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.”
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 http://blog.paradigm-sys.com 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: Buddhism, Buddhist Geeks, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, emotions, enlightenment, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, ITP, meditation, mindfulness, ordinary mind, science, scientism, Shinzen Young, spiritual teachers, state-specific science, suffering, Transpersonal, Vince Horn, Vincent Horn, vipassana
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 (http://www.Glidewing.com).
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: attention, awareness, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, Gurdjieff, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, ITP, meditation, mindfulness, ordinary mind, Ouspensky, perception, suffering, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, waking up
Like many people nowadays, I was raised to be religious and, as a child, pretty much bought into the whole thing. It was my beloved grandmother who took me to Sunday school and then church, and if someone who loved me that much thought this was the way to look at the world, it was good enough for me!
Then my grandmother died, I became a teenager, and, like many teenagers, became very sensitive to the apparent hypocrisy of adults. They didn’t practice what they preached! More importantly, I became fascinated with science and read widely in it, and saw numerous instances where science and religion clashed, with science much the winner of these various battles. And yet, in my very extensive teenage reading, I discovered that there was a very small, neglected field of science, psychical research, later giving rise to the more specialized version of it termed parapsychology, which had strong evidence that some of the things talked about in the spirituality behind religions had a factual basis.
Most of the people I knew with a childhood religion background similar to mine solved their developing conflicts between science and religion by going to one extreme or the other. Materialistic science was right, religion was wrong, all nonsense. Or, their religion was right, science was wrong or irrelevant to evaluating their religion. Or, religion could be thought about on designated holy days and science forgotten on those days, otherwise it had no place in practical life.
I was lucky coming across the idea in the psychical research literature that the methods of science – observe, theorize, test the results of your theoretical predictions, and share all of these steps with intelligent colleagues – which transcend the particular findings of science at any given time, could begin to be applied to religions, or, more accurately, to the spiritual experiences behind religions, and give us a clearer idea of what might have some reality basis and what was indeed superstition and possibly pathological. I’ve been lucky in having a career spanning more than half a century in which I’ve been able to carry out various studies and contribute some knowledge within that framework. I’ve done lots of technical experimentation to clarify various points, and thought a great deal about the implications of various psychic phenomena for spirituality, and a few years ago presented an overview of those findings in my book “The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together.” I did this in a rather general way in that book, though, concentrating on the scientific findings that showed that you could not completely reduce the human mind to brain functions, as materialism claims, and that there were phenomena like what we call telepathy or clairvoyance which gave support to the idea that the human mind transcended mere physicality.
Dean Radin’s new book, “Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities” gets much more specific and concrete that my own book, because he works within the framework created by the extraordinary recent popularity of various forms of yoga. He deals very specifically with many of the sidhis, unusual powers that are claimed to be possible results of practicing yoga, and shows where science supports them, where it doesn’t support them, and where we don’t have much evidence for or against some of them.
I originally thought I would just scan his book, since I know a fair amount about both yoga and Buddhism (which came from the same roots as yoga and shares many of the same beliefs and practices) and especially about the scientific areas of psychical research and parapsychology, but Radin’s book is so well written, and so relevant and specific in so many places that I ended up reading the whole book.
The bottom line is this: if you’re seriously interested in whether there is anything to spirituality beyond the material world, this is must reading. You don’t have to be a dedicated follower of yoga or any other particular religion or spiritual path, and, indeed, you may well be one of those many Americans who, when asked about their religion, claim that they are “spiritual,” but not “religious.” If you have had spiritual experiences that are meaningful to you, but suffered from the pressure to deny their reality because of the prevailing scientistic materialism that is falsely identified with science in our time, you will find a great deal of relief in this book. As I concluded in my “The End of Materialism,” the actual evidence of scientific psychical research let’s us conclude that it is reasonable to be both spiritual and scientific, you don’t have to go to one or the other extreme. Yes, there’s still an enormous amount of scientific research that needs doing to get more specific about these things, you still have to exercise as much discrimination as possible when you hear various claims, but I rate this book as one of the best contributions to examining the reality basis of spirituality that I’ve ever read!
