: John Bamberger, Fluorescent Waterfall
Non-dualism and State-Specific-Sciences:
Coming back to the question of how much my proposal for the establishment of state specific sciences is advocating the importance of internalizing non-dual teachings, yes and no, no and yes.
I don’t think much of my understanding of non-duality now, and when I proposed developing state specific sciences several decades ago my understanding was far less. What I basically did in my proposal was review the basic procedure of scientific inquiry for acquiring and refining knowledge. (1) Observe what you’re interested in carefully, always try to improve the quality of your observation. (2) Devise theories that make sense of your observations, use sensible logic in them so your ideas hang together. (3) Don’t stop with the satisfaction of feeling that intellectually you understand things, but work the logic of your theory to make predictions about things you haven’t seen and go out and test those predictions. If they come true, great, keep developing your theory. If they don’t modify your theory or come up with a new one altogether. And (5) meanwhile, since your mind may have all sorts of peculiar quirks you have no idea exist, keep sharing all these steps with peers who can check your observations check your thinking check your predictions. That way we go from poor observations and fuzzy ideas about why things happened to more clear and precise observations and understandings that make more sense of them. Which in most cases will allow us to then apply our understandings for human benefit.
A basic point of my proposal, though, was that science is normally done in “normal” consciousness, but we now know that there are many arbitrary, culturally constructed aspects of culturally normal consciousness that sensitize us in some ways and blind and bias us in other ways. We also know that there exist altered states of consciousness (ASCs) in which perception and thinking seem to work quite differently, so if we could apply basic scientific method in a variety of ASCs, we would get a much wider range of understandings. I didn’t say too much more about this potential outcome, because I knew most of my readers would be biased toward a materialistic view that only what is physical is real. So if they would want to think I was talking primarily about altered states observations of physical phenomena fine, but the proposal left it quite open to take internal experiences as primary things you observed, experimented with, and theorized about. Thus all sorts of systems of yoga, meditation systems, and the like could become “inner sciences,” rather than simply religious beliefs or, as I argued in the proposal, not remain state specific technologies but become specific state specific sciences. So yes, systems which led people to experience non-dual consciousness could have its practitioners practice essential science and lead to all sorts of other new knowledge. In terms of acceptance of the proposal for publication in Science, I think the one referee, who I later found out to be pioneering psychophysiologist Elmer Green, was very aware of this revolutionary opening up to inner experience, but the other referee and the editor of science probably didn’t get it.
It would take us too far afield now, but I could argue that the proposal for state-specific sciences is actually wider than any particular spiritual path in some respects, unless we assume that the “enlightenment” which can result from a spiritual path constitutes a permanent state where everything worth knowing is known so no more acquisition, refinement and application of knowledge is need…
Okay, there are many interesting places we could go, but I’m sure this essay is already overly long. Good thinking!
Tags: altered states of consciousness, ASC, ASCs, belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, duality, emotions, enlightenment, flow experience, Gurdjieff, intention, John Bamberger, meditation, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, mindfulness, mystical experience, naked awareness, nature of mind, neurosis, non=duality, ordinary mind, Padmasambhava, perception, remote viewing, Russell Targ, science, self-remembering, Shinzen Young, spaciousness, spiritual teachers, state-specific sciences, state-specific technologies, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, unity experience, waking up
State-Specific Sciences: Altered State Origin of the Proposal
Charles T. Tart
Perhaps the most important and creative idea I’ve had in my half-century career as a psychologist has been the establishment of state-specific sciences. The basic idea is to greatly expand our ability to gain knowledge by practicing the essence of science in a variety of states of consciousness, instead of just one, and to be able to study and eventually use the unusual experiences of altered states more clearly. Little has been done by others to actually establish such sciences as of this time (2015), and I believe that, for a variety of reasons, the idea is still ahead of its time, but I have high hopes for it. I’m also aware that just because an idea seems exciting and plausible does not necessarily mean it is correct, so it may turn out to be an idea that is false, as some people said at the time, but we shall see…
Note on Eye Candy: Various charts from my systems approach to understanding and using Altered States of Consciousness, taken from my States of Consciousness book.
Here’s how it came about.
By the early 1970s, I had finished my graduate degree and spent a decade focusing my empirical research primarily on the nature of hypnosis and on using posthypnotic suggestion to influence the content and processing of stage I-REM dreaming during the night. I had also been a subject while in graduate school of a psychiatrist colleague’s (Martin Keeler) experiments with psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD and psilocybin, so I had some personal experience of the drastic changes that these kind of drugs could make to mental functioning. And although consciousness per se was still largely a taboo topic in science back then, I was familiar with a very wide variety of early studies and reports on things like creative states, what little was known of meditation at the time, lucid dreams, and the like.
