Pain, Leaving the Body, Spiritual Realities or Illusion?
© Charles T. Tart 2016
Why are we here? What should we do? Why does it hurt so much sometimes? Can’t we just be given Certain Answers from Spirit? And….
One of my friends, let’s call him Ralph, is a very interesting and thoughtful person. He has had out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs), done some remote viewing (RV) under conditions which have shown ESP is involved — it’s not just an interesting but subjective, imaginary experience of viewing a distant place — and had physical problems much of his life that have forced him to deal with intense pain. I think the following excerpts from my recent correspondence with Ralph would interest some people.
Personally, I would much rather deal with pain in a distant, intellectual way, but biology too often takes away that luxury… I was going to put a wry smiley face ;-) after the previous sentence as I found it amusing, but of course a wry frowny face is just as or more accurate… ;-(
Talking about a life of pain and his experience of OBEs, why they happen to him, Ralph notes that he had a great need to completely disassociate from his body when he went in for frequent surgeries, as the usual pain killers pretty much stopped working for him.
I wrote Ralph that I get upset just reading about the level of pain he’s had to deal with in his life, oh my God! “Although it’s not your intention, you also make me feel like a real wimp! What, I complain because for years now I’ve had headaches essentially all day long, only partially helped by medication, massage and other methods.” Nothing compared to what Ralph deals with.
I don’t know if you’re aware, Ralph, that I did hypnosis research for the first decade or so of my career. Although pain wasn’t of that much interest to me back then, it wasn’t impacting me personally, I was amazed that 20 to 30% of ordinary people had enough hypnotic talent to experience considerable pain reduction when it was suggested, and maybe 10 to 20% could completely cut off pain. One example that dramatically brought it home to me was a standardized test item widely used in research to assess very high levels of hypnotic talent. After a subject was hypnotized, for about a minute I would suggest that she couldn’t smell anything, and then asked her to take a good sniff to see that she couldn’t smell.
Then I uncapped a bottle of household ammonia and held 1 inch below her nose.
The result always amazed me. Not only did talented hypnotized subjects report that they didn’t smell anything when I asked them if they had, they didn’t show any sign of pain! To me, sniffing household ammonia that way is like a thousand tiny pitchforks come into your nostrils and start jabbing away!
[If you’re curious, do not try this at home this way, start with the ammonia bottle further from your nose so you’re not overwhelmed with pain…]
And for the really talented hypnotic subjects, we purchased laboratory ammonia that was 10 times as strong as ordinary ammonia…
Absolutely mind blowing! And I was always a little envious, I’d like to be able to turn off pain that way, but I have very little talent for being hypnotized, although the meditative techniques I’ve learned from Shinzen Young help me deal with some kinds of pain to a useful degree, but far from not feeling pain at all. As to lack of hypnotic talent, probably for all my intellectual open-mindedness, some part of me says “No way is anything outside my precious ego going to exert control over what goes on in my mind!”
A nice, intellectual hypothesis, but the reality of it was strongly demonstrated to me back around 1959 when I was one of the first WASP Americans to take mescaline. It was given to me by a visiting Austrian psychologist, Professor Ivo Kohler, who had done some research in Europe on it, but didn’t know of any literature about the reactions of Americans to mescaline. I had read Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception” so was really interested and open (I thought), and Kohler gave me what I realize later was a very strong dose, 400 mg of the chemically pure mescaline.
And nothing happened…
I had even skipped breakfast to take the mescaline on an empty stomach. At that time in my life, that was a big sacrifice!
So he told me I could go home, we could call it a day — I guess he figured Americans were different from Europeans — or he could give me some more. Luckily for me, I chose the latter option and got another hundred milligrams, and little while later suddenly went from being perfectly straight to the peak of the psychedelic experience! It’s been more than 50 years, but oh wow oh wow oh wow!!!
I realized later that for all my intellectual openness, some control freak part of my mind had basically clamped down on all the chemical changes so they weren’t sufficient to actually affect my consciousness, but I was finally overwhelmed by the increased dose. God bless mescaline, God bless Aldous Huxley for his psychological programming of my first trip!
I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about how our socialization and cultural context affects how we interpret experience. I took the mescaline already being deeply into science, knowing that a drug was affecting my brain, so I had a kind of psychological safety valve that I didn’t really have to take anything about the experience too seriously if I didn’t want to, I could just call it altered brain functioning, chemical illusions. But if I had been raised in a non-scientific culture, a religious culture, the obvious interpretation would have been that my experiences were clearly a gift from God, and I might very well have become a mystic.
In my conventional role as a psychologist, I learned an enormous amount about the way the mind could work from that and some later psychedelic experiences a local psychiatrist was conducting. Some of those experiences translated into concepts I could talk about or use in my research, but some experiences still struck me as obviously sacred, not the kind of thing I would talk about to hardly anyone. Indeed, there were a few (luckily I don’t really remember them consciously) where it was clear to me that I was not ready to handle them and I asked if they could please be “put into storage” as it were, and only come back if ever I was ready, but otherwise to stay out of sight, they might just inflate my ego. I’m not sure it’s right to even mention these, but my commitment to using science properly stresses being complete about data…
Ralph goes on to write that pain medications are of little help to him now, so he has to dissociate from his physical body in order to handle the pain. This kind of “dissociation,” an OBE or “astral projection” is typically experienced as leaving his physical and traveling “out” or “in” to elsewhere into the cosmos, and experiencing whatever happens. But, Ralph notes, these “other world” journeys are confusing for him, as he can’t tell if they are “real” worlds in our space/time dimension or worlds in “other dimensions…” Or….
Real or not real? What is “reality” anyway? But in terms of his happiness, escaping overwhelming pain, I wish Ralph bon voyage! Who gives a damn whether their “real” or not when they can help him so much?
But looking a little deeper, that question of the reality of these kind of internal experiences is a real tough one. I certainly take, as a working hypothesis, that there may be other kinds of “spiritual” or “non-physical” worlds out there that people may contact sometimes, as well as knowing of our ability to imagine things. But please don’t ask me to rigorously define what I mean by “spiritual” or “non-physical”… And note I say working hypotheses, this is an interesting and perhaps useful way to think about these things, it’s the scientific way, but I have no idea what the ultimate nature of Reality is…
What complicates interpretation for me of such ostensibly OBE experiences is knowledge from my own research with hypnosis, some of my own meditation experience (which isn’t very “deep,” but informs me) and the work of others, which leads me to see our ordinary consciousness experience as life in a virtual reality, like in some kind of computer game.
The clearest experience of what we might call a pure virtual reality is nighttime dreams: I’ve almost never heard of anybody say they’re consciously working at creating and running a dream, but there you are in another world, things happen, characters act. We have been taught to question dreams’ reality when we wake up, but while we’re in them we usually automatically accept them as real (we won’t deal with lucid dreams here). In the kind of vipassana meditation I usually do I slip down to hypnagogic experience all the time, and in an instant a world and a scenario is created (not quite as vividly as my nocturnal dreams, but usually totally absorbing at the time it happens), things happen, it disappears and suddenly another world and scenario is created, and on and on.
I think our ordinary waking consciousness exists within the virtual reality that is created by the hardwiring of the brain, the way it has been a socially and personally programmed, hopes and fears, etc. I’ve detailed some of this in the article in the pic. But what’s different from the nocturnal dream and hypnagogic stuff is that there are massive amounts of sensory input coming in all the time, and so the virtual reality you exist in, the 3D model of world and self, must constantly and rapidly adjust to reflect the state of that external reality, your body sensations, your thoughts and feelings. Otherwise you bump into things or walk off the edges of cliffs and don’t last very long. Survival and happiness require us to make our internal model, where we experientially live, an adequate reflection of external reality.
So somebody reports a spiritual experience, it’s very real and important to them. Is it just something created in our virtual reality theater, just our “imagination,” or is it a relatively accurate perception of an independent reality?
A remote viewing in which the viewer gets really involved with the distant target is an interesting case. The viewer may start to feel like he’s there at the target site, rather than staying, as is typical in remote viewing, anchored in his physical body but seeing visual imagery he hopes is of the distant target. In so far as what you experience as being at the target site actually corresponds to what’s physically there and represent psi functioning, I find it useful to think of it as involving actual (para)”sensory” contact with the target site. But how much other stuff in the “visit” is merely the creation of our virtual reality process?
I think successful remote viewers have developed some rules of thumb to give less attention to certain kinds of things they experience when remote viewing than others, as that style of things has turned out to seldom correspond to the target. An example with successful viewers is the emphasis on avoiding “analytic overlay:” if it feels like your mind is running associations to a viewed element rather than actually paying further attention, getting further and further away from the basic psi impressions of the target, tone that down. Other kinds of stuff you want to “look at” more closely…
OK, feel like you’ve been introduced to some very interesting questions? OK, so far so good, but where are The Answers?
I know so much more than I did as a teenager very interested in matters of spirit, of science…and know even more deeply how little I actually know….
But what interesting questions! ;-)
Tags: Aldous Huxley, astral projection, attention, awareness, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, dreams, hypnagogic state, hypnosis, hypnotizability, Ivo Kohler, meditation, mescaline, mindfulness, multiple personality, OBE, OBEs, ordinary mind, out of body experience, pain, psychedelics, remote viewing, Shinzen Young, spiritual experience, Transpersonal, vipassana, virtual reality
Gods and Goddesses and ???
Charles T. Tart
A number of parapsychologists and I discuss many contemporary research issues on a private discussion list. Recently we’ve had some discussion about Srinivasa Ramanujan, a Fellow of the Royal Society (1887-1920), a self-taught Indian mathematician. Self-taught in that he had no formal training in mathematics, but claimed that most of his ideas were not created by him but given to him by an Indian goddess. Ramanujan was an ardent devotee of the goddess Namagiri Thayar.
Today many parapsychologists are physicists by training and, as you can imagine, gods and goddesses are not popular in mainstream science! I’m a product of modern culture too and understand (and often, but not always) share this attitude. But, I thought, could scientific method, ingeniously applied, provide any evidence, even just probabilistic evidence, for or against the existence of gods and goddesses, rather than just having their possible existence dismissed implicitly, if not explicitly, in science education and practice?