Tags: belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, clairvoyance, Dean Radin, enlightenment, gurus, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, ITP, materialism, meditation, mindfulness, Parapsychology, Radin, reincarnation, science, scientism, telepathy, Transpersonal
A while ago my son David told me that my wife and I would be very interested in a film available on Netflix, Kumaré. This is a film by a young filmmaker, Vikram Gandhi, who grew up in New Jersey. His family had immigrated from India, and from the time he was a child he was fascinated by the devoted religious rituals that his grandmother performed every day. He and the rest of his family had no real interest in any kind of religion, but she was so devout. Having gown up in New Jersey myself, and having been so very close to my own grandmother, I resonated with this.
By the time he was a young man, he had met a lot of people who were reputed to be spiritual teachers, and was convinced that some of them were charlatans, a few of them were genuinely devout but without any detectable, special spiritual qualities once you got to know them, and the rest of them were ordinary people who knew no more about spiritual realities then he did. Why were people so gullible as to be taken in by these “spiritual teachers?”
As a way of testing whether there was anything more to the spiritual life than this, he decided to disguise himself as an Indian holy man, visiting in the United States, and with the mission of making a film about spirituality. He carried a classical Indian, mystical looking, trident-like device, a symbol of Hindu gods, wore robes and a loincloth, and spoke only broken English. The primary limitation he put on himself was that he would not exploit anyone nor teach anything that was beyond his own basic, common sense spiritual belief that we all have the germ of spirit within us and have to find it ourselves. So his message was always some variant of “Look within, your own spiritual self will guide you, you don’t need an outside teacher.”
[can't make the image load here, but can be viewed at URL below]
(image courtesy of http://coccoyoga.com/2012/07/01/yoga-gurus-film-kumare-review/kumare-trident/)
He was introduced to various spiritual groups by his assistant, who was part of the plot, as the living representative of the Kumaré lineage. Soon he was adopted by many Americans as a spiritual teacher, and the film shows these followers’ descriptions of their deep spiritual experiences resulting from their interactions with Kumaré.
As I watched the film I first found myself becoming increasingly angry. How dare this young man put himself in this position when he was no more spiritual teacher then you or I are? And yet…… As the film goes on, I was increasingly impressed that people were having genuine and deep spiritual experiences as a result of listening to his “teachings,” and pouring out their deep hopes and fears to Kumaré.
I won’t spoil the ending of the film when he finally reveals to his followers who he actually is, but I was no longer at all angry. Indeed, I saw that he performed an essential function. He was what we might call a reminder or “place marker,” a living, approachable symbol of spiritual possibilities within each of us. By being such a place marker, he reminded people of their own spiritual possibilities, and they grew in their spirituality!
I think I’ve had a mild lifelong anger at the many religious leaders who probably don’t have much spiritual depth themselves, but now I realize that they may still be serving this place marker function, reminding us of our deeper selves and of the spirit. As long as they are not exploiting people as a result of the charisma that they acquire from being ostensibly spiritual people, we can appreciate what they do.
My apologies to my readers for not having posted anything here for too long.. I have been heavily involved in writing an invited book chapter on hypnosis and meditation, and I have another very complicated chapter in another book that I’m obligated to do on the nature of experiments once we allow for experimenter effects and psychic abilities, so I simply haven’t had the time to do some short essays on many interesting things. I’ll break that inattention by sharing some insight I had about “mental real estate.”
Sometimes I have insights into the way our minds work that, after they occurred, seem rather obvious, and I wonder why I had never thought of them before. On the other hand, one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten on my writing, from a colleagues review of one of my books, was when he said something like “Tart writes about things that are perfectly clear and obvious. It’s just that nobody has ever mentioned them before.” So here’s a possible insight concerning our mental real estate.
Everyone knows that you can’t keep too many things in mind at once. The telephone company many years ago, for example, drew on psychological knowledge that keeping seven items in mind at once was about the limit for most human beings, so kept telephone numbers down to a maximum of seven digits. When you apply knowledge of our limited memory/attention span to the practice of meditation, it gets interesting.
Most of, if not all of, the meditative traditions say that a good deal of our suffering comes from the fact that we get negative, unprofitable, self-attacking, neurotic thoughts into our mind, and they keep reinforcing each other and going round and round. I’m sure, unfortunately, everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about! One of the most basic training aspects of meditation is to teach people to have more control over what their thinking about, but it’s not easy.
