Is Meditative Observation Fast Enough?
Charles T. Tart
Initial Draft: May 11, 2015
One of my tasks as a transpersonal psychologist is to compare knowledge and theories about observations and beliefs/theories from traditional spiritual paths with modern scientific knowledge, hopefully to the mutual benefit of both. The following is some speculation along that line. I start from two foundations.
My first foundation is general knowledge of the nature of states of consciousness. Studies of various altered states of consciousness (ASCs), such as hypnosis, drug induced states, dreaming and the like have been a central theme in my career. My current best working hypothesis about the nature of ordinary consciousness, resulting from all this, has been that waking consciousness, ordinary consciousness, is a semi-arbitrary construction, is basically the same as nocturnal dreaming, but with one massive difference.
In both cases, mind creates a world and an enveloping space-time framework for it, and events unfold within that experienced world. In the case of nocturnal dreaming, this is accompanied by sensory deprivation, so the constructive and creative processes in nocturnal dreaming, while shaped a lot by the habits of our life experience, are relatively free running, unconstrained by sense input, so occasionally we talk about the bizarreness of dreams, even though dreams reflect ordinary life most of the time. In waking consciousness, on the other hand, while a basic space/time/world framework is created as in dreams, it has to constantly deal with massive amounts of information input from our senses. Its creation must be modified and updated on the fly to adequately represent those. It’s one thing to dream of an attractive road that you wonder across while looking at the wind in the leaves of the lovely trees. When you reach such a road in waking life, your experienced world had better be modified by the oncoming car and the danger it represents if it hits you!
My second foundation was originally drawn from Gurdjieff’s teachings about the Fourth Way spiritual path, supplemented and basically validated by my own experiential observations, namely that we have three kinds of data processing processes or “brains,” as Gurdjieff called them. One is (a) intellectual, words and the logic of words, a second is (b) emotional, a feeling kind of processing, although it may also employ words and images, and the third is (c) body/instinctual processing.
Gurdjieff taught that the emotional brain is faster than the intellectual brain, and may reach a conclusion about a situation you are in and spur you toward action before the intellectual brain has hardly begun to understand the situation, much less work out a sensible course of action. I’ve observed this in myself many times. This distinction has now been validated in terms of neurophysiological studies. Our sensory pathways split in two. A shorter neural pathway goes to older, more “primitive” parts of the brain that can trigger emotions, while a longer (more time-consuming relays from one neuron to another) pathway goes to the “higher” reasoning processes in the frontal cortex. Thus the emotional brain perceives the world quicker, although generally considered to do so in a cruder, less discriminative way than our higher functions. If it sees danger it may “hijack” overall brain processes by massively increasing the level of activation, stimulating hormonal production, and producing imagery and words that are a major part of an emotion. Someone walks into your peripheral visual field, for example, who resembles, but not actually is, an enemy of yours that you realistically have to be wary of. Before you can take a good look and realize this is not your enemy, you have a jolt of fear or anger or both, your body starts getting ready for flight or fight. It’s hard to calm down once your mind has been hijacked like that, and your ongoing perceptions may be further distorted to support the activated emotion.
The speediness of the emotional brain can be adaptive as well as crazy-making. Eastern teachers, for example, use a traditional analogy that you’re walking along a jungle path in the twilight and you see something that looks like a snake. You’re frightened and leap back. It turns out to be a piece of colored rope lying on the ground. This is used as an example of misperception, but it could be just as well used as an example of adaptation. It’s much better for the emotional brain to crudely but mistakenly think it’s a snake and have you jump back before you can be bitten than to stand there while waiting for higher brain functions to get clearer about it and perhaps get bitten and die.
Now my question about how fast meditative observation can be.
I’m thinking about the emotional brain’s function from an engineering perspective, in terms of efficiency. Insofar as you want it, when perceiving possible danger, to react as quickly as possible and so get you away from the danger, the output of the emotional brain, images (in any sensory modality) and emotional feelings and words should be powerful and easily and quickly displayed. For our example of the possible snake on the path, you don’t want to take a long sequence of moments to display, say, any small harmless snake, which in several stages morphs into a bigger, fairly poisonous snake, you want a poisonous snake in a threatening posture to display as close to instantly as possible. An extra tenth of a second delay in getting the information to consciousness may be the difference between jumping back in time or getting bitten. Then you jump back or, unfortunately, are paralyzed with fear. After that initial message, the emotional brain and/or higher centers can work on presenting more accurate information, a visual image of the actual kind of snake it is.
Now I’ve been told that practitioners who are really good at Vipassana meditation have learned to detect briefer and briefer events, including their rising, staying, and fading. Or you could say able to detect a larger number of brief events per second.
I’m not good at this personally. In my normal Vipassana practice, I prefer and probably implicitly will a slower rate of change, say one event per second or even several seconds per event, so that I can equanimously take in particular events in more detail (detect — grok with equanimity — allow to stay, morph or go). If I set my intention to looking for faster changes, I can work up to perhaps three or four per second, but by then my actual perception of the individual events has become quite blurred. By analogy, I could listen to a series of click-like brief sounds, each one of which was slightly different, at a slow speed and hear the differences, but at several per second it just becomes a kind of buzz.
So my question (not expressed as clearly as it could be as I’m still groping for something here), for those much more skilled than me, is, when doing Vipassana, and an event arises which has some emotional significance, is the initial information generally “generic,” rather than specific? And then after a few instants it is further processed and becomes more accurately specific?
To make up a possible example, I’m meditating and a car backfires on the street outside. I’ve been shot at in the past, so sounds like this are threatening. Perhaps, for example, a generic image of a man with a rifle rises in my mind, to be corrected a few instance later by an image of a car with a puff of smoke coming out of its tailpipe? Visual imagery is easiest to describe, of course, but I ask this question with respect to all sensory modalities.
I’m particularly curious whether any skilled meditators actually experience things this way. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are Buddhist scriptures that make relevant claims, but I tend to have a suspicion that when you have a tradition that has had 2500 years of scholars associated with it, many of whom may not have actually meditated much themselves, the concepts-to-reality ratio may have gotten rather high.
I suspect that electrophysiological studies will eventually be able to measure when a generic information presentation by the emotional brain gets replaced with something more specific, although that may be a subtle enough transition to not be detectable for a long time. Indeed my best guess about the nature of consciousness is that there is some real but “dualistic” component, so that a complete understanding will not come from neurophysiology or the introspective disciplines alone, but from a study of both components and the outcomes of their interactions.
Meanwhile, I wonder….
March 18, 2015. This needs more expansion, refinement, editing, but since I’m going off on a meditation retreat in a couple of days I’m liable to lose track of this (samsara sucks, as you’ll see) so want to get something up here.
Samsara Sucks… But Attention/Intention Can Unstick It
Thoughts on automatization, samsara, freedom, meditation, enlightenment, awakening, noting, labeling
Charles T. Tart
In the way he teaches basic meditation, Shinzen Young asks us to first note an experience as it arises and progresses, and, if it is helpful, to also apply a label to it. Noting is to consciously realize you are having a particular experience at the moment, and, as much as possible, to be aware of it with concentration, clarity, and equanimity. That is, you steady your attention on it, “look closely” at it as it were, which leads to more clarity. Neither try to make the experience last and be better than it is or to push it away if you don’t like it. Be equanamous about it.
As our minds, to put it mildly, tend to drift with no respect to our conscious intentions, it’s helpful to add the process of labeling to noting, although it may not always be necessary. Labeling means applying a word to the experience, classifying it. At its most basic, an experience could be labeled as visual (seeing), auditory (hearing) or tactile (feeling). The most minimal amount of labeling would be mentally applying a single label word to an ongoing experience. The attention and effort involved in labeling could be increased by, say, actually whispering that particular word aloud (in a completely matter-of-fact tone) up to saying that word aloud loudly enough so that someone else could clearly hear you. Having a student speak the labels aloud for a particular meditation processes is commonly used by Shinzen when he individually interviews and coaches a student to get a more direct report of what the student’s experience is like, possibly leading to procedural suggestions to make the meditative process more effective.
I have just completed a four hour telephone retreat with Shinzen and other students on a simplified version of his noting and labeling system, a very rich experience. It stimulated a number of reflections I’ve had about the process to come together.
