Dr. Charles T. Tart on December 20th, 2014

Every once in a while I make some observations or have some ideas about what all this business of being a “self” is about.  Studying Buddhism is particularly challenging in this respect, as it’s central to Buddhism, as I’ve encountered it, that there is no real self, and that clinging to a belief in such a real self is a major cause of all our suffering.

Insofar as I can grasp it, Buddhism tends to have a highly absolutist idea of what is “real.”  If something is “real,” it lasts forever and its nature is absolutely unchanging, it can’t be changed by anything outside of it.  This is a kind of absolutism beyond my grasp, for my ordinary self seems real enough even though I have no conscious beliefs that it will last forever or can’t be changed!

Here’s some thoughts that I was recently expressing to my friend and meditation teacher, Shinzen Young.

It’s obvious to me from my experience that I ordinarily experience a “self,” usually centered around my body and its experiences and thoughts, but that under some circumstances, my experience of that “self” can change radically.  I think back to psychedelic experiences decades ago, which was a pretty direct experience that everything could change drastically!  That did not convince me that there wasn’t any “self,” simply that my ordinary waking conception of it was just a specialized formulation, and if I had a real “self,” it was something much bigger and different.

When I sit in vipassana meditation on the experience of change and flow, do I experience a “self?”  Well, in retrospect, here in my ordinary state that I’m writing in right now, I assume there was a “self” there having experiences, but when I’m actually paying good attention to flow and not thinking about things like “self,” things just flow.  So, is the absence of experiencing a “self” the same as an experience of “no-self”?

I ask that because I find this whole “no-self” business very confusing.  I know I have read accounts of many altered states experiences where people said their sense of “self” was drastically changed, or that they had no individual “self,” they were just part of the universe, or perhaps the whole of the universe, or something like that, but I don’t think I’ve ever had any kind of experience that I would want to get up and joyously shout “I’ve experienced no-self”!”

Although I don’t consider myself very skilled at meditating on flow, I would guess that I’m good enough that at times, if my sense of “self” was causing me suffering, I could at least partially deconstruct that “self” through observing flow.  My ordinary sense of “self” is, it seems to me, an emergent outcome of many more microscopic processes, and by shifting attention to observing those microscopic processes, they don’t interact in a way which promotes the emergence of this higher level “self.”  That would greatly cut the suffering because it would be far less a matter of “I” suffering, and I’m glad to have learned this skill.  That’s one of the reasons I’m going to make that my principal practice (unless reality changes) during our upcoming retreat, I’d like to be better at it.

We’ll just ignore for the moment the semantic problems of my saying “I” would like to be better at it…      :-)

Perhaps I will have some interesting observations or insights as a result of practicing the observation of flow on the retreat I’m going to, perhaps not…





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Dr. Charles T. Tart on November 6th, 2014

I carry on a rich correspondence with an older cousin, Chaz Walters, who’s an accomplished painter as well as a teacher of Tai Chi.  Here are some thoughts about art, discovery, and the creative process which may be of general interest.  They were triggered by an article he had written that he enclosed with his last letter to me.

I wrote him the following: 

I was very intrigued by the article you wrote about how you paint.  You described what I’ve always assumed must be one of the (wonderful) ways in which an artist works: you prepare your tools, sit down, and something then flows through you and out it comes.  In contrast, for example, to when I’ve looked at the lovely seascape you gave us some years ago, and just assumed you went down to the shore of the ocean with the intention of painting the ocean, and then worked very hard, detail by detail, until you had something you liked.

I’m jealous!  Occasionally over the year I used to sit down with “art” materials in front of me, ranging from just a paper and pencil to some paints, but nothing worthwhile ever came of it.  I can’t draw at all realistically to begin with, my cartoonish drawings are not really interesting or humorous, and I know I’m just fiddling around, not responding to inspiration, and not satisfied with my scribblings.  Now I have the possibility of using computer painting programs, where it’s easy to undo my mistakes, and I have a number of tools available,… But still, inspiration doesn’t come.     :-(

And yet, in the course of my lifelong major research project, trying to figure out how in the world the mind of Charley Tart works, there are parallels.  Yes, like my fantasy about you painting a seascape, sometimes I’m presented with a situation, I examine details carefully and deliberately think about possibilities, something comes up, I write a rough draft of it, then do some editing polishes, and it’s pretty good.  It also fits with one of my self-concepts, that I am a sane, logical, grounded, practical person, and I solve problems well.

But when I think about some of my best writing, the ideas just came to me and I hurried to get them on paper before they got overlaid with my thinking about them.  I can call that my “subconscious,” but that doesn’t really explain much.  It’s a fancy way of saying the idea just popped up in my head and I don’t remember figuring it out.

My favorite meditation technique now, learned from my friend Shinzen Young, is to observe moments of change in my experience.  It’s to sit calmly, usually eyes closed, trying to notice whatever experiences come up without getting carried away by them or trying to control them, but particularly to note when there is any kind of change.  Maybe bigger, smaller, leftward, rightward, steady, rippling, gone, getting brighter, etc.  Right now, for instance, I just noticed a vibration in my back and that was dropped almost instantly and replaced by a pain in my hip, etc., etc.  I don’t know whether I’m “good” at this meditation technique or not, except I can certainly say I notice a lot more change, most of it from second to second, than when I first started this technique a couple of years ago.  Shinzen’s basic recipe for meditation is to observe whatever happens with concentration (you stay focused on it), clarity (as a result of concentration you see it more clearly than you normally would) and equanimity (you don’t try to push it away if you don’t like it, or hold onto it if you do like it, or otherwise control it).

Shinzen is excellent in breaking down meditation into clearly specified steps that you can learn how to do.  So it was a great surprise when, talking to him about it one day, he described what I was doing by its classical Buddhist name, namely the “observation of Impermanence!”  Wow!  Impermanence?  That was one of those big, fancy Buddhist words about something very mystical that I’d never had any understanding of whatsoever, but gosh, you talk about observing how my flow of experience is changing, I can learn to do that…

Anyway, when I do this kind of meditation I frequently notice that ideas, concepts, scenarios, both in the form of words and in the form of visual images, appear, last a few moments, disappear, or morph into something else, and so forth and so on.  If I were to think of it in modern computer terms, it’s like there are dozens if not hundreds of relatively freely running programs down there in my subconscious whose job it is to generate ideas, some of which manage to make it up to consciousness.  So I, the alleged author, I’m actually mainly a collection agent, noticing and taking some of those that come up and polishing them.

Sometimes the ideas are really fully formed.  The most dramatic example was back in the 1970s.  We were living in Davis then, and I had driven to the San Francisco for my first or second Rolfing (Structural Integration) appointment.  I found Rolfing quite painful and didn’t like it at all, but I believed it was good for you, and I liked the pictures of people who stood straight instead of crookedly, so I was putting up with it.  But then the funniest thing happened.

As I was driving back from San Francisco to Davis after that Rolfing, a series of ideas began flooding into my head, I started writing them down immediately when I got home, and within a few days I had mimeographed a couple of hundred copies of a major paper to take with me to a conference on consciousness that was being held in Council Grove, Kansas, in a couple of days.  With only slight revisions, the paper was accepted for publication in one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, Science.  It was my proposal for the creation of state specific sciences.  (States of consciousness and state-specific sciences.  Science, 1972, 176, 1203-1210.  (https://s3.amazonaws.com/cttart/articles/april2013articles/States+of+Consciousness+and+State+Specific+Sciences.pdf)

Was I the “author,” or just the “collector?”  I could claim that just about all the elements of my paper are things I had thought about in various ways before over the years, but somehow they all bubbled up in the course of that less than two hour drive organized into a coherent, connected form.