One of the simplest applications comes from something I’ve heard Sogyal Rinpoche teach on many times, in saying that the purpose of the practice of mantra is to protect the mind. I was surprised the first time I heard that, as teachings about mantras usually claim these specific sounds have various psychic or cosmic qualities and so are sacred and can bring about particular psychic results. But protecting the mind, what could that mean? Oh, it became clear to me. If you’re busy reciting some mantra over and over again, it uses up your mental real estate, and so may not leave much, if any, room for those self-defeating, repetitive thoughts.
So, using the word mantra loosely for quite non-sacred things, many of us get caught in neurotic “mantras,” things like “I’ve done it wrong again, I could never do it right, I always mess up.” And then “I’ve done it wrong again, I could never do it right, I always mess up.” And then “I’ve done it wrong again, I could never do it right, I always mess up….” On and on and on. But if you really concentrate on repeating some mantra, such as “Om Mani Padme Hum,” “Om Mani Padme Hum,” “Om Mani Padme Hum,” “Om Mani Padme Hum”…. there is no room for your neurotic and self-feeding thoughts.
This is not the height of enlightened practice, of course, but it can certainly be a useful technique for getting you out of a crazy, self-deprecating loop.
The insight that came to me the other day while doing some basic movements in the Tai Chi Chah class (which I loosely translate as simplified Tai Chi for old folks….) that I’m taking is that some of us may have more mental real estate available than others. I like learning this Tai Chi Chah, for example, because doing it correctly does train my concentration, and for a long time I haven’t had enough mental real estate left over to have my mind wander off to other things. But now I have it down well enough that there is mental real estate left over for me in my mind to wander off on other things, like thinking about mental real estate and mantras. So perhaps in so far as meditative tasks are intended to use up all your attention all your mental real estate, in a useful way, the complexity of meditative tasks may have to be tailored to specific people. A task that is sufficient for one person to use up all his or her mental real estate may not do it for another, and that latter person need some more complex tasks to keep his or her mind occupied. Not that that’s the only use of meditation, of course, but it’s one.
This reminds me of what psychologists have found out about getting people into “flow states.” The task has to have just the right amount of complexity. If it’s too easy, you get bored. If it’s too hard, you get discouraged. But if it’s just hard enough to require really good concentration from you, it feels good.
So next time I find my mind wandering as I do Tai Chi Chah, where concentration is highly valued, perhaps I can add something to it, like trying to sense chi energy….
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Men and Women of Parapsychology, Personal Reflections
Rosemary Pilkington, Editor.
Esprit, volume 2. San Antonio, Anomalist Books, 2013
For many years I’ve received numerous inquiries from people who want to become parapsychologists, mainly idealistic young people. The first bit of advice I give them is to ask the question, “Are you independently wealthy?” If you are, you can have a very interesting career, but if, like the vast majority of us, you have to work for a living, then as much as I love parapsychology, as much as I think it’s vitally important, I have to tell you that it may be very difficult to make any kind of living as a parapsychologist. I don’t like saying this, discouraging idealistic young folks, but I feel I have to be realistic in my advice.
Not that I took that advice myself when I decided to devote a significant part of my career to parapsychology. I was young and idealistic (and am still very idealistic!), and didn’t think about things like the need to make a living, and I’m very glad I didn’t take my advice. Luckily the part of my career devoted to more conventional topics like dreams, hypnosis, altered states of consciousness, etc. led to enough success in a more conventional way that I’ve done all right career wise.
So who are the handful of people who work to become scientific parapsychologists anyway? Who want to find out what’s real and not real in the psychic category, how it works, what it means? This just published book is an excellent answer to that question. I’m going to advise it as necessary reading for the people who write me for advice about going into the field, and I think lots of other people will find it of interest.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m one of the people profiled in the book, and like almost all of them, I wrote my own biographical sketch. I also do not have any financial incentive to encourage people to read the book, but, in my belief that I think parapsychology is very important to give us a more noble image of humanity than materialism gives us, I have a lot of incentive to tell people about this book.
What was really interesting and surprising to me when my copy of the book came was that I expected to put it on the shelf with my reference books and perhaps look at it occasionally when I needed to find some bit of factual information about other parapsychologists. But as I started to browse in it, I got hooked! What an interesting bunch of people! And even though I knew almost all of these people professionally, I hadn’t really known about them personally, or the reasons they got into the field, and I was very touched by their stories.