Living in Illusion, Samsara:
My understanding of the ordinary human condition, gained through my reflections on personal experience, my formal education in psychology, and especially working in the Gurdjieff tradition and in basic Buddhist meditation, has been that in many ways we live in a state of illusion and lack of freedom, what has been called samsara. “Illusion” in the sense that we often do not have an accurate perception of the world around us, or our own internal psychological world for a variety of psychological reasons. Lack of freedom in that many possible avenues of action are cut off to us by lack of knowledge of them, prejudice against them, or neurotic barriers. A major consequence of living in samsara is that every life is filled with a great deal of suffering that is unnecessary. Some suffering will occur: if you break your leg it’s going to hurt! But much suffering wouldn’t arise, or would not be of any real consequence if we had a clearer perception of the reality of the external world and ourselves, and so were freer to choose appropriate responses and styles of living.
Although my knowledge of meditation then was shallow, back in the 70s, when I lectured on meditation in my popular altered states of consciousness class at the University of California at Davis, I over-simplistically said it had two main purposes. One was to induce altered states of consciousness (ASCs) because the experience of being in such states and/or the insights gained from them had important values. The other was to “purify” the functioning of ordinary consciousness, to reduce the distortions and perversions of perception, emotional feeling/thinking, intellectual thinking, and action so that our ordinary lives became more effective and happier. Decades later I know the meditation can involve much more than these two dimensions, and they interact strongly anyway. The remarks I want to make now are about this latter dimension, purifying ordinary consciousness.
Fourth Way teacher G. I. Gurdjieff encapsulated a lot of truth in his simple and blunt statement, “Man is a machine.” He meant that our mental lives are dominated by rigid, mechanical reactions. Build a machine in a certain configuration or push a certain button on it and the outcome is certain, there is no question of choice or freedom. In more modern psychological terms, I would say that much of our mental life is built of conditioned reactions, if A, then B, with no real choice. We also have culturally biased and conditioned perceptions, feelings, and thoughts and/or with neurotically biased perceptions, feelings, and thoughts added to the mixture. I would not state it as absolutely as Gurdjieff, and of course he did not really mean it in an absolute sense, for if we had no conscious choice at all, there’d be no hope of doing anything about it. Still, it is extremely hard to develop enough understanding of the way your mind works, to be able to see more adaptive ways it could work, and to develop the willpower to do so. So I would put it, we human beings are highly automatized in our perceptions, intellectual and emotional evaluations, and actions, but there are methods which have a chance of making these freer, giving us clearer perceptions and more choices as to actions.
One aspect of this, based on years of psychological and meditative observation of my own mental processes, as well as general psychological knowledge , could be put bluntly as saying that “Automatized processes suck!” That is, when circumstances (external events, or reactions to external events) trigger many highly automatized processes of perception, thinking, feeling and reaction, those processes not only run and progress, they tend to suck up most or all of our consciousness in ways that reinforce these processes. Somebody looks at you funny from across a room, for example, which triggers automatized perceptions and reactions that “People don’t love me!” In the first second or fraction of a second, this is a relatively low intensity reaction, but in many cases it kind of sucks up more and more of consciousness, and within two or three seconds you are feeling really bad about nobody loving you, and your perceptions are now further biased so that, for example, you’re more likely to notice anybody looking at you with an unpleasant expression on their face, further strengthening the process of feeling rejected. A funny look from somebody lasting half a second might make you feel miserable the rest of the day.
When I practice Vipassana meditation (mostly in the way Shinzen Young taught me), I’m usually relatively passively observing the flow of whatever experiences come up. My practice can be allowing seeing, hearing, or touching modalities, or whatever mixture of modalities happens to arise at a particular moment. I’ll use the visual modality as an example here.
A visual image arises, and sometimes I’m able to observe it with relative concentration, clarity, and equanimity. It passes, or morphs into another image, I observe the next one, etc. But frequently I cannot keep up this somewhat independent, intentional sequence for very long, as a particular visual image sucks in the rest of my mind. What was primarily an emotionally neutral visual image, located in my habitual image space (behind my closed eyes), rapidly, instantly it often seems like, turns into a brief dream, a dreamlet, sometimes a longer dream, where I’m absorbed in the world of that evolving image, things are happening in it, and relevant thought (internal speech) may become a part of it. It may take several seconds (or sometimes a minute or two) before I realize that in terms of my starting intention to observe the flow of a modality with concentration, clarity, and equanimity I’ve lost it ! I’ve been sucked into a little dream, losing track of the rest of me and my intention. That’s why I talk about the sucking power of ongoing internal processes, that automatized processes suck.
Now, my reflection on being caught in samsara versus freedom or awakening.
Consensus Reality Orientation (CRO) Activity:
My experience suggests that there is a continuous generation process of images, thoughts, and feelings going on all the time outside of the central focus of ordinary consciousness. (Shinzen once suggested to me that this is what the Hindus called the Bhavanga, but the more I read about the Bhavanga, the less I become sure there is any one clear definition of what’s meant by that term) This process could be what has been called the unconscious in Western psychology, and it becomes more pre-conscious when I’m practicing Vipassana. In my own formal theorizing about the nature of the mind, I think of this flowing stream as the action of the Consensus Reality Orientation (CRO), a part of our mind devoted to rapid simulations of “What if?” scenarios, based on what’s happened recently and what might happen soon, and that it may have a useful function in bringing knowledge that could be useful in the immediate future closer to consciousness, so it can be more rapidly retrieved than if it had to be brought out of deeper storage layers. Whatever….
If you’re interested in understanding how your mind functions, as I have been all my life, it’s been a great blessing to learn how to observe this ongoing CRO stream. It’s not that it’s given me specific “insights” in the Western psychotherapeutic sense of that term, so much as a feeling for an important process of the mind.
It’s hard for me to observe this ongoing imagery process in my ordinary waking state, but with my eyes closed, intending to observe it in the Vipassana-like way, it becomes much clearer and stronger. This makes it more observable, but remember that it sucks! When I “get closer” to it to see it more clearly, I’m more likely to get sucked into it.
I’ve been fairly good at times at being able to go somewhat further “in” and still realize, in spite of the overall fuzziness of consciousness such “penetration” creates, that I am there to observe it with concentration, clarity, and equanimity, but it isn’t easy. I’ve likened the CRO stream to a valley running through my mind, with all sorts of events happening in the Valley, more events the deeper you go. As I get close to the “rim,” I can start to see some of these deeper events, and if I start down the gentle slope of the rim it gets clearer and clearer: except the chance of slipping and being totally sucked into ongoing dreams gets greater and greater! Sometimes I’m pretty good at going part way down the sloping rim and still staying aware, other days I have to stay further from the rim, even if the observation isn’t as good, or I just can’t maintain my balance.
So my basic observation process of this ongoing stream is vipassana plus noting. Adding labeling to that noting definitely stabilizes me. I can get more into the phenomena, but the need to keep my “balance” means that at the very least I must mentally apply a label to it, and, even more so, saying a label out loud tends to keep me from slipping and getting lost.
There’s a whole technology of labeling involved here for me. For example verbally complex labels, those of several syllables or several words, interfere with my observations too much, I don’t like to do them, and they tend to make me so alert that the imagery tends to disappear. Single syllable, easily pronounceable labels are the best. Hear. See. Feel. (I’ve been experimenting lately with adding other single word labels that I’m finding useful. Try. Blur. Clear.)
Okay bringing this back to what I experienced a lot of today, noting and labeling both need to vary in their intensity from moment to moment for optimal effects for me. At some of my best moments, I don’t have to consciously “note” a particular experience, I just am experiencing it steadily and clearly and with equanimity. At many, if not most of my moments, the sucking power of ongoing experience is pulling at me though, so I can lose “me” in the ongoing stream of experience, get absorbed* by it, which doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment, since I get distracted in ordinary life all the time. As I feel the sucking power be too strong, though, I can add deliberate noting, in the sense of running a parallel process from just experiencing something to using one of those classificatory noting words, and, if the sucking power is really strong, adding a verbal label, particularly a spoken label, helps me keep my observational balance.
[* Something I’ve never understood properly, incidentally, is why “absorption” is often spoken of highly in spiritual/mystical literature. I get sucked into stuff all the time. If my automatized habits are good ones that may simply mean I do what work is needed well, but the automatization of ordinary life can too easily lead to useless suffering. Probably there is some special meaning of “absorption” but I don’t begin to get it.]
Okay, there’s someplace else this needs to go yet, but I don’t know what it is yet, so I’m stopping writing for now…
Samsara Has Demonstrated Its Ability To Suck:
Waking in the middle of the night, I realized that samsara or the CRO process had demonstrated its ability to suck the more conscious parts of my mind into what was happening in the very course of my writing about it. I had gotten absorbed in, sucked in by the details of the above, fascinating lines of reasoning, and had totally forgotten a main dimension that I wanted to talk about through this discussion.