So maybe I do practice my “art” rather like you, something just emerges, but my medium is words, rather than images…

Although I haven’t quite given up on the visual forms yet.  The last few years I have been having an awful lot of fun making complex diagrams with PowerPoint to illustrate various psychological and spiritual points.  I’ll print out a few to go with this letter, without attempting to explain them, just to share.













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Dr. Charles T. Tart on July 24th, 2014

Friends and I have been puzzling a lot lately over the descriptions of Buddhist enlightenment as being, among other things, devoid of intention.  Because one’s mind is not attempting are intending to make any aspect of experience opening a particular rules are expectations, a truer, more enlightened consciousness results.  Yet, the paradox, the meditative techniques for producing such states all seem to involve intention, including the instruction to “drop the intention.”  What does it all mean?  How can you intend to have now intentions?

I share some thoughts from a grappling with this.

I haven’t been able to conceptually understand this in the Buddhist terms I have some feeling for so far.  Sometimes I suspect that it’s partly because the Buddhist teachings have been so verbally polished and perfected for centuries, even though they’re often (and probably ultimately) about something which is beyond verbal expression, that I then automatically believe I should be able to understand all Buddhist concepts with my ordinary, reasoning mind — and get frustrated when I can’t!  Then there’s my own dullness and blocking ideas, of course.  But if I back out of strictly Buddhist terminology, and think about the question in terms of my years of research on a variety of altered states of consciousness (ASCs), I can make some conceptual sense of it, even though it’s not based on actual experience of transcending intention on my part.

Imagine that you lived in a temperate world, call it WarmWorld, in which the only fires you could build did not get much hotter than 150°F, well below what we would call its boiling point.  You could roughly take the temperature of water with your finger, and, if you were a scientific type, then experiment with what happened to that temperature sensation as you put the water in a pot and built fires under it.  You would have a range of sensations when you didn’t build any fire, more when you did.  Since I specify that WarmWorld is a temperate world where you never get freezing weather, it would always be liquid water (I could say “ice,” but the inhabitants of WarmWorld have no concept of “ice”).  You could then find that the larger the fire you built under the pot, the faster the water got warm and the hotter it was to your finger and there was a maximum hotness no matter how big you built the fire.  Quite interesting.

Now imagine a person coming along who claims that she can build a fire such that you don’t want to stick your finger in the water anymore and, the most unbelievable claim, that eventually the water all disappears from the pot!  We are all experts on fires, having built many of them for a little more warmth at night or to warm our food, and this woman is obviously insane.

But suppose she comes from our world, where we’ve learned a lot about how to make fires burn hotter, doing things like selecting just the right, very dry, fuels, and blowing on them almost continually and at just the right intensity to give the the optimal amount of oxygen.  She tells us that if we selected only certain fuels, stack them up in just the right kinds of positions, and breathe on them just right (pranayama?) we could make water disappear from a pot too.

Most of us think she’s crazy and ignore her, a few would try a few breaths, nothing special happens, and you forget about it.  Everything we know today about fire says that water never boils (we don’t know that word) goes away.  We have what you might think of as linear knowledge about fire and water, and it only goes so far.

In studying various ASCs over the years, I found one of the things that was the most puzzling was that we implicitly assume that we already understood ordinary conscious quite well, and then there were these mysterious ASCs, but we could extrapolate from our knowledge of ordinary consciousness to understand them.  That often doesn’t work very well.  Over the years I gradually developed a working understanding of ordinary consciousness and ASCs, based on an engineering systems theory approach.  This is basically realizing that it’s not enough to just understand the parts of something, it’s the particular style in which they work together that produces the outcome you’re interested in.  It’s a process approach, a basic Western recognition of interdependence.  From that systems approach, I came to see ordinary consciousness, which, I presume, we are all experiencing right now, as not a static sort of “thing,” but as a dynamic, ongoing process.  Lots of sensory input, lots of thinking and emoting about it, all of these things interacting to produce a gestalt, whole emergent that we call “me,” or “my consciousness.”

I then looked at various ASCs like hypnosis, dreaming, drug induced states, etc. in terms of how were they brought about?  From a systems perspective, two processes had to go on.  You had to (a) interfere with and destabilize the process that produced and maintained the original “shape,” the baseline state of consciousness going on as a gestalt whole, and (b) you had to introduce perceptions or ideas or intentions that “pushed” the destabilizing state of mind toward the new pattern, the ASC, that you wanted to bring about.  Note that the same particular action (shamatha with or without a support, e.g.) can perform both of these functions, destabilizing the baseline state and pushing toward the altered state.

So getting more specific about using intention to go beyond intention, right now, as I understand my ordinary state of mind, it’s not only content, perception, thought, perception, emotion, perception, reaction, etc., moment after moment after moment, but almost every one of those things is accompanied by some kind of intention.  I’m implicitly or explicitly intending all day long to have my consciousness organized in ways I’ve found useful for getting by.  The intentions associated with one moment of consciousness stimulate intentions in the second moment, etc., and are so habitual we usually don’t even notice that we are intending.  I think one of the functions of certain kinds of meditations is to sensitize us to see these intentions, then we might be able to do something about them.

So ordinary consciousness is extremely intention rich, the gestalt arising out of the karma of one intention creating another, etc., etc..  So what happens if you start to relax intentionality?

If you think of a skilled juggler juggling several balls in the air, it looks easy and it is easy for them, but suppose they start to juggle more and more slowly?  There comes a point where stability is lost, and they drop the balls, you can’t go slower for a certain number of balls.

The continuous chain of intentions isn’t the only thing stabilizing our ordinary state of consciousness, but it’s a major thing, so it makes sense to me that if you observe and relax those intentions (not fight them with counter-intentions, just ease up and let go) our ordinary state of consciousness may fall apart.

And what results?

That’s a tough question and the outcome depends on your expectations, hopes and fears, previous experiences, skills you’ve learned, and who knows what else.  It might result in a few moments of consciousness where our baseline, ordinary state has broken down, and no new gestalt organization, no ASC has formed yet, so maybe whatever experience you have in those moments is very primal and non-samsaric, non-conditioned?  In Buddhist terms, is this “rigpa” or “nature of mind?”  I won’t speculate about this, as I don’t know at a conceptual level if this really makes good sense and, far more importantly, I’m not at all sure I have much understanding of rigpa as direct experience, which is the only knowledge that really counts.  But it’s interesting to think about…

So jumping back to our WarmWorld analogy, a few of us keep following directions, keep gathering the right full fuel (good karma?  merit?),  stacking fuel according to the prescribed directions (proper meditation posture and intentions?), and breathing on it the right way with a continuous sort of breath that gradually becomes more automatic and less intentional.  This practice may have a variety of “ordinary” effects, but we still stay pretty much in our ordinary mind.  We may often reason about it in a linear way, and see that this really is not going to do anything.  Do we have “faith” to keep it up anyway?  Do we (hopefully) occasionally have an unusual experience that encourages us that we are moving in a direction, even if we’re not there yet?

And a few people eventually do this “fire practice” with very, very little conscious effort, having gradually learned to relax it, and one day the structure of ordinary mind breaks down and  ???

Anyway, this is a way I can “make some sense” of this.  I am fascinated by the idea of using intention to reduce/relax intention and reach a state that is characterized as having no intention (taking others’ words that it can happen for the last part), even though it’s a paradoxical idea in terms of ordinary thinking.  It’s useful to me to think about it this way, I don’t know if it’s useful for anyone else, but I offer it and hope so.

