PASCAL’S WAGER: To Believe or Not Believe in God. Or?
Yesterday (9-28-15) there was an excellent opinion article by philosopher Gary Gutting in the NY Times on Pascal’s wager. I think my reflections on it, emailed to Professor Gutting, might spark some interesting thoughts.
PASCAL’S WAGER: the argument that it is in one’s own best interest to behave as if God exists, since the possibility of eternal punishment in hell outweighs any advantage of believing otherwise.
Dear Gary Gutting, Date Composed: September 28, 2015
I greatly liked your opinion piece in the NY Times today, as I discovered you had described the essence of my own pragmatic approach so well. You might be interested in my similar formulation from an essential science perspective.
I’m a psychologist and former radio engineer who has focused on building bridges between the best of spirituality (basic experience rather than concretized religious doctrine) and the best of science (genuine empiricism and open-mindedness rather than a commitment to absolute materialism as if it were Revealed Truth), drawing on research in altered states, psychology and parapsychology, as well as some personal work in various spiritual growth systems. I’m one of the founders of Transpersonal Psychology, a small branch of psychology that takes the spiritual as at least partly about something real and important, not just some weirdness suitable for study in only abnormal psychology…
The rough outline of my current working approach is
1- Recognize that, like just about everyone, I have strong hopes and fears in this area, and these may affect my perception and thinking even though I’m not consciously aware of them. Try to be objective, be on the lookout for biases…
2- People have powerful personal experiences, often “more real than real,” that they interpret as spiritual experiences, and their lives often then drastically change
3- If that was all, these experiences would still be worth much study as they are more powerful than many, if not most, change agents
4- But also rigorous experiments in scientific (not popular) parapsychology powerfully argue for the existence of processes like telepathy, remote viewing, psychic healing, etc. (details in my last book The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together), so spiritual experiences may be more than merely subjective experiences. There is an enormous amount of irrational resistance to accepting any of these psychic phenomena as real, however, with the degree of resistance being, unfortunately, directly proportional to the denier’s ignorance of the actual scientific literature, so I will not emphasize psychic phenomena more here.
5- We humans have powerful drives to understand and explain everything, so spiritual experiences get turned into Doctrines, Tenets, Beliefs which, over time and as social and psychological forces work on them, become too fixed
6- In my pragmatic approach to science (and life in general), it’s fine to develop working hypotheses about the meaning of these experiences, but psychological knowledge (and common sense) tells us that too much attachment, making them True Doctrines, can lead to a lot of trouble and suffering
7- So my version of Pascal’s wager is that lots of evidence (not much personal experience for me) points to the importance of and some kind of “reality” of “spirit,” so while trying to clarify what these spiritual experiences are and mean is vitally important, there’s a lot to be said for trying to live by the values implicit in such experiences
8- As one specific example of my personal wager, I have a working hypothesis that the evidence for some kind of postmortem survival of consciousness is strong, so really long-term improvement of my personality and action is worth investing in, rather than deciding “I’m 78, probably won’t be around much longer, it all disappears with death, so there’s no point wasting my energies on self-improvement…”
And if death truly is the extinction of consciousness, I run no risk of being embarrassed about my incorrect beliefs about survival… ;-)
As to denying the existence of any spiritual beings or God, I don’t have a big enough ego to declare that I am the smartest creature in the universe and can thus confidently say there couldn’t be any creatures smarter than me… Although I will admit that that Jehovah fellow from the Old Testament doesn’t meet my criteria for godliness, but my emotional denial of his particular existence is more of a childish “Nyah nyah!” than a reasoned position… ;-)
As I usually sum up in my The End of Materialism, the idea that science has somehow proven there is no reality to the spiritual is factually wrong, and when you actually review the empirical evidence and its implications, it is reasonable to be both scientific and spiritual in one’s approach to life. While exercising lots of discrimination, as there’s certainly plenty of nonsense associated with the spiritual (as there is with all areas of life).
Unfortunately, I’ve found that very few people are interested in applying a pragmatic/scientific approach to spirituality or religion, we’re too attached to the apparent security our hardened beliefs give us. Science is nice when it seems to validate our beliefs, but science also allows all hypotheses and theories to be doubted and questioned, and it’s too scary to think of what that openness to questioning might do to our precious doctrines. So no science allowed!
I assume you have similar problems in getting anyone to think philosophically about religion and spirituality… ;-(
Again, thank you for an excellent article!
Tags: belief, Blaise Pascal, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, death, emotions, enlightenment, God, materialism, mindfulness, mystical experience, Parapsychology, Pascal, precognition, Spirit, spiritual, telepathy, Transpersonal
Talking with my wife Judy about dreams a few days ago, I partly remembered a fascinating dream from years before that may have been telepathic. I knew my memory was not quite complete, though: maybe I had notes somewhere? Yes! Here it is, and it’s fascinating.
One day as I was teaching my Altered States of Consciousness (Psychology 137) class at UC Davis, I was lecturing on dreams as an altered state. I lecture from rough outline notes to remind me of things to cover, but most of the particulars of what I say are created on the spot.
Talking about the qualities of dreams as a state of consciousness, I was making the point that dreams are not random ramblings, they are organized, there’s a world, a plot, actions fitting the plot, etc. As I was lecturing it occurred to me that this statement was rather on the abstract side, I really should give the students an example to illustrate this. So while continuing to talk, I sort of “opened” my mind (I remember a “reaching upward” aspect) to try to come up with an example of disorganization, to contrast with organization. One almost instantly came to me, so I mentioned that you don’t just have random, disconnected elements in dreams, like a gorilla, an ice cream cone, and a Volkswagen, things in a dream generally go together.
Students often came up to ask and tell me things at the end of class. In this case, one of my students, an excited and rather indignant young lady, came up to me and demanded to know, “Where did you get that dream of a gorilla, an ice cream cone, and a Volkswagen?”
I told her I had just made it up, I’d never used anything like it before.
“Well,” she indignantly replied, “I used to have this recurring, scary dream about how I and my family were at home, and we started thinking about going out for some ice cream. But then we found out this gorilla was loose on our street, so we all went to hide. Strangest of all, my father decided to hide under the Volkswagen in our garage – and we’d never owned a Volkswagen!”
What could I say, but that it just came to me, from I don’t know where….
Isolated instances seldom prove anything, but I’ve known there is lots of evidence, both spontaneous cases and laboratory studies for telepathically obtained information to influence dreams. So I had made a semi-conscious request for information, while most of my consciousness was involved in talking, lecturing, part of me “reached up” wanting an example of organization in dreams. My lecturing on dreams up to this point may well have stimulated this student to think about her recurring, frightening dream, so it was probably on her mind with a substantial emotional charge. Need on the “receiving” end, me, emotional charge on the “sending” end, her. A classic example of the situation in thousands of “spontaneous” instances in everyday life that look like telepathy…
Tags: altered states, altered states of consciousness, attention, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, dreams, emotions, gorilla, ice cream cone, intention, Judy Tart, Parapsychology, perception, telepathy, Transpersonal, UC Davis, unusual experiences, Volkswagen
Grappling with the Angel/Devil of “Non-Duality”
[An expanded version of this essay will be published in 2015 in the journal Creativity & Collective Enlightenment]
As one outcome of my posting an essay on the origins of my proposal to create the state specific sciences, in the previous post, my friend and colleague, Russell Tart, physicist and parapsychologist, sent me some very stimulating comments. He is not only one of the pioneers of the remote viewing technique, which was used by US government intelligence agencies for decades, but also a student of Buddhism and other non-dual spiritual paths. The core of his comments had to do with “non-duality.”