I’ve thought about this issue, inconclusively, off and on for years, but maybe I could stimulate some of these very bright parapsychologists to think about it?
So here I share the post I sent off to my colleagues today. If some interesting ideas evolve, I’ll share them in some later blog post, and readers here may have some good ideas to share in the Comments area…
Existence of Non-Physical Beings? NPBs
Our recent discussions about inspiration, gods, and goddesses have suggested to me that we could have an interesting methodological exercise. We’ve got some very sophisticated methodologists here, and while our scientific culture “prejudice” (literally pre-judgment as that’s the way we were educated/indoctrinated by and large) instantly rejects any reality to gods and goddesses, it’s always interesting to challenge one’s prejudices and see if your mind can break free in interesting ways
So suppose we seriously consider that there might be what I’ll call non-physical beings, NPBs. That’s about as emotionally neutral term as I can think of right now, much less loaded than gods and goddesses.
We wonder if certain of those NPBs actually exist, or we only imagine them. With physical beings, we can literally physically check up on their existence, go and look at the person, talk to them, etc.
What people have or haven’t believed about NPBs in the past, whether belief in the concept of NPBs is good for you matter your bad for humanity is not the issue. The issue is could we acquire evidence that argued more strongly for or against their existence.
I say argued more strongly for or against their existence rather than “prove,” as this is a very complex subject. I don’t expect any absolute answers in my lifetime (maybe “I” will know after I die?), but I could envision additions to knowledge that make the idea of their existence more or less likely. So what could we do?
We already have a similar question, with evidence pro and con in the question of whether some aspect of a living person survives death in a form that we could say the “person” survived. The most direct form of experimental evidence consists of using mediums, who we assume have the relevant psi abilities, to ostensibly communicate with these surviving entities, and then question these entities to see whether they can provide us with physically checkable facts about the life of the deceased person that they now claim to be, facts which would ordinarily not be known to the medium.
Those of you familiar with this research will know how complex it is, and many factors that have been checked so far. Some mediums, for example, are fraudulent, and either do cold readings to mislead sitters that they are in contact with deceased loved ones, actually hire detectives to find out information, etc. Most mediums seem to honestly believe in what they’re doing and not be consciously fraudulent, but we can worry that they’re simply unconsciously picking up on the body language of the sitters, so the best technique, long ago developed, was to use proxy sitters, people who will give the medium the deceased person’s name but otherwise know nothing about them, so the sitter can’t give any information away. If we still get good information suggesting this is the deceased person somehow surviving, then we can worry about super-ESP, the medium’s unconscious mind using ESP to connect, via the proxy sitter, via who knows how many links, to wherever the relevant information is, combine it with a subconscious impersonation, and seem to be the deceased communicator, but that’s not what’s happening. Some of us worry a great deal about the super-ESP alternative, some of us, usually including me, don’t worry much about it since super-ESP is too vague to be ruled out and so is not really a scientific hypothesis.
To greatly oversimplify more than a century of such research, we could say that many mediumistic readings give material that is comforting to the sitters, but is nowhere near specific enough to make a strong case for any kind of survival. In some cases the ostensible communicating spirits give excellent factual information, as well as some incorrect information, about the deceased person they claim to be the surviving spirit of, and in some cases also show mannerisms that further match the deceased person. This kind of evidence has convinced some people that we survive death, and left other people worrying about the complexities of assessing the evidence.
While we can learn much from survival research, I think the problem is harder when we ask about the reality of NPBs. I’ve defined an NPB here as possibly having a “real” existence on “some other level of reality,” but not on the physical level, so there are no physical databases you can check to see if the NPB is who she or he claims to be.
It’s been a while since I’ve read much channeled material (Arthur Hastings’ and John Klimo’s two books are the best sources I always recommend), but my impression is that some ostensible NPBs show enough inconsistency from one channeling to the next to make one doubt that there is some “real” entity behind it, but some others show a great deal of consistency.
So, our fun challenge.
Assume you have access to several “channelers” who reliably “contact” some NPBs, and these NPBs show enough consistency and are interesting enough that you really wonder if they are “real.”
What do you do to collect evidence for or against their apparent “reality?”
I look forward to our discussion. Here on OUR LIST we have some very bright people who I don’t think have given much thought to the survival question or the reality of NPBs, but who thus, in some sense, can start thinking about it in a more open-minded way. Who knows what will come up with?
PS: some people “believe in” or “have fun with” interpreting associated events as messages or oracles. So as I open my computer to start writing this this morning, I noticed I had an email from tinywords firstname.lastname@example.org, a bit of literary creativity I get each day for stimulation. Here’s what today’s tiny words, that I read just before starting to write this, were:
on the battered pier
fishing for ghosts
-Paul David Mena http://tinyurl.com/zbgtl2q
Encouraging? Discouraging? Certainly interesting…
Years ago I gave up attempting to learn to meditate. I’d tried it many ways and decided that meditation must call for some special talent that I lacked. Then my wife Judy and I met Shinzen Young at a conference — and decades later I’m still meditating regularly, even teaching a basic webinar on meditation and mindfulness occasionally. Shinzen and his students offer monthly telephone conference call style meditation retreats for both beginners and advanced students, and he’s recently published a brilliant book, The Science of Meditation, which I will review when I get a chance. Meanwhile, these notes, as a peek at the kinds of things that I, someone who once gave up meditation for lack of talent, am playing with on one of these telephone retreats. Not that I’m an “advanced” meditator by any means, but it’s gotten quite interesting… ;-)
Pure Awareness and Expansion/Contraction:
Reflections on Shinzen Retreat 10/14-15/2016
Charles T. Tart
Basic instruction from Shinzen: Don’t focus on the ongoing content of experience, as in most practices of meditation, let the (specifics of the) content go (not suppress, just don’t focus on) and be aware that you are aware. When you lose awareness that you are aware, (gently) come back.
Various observations I made and took notes on during the practice:
– Practicing “pure awareness,” I exist. There are many particular sensations that comprise me. I don’t mentally and explicitly say “This is me” to any of them, but this ongoing flow is what I attend to when I think about “I” am experiencing.
– I can selectively direct my attention and tune into some sensations more than others, and I can get lost in those sensations.
– In this deliberate practice, it’s only intermittently that I tune in to being aware that I exist. I tend to get lost in particular content and drift off into it.
– When I try to go deeper into what it means to know I exist, I usually just have some particular sensation(s) become more intense, I haven’t been able to find an “independent” quality, independent of sensations. The mental thought “I am aware” is a quasi-sensory experience of hearing rather than some “abstraction” beyond sense experience. Intellectually I can always reason that I exist as a basis for experience, but that’s not a separate, distinctive I exist quality. Or maybe there is such a quality but it is so pervasive and common that I don’t notice it.
– When I get sucked into some simulation that’s created, it’s like the total amount of my consciousness gets squeezed down to less than it was before the suck in, as well as consciousness becoming almost or totally wrapped up in the simulation*.
– It seems to me that noting, and especially labeling, are designed to prevent full absorption in ongoing experience. “Noting” and “labeling” are here used as Shinzen uses them.
Going on to Expansion/Contraction Practice:
– Noting that something is both expanding and contracting at the same time is a complicated pair of words and mental operations. It would be helpful if we had a word that indicates morphing in general, flowing in general to use, that included mixtures of expansion and contraction. I experience such complex morphings at numerous times, part of an ongoing experience is contracting, e.g., while part is expanding. I use expansion and contraction as Shinzen used them in this guided meditation to include not only changes in spatial extent of an experience (bigger, smaller, leftward, rightward, etc.) but any perceived changes, such as amplitude, color, intensity, etc. Using “expanding-contracting” as a single phrase to promote noting or, especially to verbally label, takes attention away from the phenomena per se for a longish time compared to some single, simple word label, so things can be missed.
– I think now that a useful distinction in my consciousness that can be made moment to moment is am I consciously present, with or without various sensory experiences going on? Or not? And are there experiences going on that are “tugging” at me, to absorb me into a world-simulation that has been created? Or am I completely absorbed into whatever world-simulation is being created at the moment? Actually there is a continuum of degree of absorption here, rather than simply all-or-none.
– Simply knowing that you’re part of a system (Buddhist meditation in this case, but any spiritual/psychological development system), that you’re practicing a system that you believe will make you more effective, is likely to increase your competence and self-worth, and produce a certain amount of happiness and crowd out some unhappiness all by itself. Lots of ways to cut the pie, as it were, but knowing that you are actively cutting it, exerting more conscious observation, appreciation and control is ego syntonic.
* I say “simulation” here as shorthand for a technical term I used in my writings, “world-simulation process,” to indicate that the (my) mind produces, well-night instantly, one world of experience full of various qualities, which slowly or suddenly dissolves to be replaced by another simulated world, etc. Normally the simulation is of ordinary reality, what the room behind me looks like even though I’m not looking at it just now, e.g., etc. This can be elaborated at length from my articles…
End of notes
Prometheus and Atlas – Great Book Number 1
Charles T. Tart
This month has been a rich time for receiving books that I not only ought to, but definitely want to read! This is to tell you about one I received today and have already done some reading in, Prometheus and Atlas, by Jason Reza Jorjani, a philosopher on the faculty of the New Jersey Institute of Technology who teaches on science, technology and society. It’s about that theme that is become so central in my life, building bridges between the best of science and the best of spirituality.
I don’t usually even attempt to read books by philosophers anymore. When I was young, I picked up a relatively accurate image of philosophers as very wise people who thought deeply about human life and the nature of reality, and who shared their reflections and understandings with us. I thought of them as driven by that old maxim attributed to Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
For most of my adult life, however, I’ve found that most philosophers now seem to be caught up in word games.
In some ways, that’s OK and important. We are verbal creatures, and deeper understandings of the way we use words (and the way words use us!) can be very useful. One of the most important aspects of psychological and spiritual growth in my own life has been realizing that I’m too good with words, I can get entranced by them and lose touch with reality. But it’s apparently too easy for philosophers too to get caught up in the formal, intellectual, grammatical properties of language and forget that what we really should look at if we want deeper understanding is the reality that those words either point to and/or distort our understanding of.