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Dr. Charles T. Tart on July 17th, 2014

 I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the various spiritual systems and practices I’ve been involved with over the years, especially the forms of Buddhism I’ve been most involved with in the past decade or two:  how I relate, how I don’t relate, how I fit in, how I don’t fit in.  I started some reflection on this in a recent blog post, Am I a Buddhist? A ____ist? And/Or? Science and Spirituality, and this is some further reflection along those lines.  Hopefully it may have some value for the many people who are strongly dedicated to practicing in a particular system, but are not quite sure whether they belong, whether they should worry about that, or what.  With the world having changed so much in the last few decades, I suspect there are an awful lot of us who don’t think we fit in to traditional spiritual systems.

I’ve been involved with Tibetan Buddhism, particularly what are called Dzogchen practices, for more than two decades now, receiving many teachings, primarily from lamas Sogyal Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche.  The emphasis in Dzogchen approaches is on experiencing and cultivating “rigpa.”  So a friend that I’m trying to get to know better recently asked me what my attempt at “rigpa practice” looked like.  Here’s my initial attempt to clarify this for him and myself.


Good question!

My practice begins with my never claiming to do “rigpa practice.”  I have several reasons for this.

One is that “rigpa” is an important technical term within Tibetan Buddhism, and, being a scholarly and techie type, I believe in the importance of using technical terms precisely and correctly.  I may have had some moments of an experiential “feel” for “rigpa,” but since I can’t, at least with words, adequately describe what I mean by rigpa, it would be misleading of me to use the word.  Misleading to myself — I tend to think I know what I’m talking about, a delusion hard to overcome! — and potentially misleading to others.  Professors get too much respect from students and some students think I know far more about spirituality that I actually do.

A second reason is that I know “rigpa” is referring to something extremely important, and I’ve often heard that you should have been blown away by experiencing even a moment of rigpa, and since that hasn’t happened to me, I have to assume that, quite aside from my technical grammatical reservations, I don’t really know what it’s about.

I could quote formal definitions of rigpa, of course.  Here is one from the Rigpa Fellowship wiki:

Rigpa is the “self-reflexive awareness that cognizes Buddha-nature.”  It has also come to mean the “pristine awareness” that is the fundamental ground itself.  Erik Pema Kunsang translates a text which provides basic definitions of rigpa and marigpa in a Dzogchen context:  Unknowing (marigpa) is not knowing the nature of mind. Knowing (rigpa) is the knowing of the original wakefulness that is personal experience.

But I don’t really know what this means, grand as it sounds….

A third reason is that as a scholar and scientist whose job it is to try to advance knowledge and communicate it clearly, I find terms like “meditation” or its opposite, “non-meditation” (often used to describe the kind of “meditation” practice used in Dzogchen) used in so many different ways by various writers and teachers that the term “meditation” tends to create confusion rather than clarity.  If someone tells me, for instance, that they “meditate,” and I’m really interested in what it is they actually do, I will ask them to tell me very specifically what mental or physical actions they take and the results of those attempted actions.  So as a partial answer to the question about my practice, rephrased to avoid that term “rigpa,” I would say that most days I dedicate somewhere between 15 and 30 min. in the late afternoon to some form of “meditation.”  Late afternoon because my mind is intellectually very busy in the mornings, (and often all the rest of the day and night!), but usually by late afternoons it has satisfied its need to make words.  I then can engage in some activity that is not primarily word centered, such as some form of “meditation.”

What specifically does that mean for me in this context?  I’ve tried many different processes, with varying degrees of success.  Shinzen Young, a primary source of knowledge and practice technique about Buddhism and “meditation” for me, has created a classification system (Five Ways to Know Yourself, unpublished manuscript)(parts available on the web at The Basic Mindfulness System Practice Manual: http://www.shinzen.org/Retreat%20Reading/FiveWays.pdf ; The Full Grid from the manual, p. 130: http://www.shinzen.org/Retreat%20Reading/FiveWays.pdf#Page=103 ; and Historical Influences from the manual, pp. 147-148: http://www.shinzen.org/Retreat%20Reading/FiveWays.pdf#Page=147 ) that systematically describes almost all the world’s meditative processes, and I’ve tried a least a little bit of all of them.  The one that I’ve been focusing on lately is to try to observe, usually with my eyes closed, the changing flow of ongoing experience.  Ongoing experience includes any visual imagery (that I think of as happening in my head), any body sensations, sensations from the outside world through the classical senses, and “thinking” in the sense of hearing words in my head, whether that is isolated words or long trains of words that are what usually constitute my verbal thought.  I try to do this with concentration, staying focused that this is what I want to do, with clarity, trying to be clearly aware of what is happening moment by moment, and equanimity, not grabbing at or trying to prolong some things because I like them or rejecting some things because I don’t like them.

That’s what I try to do.  How well does it work?

Sometimes very poorly, of course, I’m sleepy and doze off, or my mind races with something I’ve been thinking about earlier in the day or some possibility that has risen or something someone said to me, etc., etc., etc.  Sometimes I experience the flow of things with concentration, clarity and equanimity fairly successfully.  I can see how one sensation morphs into another sensation which morphs into another sensation, which suddenly vanishes to be replaced by another sensation, etc.  I like Shinzen’s straightforward characterization of this practice as meditating on “flow,” although he told me that if I needed a fancier Buddhist term for it, I’m meditating on “impermanence.”  I usually won’t describe it as meditating on “impermanence,” though, that’s another one of those heavy-duty Buddhist technical terms that may well have a lot more to its meaning than simply being able to observe, with concentration, clarity, and equanimity, how one thing changes into another.  At the end of my formal practice.  I dedicate any virtue of the practice to the welfare of all beings.

That’s my formal practice, and sometimes I go on one to two week retreats to focus on doing these sorts of practices more intensely.  I don’t do classical Tibetan Vajrayana visualization practices, though, as I’m not a really good visualizer, in the sense of being able to visualize something steadily, and the classical Tibetan Buddhist images don’t have much meaning for me.  I do spontaneously chant mantras many times during the day, partly as a reminder to myself of spiritual values, partly as a kind of prayer, partly as a gesture of respect.

I also try to bring mindfulness of what’s actually going on in the present moment in life when I can remember to do this.  That, unfortunately, is a very small part of my day.  This kind of practice, primarily based on the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, was my main practice for years before getting involved in Tibetan Buddhism, and I’ve written about it extensive elsewhere (Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science).


Okay, there’s a basic description of basics of how I “practice.”

I’ve said I don’t know what “rigpa” is.  But I suspect (and  hope) being more mindful of what happens in everyday life and being able to watch how my mind does its things is useful in moving toward whatever “rigpa” is.

I also take as a working hypothesis that my main contribution in this life toward making the world a little bit better will be my scientific work, perhaps building some bridges between the genuinely scientific and the genuinely spiritual.  I’ve done enough “meditation” kind of practice that I think I have some feel for what it’s all about, so I won’t say anything about meditation that’s really misleading, but I also know that compared to those who are much more dedicated and have worked at it much more than me, I know almost nothing.


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Dr. Charles T. Tart on July 6th, 2014

What Is It Like To Be Present? 

Charles T. Tart

© 2014 Charles T. Tart

While listening to a recording of some teachings by lama Tsoknyi  Rinpoche recently, he asked his students what it was like to be present, to be aware of now.  The recording was not sensitive enough to pick up his students’ responses, but the question was intriguing to me, and so these notes are about what being present means to me.  Spelling out my current understanding of something often helps clarify for me what I think I know and what I know I don’t know, and feedback from others may help my understanding.