One of my prime understandings of what it means to be “asleep,” “waking sleep” in Gurdjieff’s terms (similar to but probably not identical to “unenlightened” in Buddhist terms), is that practically all of our mental, emotional and physical life can be sucked up by subroutines that largely run automatically. Attempts to change these, and creating more desirable subroutines, habits, themselves become automatized, and so we become more asleep while having interesting ideas about waking sleep.
I recall the time half a century ago, reading Ouspensky’s book In Search Of The Miraculous, about Gurdjieff’s ideas. One day I actually applied Gurdjieff’s technique of directing my attention both inward and outward simultaneously (“self-remembering”) and, compared to my usual state of consciousness, I “woke up!” My recollection of it is not too dependable at such a time distance, of course, but for a few seconds I was what seemed fully alive and aware. In that period, all the rest of my life, by contrast, seemed to have been just a bunch of mechanical sequences. Nobody was “home.” After a few seconds at the most of this, I slipped right back, hardly realizing I slipped back, into my usual automatized, “normal” consciousness. While I thought about the experience and talked about Gurdjieff’s ideas about awakenings once in a while, it was many years later that I actually tried and successfully made the self-remembering effort which gave me more moments of awakening.
To be more accurate, I call my early experience a “relative awakening,” relative to my ordinary state of consciousness, as I have no direct, experiential idea what more is possible beyond this heightened state of awakeness and alertness. But if that early, momentary state could feel so much more aware and alive compared to my ordinary state, are there states even higher? “Enlightened” states?
I’m resisting the sucking power of samsara now, although it would be interesting and useful to be drawn along in the direction we were just going in. Back on track!
Freedom of Attention/Intention vs Automatization Dimension:
The dimension of conscious functioning I want to introduce is this.
At any given moment, as well as on average and for longer stretches of time, how much of our consciousness is sucked up in automatized experiences and reactions to experiences, and how much is relatively free to have a wider, clearer perspective and possibilities of action? At this moment, for example, my background mental processes, the CRO, have a bunch of interesting memories and ideas ready if I want to pursue them, but part of my mind is remembering that I want to write about… Struggling to find the best words here, come on, CRO, do your thing!… the use of deliberate intention and attention to unstick ourselves from these samsaric, automated processes and so let us live, at least for moments, in a consciousness that has* a clear perception of the world around it and its own inner workings, is able to focus more clearly and intentionally, and is better able to resist the sucking pull of ideas and emotions.
[* I say “has” as that was the immediate experience, I was obviously much more awake, but, to be more objective, I should say “seemed to have.” I don’t know of any objective tests of ostensibly more awake states of consciousness that actually demonstrate more accurate perceptions, styles of thinking, etc.]
This is an interesting struggle I’m going through right this moment… Concepts and words are not coming to me readily, they’re taking longer and I have to keep pushing for them, and it’s very tempting to just sip my coffee, go look at my e-mail, allow myself a pleasant ride along with the habitual patterns of my mind.
Okay I’m just going to say it straight, instead of staying lost in trying to figure out the best way to say it.
To the degree to which you learn to use deliberate attention and intention, you have an opportunity (results not guaranteed) to become clearer and more awake. Although I’m not a totally convinced believer of any religious/spiritual doctrines, my working hypothesis here is the Buddhist idea of original purity, that our nature is basically that of any Buddha’s nature. So to the extent that we unstick ourselves from automated, samsaric life, we will naturally not only become more perceptive and intelligent, but more compassionate and wise. This will be a natural progression, wiser and more compassionate actions will just become the obvious thing to do, not a bunch of “shoulds” forced on us from the outside.
This ratio of available, conscious intention/attention to automated processes dimension is not a dimension I hear of in formal Buddhist teachings very often, although it may be there expressed in ways that I don’t fathom. Thus it’s not so much the specific form of meditation, what you focus or don’t focus on, etc., that matters, it’s the practice at creating and holding deliberate attention and intention that builds strength of these areas, thus increasing the ratio of conscious processing to automatized processing, and is a major factor responsible for any psychological and spiritual growth.
Open Exploration versus Reinforcement of Conceptual System:
Above I said “To the degree to which you learn to use deliberate attention and intention, you have an opportunity (results not guaranteed) to become clearer and more awake.” We might distinguish here a kind of “pure” use of attention and intention whose only goal is purer, perhaps totally pure, perception of what actually happens, a kind of scientific curiosity. But in real life we use attention and intention, both in ordinary life and in specialized ways like meditation, to discover and understand better ways, happier ways to live, and to guide ourselves to evolve in that direction. To recognize its actual complexity, meditation is not simply a variety of techniques for studying and using the mind, it’s a variety of techniques done within conceptual, philosophical frameworks about the way reality is and what is desirable for human beings. To the extent that there is a single, absolute Truth about reality, and to the extent that a particular conceptual framework in which meditation is taught and practiced mirrors that Truth well, no problem if the conceptual system tends to mold your experience. To the extent that the conceptual system does not mirror that absolute Truth, or that there may not be a single Truth, problems can arise. While believing we are understanding the operation of our minds more clearly, we may be also shaping and conditioning them to operate in other ways, which may seem like self-evident truths, but which are distortions of reality, which are samsaric, deluded.
From my earliest exposure to techniques of meditation, I was already firmly in love with the ideal of science being a search for Truth per se, no matter what you wanted it to be or preferred it to be. This was it’s great nobility, the transcendence of personal beliefs and desires, often with the personal sacrifice of knowing you could find out you were Wrong about things, in the search for Truth. (Or, since Truth was probably far down the timeline, for better and better understandings that lead toward Truth) Thus when I was exposed to vipassana meditation teachings, the common translation of the vipassana as “insight” meditation sucked me right into the scientific framework: vipassana was another way of nobly searching for Truth, regardless of what you wanted or believed.
Yes, I also wanted to be happier, more intelligent, wiser, more compassionate, etc., but I always thought of those sorts of things as relatively automatic effects of having deeper and deeper insights into Truth, especially its spiritual nature. Thus I was somewhat surprised and shocked in reading Braun’s 2013 scholarly book (The Birth of Insight. Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw. ) about the origin of the modern vipassana meditation tradition by the Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw. Ledi Sayadaw recommended great familiarity with the basic Buddhist texts, especially the Abhidhamma, before even starting meditation practice. Indeed, it was best if you had memorized the Abhidhamma. Then when you practiced vipassana meditation, you were to immediately recognize the nature of each experience that arose in terms of these preset Buddhist philosophy and categories.!
Okay, insofar as there is one ultimate Truth and Buddhism is an excellent reflection of that, that’s probably helpful. We automatically and intellectually analyze experience practically all the time normally, and to have that analysis be in a correct philosophical and reality framework as opposed to an incorrect one is generally bound to be useful. But it’s not science, it’s training yourself to habitually see things in terms of a dominant mainstream (in Buddhist cultures) theory, rather than observe as carefully as possible and then think about your observations in whatever sorts of ways turn out to be useful. Indeed, many of the most important advances in science have occurred because scientists have noticed that their observations, the data, did not fit with the prevailing mainstream theory (the field’s paradigm), and so a totally new overarching view, a new paradigm, was called for and was created. At its worst, then, vipassana meditation in this original form can be seen as a form of reconditioning, of “brain washing.”
Okay, drifting, getting sucked in various directions again…, Time for a break…
To be continued sometime…
Tags: abhidhamma, attention, attention/intention, awareness, belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, Consensus Reality Orientation, CRO, emotions, enlightenment, Gurdjieff, illusion, intenstion/attention, intention, Ledi Sayadaw, maya, meditation, mind science, mindfulness, ordinary mind, Ouspensky, perception, samsara, Shinzen Young, Shor, spiritual teachers, Transpersonal, vipassana, waking up
John Forrest Bamberger – Psychedelic Sunset 2
As mentioned in a variety of places, years ago I gave up meditation practice, having decided that it apparently took a certain kind of talent that I didn’t have, so it was a waste of time for me to continue. Then I met meditation teacher Shinzen Young at a scientific conference, found that he explained basic meditation in a way that made sense to me and that I could actually carry out, and I’ve been practicing meditation for many years since then. I say practicing, rather than doing, for many of my meditation sessions are still primarily times of frustration to me, as I don’t think I’m doing it correctly or it doesn’t come out the way I’d like it to, but at other times it flows nicely.
I’ve now reached a point where I’m wanting and able to follow Shinzen’s and Sogyal Rinpoche’s advice to not slavishly follow any particular style of meditation practice, but explore various ways and focus on practices that “work” for me. I won’t try to define just what work” means here, let’s just roughly say that after most of my meditation sessions nowadays I feel both relaxed and feel as if something useful has been done.