Jorjani’s book is not casual reading, but it’s not a swamp of philosophical jargon and word games either. If you’re interested in the roots of both Eastern and Western cultures, and the conceptual systems driving so much of modern culture, including spiritual culture, it’s an excellent book. Particularly, Jorjani is aware of parapsychological phenomena, the specters as he calls them, which official culture tries to banish, but which are very important to our full understanding of humanity and reality. These “ghosts” just won’t go away in spite of our extensive use of “magic words,” masquerading as reason, to banish them!
I looked for his book when I received a notice that the Parapsychological Association, the professional group devoted to scientific and scholarly study of the paranormal, gave it an award for the best book in the area this year. I can see why they did. As I initially thought from a lunch conversation with him several years ago at one of the annual Parapsychogical Association meetings in Concord, Jorjani is very comprehensive in his understandings, so much so that I felt able to tease him about it after I started reading the book. I wrote him, “For example, are you certain that you haven’t missed some relevant footnote by some obscure Western or Eastern philosopher that is relevant to your theme? You seem to have gotten everybody and everything else!”
I started reading systematically from the first page, and quickly found I wanted more, I wanted to skip around sampling little gems here and there. For instance Jorjani talks about how we had such rigid ideas that there are real facts out there facts that we have to distinguish from our theories from, whether they are just theories given us by our enculturation or with the prestige of modern science, but, as he notes on page 14 of the introduction,
“Theories produce “facts” on account of observational ideologies that are deeply implicated by them, so it is deluded to think that the validity of theories can be tested against “the facts of Nature”– as if these had an autonomous and objectively accessible existence.”
Part of me strongly objects to that statement, I want, I insist that there be facts, to check all our concepts on… But I do know an awful lot about how our psychological processes selectively construct the apparent “facts” we perceive…
As another example of Jorjani’s insights, I wrote him:
“As you know from our conversation back in Concord, I certainly am in great general agreement with you. We love to feel smart, and that’s even better if we get along well in the world because of our apparent smartness, so it so easy to become overly attached to one’s intellectual concepts. I don’t agree with all aspects of Buddhism, e.g., but I certainly admire the emphasis there on the dangers of attachment, although I would argue against the dangers of over-attachment, rather than any kind of attachment at all.
You may remember that I routinely carry two knives on my belt, one of the big models of the Swiss Army Knife, and a Leatherman tool. People sometimes ask me which one is better, and I asked them better for what? There’s no absolute better or worse, it depends on the task. And sometimes I find that I have to use both of them at once to adequately do a task. But I also get lots of demonstrations of attachment. I like both of them so much that I tend to automatically reach for them when there’s some mechanical problem, even though it should be immediately obvious that there’s some specialized tool that I will need, and I’d better go down and talk to the people in the hardware store…
I also have frequent demonstrations of how overly attached I am to the way I’ve been taught to perceive. When I’m looking for some misplaced object in the house and can’t find it (of course I have to ask my wife where it is and she marvels at my inability to find things, it’s so stereotyped!), I’ve reflected on this and realized I call up a visual image of the missing object in my mind, and I’m projecting that image around the room with the expectation that when it’s projected on the actual object I will feel a sensation of matching, “mental bell” will ring, and then I’ll actually look and see the object.
It’s not a bad technique in some ways, but a lot of times it doesn’t work because my visual image is slightly different from the orientation of the real object. Then I have to fight my habitual attachment and look in a more comprehensive and open-minded way.
One other example of where I’m sure we’re in agreement, years ago I came up with a systems approach way of theorizing about what was meant by a state of consciousness and altered states of consciousness (described in my States of Consciousness, not to be confused with my earlier Altered States of Consciousness book). I still use this conceptual approach in my thinking, although it didn’t generally get picked up, it’s too complex rather than having the simplicity people crave. But eventually I realized that the structure of my theoretical approach was essentially identical to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigms. A particular paradigm/state can be very useful when dealing with stuff that is actually behaving the way the paradigm/state calls for, but is a real blinder when that’s not the case.
A highly recommended book! And also an incredibly unusual book, because almost all modern philosophers totally ignore the existence of paranormal phenomena, and insist on trying to explain everything in material terms. That leads to a lot of very forced and incorrect explanations…
[At the www.paradigm-sys.com site you can sign up for Professor Tart’s occasional mailings. Go to CTT Discussion Lists, sign up. If you have a spam filter, then pre-authorize email from email@example.com. ]
Tags: attention, awareness, belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, death, emotions, enlightenment, God, intention, Jorjani, materialism, meditation, Parapsychology, perception, precognition, reincarnation, science, scientism, spiritual teachers, suffering, telepathy, Tibetan Buddhism, Transpersonal, waking up
This is a modification and addition of draft version of a chapter to appear in Kaklauskas, Clements, Hocoy, & Hoffman (Eds.), Shadows & Light: Theory, Research, and Practice in Transpersonal Psychology, to be published in 2016 or 2017 by University Professors Press
The Importance of Curiosity:
In Transpersonal Psychology, in Spiritual Development
Charles T. Tart
While participating in a meditation intensive practice led by Jeff Warren recently, he introduced the session with a word that I have seldom heard used or given very given much importance by many, perhaps all meditation teachers I have received instruction from. The word is curiosity. I have been thinking about curiosity for years, as one of the main reasons I have been interested in meditative and similar practices: curiosity about my mind, about other people’s minds, about how minds work, about how they can work better, etc. Of course that is just one motivation among many: I certainly would like to reduce my suffering and reach “enlightenment” (whatever that is). Hearing Jeff Warren use the word curiosity, though, stimulated me to write about curiosity, Buddhism, and modern psychology. I thought more deeply about my own curiosity and became curious about what brought me into transpersonal psychology and related fields. This something that I haven’t shared often, and it is nice to share it here. This will be in the style of personal storytelling, rather than didactic, academic lecturing, as I think it will more effectively communicate some points that way.
Becoming A Transpersonal Psychologist
To my conscious knowledge, there were two major forces in my becoming a transpersonal psychologist. The earliest was my childhood religion, Lutheranism. My parents weren’t religious but my maternal grandmother, Nana, who lived in the apartment downstairs from us, was very much so. Grandmothers, as many of you may personally know, are sources of unconditional love. She took me to church and Sunday school. We had a special bond, and I naturally felt that what was good enough for her in religion was good enough for me! –As a child and early teenager, then, I was quite devout and followed the practices and explored the beliefs of being a Lutheran and a Christian.
The second major force was science. As early as I can remember, I loved everything connected with science. As a teenager I read about science all the time, including a lot of “adult” books. In my basement I created chemical and electrical laboratories, became a ham radio operator, built my own equipment, and planned to be a scientist or engineer.
The teenage years are a time of starting to question what you’ve been taught and to think for yourself. I became aware, as most idealistic teens do, of the apparent hypocrisy of adults. Some of those church people were not living what they preached! Worse yet, I knew enough science by then to realize that most, if not all, religious ideas and beliefs were quite nonsensical from the point of view of science–just old superstitions. How could I reconcile this with the deep religious feelings that had begun in my childhood?
From an adult perspective, I know many teenagers go through similar conflicts between science and religion. A common “resolution” is to go to one extreme or the other: religion is all nonsense and materialistic science is right, or religion is the ultimate truth and science can be ignored when it’s inconvenient. I put “resolution” in quotes, for as a psychologist, I see this extremism as usually an incomplete and often psychologically costly way of dealing with the conflict, too much suppression of parts of our nature are involved.
Luckily the Trenton City Library was my second home, and it had many books on spirituality, religion, psychical research and parapsychology. My curiosity found a thousand ways to be stimulated, and sometimes fulfilled. I discovered in reading that many intelligent people had gone through conflicts similar to mine, and the founders of the Society for Psychical Research had come up with a brilliant idea. Instead of a wholesale rejection of all religion and spirituality and adoption of materialism in whatever form was then scientifically fashionable, why not apply the methods of science, the insistence on accurate data collection, logical theorizing, testing of theories, and the collegiality of full and honest sharing of data and theory, to the phenomena of religion and spirituality? Why not examine and refine the data and devise more adequate theories? I was inspired by this idea, and it has been the central theme of my professional work and personal life ever since. Look at the data of spirituality*, see how to observe it more accurately, create and test theories about it, share these with colleagues, and slowly work our way toward a spirituality based on as many observable/experiencable facts as possible.
* I switch now to talking about spirituality rather than religion, using “spirituality” to refer to the primary kinds of transpersonal experiences individuals have that, when turned into theories, beliefs, dogmas, become” religions.” Religions are more the province of social psychologists.
Of course there are deeper reasons, but let’s not stray too far from my (relatively) conscious mind… ;-)
Psychic Experiences: A Reality Underlying Spirituality?
My more active probing of possible realities underlying spirituality began when I was a sophomore at MIT, studying electrical engineering, I conducted my first parapsychological experiment, using hypnotic suggestion as a (hoped for) way of producing out-of-body experiences (OBEs), so my subjects’ “minds” or “souls” might leave their bodies temporarily and see and accurately describe a target locked in the basement of a distant house. Looking back, the experimental design wasn’t bad for a teenager, although I didn’t have an objective way of evaluating the data I hoped to get, a qualitative description of an unusual target (nor did the field of parapsychology as a whole at that time). I didn’t formally write the results up until many years later (Tart, 1998), by which time I had carried out five others studies of OBEs.
While at MIT I met other students interested in parapsychology and we formed a student club to talk about it and ask speakers to lecture us. One of those speakers was Dr. Andrija Puharich,
whom Eileen Garrett (one of the world’s most famous spiritualist mediums and head of the Parapsychology Foundation) had told me about. Puharich was a physician researcher who not only claimed to have a way of making quantitatively measurable (hits above chance in a matching test) telepathy work better or to block it, he was doing it with electrical devices, Faraday Cages. Invented by renowned British physicist Michael Faraday, such a cage is an all metal enclosure that keeps electromagnetic waves from penetrating to its inside. What could rouse the curiosity of students of electrical engineering and physics than this? Some of us visited Puharich’s laboratory in Maine and thought his work seemed basically sound. He gave a lecture on his findings at MIT for our club, and I was intrigued enough – and needed the money! – to ask him for a summer job. So I saw some of his research up close for three months in 1957.