I had also, through the kindness of Michael Murphy, the founder of Esalen Institute, attended a number of human potential programs at Esalen. One of the growth techniques I became aware of was Structural Integration, commonly known as Rolfing. This was a therapy developed by New York physiologists Ida Rolf. To greatly oversimplify, she observed that, probably as a result of various physical traumas through life, our body became poorly aligned within the Earth’s gravitational field, connective tissue grew into permanent tensions to try to compensate for this, and as a result a lot of physical energy was wasted or took pathological directions. She developed a form of therapy (10 sessions) in which a Rolfing therapist, using intense physical manipulation techniques (not just fingers but elbows with full body weight behind them, e.g.) softened and broke hardened connective tissue until the body was optimally aligned vertically in the gravitational field. Some of the Rolfing practitioners also felt that this released many psychological traumas that had been incorporated in chronic bodily tensions and practices. I could look in the mirror and see that my posture was not all that good, and decided to go through the standard 10 sessions of Rolfing. I was ambivalent about this, already knowing that it was usually a quite painful procedure, and I’ve always been afraid of pain.
Pain-Induced Altered States:
I was living in Davis in 1971, so drove down to San Francisco for my first Rolfing session with Seymour Carter. My expectations of it being extremely painful work were, unfortunately, repeatedly confirmed throughout the approximately 90 minute session! I tried to be a strong, silent manly type, but I’m sure I let out a fair number of moans and groans! When I stood up at the end of the session, though, I felt taller and many of my bodily motions felt smoother, as if my joints had been rusty and now the rust had been removed and my joints had been oiled.
I drove straight back to Davis, and in that hour of driving all of the ideas that later came out in my proposal for establishing state-specific sciences arose in my mind, in a comprehensible and orderly manner. I got home, grabbed my portable electric typewriter and took it to a table in my back yard (it was a pleasant afternoon) and began typing.
Almost all of the proposal came out within the hour, with no corrections or editing, and by three days later I had run off more than 100 mimeographed copies of the proposal to distribute at the Council Grove conference on consciousness that I was going to attend in Kansas in a few days.
So what was my proposal for state-specific sciences?
Stripping it down to the barest of essentials, if you ask what science is, it’s a set of procedures for (1) better observation of what happens in reality and (2) for creating, testing, and refining theories, explanations, as to why things happen the way you observed. What is usually left out in thinking about science, though, is that the process of essential science is done by a human being, done by a creature with characteristics, both innate and acquired, that can make it more sensitive to some kinds of things, less sensitive or blind other kinds of things, able to reason and see clearly about some kinds of relationships, but not about others.
Besides characteristics inherent to all human beings, each of us has been socialized into a particular culture and so is biased to observe things and think about things in accordance with the values of that culture. But when you look at the way the mind can change its functioning in various altered states of consciousness (ASCs), you realize that the “ordinary” or “normal” state for any particular culture has many semi-arbitrary characteristics. So doing science in one’s ordinary state of consciousness is doing it with, as it were, a specialized instrument.
It would be, by analogy, as if all astronomy were done through telescopes whose lenses were made from a kind of glass that was inherently red. Those telescopes would be more sensitive to certain kinds of light, less sensitive to other. There’s nothing wrong with the observations and theories based on them made with the red-biased telescopes, of course, but it’s wrong to assume that they are the complete picture. So what I basically proposed is that we develop detailed knowledge of various ASC’s, the strengths and weaknesses of each of those, and then practice science within each of those. That would give us a variety of “instruments,” and so give us additional ways of observing and thinking.
Note on Eye Candy: Various charts from my systems approach to understanding and using Altered States of Consciousness, taken from my States of Consciousness book.
Creative Flow in the Wisdom of Hindsight:
I’ve been a student of my own, as well as others’ mental processes my whole life, and knew what had happened was quite amazing. I was not that fluent a writer, and to have a complex proposal like that just pour out of my fingertips on to the typed page in practically final form was very unusual. I had never experienced creativity like that, and I later reasoned that some combination of the strong physical pain from the Rolfing session, my attempts to lie still on the worktable so I could be worked on, and the many brief ASCs induced by the pain, states centered around the painful stimulation and my efforts to be quiet and manly, must have shaken up and eliminated all sorts of mental blocks in my mind. (Induction procedures for ASC are discussed in the systems approach to consciousness in my States of Consciousness book) As I thought about what I’d written about in the proposal, I could see that practically each individual item was something I had thought about the some extent at some time or another in my past, but these had been isolated, unconnected thoughts. The creative miracle was them just pouring out.
