Spiritual Beings or Hallucinations?
Some more ongoing thinking….
Here’s something I just posted to another list which I think has a lot of relevance to our discussions. On a listserv I’m on of “spiritual leaders” (I think I’m their token scientist, as I’m certainly not a “spiritual leader”), I asked, to start a discussion,
How much alike would different gods have to be, in the absence of cultural contact, before one might start concluding that
A – they are alike because the physical brain is constructed in such a way that this sort of hallucination is probable?
B – they are alike because the “gods” really do exist independently of human belief in some way, so if the mind explores enough it can find them? With what’s found subject to some distortion from culture, of course….
I’ll use the term “spiritual beings” now rather than “gods” in an attempt to be less potentially offensive to anyone.
Another way to phrase this question is that there are (at least) two views about spiritual beings.
Spiritual beings don’t exist: One is that they don’t exist, and any experiences of contact with them or attributing real world effects to them is both a cognitive mistake and an illusion or hallucination on the part of human beings.
Spiritual beings may exist: The second is that some spiritual beings may indeed exist in some way not understandable in terms of current materialistic science, possibly never understandably in terms of materialistic science, independently of our beliefs about them, and we may potentially have contact with them and/or they may sometimes affect things in the ordinary material world.
The spiritual beings don’t exist view has to make an implicit or explicit assumption in order to account for reports of human contact with such beings, namely that our brains are powerful biocomputers with an enormous range of programming possibilities. In addition to the brain’s primary task of making sense out of the materially real data from our senses, our biocomputer brains can create real seemingly experiences in the absence of sensory input (as in vivid dreams, for example), and the range of the illusory and hallucinatory experiences that our brains can create is extremely wide, it can arbitrarily create any reported human religious experience. Meetings with angels, mystical experiences, union with God or the Cosmos, you name it, the human biocomputer can create an extremely real simulation of it.
My basic question could be rephrased then as can all spiritual experiences be fully accounted for by the range of simulation possible for the human biocomputer, or are some spiritual experiences of such a nature that we can’t see the human biocomputer as capable of simulating them?
Hypnosis as Controller of Experience:
Aside from other researchers’ findings, I spent the first couple of decades of my research career heavily involved in research on the nature of hypnosis., So I saw dramatic demonstrations of the degree to which the human biocomputer could create extremely real simulations that had nothing to do with ordinary reality. About 10 to 20% of the general population have the talent to reach very deep levels of hypnosis, and at these levels the hypnotist’s suggestions could almost totally control sensory perception, cognition, and emotion.
For example, one of these talented subjects (I worked with college students, of course, being a professor) could come to my laboratory and after 10 min. or so of inducing hypnosis I could have their body making automatic movements that they would swear had nothing to do with their own intention, not feeling or responding to extremely painful stimuli such as electric shocks, hearing the voices of and engaging in conversations with people who weren’t there, not perceiving physical objects that were really in front of them, having vivid and realistic dreams, finding themselves located elsewhere than where their physical bodies were in the laboratory, and arbitrarily having positive or negative emotions associated with almost anything. (Manipulating emotions was obviously limited to keeping them mild, of course, for ethical reasons.) I could also successfully suggest that they would forget everything that happened during the hypnosis session until I gave them a cue to remember, and/or I could create selective memories for some of the things that happened, and/or I could create false memories of things having happened that actually did not happen during the session.
This was all done within a university and scientific setting, of course, which meant that there were implicit limits on what was expected and allowed. I didn’t need to tell subjects that I would not suggest that they would do anything unethical, that if they had unusual experiences these were scientifically interesting, but not personally important to them, and that at the end of the session they would wake up the same person they were at the beginning of the session, that is, that there would be no long-term changes. This made hypnosis experiments safe.
While I got used to inducing hypnosis and doing these experiments, I was always quite aware that I was in a position of great psychological power during them, and so was very careful about my behavior. There had been great controversy in the hypnosis research literature for many years about whether a hypnotized person would do unethical or frightening things, but I had no desire to test the belief that they would not.
Now the spirits are not real school would take my observations and those of other hypnosis researchers and many other psychological observations to prove their point: the human brain can be programmed, by hypnosis in this case, to experience almost anything, and this could, in principle, include contact with spiritual beings. Thus no need to give any reality to spiritual beings.
In proper science, the cognitive appeal or plausibility of theories per se is not considered sufficient evidence that they are actually valid. You have to test your theories. I have never been tempted to try inducing fake spiritual experiences in hypnotized subjects to test this possibility because this is so personally morally repugnant to me. But the argument that it could be done does indeed seem very plausible given all I know about psychology.
So ignoring ethical constraints for the moment, in principle I could pick some highly hypnotizable subjects, set up a psychological climate in which, for valid scientific reasons, it was important to test some ideas about unusual experiences, including some that some people might consider “spiritual,” and get the subjects to agree to participate in such experiments. Since many people believe that science is responsible for progress in increasing the quality of human life, I would expect lots of people to volunteer.
I would then induce a deep as possible hypnotic state in the subject, and create a variety of mildly unusual experiences just to get the subject used to the idea of unusual experiences. Then I might go from, for example, having the subject visually see an old friend (who wasn’t actually there) and engage in a conversation with them, then perhaps have them visually see another old friend who was deceased, then with some subtle suggestions of “angelic” characteristics with that friend, and so on, working my way up to hallucinatory encounters with charismatic spiritual figures. I would add in suggestions that while we were idealistically simply exploring scientific issues to begin with, we could only conclude that we had actually been contacted by these spiritual beings, and, perhaps, that we were now morally and spiritually obligated to continue contact with these spiritual beings whose mission was to give important spiritual teachings to us poor, benighted souls.