Non-duality is a big deal in a spiritual seeking circles in the West today, such a big deal that you could call it a buzzword. Put “non-duality” in the title of something and it immediately looks like the highest kind of spiritual material, deserving special attention. But, I’ve never felt I understood what the idea is really all about, much less experientially understanding it. Sometimes when I don’t understand something I write about it, in the hope that having to write clearly will clarify my own thoughts, and I’ve done that occasionally with non-duality.
This is one more attempt to grapple with non-duality. Has it made me clearer? Well I think I’m somewhat clearer on what I don’t know, and that’s probably progress. I present it here for whatever stimulation value it has, and hope someday I will write something based on a real understanding of it. Whatever I don’t understand, I do know that the people who write and talk about it say non-duality is very important!
Here (with his permission) is my correspondence with Russell Targ, with his excerpted words in blue.
You’ve put that word “non-duality” in my mind with your email of the 6th, Russ, and while I usually try not to confuse myself by thinking about it, I’ve decided to grapple with it some here in the hope that that might clarify things for me, and if I put this is an essay on my blog, perhaps clarify things for someone else. I would value your response, of course, but if this is more than you wanted I understand! :-)
Grappling with the Angel/Devil of “Non-Duality”
For the reader who understands something of this, the title, evoking the dualistic image of a grappler and something to be grappled with, may make you think the following will be a sophisticated discussion of non-duality, or immediately demonstrate that this writer doesn’t have a clue as to what non-duality is about. I don’t know which it is. Hopefully it will be useful in stimulating thought.
Duality and Non-Duality:
> I am emphasizing the importance of experience to internalizing non-dual teachings. So, I felt it was a big coincidence for me, to immediately come upon your e-mail on state specific consciousness, which I take to be the same thing. <
Ah, you challenge me nicely Russ! When you say “… take to be the same thing,” my rational mind is used to dealing with that sort of statement, but, as you point out later in your email, I don’t think our ordinary rational mind can never satisfactorily define or understand what we mean by non-dual teachings. My ordinary mind has certainly tried it over and over again for decades and not gotten anywhere!
I’ve never been sure exactly what “duality” means.
In some contexts, the meaning is obvious. If I’m meeting someone for the first time, for example, and besides what I hear from them and say to them I’m desperately thinking and worrying about “Am I making a good impression? Will I be liked? Am I making a fool of myself?” I’m certainly in a highly dualistic state of mind, evaluating most, if not all of my perceptions of the moment in relation to how it reflects on me and my hopes and fears.
While there are certainly occasions in real life when you do need to be concerned with what kind of impression you’re making on people, as it has consequences for the relationship and your life, to have this kind of thing happen compulsively much of the time can certainly be a source of useless suffering. If someone says to me “Look to the north, there’s some really beautiful cloud formations there,” and I look to the north and to see and enjoy those beautiful cloud formations, I’m fairly well centered in ordinary reality and functioning well. If I don’t really perceive those clouds very well and am caught up in my worries about the impression I’m making, it’s totally useless suffering. I’m missing something beautiful, and reinforcing my habit of worrying about what kind of impression I’m making.
So far I’ve been talking about what we might call in conventional Western terms neurotic dualism, and it’s quite understandable. We think it’s generally helpful and intelligent to pay some attention to how you are presenting yourself in various situations, but neurotic or downright crazy to be stuck in that.
Mystical Experience of Unity and Flow:
On the other hand, I know there are numerous reports of “mystical experiences,” at the other end of the spectrum, where people report that they felt at one with the universe and that this feeling of unity was quite wonderful. Not having had that experience myself, I doubt that I understand it very well, even though it sounds very desirable. And I suspect there may be a variety of experiences that are all described as “non-dual” but may be significantly different. Extraordinary experiences are rare for most of us, and we aren’t trained in a good vocabulary for describing them or discriminating one from another.
In between these two ends of the spectrum, neurotic duality to mystical oneness, I think we’ve all had lots of experiences that, in retrospect, we might describe as at least a somewhat non-dual, because all of our conscious experience for a while was involved with our perceptions of the situation we were in and whatever actions we took that, hopefully, were appropriate to the situation. I think this is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow experience that started getting described in psychology a few decades ago, and I’m sure we’ve all experienced such flow occasionally. At the times it’s happened to me, I don’t particularly think of it as any special kind of experience, I’m involved in what I’m doing, I’m usually doing it reasonably well, that’s nice, but it’s no big deal.
I can imagine a person having more and more flow experiences, and that would be very rewarding. Is continuous flow experiences what is meant by “enlightenment?” Of course that word enlightenment is used in a variety of ways, but I imagine this may be a part of what is meant sometimes.
My understanding falters, though, when what we’re talking about seems to jump from qualities of experience to ultimate statements about the absolute nature of reality. I know people who have had mystical unity experiences certainly think that’s the way reality really is, but what that means for those of us who haven’t had it, I don’t know. And when the Tibetan Buddhists especially go on and on about it, I find it kind of inspiring, but it doesn’t really make any sense to me. Sometimes when they stop talking so grandly about the absolutely pristine and wonderful nature of rigpa and also casually mention that it’s all quite “ordinary,” I think they mean something like a flow state — which, at least in my limited experience, is no big deal at all at the time that you’re in it. Although sometimes I think they’re using “ordinary” in a prescriptive, rather than a descriptive manner, you’re supposed to develop in a way so you’ll always be in that kind of state. Except of course you shouldn’t be striving for anything, as any kind of striving is inherently dualistic and prevents that state from happening….and intellectual honesty for me when I think about that is to say “Huh?”
Thinking about duality from an ordinary perspective, the practically useful working perspective that the physical world has a reality independent of our beliefs about it, duality is essential for life. If a friend says “Let’s eat!” it’s important that I instantly discriminate that my arm, even though it’s made of meat, is me, and it would be very bad to take a bite of it, whereas the sandwich on the table is not me, and it’s fine to eat it.
Along another line, thinking about duality and non-duality from a spiritual perspective I’m somewhat familiar with, Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way teachings, the primary way of psychological and spiritual growth I understand there is to deliberately split your awareness into several aspects, you could call it a dual or triple. Typically you keep about 10% of your moment to moment awareness on body sensation, such as from your arms and legs, about 40 or 50% on what you’re seeing, and the rest on what you’re hearing. In my experience, this produces a very useful form of what we might call dualism, in that there is a clear distinction and more accurate perception of sensory input, primarily vision and hearing, while keeping some consciousness grounded in immediate body sensation. Although there is no conscious emphasis on striving for the following outcome, this makes you, in my experience, more sensitive to fleeting feelings and emotions that might otherwise be missed, and so more accurate in your engagement of the world, as you’re less likely to be carried off by emotional reactions that if you weren’t doing this practice.
