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

© 2014 Charles T. Tart

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dr. Charles T. Tart on March 18th, 2014


One of my most wise and productive colleagues in Transpersonal Psychology, Roger Walsh, has just published a book, The World’s Great Wisdom: Timeless Teachings from Religions and Philosophies.  His work helped crystalized some beginning ideas I’ve had about wisdom that I share here.

I’m going to keep Walsh’s wisdom book at my place at the table where I can browse in it easily.  Wisdom is something that is always puzzled me, and I think I need to take little potshots at understanding it occasionally to try to really figure it out.  The puzzles gotten even greater these last years, as people have told me I’m wise, and I get confused, I don’t really know what they’re talking about.

I guess my most naïve and long-standing idea about wisdom is that it has something to do with complete and relevant and infallible knowledge.  If I were wise, I would understand the problem perfectly, I would never feel ignorant or inadequate.  And it wouldn’t hurt if my reaction to my incredible brilliance got me elated every time!

Somehow I don’t think that’s the way the world is.…  And I guess this is a common confusion of knowledge with wisdom.

But you are stimulating me to reflect a bit on what it might mean that I was wiser.  Since my main research project in this life is figuring out how my mind works, I should have some relevant observations!

So one component is age and experience.  A lot of the problems people talk about and get very excited about strike me as things I’ve been through, or friends of mine have been through, and I know that they’ve worked out, they are probably nowhere near as serious as people think they are, and there are a lot of solutions.  So even if I don’t have any specific knowledge as to what to do, I have a certain general confidence that there are solutions.

A second component is my gradual development of some equanimity, both through deliberate meditative practice but probably primarily through life experience.  When I teach my students about altered states of consciousness, for example, I often point out that any strong emotion is probably an altered state, or can at least be profitably understood that way, and one of the characteristics of such emotional states is that the emotion almost always lies.  It says, in perfectly clear terms, “This feeling is The Truth Forever!”  A lot of the time it’s useful for emotion to come with such strength, it may be alerting you to a potentially dangerous situation where you need to react quickly, not be relaxed and decide to deal with it later.  Better to be frightened by that funny movement in the bushes and run away and then discover there was nothing there, you were a fool, than to stay there and possibly be eaten by an animal that was stalking you!  For most of us, fortunately, life is not that dangerous most of the time.  If you have a little equanimity in the first place that you don’t get so excited to begin with, and/or you at least remember intellectually that this Eternal Truth feeling is almost certainly a lie, that keeps your framework for looking at the situation wide, instead of very narrow down to the particular emotion.

This does not mean, of course, that you absorb yourself in some unrealistic belief system that says all is well and there is no danger, such that you don’t pay attention to what is happening!  My experience has been that if one is more “present” or “awake” in the Gurdjieffian sense, in the midst of life, your sensitivity to environmental clues is, if anything increased, but you are more equanamous and less likely to be thrown off balance.

A third component is having a life philosophy, a belief system, a frame of reference, that sees the universe as basically been benign, so that even if something seems negative at the moment it will probably work out all right in the long run.  Insofar as this belief is just intellectual, as it is for me at times, some nasty events are quite shocking and make me question my whole philosophy of life.  But insofar as this view of reality has penetrated somewhat deeper, I do stay calm about the problem or situation presented.  Again there’s a question of balance here, you need to stay realistic.

A fourth component I might call goodwill.  Although I’m an introvert, and definitely have preferences to read a book by myself or write or something like, that rather than listening to people’s problems, when I am in a situation where someone has asked me for help I’m basically friendly toward them and would really like to be of some help.  Just being friendly is probably helpful to people, and that might be perceived as being wise.  Now I’m still often frustrated because in spite of all the above components, I still would really like to have the knowledge about The Solution, and I don’t have it!  But probably these four above components combine so that even though I can’t tell the person The Best Solution, the fact that I’m open, relaxed and friendly helps them be more open and confident and see their problem on a wider scale than the dominant emotion tries to narrow it to.

Anyway, I’m grateful this book is stimulating me to think about wisdom some more, I assume that if I understood whatever this wisdom stuff is I might be able to manifest it better.  Some of my dips into The World’s Great Wisdom will probably be quite helpful!



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dr. Charles T. Tart on March 15th, 2014


Some friends and I have been listening to some teachings by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche and thinking about what the idea of “reality” means.  Some reflections I’ve had on this – just a beginning, really – may be interesting to some….

I’m sure our basic, commonsense idea of reality comes from what we perceive with our bodily senses.  There are a lot of things out there, like rocks and trees, that are relatively persistent and don’t seem to give a damn about what we think or believe about them.  Some prominent English philosopher, whose name was long ago forgotten by me, criticizing an idealistic school of philosophy that said that everything was in the mind, said something like if you doubt the reality of a rock, take off your shoes and kick it hard!  My understanding is that various Buddhisms (a Buddhist scholar I know says there’s so much variation from one school of Buddhism to another that it’s really very difficult to talk about Buddhism as if it were a single set of ideas) refer to this ordinary reality, both our immediate sensations of it and our concepts about it, as “relative reality.”  That makes sense to me.  Given our human nature, having a certain kind of body, senses, and nervous system, and assuming there is an external world around us, our nature strongly, if not almost completely, determines how we experience that external world.

The idea of a real external world, existing independently of my beliefs about it, even if my perception of it is relative to my nature, is very deeply a part of my nature, so it’s hard not to think that it’s real.  I’ve gradually come to understand, though, that various Buddhisms have the idea that nothing is real unless it’s (a) unaffected by anything around it and (b) lasts eternally.  That’s an incredible idea!  Certainly relative reality doesn’t make it.  I automatically think the computer I’m writing this on is “real,” e.g., but it’s dependent on a supply of electricity and the correct functioning of its many parts.  Change any one of those and it’s no longer a computer in the sense of being able to do anything.  Even if we don’t deliberately unplug it or destroy one of its parts, in the course of time things will wear out and so it’s certainly not eternal.

I’m not saying it’s useless or false to have this category of thinking, just that it’s way out there for me, and my automatic ideas of what is “real” conflict with some Buddhist teachings, leading to a lot of confusion on my part.

Then there is the category of “absolute reality.”  I can say the words that this must be some very deep aspect of mind, much deeper than ordinary, samsaric (deluded) mind, maybe what’s called “Buddha mind,” but while I can say the words I don’t really have any good understanding of what I mean when I say them.  I can reason that some most basic kind of consciousness must exist in order to perceive anything else, even in a relative way, but I’m not sure I know what that means.  Maybe when you get “enlightened,” whatever that means, this all makes perfect sense, and meanwhile we live in relative reality with certain inherent confusions.

I find it interesting to compare what modern science has done with what I think the Buddha did.  Science started with sensory, ordinary observation of the world around us, looked for regularities and causes in what was seen, and came up with some (initially very rough) theories of what reality was.  One of these theories, for example, was the geocentric theory of the universe.  If you looked at the heavens with your naked eye, it was obvious everything went around your point of view in a 24-hour cycle, so the earth was the center of the universe.  I’m told that this geocentric view of the universe, even though we now consider it false and have replaced by something much better, is quite good enough for practical matters like navigating to any particular part of the world.

