John Forrest Bamberger – Psychedelic Sunset 2
As mentioned in a variety of places, years ago I gave up meditation practice, having decided that it apparently took a certain kind of talent that I didn’t have, so it was a waste of time for me to continue. Then I met meditation teacher Shinzen Young at a scientific conference, found that he explained basic meditation in a way that made sense to me and that I could actually carry out, and I’ve been practicing meditation for many years since then. I say practicing, rather than doing, for many of my meditation sessions are still primarily times of frustration to me, as I don’t think I’m doing it correctly or it doesn’t come out the way I’d like it to, but at other times it flows nicely.
I’ve now reached a point where I’m wanting and able to follow Shinzen’s and Sogyal Rinpoche’s advice to not slavishly follow any particular style of meditation practice, but explore various ways and focus on practices that “work” for me. I won’t try to define just what work” means here, let’s just roughly say that after most of my meditation sessions nowadays I feel both relaxed and feel as if something useful has been done.
I want to put up this record of what I’m now working on as of early March of 2015. Perhaps I can find earlier records of what meditation is like for me and see what the difference is now . My main reason in posting this is in the hope that it may give other people some useful ideas, especially other people who want to understand the workings of their own minds.
The following is adapted from a letter I just wrote to Shinzen Young.
Dear Shinzen, Date Composed: March 3, 2015
The kinds of practices you’ve taught me over the years, basic vipassana meditation and many variations on it, have made me much more sensitive to my own internal processes. This is rewarding, as I’ve always been curious about how my mind (and other minds) work. I’m now becoming confident enough about my ability to observe that I’m experimenting with tailoring my meditative tasks. Particularly as I’ve long suspected that what I’m doing, even if only semi-consciously doing, is often more important than the content of what I’m experiencing. What I’m going to describe here is something I’ve been playing with for a few weeks that, to broadly describe it, shifts the observational focus from content to process. That’s an oversimplification, of course, as there is much overlap with the way you taught me this originally and with the rough labeling) categories I’ve thought of so far.
(An important distinction here is that basic Vipassana calls for noting aspects of experience with concentration, clarity, and equanimity. You observe something arising, you try to “look” at it or “feel” it or “hear” it more clearly, without being distracted, and without being caught up in desiring more of it or rejecting it, wishing it would go away. An aid to this basic noting is labeling. It is usually your choice as to whether to add labeling, just mentally or (quietly) out loud, to help your concentration. For me labeling is usually mentally saying to myself, albeit in a quiet, matter-of-fact mental tone, a simple label that further clarifies what you’re experiencing. In what follows I tend to talk as if active labeling is going on all the time, but what I’ve said can apply to simply noting.)
Now I’ve become more humble about what I think I know as I’ve gotten older, and try to think of my “knowledge” more scientifically as working hypotheses, useful formulations about reality, but hypotheses, subject to alteration as they are tested against what happens in reality. That is I’m trying to remember that my world view is just that, a world view, undoubtedly containing some truth, probably wrong about some things, but biasing my perception, thinking and experience, so I need to stay alert to actual experience.
There are several working hypothesis behind what I’m doing.
The first (1) is that an awful lot of our suffering in life comes from relative unconsciousness and lack of clarity about the way our minds work. I think I’ve written about Shinzen’s clear formulation of this in some earlier post where Suffering (experiential reality) is a multiplicative product of the actual Pain interacting with you Attitude or Resistance to the pain.
Thus while there are real reasons for obstacles and suffering, (2) our unskillful understanding and (3) consequently unskillful reactions greatly and needlessly increase our suffering.
The fourth working hypothesis is that (4) almost any method to bring more deliberate, conscious attention to the way our minds work is useful for psychological and spiritual growth, thus making us more insightful, comfortable, and effective in the way we use our minds. A footnote that last working hypothesis is that (4A) even if the categories that guide our observation are not ultimately accurate, the very fact that we are deliberately making observations is useful.