Carry this on for a while with a variety of subjects, and pretty soon I would have my cult. ;-( ;-(
The whole idea is frightening and disgusting to me. What makes it especially frightening is that if I really had no ethical constraints and wanted to gain power by becoming a cult leader (or, worse, wasn’t consciously wicked like that but was deluded that it was my destiny to “enlightened” the world that way), I would never use the word hypnosis. I would go around giving classes on “meditation,” with lots of “guided meditations,” picking “advanced students” from those who responded well to my hypnotic manipulations that were disguised as guided meditations.
Sometimes I worry about how much this is already happening in the world.
Again ignoring ethical considerations, I would hope that if such experiments as these were carried out, the outcome would be on the order of finding that unusual and temporarily emotionally powerful fake spiritual experiences could be created, but that the finer-grain qualities of these experiences differed significantly from what we considered genuine spiritual experiences. This would provide evidence in favor of the idea that there really are independently existing spiritual beings, and the qualities of their contacts with human beings are importantly different from our attempts to simulate them.
This is my deeply held preference, of course, that there really are some benevolent and independently existing spiritual beings. While not denying my bias, I also, in the practice of science, would like to come closer to actual truth, not just artifactually strengthen my own biases. That’s a major issue in itself, which I won’t go into here.
So, this is the kind of thing I’m worrying about, and I invite further comment on.
As an authority once said,
Well, that was too damn wordy. I apologize. I wrote a long post because I didn’t have time to write a short one.
Tags: belief, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, God, goddesses, gods, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, ITP, materialism, Parapsychology, science, scientism, spirits, spiritual beings, spiritual teachers, Transpersonal
I attended a small, working conference recently with the, to me, rather grandiose title of an International Summit on Creating a Post-Materialist Science, Spirituality, and Society. We were actually quite serious, though, as we all believed that the dominance of Scientism, of a working philosophical theory that materialism is useful having turned into a dogma that it is the total truth about reality, is not only badly incomplete as a science, but psychologically harms many people by denying any spiritual aspects of their being. We are continuing to work on clarifying what we mean by a post-materialist science, which begins with getting clearer on what materialism is, and I thought I would share some of my initial thoughts on this, both for its general psychological and scientific interest, and to remind readers, as I so often do, that we are enmeshed in a cultural and psychological field that exerts a great deal of control over our lives. What follows is far from final, but I think you’ll find these initial thoughts interesting.
The definition of material is so built into our bodies, brains and nervous systems that it hardly needs a formal intellectual definition. It’s more solid, as it were, than the intellectual act of definition. The solid feel of this keyboard in front of me, the clear sight of this computer screen, the internal sensations from my body, the sounds and smells around me, these are all what I consider material stuff. My human senses are exquisitely designed to convey information about the material state of the material objects and processes around me (is it big or small, is it moving toward or away for me, etc.) and because this information is so useful to survival per se and to effective living, we naturally want to understand the material even better than we do with our unaided senses. Thus we invent devices (telescope, microscope, chemical analyses, etc.) and disciplined methods of observation to give us information about material things at finer levels, and often this is useful.
The human race has had enormous success at explaining events in terms of material objects and material energies, and we call explanation in such terms “materialism” in everyday language. Materialism, with a capital M, is a formal philosophical position that says it is extremely useful to look for explanations in material terms. This is often extended to implicitly or explicitly say looking for explanations in material terms is the only way to provide the most useful understanding. Explanation is to reduce all phenomena to the interactions of material objects and forces.
Here we shade into what I like to call Dogmatic Materialism, a habitual (and often emotionally invested in) psychological “hardening of the arteries,” as it were, a view that is so overcommitted to looking for and thinking about only material explanations that any observations which don’t make sense in terms of our already existing material explanations tend to be automatically ignored or dismissed. This ignoring can be both implicit, a person simply doesn’t think about contradictions, or, if the contradiction is conscious we can get what philosophers have called Promissory Materialism, a belief that while we cannot explain something now in material terms, someday such terms will adequately explain it.
Note carefully that Promissory Materialism is not a scientific theory, because scientific theories are generally required to be capable of falsification, and there is no way you can falsify the belief that anything will be explained in material terms someday.
I regard Dogmatic Materialism as a cognitive limitation and/or pathology, for instead of employing the full range of our observational and cognitive capacities to investigate something in all possible ways, we ignore or suppress certain kinds of data and thinking. Data about paranormal events is a primary example of this, far too unpleasantly familiar to many of us who have bothered to investigate them, and is an example of what is also called Scientism, acting and thinking as if the current findings of material science are the ultimate answers, and so anything that seems to contradict them must be in error and we can just ignore such observations without investigating them.
To concretely illustrate this, if I put two people hundreds of miles apart and do not provide any known material means for them to communicate, yet one looks at and thinks about a set of randomly chosen target material and wishes for it to be communicated to the person far away, and statistical analysis of the results shows that there is far more accuracy that can be expected by chance, the committed, Dogmatic Materialist doesn’t bother to read reports of this material in the first place, and/or often tries to suppress publication of such reports in mainstream science journals, and/or if they are forced to read it, comes up with a variety of implausible explanations in materialist terms, even though there’s no evidence for those explanations, and/or charges the experimenter with stupidity (she was fooled by the people involved) of being a deliberate fraud.