> Padmasambhava, in the Eighth Century is teaching the non-dual view that mind is spaciousness, just as there is no separation between waves and the ocean. Mind as spaciousness is what he means by naked awareness, in his great meditation guide book.<
While I have a lot of conceptual trouble with “non-dual,” I’m much happier thinking about and using the word “spaciousness.” Spaciousness (and, more usually, lack of it) is something I have direct experience of. My ordinary mind is not spacious. Perceptions of the outside world or my body keep coming in, each generates one or more internal reactions, and there may be no apparent gap between these internal reactions, so my conscious experience seems continuous but hardly spacious.
I remember years ago when I took a class (several times) from Lama Tarthang Tulku at the Nyingma Institute in Berkeley on basic meditation. He occasionally used the phrase “the gap between thoughts.” I thought that was a fascinating concept! But it was only a concept for me, there were certainly no gaps between any of my thoughts! Back then when trying to learn various basic forms of concentrative and insight meditation, I thought one had to learn to create quiet spaces between thoughts, and I was so bad at it that I eventually gave up even attempting to meditate, assuming it took some kind of special talent that some people had for creating a quiet mind, but which clearly I didn’t have. It was only years later after instructions from meditation teacher Shinzen Young, who I think is one of the best meditation teachers in the world, that I actually found vipassana meditation to be a pleasant and useful activity, and now I do it regularly. And while I don’t make a big deal of it, I do occasionally observe gaps between thoughts. It’s possible, and spacious.
Qualities of Spaciousness:
Returning to the idea of spaciousness, though, I would distinguish at least two qualities of spaciousness in my own experience. One is the obvious one of less active thoughts or even apparently quiet temporal gaps between distinct thoughts. Not unconsciousness, as I’m still aware that I exist in a quiet way, and I may be receiving sensory input, but there are noticeable drops in the intensity of my internal processes, sometimes such that I would even call my mind momentarily quiet. The second quality of spaciousness deals with the way I experience what I might call the “stickiness” of thoughts. My ordinary experience is that one thought automatically and forcefully generates other thoughts, reactions to sensations generate more thoughts or emotions, the process is continuous and seems like it will never end. But sometimes when I’m experiencing some spaciousness, the quieter periods between ordinary thoughts and perceptions are not empty, there may be other thoughts or perceptions that come and go, but they don’t automatically grab my awareness and force further reactions the way they normally do. They are just less sticky, they flow through my mind without stimulating other thoughts that stick to them…
Naked Awareness, Finding Mind:
>Mind as spaciousness is what he means by naked awareness, in his great meditation guide book.<
If I take “naked awareness” to be the basic nature of mind to experience things, things get interesting. There is a meditation exercised used in Tibetan Buddhism where the student is asked to try to find their own mind. I have tried it occasionally, and, as the texts state, I can find anything in particular! If my mind is in its usual active state I can certainly find content of mind in any instant, and that content is normally pretty continuous even if I’m not particularly aware that I’m experiencing content at the moment. Sometimes I suddenly look for mind when my mind is relatively quiet and I still can’t find anything, that is I can’t find any thing in particular that I would say this is mind*. Yet I am aware that I’m aware, but this awareness is, while kind of obvious and not at all special when I practice it, not at all like the kind of awareness of mental content, of specific things, either specific things perceived through the senses or generated internally.
* In some ways I am intellectually convinced, though, that if I could mentally “spin around” fast enough I would catch something that might be my mind, but I can never do it.
There is a spacious quality to this kind of awareness of mind. In my limited experience I wouldn’t say there’s any specific quality to it, like ordinary things or thoughts or emotions have, and yet it’s there. The table to my right as I write this, for example, has a specific size and location, my looking for something to illustrate had intentional qualities, there’s a slight feeling of satisfaction that this is a good illustration.
Sometimes when I wonder about the value of meditative training that lets you experience spaciousness more often, I find myself creating an analogy that it’s like a button early home computers had on the front panel labeled Reset. Early computers often froze up because too many programs were running simultaneously and conflicted with each other for limited resources, and pushing the button cleared out all running programs from memory, so you were reset back to zero, back to the full spaciousness of your computer’s capacity.
This is certainly parallel with what happens in ordinary life. So often we have several things on our mind at once, they get into recursive loops that are sticky and drawing more and more of our mental resources, attempts to quiet things down and focus create more reactions, and were stuck. To be able with some skill, that I think develops from gaining some proficiency at concentrative or vipassana meditation, to “back up” to the spaciousness the constitutes the basic nature of mind may let those things die down, may reset your mind so you can now focus in a more useful and desirable way. So, yes, ”Mind as spaciousness is what he means by naked awareness, in his great meditation guide book.” Makes some sense to me, although I’m sure there’s far more being referred to by Padmasambhava* than what I’ve written about here.
* Amusement note: my Dragon Dictate program on hearing “Padmasambhava” typed in “pod my some Baba.” :-) Pretty good try!
…. the importance of experience to internalizing non-dual teachings. So, I felt it was a big coincidence for me, to immediately come upon your e-mail on state specific consciousness, which I take to be the same thing.<
Picture: John Bamberger, Fluorescent Waterfall
Non-dualism and State-Specific-Sciences:
Coming back to the question of how much my proposal for the establishment of state specific sciences is advocating the importance of internalizing non-dual teachings, yes and no, no and yes.
I don’t think much of my understanding of non-duality now, and when I proposed developing state specific sciences several decades ago my understanding was far less. What I basically did in my proposal was review the basic procedure of scientific inquiry for acquiring and refining knowledge. (1) Observe what you’re interested in carefully, always try to improve the quality of your observation. (2) Devise theories that make sense of your observations, use sensible logic in them so your ideas hang together. (3) Don’t stop with the satisfaction of feeling that intellectually you understand things, but work the logic of your theory to make predictions about things you haven’t seen and go out and test those predictions. If they come true, great, keep developing your theory. If they don’t modify your theory or come up with a new one altogether. And (5) meanwhile, since your mind may have all sorts of peculiar quirks you have no idea exist, keep sharing all these steps with peers who can check your observations check your thinking check your predictions. That way we go from poor observations and fuzzy ideas about why things happened to more clear and precise observations and understandings that make more sense of them. Which in most cases will allow us to then apply our understandings for human benefit.
A basic point of my proposal, though, was that science is normally done in “normal” consciousness, but we now know that there are many arbitrary, culturally constructed aspects of culturally normal consciousness that sensitize us in some ways and blind and bias us in other ways. We also know that there exist altered states of consciousness (ASCs) in which perception and thinking seem to work quite differently, so if we could apply basic scientific method in a variety of ASCs, we would get a much wider range of understandings. I didn’t say too much more about this potential outcome, because I knew most of my readers would be biased toward a materialistic view that only what is physical is real. So if they would want to think I was talking primarily about altered states observations of physical phenomena fine, but the proposal left it quite open to take internal experiences as primary things you observed, experimented with, and theorized about. Thus all sorts of systems of yoga, meditation systems, and the like could become “inner sciences,” rather than simply religious beliefs or, as I argued in the proposal, not remain state specific technologies but become specific state specific sciences. So yes, systems which led people to experience non-dual consciousness could have its practitioners practice essential science and lead to all sorts of other new knowledge. In terms of acceptance of the proposal for publication in Science, I think the one referee, who I later found out to be pioneering psychophysiologist Elmer Green, was very aware of this revolutionary opening up to inner experience, but the other referee and the editor of science probably didn’t get it.