Properly done, science prides itself on the objectivity and factualness of its conclusions, but in the real world, science is done by people, people with hopes and fears, strong points and weak points, needs to prove something, needs to not be fooled. If you want a quite different look at parapsychology than just the scientific publications, and enjoy learning about people, I highly recommend this book!
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Last week my wife Judy and I had flown to Albuquerque, New Mexico to visit my son David and my daughter-in-law, Candyce. After spending an enjoyable weekend with them, we drove up to Taos to see the Earthship project, an ingenious and practical way of building partially earth-buried and solar powered dwellings that is one of the waves of the future. Making our way south again on the 16th, we stopped in the main plaza in Taos for lunch and looking around, we weren’t in a hurry, where Judy bought some gifts for our children in a small store that specialized in local crafts. While she was looking at various items, I was fascinated by the many handheld drums, presumably crafted by local Indians, many of them with particular animals, a buffalo, a bear, an eagle, a beaver, e.g., painted on them. They were the style of drums that are used frequently by shamans all over the world, held by grasping leather cords on the back, leaving the other hand free to beat the drum with a drum stick. I have one of those styles of drum in my study, although I almost never use it, bought after attending some of Michael Harner’s seminars on Core Shamanism back in the 70s, when I thought I might want to try practicing some shamanic techniques. Harner’s 1980 The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing is the classic guide to the essentials of shamanism.
I was fascinated by the various drums, and repeatedly had an urge to pick one up and tap out a brief rhythm on one of them, as a gesture of respect to the shamanic world view, as a gesture of respect to the almost miraculous thing Harner has accomplished in reviving shamanism in the modern world, and to respect the feeling I have occasionally had that if my life had taken a very different course, probably in a quite different cultural setting, I might have become a “shaman,” rather than a scientist. I wanted to do that, but at the same time felt it was probably quite inappropriate. If I was going to make a gesture of respect to the shamanic worldview, I should do it in a proper state of mind and in the proper ceremonial way, not semi-publicly and casually in a store. In the end I didn’t do it, my wife finished buying her gifts, and we continued on our way south.
This occasional feeling that I could’ve been a shaman is something I almost never talk about to people, as it is, to put it mildly, not part of the image we scientists cultivate! Scientists are cool, detached, rational people, usually operating within a completely materialistic worldview. Shamans represent what is seen as a more “primitive” worldview, one where higher and lower spirits and spirit realms are an important part of life, and the shaman is “gifted” to sometimes journey into those spirit worlds and be able to affect things that then have effects in our world, such as healing the sick, finding lost objects, etc. As a scientist I have been quite successful in my scientific career. Now, largely retired, I might be able to get away with expressing an intellectual interest in shamanism, or even of having dabbled in it slightly by attending some of Harner’s workshops, but if I had admitted anything like that earlier in my career I would’ve faced even more rejection and irrational opposition than I did for daring to be interested in the paranormal – and there was quite enough of that as it was!
We returned to our home in the Bay Area a few days later, and what was waiting for me in the accumulated mail? Michael Harner’s new book, “Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality.” Looking at the postmark, it had been mailed the day before my experience of thinking about shamanism and wanting to do a little drum work, so it was on the way while I was looking at the drums…
Coincidence is a major category in orthodox science work. It’s certainly true that some things coincide for no particular reason and we are mistaken to think there’s a connection when there really is none, and it’s also a convenient intellectual excuse for being able to ignore events or experiences that don’t make sense to you and don’t fit into your ordinary worldview. I don’t think the word coincidence is used much by shamans, who see the world as much more connected, particularly in ways that are real but invisible to those of us limited to ordinary conscious perception.
So maybe it was just a coincidence that I got thinking and feeling strongly about shamanism the day after Harner’s new book was mailed to me, and perhaps it was a Coincidence… A reminder of sorts.
Indeed I just remembered that three nights after that I was talking to a new acquaintance about psychic experiences, and mentioning that while sometimes I can imagine why a particular psychic experience was meaningful to a particular person, given who they were, their needs, interests, etc., sometimes I could imagine no clear meaning of that sort, and I suspected some psychic experiences were simply the universe’s way of “rattling our cage,” deliberately grabbing our attention and puzzling us as a way of reminding us that we get too settled into too narrow a worldview, we should remember to widen our view. So perhaps this was specifically meaningful because Michael Harner had been thinking of me just the day before mailing the book, which “telepathically” got me thinking about shamanism – he wrote a very nice personal dedication in the book to me – and/or maybe the universe was indeed reminding me that my worldview was getting a little too narrow.