This kind of denial can reach the level of the unethical and/or pathological, as in one case where a well-known pseudo-skeptic claimed to explain away some strong results in a telepathy experiment by showing that the receiver could have looked through a transom over the door of his room through the transom of the door over the sender’s room and thus seen the cards, and included a sketch showing how this could be done. The sketch, as I recall, was based on the critic’s inspection of the floor plan of the building. Another investigators subsequently looked at the floor plan of the building, though, and showed that the pseudo-skeptic had, in his diagram (labeled in small print “not to scale”), moved the receiver’s room 50 feet down the hallway in order to make this explanation possible (Honorton, C., 1967. Review of Hansel’s “ESP: A Scientific Evaluation.” Journal of Parapsychology, 31, 82).
Given the situation of a common phenomena of human beings, even scientists, namely being overcommitted and overinvested in particular explanatory systems, such as Dogmatic Materialism, “post-materialist science” is, in many ways, a logically unnecessary term – but needed at this time to remind those lost in Dogmatic Materialism that there is more to reality. All we need is basic, essential science. Basic or essential science (see Tart, C., 1972. States of consciousness and state-specific sciences. Science, 176, 1203-1210) is a procedural algorithm that begins with observing as many aspects, hopefully all aspects, of what you’re interested in as accurately as possible. If you deliberately ignore possible observations that don’t fit theories you are already committed to, because they don’t fit in with materialist explanations, this is Dogmatic Materialism or Scientism. The second step of essential science, after observing as carefully as possible, is to create logical theories that account for what you have observed. The third step is to make predictions as to what will be observed when conditions are changed, if you have a good understanding of what’s going on you should be able to make such predictions. Then these predictions are tested.
This third step is essential, because we human beings are extremely creative at rationalizing as well as rationality, and you can probably create a plausible sounding explanation for any set of events whether it has anything at all to do with the actual processes involved at all. A good and useful scientific theory makes predictions that can be tested, and, on testing, most or many or perhaps all of these predictions are validated. In so far as predictions are not correct, the theory needs to be modified or perhaps entirely rejected. (There’s also a step of full and honest sharing of all these steps with colleagues, but that’s not of immediate concern right here.)
If you have not bothered to observe all aspects of some situation, then whatever theory you create, even if it predicts well, should be considered a specialized sub-theory. It might be quite useful, but to mistake it as a totally comprehensive understanding is wrong. The old heliocentric theory that the sun and stars revolve around the Earth, e.g., works quite well for practical navigation, even though we now know it’s quite inadequate to handle all the data we now have.
My basic point here is that there are many events that can be observed in various ways that cannot be fitted into conventional materialistic explanations or reasonable and logical extensions of those explanations, so while materialism is a useful premise to work from, it should be remembered that materialism is a working hypothesis, always subject to test, and that it is indeed a cognitive limitation to let it sink to the level of an automatic limitation of thought and observation that blinds us to the full range of reality.
Especially when such limitations reject our inherent spiritual nature…
End – for now…
Tags: belief, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, Hansel, Honorton, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, ITP, materialism, Parapsychology, perception, rationalization, science, scientism, telepathy, Transpersonal
Here’s a question I’m posing to some of my experimental parapsychologist colleagues. It might stretch your imagination a little. If a good answer turns up, I’ll post something on it.
For the last couple of years, my wife and I have been going to classes in Tai Chi Chah, a form of the Chinese art of Tai Chi, adapted to older folks who really aren’t up to balancing on one leg, but would like to get some good stretching. At various times during the exercises, we hold the palms of our hands facing each other and see if we can feel the subtle energy of chi. I’ve been able to do that from the beginning. From the Tai Chi perspective, I’ve learned to detect a subtle, “non-physical” energy.
But when I was very active in hypnosis research some 50 years ago, one of our standard ways of assessing suggestibility and hypnotizability was to have a subject hold their hands in front of them, palms facing each other, and suggest they would feel a force between them. This is not a difficult suggestion, in that most ordinary people would feel something, and often feel it quite strongly. By wording the suggestions appropriately, you can make it an attractive force, so the hands move together, or a repulsive force, so the hands move apart, experientially “all by themselves.”
So have I been learning to detect a subtle energy, or just exercising my imagination?
When I trained in the Japanese martial art of Aikido back in the 1970s – ki is central there, Ai (Harmony), Ki (subtle energy), Do (way)- I knew I could look at this either way, maybe a real subtle energy, maybe imagination, but the distinction didn’t seem important, because clearly the idea of flowing ki (the Japanese word for chi) as part of attacking and defending, clearly provided a unifying mental template for the many different techniques we learned, and seemed to make the techniques work more smoothly and effectively. When I occasionally taught Aikido to new people, I would talk about chi flows, sensing them, and sometimes correct students whose techniques weren’t working right by saying things to them like “It feels like there’s a gap in your ki flow at your elbow right here.” It helped.
What I thought about this morning (instead of further developing my ability to concentrate by just sticking with the exercises) was whether we could ever really make discriminations between several possibilities.
(1) Is there really some kind of “subtle energy” called chi or ki, which in arts like Tai Chi or Aikido people learn to sense and direct?
(1A) When, in my hypnosis research, I thought I was controlling subjects’ imagination to sense an unreal force, might I have actually been, at least sometimes, teaching them to sense ki or chi?
(2) Or, a purely physicalist perspective, assuming our current knowledge of physical energies is essentially complete, then sensing or directing ki must always be a matter of just imagination? (No doubt it is imagination sometimes)
(3) Or might we sometimes detect effects (biological, experiential, physical) when a person feels they are sensing and manipulating ki that we cannot find a conventional physical explanation for, but we can, drawing on parapsychological findings, attribute to the parapsychological phenomenon of psychokinesis, “mere PK?” Or to some psychic “healing energy” form of PK, as in Bernard Grad’s classic experiments on healing?
(4) Or, since it’s not at all clear to me how to do this, are some of my colleagues smart enough to figure out an experimental design or designs to clarify things here?