I don’t know how much the way I experience “nowness” is typical of the way other students do, but sharing this description may stimulate others to share their experiences also.  When Tsoknyi  Rinpoche dialogues with his students about things he often wants quick answers, which is an interesting way to scramble preconceptions and possibly trigger new perspectives, but I need to think more systematically about things like this.

First a note of caution: there are assumptions built into our language about reality and experience that I may get confused with attempts to talk about what I actually experience.  I’ll try to be sensitive to those and compensate for them, but I may well miss some of these complications.  I will often put a word in “quotes” as a reminder that it is a critical, but often ill-defined term.


When I Say “I Am Present” I Mean???

So, what do I mean when I say that “I am present?”  Or, to stick more closely with the way I actually speak, since this is something that varies for me rather than an all-or-nothing experience, what do I mean when I say something like “I am more present?”

I begin with a working definition of ordinary reality.  At this moment, I am sitting in my office, a (conventionally) real room, with a real computer in front of me.  My physical body is sitting in a real chair and I can feel my body when I turn my attention to it.  I think of this as “my” body because my sensory experience of the external world is primarily through my eyes and ears, located in my head, and I speak from my head, so I implicitly assume that “I” am at least vitally associated with my head (and physical body), if not “in” it.  Assuming that “I” am here in this body works very well for navigating and dealing with my ordinary physical world.

Given that situations occur in ordinary reality that can be perceived by me and often require some sort of response from me, I normally consider that I am “present” when I have an accurate perception of my immediate world through my senses and am not ignoring these perceptions through too much immersion in thoughts, feeling, memories, hopes, fears, etc.  I’m paying attention.  (The question of how I know my perception is accurate needs to be explored also, but not here.)  It is certainly possible  for me to respond adequately, by conventional standards, to many situations in the world around me without feeling particularly present: I experience situations and come up with responses to them, but my flow of perception and response tends to be relatively automatic.  But I’m likely to say I am “more present” when it’s immediately clear to me that I am perceiving what is happening in the present moment, and such perception feels “clearer” than usual.  In addition to perceiving what’s coming in through my senses, there’s a kind of “meta-awareness” that I am aware.  Not a voice in my head saying that repeatedly, but a basic awareness.  There’s more to it than that, but I can’t describe what that more is at the moment.

I often experience not being very present or not present at all to my physical surroundings in that I am pretty lost in thinking or imagining or emotional reactions, and may only realize, in retrospect, that I missed things that were actually going on around me.  While shaving this morning, for example, I was thinking about what I wanted to say about the nature of being present for me, and suddenly realized that I was quite lost in these thoughts.  My eyes were open but I wasn’t really seeing things in front of me or hearing the sounds around me, although I was going through the habitual motions of shaving.  With this realization I instantly turned my attention more to my actual sensory perceptions of the moment, including body sensations as well as those from my distance sense receptors (eyes, ears), and, while staying present in this way, I had the thought that I often think about being present while not actually being present at all.

Thinking about  being more present while not actually being more present is a common experience for me.  In the years I’ve been doing Vipassana meditation, for example, while my conscious aim has been to follow, with clarity, concentration and equanimity, the actual flow of experience, often especially focusing on bodily sensations, there have been innumerable times when I found I’ve been thinking about bodily sensations, but not actually paying much or any attention to actual sensations.


Present in Dreams?

(This raises an interesting question which I will not explore here, of am I “present” when I’m dreaming?  I’m in a world, things are happening which I am experiencing through my dream senses, but of course I’m profoundly ignorant of my real situation, namely that I’m dreaming.  I have had a few lucid dreams in my life where, during the dream, my consciousness gets clearer and I know that I am dreaming (a conscious meta-awareness) even while remaining in the dream world, but this lucid dreaming is rare for me and my personal attempts to make it happen more often have not been very successful.)

The Gurdjieff work I focused on some years ago was very good at making me more “present” in the sense that I was simultaneously aware of (a) feelings in my physical body, (b) sensations from the world around me, primarily visual and auditory, and (c) a simultaneous  awareness that I was being more aware than usual.  This often made the world seem clearer and more vivid and alive than usual, as well as increasing my awareness of more subtle emotions, but sometimes, especially nowadays, usually nothing feels “special” about doing this, I’m just more present.  While I don’t think this Gurdjieffian self-remembering practice is the same thing that Tibetan Buddhist lamas like Sogyal Rinpoche or Tsoknyi Rinpoche are trying to teach us about the nature of mind, rigpa, I do consider this kind of presence a valuable achievement, since a great deal of our suffering in life is unnecessary and comes about because we don’t really pay adequate attention to what is happening in ordinary reality and so behave in maladaptive ways, as well as losing some of the richness of experience.

Note too this method of defining “presentness” is useful from a scientific perspective, as you could actually measure degrees of such presentness by putting people in complex situations for limited periods of time, then taking them out and testing them on what they remember perceiving in that situation.  Someone who remembered little was obviously not very present, while someone who remembered a lot, especially more subtle elements, was more present.  This could be a very useful line of research.


Looking More Deeply At Presence:

But I want to drop down now to what I think is a more basic or subtle level of the question, “What does it mean to be present?”  Or “What is the experience of nowness?”

I close my eyes now to reduce the amount of sensory input I need to deal with and sit quietly.  Intending to be here with my present experience, I immediately notice that I have a small headache, there is some pressure on the small of my back from the way that I’m sitting, various bodily sensations where I press up against the chair, and a feeling of coolness in my feet.  My mind instantly interprets this coolness as if there were a cool breeze blowing over my feet, but I know that while the air is cool in my office, there is no reason to expect a breeze to be blowing.  In Tibetan Buddhist terms, this last experience represents both immediate perception (6th consciousness naming/identifying information from one of the classic five senses) and elaboration and reaction to it (7th consciousness).



The slight but definite intention to be present to an immediate experience is an important aspect of being more present for me, although probably not the only aspect.  I know that if I do not keep up this gentle intention to be present, especially in terms of being present to the “quieter” qualities of immediate experience, I will almost certainly be caught up in rising thoughts and feelings that carry me away.  It’s also clear to me that this effort must be a subtle and gentle one, not a forcible grab to control or fixate experience.

When I think about this (meditative) process in general, there are always (my analysis, not necessarily as experienced) several components.  One component is attention to what is rising in my immediate experience, a second is that gentle intention to be focused in a certain way, and a third is what I like to call process-monitoring, some attention devoted, at least occasionally rather than continuously monitoring my intention and results, to ascertaining whether I am being successful in maintaining my intention and keeping up my focus.  Various meditation teachers refer to these aspects with words like “awareness” or “consciousness” or “mindfulness,” but as these words are used in contradictory ways in so many settings (philosophical, psychological, spiritual) I don’t find them helpful.



There is another more subtle and difficult to describe aspect of being more present.  While I’m doing it, there is quiet, practically continuous sense that “I” exist.  I don’t mean my everyday I with its many characteristics, hopes and fears, but something more basic, perhaps what Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls the “mere I.”  It’s just a quiet background sensation or understanding that “I,” in some extremely basic understanding of the word “I,” am here, and experiencing.  This is different from my ordinary conscious experience, because while I could analytically say that the sense of existing must always be present even if I’m aware of it or not, since I do exist, that sense is usually not consciously present in ordinary experience.  Indeed, when I first began having experiences of more presence doing the Gurdjieff work, experiencing what I think Gurdjieff called “self-remembering” or “waking up” for moments, it often seemed vividly clear to me in those moments that in most or all of my previous life there had been “nobody home,” plenty of experiences, but all a kind of automatic experience flow with nobody behind it.  I know this description doesn’t make much sense, perhaps I’ll be able to express it more clearly at some later time.