If I had to roughly and over-simply characterize Shinzen’s approach (very difficult to do because he ingeniously experiments with different approaches for his students) his most recent set of primary categories are see, hear, feel, visual experience, whether of the outside world or internal visual imagery, auditory experience, whether of the outside world or internal auditory imagery, and tactile experience, whether of the outside world touching our bodies or internal bodily feelings. As I’ve understood Shinzen’s directions (and I know I may have my personal biases in this) I would say he has taught us to pay more conscious attention to those three primary categories of experience, and using categories gives us specific things to anchor in the present with at any moment. At this moment, e.g., I’m seeing a computer screen in front of me, I’m feeling the vibrations of my voice speaking aloud as I dictate these words, I feel the movement of my body as I play with something from my desk in my hands while still talking, I hear the noise of the fan in the heater (although it’s probably the slight tinnitus I have in my hearing). I’m more present in this moment, and much (all?) of this presence comes from my trying (and succeeding to various degrees) to more clearly experience the various contents of experience from moment to moment.
In saying the approach I’m experimenting with emphasizes shifting the focus from content to process, there is still plenty of content to anchor with in any experience, but the observations I would now make, in addition to seeing the computer screen, feeling the vibrations of my voice, feeling the movement of my hands and hearing the noise of the fan are that I had a desire to illustrate the general point I was making, I deliberately shifted my attention to seeing to get a visual example, then again deliberately shifted my intention/attention to feeling, then to moving, and then to hearing. That is I’m still intending to be aware of the content of ongoing experience, but I’m focusing more of what I’m doing, intending, attending to…
I’ve listed a whole bunch of categories below that I have used to various extents to date, with one-word labels for various processes. ( Even when the label is merely an aural, mental image, I find the closer it is to a single syllable, the easier it is to use it without interfering with what I’m observing.) I suspect most, if not all of the categories and labels below will turn out to be subsets of some of Shinzen’s more detailed categorizations, but it’s what feels interesting to me at present.
I’m actually kind of amazed that I can stay pretty much on top of process observation, not just noting but using a short verbal label about once or twice every breath when I really concentrate.
Where will this take me? Am I getting anywhere? I don’t know, but it feels like I’m shining more light into the driving/creating/causing but normally unconscious parts of my mind, and it’s interesting!
Would I recommend this focus of meditation to anyone else? Don’t know. I think it’s harder than the usual start of vipassana instruction and it’s only years of practice that let me do it moderately well, but maybe that’s just my kidding myself. Anyone wanting to get really serious about meditation, I can give them a start with my mindfulness books (Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science ) and online webinar (http://www.glidewing.com), but if they want to go deeply, they should work with an accomplished meditation teacher like Shinzen Young or some of the many other fine teachers now available.
My semi-organized knowledge as of 3-3-15
|Brief Label||Explanation||Synonyms, Comments|
|Attend||Deliberately paying attention to some particular experience|
|Blank past||Retrospective realization of blankness|
|Blank now||Concurrent recognition of blankness|
|Noticing that a particular experience is getting less sharp, less clear, blurry for visual, fuzzier body if auditory, more vaguely defined if feeling||Fuzz|
|Body Adjust||Deliberately adjust posture/position|
|Check||Consciously checking on how well I’m following the instructions I’ve given myself for a particular meditation session|
|Converse|| An internal conversation, both hearing “thoughts” in words and intentionally creating words in response, like
in a real conversation
|Very communicable in that the words can be repeated|
|Create||Deliberately making something happen, it didn’t just happen by itself|
|Daydream||Combination of visual imagery and internal talk that’s catching me up to some degree, and has a sort of plot of its own, even if it doesn’t last very long, not random, unconnected sensations||For me, daydreams have vision and sound, but rarely if ever have any touch or emotional component|
|Desiring||Wanting something in particular to happen|
|Dream||A visual and auditory inner experience with plot that you could relate, that you’re almost totally involved in while it’s happening: you don’t know it’s a dream.|
|Dreamlet||A shorter version of a dream, as above||Exact boundary between dreams and dreamlets is hard to define|
|Emote||Clearly an emotion, not just a tactile experience|
|Evaluate||Deliberate thinking about and evaluation of an experience or a pattern of experiences|
|Exhale||Deliberately and consciously exhale|
|Fantasize||A broader category that could include daydreams, dreams, and dreamlets|
|Feel||Any tactile experience|
|Fixate, active||Using deliberate intention/attention to keep a particular experience stable and lasting|
|Fixate, passive||Observing that something has spontaneously become relatively fixed and lasting|