I want to put up this record of what I’m now working on as of early March of 2015. Perhaps I can find earlier records of what meditation is like for me and see what the difference is now . My main reason in posting this is in the hope that it may give other people some useful ideas, especially other people who want to understand the workings of their own minds.
The following is adapted from a letter I just wrote to Shinzen Young.
Dear Shinzen, Date Composed: March 3, 2015
The kinds of practices you’ve taught me over the years, basic vipassana meditation and many variations on it, have made me much more sensitive to my own internal processes. This is rewarding, as I’ve always been curious about how my mind (and other minds) work. I’m now becoming confident enough about my ability to observe that I’m experimenting with tailoring my meditative tasks. Particularly as I’ve long suspected that what I’m doing, even if only semi-consciously doing, is often more important than the content of what I’m experiencing. What I’m going to describe here is something I’ve been playing with for a few weeks that, to broadly describe it, shifts the observational focus from content to process. That’s an oversimplification, of course, as there is much overlap with the way you taught me this originally and with the rough labeling) categories I’ve thought of so far.
(An important distinction here is that basic Vipassana calls for noting aspects of experience with concentration, clarity, and equanimity. You observe something arising, you try to “look” at it or “feel” it or “hear” it more clearly, without being distracted, and without being caught up in desiring more of it or rejecting it, wishing it would go away. An aid to this basic noting is labeling. It is usually your choice as to whether to add labeling, just mentally or (quietly) out loud, to help your concentration. For me labeling is usually mentally saying to myself, albeit in a quiet, matter-of-fact mental tone, a simple label that further clarifies what you’re experiencing. In what follows I tend to talk as if active labeling is going on all the time, but what I’ve said can apply to simply noting.)
Now I’ve become more humble about what I think I know as I’ve gotten older, and try to think of my “knowledge” more scientifically as working hypotheses, useful formulations about reality, but hypotheses, subject to alteration as they are tested against what happens in reality. That is I’m trying to remember that my world view is just that, a world view, undoubtedly containing some truth, probably wrong about some things, but biasing my perception, thinking and experience, so I need to stay alert to actual experience.
There are several working hypothesis behind what I’m doing.
The first (1) is that an awful lot of our suffering in life comes from relative unconsciousness and lack of clarity about the way our minds work. I think I’ve written about Shinzen’s clear formulation of this in some earlier post where Suffering (experiential reality) is a multiplicative product of the actual Pain interacting with you Attitude or Resistance to the pain.
Thus while there are real reasons for obstacles and suffering, (2) our unskillful understanding and (3) consequently unskillful reactions greatly and needlessly increase our suffering.
The fourth working hypothesis is that (4) almost any method to bring more deliberate, conscious attention to the way our minds work is useful for psychological and spiritual growth, thus making us more insightful, comfortable, and effective in the way we use our minds. A footnote that last working hypothesis is that (4A) even if the categories that guide our observation are not ultimately accurate, the very fact that we are deliberately making observations is useful.
If I had to roughly and over-simply characterize Shinzen’s approach (very difficult to do because he ingeniously experiments with different approaches for his students) his most recent set of primary categories are see, hear, feel, visual experience, whether of the outside world or internal visual imagery, auditory experience, whether of the outside world or internal auditory imagery, and tactile experience, whether of the outside world touching our bodies or internal bodily feelings. As I’ve understood Shinzen’s directions (and I know I may have my personal biases in this) I would say he has taught us to pay more conscious attention to those three primary categories of experience, and using categories gives us specific things to anchor in the present with at any moment. At this moment, e.g., I’m seeing a computer screen in front of me, I’m feeling the vibrations of my voice speaking aloud as I dictate these words, I feel the movement of my body as I play with something from my desk in my hands while still talking, I hear the noise of the fan in the heater (although it’s probably the slight tinnitus I have in my hearing). I’m more present in this moment, and much (all?) of this presence comes from my trying (and succeeding to various degrees) to more clearly experience the various contents of experience from moment to moment.
In saying the approach I’m experimenting with emphasizes shifting the focus from content to process, there is still plenty of content to anchor with in any experience, but the observations I would now make, in addition to seeing the computer screen, feeling the vibrations of my voice, feeling the movement of my hands and hearing the noise of the fan are that I had a desire to illustrate the general point I was making, I deliberately shifted my attention to seeing to get a visual example, then again deliberately shifted my intention/attention to feeling, then to moving, and then to hearing. That is I’m still intending to be aware of the content of ongoing experience, but I’m focusing more of what I’m doing, intending, attending to…
I’ve listed a whole bunch of categories below that I have used to various extents to date, with one-word labels for various processes. ( Even when the label is merely an aural, mental image, I find the closer it is to a single syllable, the easier it is to use it without interfering with what I’m observing.) I suspect most, if not all of the categories and labels below will turn out to be subsets of some of Shinzen’s more detailed categorizations, but it’s what feels interesting to me at present.
I’m actually kind of amazed that I can stay pretty much on top of process observation, not just noting but using a short verbal label about once or twice every breath when I really concentrate.
Where will this take me? Am I getting anywhere? I don’t know, but it feels like I’m shining more light into the driving/creating/causing but normally unconscious parts of my mind, and it’s interesting!
Would I recommend this focus of meditation to anyone else? Don’t know. I think it’s harder than the usual start of vipassana instruction and it’s only years of practice that let me do it moderately well, but maybe that’s just my kidding myself. Anyone wanting to get really serious about meditation, I can give them a start with my mindfulness books (Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science ) and online webinar (http://www.glidewing.com), but if they want to go deeply, they should work with an accomplished meditation teacher like Shinzen Young or some of the many other fine teachers now available.
My semi-organized knowledge as of 3-3-15
|Brief Label||Explanation||Synonyms, Comments|
|Attend||Deliberately paying attention to some particular experience|
|Blank past||Retrospective realization of blankness|
|Blank now||Concurrent recognition of blankness|
|Noticing that a particular experience is getting less sharp, less clear, blurry for visual, fuzzier body if auditory, more vaguely defined if feeling||Fuzz|
|Body Adjust||Deliberately adjust posture/position|
|Check||Consciously checking on how well I’m following the instructions I’ve given myself for a particular meditation session|
|Converse|| An internal conversation, both hearing “thoughts” in words and intentionally creating words in response, like
in a real conversation
|Very communicable in that the words can be repeated|
|Create||Deliberately making something happen, it didn’t just happen by itself|
|Daydream||Combination of visual imagery and internal talk that’s catching me up to some degree, and has a sort of plot of its own, even if it doesn’t last very long, not random, unconnected sensations||For me, daydreams have vision and sound, but rarely if ever have any touch or emotional component|
|Desiring||Wanting something in particular to happen|
|Dream||A visual and auditory inner experience with plot that you could relate, that you’re almost totally involved in while it’s happening: you don’t know it’s a dream.|
|Dreamlet||A shorter version of a dream, as above||Exact boundary between dreams and dreamlets is hard to define|
|Emote||Clearly an emotion, not just a tactile experience|
|Evaluate||Deliberate thinking about and evaluation of an experience or a pattern of experiences|
|Exhale||Deliberately and consciously exhale|
|Fantasize||A broader category that could include daydreams, dreams, and dreamlets|
|Feel||Any tactile experience|
|Fixate, active||Using deliberate intention/attention to keep a particular experience stable and lasting|
|Fixate, passive||Observing that something has spontaneously become relatively fixed and lasting|
|Flow||Any and all kinds of experiences, such as seeing, hearing, feeling, changing and morphing one into another|
|Go deeper||A somewhat vague category of using intention/attention to make an experience more profound, such as an increase in its clarity or emotional tone|
|Gone||Realizing with instants of it happening that some experience has had a major change in quality||Not just relatively continuous flow|
|Hear||Any auditory experience|
|Intend/Attend or Attend/Intend||Recognizes that attending to something is often a way of intending it to be fixed or changed in a desired direction, and intending those things for something always involves some degree of deliberate control of attention. Intention/attention is always some mixture, even if mainly more one than another||Use when it’s not obvious that what’s happening is more attention or intention|
|Judging||Judging, evaluating other people, or any pair or set of experiences|
|Narrowing||Intentionally narrowing field of attention/intention||Not just flow to tighter field|
|No satisfaction, Dukkha||The general feeling that some particular experience is in some way or other unsatisfactory, incomplete, hasn’t reached a useful or acceptable conclusion||Dukkha|
|Opening||Intentionally opening to, accepting some fact of experience more than normally||Not just flow to wider field|
|Please||A yearning that something come about with the help of “something” or “some processes” or “beings” that is different from the meditator’s conscious mind. Poorly defined prayer, hoping “something” or “someone” will help||Bringing in god and goddesses…|
|Pull||Attachment, desire for something to become stronger or better or last|
|Push||Attachment, desire for something to become weaker, go away, or to end|
|Pray||Conscious, deliberate prayer to something other than your own mind for help|
|Question||Wondering, questioning what you are doing in this moment|
|Relax||Both mentally and physically and emotionally|
|Relax into Flow||Discovering there was an effort, intention, intention/attention, to control experience and then relaxing, letting go so that experience flows as “it wants to.”|
|All-Rest||Rest in all modalities|
|See||Any visual experience|
|Self-monitor||Process monitoring, how you are doing with the practice at this moment|
|Sinking||Getting drowsier, duller, sleepier||This is recognizing the general loss of clarity and energy that comes with sleepiness, rather than more specific phenomena like visual imagery or dreamlets or blur|
|Spread||Intentionally widening the incoming experience channel, attending/intending to more|
|Startle||Being surprised by some experience and having a kind of physical “jump” in one’s body.|
|Stretch||Physically stretch, deliberately|
|Suppress||Conscious awareness that you are suppressing something|
|Talk||Internally talking to yourself, the sequence of words that could be repeated out loud so others could understand what happened. [Maybe distinguish active and passive talk?]||The most precisely describable aspect of internal experience.|
|Tightening||Feeling of tenseness, muscular action, stiffening|
|Wait||Feeling that one is waiting for something to occur|
|Wake up more||Increasing clarity, sharpness, energy|
|Widened field||More different kinds of experience being experienced or more sharpness and clarity within the kinds of things being experienced||Could occur passively as well as from intention|
End of rough draft as of 3-3-15
Tags: attention, awareness, belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, dreams, emotions, enlightenment, God, Gurdjieff, gurus, intention, karma, Living the Mindful Life, materialism, meditation, mindfulness, ordinary mind, pain, peace, perception, Shinzen Young, Sogyal Rinpoche, spiritual teachers, suffering, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, unusual experiences, vipassana
People send me a lot of books and articles they would like me to read. I choose to believe they are honoring me, thinking I am influential or important and it would be good for me to know some things.