I was young and, of course, rather naïve, so didn’t fully realize that, in spite of being rejected by mainstream science, the few parapsychologists around did not all band together in a friendly way to present a united front to irrational criticisms. There was a parapsychological “establishment,” centered in Professor J. B. Rhine’s laboratory at Duke, and Puharich was definitely not part of that establishment; he was a “bad boy.” I had already met Rhine when he came to lecture in Boston several times and had corresponded with him. I wanted to switch from electrical engineering to psychology, to prepare for a career in parapsychology. MIT had no psychology programs at that time, but Rhine helped me transfer to Duke as a psychology major, and had indicated he would find a part-time job for me in his laboratory. However once he discovered that I had spent the summer working for Puharich, and would not admit I was foolish to have done so, he decided I did not have sufficient discrimination to make a scientific parapsychologist, and the promised job disappeared. I was, a friend told me, put on the list of people to be discouraged from visiting Rhine’s lab. I was a “bad boy” now myself, in a minor way. And discovering that curiosity might have lip service paid to it by an otherwise pioneering scientist, J. B. Rhine, but there were strong social and psychological forces channeling it into approved directions, away from non-approved directions.
Still an idealistic young man, I was naturally miffed over this treatment, although, as I matured, I realized I would probably have acted the same way as Rhine in a similar situation. If I had devoted my life to making a case for my field, based on very careful, methodologically sophisticated research, I would discourage wild young people from getting involved and undermining my work with questionable work of their own!
On the other hand, J. B. Rhine had given a talk to the entering freshmen women and invited any of them who were interested in parapsychology to visit his lab. So there I was reading books in the Parapsychology Laboratory’s library (I did not accept Rhine’s ban) when this beautiful young woman came in and asked me, “Do you believe in ESP?” More than 50 years of marriage later, Judy tells me I still use the same response I did with her way back then: “It’s not a matter of belief, it’s a matter of evidence…” said with a subtle, but certain air of snootiness… So Rhine was the proximate cause of far more happiness than unhappiness for me, and he did decide after another 20 years or so that I had enough discrimination to make a good parapsychologist….and the next 50 years were quite interesting….
Curiosity about the female mind was, of course, a big factor in dating and getting married – and I’m still trying to figure out the female mind… Wonderful, puzzling, delightful, frustrating… ;-)
And just to put a cap on these beginning threads of my career pursuing my curiosity, Puharich became even more of a “bad boy” to the parapsychological establishment by getting involved with things like UFO studies, while I became a part of that tiny parapsychological establishment. Puharich eventually got too far out for me with this (“What? I have some rigid, conservative beliefs? Me?”), but it’s a shame that his basic finding, that Faraday cages may amplify or shield psi have been ignored, as they may be a key to a major advance in getting reliable psi in our laboratory work. As far as I know, I’m the only one who did even a partial replication study of his work, with supportive results. Two former students of mine are now starting to continue this work with Faraday cages.
As I have gotten older I would like to think that I have stayed curious about the many questions that are very difficult to answer, to re-question any answers I think I may have found, and to question the answers others promote with certainty. Despite my curiosity and uncertainty about most things, and my immediate knowledge of how little I actually know, others often see me as an expert, though, and I often receive inquiries from others looking for answers about parapsychological and spiritual matters.
Can I illustrate using words to stimulate curiosity and possibly help understanding without getting too caught in them?
Defining the Non-Material
As an example, recently a colleague emailed me that he was on a Quixotic quest for a definition of the non-material. He elaborated that it seems like defining or describing consciousness itself is Quixotic in that everyone seems to recognize it when they see it (I assume you, dear Reader, have consciousness yourself and can recognize that simply by turning your attention inward for a moment), but have no clue what it specifically is. I think some folks would find my response interesting. Words can stimulate and really help curiosity, and can also derail us and drive us kind of crazy…
The Email on Defining Non-Material:
Dear Colleague, yes, that makes consciousness just like pornography, like the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart who said he couldn’t really define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. So for some fun off the top of my head, without going to any authorities like the Oxford English Dictionary, I did an exploration myself about how I may go about defining such ideas at this point in my life.
I like to look at what is implicit or assumed in questions and ideas, so let’s start with the assumption that we ought to be able to “define” the “non-material.”
At one extreme we can get into a rigid kind of arrogance, we humans are the smartest things in the universe and we can define everything! We can make everything make sense in terms of our human conceptual systems — with the usually unvoiced corollary, that if we can’t satisfactorily define it, it doesn’t exist and/or isn’t important, so let’s ignore or suppress it. I’m all for giving things a good try – but also think it’s a good idea to practice a little humility and remember that we may not be smart enough to figure everything out. And/or maybe we’re just temporarily stuck and a new approach will arise later, or a new tool be developed to work on the problem. But I won’t be surprised if we run into some things we never make any progress in explaining properly.
At the opposite extreme, I have no interest in the ideas of those who claim a-priori that we cannot know about X and should not try. That’s an uninteresting recipe for failure. As Henry Ford is reputed to have said, “Those who think they can and those who think they can’t are both right…”
So we may not be smart enough to ever “define” the “immaterial,” or maybe just not smart enough to do it now, but I’m pretty sure there’s something there of interest and importance.
Now on to “define.” To me that means come up with a verbal (or special language, like math) formulation about a phenomenon, X, that makes “sense,” that makes it fit “logically” into the rest of our valued knowledge base. As with the implicit aspects above, there’s an implicit assumption that we ought to be able to do this and that our current knowledge base is correct enough and expandable enough to handle X. To which I have the same maybe as above.
I get a lot of headaches and I’m also good at using language fairly precisely, but if you ask me to exactly define “what” or “where” my headaches are…well, damn it! They move around, some qualities change, and have lots of qualities I just can’t find satisfactory words for! Yet I know it when I have a headache, it’s certainly real – and it’s not like pornography!
So if I say something is “non-material,” without making any absolute or final statement, I’ll make a pragmatic one, given what we/I know currently or reasonable extensions of that knowledge. It is important to remember that such a statement is subject to change if the right new data comes along.
Let me try to illustrate with respect to psi, the general term now applied in parapsychological research for acquiring information about or affecting observable processes when there is no reasonable explanation in terms of what we know about the physical world. If I ask you to tell me the order of a deck of thoroughly shuffled, ordinary playing cards on a table in a locked room next door, e.g., you ordinarily have to use known physical energies like light to determine this, or if I ask you to watch, via video, a machine in that locked room throwing dice, but I want you to make more threes come up than would happen by chance, you have to apply physical energies to the dice to affect them. If you are too correct in calling the cards or affecting the dice just by wishing, determined by statistical analysis, we talk about psi. We could call your correctness with the cards the form of psi we call clairvoyance or, if someone in that locked room is looking at the cards, telepathy. If you significantly affect the outcome of the dice rolling, we call that form of psi psychokinesis (PK).
As an example, I would say that psi is “immaterial” or “non-material” compared with our current knowledge of electricity or reasonable extensions of that knowledge, it just doesn’t show the kinds of qualities electricity does. Translating that into pragmatic decisions, I would say that if someone says they want to take all of what little money currently supports psi research and put it into buying more sensitive radio receivers to detect psi, “That’s almost certainly a waste of time, you can’t have the money.” When I say psi is “immaterial” in the larger sense of the term “material,” I’m saying that what we currently know about the physical world and reasonable extensions of it does not offer any satisfactory explanations of psi. My criteria of “satisfactory” would be both that the physical theory of psi makes conceptual sense in terms of our physics database and allows someone to build a material gadget, working according to known physical principles, which would significantly amplify psi*: the old-fashioned prediction and control criteria for judging scientific theories.
* You may wonder, then, if the Faraday cage effect is real, does it mean psi is electrical in nature? Probably not, given other factors, but it may cut down ordinary noise in our physical brains which thus allows us to pay better attention to faint psi signals…
At present we have some odd and occasional correlations of psi with physical variables (e.g., local sidereal time, geomagnetic weather, a possible Faraday cage effect)* but they don’t really make “sense” of it as far as I can see. Note that I don’t buy into what philosophers long ago termed promissory materialism here either, I’m not much for untestable faith that someday they will explain psi in terms of physical principles. Maybe, but that’s faith, not science. Someday is always in the future, and you can never prove that someday it won’t happen, or that someday it won’t all be explained by invisible, tiny green angels.…
Note too that by saying psi is “non-material” by present knowledge standards, I’m not saying it does not obey any laws or that we can’t figure out how it works or what it means someday. That is I have no “supernatural” theory of a non-understandable god meddling to change things sometimes – although I’m not arrogant enough to say that I’m so smart myself that I can declare there are no beings more intelligent or powerful than me.
The pragmatic bottom line for me is that I’m not saying don’t look for physical correlates or explanations of psi – I love those attempts, I’m a nerd and fascinated by technology! – but I am saying don’t sit back and fail to investigate what the actual characteristics of psi (or other transpersonal phenomena) are because you assume “they” will explain it all someday in terms of physics.
This is exactly the same position I have about consciousness in general. Yes, the brain is heavily involved in what we ordinarily experience as our consciousness, but don’t ignore those characteristics of consciousness that don’t readily fit into a physical, neurological model; get on with investigating them on their own terms.
So “immaterial” pragmatically means real phenomena that do not follow known physical laws and which should be investigated in a variety of ways until we find some that make a new kind of sense out of them. And of course it’s more complicated than this, but enough! See how you’ve overstimulated my brain/mind first thing in the morning? ;-)
With best wishes,
End of the Email on Defining Non-Material:
* After my response I did go check in with an authority, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and here is the essence of each definition rather than the whole thing: material: an adjective – Of or pertaining to matter or substance; formed or consisting of matter; corporeal, and immaterial: An adjective – not material; not consisting of matter; spiritual.