Tags: Aikido, attention, awareness, belief, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, chi, healing, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, intention, ITP, ki, materialism, meditation, mindfulness, ordinary mind, Parapsychology, Tai Chi, tai chic chah, Transpersonal, unusual experiences
Although he word “spiritual” means many different things to different people, from “rubbish and nonsense – why can’t people be rational?” to “the highest knowledge and aspirations of humanity,” almost all would agree, though, that humanity is spiritual or religious, i.e. that except when bedeviled by the greatest physical necessity, we want some beliefs that make sense out of life, that give it a grander purpose than simply seeking pleasure and avoiding pain – and we die in the end anyway. Such spiritual needs and impulses get socially organized into religions, and, as any objective look at history will show, many of the worst human actions have been justified in the name of religion – Kill for (put in name of favorite deity)! I’ve never seen and facts, though, that show that religion is used to justify human nastiness any more than politics, economics, tribalism, etc. We humans have a nasty side and lots of “talent” to rationalize whatever we do in terms of all sorts of belief systems.
But wouldn’t it help if we could have more accurate knowledge about what is and isn’t true about the spiritual and religions? Since powerful spiritual experiences keep on happening to people, wouldn’t it be helpful if we understood such experiences better and could promote positive ones and their integration into life and action, while knowing how such experiences get distorted by our neuroses to rationalize our mistreating and killing those who don’t believe as we do? To have useful knowledge that certain kinds of spiritual experiences make us into better people and promote a better world, rather than “Believe as I tell you to or go to Hell?”
In the 1970s a new field of psychology arose that aimed to gather such knowledge, Transpersonal Psychology. It builds on mainstream psychological knowledge about distorted thinking and emotional problems, but accepts the idea that at least some aspects of the broad range of experiences we call “spiritual” have great value and have some validity, as well as some being crazy, then asks how we can study them and apply what we learn to make this world a better place. Transpersonal Psychology is not a religion, there is no set of fixed, unquestionable beliefs, but it can draw on the world’s spiritual traditions for data and theories and then apply basic scholarship and scientific method to clarify what is actually happening. “Meditation,” e.g., is not just exotic practices in various traditions, but learnable and practical mental disciplines that are now finding a wide variety of psychological and medical uses in alleviating stress disorders, chronic pain problems, etc. Transpersonal Psychology is still a very small field, but has grown greatly since the 70s and some of its findings are already affecting mainstream psychology and medicine.
Now Transpersonal Psychology is under serious attack.
The main center for Transpersonal Psychology has been the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (now called Sofia University) in Palo Alto, California. It is a source of inspiration for burgeoning transpersonal centers all over the world. Founded in the 70’s by Professor Robert Frager, it currently has about 40 main faculty and 500+ students working on Masters and PhD degrees in various aspects of Transpersonal Psychology. Faculty and student research grows our knowledge base, our graduated students put it into practice in a variety of ways, from psychotherapy to industrial consulting to education, etc.
Two and a half years ago our well-loved President, Tom Potterfield, unexpectedly died and was replaced by a new President. Since then things have gotten so bad that 100% of the faculty and most of the staff (all of whom may lose their jobs as a result of daring to protest) have signed a petition of no confidence in the current President and Board of Trustees, feeling they have lost touch with the humanistic and spiritual values that started the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, created a climate of fear, and have mismanaged the institution such that we have gone from substantial reserve funds to likely having to close down soon for lack of funds. This is detailed in the petition referred to below, asking the Attorney General of California to intervene.
In solidarity with the faculty, staff, students and alumni of Sofia University, if you believe applying scholarship and science to the spiritual with the aim of making our world a better place is a worthwhile cause, please read and sign the petition to the Attorney General (reproduced below for reading convenience, but go to the site to sign it). You don’t have to be a resident of California or even a US Citizen to sign and show your support!
PLEASE PASS THIS PLEA ON TO ANYONE YOU THINK WILL CARE!
Charles T. Tart
THE PETITION TO THE CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY GENERAL
Please sign this petition at the web site
(copy this into your browser if I haven’t been able to make it clickable)
Petition Background (Preamble):
Students, Alumni, Faculty, and Staff of Sofia University call to action California Attorney General, Kamala Harris in support of investigating the actions of Sofia University President, Neal King and Board of Trustees Rick Hesel, John Ringgenberg, and John Cha.
It is the belief of the wider Sofia University community that the President and Board have been insubordinate with their duty to the school and in upholding the University’s core mission, as stated:
Sofia University is a passionate, dynamic learning community that fosters multiple ways of knowing while embracing diverse paths of spiritual practice and development.
We are dedicated to academic excellence, with a shared commitment to authenticity, inclusivity, cultural humility, ecological stewardship, and service to others.
Our curricula focus in six areas of inquiry: the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical, social and creative aspects of life.
It is our belief that this mission has not been upheld by the University President and Board of Trustees as evidenced by the following:
Since President King has taken position in 2011,
- 7 of the 10 board members of Sofia University have recently resigned
- 100% of faculty (50) and 83% of staff (32) voted “no confidence” in the president’s performance
- There is no cultural or gender diversity on the current board as it stands.
- The current board and president refuse to share details of the schools financial condition with the vice presidents, faculty or staff.
- When Dr. King took over Sofia U the school was in robust financial health. Now the school faces at least a one million shortfall in revenue
- When Dr. King took over Sofia the school had roughly 4 million dollars in reserve. At this time faculty and other administrators cannot obtain an accounting of the reserve balance.