It would take us too far afield now, but I could argue that the proposal for state-specific sciences is actually wider than any particular spiritual path in some respects, unless we assume that the “enlightenment” which can result from a spiritual path constitutes a permanent state where everything worth knowing is known so no more acquisition, refinement and application of knowledge is need…
Okay, there are many interesting places we could go, but I’m sure this essay is already overly long. Good thinking!
Tags: altered states of consciousness, ASC, ASCs, belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, duality, emotions, enlightenment, flow experience, Gurdjieff, intention, John Bamberger, meditation, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, mindfulness, mystical experience, naked awareness, nature of mind, neurosis, non=duality, ordinary mind, Padmasambhava, perception, remote viewing, Russell Targ, science, self-remembering, Shinzen Young, spaciousness, spiritual teachers, state-specific sciences, state-specific technologies, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, unity experience, waking up
State-Specific Sciences: Altered State Origin of the Proposal
Charles T. Tart
Perhaps the most important and creative idea I’ve had in my half-century career as a psychologist has been the establishment of state-specific sciences. The basic idea is to greatly expand our ability to gain knowledge by practicing the essence of science in a variety of states of consciousness, instead of just one, and to be able to study and eventually use the unusual experiences of altered states more clearly. Little has been done by others to actually establish such sciences as of this time (2015), and I believe that, for a variety of reasons, the idea is still ahead of its time, but I have high hopes for it. I’m also aware that just because an idea seems exciting and plausible does not necessarily mean it is correct, so it may turn out to be an idea that is false, as some people said at the time, but we shall see…
Note on Eye Candy: Various charts from my systems approach to understanding and using Altered States of Consciousness, taken from my States of Consciousness book.
Here’s how it came about.
By the early 1970s, I had finished my graduate degree and spent a decade focusing my empirical research primarily on the nature of hypnosis and on using posthypnotic suggestion to influence the content and processing of stage I-REM dreaming during the night. I had also been a subject while in graduate school of a psychiatrist colleague’s (Martin Keeler) experiments with psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD and psilocybin, so I had some personal experience of the drastic changes that these kind of drugs could make to mental functioning. And although consciousness per se was still largely a taboo topic in science back then, I was familiar with a very wide variety of early studies and reports on things like creative states, what little was known of meditation at the time, lucid dreams, and the like.
I had also, through the kindness of Michael Murphy, the founder of Esalen Institute, attended a number of human potential programs at Esalen. One of the growth techniques I became aware of was Structural Integration, commonly known as Rolfing. This was a therapy developed by New York physiologists Ida Rolf. To greatly oversimplify, she observed that, probably as a result of various physical traumas through life, our body became poorly aligned within the Earth’s gravitational field, connective tissue grew into permanent tensions to try to compensate for this, and as a result a lot of physical energy was wasted or took pathological directions. She developed a form of therapy (10 sessions) in which a Rolfing therapist, using intense physical manipulation techniques (not just fingers but elbows with full body weight behind them, e.g.) softened and broke hardened connective tissue until the body was optimally aligned vertically in the gravitational field. Some of the Rolfing practitioners also felt that this released many psychological traumas that had been incorporated in chronic bodily tensions and practices. I could look in the mirror and see that my posture was not all that good, and decided to go through the standard 10 sessions of Rolfing. I was ambivalent about this, already knowing that it was usually a quite painful procedure, and I’ve always been afraid of pain.
Pain-Induced Altered States:
I was living in Davis in 1971, so drove down to San Francisco for my first Rolfing session with Seymour Carter. My expectations of it being extremely painful work were, unfortunately, repeatedly confirmed throughout the approximately 90 minute session! I tried to be a strong, silent manly type, but I’m sure I let out a fair number of moans and groans! When I stood up at the end of the session, though, I felt taller and many of my bodily motions felt smoother, as if my joints had been rusty and now the rust had been removed and my joints had been oiled.
I drove straight back to Davis, and in that hour of driving all of the ideas that later came out in my proposal for establishing state-specific sciences arose in my mind, in a comprehensible and orderly manner. I got home, grabbed my portable electric typewriter and took it to a table in my back yard (it was a pleasant afternoon) and began typing.
Almost all of the proposal came out within the hour, with no corrections or editing, and by three days later I had run off more than 100 mimeographed copies of the proposal to distribute at the Council Grove conference on consciousness that I was going to attend in Kansas in a few days.
So what was my proposal for state-specific sciences?
Stripping it down to the barest of essentials, if you ask what science is, it’s a set of procedures for (1) better observation of what happens in reality and (2) for creating, testing, and refining theories, explanations, as to why things happen the way you observed. What is usually left out in thinking about science, though, is that the process of essential science is done by a human being, done by a creature with characteristics, both innate and acquired, that can make it more sensitive to some kinds of things, less sensitive or blind other kinds of things, able to reason and see clearly about some kinds of relationships, but not about others.
Besides characteristics inherent to all human beings, each of us has been socialized into a particular culture and so is biased to observe things and think about things in accordance with the values of that culture. But when you look at the way the mind can change its functioning in various altered states of consciousness (ASCs), you realize that the “ordinary” or “normal” state for any particular culture has many semi-arbitrary characteristics. So doing science in one’s ordinary state of consciousness is doing it with, as it were, a specialized instrument.
It would be, by analogy, as if all astronomy were done through telescopes whose lenses were made from a kind of glass that was inherently red. Those telescopes would be more sensitive to certain kinds of light, less sensitive to other. There’s nothing wrong with the observations and theories based on them made with the red-biased telescopes, of course, but it’s wrong to assume that they are the complete picture. So what I basically proposed is that we develop detailed knowledge of various ASC’s, the strengths and weaknesses of each of those, and then practice science within each of those. That would give us a variety of “instruments,” and so give us additional ways of observing and thinking.
Note on Eye Candy: Various charts from my systems approach to understanding and using Altered States of Consciousness, taken from my States of Consciousness book.
Creative Flow in the Wisdom of Hindsight:
I’ve been a student of my own, as well as others’ mental processes my whole life, and knew what had happened was quite amazing. I was not that fluent a writer, and to have a complex proposal like that just pour out of my fingertips on to the typed page in practically final form was very unusual. I had never experienced creativity like that, and I later reasoned that some combination of the strong physical pain from the Rolfing session, my attempts to lie still on the worktable so I could be worked on, and the many brief ASCs induced by the pain, states centered around the painful stimulation and my efforts to be quiet and manly, must have shaken up and eliminated all sorts of mental blocks in my mind. (Induction procedures for ASC are discussed in the systems approach to consciousness in my States of Consciousness book) As I thought about what I’d written about in the proposal, I could see that practically each individual item was something I had thought about the some extent at some time or another in my past, but these had been isolated, unconnected thoughts. The creative miracle was them just pouring out.