|Flow||Any and all kinds of experiences, such as seeing, hearing, feeling, changing and morphing one into another|
|Go deeper||A somewhat vague category of using intention/attention to make an experience more profound, such as an increase in its clarity or emotional tone|
|Gone||Realizing with instants of it happening that some experience has had a major change in quality||Not just relatively continuous flow|
|Hear||Any auditory experience|
|Intend/Attend or Attend/Intend||Recognizes that attending to something is often a way of intending it to be fixed or changed in a desired direction, and intending those things for something always involves some degree of deliberate control of attention. Intention/attention is always some mixture, even if mainly more one than another||Use when it’s not obvious that what’s happening is more attention or intention|
|Judging||Judging, evaluating other people, or any pair or set of experiences|
|Narrowing||Intentionally narrowing field of attention/intention||Not just flow to tighter field|
|No satisfaction, Dukkha||The general feeling that some particular experience is in some way or other unsatisfactory, incomplete, hasn’t reached a useful or acceptable conclusion||Dukkha|
|Opening||Intentionally opening to, accepting some fact of experience more than normally||Not just flow to wider field|
|Please||A yearning that something come about with the help of “something” or “some processes” or “beings” that is different from the meditator’s conscious mind. Poorly defined prayer, hoping “something” or “someone” will help||Bringing in god and goddesses…|
|Pull||Attachment, desire for something to become stronger or better or last|
|Push||Attachment, desire for something to become weaker, go away, or to end|
|Pray||Conscious, deliberate prayer to something other than your own mind for help|
|Question||Wondering, questioning what you are doing in this moment|
|Relax||Both mentally and physically and emotionally|
|Relax into Flow||Discovering there was an effort, intention, intention/attention, to control experience and then relaxing, letting go so that experience flows as “it wants to.”|
|All-Rest||Rest in all modalities|
|See||Any visual experience|
|Self-monitor||Process monitoring, how you are doing with the practice at this moment|
|Sinking||Getting drowsier, duller, sleepier||This is recognizing the general loss of clarity and energy that comes with sleepiness, rather than more specific phenomena like visual imagery or dreamlets or blur|
|Spread||Intentionally widening the incoming experience channel, attending/intending to more|
|Startle||Being surprised by some experience and having a kind of physical “jump” in one’s body.|
|Stretch||Physically stretch, deliberately|
|Suppress||Conscious awareness that you are suppressing something|
|Talk||Internally talking to yourself, the sequence of words that could be repeated out loud so others could understand what happened. [Maybe distinguish active and passive talk?]||The most precisely describable aspect of internal experience.|
|Tightening||Feeling of tenseness, muscular action, stiffening|
|Wait||Feeling that one is waiting for something to occur|
|Wake up more||Increasing clarity, sharpness, energy|
|Widened field||More different kinds of experience being experienced or more sharpness and clarity within the kinds of things being experienced||Could occur passively as well as from intention|
End of rough draft as of 3-3-15
Tags: attention, awareness, belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, dreams, emotions, enlightenment, God, Gurdjieff, gurus, intention, karma, Living the Mindful Life, materialism, meditation, mindfulness, ordinary mind, pain, peace, perception, Shinzen Young, Sogyal Rinpoche, spiritual teachers, suffering, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, unusual experiences, vipassana
People send me a lot of books and articles they would like me to read. I choose to believe they are honoring me, thinking I am influential or important and it would be good for me to know some things.
Or I suppose they might think I have really taken a wrong turn in my thinking and need a course correction, but let’s not go there…. ;-)
As interesting looking as most of these books are, I seldom have time to more than glance at them, even when I think they are about something I’d really like to know more about. That’s sad, but that’s reality…
Yesterday an envelope containing a little book came in the mail – and the instant I opened it, I was sold! “This looks good, I’ve got to get into this.” Here’s what I saw:
Being a grandfather myself, the author, Reverend Karen Herrick, had plucked my heart strings.
What do you tell a little kid about death? And what do you tell the little kid still inside all of us about death, especially as we personally approach our own death?
I can do my scientist number and objectively discuss the evidence, probabilities for and against some kind of soul surviving, etc., but that’s useless for really little kids and only a little useful for dying friends. I’ve had too many friends die in the last few years. Most of them know I’ve studied that kind of evidence and some talk about how it gives hope for some kind of survival is OK, even encouraging, but what I’ve found most people want is encouragement to face death and hope for a good outcome, not an attempt at “objectivity” about it. So I’m not at all sure, e.g., about the way Tibetan Buddhists have mapped out the dying and after death processes, or how accurate communications from Western mediums about the after death states are, but for my dying friends who are into that kind of thing I’ll draw on them as useful road maps and try to help them prepare to use them.