Among scientist colleagues who I think are pretty stuck in a materialistic worldview I would stress the ordinary coincidence approach in talking about this, but in terms of my personal growth and satisfaction, it’s more interesting to think about the possible shamanic aspects and hints here. (I noticed, as I watched my own psychological state that the word “possible” popped up in the previous sentence because the scientist in me likes to be cautious about how I interpret things. Not a bad characteristic all in all, but dangerous when it becomes automatic.)
Now I’m looking forward to reading a very interesting book!
Will I move more toward shaman than scientist? I doubt it. In this lifetime, the scientist route has worked out too well for me and I feel satisfied in what I’ve been able to contribute to building some bridges between genuine science and genuine spirituality, but who knows what the next lifetime might bring?
And then there’s a whole other level where some scientists are already filling aspects of a traditional shaman role. I don’t have time to discuss that here, but I think I played it strongly in 1993 when I was asked to give a lecture on science and religion at the Second World Parliament of Religion in Chicago (Tart, 1993). My wife had mentioned to me that it would probably be a very colorful event, with representatives from all the world’s religions there in their traditional costumes. That set me thinking, what was the archetypal scientist “costume” I should wear? What “holy icons” and symbols? It was very interesting to note the audience reactions when I stepped on to the stage to lecture wearing a white lab coat, carrying a clipboard, with an identification badge clipped to the lapel of my lab coat and a calculator in my other hand…
Reference: Tart, C. World Parliament of superstition? Scientific evidence for a basic reality to the spiritual. Second World Parliament of Religion, Chicago, September 3, 1993.
Tags: belief, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, emotions, Harner, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, ITP, materialism, Michael Harner, mindfulness, ordinary mind, Parapsychology, science, shaman, shamanism, Transpersonal, unusual experiences
For many years now, most of the small number of professional scientists doing research work in parapsychology have kept in contact through an online discussion group. Much of the discussion is technical, about the best way to do experiments, methodological criticisms or elaborations of them, possible interpretations of results in terms of psychology or physics, etc., but occasionally we branch into thinking about the meaning of parapsychological phenomena. One of our more prominent members recently wrote that he notices a rift running through the discussion group when issues of spirituality versus materialism, or materialists and atheists, arise, and that this tends to inhibit open and honest discussion. I think he is right, and that implicit issues here create confusion, not just among scientific parapsychologists but among people in general, so I want to share a few thoughts about atheism, spirituality, and parapsychology. I write primarily from the perspective of a person who thinks scientific method has done an excellent job advancing knowledge in many areas, but please don’t assume I think that strict scientific method is the only way we can learn anything.
I thought my colleague did an admirable job in bringing up this issue in as rational a form as possible, but I think we should remember that rationality is only part of the picture when discussing things like spirituality, atheism and parapsychology, and our human emotions often push and twist behind the scenes. To call someone an “atheist” is, for a lot of people, not simply a description of their theological beliefs, but a very negative characterization of atheists (irregardless of its truth value) and, insofar as people being called atheists pick up on this negative emotion, is taken as an attack and an insult. I can recall when I was a child that the general assumption was that people who were atheists were quite rare, and probably evil people, Communists, or the like. I don’t know that this assumption had much to do with reality, but that’s the way people thought then, and I think a lot of people still think that way.
So intellectually we can regard the use of “atheist” in discussions as simply descriptive, meaning the person so designated doesn’t think there’s enough evidence supporting the existence of God or gods to make the concept of God or gods a useful working hypothesis for scientists, and/or that there is plenty of evidence arguing against the existence of God or gods. But I suggest we use the atheist/atheism term very carefully and think about possible emotional forces we’re letting loose.
