Dr. Charles T. Tart on December 25th, 2014

Religious Parapsychologists?

John Forrest Bamberger-Greetings World

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



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Dr. Charles T. Tart on December 25th, 2014

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 …




Tales of Ah-So


John-Forrest Bamberger "I Am All I See"

John-Forrest Bamberger “I Am All I See”




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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.

science and Buddhism table

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).




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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…

John-Forest Bamberger

John-Forest Bamberger





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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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