Little kids, though? I’m lucky to not have experienced that directly, but even reading about it really touches me. Reverend Herrick has a Western spiritualist approach, but not that far off from what my scientific self thinks is a useful way to think about things, and what she’s written in Grandma, What Is A Soul? is touching, helpful, and can reach young kids..
As an example, her grandson wonders about the soul having something to do with the unconscious. Grandma replies
“When your brother was nine years old, he told me that he had read about the unconscious in his Calvin and Hobbes book. He said it’s scary down there; you need a flashlight to see, and all this old stuff is piled up. People don’t like going down there.”
The second section of her book is for grown-ups, giving a brief overview of spiritualist writings on the subject of survival and some suggestions for further reading. As to the evidence for postmortem survival and a reincarnation, I can also, blushing slightly at not being more modest, recommend the relevant chapters in my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book.
All in all, delightful and helpful!
Among the too few scientifically trained and inclined people doing parapsychological research, there is some ongoing tension between the folks (a) who, on the one hand, have advanced training in the material sciences, physics, e.g., and who aim for what we might call “pure” science by the standards of the successful material sciences, and (b) those of us who see paranormal phenomena not only as a stimulating challenge for expanding physics, but as important aspects of our human nature, including whatever our spiritual nature might be. Some of you might be interested in this bit of an exchange I had with a colleague recently.
My colleague noted that he suspected a common quality in my and a few other parapsychologists, affecting our understanding and action, was “spirituality” or “religion.” To my mind, he had often characterized “spirituality” or “religion “ as largely, if not totally, nonsensical in earlier discussions. This association was undesirable from his pure science point of view, as I and these others were well known to the public, giving what he considered an unscientific picture of parapsychology.
I replied to him that I was honored that he would include me as one of the “most influential people” in our field, but while he was not totally direct about it, I worried that he had mistakenly characterized my overall approach.
First, a basic: To the best of my knowledge, psi — telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis, to mention just the basics — is not merely a weak, evanescent anomaly in laboratories, it also happens in ordinary human life, is sometimes very strong, and has powerful effects on what people believe is the nature of reality and consequently how they act. As a transpersonal psychologist, people’s beliefs and their effects on behavior are very interesting and important. As a parapsychologist (what I see as a specialty interest within the wider field of transpersonal psychology) I want to learn as much about psi in a scientifically useful and valid a way as is possible.
Secondly, I’m not “religious.” “Religious” is usually a negative word in our discussions, indicating a fixed belief about the “supernatural” that often flies in the face of both common sense and the current accumulated body of scientific findings. While raised in a conventional religion, I long ago left those beliefs behind, to my conscious knowledge. (And I’ve spent a lot of time studying my own psychology looking for less conscious biases).
I am “spiritually” inclined. Not that I’ve had any great spiritual experiences, but I’ve studied them in others, I know their value for people. I think of spiritual experiences as the “data,” and “religion” as the theories created to explain them (and give certain people more social power, etc., all that negative stuff). Some “spiritual experiences” are undoubtedly explicable in ordinary terms, some are expressions of psychopathology, but some are probably insights into something “real,” and so should be studied to discriminate and refine what knowledge might be available.
Some “spiritual experiences” sound like they involve psi, and the demonstration of psi effects in the lab, even in weak form, gives a reason to consider that some spiritual experiences are indeed about reality, not just subjective. That’s what my last book, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, was about.
I’m proud of my openness to studying spiritual experiences, although, like my interests and work in parapsychology, it’s hindered my career in terms of ordinary social rewards due to materialistic prejudices in the academic and scientific social worlds.
I have observed with interest a strategy, I don’t know how conscious it is, among colleagues in parapsychology to try to get more acceptance of psi from the scientific Establishment by talking/thinking about psi as nothing but a minor anomaly of only intellectual interest, certainly not as something of spiritual or religious significance. I’m sure there are short-term gains from this approach, but it can distort long-term understanding. And I don’t think it fools Establishment people who have emotional problems with religion and spirituality, they know parapsychological results are threatening to them, even if the knowledge is unconscious.