I spoke briefly at the 1971 Council Grove conference on this material, and many attendees (researchers interested in consciousness) made encouraging comments, so I did a little bit of editing and submitted it to Science. Since this was about expanding our potential uses of science in general, not just in terms of properties of ASCs, I thought it deserved to get as wider distribution in the scientific community as possible. I feared it would be too far out for the editors of Science, but they accepted it. Their acceptance letter included comments from two anonymous referees. One of these referees clearly understood the revolutionary import of the proposal and thought it was an excellent idea. Years later I found out that this referee was Elmer Green, who was uniquely knowledgeable for understanding the state-specific sciences proposal. The second referee was, I concluded from the tenor of his remarks, probably a professor of agriculture or something pretty irrelevant to my proposal, but he went along with publishing the paper. The paper appeared as a feature article (seven pages) in a 1973 issue of Science.
Reaction: Brilliant or Crazy?
As most of us who have published scientific articles know, the vast majority of these articles disappear with scarcely a trace, perhaps a few citations in passing in some specialty journal, and that’s it. To my amazement, and I assume the amazement of the editor of Science, my proposal drew over 100 letters to the editor! With journal space always being considered precious, Science only published four of them, with some balance between letters stating it was a good idea and those saying the idea was nonsense. They sent all the rest of the letters to me, and these were not anonymous like refereeing reports, but showed the writers names and affiliations.
These letters to the editor were very interesting. Roughly half of them said state-specific sciences were a good idea, let’s get on with developing them, we will learn a lot. The other half said science depended on the scientist being in a normal, sane state of consciousness, any and all ASCs were obviously inferior and crazy states, you couldn’t possibly do science in any ASC, Science should not have published the article. I recognized the names of many of the writers in the “This is crazy” category: they were prominent senior scientists in a variety of fields. From what I could trace down of the names of the writers in the “This is wonderful” category, these were younger scientists.
The most interesting letter, or actually pair of letters, submitted to the editor, was from a psychiatrist I had met once at a conference who was just a little older than me. His first letter was like the letters from the older scientists, this whole idea was, to use the appropriate psychiatric term, nuts! His second letter, written a few days later, reported that he was in an altered state of consciousness one evening and he thought about the state-specific science proposal, and it made perfect sense! He was embarrassed at having to contradict his own position, but his scientific integrity compelled him to…
This proposal for state specific sciences has been widely reprinted in many journals and books. I was also invited to write an updated version of it for a journal I was told was the South American equivalent of Science, Ciencia e Cultura, Journal of the Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science, and I was happy to report that I could see the possible beginnings of state specific sciences in several fields. One was in mathematics, were a number of mathematicians I spoke or corresponded with about their mental state when they were actually doing creative mathematics strongly suggested they were in altered states of consciousness, and that they needed to be in that kind of state to fully comprehend other mathematicians work at times. This was the state specific communication I talked about in the proposal. Another was the extensive information exchanges that were going on between lucid dreamers on the World Wide Web,. In lucid dreams a person’s state of consciousness changes drastically within a nocturnal dream, so they feel as if their mind is sharp, lucid, knowing that they are dreaming, but they can then deliberately experiment with the qualities of the state.
As I concluded in that article,
It is difficult to predict what the chances are of developing state-specific sciences. Our knowledge is still too diffuse and dependent on our normal SoCs. Yet I think it is probable that state-specific sciences can be developed for such SoCs as auto-hypnosis, various meditative states20, marijuana intoxication, LSD intoxication, self-remembering, reverie, various emotional states, and biofeedback-induced states , in addition to lucid dreaming. In all of these SoCs, volition seems to be retained, so that the observer can indeed carry out experiments on herself or others or both. Some SoCs, in which the wish to experiment during the state may disappear, but in which some experimentation can be carried out if special conditions are prepared before the state is entered, might be alcohol intoxication, ordinary dreaming, hypnagogic states, and high dreams . Some SoCs, like those associated with NDEs, may simply be too dangerous to deliberately experiment
Tart, C. T. (1972). States of consciousness and state-specific sciences. Science, 176, 1203-1210.
Tart, C. T. (1998). Investigating altered states of consciousness on their own terms: A proposal for the creation of state-specific sciences. Ciencia e Cultura, Journal of the Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science. 50, 2/3, 103-116.
My published articles in general:
Ongoing blog, essays:
Tags: Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, dreams, emotions, enlightenment, intention, meditation, mind science, mindfulness, ordinary mind, pain, Parapsychology, perception, science, Transpersonal, unusual experiences, vipassana, waking up
A few years ago, I and a few other Western scientists had an opportunity at informal meetings with a number of Tibetan lamas to talk about how Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, might become more established and useful in modern, Western culture. I’ve just recently come across a preview of the brief talk I gave toward this end that I think others might find interesting. It’s posing questions, not giving answers, but I think we’ve learned that often asking the right questions is more important than worrying about the right answers. There will also be a great deal of individual variation because one of the things the Buddha was known for as a teacher was adapting his teachings and responses to the particular people he was teaching to.
This, of course, makes many old Buddhist scriptures quite annoying to people who think of Scriptures should be The Truth and so not show any inconsistencies… :-)
As Buddhism comes into any new culture, it must establish productive relationships with important power and value aspects of that culture, and here we will focus on Western science. While Buddhism and science can potentially assist each other, science in the West has focused almost exclusively on the material world, with great success in advancing knowledge. Many Westerners, especially scientists have confusedly mixed this material success with a philosophy of materialism. This philosophy assumes that the only things that are actually real are material things, and thus all religion and spirituality are, by definition, primitive and erroneous beliefs that we should free ourselves of as quickly as possible if we want to make progress.
Buddha Statue in CTT Treehouse
From this perspective, technically known as scientism (current scientific findings as The Truth instead of recognizing science as a method for refining knowledge), the Buddha was a nice man who learned to alter the electrical and chemical balance of his brain processes so he didn’t experience suffering. Then he died and, since the mind is, in materialism, nothing but the electrochemical functioning of the brain, he was gone. The same is true for all monk, nuns, bodhisattvas, nice folks who calmed their brains down, but then they died and were gone. No devas, dakinis, gods, goddesses, reincarnation, karma. Prayers are just talking to yourself. By studying the brain processes of successful Buddhist meditators, someday we will create drugs or electrical treatments which can reduce suffering without anyone having to spend all those thousands of hours learning to meditate…
I once created a prescription label to illustrate this perspective. No, don’t contact me, it’s imaginary, not available! ;-)
Thus Buddhism is unlikely to flourish in this climate, but I will quickly review high quality scientific data that shows that the mind is more than just brain activity and that there is thus good scientific support for ideas, for example, about how prayer might have real effects other than just psychological ones, how reincarnation may be real, how mind may indeed have a spiritual reality beyond brain functioning. In the long run, Buddhism must align itself with this more liberal view of science, not simple, reductive materialism.
[This is spelled out in my magnum opus, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, now (2115) available as an ebook as well as a hardcover. Possibly as a paperback in 2016.]