- The board resists a follow up meeting with faculty and staff representatives
In the last week, President King has
• Blocked the email accounts of two vice presidents, the school founder and the head of the faculty senate
• Removed without consent desktop computers from staff and faculty offices
• Sent threatening emails to staff
• Removed invitation to a community meeting from student, staff, faculty and alumni email accounts
• Falsely claimed the community meeting, scheduled for Dec. 17, 2013, had been postponed until January 2014
• Hired security guards to patrol the campus
• Unilaterally closed down the school this past Tuesday afternoon. Students who needed the school’s resources (e.g. the library) were turned away by the security guards.
• Fired faculty and staff who voiced their concerns for the greater community.
We, the undersigned, call on Kamala Harris, California Attorney General to support students, alumni, faculty, staff, and other community members in an investigation and suit against Sofia University President, Neal King and the active Board of Trustee members, Rick Hesel, John Ringgenberg, and John Cha
Tags: Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, enlightenment, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, ITP, meditation, mindfulness, Palo Alto, Parapsychology, psycholog, psychology, Robert Frager, Sofia University, spirituality, Tom Potterfield, Transpersonal
Last weekend my wife and I remotely attended, via streaming video, a number of talks at the Buddhist Geeks conference. Who are the Buddhist geeks? A small but growing group of people, headed by Vincent Horn, that takes a very serious interest in Buddhism and meditation traditions, combined with high technological sophistication, the “geek” part, and whose members have no hesitancy in experimenting with using the best of modern knowledge to make Buddhism, especially the meditation part, work for ordinary people. By “work,” I mean developing perspectives and meditation methods so that ordinary people can benefit from meditation, as part of a relatively ordinary life, rather than having to dedicate themselves to being monks or nuns, completely devoted to and wholeheartedly believing in some traditional brand of Buddhism. An excellent illustration of that kind of effort, which I have mentioned in other posts, has been Shinzen Young’s work to reformulate concepts from various meditative traditions so they work more effectively with ordinary people — people like me, who had otherwise thought he simply didn’t have the talent to do whatever it took to be a “meditator.”
As well as this conference, which will be repeated in subsequent years, Vincent Horn has produced a large number of podcast interviews with various teachers of meditation. This and other activities of the Buddhist Geeks can be accessed at their website. Streaming videos of this last weekend’s conference the previous year’s conference will also be available on the website for a while, as well as many podcasts.
In this essay I want to talk about a realization that has tremendously pleased me, a realization from seeing some of the presentations at the conference.
Back in 1972, I published what may have been the most important conceptual contribution to science and general knowledge I’ve ever made, a proposal to apply basic scientific method in various altered states of consciousness:
Tart, C. (1972). States of consciousness and state-specific sciences. Science, 176, 1203-1210
By method I mean the basic process by which we learn more through science, rather than the particular findings of science (technically called the corpus of science, the body) at any time, which are always subject to modification change as we continue investigating. Most of the famous errors of science, such as the proof from the standard theory of aerodynamics that bumblebees can’t fly, they don’t have enough wing area for their weight, come from mistaking current scientific knowledge, that corpus, with the method. What seems possible or impossible given current knowledge may change drastically as new observations and knowledge/theories to explain them comes along.
I didn’t realize it in 1972, but this publication, along with my Altered States of Consciousness book (1969), probably were main contributors to my international reputation as a creative scientist. I had submitted this article to Science simply because it was a general science publication and what I had to say was, to my mind, of interest to anyone doing science. Only later did I realize having a feature article in Science was one of the most prestigious things a scientist could accomplish. Anyway, the article drew an enormous response of about 100 letters-to-the-editor. Since most scientific articles draw zero such responses, this was quite amazing. They only published 4, plus my rejoinder, but sent them all to me, and I found them very interesting. I could easily split the letters into two categories, (1) those who knew that ordinary consciousness is the only state in which we are sane and rational, so the idea of doing science in altered states was total nonsense, Science should not have published the article, and (2) those who said the article made perfect sense, let’s get started! Many of the letters in the first category were from prominent scientists whose names I recognized, or full professors, senior people. This was the old guard, objecting to change. The let’s do it letters were, judging from position titles, young scientists. Perhaps now that a lot of those young scientists have aged to become the establishment, fields of science are more likely to become more open to things like meditation and altered states experience.
Even the old establishment scientists had no objection to my characterization of what the essence of scientific method was, and some of you might find that formulation useful in some of your “pitches” to promote research. Hopefully the article will be available online in the Articles Library at http://blog.paradigm-sys.com within a few days. I argued that, in essence, science was a four step, cyclical, repeating process. First, observe what you’re interested in, and try to figure out methods to observe it more and more carefully and accurately. Second, come up with theories that make sense of what you’ve observed. Third, since we can rationalize anything, keep using the logic of your theory to make predictions about things you have not observed yet, and go out and test those predictions. If they work, great, keep expanding your observations and theory. If they don’t work, the theory needs revision or rejection, no matter how “logical,” “sensible,” or “obvious,” it is. Fourth, all of these steps are shared openly and honestly with peers, so they can check and expand your observations, check and expand your theories, check and expand your predictions.
It’s important to note that observation is always, always primary. A theory that doesn’t fit with actual observations, no matter how quote “logical” it is must be modified or rejected.
I was also very careful to phrase the whole description of essential science in a way that observations of internal experiences were just as much data as observations of external phenomena, so there was no a priori commitment to a total physicalism. Many people, including working scientists, mistakenly think that scientific method is only applicable to physical phenomena. That’s scientism, not science.