There was some discussion on the recording of Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s teachings, not clear enough for me to be able to hear very well, about how time is experienced when one is more present.  I had to consciously think about that, for as I was simply trying to take in the qualities of being while listening, while being more present, time was not experienced directly, nor did I think about it.  It’s not that I don’t believe in the past, present and future or anything like that, it’s just that what is happening is happening, there are no time considerations that come up in connection with ongoing experience when I’m being more present.

I can deliberately think about time while being relatively present when I want to, although it takes me away to some extent from perceiving immediate experience with clarity and equanimity, as I have to call up memories about the past or create simulations about future possibilities in order to make plans about what I will do later.  I might be able to say that, compared to a hurried quality that ordinary experience too frequently has, there’s no hurry when I’m being more present, but that feels like I’m not speaking just from the experience of being more present but more from ordinary consciousness and its time considerations.

It’s very hard to describe this feeling of being more present, especially since it shows variations.  There have been times, mainly in the past when I first began working to practice this Gurdjieffian self-remembering occasionally, when I very clearly felt like I existed for the first time while doing it, and the rest of my life had been a dream—even though, in a sense, there was nothing special about being here and knowing I existed.  Yes the sensations were more vivid, but so what?  No big deal.  At other times when I’m more present, the quality of my consciousness really isn’t particularly different from ordinary consciousness, except for a certain subtle increase in clarity.  I may be quite aware, for example, that I’m upset and confused, but somehow I’m more clearly aware that I’m upset and being confused, and that’s more real than being that way and not knowing it so clearly.



Ah, yes, under the quality of being more present is that my existence is somehow more spacious.  Events happen, can happen strongly, but they don’t monopolize all my mental and perceptual space.  One of the teaching phrases I’ve heard Sogyal Rinpoche use often is that if you want to control your cow or goat, put it in a large field, rather than tightly fencing it in….



Then there’s all the talk in Tibetan Buddhist teachings about dualism and the unreality of any kind of permanent self.  I’ve always felt I fail to understand that on some very basic level.  In my ordinary consciousness, unless it’s important to notice that I am here and something else is over there, I don’t particularly assume or think about a difference between me and other things, although I’m sure it’s built in implicitly to the way I think.  “I” am here, the glass of water I want is over there, so I have to reach for it.  When I’m being more present I don’t feel in some kind of mystical union with things, neither do I feel separate from them, the issue just doesn’t come up in my experience.  I’m just experiencing what I’m experiencing.


A Couple of Hours Later:

I’ve gotten some nice contrast with what it’s like to be more present by having spent a couple of hours dealing over the telephone with computer tech support.  Very frustrating, to put it mildly!  So much so I finally hung up on the support person so I could call back and ask for higher technical support, complaining that the person I got was unsatisfactory at doing her job.  Maybe I can make it easier on her by saying she was unable to get the information she needed from the Dell support system, not her fault, but I am pissed!

So now my body is highly activated, there is a tension that runs all through it.  My movements are more forceful, not in any useful way, I’m just “pushing” harder on every step or gesture that I do, even though there is no use for it.  I’m having fantasies: scenarios of cutting remarks I could make run through my head.  I was going to say I was much less aware of my immediate physical surroundings, but actually I remember almost nothing about my surroundings during this, so I was certainly much less aware.  There is a kind of feeling that if I could just push hard enough on something I would feel better, plus the tension all through my body.

Closing my eyes and settling, it’s a great relief, a lot of the tension goes immediately.  It’s like my body is still vibrating (chaotic circulation of lung, chi, psychic energy?),  But it’s a kind of residual vibration now, rather than being forcefully pushed.  At the same time I think it could get stirred up again very easily when I try to call that damned computer company back!

I have a desire to rant about how unfair this all is, not that it would do any good.  It would probably increase my agitation rather than drain it off. Enough!

Tentative end?  …Quite a bit more to work with in life, I’m sure….




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Dr. Charles T. Tart on July 5th, 2014

Am I a Buddhist?  A ____ist?  And/Or?  Science and Spirituality

Charles T. Tart

As I mix the scientific and spiritual aspects of myself more in later life, I think it would be useful, and honoring today’s wise trend for full disclosure, to write a note on where I am coming from, as it’s complicated, and may affect what people can get from my reflections.  The interaction of science and spirituality is so important, and so easily goes off in wrong directions, increasing our human suffering rather than our happiness.

What/Who “Charley” Is and Who Will Be Writing?

Zero Charley:  There is usually no Charley that I would call a conventionally “Devout Buddhist” or “Devout ____ist” or “devout any-spiritual-path-in-particular-ist” in the sense of my accepting that everything in a given teaching tradition is literally true, or the most useful thing that can ever be said.  I see just about all spiritual paths as attempts to express and realize deep, transpersonal/spiritual aspects of humanity, and, like all human attempts, a mixture of gems and inspiration and politics and error.  But I’m happy to call myself a student of spiritual paths, mainly Buddhism nowadays, for many reasons.

Of course in moments of great distress Zero Charley may be temporarily replaced by a more devout version: as the old saying goes, there are no atheists in fox holes.

Buddhism’s psychological emphasis appeals to me, its promise of reducing suffering for me and others is very appealing, and while I certainly don’t understand or know how to practice within that system all that well, or be deeply devoted to try to “master” the system, I do know from personal experience that some aspects of Buddhism work for me and others.  And I draw, selectively, for better or worse, from other world spiritual systems.  But I do know that some of you are much more devout than me — I often envy you! – and sometimes we have to hold our faith tightly to endure difficult times, but if you don’t like people asking questions, it may be best if you didn’t read my comments and questions.  As a transpersonal psychologist, I hope to help refine our understanding and application of the spiritual: some aspects probably need to be questioned and discarded or modified, others amplified.

Sincere Charley:  There is someone usefully named Charley (or, given Buddhism’s insights about impermanence and that the way we reify things and identity leads to great suffering, I probably should say “someprocess,” named Charley, although it’s awkward English) who is deeply sincere about it.  When I’m manifesting mostly this way, I meditate most days, read and listen to teachings, attend occasional longer retreats, and routinely pray to what I hope and believe (as a working hypothesis) are real, existing spiritual entities.  I don’t get hung up on whether they are Buddhas, bodhisattvas, devas, God, Jesus, angels, whatever, I don’t know enough to make such discriminations or know if they mean anything).  I don’t know whether such entities really exist independently of us or are only useful psychological representations of our minds, and I am interested in the way some Buddhisms treat them as both simultaneously.

I’m no saint and I like my pleasures, but my most constant prayer is that I will grow in wisdom and compassion and be of some help to other sentient beings.  I don’t make that a formal Buddhist bodhisattva vow, though, as I consider that way too presumptuous for who I am.  I also usually take the traditional prayers that are about “I” getting wiser and more compassionate and change them to “we” getting wiser and more compassionate.  It’s a little psychological exercise on my part.  Being so self-centered, I need to practice remembering to think of others more.

Scientist Charley:  There is someprocess named Charley who works at being an open-minded scientist.  I seldom want Scientist Charley to manifest at spiritual teachings and retreats or sangha meetings, I’m there mostly as Sincere Charley, trying to learn, understand, and maybe on occasional help a little, and I also worry that Scientist Charley may say things that are just normal intellectual curiosity and work on his part but other, more devout people, may see as attacking.  Disciplined doubt and questioning are part of the scientific process, but can have unwanted emotional repercussions.