I’m happy to theorize/speculate about spiritual implications of psi — and I carefully distinguish these from more basic data findings. I wish more of us would do so…
Illustration: John-Forrest Bamberger, Greetings World
Tags: belief, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, emotions, enlightenment, John-Forrest Bamberger, materialism, meditation, mind science, Parapsychology, precognition, religion, spirituality, Transpersonal
A Note on Illustrations
I’m not much of a visual person, ideas and words are my thing, but I’ve recently discovered the dozens of beautiful and striking images created by my brother-in-law, John-Forrest Bamberger. I plan to start putting them in to my blog posts, perhaps even going back and adding them to earlier posts, so I can share them – and in recognition of the psychological power images have to arouse our attention. If you want to look at his images en masse, the Flickr Photostream URL is https://www.flickr.com/photos/john-forrest/with/2706624819/ .
… John of the Forrest, as a poet friend called him, passed away peacefully on Monday, January 5th at 2 pm, EST. Various books of his can be found on Amazon.com …
Buddhism and Science: Knowledge Acquisition, Refinement, and Application (KARAS)
A few days after posting this, it occurred to me that the discussion might seem rather abstract to most readers, who cares about this comparison of Buddhism and science anyway? Is there a practical dimension to all this?
Yes, there is a very practical dimension which I should mention here at the beginning.
Like all human beings, I am strongly interested in increasing my satisfaction with life and decreasing my suffering. I think that one important component of decreasing my suffering and increasing my satisfaction is having a better and better understanding of the way reality works, so I can live in a more and more effective manner. One way to look at Buddhism then, indeed a primary way for many Buddhists, is that it’s a conceptual system and set of practices intended to reduce human suffering.
So how effective has it been? Well, since it’s still around after 2500 years, I would say it’s worked very well for at least some people and at least fairly well for a large number of people. But is it perfect?
Two of our outstanding human qualities are that we like things to “make sense,” and we like to be effective, to have our ideas work when we apply them to life. A major human problem, though, is we are extremely good at rationalizing, at creating patterns of thoughts that make sense out of things, but which later scientific advances might show our not really the way things are. The early chemical theory of phlogiston seemed to make a lot of sense out of combustion for a long time, but nobody takes it seriously nowadays. It’s just rationalizing, retrospective fitting of ideas to what we’ve seen so far, but a set of ideas that doesn’t accurately reflect the undermining underlying laws of reality. That’s why, when you come up with a scientific theory, you feel wonderful that it makes sense out of things, but, if you doing science properly, you have to realize that any theory needs testing in new areas, which may lead to the need for revision or perhaps a whole new theory.
So how about Buddhism? Is it the ultimately correct knowledge about the nature of the human mind and human experience, the best possible way to reduce suffering and increase happiness? Or, a possibility to be taken seriously, is it a quite good one that has worked very well for many people for a long time, but it’s still just a partial view of reality and better understandings and practices are possible?
Science has developed what we might think of as “error correction techniques,” ways of keeping us making progress instead of becoming overly attached to theories and practices which are only partially correct. My main purpose in comparing Buddhism and science is to eventually see how these error correcting techniques might be applied to Buddhism, so we can come up with even more effective ways to understand human experience and reduce suffering. That’s what the following discussion is a beginning of.
I’m a proponent of Progress, and believe that an important part of progress comes from accurate knowledge of reality, reality including both the reality of the “outside” world and our own mind and nature. Here I want to share some brief thoughts about how we make progress, thoughts about Knowledge (K), its Acquisition (A), its Refinement (R), and its Application (A) Systems, especially in comparing what I know about Buddhism and science.
I’ll outline eight aspects of these KARASs in the following table. The convention I’ve used is a bold checkmark indicates something is quite important in that KARAS, the smaller ± indicates you can find that something, but it’s not usually central or important.
Because of my research in parapsychology, a field that has been prejudicially and viciously attacked for more than a century as being “unscientific” because it dares look at things that are not supposed to be there, I’ve gotten very sensitive to scientific methodology and how we go about acquiring and refining knowledge. I believe my understanding of what basic, essential science is all about is widely accepted among scientists, also, because while many scientists couldn’t believe that I proposed we could learn to do science in altered states of consciousness (ASCs) in my 1972 article (States of consciousness and state-specific sciences. Science, 176, 1203-1210), no scientist reader has ever criticized my basic characterization of scientific method. In this table, I’m doing a rough comparison of Buddhism (the selected versions I’ve been exposed to, undoubtedly contradicted by the practices some [many?] particular versions of Buddhism) and Western science.