Science then took another step beyond ordinary sensory observation.  It tried to get clearer, more detailed observations of what went on in the external world.  This included things like the invention of telescopes and microscopes, ways of seeing the very distant and the very small which were impossible for our unaided senses.  Essential scientific method consists of observing what you’re interested in as carefully as possible, coming up with a logical framework that explains what you have seen, a theory,  and, insofar as it’s a valid insight into the way things really are, makes predictions as to what you can see if you observe in other ways.  Scientists then go out and test those predictions and either elaborate the basic theory or find it wanting and replace it with something else.  So you might say, for example, that we don’t really know that the earth goes around the sun, but that conceptual system fits the actual observations we can make far, far better than the idea that the sun goes around the earth.

Several hundred years of this kind of essential scientific process has led to a very different view of what is real.  I look at this computer monitor in front of me, for example, and think that it’s solid, but the best scientific understanding tells me it is almost entirely empty space with super microscopic energetic events (what we used to call particles) taking place within it.  To some degree, unaided sensory observation is about what Buddhisms call “relative reality,” while scientific progress is moving in the direction of a more “absolute reality.”  Note that I’m drawing a parallel here, but not saying that modern science is finding the same absolute reality as Gautama Buddha found.

My limited understanding of Buddhist history is that Gautama Buddha was trained in the highest levels of accomplishment in the yoga of his time, and while he learned to enter into various altered states of consciousness that way, jhanas, states in which there was no suffering, when he came back out of those altered states (you eventually have to pee and eat something), ordinary suffering returned.  The Buddha’s huge breakthrough was to not stay just with the concentrative meditation he had learned from yoga, but to learn to use that kind of concentration to have insights into the way his and everybody else’s minds functioned, and so discover more basic causes of suffering and the path that led to the cessation of suffering.  The parallel to essential science is that the Buddha developed a more systematic and powerful way of observing the internal phenomena of consciousness (while Western science focused on the external physical world), and observe things that could then be applied to reduce or eliminate ordinary human suffering.  We owe Gautama Buddha a great debt for this gift to humanity!

I’m not a very good meditator, so I can’t claim to have a very clear idea of what enlightenment would be like based on my own experience.  But I could say that one of the most valued outcomes of my meditation practice has been time after time where I’ve suddenly had an insight into my samsaric biases.  I think I’m doing Vipassana, I’ve sat down with the intention of observing the flow of my experience with concentration, clarity, and equanimity, but time after time I see that I’m actually subtly pushing and pulling on my experience to make it what I think is “good” and avoid it being “bad.”  I could certainly see this as my attachments in relative reality getting in the way of approaching absolute reality.  That’s not to say that I think “relative reality” is inherently “bad,” this world is where we live and I’m all for living effectively and with wisdom and compassion, but I don’t need any more confusion.


[Much more thinking is called for!]


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dr. Charles T. Tart on February 28th, 2014

Spiritual Beings or Hallucinations?

Some more ongoing thinking….

Here’s something I just posted to another list which I think has a lot of relevance to our discussions.  On a listserv I’m on of “spiritual leaders” (I think I’m their token scientist, as I’m certainly not a “spiritual leader”), I asked, to start a discussion,

How much alike would different gods have to be, in the absence of cultural contact, before one might start concluding that
A – they are alike because the physical brain is constructed in such a way that this sort of hallucination is probable?
B – they are alike because the “gods” really do exist independently of human belief in some way, so if the mind explores enough it can find them?  With what’s found subject to some distortion from culture, of course….


I’ll use the term “spiritual beings” now rather than “gods” in an attempt to be less potentially offensive to anyone.

Another way to phrase this question is that there are (at least) two views about spiritual beings.

Spiritual beings don’t exist: One is that they don’t exist, and any experiences of contact with them or attributing real world effects to them is both a cognitive mistake and an illusion or hallucination on the part of human beings.

Spiritual beings may exist: The second is that some spiritual beings may indeed exist in some way not understandable in terms of current materialistic science, possibly never understandably in terms of materialistic science, independently of our beliefs about them, and we may potentially have contact with them and/or they may sometimes affect things in the ordinary material world.

The spiritual beings don’t exist view has to make an implicit or explicit assumption in order to account for reports of human contact with such beings, namely that our brains are powerful biocomputers with an enormous range of programming possibilities.  In addition to the brain’s primary task of making sense out of the materially real data from our senses, our biocomputer brains can create real seemingly experiences in the absence of sensory input (as in vivid dreams, for example), and the range of the illusory and hallucinatory experiences that our brains can create is extremely wide, it can arbitrarily create any reported human religious experience.  Meetings with angels, mystical experiences, union with God or the Cosmos, you name it, the human biocomputer can create an extremely real simulation of it.

My basic question could be rephrased then as can all spiritual experiences be fully accounted for by the range of simulation possible for the human biocomputer, or are some spiritual experiences of such a nature that we can’t see the human biocomputer as capable of simulating them?

Hypnosis as Controller of Experience:

Aside from other researchers’ findings, I spent the first couple of decades of my research career heavily involved in research on the nature of hypnosis.,  So I saw dramatic demonstrations of the degree to which the human biocomputer could create extremely real simulations that had nothing to do with ordinary reality.  About 10 to 20% of the general population have the talent to reach very deep levels of hypnosis, and at these levels the hypnotist’s suggestions could almost totally control sensory perception, cognition, and emotion.

For example, one of these talented subjects (I worked with college students, of course, being a professor) could come to my laboratory and after 10 min. or so of inducing hypnosis I could have their body making automatic movements that they would swear had nothing to do with their own intention, not feeling or responding to extremely painful stimuli such as electric shocks, hearing the voices of and engaging in conversations with people who weren’t there, not perceiving physical objects that were really in front of them, having vivid and realistic dreams, finding themselves located elsewhere than where their physical bodies were in the laboratory, and arbitrarily having positive or negative emotions associated with almost anything.  (Manipulating emotions was obviously limited to keeping them mild, of course, for ethical reasons.)  I could also successfully suggest that they would forget everything that happened during the hypnosis session until I gave them a cue to remember, and/or I could create selective memories for some of the things that happened, and/or I could create false memories of things having happened that actually did not happen during the session.

This was all done within a university and scientific setting, of course, which meant that there were implicit limits on what was expected and allowed.  I didn’t need to tell subjects that I would not suggest that they would do anything unethical, that if they had unusual experiences these were scientifically interesting, but not personally important to them, and that at the end of the session they would wake up the same person they were at the beginning of the session, that is, that there would be no long-term changes.  This made hypnosis experiments safe.

While I got used to inducing hypnosis and doing these experiments, I was always quite aware that I was in a position of great psychological power during them, and so was very careful about my behavior.  There had been great controversy in the hypnosis research literature for many years about whether a hypnotized person would do unethical or frightening things, but I had no desire to test the belief that they would not.