A very important point:  Being Scientist Charley does not mean I automatically try to force everything I learn about Buddhism or other spiritual paths into the current, totally  materialistic view dominating much of today’s social practice of science (namely that Buddhist enlightenment, e.g., is nothing but a particular electrochemical state of the brain and is over when you die, prayer is nothing but talking to yourself, etc.).  Rather

(a) I try to be open-minded and a good observer of the things that interest me (while watching out for barriers that keep me from noticing things I’m not interested in but should be), and I try to be aware of the limits of my observations and of ways to become a better observer.

(b) I try to understand my observations, make “sense” of them.  In the usual scientific way of talking, I try to come up with theories about them, creating logical concepts so that my observations hang together and have meaning, they appear to be lawful results of some deeper principle than the observations themselves.   I  then try to remember that

(c) my mind is a world-class rationalizer and can always make any set of ideas sound sensible, whether they actually are or not.  So, when I can, I try not to be too enamored of my theories.  That’s hard when you have a clever idea!  I’m so smart!  But a basic rule of essential science that gives science its power is that scientific theories should have a testable outcome: what do they predict in the observable world?  You make predictions and then go out and actually test them, see if your predictions come true.  If so, good for you and your thinking so far, nice theory, you should work on extending it.  If your predictions don’t come true, it’s probably time to modify your theory or perhaps reject your theory altogether, no matter how intellectually and emotionally appealing it is, and start over on understanding what you’ve observed.  And

(d) you freely report on and exchange all aspects of this process, observation, theorizing, prediction, and testing with peers who can check on your accuracy of the observing, thinking and testing, and come up with related ideas that can be of help to you.

That’s an idealization of the process, and, of course, being carried out by human beings like us, you can get all sorts of weird snags and distortions.  But eventually, when essential scientific method works, you start from crude observations of something, you did not have very useful ideas of why they happened, your ideas and beliefs weren’t very accurate for prediction or usefulness, but you end up with gradually more accurate observations, theories, predictions, and shared knowledge.

A classic example of this is the geocentric theory of the world, where God created the Earth at the exact center of the Celestial Spheres, and all the lights you could see in the sky, including the daytime sun, went around it in perfect circles, representing the perfection of God and His Creation.  When observation was not much better than what you could do with your naked eye, this theory worked pretty well, except for a small number of lights in the sky that would occasionally seem to stop their perfect circular orbit every once in a while, move backwards a bit, then move on.  “Who can understand the mysteries of God’s Creation?” might allow you to not worry too much about that little detail.  But as we got telescopes, then better and better telescopes, we got more and more precise observations of just how those lights in the sky moved, this geocentric model got incredibly complicated and then looked pretty miserable when it came up against the heliocentric model, that things revolved around the sun in ellipses, not circles, including the Earth.  From a proper scientific point of view, we don’t “know” as some kind of Absolute Truth that it really is like that, but this theory sure fits the data enormously better!  The heliocentric view is the best we have, but, in principle, it is subject to change or modification as more and better observations are done.  This is true of any scientific theory: no matter how well it’s working: fact, observations have primacy and theory is always subject to change. 

The current social climate of science as a profession tends strongly toward the example I gave above, viz. namely that Buddhist enlightenment is nothing but a particular electrochemical state of the brain and is over when you die, as there’s no more mind when the brain is damaged or dies.  In my functioning as a scientist though, I’d say this is a very poor theory, as it’s based on ignoring or misinterpreting a lot of observations.  And there are unacknowledged hopes and fears affecting it that further distort this current apparently scientific theory.  This is detailed in my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book.


How do these two different Charleys interact?

When the someprocess Scientist Charley wants to connect this with Sincere Charley’s  interest in Buddhism, he refers back to the Sutta to the Kalamas.  Here’s my favorite translation:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.

Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.

Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

Like essential science, this is an idealization, and I’m sure we humans, even when we think of ourselves as spiritual people seeking Truth, frequently bias and distort the process.  It’s much easier, for example, to assume that Gautama Buddha and his successors already discovered and passed on the most truthful possible understanding of anything and everything of importance, so you can just accept that and you do not have to work things out for yourself.  Insofar as this assumption is true, it saves you an enormous amount of time!  If I want to learn to repair my car, it would be very smart of me to take some courses and read some books on automobile repair taught or written by experts.  Insofar as it’s not perfectly true though……

Gurdjieff’s ideas on spiritual development can also connect Scientist Charley and Sincere Charley, as Gurdjieff insisted that his teachings be tested in personal experience, not accepted on authority.

Note also that there are someprocesses named Charley manifested in particular emotional states and circumstances, but two is enough for now!

Sometimes these various Charleys operate relatively independently, sometimes they get mixed together.  When I recognize they are interacting in potentially confusing ways I try to do something about it, but I’m sure I don’t always recognize or do something helpful.  So please cut me a little slack if I inadvertently say something offensive in future writings or past writings.  I do want to be wiser and more compassionate, I’m just not skilled at it… but hopefully getting better….

Most of what you’ll read on this blog and in my professional writings is from Scientist Charley.  He’s got some expertise that makes many of his observations and ideas useful.  Sincere Charley goes to teachings, meditates, reads, tries to learn from life, but doesn’t say much here, he is no expert on spirituality and shouldn’t talk much.  When I can separate the two voices for greater clarity, I will.





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Dr. Charles T. Tart on June 29th, 2014

A response to something I had written to a correspondent helped me crystallize some thoughts about Buddhism and spiritual paths that I would like to share.  I will qualify this at first by reminding you, as I’ve done earlier in these postings (http://blog.paradigm-sys.com/740/) that I’m not a Buddhist scholar or an advanced meditator by any means, but the psychological nature of Buddhism has long appealed to me and I think I’m qualified as a Westerner with a serious interest who’s been at it a long time to share some reactions which I hope will be thought-provoking. 

My correspondent wrote that one of my answers to his question reminded him of something he had heard some spiritual teacher say, “When a Zen master answers his students question well, it’s like two arrows meeting tip to tip, extinguishing each other.”

Well that’s one way to look at it.  It contains a number of assumptions, though, that are just that, assumptions.  One dictionary defines assumption as “… an idea that is formed without evidence.”  My concern is that when you don’t recognize that assumptions are assumptions, they can become implicit articles of faith and have a big influence on you.

I saw an instructive and amusing example of this a couple of years ago.  One of our neighbors had a fence made of a large opening wire mesh across his backyard, separating it from the street.  He was having a new and more attractive board fence constructed somewhat further toward the street, and the wire had been removed from the old fence, but not the fence posts yet.  One afternoon I noticed his dog out in the backyard.  It ran around a bit, then toward the street, but stopped at the old fence line.  It walked along the old fence line, back and forth, never crossing, as if the fence were still there.  It’s easy to think that the dog’s mental map showed “This is where you can’t go any further!” and was still operating.  I went and told my neighbor about it, though, before the dog had a chance to upgrade his mental map of his territory and wander out into the street.

One of the things any culture does is erect a lot of “mental fences” so you just don’t go beyond a certain point.

The biggest assumption in the Zen Master quote is that Gautama Buddha reached the highest possible level of enlightenment and attainment possible for human beings.  This is an explicit belief for most if not all Buddhist, of course, but I’m concerned with the automatic way it may affect us.  Further, Buddhisms in general also believe that our intelligence has been steadily lessening and our karma getting worse ever since Gautama Buddha’s time, so an implicit measure of a person’s level of spiritual realization is do they come to the same conclusions as the Buddha is supposed to have reached?

If that assumption about the Buddha having reached the highest level is true, then it’s a reasonable way to assess a person’s spiritual level.  If it’s not true, then assessing a person this way is a mechanism to produce social compliance, and creates mental and spiritual fences of an unknown nature.