I spoke briefly at the 1971 Council Grove conference on this material, and many attendees (researchers interested in consciousness) made encouraging comments, so I did a little bit of editing and submitted it to Science. Since this was about expanding our potential uses of science in general, not just in terms of properties of ASCs, I thought it deserved to get as wider distribution in the scientific community as possible. I feared it would be too far out for the editors of Science, but they accepted it. Their acceptance letter included comments from two anonymous referees. One of these referees clearly understood the revolutionary import of the proposal and thought it was an excellent idea. Years later I found out that this referee was Elmer Green, who was uniquely knowledgeable for understanding the state-specific sciences proposal. The second referee was, I concluded from the tenor of his remarks, probably a professor of agriculture or something pretty irrelevant to my proposal, but he went along with publishing the paper. The paper appeared as a feature article (seven pages) in a 1973 issue of Science.
Reaction: Brilliant or Crazy?
As most of us who have published scientific articles know, the vast majority of these articles disappear with scarcely a trace, perhaps a few citations in passing in some specialty journal, and that’s it. To my amazement, and I assume the amazement of the editor of Science, my proposal drew over 100 letters to the editor! With journal space always being considered precious, Science only published four of them, with some balance between letters stating it was a good idea and those saying the idea was nonsense. They sent all the rest of the letters to me, and these were not anonymous like refereeing reports, but showed the writers names and affiliations.
These letters to the editor were very interesting. Roughly half of them said state-specific sciences were a good idea, let’s get on with developing them, we will learn a lot. The other half said science depended on the scientist being in a normal, sane state of consciousness, any and all ASCs were obviously inferior and crazy states, you couldn’t possibly do science in any ASC, Science should not have published the article. I recognized the names of many of the writers in the “This is crazy” category: they were prominent senior scientists in a variety of fields. From what I could trace down of the names of the writers in the “This is wonderful” category, these were younger scientists.
The most interesting letter, or actually pair of letters, submitted to the editor, was from a psychiatrist I had met once at a conference who was just a little older than me. His first letter was like the letters from the older scientists, this whole idea was, to use the appropriate psychiatric term, nuts! His second letter, written a few days later, reported that he was in an altered state of consciousness one evening and he thought about the state-specific science proposal, and it made perfect sense! He was embarrassed at having to contradict his own position, but his scientific integrity compelled him to…
This proposal for state specific sciences has been widely reprinted in many journals and books. I was also invited to write an updated version of it for a journal I was told was the South American equivalent of Science, Ciencia e Cultura, Journal of the Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science, and I was happy to report that I could see the possible beginnings of state specific sciences in several fields. One was in mathematics, were a number of mathematicians I spoke or corresponded with about their mental state when they were actually doing creative mathematics strongly suggested they were in altered states of consciousness, and that they needed to be in that kind of state to fully comprehend other mathematicians work at times. This was the state specific communication I talked about in the proposal. Another was the extensive information exchanges that were going on between lucid dreamers on the World Wide Web,. In lucid dreams a person’s state of consciousness changes drastically within a nocturnal dream, so they feel as if their mind is sharp, lucid, knowing that they are dreaming, but they can then deliberately experiment with the qualities of the state.
As I concluded in that article,
It is difficult to predict what the chances are of developing state-specific sciences. Our knowledge is still too diffuse and dependent on our normal SoCs. Yet I think it is probable that state-specific sciences can be developed for such SoCs as auto-hypnosis, various meditative states20, marijuana intoxication, LSD intoxication, self-remembering, reverie, various emotional states, and biofeedback-induced states , in addition to lucid dreaming. In all of these SoCs, volition seems to be retained, so that the observer can indeed carry out experiments on herself or others or both. Some SoCs, in which the wish to experiment during the state may disappear, but in which some experimentation can be carried out if special conditions are prepared before the state is entered, might be alcohol intoxication, ordinary dreaming, hypnagogic states, and high dreams . Some SoCs, like those associated with NDEs, may simply be too dangerous to deliberately experiment
Tart, C. T. (1972). States of consciousness and state-specific sciences. Science, 176, 1203-1210.
Tart, C. T. (1998). Investigating altered states of consciousness on their own terms: A proposal for the creation of state-specific sciences. Ciencia e Cultura, Journal of the Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science. 50, 2/3, 103-116.
My published articles in general:
Ongoing blog, essays:
Tags: Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, dreams, emotions, enlightenment, intention, meditation, mind science, mindfulness, ordinary mind, pain, Parapsychology, perception, science, Transpersonal, unusual experiences, vipassana, waking up
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