When I entered graduate school back in 1961, I signed up for the doctorate in clinical psychology track. I figured with my oddball interests in psychic phenomena, altered states of consciousness, spirituality, and the like, conflicting with the physicalism and conservatism in mainstream psychology, it might be hard for me to get a regular teaching or research job at a university after graduation. On the other hand, mental illness and psychopathology was, sadly, a growth industry. More and more ways were being discovered that people used their minds in fashions that created lots of unnecessary suffering, so psychologists who could diagnose what such maladaptive mental and emotional patterns were, and/or act as a psychotherapist to help people straighten them out, would have no trouble finding jobs. As much as I wanted to be a researcher and teacher, supporting my family came first.
I did the first two years of the PhD clinical track, and reached the point where I was doing diagnostic psychological tests on real patients, and writing up assessments of them that went on to their psychiatric doctors. These reports, to various degrees, would affect how they were treated. Yet I grew increasingly uncomfortable with this.
Photo by John Forrest Bamberger
On the one hand, I knew that while the tests I had learned to give were useful in discriminating groups of people, they weren’t very accurate in many cases when applied to individuals. On the other hand, I realize that good diagnosticians and therapists possessed a talent, a knack, that guided them in their work, and test results were secondary to that. Nowadays I would say that good diagnosticians and therapists had a high degree of emotional intelligence, although we didn’t really have that concept very clearly in mainstream psychology back then. I understood myself enough, though, to realize that while I was very bright intellectually, I did not have much emotional intelligence. Half a century later, when I’ve done a lot of work on trying to increase my emotional intelligence, I’m quite amazed at how emotionally dumb I was back then. At any rate, I knew I didn’t belong in the clinical psychology program, and switched to a new track the Psychology Department had started on personality psychology, which would primarily lead to a career of research and teaching.
Funny thing, though, I’ve actually given hundreds, if not thousands of people some psychotherapeutic type of support over the years by helping them understand that their unusual experiences did not mean that they were “crazy” or “bad.”
A colleague from a special Esalen Center for Theory and Research group I’ve had the privilege of belonging to for more than a decade, Greg Shaw, recently shared his similar experience, and he expressed the importance of this so well that I want to share his note with others. Greg Shaw, Ph.D., is a Professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College in Massachusetts.
I recently visited my mom in Santa Barbara where she lives in a retirement home… Always the promoter, my mom asked if I could give a presentation to her community and I agreed. I titled it “Extraordinary Knowing: Exploring Impossible and Paranormal Experiences.” My plan was to tell them two stories: Jeff’s story about Mark Twain and his brother and Elizabeth Mayer’s story* about the harp, just to put the bait in the water and then invite them to address these stories or to share something similar. Slowly, at first, and then for one hour, this group of 55, aged from 85 to 105, told riveting tales. A couple of them spoke of being in a car and demanding the driver stop because they saw a close relative standing in the middle of the road. After stopping and the driver seeing nothing, the individual discovered that their relative had died at precisely that time. There were several stories just like this.
One dear old woman said that in her 30’s she began to see different colored lights around men, each having a slightly different hue. She was told to dismiss it as it wasn’t real, yet she still feels it was. One man had been a college physics professor and was, he says, a complete materialist/physicalist but is no more. I was happy to be able to share with them both books we have produced, Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century and Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality, and encouraged the physicist to read Ed’s introductory and summary essays. I also encouraged them to read Mayer’s book. At the end of the lecture-which I ended after an hour but they could have kept going–I realized how deeply an entire generation of intelligent and well-educated people have been deprived of a framework that could give these experiences value and meaning. One woman, after relating a tale of seeing a recently deceased relative, thought it meant she was a “witch.” The only frames of reference available have been those rejected by our “high” culture and they carry their experiences in isolation. Enough said. … The audience in Santa Barbara was genuinely appreciative to hear that these kinds of experiences were finally being respected and taken seriously.
* From the Amazon description of Mayer’s book: Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind: In 1991, when her daughter’s rare, hand-carved harp was stolen, Lisby Mayer’s familiar world of science and rational thinking turned upside down. After the police failed to turn up any leads, a friend suggested she call a dowser—a man who specialized in finding lost objects. With nothing to lose—and almost as a joke—Dr. Mayer agreed. Within two days, and without leaving his Arkansas home, the dowser located the exact California street coordinates where the harp was found.
Deeply shaken, yet driven to understand what had happened, Mayer began the fourteen-year journey of discovery that she recounts in this mind-opening, brilliantly readable book. Her first surprise: the dozens of colleagues who’d been keeping similar experiences secret for years, fearful of being labeled credulous or crazy.
It’s been very gratifying that my articles and lectures about my and others’ research over the years have been able to both ease the minds and educate the minds of so many people who have had unusual experiences, but no framework other than “crazy” or “work of the devil” to deal with them. My own The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together in 2009 was, at one level, a scientific survey, but at an important level, my main attempt to let a wide public know that it’s not true that science has somehow shown all spirituality and religion to be false. Of course there’s superstition and nonsense mixed in with spirituality and religion, so discrimination is needed. But when you look at properly conducted science, there’s lots of evidence to show that it’s reasonable to be both scientific and spiritual in one’s approach to life.
It’s not that my emotional intelligence has gotten so high that I could help people, but just by presenting solid intellectual and scientific evidence that these things happen to normal people, they are not inherently crazy, that’s enough to relieve so many. A few who’ve been in touch with me, of course, did seem to have major psychological and psychiatric problems, of which the apparent psychic or spiritual experiences were just a manifestation, not the cause. I could try suggesting they get some counseling, but, sadly, too often they resisted this. And our knowledge is still way too incomplete. Lots of times it’s not clear whether a person should be have counseling recommended to them or spiritual growth work. I’m hoping that transpersonal psychology and parapsychology will, over time as they develop, make us much wiser here!
Tags: belief, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, clinical psychology, dowsing, Edward Kelly, Elizabeth Mayer, emotional intelligence, emotions, enlightenment, Esalen, Esalen Center for Theory and Research, God, Greg Shaw, Gregory Shaw, intelligence, irreducible mind, John Bamberger, John-Forrest Bamberger, ordinary mind, Parapsychology, psychotherapy, religion, science, scientism, spiritual teachers, spirituality, Transpersonal, unusual experiences
My wife sometimes tells me I limit myself too much in my role as scientist, even as a scientist genuinely interested in the spiritual. My usual response is that science is where I have some expertise, and so may say things that are helpful to others in understanding our minds better, which must be a part of whatever spirituality is. But, my wife Judy points out, you may give people the impression that science is the best way, perhaps the only way, to discover truth, and so inadvertently undermine their spirituality. Ah, yes, that’s possible, and not what I want to do…
So as a small step toward more balance – – –
What Does It All Mean?
Art Work by John Forrest Bamberger
In one of my discussion groups, I saw a clear and succinct statement of what life is all about:
“Who am I?” and “What should I do about it?”
I complimented the originator on this most excellent and succinct statement of the big question of life….
And a result was asked if I wanted to take a shot at answering it….
My first reaction was that I was greatly honored and amused that anyone would think I had a chance at answering that!
But sincerity called for more than an amused avoidance of the question, so as a small answer in progress,
Ah, I love simple questions! ;-)
I’ve been working on this one my whole life, and don’t know an answer yet.