Now the spirits are not real school would take my observations and those of other hypnosis researchers and many other psychological observations to prove their point: the human brain can be programmed, by hypnosis in this case, to experience almost anything, and this could, in principle, include contact with spiritual beings.  Thus no need to give any reality to spiritual beings.

In proper science, the cognitive appeal or plausibility of theories per se is not considered sufficient evidence that they are actually valid.  You have to test your theories.  I have never been tempted to try inducing fake spiritual experiences in hypnotized subjects to test this possibility because this is so personally morally repugnant to me.  But the argument that it could be done does indeed seem very plausible given all I know about psychology.

So ignoring ethical constraints for the moment, in principle I could pick some highly hypnotizable subjects, set up a psychological climate in which, for valid scientific reasons, it was important to test some ideas about unusual experiences, including some that some people might consider “spiritual,” and get the subjects to agree to participate in such experiments.  Since many people believe that science is responsible for progress in increasing the quality of human life, I would expect lots of people to volunteer.

I would then induce a deep as possible hypnotic state in the subject, and create a variety of mildly unusual experiences just to get the subject used to the idea of unusual experiences.  Then I might go from, for example, having the subject visually see an old friend (who wasn’t actually there) and engage in a conversation with them, then perhaps have them visually see another old friend who was deceased, then with some subtle suggestions of “angelic” characteristics with that friend, and so on, working my way up to hallucinatory encounters with charismatic spiritual figures.  I would add in suggestions that while we were idealistically simply exploring scientific issues to begin with, we could only conclude that we had actually been contacted by these spiritual beings, and, perhaps, that we were now morally and spiritually obligated to continue contact with these spiritual beings whose mission was to give important spiritual teachings to us poor, benighted souls.

Carry this on for a while with a variety of subjects, and pretty soon I would have my cult.    ;-(    ;-(

The whole idea is frightening and disgusting to me.  What makes it especially frightening is that if I really had no ethical constraints and wanted to gain power by becoming a cult leader (or, worse, wasn’t consciously wicked like that but was deluded that it was my destiny to “enlightened” the world that way), I would never use the word hypnosis.  I would go around giving classes on “meditation,” with lots of “guided meditations,” picking “advanced students” from those who responded well to my hypnotic manipulations that were disguised as guided meditations.

Sometimes I worry about how much this is already happening in the world.

Again ignoring ethical considerations, I would hope that if such experiments as these were carried out, the outcome would be on the order of finding that unusual and temporarily emotionally powerful fake spiritual experiences could be created, but that the finer-grain qualities of these experiences differed significantly from what we considered genuine spiritual experiences.  This would provide evidence in favor of the idea that there really are independently existing spiritual beings, and the qualities of their contacts with human beings are importantly different from our attempts to simulate them.

This is my deeply held preference, of course, that there really are some benevolent and independently existing spiritual beings.  While not denying my bias, I also, in the practice of science, would like to come closer to actual truth, not just artifactually strengthen my own biases.  That’s a major issue in itself, which I won’t go into here.

So, this is the kind of thing I’m worrying about, and I invite further comment on.

As an authority once said,

Well, that was too damn wordy. I apologize. I wrote a long post because I didn’t have time to write a short one.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dr. Charles T. Tart on February 27th, 2014


I attended a small, working conference recently with the, to me, rather grandiose title of an International Summit on Creating a Post-Materialist Science, Spirituality, and Society.  We were actually quite serious, though, as we all believed that the dominance of Scientism, of a working philosophical theory that materialism is useful having turned into a dogma that it is the total truth about reality, is not only badly incomplete as a science, but psychologically harms many people by denying any spiritual aspects of their being.  We are continuing to work on clarifying what we mean by a post-materialist science, which begins with getting clearer on what materialism is, and I thought I would share some of my initial thoughts on this, both for its general psychological and scientific interest, and to remind readers, as I so often do, that we are enmeshed in a cultural and psychological field that exerts a great deal of control over our lives.  What follows is far from final, but I think you’ll find these initial thoughts interesting.


The definition of material is so built into our bodies, brains and nervous systems that it hardly needs a formal intellectual definition.  It’s more solid, as it were, than the intellectual act of definition.  The solid feel of this keyboard in front of me, the clear sight of this computer screen, the internal sensations from my body, the sounds and smells around me, these are all what I consider material stuff.  My human senses are exquisitely designed to convey information about the material state of the material objects and processes around me (is it big or small, is it moving toward or away for me, etc.) and because this information is so useful to survival per se and to effective living, we naturally want to understand the material even better than we do with our unaided senses.  Thus we invent devices (telescope, microscope, chemical analyses, etc.) and disciplined methods of observation to give us information about material things at finer levels, and often this is useful.

The human race has had enormous success at explaining events in terms of material objects and material energies, and we call explanation in such terms “materialism” in everyday language.  Materialism, with a capital M, is a formal philosophical position that says it is extremely useful to look for explanations in material terms.  This is often extended to implicitly or explicitly say looking for explanations in material terms is the only way to provide the most useful understanding.  Explanation is to reduce all phenomena to the interactions of material objects and forces.

Here we shade into what I like to call Dogmatic Materialism, a habitual (and often emotionally invested in) psychological “hardening of the arteries,” as it were, a view that is so overcommitted to looking for and thinking about only material explanations that any observations which don’t make sense in terms of our already existing material explanations tend to be automatically ignored or dismissed.  This ignoring can be both implicit, a person simply doesn’t think about contradictions, or, if the contradiction is conscious  we can get what philosophers have called Promissory Materialism, a belief that while we cannot explain something now in material terms, someday such terms will adequately explain it.

Note carefully that Promissory Materialism is not a scientific theory, because scientific theories are generally required to be capable of falsification, and there is no way you can falsify the belief that anything will be explained in material terms someday.

I regard Dogmatic Materialism as a cognitive limitation and/or pathology, for instead of employing the full range of our observational and cognitive capacities to investigate something in all possible ways, we ignore or suppress certain kinds of data and thinking.  Data about paranormal events is a primary example of this, far too unpleasantly familiar to many of us who have bothered to investigate them, and is an example of what is also called Scientism, acting and thinking as if the current findings of material science are the ultimate answers, and so anything that seems to contradict them must be in error and we can just ignore such observations without investigating them.

To concretely illustrate this, if I put two people hundreds of miles apart and do not provide any known material means for them to communicate, yet one looks at and thinks about a set of randomly chosen target material and wishes for it to be communicated to the person far away, and statistical analysis of the results shows that there is far more accuracy that can be expected by chance, the committed, Dogmatic Materialist doesn’t bother to read reports of this material in the first place, and/or often tries to suppress publication of such reports in mainstream science journals, and/or if they are forced to read it, comes up with a variety of implausible explanations in materialist terms, even though there’s no evidence for those explanations, and/or charges the experimenter with stupidity (she was fooled by the people involved) of being a deliberate fraud.