Curiosity as Blessing and Curse:
Even after writing the above email, my curiosity about and musings on defining immaterial and consciousness have not, of course, ended. My interminable supply of curiosity has been a gift for me, albeit not an unmixed blessing – it gets me in trouble sometimes – and one that can be extended to contemporary spirituality and psychology. Later in my life, for example, I increasingly developed a somewhat dedicated routine of Buddhist practices. But as someone raised as a Christian, I have a strongly conditioned idea that to be a “good” member of a religion you are supposed to believe all aspects of it. In that sense, I’m not a “good Buddhist” or a “dedicated Buddhist.” While I have great respect for this tradition, and make it one of my main sources of practical guidance in life, I don’t have a blind faith that all aspects of Buddhism are true. Many followers of Buddhism act as if that’s the case, of course, although Gautama Buddha, in his Sutta to the Kalamas*, warned people not to take any of his teachings on faith, but to thoroughly test them to see if they indeed made sense and worked for them. Using one’s curiosity, and being pragmatic about it. I also am someone who is very scientifically oriented. I realize that we humans make observations and have experiences and then we come up with intellectual explanations, theories, to explain them. It’s one of the most important aspects of being human. I’m sure that Buddhism, indeed probably all religions, started with powerful and moving transpersonal experiences, but then people invented theories, then called doctrines in religious context, to make an acceptable sense of them. As a scientist, though, I have the pragmatic, working belief that all theories are tentative, working hypotheses, never The Truth. They are the best we can do intellectually at the time with the data we have, but it’s important not to get overly attached to them because new data/experiences/understandings coming in may show that they are inadequate and need modification or replacement. This has manifested many times in the history of modern science. All that was important in some field of study was perfectly understood, everyone felt very smart and smug, and Bang! Data came in that required an overthrow of the reigning paradigm and a new one to be formed. Thomas Kuhn documented this so well in his work on the history of science.
* A translation by Gates (1989) that I like is:
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.
My Curiosity and Buddhism:
So I regard the doctrines and belief system of Buddhism, indeed of all religions, as theories and practices that undoubtedly have some usefulness and truth value, yet are probably inadequate and need revision in other ways. It’s more complicated than formal science, though, as most people in a religion are really strongly attached to doctrines at an emotional as well as an intellectual level. Questioning any of the religion’s doctrines is generally not valued, indeed may be considered heresy. People who think of themselves as scientists may forget the tentativeness of their theories also, believe their science has found The Truth, and get emotionally attached to these apparent truths. What makes this transition from science as a method leading to working hypotheses to the ossification of believing we know the all the important truths is that the people to whom it happens generally don’t know it’s happened, they continue to think they are open-minded scientists. But, believing that the methods of essential science can help us clarify many things in the spiritual area, I respect doctrines, but ask questions. Hopefully my questions are always based on a desire to be clearer about what’s more or less useful and not just an emotional reaction to what I don’t like.
I tried to find an image of a Buddha who looked curious, who was wondering what else there was, but couldn’t find one. The Buddha seems to be always depicted as content, not wondering… Although with all the variations of Buddhism in the world I’m sure there are some curious Buddha images somewhere…
So, I find that a lot of Buddhist ideas and practices make sense and work for me. I can see in my own life experience that I’ve come to understand my mind better and live a somewhat kinder and wiser life. As to more metaphysical aspects, such as psychic blessings from the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, I hope that those are real, I would be glad to receive them, and will be happy to treat them with respect. I, and most of us, can use all the help we can get! But I don’t know whether Buddhist world view and formulations are ultimate truths or just good theories given the present state of our empirical knowledge. Perhaps not fully adequate theories, so I can and do ask questions, and continue being curious.
I also believe (I should say I treat as a useful working hypothesis, to follow my own advice above) is that the implicit and explicit background of the Buddhist worldview, in common with any spiritual system’s detailed worldview, may basically inhibit curiosity. I worry that some believe that Gautama Buddha figured out everything of importance, pointed out the one important goal in life – the cessation of suffering – and mapped out the best way to get to that goal by becoming enlightened in a Buddhist style. Consequently some may believe there are no other important questions, so why waste your time on anything that isn’t following the traditional Buddhist path as much as you can? There may be technical questions on using the methods most effectively, or adapting them to a particular individual’s strengths and weaknesses, but there are no basic questions.
This is the reason why I have long technically characterized Buddhism and other spiritual systems not as spiritual sciences, but as spiritual technologies*. A scientist, in principle, can be curious about anything and everything. A scientist is initially educated in certain basic principles and findings considered fundamental to her field, but may well go on to question these basic principles and find them erroneous or in need of revision. A technician, on the other hand, is trained in the application of basic principles, in applying them in an effective technical and practical manner, not in questioning these basic principles.
* Note I am not downplaying the immense value of accomplishments on various spiritual paths but, if you believe in progress, as I do, realizing that accepting any world view and spiritual goal as final, ultimate Truth, may seriously discourage you from looking for alternatives that might even be more valuable, and certainly a part of reality…
Of course a lot of people socially designated as scientists actually behave as if they were technicians, never really asking any fundamental questions, but just creating and implementing small, technical improvements within the worldview they were already given. This valuable work is essential and important to the progress of any field of science. When a field of science is dominated by a theory that has implicitly or explicitly accepted as the Truth and habitually molds thinking and action, the famous historian of science, Thomas Kuhn (Kuhn, 1962) called this normal, paradigmatic science. But this scientist/technician distinction is useful. If you’re working in a spiritual tradition that already knows all the important answers, no basic curiosity is needed. But we may want to be curious about that, especially if we are transpersonal psychologists, dedicated to expanding spiritual knowledge, not just applying it.
Similarly, I am curious about curiosity in contemporary psychology. In the late 1800s, when psychology began differentiating itself from philosophy, one of its primary methods was introspection. This was basically a method of examining inner experience, and some of the early psychologists wrote about having “trained observers” examine and report on their experience. Unfortunately, psychology failed to establish itself as a useful discipline with this approach. There was simply too much disagreement among the results from various laboratories as to what was observed in the mind and why these things were observed. Introspection became discredited as a method, and replaced by behaviorism. Behaviorism produced much more objectivity. Did a person do external, behavioral act A or not? You could get perfect agreement among observers about that. But this left out the whole interior side of human experience.
As I have written about elsewhere (Tart, 2005), with the wisdom of hindsight we can see many reasons why this introspective approach didn’t work. There was no understanding of the importance of individual differences, for example, but rather a naïve belief that each of us possessed what we might call a “standard mind,” so anyone’s observations and experiences could give basic insight into the way a standard mind worked. I assume there is some really basic core to mind at some deep level, but the semi-arbitrary qualities added on top of that through enculturation and personal experience may keep it quite hidden. There was also no understanding of the vital importance of experimenter bias, an issue still largely avoided even in modern psychology as we cling to the idea of being “objective observers.” Most importantly, when “trained observers” were talked about, this usually meant people who might have had 10 to 20 hours of training on how to report a particular aspect of experience. With our current familiarity with meditation systems from Buddhism and other spiritual disciplines, however, I’ve heard Buddhist teachers estimate that it generally takes at least 5,000, if not 10,000 hours of disciplined practice to become a really good observer of one’s own experiences. This 10,000 hour figure has been applied now in many fields as a foundation for real mastery (Gladwell, 2008). Thus the fact that untrained, introspecting observers did not produce reports which agreed with one another is hardly surprising (Tart, 2005).
In the last couple of decades psychology, particularly clinical psychology, has discovered that aspects of meditative practices can be therapeutically helpful in relieving a variety of conditions. But note that we have a close parallel to what I said about Buddhism above, namely we have an overall belief system, our culture’s beliefs, about what is normal and how a normal mind should operate. Meditative methods are now seen as an adjunct to other forms of therapy which are designed to help patients’ minds operate in accordance with our views of normal. It’s wonderful that aspects of traditional meditation systems have been adapted in ways that reduce human suffering, but a general curiosity is not there. The exciting question, for me is what would happen if we developed a lot of people trained in spirituality, mediation, psychology, and related fields and then tasked them, in the sense of essential science, to investigating all aspects of experience, all aspects of reality? Not simply those that help people be “normal” and get rid of their specific kind of suffering? Could we develop a new introspective psychology that actually worked? Could we expand upon what we currently know and open new doors to new areas of study and knowing.
For me, curiosity is the heart of science, psychology, and spirituality. At their best, these fields search for truth, or at least a deeper and fuller understanding of ourselves, others, and our world. Curiosity embodies all our senses, our mind, brain, and spirit. Everything we see and all things unseen. What do we think we know, how do we think we know it, what else may be also seem true, and what may we be overlooking? Curiosity has filled my life with confusion at times, but also vital life energy. I humbly suggest you try it.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers. Boston: Little, Brown and Company
Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.
Tart, C., (1988). Effects of electrical shielding on GESP performance. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 82, 129-146.
Tart, C. (1998). Six studies of out-of-the-body experiences. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 17 (2), 73-99.
Tart, C. (2005). Future psychology as a science of mind and spirit: Reflections on receiving the Abraham Maslow award. Humanistic Psychologist, 33(2),131-143.
Tags: Andrija Puharich, behaviorism, belief, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, curiosity, curiousity, dismissive materialism, Duke University, Eileen Garrett, Einstein, emotions, enlightenment, essential science, experimenter bias, Faraday cage, God, Henry Ford, history of science, hypnosis, immaterial, intention, introspectionism, J. B. Rhine, Jeff Warren, Judy Tart, Kuhn, Lutheranism, materialism, meditation, Michael Faraday, mind science, mindfulness, MIT, non-material, OBEs, out-of-body experiences, Parapsychology Foundation, perception, PK, psi, psychic experiences, psychokinesis, Puharich, religion vs spirituality, Society for Psychical Research, spiritual teachers, spiritual technologies, Sutta to the Kalamas, Thomas, Thomas Kuhn, Transpersonal, Trenton City Library
Bottom Line Spirituality: What Works, What Might Work Better
Charles T. Tart
I was reading along, without too much enthusiasm, a discussion held online by a group of informed people aiming to advance spiritual development a discussion about what various spiritual teachers, especially the historical Buddha, actually taught. I say without too much enthusiasm, as the only material we have to work with are written accounts which were often not actually written until dozens or hundreds of years after the spiritual leader had died, from the memories of various followers. This kind of discussion may be interesting in trying to figure out what was really meant by certain spiritual ideas, but without actual written expression by the person who said it originally, and a profound knowledge of the culture and language that it was written in, we’re pretty much just speculating. That may help, that may not. My enthusiasm waned more as I saw some of the people involved in the discussion beginning to manifest a sort of dogmatic quality, a largely hidden quality on the order of “My spiritual path is more profound than yours.”