I also raised the issue in that article of whether the meditative traditions were state-specific sciences or state-specific technologies. The difference is this. In principle, a scientist will and can closely observe and question anything and everything. A technician, on the other hand, is given a set of beliefs, a set of theories about what’s true and proper, and works within that framework to actualize or improve various things, but does not test the basic assumptions or logic of the framework. (You’ll recognize a parallel here with Kuhn’s work on scientific paradigms.)(Parenthetically, my own 1970s systems approach to states of consciousness turns out to be very parallel to Kuhn’s idea of paradigms.)
Okay, human life is often miserable, there’s far too much suffering, somebody comes up with some “meditative” ways that reduce suffering. Wow! Wonderful! The more of that the better! Being the thinkers we human beings are, some conceptual framework will be put around the method and its results to make it seem logical, sensible. In the best cases, as in an active meditative tradition, the conceptual framework does not get in the way of doing the meditative practice which leads to less suffering. In the very best cases, the conceptual framework even helps people focus their attention properly. In the worst cases, the conceptual framework becomes a religion that one is required to believe in, actual meditative practice declines, and you have a religion instead of a spiritual practice system. Having a conceptual system may reduce suffering to some extent too, of course, although probably not with the power of an actual practice, and some conceptual systems can make our suffering worse.
Somewhere in the “evolution” of spiritual experiences into organized religions is where meditative traditions tend to become technologies instead of the beginnings of sciences. It’s so wonderful to have something you can do and a conceptual system that reduces your suffering and pleases your intellect, who wants to rock the boat? Indeed, we call such people heretics. Further, people who could teach others how to meditate effectively were historically relatively rare, often geographically isolated from one another, or culturally and linguistically isolated from one another. That vital step that is one of the essences of scientific method, a full and open sharing of both observations and theories and methods, and a willingness to question even fundamental assumptions, it is usually not there.
Now, the wonderful sign of transition, the Buddhist Geeks conference. What a wonderful manifestation of meditation teachers coming from different traditions beginning to share their observations, theories and methods with each other. How wonderful that the introduction of physiological measuring techniques can both elaborate some ideas and experiences and raise questions about them. Western psychology has a lot to contribute here also. As Shinzen Young said in his talk, we have a long way to go, but I think the science, or perhaps several sciences, of inner exploration is starting to take off! The hope I had so many years ago that science and spirituality could start to refine and potentiate each other, for greater happiness for humanity, is being fulfilled!
Tags: Buddhism, Buddhist Geeks, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, emotions, enlightenment, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, ITP, meditation, mindfulness, ordinary mind, science, scientism, Shinzen Young, spiritual teachers, state-specific science, suffering, Transpersonal, Vince Horn, Vincent Horn, vipassana
Many years ago, while reading P. D. Ouspensky’s book, “in Search of the Miraculous,” about the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, I “woke up.” I’ve never had the words to describe it adequately, and I suspect it’s not possible to describe something like it adequately in words, but suddenly I was in a state of mental and perceptual clarity in which it was obvious that my ordinary state, in which I had already spent decades, was dim, muddied, only a half-alive way of existing.
This relative awakening only lasted a few seconds, although it made an indelible impression that there was a way of living and being aware that was exceptionally important. I call it a relative awakening, relative to my ordinary state, because while it was a very vivid and awake state compared to my ordinary, normal consciousness, undoubtedly the most alive state I had ever been in my life up to that time, I have no idea how it compares to the alleged awakeness of people like Gurdjieff or Gautama Buddha. I suspect I had just touched the lower reaches of what might be possible.
This moment of awakening led to many years, right up through and continuing through the present, of studying and practicing Gurdjieff’s teachings, aspects of Buddhism, many varieties of personal growth methods, etc., trying to wake up for more than a few seconds at a time. It turned out that it wasn’t at all difficult for me to become relatively awake, the difficulty was in remembering to bothering to do it! The habitual, automatic nature of my mind was (and, I must say, is) simply so powerful, and my life is generally satisfying enough, that I spent and still spend most of my time in ordinary consciousness, what I’ve called consensus consciousness in my technical writings about this. I did slowly get skillful enough in becoming more awake to the present moment to write several books about the process of waking up and how to do it (****), to teach an introduction to mindfulness and awakening to graduate students once a year at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (now renamed Sofia University), and teach an introduction to it in a web workshop a couple of times a year (http://www.Glidewing.com).
Knowing how satisfying it can be to feel more awake, and believing it makes me more capable of living a good life and being helpful to others, it amazes me (too damned often!) of how “asleep” I can be in ordinary consciousness, and create numerous instances of useless suffering as well as being less capable in what I do.
This morning I had a simple and very clear illustration of that. I needed to go to the post office to return a defective computer CD drive, and was planning to go afterwards to my Tai Chi Chih class. I was ready to leave for class earlier than I expected, though, so my wife suggested I go to the post office first, it probably wouldn’t be crowded, and I could leave off my package in a few minutes. So off I went.
I got the post office and there were several people ahead of me in line. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “I’m taking a chance that I will be able to do this and not be late for class, but it won’t really matter if I’m a few minutes late for class anyway. I can practice being more present, more awake here as I wait in line, watch people walk by, etc.”
Fifteen minutes later the line had not moved at all, and I found that over and over again, when I sensed my internal state, I was frustrated and restless. I might be more awake for a few seconds, and then my “Hurry up!” and “Poor me!” attitudes took over my mind. I was terribly important, I didn’t want to be late, it wasn’t fair that the person at the head of the line had so many time-consuming things to talk to the clerk about, etc., etc. I could feel my body tensing up, my mental energy being captured in useless worrying. Added to my useless suffering, was some suffering which was useful, namely my embarrassment as I realized how stupid I was being from the point of view of someone who is good enough at being present to teach others how to do it! Shameful!
I finally gave up and went off to my Tai Chi Chih class.