This kind of denial can reach the level of the unethical and/or pathological, as in one case where a well-known pseudo-skeptic claimed to explain away some strong results in a telepathy experiment by showing that the receiver could have looked through a transom over the door of his room through the transom of the door over the sender’s room and thus seen the cards, and included a sketch showing how this could be done.  The sketch, as I recall, was based on the critic’s inspection of the floor plan of the building.  Another investigators subsequently looked at the floor plan of the building, though, and showed that the pseudo-skeptic had, in his diagram (labeled in small print “not to scale”), moved the receiver’s room 50 feet down the hallway in order to make this explanation possible (Honorton, C., 1967.  Review of Hansel’s “ESP: A Scientific Evaluation.”  Journal of  Parapsychology, 31, 82).

Given the situation of a common phenomena of human beings, even scientists, namely being overcommitted and overinvested in particular explanatory systems, such as Dogmatic Materialism, “post-materialist science” is, in many ways, a logically unnecessary term – but needed at this time to remind those lost in Dogmatic Materialism that there is more to reality.  All we need is basic, essential science.  Basic or essential science (see Tart, C., 1972. States of consciousness and state-specific sciences.  Science, 176, 1203-1210) is a procedural algorithm that begins with observing as many aspects, hopefully all aspects, of what you’re interested in as accurately as possible.  If you deliberately ignore possible observations that don’t fit theories you are already committed to, because they don’t fit in with materialist explanations, this is Dogmatic Materialism or Scientism.  The second step of essential science, after observing as carefully as possible, is to create logical theories that account for what you have observed.  The third step is to make predictions as to what will be observed when conditions are changed, if you have a good understanding of what’s going on you should be able to make such predictions.  Then these predictions are tested.

This third step is essential, because we human beings are extremely creative at rationalizing as well as rationality, and you can probably create a plausible sounding explanation for any set of events whether it has anything at all to do with the actual processes involved at all.  A good and useful scientific theory makes predictions that can be tested, and, on testing, most or many or perhaps all of these predictions are validated.  In so far as predictions are not correct, the theory needs to be modified or perhaps entirely rejected.  (There’s also a step of full and honest sharing of all these steps with colleagues, but that’s not of immediate concern right here.)

If you have not bothered to observe all aspects of some situation, then whatever theory you create, even if it predicts well, should be considered a specialized sub-theory.  It might be quite useful, but to mistake it as a totally comprehensive understanding is wrong.  The old heliocentric theory that the sun and stars revolve around the Earth, e.g., works quite well for practical navigation, even though we now know it’s quite inadequate to handle all the data we now have.

My basic point here is that there are many events that can be observed in various ways that cannot be fitted into conventional materialistic explanations or reasonable and logical extensions of those explanations, so while materialism is a useful premise to work from, it should be remembered that materialism is a working hypothesis, always subject to test, and that it is indeed a cognitive limitation to let it sink to the level of an automatic limitation of thought and observation that blinds us to the full range of reality.

Especially when such limitations reject our inherent spiritual nature…

End – for now…





Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dr. Charles T. Tart on February 14th, 2014


Here’s a question I’m posing to some of my experimental parapsychologist colleagues.  It might stretch your imagination a little.  If a good answer turns up, I’ll post something on it.

For the last couple of years, my wife and I have been going to classes in Tai Chi Chah, a form of the Chinese art of Tai Chi, adapted to older folks who really aren’t up to balancing on one leg, but would like to get some good stretching.  At various times during the exercises, we hold the palms of our hands facing each other and see if we can feel the subtle energy of chi.  I’ve been able to do that from the beginning.  From the Tai Chi perspective, I’ve learned to detect a subtle, “non-physical” energy.

But when I was very active in hypnosis research some 50 years ago, one of our standard ways of assessing suggestibility and hypnotizability was to have a subject hold their hands in front of them, palms facing each other, and suggest they would feel a force between them.  This is not a difficult suggestion, in that most ordinary people would feel something, and often feel it quite strongly.  By wording the suggestions appropriately, you can make it an attractive force, so the hands move together, or a repulsive force, so the hands move apart, experientially “all by themselves.”

So have I been learning to detect a subtle energy, or just exercising my imagination?

When I trained in the Japanese martial art of Aikido back in the 1970s – ki is central there, Ai (Harmony), Ki (subtle energy), Do (way)-  I knew I could look at this either way, maybe a real subtle energy, maybe imagination, but the distinction didn’t seem important, because clearly the idea of flowing ki (the Japanese word for chi) as part of attacking and defending, clearly provided a unifying mental template for the many different techniques we learned, and seemed to make the techniques work more smoothly and effectively.  When I occasionally taught Aikido to new people, I would talk about chi flows, sensing them, and sometimes correct students whose techniques weren’t working right by saying things to them like “It feels like there’s a gap in your ki flow at your elbow right here.”  It helped.

What I thought about this morning (instead of further developing my ability to concentrate by just sticking with the exercises) was whether we could ever really make discriminations between several possibilities.

(1) Is there really some kind of “subtle energy” called chi or ki, which in arts like Tai Chi or Aikido people learn to sense and direct?

(1A) When, in my hypnosis research, I thought I was controlling subjects’ imagination to sense an unreal force, might I have actually been, at least sometimes, teaching them to sense ki or chi?

(2) Or, a purely physicalist perspective, assuming our current knowledge of physical energies is essentially complete, then sensing or directing ki must always be a matter of just imagination?  (No doubt it is imagination sometimes)

(3) Or might we sometimes detect effects (biological, experiential, physical) when a person feels they are sensing and manipulating ki that we cannot find a conventional physical explanation for, but we can, drawing on parapsychological findings, attribute to the parapsychological phenomenon of psychokinesis, “mere PK?”  Or to some psychic “healing energy” form of PK, as in Bernard Grad’s classic experiments on healing?

(4) Or, since it’s not at all clear to me how to do this, are some of my colleagues smart enough to figure out an experimental design or designs to clarify things here?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dr. Charles T. Tart on December 19th, 2013

Although he word “spiritual” means many different things to different people, from “rubbish and nonsense – why can’t people be rational?” to “the highest knowledge and aspirations of humanity,” almost all would agree, though, that humanity is spiritual or religious, i.e. that except when bedeviled by the greatest physical necessity, we want some beliefs that make sense out of life, that give it a grander purpose than simply seeking pleasure and avoiding pain – and we die in the end anyway.  Such spiritual needs and impulses get socially organized into religions, and, as any objective look at history will show, many of the worst human actions have been justified in the name of religion – Kill for (put in name of favorite deity)!  I’ve never seen and facts, though, that show that religion is used to justify human nastiness any more than politics, economics, tribalism, etc.  We humans have a nasty side and lots of “talent” to rationalize whatever we do in terms of all sorts of belief systems.

But wouldn’t it help if we could have more accurate knowledge about what is and isn’t true about the spiritual and religions?  Since powerful spiritual experiences keep on happening to people, wouldn’t it be helpful if we understood such experiences better and could promote positive ones and their integration into life and action, while knowing how such experiences get distorted by our neuroses to rationalize our mistreating and killing those who don’t believe as we do?  To have useful knowledge that certain kinds of spiritual experiences make us into better people and promote a better world, rather than “Believe as I tell you to or go to Hell?”