Experts devoted to improving our spiritual life shouldn’t get caught up in that kind of sectarianism, of course, but, we’re human, it happens. I wanted to steer the discussion back toward practical matters, so I wrote:
I don’t know what the historical Buddha actually taught, but the bottom line for me is that he essentially said that if (a) you hold a certain world view, (b) live by certain sensible and moral rules, and (c) sharpen your mind with specific, learnable skills involving concentration and insight, you can reduce a lot of the suffering that we humans are subject to. Indeed he took the last part further and claimed you could eliminate ALL suffering. I have no idea if that’s true, but personal experience and what I know of others says you can certainly reduce suffering a lot in this way, and, combined with the bodhisattva commitment to help others, it works well for at least a significant number of people – and that’s wonderful!!!
Whether it’s the ultimate truth about things, I have no idea, but it’s a good way for some people to live. By my values, of course, which value intelligence, kindness, openness. But what is the “best” spiritual path for particular individuals? Wow, that’s a tough one! Trial and error at this time, maybe someday we’ll know better and be able to test people and say things like:
“The odds for your particular kind of person are a 60% high satisfaction for Path A, but a 5% psychosis rate and a 19% disappointment rate that nothing worthwhile happens, while for your particular kind of person Path B leads to….
That sort of thing is not any kind of ultimate answer, but can be figured out empirically if we put a lot of effort into it and track what happens with a lot of people of different types on different spiritual paths.
This is the task of a transpersonal psychology, yet to be developed….
One of the discussants, who is a recognized Buddhist scholar, made me feel very good by commenting that my post was entirely synoptic with the Buddhist teachings, that it was Buddhavacana.
What could I say but thank you!
Well, of course, there was a lot more I could say toward expanding this line of thinking. And while I’m glad I understood this part of Buddhism correctly, I don’t know about its “ultimate” truthfulness…
Given how much I admire Buddhism as a spiritual path, I’m glad I’ve got at least some of it right! And a real Buddhist scholar telling me that, wow! With a really impressive word that I had to look up: Buddhavacana, consistent with what scholars understand the historical Buddha would’ve taught.
Meaning: We’ve Got to Have It!
To expand a little, what I said was my practical self writing. If it’s one thing I’m pretty darn sure of, it’s that we human beings need to have meaning. We need to feel that the world we live in makes some kind of sense and that we have a sensible and valuable place within that world. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a lot of ways for that to work.
You can have a worldview that the universe is, as the poet Tennyson phrased it, red in teeth and claw, it’s all dog eat dog, and so your job and satisfaction is to gain glory by eating them before they eat you! Since at least some of our human capabilities are things like bravery, cleverness, and fighting ability, that certainly produces at least partial satisfaction. It also produces a lot of karma, karma in the sense of given the way we are, when you beat the shit out of other people they are just waiting for their chance to beat the shit out of you… That’s not my preferred worldview, but I understand how it can work for people.
I do have another self that looks for a deeper, truer understanding of reality, and that usually has to work in different ways than the self that likes to be helpful to other people. If I have a Buddhist friend who is dying, e.g., I’m going to do chants and say prayers to Buddhas and bodhisattvas with her or him, and not talk about cultural relativity, that there’s a certain arbitrariness about the Buddhist worldview it could be constructed in other ways, etc. If my dying friend is a Christian, I’m happy to pray with her or him to Christ or to God. And I’m not going to engage in discussions with them about how much our concepts of God the Father (or God the Mother) are based on projections of our human biological characteristics, our history of being helpless and depending on a man and a woman who were godlike in their capacities compared to us as infants and children, etc.
In a general sense I think that almost all belief systems give power. When you’re unsure how the world works, or what your capabilities are, or what you should do, there’s a lot of “stuttering” in your actions and reactions, such that they’re not very effective. “I should, no, maybe I shouldn’t, but, and what about, why aren’t I actually doing it, but…” When you’re ready to give everything for The Cause, for a particular religion that’s promised you salvation, it gives direction, courage, social support, etc.
Belief and Reality:
More deeply, I assume that in general the closer your belief about reality comes to the way reality actually works, the more likely it is to be effective. I’ve read that in one of those colonial wars in Africa, e.g., the local shamans gave their people amulets which they promised would deflect British bullets so they couldn’t be hurt… and then the British machine guns mowed them down by the hundreds… So on a practical, everyday level I prefer to support people to reduce their suffering in whatever reasonable (my value judgment, of course) belief system they operate in, but as a caring being and as a transpersonal psychologist, I would like to understand reality more deeply so as to help shape belief systems to be more and more effective. I consider “effective” in terms of my own values, of course, but that’s another issue to understand my own values, decide when they are helping me or others, when they are hindering me, etc.
As an example of applying this attitude to Buddhism, I notice that many of my Buddhist friends and a lot of Buddhist teachers believe the historical Buddha was fully enlightened, that Gautama Buddha at least knew everything that was important to human happiness, if not everything, period. As an element of world view, of faith, that’s empowering! Remembering those endless hours of attempts at meditation, I was often convinced I would never get anywhere with it and wondered if this was all a lot of crap anyway. The idea I tried to hold that the Buddha at least knew far, far more than me, and if I kept meditating it would eventually work, kept me sitting on the cushion.
On the other hand, as an educated Westerner, as a trained psychologist, as someone who spent a lot of time trying to figure out how my mind works, I realized that Gautama Buddha lived at a particular period in history in a particular culture, and that the way he was raised and what he saw around him shaped his thinking and experiencing to various degrees. The obvious difference I see from my own childhood was that I was raised in a culture that believed in Progress, and that belief has been validated strongly in my own life. Yes, lots of bad things still happen in the world, but my ancestors were peasants and factory workers, and I’ve not only been to college, I’m a professor! I like to learn about things, think about things, and share my understandings of other people—and, by gosh, the University pays me to do that! That sure is Progress in my book!
As I understand it, Gautama Buddha, on the other hand, lived in a culture which was relatively static. A few people got ahead in life, some people’s situation got worse, but, especially as Buddhism continued to grow over the ages, the caste system meant that most people were going to be doing the same thing all their life, which was the same thing their ancestors had done, which was what their children would do. Particularly if you were lower caste, that easily leads to a view that existence is per se pretty bad, and the idea of getting out of here is very appealing. Then you add in a common belief in reincarnation: not only are you inevitably suffering now, you’re going to continue to suffer lifetime after lifetime after lifetime, unless you really follow the Buddhist system to get enlightened, and that’s hard to do and may take many lifetimes. Okay, let me out!
When I first heard about reincarnation as a Western child of Progress, my thoughts were more on the order of “I like to learn things, there’s so much more to learn than I possibly have time for in one lifetime, but wow, I’ll have lifetime after lifetime to learn more and more and get better and better!” (Yes, I was one of those nerdy children who likes school.) An attitude that was reinforced by my reading as a teenager about autosuggestion and actually practicing the system of autosuggestion developed by Emile Coué in 1922 a whereby many times each day you repeated the suggestion, like a mantra, “Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better. Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better… Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better.” And gosh! I think it’s worked!
So when you have a deep belief in progress, you can believe Gautama Buddha knew a lot of very useful and valuable information, but it’s hard to imagine he knew everything. And the kind of enlightenment that Buddhism may lead you toward, and possibly even reach, sounds like a wonderful accomplishment, good for all of us, not just the person who gets enlightened, but is it the ultimate possible for us?
In the everyday material world, old-fashioned Newtonian physics works just fine. Solid objects are solid, you don’t have to deal with weird ideas that they actually are practically all empty space with incredibly infinitesimally small particles or processes or waves or strings or curves in space-time or whatever actually underlying it all. Yet I doubt we would have developed computers and cell phones, e.g., if we continued thinking only in terms of Newtonian physics. It’s a complex process, of course, but I really do think that with the proper application of open-minded science and scholarship, we can achieve deeper understandings of the spiritual as well as the rest of reality, and develop more effective ways of spiritual development.
Okay, my Buddhist scholar friend, I don’t know if this is wandering too far, but thank you again for a wonderful complement. I’ll take as my preferred working hypothesis that Gautama Buddha himself knew that he had something great to share with people, but tried to stay open-minded about the possibility of more. And I hope that the great religious figures of other traditions also remembered the virtue of humility, even if their teachings have way too often been distorted into tools for social control.
And I’ll admit that it’s not easy to switch between two or more perspectives, “This is the Holy Truth, I give it my Head and Heart and All!” and “Good, but let’s look deeper.”
Tags: belief, Buddha, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, emotions, enlightenment, Gautama Buddha, God, intention, Jesus, karma, meditation, ordinary mind, perception, reincarnation, science, Transpersonal, waking up
CCCE: Concentration, Clarity, Curiosity, Equanimity
Charles T. Tart
I teach a three-week web course on meditation and mindfulness a few times each year, giving students basic understanding and practice in developing essential skills for meditation practice, but even more for their eventual mindfulness application to everyday life. Our mind can working in kind of crazy, mindless ways while we’re sitting on a little cushion doing formal meditation, and while that may bother me at times, there is generally little harm coming from it. But when our minds do crazy things, mindless things, in the midst of everyday life, we sign contracts, write checks, say things to friends who now perhaps become former friends, etc., things that can get us into a lot of trouble. It’s nice and better than nothing if a few hours later (and too many times a few weeks or more later!) if you suddenly realize “Why in the world did I say something so stupid!” but it’s much better to learn to spot some funny feeling starting to warp your mind before you open your mouth!
I enjoy the feedback I get from students in these courses, as it helps me understand certain fundamentals of mindfulness more clearly, as well as practically helping me to teach others more clearly. This essay came from a student’s puzzlement about what I meant by “clarity” when I talked about it as an essential aspect of meditation and mindfulness practice.
The words “meditation” and “mindfulness” are used in a wide variety of ways, so much so as to be almost useless for trying to understand what in particular someone is talking about. For our purposes, I like the formulation I learned from meditation teacher Shinzen Young that a good part of the essence of meditation is when you focus on something, a fixed something or the passing stream of experience, with Concentration, Clarity, and Equanimity. I would also explicitly add Curiosity to those 3, and say that meditation and mindfulness involve doing something with the intention (and varying degrees of success, moment to moment) of CCCE. Curiosity, Concentration, Clarity, and equanimity.