Let’s take the Old Testament God, Jehovah, e.g. I can give you rational sounding reasons why I’m an “atheist” with regard to Jehovah, but, having studied my own psychology for a long time, I know that, for me, they are mainly rationalizations of deeper emotions and thoughts. What it comes down to is that if I’m going to accept any being as god-like, he or she should be a considerably better person (by my standards) than I am, and Jehovah, judging from what I learned in Sunday School and the behavior of a lot of Right Wing “Christians” since then, too often doesn’t make the cut. He insists on constant praise from everyone – chronic insecurities? – punishes those who don’t please him, often excessively – is overly harsh in judging, etc. Heck, I don’t mind being complimented on something I’ve done occasionally, but constant praise? It would drive me nuts and bore me to death! As to harshness, I remember being taught in Sunday School 60+ years ago that Jehovah not only punished those he considered sinners, but their children and their children’s children down to the seventh (or maybe it was the fourth) generation. I was shocked! Talk about a bully and a meanie! Wow! I could almost never hold a grudge overnight before I softened, but punishing the children’s children’s children? Real anger management issues here….
So when I say I’m an “atheist” with respect to Jehovah, what my emotions are actually doing is saying “You (if you even exist) are such a jerk and so unworthy of being a god that I won’t believe in you! So there!” Not the highest manifestation of my maturity, I’m sure, but I can go on thinking more clearly about issues of God or gods versus atheism, spiritualism versus materialism, etc. once I own up to my irrational sides. And while it could be that I’m the only one on a list of scientists and scholars who are otherwise completely rationale, I doubt it…. ;-)
Note that I’m not saying that the reasons I’m denying the existence of Jehovah are exactly the reasons that anybody else in particular has for denying the existence of Jehovah. Given the variety in human beings I’m sure there are many routes to this conclusion, or reaching different conclusions.
Thinking about my rejection of Jehovah for a while, I’ve also realized there’s nothing particularly original in the way I did this. In my childhood family, when you were angry at someone, you cut them off, stopped speaking to them, acted as if they didn’t exist. So at some level I’m pretty childish about the whole thing. Well, better to know when I’m being childish than to rationalize such behavior as mature adult behavior. :-)
One other distinction. I think some people mistakenly believe because of my Western Creed exercise, published in my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book (now available in all major ebook formats, see www.fearlessbooks.com/TartE-Books.htm) and available to work with in video at (http://www.alternativedesignsolutions.com/itp/Tart_ITP.html that I think all atheists, of whatever, stripe, are terrible, selfish, immoral people. But if they had read the book or listened to the video more carefully, they would see that the argument that goes with that psychological exercise is that if you think there’s no inherent meaning in the universe and everything is just accidental, it’s easier to exploit other people irregardless of their feelings Not that you are forced to, it’s just easier. If I’m trying to build something and it keeps coming out wrong I may get pissed off enough to whack it with a hammer! But I’m not likely to whack you with a hammer when you frustrate me, I think there’s something special about you as a conscious being and a spiritual being. And of course there are people who declare themselves atheists who are wonderful human beings, and people who declare themselves very spiritual who are awful human beings. There’s no single cause for hardly anything.
So when someone on my scientific discussion list provides evidence or a theoretical argument that psi, parapsychological effects, is like so-and-so, I don’t care if they are a theist, an atheist, a polytheist, a Satanist, a Wiccan, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Druid, a Sufi (to just list the religions near my home in California) or whatever if they are being scientific and scholarly in their presentation. If it feels like a background set of beliefs might be slanting or distorting their argument, I will probably – gently, no point needlessly insulting people – ask about it to try to get them clearer about their point. I also try to be polite – “Could there be an implication of such-and-such in what you say because of a certain background belief? Can you clarify that?” – rather than “You are wrong!”
And oh yes, I’m an “atheist” about Jehovah (take that, you bully!), but as to other possible gods? [Insofar as there is a real God who is way better than me behind that primitive Jehovah image, I’m sure He/She/It won’t mind my childishness] Well it’s psychological data that people sometimes have experiences that, at first approximation, are easily described as meeting “gods.” That’s data, it shows certain kinds of human experiences are possible. Knowing what kinds of experiences are possible or not possible for human beings is important in advancing our knowledge of ourselves.
Does it mean those “gods” really exist independently of the nature of human consciousness? Interesting question…..If someone can make that specific enough to turn into testable hypotheses, that will be scientifically interesting indeed….
And meanwhile back in the ordinary world what are they up to? ;-)
Tags: atheism, belief, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, emotions, End of Materialism, God, gods, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, ITP, Jehovah, materialism, Parapsychology, rationalization, science, scientism, skepticism, Transpersonal, Western Creed
It seems like forever since I’ve posted anything here, other than the just previous one. A combination of illness, work, Holidays, etc., but I hope now to start sharing some things again!