Meanwhile on the journey, I try to
– pay attention,
– be kind to others when I can,
– pray that if I can’t get clear, unmistakable divine guidance, I at least get a little help now and then to not hurt others thru stupidity or malice, and
– try to not get too attached to whatever my current level of understanding is.
One of the specialized online discussion groups I’m part of is composed of people who are supposed to be “spiritual leaders,” open to new ideas. I’ve never been quite sure why I was invited to join, as I’m certainly not a spiritual leader, but it turns out I’m the group’s only full-time scientist who is also interested in what spiritual growth is about, so it gets interesting.
One of the members recently raised a question about astrology, he didn’t know much about it, but wondered if it was a useful vehicle for spiritual growth. I thought I would bring the group up to date on the general scientific view and parapsychological view of astrology, and I’m sharing that brief description here.
Pine Needle World
– John Bamberger –
There have been a number of objective studies of the accuracy of astrological readings about individuals, almost all were non-significant. Non-significant in the sense that the readings did not yield significant numbers of correct, verifiable statements about particular individuals that were different from those for other individuals. That is, the basic questions these studies asked were if you knew the astrological data about a particular person, but nothing else about them, would you then be able to describe characteristics of that person and their life which would be a useful and valid description of that person, over and above generalities?
These kind of readings, and all sorts of psychic readings in general, tend to be full of wonderful statements like “You are very intelligent but sometimes you don’t use your intelligence to its full potential, and other people don’t give you enough credit.” Or “You have a little resentment that people don’t appreciate your full intelligence, but, out of consideration for others, you handle yourself well.”
Oops! Did I just do a psychic reading on you Jeff? Or was it on Phil? Or for David? Or you, Dear Reader? Who is going to object to being so positively and hopefully characterized? And who is going to doubt that it’s deeply true, even if some people might think we make as many mistakes as the next person.
Yes, I’m a fantastic psychic, I have to admit it! ;-)
[Please note the smiley face at the end of above line, don’t say Tart says he’s a great psychic!]
In general these kinds of readings are full of generalities that really apply to almost everybody. A good psychological argument has been made, though, that since they’re usually very positive, it’s often a great bargain to receive nice compliments for a few dollars, it makes you feel good…
Believers in astrology or other psychic systems, of course, say that when tests of any systems show a lack of significance it’s because they were of crude, popular versions of the system, rather than the real thing.
Now, switching to the opposite position, no longer the general scientific view but from the perspective of scientific parapsychology, I will say there is strong evidence that some people have strong psychic abilities, ESP, to read other people. But in general it’s very hard for many such people to just take a chance with their egos (and jealous or suspicious others) and say “I’m wonderful and can do amazing things!” It hasn’t been long in historical terms at all since we burned “witches” at the stake…. So it’s much easier to blame it on the system. So you take some complicated, relatively random set of things, the positions of different stars and planets at birth, how the tea leaves have fallen in the bottom of the cup, how the entrails of a sacrifice are laid out, etc., and claim (and probably believe it yourself) that you are reading information in those patterns. That way any fault lies in the system. You pick up some of the credit for being so smart, but you avoid a lot of blame if people don’t like your reading. It’s probably also true that projecting this way actually helps your unconscious mind, which has gotten the information by ESP, to bring it to consciousness.
I wouldn’t say absolutely that there cannot be anything to astrology, but my working hypothesis, based on what research there’s been to date specifically on astrology, and on psychic stuff in general, is that such readings are mostly generalities. Occasionally some people with working psychic talents use them to make especially good readings of others, but it’s the readers’ psychic talents, not the positions of the stars and planet or the tea leaves s. A very few people sometimes give exceptionally accurate psychic readings, as in remote viewing, e.g. See my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book for detail on that.
Now somebody will probably peg me as having been born with Skeptico rising! Except, of course, those who think of me as being far too credulous and stupid for saying there’s evidence for ESP…
Spiritual growth? I have no doubt some individuals can use a system like astrology to further their own spiritual growth, but I’d suspect the importance is in their intentions and efforts, and/or any spiritual help they get, rather than in the external signs.
There is a prayer that I’ve learned in similar forms from several Tibetan Buddhist teachers. It is normally used as a dedication prayer, a form to follow at the end of any kind of spiritual practice that dedicates the merit of your practice to the welfare of all sentient beings. The translation I’ve come to use, perhaps altered slightly from traditional translations, is
By the power and the truth of this practice,
May all beings have happiness, and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from sorrow, and the causes of sorrow.
May they never be separated from the sacred happiness, which is sorrowless.
May all live without too much attachment and too much aversion,
And live believing in the equality of all that lives.
Galactic Life Forms — John Bamberger
I use this prayer regularly at the end of my meditation practice periods, or as a general way of feeling benevolence toward all life on occasions. I sometimes leave off the first line, “By the power and the truth of this practice,” as I don’t think I do any spiritual practices so well that I can implicitly make claims about their power and truthfulness, at other times I remember to be sure to include that first line in spite of my misgivings, as I have a bad habit of overdoing humility – which, of course, is not humility.
I awoke this morning thinking it would be useful to unpack what this prayer means to me, and to share it with others.
“By the power and the truth of this practice,”
I can appreciate the psychological power of starting with “By the power and truth of this practice.” It reminds us that we are part of a 2500-year-old tradition, not just somebody fooling around on our own. It implies the support of the sangha, other people following Buddhist practices, and especially the psychological, psychic and teaching support of the more realized followers of Buddhism, including various Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Now, as someone raised as a Christian, I have an idea that to be a “good” member of a religion you are supposed to believe all aspects of it. In that sense, I’m not a “good Buddhist,” because while I have great respect for this tradition, and make it one of my main sources of practical guidance in life, I don’t have a blind faith that all aspects of Buddhism are true. Many followers of Buddhism act as if that’s the case, of course, although Gautama Buddha (in his Sutta to the Kalamas) warned people not to take any of his teachings on faith but to thoroughly test them to see if they indeed made sense and worked for them. I also am someone who is very scientifically oriented. I realize that we humans make observations and have experiences and then we come up with intellectual explanations, theories, to explain them. I’m sure that Buddhism, indeed probably all religions, started with powerful and moving experiences, but then people invented theories, called doctrines in this religious context, to make an acceptable sense of them. As a scientist, I have the pragmatic, working belief that all theories are tentative. They are the best we can do intellectually at the time with the data we have, but it’s important not to get overly attached to them because new data/experiences/understandings coming in may show that they are inadequate and need modification or replacement.
So I regard the doctrines and belief system of Buddhism, indeed of all religions, as theories and practices that probably have some usefulness and truth value, yet are probably inadequate and need revision in other ways. It’s more complicated than formal science, though, as most people in a religion are really strongly attached to doctrines at an emotional as well as an intellectual level. Questioning any of the religion’s doctrines is generally not valued, indeed may be considered heresy. People who think of themselves as scientists may also forget the tentativeness of theories also, believe their science has found The Truth, and get emotionally attached to these apparent truths. But, believing that the methods of essential science can help us clarify many things, I respect doctrines, but ask questions. Hopefully my questions are always based on a desire to be clearer about what more and useful and not just emotional reaction to what I don’t like.