You’re taking a web course on meditation and mindfulness. Even without knowing you personally, I think that means, at a minimum, that your life is not completely satisfactory and there is suffering in it (so far I’m basically including the entire human race), and you realize that at least some of that suffering is caused by the fact that in some ways you don’t understand, your own mind, is too often out of control.
How do you get better understanding and control? You practice both control exercises, like Concentration meditation, and you practice Vipassana, insight meditation, to get a better understanding of what your mind actually does moment-by-moment in various situations. You cultivate skill in Equanimity so that you can concentrate and perceive more clearly by not overreacting to the contents of your ongoing experience. In formal Vipassana, where you’re sitting quietly, you get to observe your mind when there is little outside disturbance so you can see its internal dynamics pretty well, in (Gurdjieffian) Self Remembering in everyday life you have to deal with more distraction from outside events, but this is where it really matters to better understand what your mind does.
When you get better at observing your own mind, you will see many situations where something happens (someone says something, or a memory or thought comes up), some thought or feeling reactively pops up in your mind and tends to take your mind over. In turn, related thoughts and feelings come up…and come up and come up and….for way toolong! Your initial perception of what happened may be unclear because you didn’t have concentration, things kept changing too fast, too automatically, for you to get a good look. When you are able to concentrate better on things that come up, you may then see more clearly exactly what it is, or, realistically, at least more clearly what it is even if not exactly see it, and this gives you a possibility of intelligent change.
Sometimes just seeing one of these automatic aspects more clearly once or a few times is enough to drain the emotional and cognitive power out of it so it stops happening, sometimes it’s tougher than that (there is a whole chapter devoted to this in my Waking Up book, and it’s touched on numerous times in my other books, Living the Mindful Life and Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People on mindfulness) and you have to do something more specific to change it. So clarity is about both slowing down the rate of change in something, it’s hard to see what it is if it’s replaced almost instantly by something else, as well as a clearer perception. One aspect of increased clarity, for example, is that sometimes you see that what you thought was a single emotional quality to an experience actually consists of two or more, and you won’t really understand it well until you can separate out these different aspects. Concentration supports Clarity and Equanimity, Clarity supports Concentration and Equanimity, and Equanimity supports Concentration and Clarity. They’re different ways of looking at aspects of a single mind in operation.
Now, when I divide things into CCCE, in some ways that’s a linguistic maneuver which hopefully will communicate more clearly what I’m trying to point your attention to. But the reality is CCCE is a convenient, but not absolute, analytical division of what happens in your mind, and different parts of it may be interacting or essentially the same at times. To give an example:
My truck is 19 feet, 6 inches long, has 4 wheels, and is painted blue. (My wife says it is painted teal, which just shows what an insensitive male I am) :-).
My truck is a Ford F-150, with 8 cylinders, and runs fine on regular gasoline, not requiring higher test gasoline.
Which is the truer description?
Of course that’s a silly question. A more realistic question would be which is the more useful description? The answer to that, of course, would depend on what you want to do. If my problem is the engine running irregularly when I’m on the freeway, the first description is of no value whatsoever, the second allows a mechanic to start thinking about more relevant things. If my problem is that I would like to have the truck painted a different color but I’m not sure whether I can afford it, the first description is much more useful to allow an auto painting shop to begin to make an estimate of what it would cost.
If you took a momentary slice of your experience in time, you could make some estimates of how concentrated were you, how clear were you on what was happening, how equanimous were you about what was happening, how genuinely curious were you. But remember the point is to have more focused, more clear, more equanimous perceptions of what’s happening to you, rather than making intellectual distinctions about aspects of the process. Unless making those distinctions helps you carry out the process better, of course.
A very important point to consider though is to be careful not to fall into grandiose, absolute definitions of CCCE. There are extreme values, but I don’t think they mean much to us who are learners rather than experts.
Some meditators, for example, judging from their self-reports, can put their attention on a single concentration point (their own breathing is a common example) and report that they didn’t think of another single thing for an hour of more! I think of that as Olympics level Concentration. That is so far beyond me that I have to remember to not automatically assume that they are lying. Some meditators will report experiences of Clarity where the thing being focused on at the moment was the absolutely only perception they had and it was brilliant, glowing, psychedelic, full of meaning and wonder! Some will report horrible memories of, say, torture arising in meditation but they were able to let the memories just flow through their mind, cognitively and emotionally, with little or no emotional reaction. As to Curiosity, that’s tougher, but some people report suddenly understanding something during meditation as if they finally know the Absolute Truth about it, and whatever Curiosity they might have had is completely satisfied.
My advice about these absolutes? Forget them!
I’m talking about a strategy for learning to get better at this, of course, not any absolute rule about the way to deal with life. For whatever reasons, I tended to judge my own meditations in absolute terms for many years, as I’m sure some others do. Why couldn’t I be aware of one thing for more than 2 seconds at a time before something else came in? Why were my thoughts, feelings, perceptions kind of fuzzy, instead of possessing a kind of psychedelic clarity where I would jump up and say “Wow! Now I really understand this!” Why would I notice that when anything came up that I didn’t think was properly “spiritual,” much less pleasant, my mind automatically tried to change it into something that met my standards of spirituality better? And I didn’t even notice that for all my conscious commitment to being Curious about the workings of my mind, I was manipulating, or at least trying to manipulate, my experience instead of really paying attention to what it actually was at any moment.
So it might help to take half a minute at the beginning of a meditation session to consciously remind yourself of your goals. That might even involve saying your goals out loud. “In this session, I want to have my mind be steadier so I can learn better Concentration.” Or “In this session I want to be less reactive to whatever arises in my experience, without immediately trying to change it.”
Note very carefully that I did not say “steady,” but “steadier.” I did not say “un-reactive,” but “less reactive.” My experience is that if you remember these things are on a continuum, then you will slowly notice you get better and better at these practices, even though there are occasional reverses. But if you judge them according to absolute standards, you’ll probably have the kind of experience I had for the first few years of attempting to learn meditation, that I was no good at it at all! :-
In all of the teachings in our webinar, I constantly put things on a relative basis, as I think it allows almost everyone to progress much better.
>2. Once in a while during meditation, I felt like coughing, yawning, sneezing, adjusting body position or taking a deep breath. Should I go ahead just do it or just experience the sensation of wanting to do it during the meditation?<
I think the main thing that matters here is that you remind yourself of what the rule is for this particular session at the beginning. If you constantly interrupt your meditative focus by coughing, yawning, etc., such that it’s a real problem for you, then it would be good to have practice sessions where your conscious goal was to indeed notice the sensations but not act on them. This runs a danger of getting too harsh on yourself, but you should be able to control sensations when it’s necessary. But to think that you always need to control every sensation that might lead to an action is pretty extreme, so I generally prefer the other Vipassana type rule that when you have that need to move, or the like, do it slowly and mindfully. That way you’ll mindfully come into motion from where you were just before that and make it easier to mindfully get back into where you were going after that.
Thank you for the questions! As you can see, as I’ve gone on and on, I think it was a good idea to clarify these things. You certainly will find teachers and systems that have more rigid rules for dealing with all these, but my own preference is developing mindfulness in changing situations, like life, that is more useful for most of us, so mindfulness of whatever you do in various situations is a good idea.
But, careful! Part of my mind says, saying that will make people think they’ve got to go around being really uptight and fanatically examining every sensation every moment of life! No! When you’re lying on the couch reading a good novel, forget your body, the sight of the room, the sounds of the room, and enjoy! When you’re walking down the street, on the other hand, do not look at the tiny screen on your phone and block out outside sounds with your headphones, you may get mugged or run down… Practicality, sensibleness!
Tags: attention, awareness, Buddhism, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, concentrative meditation, emotions, enlightenment, equanimity, glidewing, Gurdjieff, intention, Living the Mindful Life, meditation, mind science, mindfulness, ordinary mind, Shinzen Young, spiritual teachers, Transpersonal, vipassana, waking up
Out of Body Experiences — Half A Century On
About half a century ago – have I really been me, doing my stuff, that long? – I had an amazing stroke of luck.
As part of trying to make sense of life, particularly reconciling the religion I was raised in and modern science, I had read extensively in books about psychic research while still in my teens. Psychic research was a very small, but I believed very important field of inquiry, launched in the 1880s by intelligent people who had also been having difficulty reconciling religion and science, and who had the brilliant idea that science was a method, much more than just its contemporary findings. So why not apply the method of science (observe, theorize, test theories, share) to human experiences that had religious/spiritual implications and see what was real, as opposed to what was, as many fervent devotees of science proclaimed then (and now) that religion was all superstition and nonsense? This has been a major theme in my scientific career ever since reading about it.
One of the human experiences which struck me as very important in forming religions was the out-of-the-body experience (OBE), where a person unexpectedly finds themselves located somewhere else than where they know their physical body is, but their mind is fully clear and conscious. They can reason logically about how what is happening to them, floating up near the ceiling, e.g., while looking at their unconscious physical body below them in bed, is impossible — and yet there is no doubt it is happening! The typical aftereffect of having an OBE is the person saying something to the effect that “I no longer believe that I will survive death — I know I will, I’ve been alive and awake outside my body!” This is a conviction which usually lasts the rest of their life. Clearly OBEs happening to some people are a major source of the idea of a soul.
But aside from an occasional trustworthy person reporting OBEs, that was about all we knew about them, with one major factor added: in some cases, the person acquired by observation (seeing it) correct information about what was happening at a distant place they felt located at, when there was no reasonable way for them to otherwise know about it. Without that, OBEs could be thought about as merely an altered state of consciousness (ASC), something like a dream but with full and clear consciousness rather than the fuzzy state typical of dreams. And indeed there is a relatively rare kind of dream, the lucid dream, in which the dreamer feels their mind is awake, but they classify their experience as a dream. In practice some apparent OBEs are probably misclassified lucid dreams and visa-versa, but that some OBEs involve clear ESP functioning intensifies the question: “Is it really possible for a person’s mind to be elsewhere than their physical body, sensing that distant place?” I would have liked to have studied OBEs, but aside from one experiment while I was still a college student, had little opportunity, and with unclear results. No one else was studying them. Indeed, OBEs were taboo.