In the 1970s a new field of psychology arose that aimed to gather such knowledge, Transpersonal Psychology.  It builds on mainstream psychological knowledge about distorted thinking and emotional problems, but accepts the idea that at least some aspects of the broad range of experiences we call “spiritual” have great value and have some validity, as well as some being crazy, then asks how we can study them and apply what we learn to make this world a better place.  Transpersonal Psychology is not a religion, there is no set of fixed, unquestionable beliefs, but it can draw on the world’s spiritual traditions for data and theories and then apply basic scholarship and scientific method to clarify what is actually happening.  “Meditation,” e.g., is not just exotic practices in various traditions, but learnable and practical mental disciplines that are now finding a wide variety of psychological and medical uses in alleviating stress disorders, chronic pain problems, etc.  Transpersonal Psychology is still a very small field, but has grown greatly since the 70s and some of its findings are already affecting mainstream psychology and medicine.


Now Transpersonal Psychology is under serious attack.

The main center for Transpersonal Psychology has been the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (now called Sofia University) in Palo Alto, California.  It is a source of inspiration for burgeoning transpersonal centers all over the world.  Founded in the 70’s by Professor Robert Frager, it currently has about 40 main faculty and 500+ students working on Masters and PhD degrees in various aspects of Transpersonal Psychology.  Faculty and student research grows our knowledge base, our graduated students put it into practice in a variety of ways, from psychotherapy to industrial consulting to education, etc.

Two and a half years ago our well-loved President, Tom Potterfield, unexpectedly died and was replaced by a new President.  Since then things have gotten so bad that 100% of the faculty and most of the staff (all of whom may lose their jobs as a result of daring to protest) have signed a petition of no confidence in the current President and Board of Trustees, feeling they have lost touch with the humanistic and spiritual values that started the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, created a climate of fear, and have mismanaged the institution such that we have gone from substantial reserve funds to likely having to close down soon for lack of funds.  This is detailed in the petition referred to below, asking the Attorney General of California to intervene.

In solidarity with the faculty, staff, students and alumni of Sofia University, if you believe applying scholarship and science to the spiritual with the aim of making our world a better place is a worthwhile cause, please read and sign the petition to the Attorney General (reproduced below for reading convenience, but go to the site to sign it).  You don’t have to be a resident of California or even a US Citizen to sign and show your support!


Thank you!

Charles T. Tart




Please sign this petition at the web site

(copy this into your browser if I haven’t been able to make it clickable) 


Petition Background (Preamble):

Students, Alumni, Faculty, and Staff of Sofia University call to action California Attorney General, Kamala Harris in support of investigating the actions of Sofia University President, Neal King and Board of Trustees Rick Hesel, John Ringgenberg, and John Cha.

It is the belief of the wider Sofia University community that the President and Board have been insubordinate with their duty to the school and in upholding the University’s core mission, as stated:

Sofia University is a passionate, dynamic learning community that fosters multiple ways of knowing while embracing diverse paths of spiritual practice and development.

We are dedicated to academic excellence, with a shared commitment to authenticity, inclusivity, cultural humility, ecological stewardship, and service to others.

Our curricula focus in six areas of inquiry: the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical, social and creative aspects of life.


It is our belief that this mission has not been upheld by the University President and Board of Trustees as evidenced by the following:

Since President King has taken position in 2011,

- 7 of the 10 board members of Sofia University have recently resigned

- 100% of faculty (50) and 83% of staff (32) voted “no confidence” in the president’s performance

- There is no cultural or gender diversity on the current board as it stands.

- The current board and president refuse to share details of the schools financial condition with the vice presidents, faculty or staff.

- When Dr. King took over Sofia U the school was in robust financial health. Now the school faces at least a one million shortfall in revenue

- When Dr. King took over Sofia the school had roughly 4 million dollars in reserve. At this time faculty and other administrators cannot obtain an accounting of the reserve balance.

- The board resists a follow up meeting with faculty and staff representatives

In the last week, President King has

• Blocked the email accounts of two vice presidents, the school founder and the head of the faculty senate

• Removed without consent desktop computers from staff and faculty offices

• Sent threatening emails to staff

• Removed invitation to a community meeting from student, staff, faculty and alumni email accounts

• Falsely claimed the community meeting, scheduled for Dec. 17, 2013, had been postponed until January 2014

• Hired security guards to patrol the campus

• Unilaterally closed down the school this past Tuesday afternoon. Students who needed the school’s resources (e.g. the library) were turned away by the security guards.

• Fired faculty and staff who voiced their concerns for the greater community.



We, the undersigned, call on Kamala Harris, California Attorney General to support students, alumni, faculty, staff, and other community members in an investigation and suit against Sofia University President, Neal King and the active Board of Trustee members, Rick Hesel, John Ringgenberg, and John Cha



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dr. Charles T. Tart on September 30th, 2013

A friend, with considerable practical experience as well as intellectual knowledge of the emphasis on developing mindfulness in both G.  I.  Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way work and in Buddhism recently wrote me about attending a conference on neurophysiology and meditation, where one speaker reported on the positive effects of meditation on a person who was a fighter pilot, but who warned that you shouldn’t engage in something like meditation when you’re trying to land your airplane on a carrier at sea.  She remembered a similar admonition years ago in the Gurdjieff work to not try to be mindful when driving on the freeway.  As a well-known advocate of mindfulness, what did I think of that? 

The question roused so many interesting thoughts in me, that I thought I would write about them here.  These are ongoing thoughts and reflections, of course, not any final answers.  Lately my wife Judy and I have been talking a lot about what’s been the outcome of a lifetime of spiritual striving and practice.  Anything concrete?  Lots of hope, but a waste of practical time?  Or?

My first reaction to my friends question was what was meant by “meditation?”  I’ve been speaking and writing about this word “meditation,” for years, complaining that the word meditation is and was being used to mean so many different things that the word is almost useless.  The best I can make of it in a general sense is that when someone says they meditate, they mean they sometimes do something with their mind that they consider special.  Then an enormous variety occurs in terms of what they actually do.  One of the most common uses, however, is meditation means you get into a very relaxed and calm state of mind.  Body relaxed, mind thinking little or nothing, emotions calm, feeling good.  But if your current situation requires very complex (and hopefully well-trained!) and fast reactions or you die, focusing on calmness may indeed kill you.  Don’t try to land your airplane while trying to induce that state!

The usual way I think about it is that we have a limited amount of “mental real estate.”  Only a few things can remain clear in consciousness at once, simultaneously.  A very common example is that telephone numbers are generally limited to a maximum of seven digits, seven is the maximum number of discrete things we can keep in mind at once.  In this case, if you try to saturate consciousness with calmness and relaxation when really you need your lightning, trained reflexes to land on that pitching aircraft carrier, you are being stupid and will probably die.

Ditto for “meditating” (not quite the same as being “mindful”) when you are driving down the freeway.  You too often can’t afford the time to build up calm, either your automated responses are good enough or else….with funny variations where time seems to slow down…you crash.  Hopefully training or genetically inbuilt human responses instantly throw the irrelevant stuff out of consciousness and use your thinking power to do something useful when a sudden crisis occurs while you’re driving.