So, I find that a lot of Buddhist ideas and practices make sense and work for me. I can see in my own life experience that I’ve come to understand my mind better and live a somewhat kinder and wiser better life. As to the metaphysical aspects of psychic blessings from the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, I hope that those are real, would be glad to receive them, and will be happy to treat them with respect, but I don’t know whether they are ultimate truths or just good, but perhaps not fully adequate theories, so I can and do ask questions.
The next two lines,
“May all beings have happiness, and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from sorrow, and the causes of sorrow.”
This is a straightforward wish and generally I am wholehearted in wishing it. It’s certainly my intellectual conviction. I must admit though that occasionally when I hear about people who’ve done really nasty things to other people and animals, I am angry and feel they should be punished and suffer, and have feelings of delight when they have suffered for what they’ve done. I then usually feel guilty that I have such vengeful feelings, but I remember to recognize that I’m just being human and those kinds of emotions are built into the human package. But I try not to hold on to negative feelings about anyone. If there were practical consequences, such as being careful in dealing with someone who’s been shown to be manipulative and untrustworthy, for example, I would certainly keep those facts in mind and be careful around them, perhaps needing to take forceful action against them if needed.
“May they never be separated from the sacred happiness, which is sorrowless.”
The two lines of wishes that beings may be happy and not suffer are conventional, but this one about never being separated from the sacred happiness is, I believe, much deeper. Indeed Buddhism considers helping someone else to become enlightened is the greatest gift possible, more important than all others. Although I’ve never personally had any deep mystical experiences, my psychological studies have shown me that it’s possible for human beings to have profound experiences of connection, unity, and love for all life, to feel that the universe is actually harmonious, alive, intelligent and progressing in the right direction in spite of apparent evil, and that such experiences can radically change a person’s life. The changes are in the direction of not simply personal happiness but a wisdom and kindness in dealing with others that is very deep.
My understanding of what this dedication wish is about may be limited, but I certainly wish that all of us could have at least a taste, if not a full realization of the sacred happiness, which makes life sorrowless.
“May all live without too much attachment and too much aversion,”
The previous parts of the prayer had been rather general, but I think of this as the practical advice line. Buddhism is very good in recognizing that attachment and aversion, “I want it, I must have it!” “I can’t stand it, take it away!” create all sorts of unnecessary suffering. Indeed, the usual translation of this line is absolute, “May all live without attachment and aversion.” But this strikes me as extreme and impractical, so I prefer Sogyal Rinpoche’s early translation wishing beings to live without too much attachment and too much aversion. It is possible to be resting quietly and peacefully and not particularly wanting or rejecting anything. But if I’m starving, freezing, or in great physical pain, for example, I’ll quickly discover that I am attached to adequate nutrition, warmth and comfort.
Perhaps I don’t begin to understand Buddhism anywhere near enough to appreciate the power of wanting to live with no attachment and no aversion at all, but I’ll certainly go along with the practical advice to anyone to be careful about attachment and aversion and to live moderately. If I’m outside and the weather is very cold, I need warm clothing to keep from freezing. If I will only accept a fashionable brand of outdoor clothing because I’m attached to the stylish impression I make on others, and it’s not readily available, I’ll freeze to death. If I refuse to wear some raggedy looking but otherwise warm clothing somebody offers me, again because I’m attached to how I appear to others, I’m similarly stupid and freeze to death.
“And live believing in the equality of all that lives.”
This last line of the prayer seems quite good intentioned to me, but I have difficulty with it. We human beings are the top predators on this planet. Even if we are vegetarians, and hold the belief that vegetables have no sentience and so cannot suffer when we kill and eat them, we cannot live without treating other beings as less than us and using and killing them. We take in thousands, if not millions of bacteria from outside every day and our immune system kills them off, with no effort on our part. Perhaps, one could argue, there are degrees of sentience, and bacteria and vegetables, as well as “lower” animals are so much less conscious than we are that they don’t suffer enough for us to worry about, but this strikes me as a slippery moral slope that we have to be very careful of. It is, sadly, the venerable human tradition to consider people of other tribes as significantly less human than you are and therefore it’s all right to kill them.…
My primary formal spiritual practice is in various kinds of meditation. I’m not particularly skilled at it, but I’ve come to enjoy various forms of meditation, and I generally do at least a few minutes of it every day. The above is the prayer I end my formal meditation periods with, and while I don’t know with certainty about the reality of possible psychic effects of such a dedication directly helping other people (I hope they do), I do value the mind set it gives me. My intention is that I’m not meditating simply from my personal benefit, I am doing it to be part of a general field of good intentions for life. I have that feeling about some of my scientific work also, that it may benefit all.
Praying to Who or What?
So who or what, you might ask, am I praying to?
The answer to that is highly variable, and depends on my psychological state at the time.
There certainly times, for example, when the conditioning from my childhood Christian religion adds a flavor to my prayer that I’m hoping there is a super-powerful God somewhere who is listening to my prayer and will respond favorably to it. It’s generally not my conscious intention to have that flavor be in my prayer, although I don’t feel a need to suppress it either. That would dishonor my younger self.
I generally have a more intellectual flavor to my prayers that I don’t understand the universe very well, and I’m not sure there are higher beings that listen to our prayers and respond to them – although I hope so – and I hope they are benevolent. If they exist, the dedication prayer is a gesture of respect to them, as well as a psychological way to help keep me connected to humanity and life as a whole. If the enlightened Buddhas and bodhisattvas who are no longer physically with us still exist as active spiritual beings somewhere, I hope that they hear my prayers and others’ prayers and help us all move toward happiness and enlightenment. And, implicitly, I hope that they are not stuck on formality and respond to my good intentions even, though I’m not a “good Buddhist” in the sense of believing all the doctrines or engaging in traditional ritual behaviors.
Note that I called the above an intellectual attitude of my prayers, but it’s also a deeper emotional tone.
I don’t know how much the truth and power the above writing has, but I do pray that it may help at least some beings have happiness and the causes of happiness, be free from sorrow and the causes of sorrow, connect to that deep, sacred level of being, and treat all beings with wisdom and compassion.
Tags: belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, dedication, emotions, enlightenment, gods, John Bamberger, materialism, meditation, mind science, mindfulness, prayer, Sogyal Rinpoche, spiritual teachers, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal
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The folks at GlideWing.com who make this mindfulness web workshop of mine available occasionally have created a nice little video describing it. If I understood how, I would fix it to run automatically here, but if you click on this link http://www.glidewing.com/ctt/mindfulness_home.html it will run.
It promotes the workshop more directly than I would, but my friends tell me I’m too retiring. My mother raised me to think that any admiration of one’s own work, much less boasting about it, was crude and egotistical, so I’ve always tried to do good work and hope that people who might find it useful somehow discover it on their own. I hear that’s not how it is done in our overly -advertised society…. Stupid, actually, if I have learned some things that can help people I need to let them know they exist… ;-)
Anyway I offer a good introduction to becoming more mindful in everyday life, where we really need it, as well as learning fundamental meditation skills, so if you’re interested, take a look. This workshop lasts 3 weeks and starts May 30, 2015, that’s a few days from this posting.
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