Or I suppose they might think I have really taken a wrong turn in my thinking and need a course correction, but let’s not go there…. ;-)
As interesting looking as most of these books are, I seldom have time to more than glance at them, even when I think they are about something I’d really like to know more about. That’s sad, but that’s reality…
Yesterday an envelope containing a little book came in the mail – and the instant I opened it, I was sold! “This looks good, I’ve got to get into this.” Here’s what I saw:
Being a grandfather myself, the author, Reverend Karen Herrick, had plucked my heart strings.
What do you tell a little kid about death? And what do you tell the little kid still inside all of us about death, especially as we personally approach our own death?
I can do my scientist number and objectively discuss the evidence, probabilities for and against some kind of soul surviving, etc., but that’s useless for really little kids and only a little useful for dying friends. I’ve had too many friends die in the last few years. Most of them know I’ve studied that kind of evidence and some talk about how it gives hope for some kind of survival is OK, even encouraging, but what I’ve found most people want is encouragement to face death and hope for a good outcome, not an attempt at “objectivity” about it. So I’m not at all sure, e.g., about the way Tibetan Buddhists have mapped out the dying and after death processes, or how accurate communications from Western mediums about the after death states are, but for my dying friends who are into that kind of thing I’ll draw on them as useful road maps and try to help them prepare to use them.
Little kids, though? I’m lucky to not have experienced that directly, but even reading about it really touches me. Reverend Herrick has a Western spiritualist approach, but not that far off from what my scientific self thinks is a useful way to think about things, and what she’s written in Grandma, What Is A Soul? is touching, helpful, and can reach young kids..
As an example, her grandson wonders about the soul having something to do with the unconscious. Grandma replies
“When your brother was nine years old, he told me that he had read about the unconscious in his Calvin and Hobbes book. He said it’s scary down there; you need a flashlight to see, and all this old stuff is piled up. People don’t like going down there.”
The second section of her book is for grown-ups, giving a brief overview of spiritualist writings on the subject of survival and some suggestions for further reading. As to the evidence for postmortem survival and a reincarnation, I can also, blushing slightly at not being more modest, recommend the relevant chapters in my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book.
All in all, delightful and helpful!
Among the too few scientifically trained and inclined people doing parapsychological research, there is some ongoing tension between the folks (a) who, on the one hand, have advanced training in the material sciences, physics, e.g., and who aim for what we might call “pure” science by the standards of the successful material sciences, and (b) those of us who see paranormal phenomena not only as a stimulating challenge for expanding physics, but as important aspects of our human nature, including whatever our spiritual nature might be. Some of you might be interested in this bit of an exchange I had with a colleague recently.
My colleague noted that he suspected a common quality in my and a few other parapsychologists, affecting our understanding and action, was “spirituality” or “religion.” To my mind, he had often characterized “spirituality” or “religion “ as largely, if not totally, nonsensical in earlier discussions. This association was undesirable from his pure science point of view, as I and these others were well known to the public, giving what he considered an unscientific picture of parapsychology.
I replied to him that I was honored that he would include me as one of the “most influential people” in our field, but while he was not totally direct about it, I worried that he had mistakenly characterized my overall approach.
First, a basic: To the best of my knowledge, psi — telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis, to mention just the basics — is not merely a weak, evanescent anomaly in laboratories, it also happens in ordinary human life, is sometimes very strong, and has powerful effects on what people believe is the nature of reality and consequently how they act. As a transpersonal psychologist, people’s beliefs and their effects on behavior are very interesting and important. As a parapsychologist (what I see as a specialty interest within the wider field of transpersonal psychology) I want to learn as much about psi in a scientifically useful and valid a way as is possible.
Secondly, I’m not “religious.” “Religious” is usually a negative word in our discussions, indicating a fixed belief about the “supernatural” that often flies in the face of both common sense and the current accumulated body of scientific findings. While raised in a conventional religion, I long ago left those beliefs behind, to my conscious knowledge. (And I’ve spent a lot of time studying my own psychology looking for less conscious biases).
I am “spiritually” inclined. Not that I’ve had any great spiritual experiences, but I’ve studied them in others, I know their value for people. I think of spiritual experiences as the “data,” and “religion” as the theories created to explain them (and give certain people more social power, etc., all that negative stuff). Some “spiritual experiences” are undoubtedly explicable in ordinary terms, some are expressions of psychopathology, but some are probably insights into something “real,” and so should be studied to discriminate and refine what knowledge might be available.
Some “spiritual experiences” sound like they involve psi, and the demonstration of psi effects in the lab, even in weak form, gives a reason to consider that some spiritual experiences are indeed about reality, not just subjective. That’s what my last book, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, was about.
I’m proud of my openness to studying spiritual experiences, although, like my interests and work in parapsychology, it’s hindered my career in terms of ordinary social rewards due to materialistic prejudices in the academic and scientific social worlds.
I have observed with interest a strategy, I don’t know how conscious it is, among colleagues in parapsychology to try to get more acceptance of psi from the scientific Establishment by talking/thinking about psi as nothing but a minor anomaly of only intellectual interest, certainly not as something of spiritual or religious significance. I’m sure there are short-term gains from this approach, but it can distort long-term understanding. And I don’t think it fools Establishment people who have emotional problems with religion and spirituality, they know parapsychological results are threatening to them, even if the knowledge is unconscious.
I’m happy to theorize/speculate about spiritual implications of psi — and I carefully distinguish these from more basic data findings. I wish more of us would do so…
Illustration: John-Forrest Bamberger, Greetings World
Tags: belief, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, emotions, enlightenment, John-Forrest Bamberger, materialism, meditation, mind science, Parapsychology, precognition, religion, spirituality, Transpersonal
A Note on Illustrations
I’m not much of a visual person, ideas and words are my thing, but I’ve recently discovered the dozens of beautiful and striking images created by my brother-in-law, John-Forrest Bamberger. I plan to start putting them in to my blog posts, perhaps even going back and adding them to earlier posts, so I can share them – and in recognition of the psychological power images have to arouse our attention. If you want to look at his images en masse, the Flickr Photostream URL is https://www.flickr.com/photos/john-forrest/with/2706624819/ .