On the other hand, my best understanding of Gurdjieff’s statement that “Man is asleep,” or the similar Hindu and Buddhist ideas that we live in maya or somsara, in a condition of illusion, is that it is far too often the case that our limited mental real estate is taken up with things that are not really relevant to the actual situation we are in, we’re pretty lost in “our story,” and thus we don’t have room to pay adequate attention to things that are essential and/or are ongoing.  It’s too often a rather neurotic story about poor me, which tends to distort our perceptions in highly maladaptive ways.  I elaborated on this ordinary condition’s drawbacks a great deal in my first and subsequent mindfulness books, Waking Up, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science, adding in what we now know psychologically about specific defense mechanisms which involve distorting perceptions (lost in a maladaptive form of what Tibetans call the seventh consciousness, rather than having adequate perception of immediate reality, sixth consciousness).  I think modern knowledge of psychopathology adds detail and specificity here that the spiritual traditions did not have.

So being mindful in life can mean you need enough calmness to have room, mental real estate, for what’s essential to perceive, but you don’t focus particularly on calmness per se or try to make it get bigger or more pleasurable (except for the special cases where you know you’re so agitated that you can’t perceive things clearly, and so you need to take specific steps to calm down, and hope you have time to do this).  There is a Tibetan Buddhist saying, “Meditation made by the mind is the deceiving enemy”  And yet….our lives are hectic, we want to experience calm, peace, and pleasure, so we tend to think meditation is about making those things happen.  Whereas I think the way those things should happen is as a kind of side effect of becoming more mindful and living a good life.  Feeling good after you escape a predator or help someone who is suffering is much more adaptive than making yourself feel good as the predator leaps toward you or as you ignore the suffering person to focus on your feel-good exercises.  Forcing your mind into a specific kind of consciousness is fine if the situation is indeed one which that kind of conscious can deal with effectively, but otherwise it creates difficulties.

We would like to think that our training for life has given us relatively automatic and optimal responses for all situations we are liable to encounter, but, as common sense and the spiritual traditions remind us, reality tends to keep changing, sometimes in obvious ways, often in subtle ways that may not be immediately perceptible, but require a quite different response.

Let me continue these reflections from a larger perspective.  Back in early 1966, I was reading P. D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous for the first time, and thought about the idea of self-remembering, about the arrow of attention going in two directions, in and out, about a higher level of mindfulness.  This was all very intellectually interesting, but didn’t really mean anything to me.  Then one day, for whatever reasons (who could remember anything exactly from that long ago?), I actually self-remembered, and I woke up!  Suddenly I was vividly there, alive, perceptive, real, aware of how intensely clear and aware I was!  I had never experienced anything like it in my life!  After just a few seconds, I was back in my ordinary state.  I could then go on to intellectually talk about these ideas in very smart ways for a long time, without ever actually experiencing that change in state again…  It was only many years later in one of the Gurdjieff-type groups I was in that I learned to self-remember in a fairly consistent way and experienced similar increased vividness of reality.

With the wisdom of hindsight and scientific caution, I look back and say that I became relatively awake back then.  For a few seconds.  I have no idea what “awakening” means in some absolute sense, I haven’t experienced anything like that, but, compared to my ordinary and culturally “normal” state of walking around thinking, thinking, thinking all the time, without much attention to what was actually happening, and probably with lots of neurotic (Dragon Dictate transcribed the previous word as erotic, which of course is quite true when you’re younger!) overlay and distortion, I did indeed “wake up” in a relative way way back then.  This “happened” many times (brought about, I like to believe, by my systematic self-remembering efforts) for years when I was more intensely involved with variations of the Gurdjieff work, especially when I was teaching people about mindfulness and awakening.  There’s nothing like having all that attention on you to remind you that you’re trying to be present!

Now, switching emphasis, let me clarify my terms a little, lest this be one more example of ambiguous use of terms like “meditation” and “mindfulness.”  The way I have practiced self-remembering, the way I’ve tried to teach it to others in workshops, may be somewhat different than is usually done by meditation teachers.  A common theme from many meditation teachers and writers, especially Buddhist ones, is that this world is a terrible place.  Samsara is not simply a description of a mental state but of the actual state of the world, great suffering is inevitable, so of course the goal is to not suffer any more, and the method to do this is, in a sense, to withdraw your mind from the world.  So on one dimension you try to lead a simpler life, renunciation: if there are fewer things you really want, they are less likely to distract you.  If I don’t care, what they think and say can’t hurt me!  On another dimension you try to learn to recognize attractions and aversions as they arise and not give them energy, either through specific antidotes to particular desires/aversions and/or by developing a certain “coolness,” of being aloof, of not being sucked in by things.  My own bias, on the other hand, is that while there is indeed lots of suffering in this world, there are lots of good things too, and I basically believe in Progress.  My ancestors were peasants and factory workers: I’m a college professor!  That’s amazing!  That’s Progress!  By developing greater mindfulness, both in formal sitting meditation practices and in the course of daily life, we can avoid some of the stupid things that create avoidable suffering, and we can develop attitudes that reduce our experiential suffering when unpleasant things nevertheless happen.  I can find support for this attitude in Gurdjieff’s writings when he talks about becoming a helper of God and higher beings, rather than just being caught up in trying to get away from suffering, going for Progress, rather than simply escaping suffering.

I can see I’m ranging too widely, so let’s see if I can focus better….But there’s so many interesting aspects to this!

Okay, one of the things I learned from my own self-remembering practice, and that I since make central in teaching any kind of class or workshop on mindfulness, is that a most fundamental aim of self-remembering, is clearer perception of immediate reality, not creating good feelings.  Good feelings are best as unintended side effects.  That is, I and my students doing self-remembering practice sometimes, perhaps even usually, feel good, happy from our moments of relative awakening.  As a side effect of self-remembering, that’s fine, but when you make feeling good the primary aim of the practice, you’re no longer doing self-remembering, tuning in better into ongoing reality, at least as I understand and experience it.  You’re trying to shape your consciousness the way it was when you felt good on some previous occasion.  Similarly, my current best understanding of being in rigpa as Tibetan Buddhists’ describe an enlightened state, is that if you’re trying to feel some special way, “enlightened” or whatever, that’s meditation made by the mind, not the more fundamental experience of being present to whatever is manifesting at the moment without twisting, distorting, attaching, rejecting.  (This does not mean, a deep matter which we do not have time to go into here, that enlightenment is about not having any feelings and not making any attempts to improve your reality situation.)  The big problem with trying to make yourself feel good by directly creating good feelings is that you can conjure good feelings that way (Gurdjieff’s kundabuffer in operation?), but they distract you from reality, you behave inadequately, and then bad things happen as consequences of your stupid behavior.

Specifically, as I learned self-remembering and as I teach it, the essence of it begins with (largely implicit) attitudes of wanting to understand yourself and reality better and, of course, wanting to be free from unnecessary suffering and more competent in dealing with reality and your own psychological states.  These attitudes may or may not be held consciously, but I think they’re always there implicitly.  (If the attitudes you go into mindfulness and meditation practices with are different, then the same processes can result in different experiences and outcomes.)  Then we go on to actual technique.