Now I think that whatever it was the Buddha attained was an absolutely remarkable achievement and extremely helpful for the world as it existed in his time, and for a long time afterwards, including today!  The life of almost everyone was fairly miserable for much of human history, and there wasn’t much you could do about it.  If you were born in the caste that picked up the shit from the streets at night, the Untouchables, that’s what you did all your life, that’s what your ancestors had done and that’s what your children would do.  Even more, it’s probably what you would do life after life after life, reincarnation after reincarnation, because it would probably take millions of lifetimes, even if you lived as virtuously as possible in each one, to really create much of a karmic potential for change for you.

To describe this view as pessimistic is, to me, to put it mildly!  To describe this as “realistic” in terms of what people could see looking around the world is also quite accurate: there was very little social change except when one tribe conquered another tribe, which led to great additional suffering for many.  So I don’t really know what Buddhist enlightenment is like, but it certainly includes a major degree of becoming very “cool,” not being upset by the things around you, and having a certain kind of inner bliss.  Who wouldn’t want that?  There have been innumerable occasions in my own life when I wish I had been a lot more calm and cool!

We, on the other hand, have been raised in a culture that believes in Progress.  If I go three generations back, my ancestors were peasants and factory workers, and that’s probably all they ever were before that.  Yet amazingly, I’m a Professor!  My son is very successful in his amazing discipline of video animation, and my grandson is going to be an architect!  In terms of spirituality, my ancestors knew only one religion, Christianity, and while there’s a lot of good things about Christianity there’s a lot of bad things too.  I, b contrast, have a good intellectual knowledge of many ways of approaching the spiritual, and a little bit of practical knowledge of some of them, and I and my kids and grandkids take the opportunity to choose to work with spiritual systems that appeal to us as “natural.”  This  seems like spiritual progress to me!

So the Buddha reached enlightenment.  Wonderful!  Marvelous!  But is this the highest possible achievement for humanity?  I have no idea, but I know that assuming or implicitly believing that may well create limitations on what might be possible.  I have no doubt that the practice of Buddhism has reduced the suffering of an enormous number of people over the centuries.  But how does that compare with the reduction of suffering that occurred, e.g., by the scientific discovery of bacteria and principles of hygiene?  How does not dying of typhoid fever compare with dying of typhoid fever but being very calm through the dying process?

So from my point of view as an academic and a scientist, I’d say the best answer to a question is an answer that makes the questioner think more deeply.  Not an elimination, “extinguishing” of the question because you’ve gotten The Answer from One Who Knows, but where you are now thinking more deeply, perhaps being aware of assumptions that went into your question, perhaps seeing other relevant areas you need to know more about, perhaps seeing a possible direction to go in that you’d never thought of before because it’s socially unthinkable, perhaps seeing hidden emotional roots affecting what you think, etc..

To my knowledge, putting all the emphasis on seeing how your mind works would probably not lead you to discover bacteria, or all sorts of other important things about the external world.  Yes, it’s very important to understand more about how one’s own mind works, and gaining knowledge and skill in keeping it from going off in crazy directions that harm yourself or other people.  I’ve spent much of my life doing that.  But as an only direction?  I can’t go for that.

As the industrialists Henry Ford is supposed to have said, “Those who think they can and those who think they can’t are both right.”

So if my answer extinguished the question, I hope this has relit the fire, and this direction of thinking will light many fires in the future!


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Dr. Charles T. Tart on June 22nd, 2014

The other day I was meditating (insofar as I can actually do it), aiming to observe the flow of experience, one thing flowing into another, with equanimity, concentration and clarity, as Shinzen Young defines one way to meditate.  As usually happens for me, I had slipped part way into the hypnagogic state, less aware of external stimuli and my body, visual imagery more intense. 

I saw a person I immediately took to be a Buddhist Master, sitting quietly.  An Indian gentleman walked up to him and politely inquired, “How are you, sir?”

The Master immediately replied, “I am not,” and I came back to ordinary consciousness.

It certainly fits with the general Buddhist emphasis that we do not have a fixed, permanent identity.  So was if profound?  Silly?  Humorous?  Or nothing in particular?


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Dr. Charles T. Tart on June 4th, 2014


Last night my wife and I attended a Buddhist study group that we’ve gone to for some time.  Our hostess has a cat, but the cat, Kiri, is usually confined in the bedroom for a couple of hours because one regular attendee is allergic to cats.  As that person wasn’t there last night, Kiri joined us.

This happened once a few months before, and I was quite charmed that time because after wondering about a little, she came to me, jumped up on my lap, insisted, by rubbing against my hand, that I rub her for a long time, and then settled down, purring, to nap on my lap.  I love cats, and was delighted when it happened again last night.

Before listening to some Buddhist teachings we had a 45 minute meditation..  My goal was to practice what is technically called shamatha without support, keeping my consciousness tuned to my experience in the present moment, being open to whatever it was, and, whenever I discovered I had wandered off into otherwise endless thought trains, gently coming back to the present.

Lama Guru Kiri

Lama Guru Kiri


Most meditation training starts with some variation of shamatha with support, where you are given some particular sensory process, such as the sensations from natural breathing, to keep your attention centered on.  Since those sensations always exists in the present, they form a support for your mind to stay focused in the present.  In shamatha without support, you don’t have any fixed “home base” like that, you just keep coming back to whatever present time sensations there are.  For me, this would mean any sights if my eyes are open, whatever sounds occur, and whatever bodily sensations occur.  Passing thoughts, sensory images and emotions can also be regarded as experiences happening in the present, but these kinds of experiences are very tricky since they tend to carry me (and almost everybody) away on chains of thoughts about the thoughts, about the emotions they arouse, about my thoughts about that, memories about such thoughts and feelings,  etc., etc., etc.

Compared to the too the typical mind wondering when I attempt any kind of meditation, I thought I was doing rather well last night in sticking with present sensations.  Kiri, napping on my knee, and occasionally moving a little or purring, naturally acted as something of a sensory anchor in the present, although I found sometimes I was deliberately using the feel of her napping on my knee as an anchor, rather than it just happening.  When I found this, I tried to make a subtle shift in attitude that I was certainly aware of the cat on my knee at this time, that this was a pleasurable sensation, but it could come and go as it would, without my trying to force it as an anchor, or force it as a pleasurable sensation I could hold on to.

Paralleling and symbolizing this, I noticed that Kiri was not perfectly balanced on my knee, some of her weight was off to one side, so presumably she might fall.  This was something of a human-centric thought on my part, of course, as cats do extremely well at keeping their balance without human intervention, but I did keep one of my hands resting on her side and back to give her gentle support, just in case.  Partly consciously, partly automatically, though, I noticed that I kept my touch mild and gentle, so that the support would be there if Kiri needed it by rolling in that direction, but my hand would not be wrapped around her in a forcible or intrusive way such as might appear to constrain any movement she wanted to make.

It struck me that this was a very clear demonstration of the mental attitude needed for successful, shamatha practice, shamatha with or without support.  A small, gentle effort is needed to keep my mind focused on the present flow of experience, but not in a way that grasps it, that tries to fix it, to keep it from changing, to keep it from “getting away.”  That’s the way my attention needed to be for the rest of the flow of my experience, focused in the direction here-and-now, thus noticing this cat aspect of my experience, but not trying to fixate it.

I felt a feeling of thanks to the cat, for helping me notice this.  Yes, I’ve known this intellectually for years, but this was an important deepening my knowledge of it.

Homage to my Cat Guru Kiri!