… John of the Forrest, as a poet friend called him, passed away peacefully on Monday, January 5th at 2 pm, EST. Various books of his can be found on Amazon.com …
Buddhism and Science: Knowledge Acquisition, Refinement, and Application (KARAS)
A few days after posting this, it occurred to me that the discussion might seem rather abstract to most readers, who cares about this comparison of Buddhism and science anyway? Is there a practical dimension to all this?
Yes, there is a very practical dimension which I should mention here at the beginning.
Like all human beings, I am strongly interested in increasing my satisfaction with life and decreasing my suffering. I think that one important component of decreasing my suffering and increasing my satisfaction is having a better and better understanding of the way reality works, so I can live in a more and more effective manner. One way to look at Buddhism then, indeed a primary way for many Buddhists, is that it’s a conceptual system and set of practices intended to reduce human suffering.
So how effective has it been? Well, since it’s still around after 2500 years, I would say it’s worked very well for at least some people and at least fairly well for a large number of people. But is it perfect?
Two of our outstanding human qualities are that we like things to “make sense,” and we like to be effective, to have our ideas work when we apply them to life. A major human problem, though, is we are extremely good at rationalizing, at creating patterns of thoughts that make sense out of things, but which later scientific advances might show our not really the way things are. The early chemical theory of phlogiston seemed to make a lot of sense out of combustion for a long time, but nobody takes it seriously nowadays. It’s just rationalizing, retrospective fitting of ideas to what we’ve seen so far, but a set of ideas that doesn’t accurately reflect the undermining underlying laws of reality. That’s why, when you come up with a scientific theory, you feel wonderful that it makes sense out of things, but, if you doing science properly, you have to realize that any theory needs testing in new areas, which may lead to the need for revision or perhaps a whole new theory.
So how about Buddhism? Is it the ultimately correct knowledge about the nature of the human mind and human experience, the best possible way to reduce suffering and increase happiness? Or, a possibility to be taken seriously, is it a quite good one that has worked very well for many people for a long time, but it’s still just a partial view of reality and better understandings and practices are possible?
Science has developed what we might think of as “error correction techniques,” ways of keeping us making progress instead of becoming overly attached to theories and practices which are only partially correct. My main purpose in comparing Buddhism and science is to eventually see how these error correcting techniques might be applied to Buddhism, so we can come up with even more effective ways to understand human experience and reduce suffering. That’s what the following discussion is a beginning of.
I’m a proponent of Progress, and believe that an important part of progress comes from accurate knowledge of reality, reality including both the reality of the “outside” world and our own mind and nature. Here I want to share some brief thoughts about how we make progress, thoughts about Knowledge (K), its Acquisition (A), its Refinement (R), and its Application (A) Systems, especially in comparing what I know about Buddhism and science.
I’ll outline eight aspects of these KARASs in the following table. The convention I’ve used is a bold checkmark indicates something is quite important in that KARAS, the smaller ± indicates you can find that something, but it’s not usually central or important.
Because of my research in parapsychology, a field that has been prejudicially and viciously attacked for more than a century as being “unscientific” because it dares look at things that are not supposed to be there, I’ve gotten very sensitive to scientific methodology and how we go about acquiring and refining knowledge. I believe my understanding of what basic, essential science is all about is widely accepted among scientists, also, because while many scientists couldn’t believe that I proposed we could learn to do science in altered states of consciousness (ASCs) in my 1972 article (States of consciousness and state-specific sciences. Science, 176, 1203-1210), no scientist reader has ever criticized my basic characterization of scientific method. In this table, I’m doing a rough comparison of Buddhism (the selected versions I’ve been exposed to, undoubtedly contradicted by the practices some [many?] particular versions of Buddhism) and Western science.
The area inside the oval is methods of acquiring/discovering and refining knowledge that are common to both Buddhism and science. Both Buddhist and scientists, e.g., have our natural human, unaided sensory inputs and processing circuits, the latter probably built into the hardware of the brain, to transform certain kinds of input into certain kinds of experience, what I’ve called biological-psychological virtual reality (BPVR) constructs. I look to my right, for example, and immediately see a bookshelf, and the particulars of this automatized perception are due to my human bio-hardware and cultural conditioning. So we all look around and have a “common sense” view of the world. We can all also reason, in the sense that there’s some kind of basic logic, probably hard-wired in our brains, plus cultural training to be “logical” by cultural standards also.
Now we get into the interesting differences between Buddhism and science. Again, I put a big check mark in a table cell to show that something is very important in a KARAS discipline, and a small ± to show that you can find some instances of that in the other discipline, but it’s not at all central.
Buddhism strives to change the functioning of ordinary consciousness (“purify” it) and/or get into one or more altered states of consciousness. Two of the principal tools for doing this are greatly enhanced concentration abilities via particular kinds of meditation practice and enhanced insight abilities via other particular kinds of meditation practice. All three of these things (ASCs, concentration, insight) are not central to ordinary Western science. In all my years of graduate school, e.g., no faculty teacher even mentioned, much less taught, how to concentrate better, how to have enhanced insight, or how to get into altered states, and there was only a certain grudging admission that some advances in science have been made by “creative” people who might have been in an ASC, like a dream, when they got a basic idea. But then, of course, after inspiration the real scientific conceptual work was done in ordinary consciousness.
Buddhism, as I’ve encountered it, is also very big on Authorities. In spite of the Buddha’s Sutta to the Kalamas (see below), which I greatly admire as paralleling essential science, I get the impression that reasoning in Buddhist practice is primarily to get you to agree with what the Buddha and various Buddhist authorities of the past said. That is, whatever you experience in meditation or ASCs is shaped and selected both at the time and retrospectively by what the Authorities have said about it.
You could raise an interesting question as to what degree various kinds of “enlightenment” are specific states that are a natural part of being human, independent of particular cultural beliefs, and to what degree they are constructed as they are by the influence of past Authorities. In science, as I’ve heard Shinzen Young point out so aptly in one of his talks, if a first-year graduate student attending a seminar gets up and points out a mistake in the reasoning or data interpretation of world-famous Professor so-and-so, and she is correct, Professor so-and-so has to change his ideas. I’m not sure I can recall an instance of an official Buddhist teacher I’ve heard or read ever talking about how, as great as he was, the Buddha was wrong about certain things.
Another major difference from Buddhism is that in science, the worldview is primarily influenced by instrumentally enhanced sensory perception, Measuring devices give us detailed knowledge of the physical world that simply is not available to the unaided senses. I wouldn’t completely rule out some kind of clairvoyant perception of the normally invisible being possible, but I wouldn’t expect bacteria, for example, to be discovered by anyone who had greatly developed their meditative skills alone. The human eye simply won’t resolve anything that’s so small, and I doubt there is a priori knowledge of the existence of bacteria genetically passed it on to the human brain.
One other major difference I’m thinking about, well, two actually. One is the big or long-term worldview. Buddhism, as it’s been presented to me, either is not interested in ideas about where reality came from and where it’s going (we are suffering now and need to do something about it now, not worry about why we are suffering or where the future is going), or it specifically sees our times as becoming more and more degenerate, more and more beings (Oops! I almost said selves…) becoming more and more deeply lost in samsara. Most scientists, though, think that we are going to continue learning more and more about the nature of physical reality, and, since most are materialists, as we learn more more about physical reality, we will understand more and more about the mind. We expect there’ll be progress.
There is a second thing that I haven’t figured out how to represent in the table yet. If your primary data gathering methods are enhanced concentration, enhanced insight, applied in ASCs, it certainly tends to make you think that what you can experience is reality. Thus if you can’t find any “self” looking inside with your altered abilities, you are tempted to conclude that there is no such thing as a real and permanent “self.” I find that a huge conceptual leap.
I would not argue that there are no bacteria because no meditators have ever found them: their “data-gathering equipment,” unaided senses, is inadequate to discover bacteria. Just because I can’t find a “self” when I’ve looked inside, I don’t know whether that means such a “self” doesn’t exist or that I simply can’t find it. Intellectually, at least, I am agnostic about the ultimate nature of the “self,” while certainly acknowledging that its presentation can change drastically and that too much attachment to it can create a lot of otherwise unnecessary suffering.
Of course as I hinted at in a previous posting, this ability to not find a “self,” to deconstruct it, as it were, is an extremely valuable tool for reducing suffering, but just because I suffer less may or may not tell me more about what reality really is. I guess I’m a realist terms of philosophy, at least most of the time, I assume there’s universe out there that existed before me and will exist after me, no matter what I think or don’t think about it. And I acknowledge that my usual (and unusual) perception of and thinking about such a universe is enormously influenced by my psychology, and if I want to understand that external reality I have to find ways of studying it that are not inherently biased by my internal nature.