As I learned Gurdjieffian self-remembering (with all the secrecy of Fourth Way groups I’m not sure it’s taught the same way everywhere), the essence of the practice is exerting a moderate amount of conscious control over the way your attention is used.  A small amount of your attention, very roughly 10%, is used to keep track of body sensations, sensing, usually just sensations in your arms and legs.  This has the effect of anchoring part of your attention in the here-and-now, since that’s where and when body sensations occur.  Then the rest of attention is divided between our two major sensory channels, listening, 20 to 30%, and looking, the rest of your attention.  Sensing, Looking and Listening, SLL.  I would add that a small amount of your attention is being used to monitor and control this division of attention process also.  The actual ratios of division of attention can vary a lot from moment to moment.  I also suspect that the intentionality of this process is one of its most important aspects, rather than the specifics of how it is done.

This SLL is much easier to describe than to actually do, of course, and a most important part of Fourth Way work is providing practice situations and reminders to learn more skill in this kind of division of attention.

When one can self-remember in this way, even moderately effectively, it uses up a lot or most of mental real estate, so there’s simply little or none left over for one’s usual compulsive, automatized, neurotic story, and its associated feelings of self-pity, etc.  At its best, the result is a state (again varying moment by moment) where your attention is implicitly controlled by an “I want to know” attitude, and consciously, deliberately distributed between your own body and your major sensing thoughts.

In Tibetan Buddhist terms, I’m tempted to talk about this as focusing on the sixth consciousness, sensory registration, which then has the effect of taking energy away from the automatized elaborations of seventh consciousness, and, since there is a deliberate focus on the world around you, makes you more perceptive about the state of the external world and, as a result, often more intelligent and competent in dealing with it.  Also in Tibetan terms it could be formally described as shamatha with support, the deliberate concentrative focus on perceptions and body sensations, but my finding is that it readily shades off into shamatha without support, which is supposed to be very close to being in rigpa.

Although I concentrated on this kind of mindfulness practice for many years, I seldom do it consciously for much of the day anymore, but I have noticed an enduring aftereffect of those years of practice.  One way of saying it is that I wouldn’t say I’m “awake,” but I would say that I’m a lot less “asleep.”  That is, I habitually (but far from always!)  pay more open-minded and accurate attention to what’s happening around me, while simultaneously picking up on my internal reactions (since they have body feeling correlates) quickly and while they are of low intensity, and so I have more opportunity to understand and sometimes control my reactions.  This quick pick up on internal reactions also provides many opportunities for psychological insight into myself, something I value highly.  Another way I’ve often expressed it is that while there is nothing “special” about my ordinary consciousness anymore, it’s more spacious, there are momentary gaps between perceptions, thoughts, and reactions, which allow more intelligent comprehension, so I’m not as automatic, as automatized as I used to be.

So many more interesting aspects to describe and develop….out of time…



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dr. Charles T. Tart on August 19th, 2013

Last weekend my wife and I remotely attended, via streaming video, a number of talks at the Buddhist Geeks conference.  Who are the Buddhist geeks?  A small but growing group of people, headed by Vincent Horn, that takes a very serious interest in Buddhism and meditation traditions, combined with high technological sophistication, the “geek” part, and whose members have no hesitancy in experimenting with using the best of modern knowledge to make Buddhism, especially the meditation part, work for ordinary people.  By “work,” I mean developing perspectives and meditation methods so that ordinary people can benefit from meditation, as part of a relatively ordinary life, rather than having to dedicate themselves to being monks or nuns, completely devoted to and wholeheartedly believing in some traditional brand of Buddhism.  An excellent illustration of that kind of effort, which I have mentioned in other posts, has been Shinzen Young’s work to reformulate concepts from various  meditative traditions so they work more effectively with ordinary people — people like me, who had otherwise thought he simply didn’t have the talent to do whatever it took to be a “meditator.”

Buddhist geeks logo As well as this conference, which will be repeated in subsequent years, Vincent Horn has produced a large number of podcast interviews with various teachers of meditation.  This and other activities of the Buddhist Geeks can be accessed at their website.  Streaming videos of this last weekend’s conference the previous year’s conference will also be available on the website for a while, as well as many podcasts.

In this essay I want to talk about a realization that has tremendously pleased me, a realization from seeing some of the presentations at the conference.

Back in 1972, I published what may have been the most important conceptual contribution to science and general knowledge I’ve ever made, a proposal to apply basic scientific method in various altered states of consciousness:

Tart, C. (1972). States of consciousness and state-specific sciences.  Science, 176, 1203-1210

By method I mean the basic process by which we learn more through science, rather than the particular findings of science (technically called the corpus of science, the body) at any time, which are always subject to modification change as we continue investigating.  Most of the famous errors of science, such as the proof from the standard theory of aerodynamics that bumblebees can’t fly, they don’t have enough wing area for their weight, come from mistaking current scientific knowledge, that corpus, with the method.  What seems possible or impossible given current knowledge may change drastically as new observations and knowledge/theories to explain them comes along.

I didn’t realize it in 1972, but this publication, along with my Altered States of Consciousness book (1969), probably were main contributors to my international reputation as a creative scientist.  I had submitted this article to Science simply because it was a general science publication and what I had to say was, to my mind, of interest to anyone doing science.  Only later did I realize having a feature article in Science was one of the most prestigious things a scientist could accomplish.  Anyway, the article drew an enormous response of about 100 letters-to-the-editor.  Since most scientific articles draw zero such responses, this was quite amazing.  They only published 4, plus my rejoinder, but sent them all to me, and I found them very interesting.  I could easily split the letters into two categories, (1) those who knew that ordinary consciousness is the only state in which we are sane and rational, so the idea of doing science in altered states was total nonsense, Science should not have published the article, and (2) those who said the article made perfect sense, let’s get started!  Many of the letters in the first category were from prominent scientists whose names I recognized, or full professors, senior people.  This was the old guard, objecting to change.  The let’s do it letters were, judging from position titles, young scientists.  Perhaps now that a lot of those young scientists have aged to become the establishment, fields of science are more likely to become more open to things like meditation and altered states experience.

Even the old establishment scientists had no objection to my characterization of what the essence of scientific method was, and some of you might find that formulation useful in some of your “pitches” to promote research.  Hopefully the article will be available online in the Articles Library at within a few days.  I argued that, in essence, science was a four step, cyclical, repeating process.  First, observe what you’re interested in, and try to figure out methods to observe it more and more carefully and accurately.  Second, come up with theories that make sense of what you’ve observed.  Third, since we can rationalize anything, keep using the logic of your theory to make predictions about things you have not observed yet, and go out and test those predictions.  If they work, great, keep expanding your observations and theory.  If they don’t work, the theory needs revision or rejection, no matter how “logical,” “sensible,” or “obvious,” it is.  Fourth, all of these steps are shared openly and honestly with peers, so they can check and expand your observations, check and expand your theories, check and expand your predictions.