The area inside the oval is methods of acquiring/discovering and refining knowledge that are common to both Buddhism and science. Both Buddhist and scientists, e.g., have our natural human, unaided sensory inputs and processing circuits, the latter probably built into the hardware of the brain, to transform certain kinds of input into certain kinds of experience, what I’ve called biological-psychological virtual reality (BPVR) constructs. I look to my right, for example, and immediately see a bookshelf, and the particulars of this automatized perception are due to my human bio-hardware and cultural conditioning. So we all look around and have a “common sense” view of the world. We can all also reason, in the sense that there’s some kind of basic logic, probably hard-wired in our brains, plus cultural training to be “logical” by cultural standards also.
Now we get into the interesting differences between Buddhism and science. Again, I put a big check mark in a table cell to show that something is very important in a KARAS discipline, and a small ± to show that you can find some instances of that in the other discipline, but it’s not at all central.
Buddhism strives to change the functioning of ordinary consciousness (“purify” it) and/or get into one or more altered states of consciousness. Two of the principal tools for doing this are greatly enhanced concentration abilities via particular kinds of meditation practice and enhanced insight abilities via other particular kinds of meditation practice. All three of these things (ASCs, concentration, insight) are not central to ordinary Western science. In all my years of graduate school, e.g., no faculty teacher even mentioned, much less taught, how to concentrate better, how to have enhanced insight, or how to get into altered states, and there was only a certain grudging admission that some advances in science have been made by “creative” people who might have been in an ASC, like a dream, when they got a basic idea. But then, of course, after inspiration the real scientific conceptual work was done in ordinary consciousness.
Buddhism, as I’ve encountered it, is also very big on Authorities. In spite of the Buddha’s Sutta to the Kalamas (see below), which I greatly admire as paralleling essential science, I get the impression that reasoning in Buddhist practice is primarily to get you to agree with what the Buddha and various Buddhist authorities of the past said. That is, whatever you experience in meditation or ASCs is shaped and selected both at the time and retrospectively by what the Authorities have said about it.
You could raise an interesting question as to what degree various kinds of “enlightenment” are specific states that are a natural part of being human, independent of particular cultural beliefs, and to what degree they are constructed as they are by the influence of past Authorities. In science, as I’ve heard Shinzen Young point out so aptly in one of his talks, if a first-year graduate student attending a seminar gets up and points out a mistake in the reasoning or data interpretation of world-famous Professor so-and-so, and she is correct, Professor so-and-so has to change his ideas. I’m not sure I can recall an instance of an official Buddhist teacher I’ve heard or read ever talking about how, as great as he was, the Buddha was wrong about certain things.
Another major difference from Buddhism is that in science, the worldview is primarily influenced by instrumentally enhanced sensory perception, Measuring devices give us detailed knowledge of the physical world that simply is not available to the unaided senses. I wouldn’t completely rule out some kind of clairvoyant perception of the normally invisible being possible, but I wouldn’t expect bacteria, for example, to be discovered by anyone who had greatly developed their meditative skills alone. The human eye simply won’t resolve anything that’s so small, and I doubt there is a priori knowledge of the existence of bacteria genetically passed it on to the human brain.
One other major difference I’m thinking about, well, two actually. One is the big or long-term worldview. Buddhism, as it’s been presented to me, either is not interested in ideas about where reality came from and where it’s going (we are suffering now and need to do something about it now, not worry about why we are suffering or where the future is going), or it specifically sees our times as becoming more and more degenerate, more and more beings (Oops! I almost said selves…) becoming more and more deeply lost in samsara. Most scientists, though, think that we are going to continue learning more and more about the nature of physical reality, and, since most are materialists, as we learn more more about physical reality, we will understand more and more about the mind. We expect there’ll be progress.
There is a second thing that I haven’t figured out how to represent in the table yet. If your primary data gathering methods are enhanced concentration, enhanced insight, applied in ASCs, it certainly tends to make you think that what you can experience is reality. Thus if you can’t find any “self” looking inside with your altered abilities, you are tempted to conclude that there is no such thing as a real and permanent “self.” I find that a huge conceptual leap.