As human beings, we love success. Give us a new gadget that does a lot of things (my Swiss Army knife immediately springs to mind, and I always carry it with me!), or an explanatory system that usefully organizes observation and experience and allows us to have increased control over some things, and we’re very pleased. We then, however, tend to get overly attached to that which has been successful, and to start applying it everywhere. Buddhism has been successful for many people in making a kind of sense of the world to them and, in a practical way, reducing or eliminating most of their personal suffering. Thus it’s psychologically pretty easy to use the experiential knowledge of the mind gathered through Buddhist practice and doctrine to explain everything, but, where do bacteria and radio waves fit it?
The sciences, applied intensively to the external world, have discovered bacteria and allowed us to generate and use radio waves, so it’s very tempting to think everything will eventually be explained in those kind of terms, but the basic nature of the mind tends to be ignored, with the belief that someday they will explain it in physical terms related to brain functioning, rather than understanding it the way Buddhists or practitioners of other spiritual disciplines might.
I think these two knowledge acquisition and refinement systems can contribute a great deal to each other, but we have to start from recognizing their limitations. If, using the example above, I have been unable to find any kind of a real and permanent “self” through my meditative practices, and people much more skilled at Buddhist meditation report the same thing, it makes perfect sense to say that using this tool of meditative practice, influenced a priori to unknown degrees by a Buddhist cosmology, leads to a “reasonable” conclusion that there is no real and permanent self. But what light other tools, other knowledge acquisition and refinement systems might cast on a question like this, is still open.
TO BE WORKED OUT: Application of above to personal spiritual growth…
Gautama Buddha’s Sutta to the Kalamas
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
(from Gates, 1989).
Tags: altered states of consciousness, attention, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, enlightenment, Kalamas, KARAS, meditation, mind science, perception, reality, science, self, sensation, Shinzen Young, suffering, Sutta, world view
Every once in a while I make some observations or have some ideas about what all this business of being a “self” is about. Studying Buddhism is particularly challenging in this respect, as it’s central to Buddhism, as I’ve encountered it, that there is no real self, and that clinging to a belief in such a real self is a major cause of all our suffering.
Insofar as I can grasp it, Buddhism tends to have a highly absolutist idea of what is “real.” If something is “real,” it lasts forever and its nature is absolutely unchanging, it can’t be changed by anything outside of it. This is a kind of absolutism beyond my grasp, for my ordinary self seems real enough even though I have no conscious beliefs that it will last forever or can’t be changed!
Here’s some thoughts that I was recently expressing to my friend and meditation teacher, Shinzen Young.
It’s obvious to me from my experience that I ordinarily experience a “self,” usually centered around my body and its experiences and thoughts, but that under some circumstances, my experience of that “self” can change radically. I think back to psychedelic experiences decades ago, which was a pretty direct experience that everything could change drastically! That did not convince me that there wasn’t any “self,” simply that my ordinary waking conception of it was just a specialized formulation, and if I had a real “self,” it was something much bigger and different.
When I sit in vipassana meditation on the experience of change and flow, do I experience a “self?” Well, in retrospect, here in my ordinary state that I’m writing in right now, I assume there was a “self” there having experiences, but when I’m actually paying good attention to flow and not thinking about things like “self,” things just flow. So, is the absence of experiencing a “self” the same as an experience of “no-self”?
I ask that because I find this whole “no-self” business very confusing. I know I have read accounts of many altered states experiences where people said their sense of “self” was drastically changed, or that they had no individual “self,” they were just part of the universe, or perhaps the whole of the universe, or something like that, but I don’t think I’ve ever had any kind of experience that I would want to get up and joyously shout “I’ve experienced no-self”!”
Although I don’t consider myself very skilled at meditating on flow, I would guess that I’m good enough that at times, if my sense of “self” was causing me suffering, I could at least partially deconstruct that “self” through observing flow. My ordinary sense of “self” is, it seems to me, an emergent outcome of many more microscopic processes, and by shifting attention to observing those microscopic processes, they don’t interact in a way which promotes the emergence of this higher level “self.” That would greatly cut the suffering because it would be far less a matter of “I” suffering, and I’m glad to have learned this skill. That’s one of the reasons I’m going to make that my principal practice (unless reality changes) during our upcoming retreat, I’d like to be better at it.
We’ll just ignore for the moment the semantic problems of my saying “I” would like to be better at it… :-)
Perhaps I will have some interesting observations or insights as a result of practicing the observation of flow on the retreat I’m going to, perhaps not…
Tags: attention, awareness, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, emotions, enlightenment, intention, meditation, mindfulness, ordinary mind, Parapsychology, self, Shinzen Young, spiritual teachers, suffering, Transpersonal, vipassana, waking up
I carry on a rich correspondence with an older cousin, Chaz Walters, who’s an accomplished painter as well as a teacher of Tai Chi. Here are some thoughts about art, discovery, and the creative process which may be of general interest. They were triggered by an article he had written that he enclosed with his last letter to me.
I wrote him the following:
I was very intrigued by the article you wrote about how you paint. You described what I’ve always assumed must be one of the (wonderful) ways in which an artist works: you prepare your tools, sit down, and something then flows through you and out it comes. In contrast, for example, to when I’ve looked at the lovely seascape you gave us some years ago, and just assumed you went down to the shore of the ocean with the intention of painting the ocean, and then worked very hard, detail by detail, until you had something you liked.
I’m jealous! Occasionally over the year I used to sit down with “art” materials in front of me, ranging from just a paper and pencil to some paints, but nothing worthwhile ever came of it. I can’t draw at all realistically to begin with, my cartoonish drawings are not really interesting or humorous, and I know I’m just fiddling around, not responding to inspiration, and not satisfied with my scribblings. Now I have the possibility of using computer painting programs, where it’s easy to undo my mistakes, and I have a number of tools available,… But still, inspiration doesn’t come. :-(
And yet, in the course of my lifelong major research project, trying to figure out how in the world the mind of Charley Tart works, there are parallels. Yes, like my fantasy about you painting a seascape, sometimes I’m presented with a situation, I examine details carefully and deliberately think about possibilities, something comes up, I write a rough draft of it, then do some editing polishes, and it’s pretty good. It also fits with one of my self-concepts, that I am a sane, logical, grounded, practical person, and I solve problems well.
But when I think about some of my best writing, the ideas just came to me and I hurried to get them on paper before they got overlaid with my thinking about them. I can call that my “subconscious,” but that doesn’t really explain much. It’s a fancy way of saying the idea just popped up in my head and I don’t remember figuring it out.
My favorite meditation technique now, learned from my friend Shinzen Young, is to observe moments of change in my experience. It’s to sit calmly, usually eyes closed, trying to notice whatever experiences come up without getting carried away by them or trying to control them, but particularly to note when there is any kind of change. Maybe bigger, smaller, leftward, rightward, steady, rippling, gone, getting brighter, etc. Right now, for instance, I just noticed a vibration in my back and that was dropped almost instantly and replaced by a pain in my hip, etc., etc. I don’t know whether I’m “good” at this meditation technique or not, except I can certainly say I notice a lot more change, most of it from second to second, than when I first started this technique a couple of years ago. Shinzen’s basic recipe for meditation is to observe whatever happens with concentration (you stay focused on it), clarity (as a result of concentration you see it more clearly than you normally would) and equanimity (you don’t try to push it away if you don’t like it, or hold onto it if you do like it, or otherwise control it).
Shinzen is excellent in breaking down meditation into clearly specified steps that you can learn how to do. So it was a great surprise when, talking to him about it one day, he described what I was doing by its classical Buddhist name, namely the “observation of Impermanence!” Wow! Impermanence? That was one of those big, fancy Buddhist words about something very mystical that I’d never had any understanding of whatsoever, but gosh, you talk about observing how my flow of experience is changing, I can learn to do that…
Anyway, when I do this kind of meditation I frequently notice that ideas, concepts, scenarios, both in the form of words and in the form of visual images, appear, last a few moments, disappear, or morph into something else, and so forth and so on. If I were to think of it in modern computer terms, it’s like there are dozens if not hundreds of relatively freely running programs down there in my subconscious whose job it is to generate ideas, some of which manage to make it up to consciousness. So I, the alleged author, I’m actually mainly a collection agent, noticing and taking some of those that come up and polishing them.
Sometimes the ideas are really fully formed. The most dramatic example was back in the 1970s. We were living in Davis then, and I had driven to the San Francisco for my first or second Rolfing (Structural Integration) appointment. I found Rolfing quite painful and didn’t like it at all, but I believed it was good for you, and I liked the pictures of people who stood straight instead of crookedly, so I was putting up with it. But then the funniest thing happened.