Normally I am fairly centered in the present and mindful of exactly how I’m doing those various Tai Chi Chih exercises, and is both good physical exercise and good exercise in being present, but I was definitely off today.
After class I went back to the post office. The line was even longer, but it moved much faster this time, and, determined that I was going to be present as much as possible, I was much more so. So it was far less stressful on my body, and my mind. One more demonstration of the value of mindfulness in the middle of ordinary life.
And just to rub it in, when I handed my package to the clerk, she told me I could just leave packages with that kind of return label on the counter, I didn’t have to wait in line….
How many times do I have to have that lesson repeated before I make mindfulness more of a habit than getting carried away in my automatic thoughts?
There is a small gain, of course, that I have another instance of my useless mindlessness to share with students when I start to worry that they are getting too elevated an idea of how mindful I am! ;-)
Tags: attention, awareness, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, Gurdjieff, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, ITP, meditation, mindfulness, ordinary mind, Ouspensky, perception, suffering, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, waking up
Like many people nowadays, I was raised to be religious and, as a child, pretty much bought into the whole thing. It was my beloved grandmother who took me to Sunday school and then church, and if someone who loved me that much thought this was the way to look at the world, it was good enough for me!
Then my grandmother died, I became a teenager, and, like many teenagers, became very sensitive to the apparent hypocrisy of adults. They didn’t practice what they preached! More importantly, I became fascinated with science and read widely in it, and saw numerous instances where science and religion clashed, with science much the winner of these various battles. And yet, in my very extensive teenage reading, I discovered that there was a very small, neglected field of science, psychical research, later giving rise to the more specialized version of it termed parapsychology, which had strong evidence that some of the things talked about in the spirituality behind religions had a factual basis.
Most of the people I knew with a childhood religion background similar to mine solved their developing conflicts between science and religion by going to one extreme or the other. Materialistic science was right, religion was wrong, all nonsense. Or, their religion was right, science was wrong or irrelevant to evaluating their religion. Or, religion could be thought about on designated holy days and science forgotten on those days, otherwise it had no place in practical life.
I was lucky coming across the idea in the psychical research literature that the methods of science – observe, theorize, test the results of your theoretical predictions, and share all of these steps with intelligent colleagues – which transcend the particular findings of science at any given time, could begin to be applied to religions, or, more accurately, to the spiritual experiences behind religions, and give us a clearer idea of what might have some reality basis and what was indeed superstition and possibly pathological. I’ve been lucky in having a career spanning more than half a century in which I’ve been able to carry out various studies and contribute some knowledge within that framework. I’ve done lots of technical experimentation to clarify various points, and thought a great deal about the implications of various psychic phenomena for spirituality, and a few years ago presented an overview of those findings in my book “The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together.” I did this in a rather general way in that book, though, concentrating on the scientific findings that showed that you could not completely reduce the human mind to brain functions, as materialism claims, and that there were phenomena like what we call telepathy or clairvoyance which gave support to the idea that the human mind transcended mere physicality.
Dean Radin’s new book, “Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities” gets much more specific and concrete that my own book, because he works within the framework created by the extraordinary recent popularity of various forms of yoga. He deals very specifically with many of the sidhis, unusual powers that are claimed to be possible results of practicing yoga, and shows where science supports them, where it doesn’t support them, and where we don’t have much evidence for or against some of them.
I originally thought I would just scan his book, since I know a fair amount about both yoga and Buddhism (which came from the same roots as yoga and shares many of the same beliefs and practices) and especially about the scientific areas of psychical research and parapsychology, but Radin’s book is so well written, and so relevant and specific in so many places that I ended up reading the whole book.
The bottom line is this: if you’re seriously interested in whether there is anything to spirituality beyond the material world, this is must reading. You don’t have to be a dedicated follower of yoga or any other particular religion or spiritual path, and, indeed, you may well be one of those many Americans who, when asked about their religion, claim that they are “spiritual,” but not “religious.” If you have had spiritual experiences that are meaningful to you, but suffered from the pressure to deny their reality because of the prevailing scientistic materialism that is falsely identified with science in our time, you will find a great deal of relief in this book. As I concluded in my “The End of Materialism,” the actual evidence of scientific psychical research let’s us conclude that it is reasonable to be both spiritual and scientific, you don’t have to go to one or the other extreme. Yes, there’s still an enormous amount of scientific research that needs doing to get more specific about these things, you still have to exercise as much discrimination as possible when you hear various claims, but I rate this book as one of the best contributions to examining the reality basis of spirituality that I’ve ever read!
Tags: belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, clairvoyance, Dean Radin, enlightenment, gurus, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, ITP, materialism, meditation, mindfulness, Parapsychology, Radin, reincarnation, science, scientism, telepathy, Transpersonal
A while ago my son David told me that my wife and I would be very interested in a film available on Netflix, Kumaré. This is a film by a young filmmaker, Vikram Gandhi, who grew up in New Jersey. His family had immigrated from India, and from the time he was a child he was fascinated by the devoted religious rituals that his grandmother performed every day. He and the rest of his family had no real interest in any kind of religion, but she was so devout. Having gown up in New Jersey myself, and having been so very close to my own grandmother, I resonated with this.
By the time he was a young man, he had met a lot of people who were reputed to be spiritual teachers, and was convinced that some of them were charlatans, a few of them were genuinely devout but without any detectable, special spiritual qualities once you got to know them, and the rest of them were ordinary people who knew no more about spiritual realities then he did. Why were people so gullible as to be taken in by these “spiritual teachers?”