I would not argue that there are no bacteria because no meditators have ever found them: their “data-gathering equipment,” unaided senses, is inadequate to discover bacteria. Just because I can’t find a “self” when I’ve looked inside, I don’t know whether that means such a “self” doesn’t exist or that I simply can’t find it. Intellectually, at least, I am agnostic about the ultimate nature of the “self,” while certainly acknowledging that its presentation can change drastically and that too much attachment to it can create a lot of otherwise unnecessary suffering.
Of course as I hinted at in a previous posting, this ability to not find a “self,” to deconstruct it, as it were, is an extremely valuable tool for reducing suffering, but just because I suffer less may or may not tell me more about what reality really is. I guess I’m a realist terms of philosophy, at least most of the time, I assume there’s universe out there that existed before me and will exist after me, no matter what I think or don’t think about it. And I acknowledge that my usual (and unusual) perception of and thinking about such a universe is enormously influenced by my psychology, and if I want to understand that external reality I have to find ways of studying it that are not inherently biased by my internal nature.
As human beings, we love success. Give us a new gadget that does a lot of things (my Swiss Army knife immediately springs to mind, and I always carry it with me!), or an explanatory system that usefully organizes observation and experience and allows us to have increased control over some things, and we’re very pleased. We then, however, tend to get overly attached to that which has been successful, and to start applying it everywhere. Buddhism has been successful for many people in making a kind of sense of the world to them and, in a practical way, reducing or eliminating most of their personal suffering. Thus it’s psychologically pretty easy to use the experiential knowledge of the mind gathered through Buddhist practice and doctrine to explain everything, but, where do bacteria and radio waves fit it?
The sciences, applied intensively to the external world, have discovered bacteria and allowed us to generate and use radio waves, so it’s very tempting to think everything will eventually be explained in those kind of terms, but the basic nature of the mind tends to be ignored, with the belief that someday they will explain it in physical terms related to brain functioning, rather than understanding it the way Buddhists or practitioners of other spiritual disciplines might.
I think these two knowledge acquisition and refinement systems can contribute a great deal to each other, but we have to start from recognizing their limitations. If, using the example above, I have been unable to find any kind of a real and permanent “self” through my meditative practices, and people much more skilled at Buddhist meditation report the same thing, it makes perfect sense to say that using this tool of meditative practice, influenced a priori to unknown degrees by a Buddhist cosmology, leads to a “reasonable” conclusion that there is no real and permanent self. But what light other tools, other knowledge acquisition and refinement systems might cast on a question like this, is still open.
TO BE WORKED OUT: Application of above to personal spiritual growth…
Gautama Buddha’s Sutta to the Kalamas
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.
(from Gates, 1989).
Tags: altered states of consciousness, attention, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, enlightenment, Kalamas, KARAS, meditation, mind science, perception, reality, science, self, sensation, Shinzen Young, suffering, Sutta, world view
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…
Tags: attention, awareness, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, emotions, enlightenment, intention, meditation, mindfulness, ordinary mind, Parapsychology, self, Shinzen Young, spiritual teachers, suffering, Transpersonal, vipassana, waking up
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.
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.
Tags: altered states of consciousness, ASCs, attention, awareness, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, dreams, drug-induced states, emotions, enlightenment, gestalt, hypnosis, induction of altered states, intention, intentionality, interdependence, karma, meditation, mindfulness, nature of mind, ordinary mind, perception, pranayama, relaxing intention, relaxing intentionality, rigpa, sleep, systems theory, systems theory approach to consciousness, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, waking up, will, will power
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.
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.
Tags: attention, awareness, belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, clarity, concentration, Dzogchen, emotions, enlightenment, equanimity, Erik Pema Kunsang, Gurdjieff, gurus, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, intention, ITP, Living the Mindful Life, Living the MKindful Life, marigpa, meditation, mind science, mindfulness, non-meditation, ordinary mind, perception, rigpa, Rigpa Fellowship, science, Shinzen Young, Sogyal Rinpoche, spiritual teachers, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, tsoknyi rinpoche, vajrayana, vipassana, waking up
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….
Tags: attention, awareness, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, chi, dreams, Dualism, emotions, enlightenment, Gurdjieff, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, intention, ITP, ki, Living the Mindful Life, lucid dreams, meditation, mindfulness, nowness, ordinary mind, perception, presence, psychic energy, reality, self-remembering, seventh consciousness, sixth consciousness, Sogyal Rinpoche, spaciousness, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, tsoknyi rinpoche, vipassana, waking up