I also noticed that at times my mind tried to do something it frequently does during vipassana style meditation practices where I’m supposed to be just openly and clearly experiencing what is, namely feeling that what actually is at the moment really isn’t good enough, it should be something more “spiritual” or “profound” or “consciousness-altering.”  So my mind would automatically (and sneakily) try to alter the actual experience of the feel of Kiri napping on my leg.  Once it tried to get rid of any feeling of a boundary between the cat and my leg, to produce what might be a “unitive” experience with the cat.  Once it hoped that my mind would shape itself to reflect the way the cat’s mind was functioning at that moment, which I presume would be deeply peaceful since Kiri was napping.  Once it wanted to feel some “subtle energy” flowing from me into the cat or visa-versa, etc., etc.

Each time I noticed my mind was subtly trying to do this, I also felt a feeling of thanks to Kiri, my meditation guru for the evening, reminding me that my conscious goal for this session was shamatha without support, being open and clear about what was actually happening on its own, moment to moment, here-and-now, not trying to make my experience into something more “important.”

As his holiness Dudjom Rinpoche wrote in the prayer “Calling The Lama From Afar,”

… When we realize that this unending Natural Mind is the very nature of the Lama,

There is no need for attached and grasping prayers or artificial complaints. 

By relaxing in uncontrived Awareness, the free and open natural state,

We obtain the blessing of aimless self-liberation of whatever arises.

Buddhahood is not attained by fabricated Dharmas;

Meditation made by the mind, fabricated by the intellect is the deceiving enemy.

-(Sogyal Rinpoche translation, Rigpa Fellowship practice book)

Homage to my Cat Guru Kiri, reminding me to learn to relax in uncontrived awareness!

And homage and thanks to the Buddha and those who have transmitted his wisdom and methods so that we can learn to be more awake and aware and suffer less!

A final note, lest I be misunderstood.  I don’t think that thinking is automatically bad and always a cause of suffering, an impression I seem to get sometimes that this is a major theme in Buddhist teachings (although I’m not a Buddhist scholar and my understanding is only that of a beginning student).  But I am quite convinced, through personal experience as well as my training as a psychologist, that a lot of human suffering and negative behavior is not necessary and comes about through uncontrolled, compulsive, runaway thinking and feeling, and that this situation can be greatly improved.  (Of course I think for a living and for pleasure, so I may just be a thoughtaholic rationalizing my habit)


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The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good: An Obstacle to the Spread of Tibetan Buddhism

© 2014 Charles T. Tart

While I’m not a good follower of any particular religion or spiritual tradition, I do think enormous amounts of perspectives and practices that increase human wisdom and decrease human suffering are embedded in the world’s religions and spiritual traditions, and I would like to see such knowledge and practices refined and made more effective.  It’s one thing to be told you ought to be good, in spite of the basic biological instincts that are driving our behavior.  It’s another thing to have had actual experiences of some larger spiritual reality which make it natural and intelligent to be spacious, wise, and compassionate.  Toward this end, although I don’t characterize myself as a “Buddhist,” much less a “good Buddhist,” I’ve found Buddhism, in various forms, particularly useful for our times.  I was  recently talking with some lamas about ways to help the Tibetan Buddhist dharma spread in modern, Western culture.  This small note to members of this meeting group, lamas and Westerners, is about a particular obstacle to that which is especially prominent in Tibetan Buddhism.


There was a point touched on in our recent discussions that I really wanted to expand on, but we ran out of time, so I’ll mention it here while it’s fresh in my mind.  I’m sure my perception is overly simplified, but I think it’s worth thinking about.

I have taken teachings from many Tibetan lamas, and, almost universally, they present themselves as passing down the teachings of a Lineage, with (1) each previous teacher being a Perfect Master (although they don’t say this about themselves), and (2) that the possibility of enlightenment within this lifetime is totally dependent upon your devotion to the current teacher of the lineage.

When I’m presenting myself as a student, when I take teachings, rather than as a scientist and learned scholar, as in our meetings, I try not to question this pair of claims, and I try to maintain an attitude of listening and trying to understand, as that’s why I’m there.  I know my own knowledge is in adequate and I want to learn from those who know so much more than I about exceptionally important matters.  I know, from my own unfortunate experience, that if I try to be a scientist and professor while taking teachings, my previous ideas, prejudices, and beliefs are certainly going to get in the way of my understanding, and probably my ego will be strengthened by the intellectual objections it could raise to aspects of the teachings, making me feel especially smart and competent.  Such an outcome is of no use to me for trying to learn, and I am moderately successful at at putting the scientist and professor aside while taking teachings, and listening and trying to understand with a relatively open mind.

At the same time, I have studied my own psychological processes in depth over my lifetime, so I recognize that I (and probably almost all Western students) have a childish part of me that is emotionally powerful, that can distort my perceptions and thinking, and that desperately wants a Perfect Being, a perfectly loving Father or Mother, to take charge of my life, so I won’t have to think for myself and would never make a mistake or suffer again.  Western psychology has made it clear, as well as my own experience, that this attitude, especially when it’s relatively unconscious, makes me more neurotic and less effective at learning anything about life.

So when a lama teaches the perfection of his or her particular lineage, and the necessity of total devotion to the teacher, it has tremendous appeal to this childish part of ourselves and you get very unrealistic perceptions and feelings, what’s technically been called a transference reaction, to the teacher.  While transference can produce powerful emotional effects, is very likely to go in the wrong direction psychologically.  The student is “in love” with the teacher, but the basis for that love is primarily a fantasy, so the consequences are likely to be quite negative.  I’ve seen it many times in others over the years who thought they had the most wonderful teacher in the world, thought they had made great spiritual progress, and then, when the teacher did things that did not fit with the students fantastic ideas of perfection, the student went to the totally opposite extreme, saw the teacher as a fraud and a charlatan, and lost practically all benefit from whatever teachings they might have received.

So the first obstacle for spreading the Dharma is that this way of presentation appeals to something very childish and neurotic people: do you want them to be the main people who are attracted and become students?  Secondly, many Westerners are quite sophisticated about the fact that all religions and spiritual movements, whatever their source or ultimate truth, are practiced by human beings, and real human beings have faults and make mistakes.  Thus for these more sophisticated potential students, when they hear claims of a perfect lineage and the need for total devotion to the teacher, they suspect that the lineage and teachers are themselves deluded and/or practicing some kind of scam on naïve people.  Thus some very intelligent potential students are repelled right from the beginning by this kind of approach.

I have been waiting for years, without success, to go to a teaching where the teacher will occasionally remind the students that we teachers in the lineage are human beings, we have, to the best of our knowledge, good intentions to help other people, as well as enough personal knowledge and experience to have been considered lineage holders by our own teachers, but we make mistakes and we don’t know everything.  So, if we teach something that doesn’t really make sense when you examine it further, or suggest you practice something that doesn’t work for you or that works badly, we’re sorry, we thought this would help, but give us a break, were just human, and doing our best.

As part of trying to learn from teachers, I have tried to take that attitude, even if they never say anything like that, so I think I’ve had fewer problems than many students I’ve seen in having extreme reactions to something a teacher does that does not come up to my standards of perfection.

I’m sure “perfect students” can overcome this obstacle, but I’m certainly not one….

Funny, lately I’ve kept coming across an old saying, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Anyway, it’s something to think about.  As I said at our meeting, I think it’s important that various lineages remain intact because that provides a special kind of training in realization that gives a deep life to the teaching, but also in the West there are going to be many variations on the teachings, both for good reasons and bad reasons, and there’s nothing that can be done about it but hope for the best and give them guidance when possible.





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