As a way of testing whether there was anything more to the spiritual life than this, he decided to disguise himself as an Indian holy man, visiting in the United States, and with the mission of making a film about spirituality. He carried a classical Indian, mystical looking, trident-like device, a symbol of Hindu gods, wore robes and a loincloth, and spoke only broken English. The primary limitation he put on himself was that he would not exploit anyone nor teach anything that was beyond his own basic, common sense spiritual belief that we all have the germ of spirit within us and have to find it ourselves. So his message was always some variant of “Look within, your own spiritual self will guide you, you don’t need an outside teacher.”
[can't make the image load here, but can be viewed at URL below]
(image courtesy of http://coccoyoga.com/2012/07/01/yoga-gurus-film-kumare-review/kumare-trident/)
He was introduced to various spiritual groups by his assistant, who was part of the plot, as the living representative of the Kumaré lineage. Soon he was adopted by many Americans as a spiritual teacher, and the film shows these followers’ descriptions of their deep spiritual experiences resulting from their interactions with Kumaré.
As I watched the film I first found myself becoming increasingly angry. How dare this young man put himself in this position when he was no more spiritual teacher then you or I are? And yet…… As the film goes on, I was increasingly impressed that people were having genuine and deep spiritual experiences as a result of listening to his “teachings,” and pouring out their deep hopes and fears to Kumaré.
I won’t spoil the ending of the film when he finally reveals to his followers who he actually is, but I was no longer at all angry. Indeed, I saw that he performed an essential function. He was what we might call a reminder or “place marker,” a living, approachable symbol of spiritual possibilities within each of us. By being such a place marker, he reminded people of their own spiritual possibilities, and they grew in their spirituality!
I think I’ve had a mild lifelong anger at the many religious leaders who probably don’t have much spiritual depth themselves, but now I realize that they may still be serving this place marker function, reminding us of our deeper selves and of the spirit. As long as they are not exploiting people as a result of the charisma that they acquire from being ostensibly spiritual people, we can appreciate what they do.
My apologies to my readers for not having posted anything here for too long.. I have been heavily involved in writing an invited book chapter on hypnosis and meditation, and I have another very complicated chapter in another book that I’m obligated to do on the nature of experiments once we allow for experimenter effects and psychic abilities, so I simply haven’t had the time to do some short essays on many interesting things. I’ll break that inattention by sharing some insight I had about “mental real estate.”
Sometimes I have insights into the way our minds work that, after they occurred, seem rather obvious, and I wonder why I had never thought of them before. On the other hand, one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten on my writing, from a colleagues review of one of my books, was when he said something like “Tart writes about things that are perfectly clear and obvious. It’s just that nobody has ever mentioned them before.” So here’s a possible insight concerning our mental real estate.
Everyone knows that you can’t keep too many things in mind at once. The telephone company many years ago, for example, drew on psychological knowledge that keeping seven items in mind at once was about the limit for most human beings, so kept telephone numbers down to a maximum of seven digits. When you apply knowledge of our limited memory/attention span to the practice of meditation, it gets interesting.
Most of, if not all of, the meditative traditions say that a good deal of our suffering comes from the fact that we get negative, unprofitable, self-attacking, neurotic thoughts into our mind, and they keep reinforcing each other and going round and round. I’m sure, unfortunately, everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about! One of the most basic training aspects of meditation is to teach people to have more control over what their thinking about, but it’s not easy.
One of the simplest applications comes from something I’ve heard Sogyal Rinpoche teach on many times, in saying that the purpose of the practice of mantra is to protect the mind. I was surprised the first time I heard that, as teachings about mantras usually claim these specific sounds have various psychic or cosmic qualities and so are sacred and can bring about particular psychic results. But protecting the mind, what could that mean? Oh, it became clear to me. If you’re busy reciting some mantra over and over again, it uses up your mental real estate, and so may not leave much, if any, room for those self-defeating, repetitive thoughts.
So, using the word mantra loosely for quite non-sacred things, many of us get caught in neurotic “mantras,” things like “I’ve done it wrong again, I could never do it right, I always mess up.” And then “I’ve done it wrong again, I could never do it right, I always mess up.” And then “I’ve done it wrong again, I could never do it right, I always mess up….” On and on and on. But if you really concentrate on repeating some mantra, such as “Om Mani Padme Hum,” “Om Mani Padme Hum,” “Om Mani Padme Hum,” “Om Mani Padme Hum”…. there is no room for your neurotic and self-feeding thoughts.
This is not the height of enlightened practice, of course, but it can certainly be a useful technique for getting you out of a crazy, self-deprecating loop.
The insight that came to me the other day while doing some basic movements in the Tai Chi Chah class (which I loosely translate as simplified Tai Chi for old folks….) that I’m taking is that some of us may have more mental real estate available than others. I like learning this Tai Chi Chah, for example, because doing it correctly does train my concentration, and for a long time I haven’t had enough mental real estate left over to have my mind wander off to other things. But now I have it down well enough that there is mental real estate left over for me in my mind to wander off on other things, like thinking about mental real estate and mantras. So perhaps in so far as meditative tasks are intended to use up all your attention all your mental real estate, in a useful way, the complexity of meditative tasks may have to be tailored to specific people. A task that is sufficient for one person to use up all his or her mental real estate may not do it for another, and that latter person need some more complex tasks to keep his or her mind occupied. Not that that’s the only use of meditation, of course, but it’s one.
This reminds me of what psychologists have found out about getting people into “flow states.” The task has to have just the right amount of complexity. If it’s too easy, you get bored. If it’s too hard, you get discouraged. But if it’s just hard enough to require really good concentration from you, it feels good.
So next time I find my mind wandering as I do Tai Chi Chah, where concentration is highly valued, perhaps I can add something to it, like trying to sense chi energy….