It’s important to note that observation is always, always primary.  A theory that  doesn’t fit with actual observations, no matter how quote “logical” it is must be modified or rejected.

I was also very careful to phrase the whole description of essential science in a way that observations of internal experiences were just as much data as observations of external phenomena, so there was no a priori commitment to a total physicalism.  Many people, including working scientists, mistakenly think that scientific method is only applicable to physical phenomena.  That’s scientism, not science.

I also raised the issue in that article of whether the meditative traditions were state-specific sciences or state-specific technologies.  The difference is this.  In principle, a scientist will and can closely observe and question anything and everything.  A technician, on the other hand, is given a set of beliefs, a set of theories about what’s true and proper, and works within that framework to actualize or improve various things, but does not test the basic assumptions or logic of the framework.  (You’ll recognize a parallel here with Kuhn’s work on scientific paradigms.)(Parenthetically, my own 1970s systems approach to states of consciousness turns out to be very parallel to Kuhn’s idea of paradigms.)

Okay, human life is often miserable, there’s far too much suffering, somebody comes up with some “meditative” ways that reduce suffering.  Wow!  Wonderful!  The more of that the better!  Being the thinkers we human beings are, some conceptual framework will be put around the method and its results to make it seem logical, sensible.  In the best cases, as in an active meditative tradition, the conceptual framework does not get in the way of doing the meditative practice which leads to less suffering.  In the very best cases, the conceptual framework even helps people focus their attention properly.  In the worst cases, the conceptual framework becomes a religion that one is required to believe in, actual meditative practice declines, and you have a religion instead of a spiritual practice system.  Having a conceptual system may reduce suffering to some extent too, of course, although probably not with the power of an actual practice, and some conceptual systems can make our suffering worse.

Somewhere in the “evolution” of spiritual experiences into organized religions is where meditative traditions tend to become technologies instead of the beginnings of sciences.  It’s so wonderful to have something you can do and a conceptual system that reduces your suffering and pleases your intellect, who wants to rock the boat?  Indeed, we call such people heretics.  Further, people who could teach others how to meditate effectively were historically relatively rare, often geographically isolated from one another, or culturally and linguistically isolated from one another.  That vital step that is one of the essences of scientific method, a full and open sharing of both observations and theories and methods, and a willingness to question even fundamental assumptions, it is usually not there.

Now, the wonderful sign of transition, the Buddhist Geeks conference.  What a wonderful manifestation of meditation teachers coming from different traditions beginning to share their observations, theories and methods with each other.  How wonderful that the introduction of physiological measuring techniques can both elaborate some ideas and experiences and raise questions about them.  Western psychology has a lot to contribute here also.  As Shinzen Young said in his talk, we have a long way to go, but I think the science, or perhaps several sciences, of inner exploration is starting to take off!  The hope I had so many years ago that science and spirituality could start to refine and potentiate each other, for greater happiness for humanity, is being fulfilled!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dr. Charles T. Tart on August 9th, 2013

Many years ago, while reading P.  D.  Ouspensky’s book, “in Search of the Miraculous,” about the teachings of G. I.  Gurdjieff, I “woke up.”  I’ve never had the words to describe it adequately, and I suspect it’s not possible to describe something like it adequately in words, but suddenly I was in a state of mental and perceptual clarity in which it was obvious that my ordinary state, in which I had already spent decades, was dim, muddied, only a half-alive way of existing.  

This relative awakening only lasted a few seconds, although it made an indelible impression that there was a way of living and being aware that was exceptionally important.  I call it a relative awakening, relative to my ordinary state, because while it was a very vivid and awake state compared to my ordinary, normal consciousness, undoubtedly the most alive state I had ever been in my life up to that time, I have no idea how it compares to the alleged awakeness of people like Gurdjieff or Gautama Buddha.  I suspect I had just touched the lower reaches of what might be possible.

This moment of awakening led to many years, right up through and continuing through the present, of studying and practicing Gurdjieff’s teachings, aspects of Buddhism, many varieties of personal growth methods, etc., trying to wake up for more than a few seconds at a time.  It turned out that it wasn’t at all difficult for me to become relatively awake, the difficulty was in remembering to bothering to do it!  The habitual, automatic nature of my mind was (and, I must say, is) simply so powerful, and my life is generally satisfying enough, that I spent and still spend most of my time in ordinary consciousness, what I’ve called consensus consciousness in my technical writings about this.  I did slowly get skillful enough in becoming more awake to the present moment to write several books about the process of waking up and how to do it (****), to teach an introduction to mindfulness and awakening to graduate students once a year at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (now renamed Sofia University), and teach an introduction to it in a web workshop a couple of times a year (

Knowing how satisfying it can be to feel more awake, and believing it makes me more capable of living a good life and being helpful to others, it amazes me (too damned often!) of how “asleep” I can be in ordinary consciousness, and create numerous instances of useless suffering as well as being less capable in what I do.

This morning I had a simple and very clear illustration of that.  I needed to go to the post office to return a defective computer CD drive, and was planning to go afterwards to my Tai Chi Chih class.  I was ready to leave for class earlier than I expected, though, so my wife suggested I go to the post office first, it probably wouldn’t be crowded, and I could leave off my package in a few minutes.  So off I went.

I got the post office and there were several people ahead of me in line.  “Okay,” I thought to myself, “I’m taking a chance that I will be able to do this and not be late for class, but it won’t really matter if I’m a few minutes late for class anyway.  I can practice being more present, more awake here as I wait in line, watch people walk by, etc.”

Fifteen minutes later the line had not moved at all, and I found that over and over again, when I sensed my internal state, I was frustrated and restless.  I might be more awake for a few seconds, and then my “Hurry up!”  and “Poor me!” attitudes took over my mind.  I was terribly important, I didn’t want to be late, it wasn’t fair that the person at the head of the line had so many time-consuming things to talk to the clerk about, etc., etc.  I could feel my body tensing up, my mental energy being captured in useless worrying.  Added to my useless suffering, was some suffering which was useful, namely my embarrassment as I realized how stupid I was being from the point of view of someone who is good enough at being present to teach others how to do it!  Shameful!

I finally gave up and went off to my Tai Chi Chih class.

Normally I am fairly centered in the present and mindful of exactly how I’m doing those various Tai Chi Chih exercises, and is both good physical exercise and good exercise in being present, but I was definitely off today.

After class I went back to the post office.  The line was even longer, but it moved much faster this time, and, determined that I was going to be present as much as possible, I was much more so.  So it was far less stressful on my body, and my mind.  One more demonstration of the value of mindfulness in the middle of ordinary life.

And just to rub it in, when I handed my package to the clerk, she told me I could just leave packages with that kind of return label on the counter, I didn’t have to wait in line….

How many times do I have to have that lesson repeated before I make mindfulness more of a habit than getting carried away in my automatic thoughts?

There is a small gain, of course, that I have another instance of my useless mindlessness to share with students when I start to worry that they are getting too elevated an idea of how mindful I am!     ;-)




Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,