As I was driving back from San Francisco to Davis after that Rolfing, a series of ideas began flooding into my head, I started writing them down immediately when I got home, and within a few days I had mimeographed a couple of hundred copies of a major paper to take with me to a conference on consciousness that was being held in Council Grove, Kansas, in a couple of days. With only slight revisions, the paper was accepted for publication in one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, Science. It was my proposal for the creation of state specific sciences. (States of consciousness and state-specific sciences. Science, 1972, 176, 1203-1210. (https://s3.amazonaws.com/cttart/articles/april2013articles/States+of+Consciousness+and+State+Specific+Sciences.pdf)
Was I the “author,” or just the “collector?” I could claim that just about all the elements of my paper are things I had thought about in various ways before over the years, but somehow they all bubbled up in the course of that less than two hour drive organized into a coherent, connected form.
So maybe I do practice my “art” rather like you, something just emerges, but my medium is words, rather than images…
Although I haven’t quite given up on the visual forms yet. The last few years I have been having an awful lot of fun making complex diagrams with PowerPoint to illustrate various psychological and spiritual points. I’ll print out a few to go with this letter, without attempting to explain them, just to share.
Friends and I have been puzzling a lot lately over the descriptions of Buddhist enlightenment as being, among other things, devoid of intention. Because one’s mind is not attempting are intending to make any aspect of experience opening a particular rules are expectations, a truer, more enlightened consciousness results. Yet, the paradox, the meditative techniques for producing such states all seem to involve intention, including the instruction to “drop the intention.” What does it all mean? How can you intend to have now intentions?
I share some thoughts from a grappling with this.
I haven’t been able to conceptually understand this in the Buddhist terms I have some feeling for so far. Sometimes I suspect that it’s partly because the Buddhist teachings have been so verbally polished and perfected for centuries, even though they’re often (and probably ultimately) about something which is beyond verbal expression, that I then automatically believe I should be able to understand all Buddhist concepts with my ordinary, reasoning mind — and get frustrated when I can’t! Then there’s my own dullness and blocking ideas, of course. But if I back out of strictly Buddhist terminology, and think about the question in terms of my years of research on a variety of altered states of consciousness (ASCs), I can make some conceptual sense of it, even though it’s not based on actual experience of transcending intention on my part.
Imagine that you lived in a temperate world, call it WarmWorld, in which the only fires you could build did not get much hotter than 150°F, well below what we would call its boiling point. You could roughly take the temperature of water with your finger, and, if you were a scientific type, then experiment with what happened to that temperature sensation as you put the water in a pot and built fires under it. You would have a range of sensations when you didn’t build any fire, more when you did. Since I specify that WarmWorld is a temperate world where you never get freezing weather, it would always be liquid water (I could say “ice,” but the inhabitants of WarmWorld have no concept of “ice”). You could then find that the larger the fire you built under the pot, the faster the water got warm and the hotter it was to your finger and there was a maximum hotness no matter how big you built the fire. Quite interesting.
Now imagine a person coming along who claims that she can build a fire such that you don’t want to stick your finger in the water anymore and, the most unbelievable claim, that eventually the water all disappears from the pot! We are all experts on fires, having built many of them for a little more warmth at night or to warm our food, and this woman is obviously insane.
But suppose she comes from our world, where we’ve learned a lot about how to make fires burn hotter, doing things like selecting just the right, very dry, fuels, and blowing on them almost continually and at just the right intensity to give the the optimal amount of oxygen. She tells us that if we selected only certain fuels, stack them up in just the right kinds of positions, and breathe on them just right (pranayama?) we could make water disappear from a pot too.
Most of us think she’s crazy and ignore her, a few would try a few breaths, nothing special happens, and you forget about it. Everything we know today about fire says that water never boils (we don’t know that word) goes away. We have what you might think of as linear knowledge about fire and water, and it only goes so far.
In studying various ASCs over the years, I found one of the things that was the most puzzling was that we implicitly assume that we already understood ordinary conscious quite well, and then there were these mysterious ASCs, but we could extrapolate from our knowledge of ordinary consciousness to understand them. That often doesn’t work very well. Over the years I gradually developed a working understanding of ordinary consciousness and ASCs, based on an engineering systems theory approach. This is basically realizing that it’s not enough to just understand the parts of something, it’s the particular style in which they work together that produces the outcome you’re interested in. It’s a process approach, a basic Western recognition of interdependence. From that systems approach, I came to see ordinary consciousness, which, I presume, we are all experiencing right now, as not a static sort of “thing,” but as a dynamic, ongoing process. Lots of sensory input, lots of thinking and emoting about it, all of these things interacting to produce a gestalt, whole emergent that we call “me,” or “my consciousness.”
I then looked at various ASCs like hypnosis, dreaming, drug induced states, etc. in terms of how were they brought about? From a systems perspective, two processes had to go on. You had to (a) interfere with and destabilize the process that produced and maintained the original “shape,” the baseline state of consciousness going on as a gestalt whole, and (b) you had to introduce perceptions or ideas or intentions that “pushed” the destabilizing state of mind toward the new pattern, the ASC, that you wanted to bring about. Note that the same particular action (shamatha with or without a support, e.g.) can perform both of these functions, destabilizing the baseline state and pushing toward the altered state.
So getting more specific about using intention to go beyond intention, right now, as I understand my ordinary state of mind, it’s not only content, perception, thought, perception, emotion, perception, reaction, etc., moment after moment after moment, but almost every one of those things is accompanied by some kind of intention. I’m implicitly or explicitly intending all day long to have my consciousness organized in ways I’ve found useful for getting by. The intentions associated with one moment of consciousness stimulate intentions in the second moment, etc., and are so habitual we usually don’t even notice that we are intending. I think one of the functions of certain kinds of meditations is to sensitize us to see these intentions, then we might be able to do something about them.
So ordinary consciousness is extremely intention rich, the gestalt arising out of the karma of one intention creating another, etc., etc.. So what happens if you start to relax intentionality?
If you think of a skilled juggler juggling several balls in the air, it looks easy and it is easy for them, but suppose they start to juggle more and more slowly? There comes a point where stability is lost, and they drop the balls, you can’t go slower for a certain number of balls.
The continuous chain of intentions isn’t the only thing stabilizing our ordinary state of consciousness, but it’s a major thing, so it makes sense to me that if you observe and relax those intentions (not fight them with counter-intentions, just ease up and let go) our ordinary state of consciousness may fall apart.
And what results?
That’s a tough question and the outcome depends on your expectations, hopes and fears, previous experiences, skills you’ve learned, and who knows what else. It might result in a few moments of consciousness where our baseline, ordinary state has broken down, and no new gestalt organization, no ASC has formed yet, so maybe whatever experience you have in those moments is very primal and non-samsaric, non-conditioned? In Buddhist terms, is this “rigpa” or “nature of mind?” I won’t speculate about this, as I don’t know at a conceptual level if this really makes good sense and, far more importantly, I’m not at all sure I have much understanding of rigpa as direct experience, which is the only knowledge that really counts. But it’s interesting to think about…
So jumping back to our WarmWorld analogy, a few of us keep following directions, keep gathering the right full fuel (good karma? merit?), stacking fuel according to the prescribed directions (proper meditation posture and intentions?), and breathing on it the right way with a continuous sort of breath that gradually becomes more automatic and less intentional. This practice may have a variety of “ordinary” effects, but we still stay pretty much in our ordinary mind. We may often reason about it in a linear way, and see that this really is not going to do anything. Do we have “faith” to keep it up anyway? Do we (hopefully) occasionally have an unusual experience that encourages us that we are moving in a direction, even if we’re not there yet?
And a few people eventually do this “fire practice” with very, very little conscious effort, having gradually learned to relax it, and one day the structure of ordinary mind breaks down and ???
Anyway, this is a way I can “make some sense” of this. I am fascinated by the idea of using intention to reduce/relax intention and reach a state that is characterized as having no intention (taking others’ words that it can happen for the last part), even though it’s a paradoxical idea in terms of ordinary thinking. It’s useful to me to think about it this way, I don’t know if it’s useful for anyone else, but I offer it and hope so.
Tags: altered states of consciousness, ASCs, attention, awareness, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, dreams, drug-induced states, emotions, enlightenment, gestalt, hypnosis, induction of altered states, intention, intentionality, interdependence, karma, meditation, mindfulness, nature of mind, ordinary mind, perception, pranayama, relaxing intention, relaxing intentionality, rigpa, sleep, systems theory, systems theory approach to consciousness, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, waking up, will, will power