My wife and I had become friends with a young woman who occasionally baby sat our children. When she knew us better, and it became clear that we were people who could be talked to about unusual experiences, she began telling us about the OBEs which she had been having since she was a child…
This was the beginning of my luck. Not long after receiving my PhD, I also met and became friends with Robert A. Monroe who had also experienced many OBEs by then. His three books have been of great help since then to many people who have had OBEs but didn’t know what to make of them. I was able to do three studies with him over several years.
And also I was lucky because I carried out several years of research on using hypnosis to influence both the content and the process of nighttime dreaming, and the grant supporting that allowed me to have a sleep laboratory that was also useful for investigating OBEs.
Overall I have published six studies of OBEs. They can be studied with the increased precision of laboratory work (although that’s not the only way), not just be memories of spontaneous experiences, e.g., and I found out some things about the physiological state in which they may occur – you don’t have to be near death, as in near-death experiences (NDEs), e.g. – and sometimes it does indeed look like the OBEr’s mind really is perceiving physical reality from a different perspective than that of their physical body. You can read an overall summary of my research at
and if you want more details, you can go back to the original journal articles. The comments below will be richer if you read the above article first…
Fifty Year Karma?
Being young and naïve, I thought the scientific world would be electrified that OBEs could be studied in the laboratory, but almost no one followed up any of my research for many years, and I myself became involved in many, many other research projects. For better or worse, I’m interested in so many things, I don’t specialize well.
Yet for those fifty years I have always gotten occasional inquiries about my studies, so the OBE, an archetypal experience of “soul,” remains of great interest to many. Here’s the most recent inquiry and my response to it. I described myself as naïve above, perhaps idealistic would be a better term, as I still hope that what little I’ve been able to do will stimulate others to research OBEs and related areas!
I have some questions on OBE’s with your studies.
The main question is that do you have a logical explanation why some of the results were “not the best”. (I’m implying that they actually were out of their body) For the first one, what do you exactly mean by “occasional resemblances” and what you do mean by the comparison was too subjective exactly? I’m a little confused about the results exactly for the third one. The fourth one I’ve heard that Robert described your house correctly but not the things you were doing. I find that weird. Do you have any explanation for the sixth one? (Why none of them described the target right) I find this whole thing incredibly strange.
And my response:
I picked up on the enthusiasm in your email, and was pleased by it. So many people claim to be curious about psychic phenomena, but actually already have fixed opinions, just want to argue, and are not interested in what the facts were.
As to actual facts, you’re asking me about studies that I carried out and published decades ago, and I consider the accounts I wrote of them, particularly the original articles which are more extensive than this review article you’ve read, to be the authoritative description. Like any scientific study, I did the best I could trying to accurately describe conditions and outcomes. Recollections evoked many years later are probably true, my memory is pretty good, but I wouldn’t give them as much status.
Without actually taking the time to reread the studies—I’ve got a chapter for someone’s book on transpersonal psychology to edit—let’s see if I can answer your questions.
>The main question is that do you have a logical explanation why some of the results were “not the best”<
I assume we’re both taking an ideal point of view here, and the “best” would be to say, e.g., that the participant was asked to describe a location 1000 miles away, that he had never been to or heard about, and he correctly gave the exact street address, a photographically correct description, and the results could be statistically evaluated so you know that by chance the odds would be several million to one of that degree of correctness. The vast majority of psychological experiments, of course, simply aren’t that good. They show that under reasonably controlled conditions the experimental group, e.g., scored 10% higher than the control group and that is statistically unlikely, etc., more research is called for. I stress the latter point, more research is called for.
I considered all my work on out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs) as initial explorations where hardly any exploration had ever been done, and hoped (naïvely – it’s still too taboo a topic) that it would stimulate dozens of other researchers to explore these topics much more thoroughly. OBEs are one of the main sources of the idea that we have a soul, that’s pretty important to understand better! That research did not happen. There have been almost no studies of OBEs until recently, and I find most of them quite disappointing. They don’t seem to be studying actual OBEs as real people report them, but rather strange distortions of body image mislabeled as OBEs. Anyway, none of my studies were the “best” simply because when you’re doing something for the first time, there’s things it doesn’t occur to you to control for. For example, many times when I’ve mentioned in lectures that Miss Z, as part of her reported OBE in the laboratory, correctly reported a 5 digit number, somebody invariably asked if I knew what the number was — and then argued that she probably wasn’t really out of her body, it was “mere telepathy.” Oh dear! First time in the world it’s been tried and I forgot to control for “mere telepathy.”… Or control for possible quantum hyperloops in 14 dimensional chronically dampened strings undergoing stochastic interpolation for that matter… (this last sentence is attempt at humor…)
>For the first one, what do you exactly mean by “occasional resemblances” and what you do mean by the comparison was too subjective exactly?<
The target consisted of some unusual objects placed on a table in a distant basement, with the objects unusual enough that you wouldn’t expect to find them any place in particular, but if a subject said “What I’m seeing is rather unusual…” would you really give that any significance? I wouldn’t, I think any intelligent subject would assume that whatever the target was, it would be something unusual. It’s not like the case with Miss Z where we know exactly what the odds of guessing a 5 digit random number are with one try.
Right now I’ll give you a “psychic description” of your house. “I sense there is an entrance, and a number of openings in the walls, and soft surfaces, not too soft, that you walk and stand on, but seldom sit on.”
Are you impressed? I’m not. These are probably 100% correct, but these are generalities, almost all houses have a door, windows, and some rugs, and we walk and stand on the rugs but seldom sit on them. It wasn’t until sometime later that parapsychologists worked out techniques for dealing with complex targets like this, where you had a number of randomly selected control targets or locations, and the blind judges had to rate the degree of coincidence. Since the judges were blind as to what description was supposed to go with what target, their prejudices for and against psi balance out, and you can get a statistical figure on how likely the supposed psychic description actually matches the real target locations. It would’ve been nice if I’d figured out that technique on my own before other people did but hey, I was only a sophomore in college when I did that study…
More generally, if you look around your room right now, do you really see it? You probably think so, and what you perceive is generally quite adequate for practical purposes of life, but we know enough about the human senses, brain, and mental processes to know that you don’t. Right now, you, I, every human is actually inside a virtual reality. Although it feels real to us, it’s not a 100% accurate simulation of the environment around you. There’s a neural process known as lateral inhibition, for example, parallel to a similar engineering process called edge detection or contrast enhancement, which makes the visual world you see have sharper contrast between different objects than it actually has just in terms of the light rays being reflected from them. It helps us discriminate one thing from another. Perception is not simply registration of what reaches our senses, it’s very rapid, automated thinking about sensory input in terms of our previous experience and human nature, so a representation appears in the virtual world, the bio-psycho-virtual reality (BPVR) we live in.
Okay, why assume that in an OBE you’re completely out of a virtual reality and finally perceiving the real world? Admittedly the OBE is psychologically very impressive: it goes against what you think is possible, so you tend to give it a lot of weight. “I know my mind can’t leave my body and go somewhere else and look around, but here I am, feeling wide awake and rational, and I know my body is in bed at home!” But maybe even if you’re “mind” is now doing the perceiving without any assistance from the BPVR circuits of your brain, who’s to say the mind per se doesn’t have some aspects of creating a virtual reality? That virtual reality may partially reflect the physical reality distant from your physical body that you seem to be in, but only partially. It might not bother to represent aspects of that distant reality which are not important to the mind, and/or it may accurately represent “non-physical” or “spiritual” aspects of that reality which are not apparent to physical description so you think you’ve imagined things that aren’t there…
As someone who has studied consciousness for my whole life, I would be delighted to know that there is some particular altered state in which you now have a 100% accurate perception of the truth, and while I know that people may think that’s the way it is sometimes, I tend to doubt that it happens. As to the last study with my deeply hypnotized subjects, one way to describe a deep hypnotic state is that the hypnotist has a great deal of control over the construction of the subject’s BPVR, so it’s quite possible to have a very realistic simulation of an OBE that is not actually an OBE.
>I find this whole thing incredibly strange<
Good! I find it strange too! And I suspect when we stop finding anything strange, our mental processes have gotten pretty ossified and life doesn’t have much joyful flavor in it anymore. Keep thinking!
Charles T. Tart
 Another way I was very lucky was that in my 1969 Altered States of Consciousness book I reprinted material on lucid dreams, which had been essentially totally forgotten as existing by the scientific community, and this stimulated both widespread popular interest and scientific research on lucid dreams.
Tags: brain functioning, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, materialism, OBE; OBEs; astral projection, out-of-body experiences, Parapsychology, perception, RAM, Robert Monroe, Transpersonal, unusual experiences
Some years ago I started a private discussion group to connect the few people in the world who have published scholarly and scientific research on the question of whether we survive death in some form. Although there is an enormous amount of relevant evidence suggesting that some aspect of us survives death, there are very few of us bothering to look at this evidence, unfortunately. I have what I guess must be a strange idea that evidence as to whether we survive death or not may have a powerful effect on how we decide to live our lives, but this is obviously not a cultural priority. Anyway, the small group has had many interesting discussions over the years, and I want to share something I recently contributed to it.
One of my colleagues rightly challenged me when I wrote about the evidence for survival:
“I’m still on the fence.”
My colleague found it puzzling and exasperating that I said I was still on the fence, noting that my last book, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, argued decisively that total materialism, a philosophy, which believes that consciousness is nothing but an outcome of the physical operation of the brain and nervous system, and so totally ceases at death, is an incomplete way of looking at the world, and is just plain scientifically wrong with respect to many aspects of our possible spiritual lives. My colleague is a philosopher, and reasons that it follows logically that if materialism is incomplete, applying only to material things, then it’s only logical that something in us survives death. So why was I claiming to be “on the fence?”
I take his reaction as useful and legitimate stimulation to think about why I would say I’m still on the fence, and share what I find, as it may be useful to others, as I doubt my psychodynamics are absolutely unique to me. What I say may be particularly useful to students going into science or young scientists who think that it’s all a matter of finding certainty. Too, my reflections are also part of my life-long research project of figuring out how my mind works….
Conscious, Logical Reasons:
First, what I might call the conscious and relatively logical reasons for being on the fence.
Essential Science: A big one is that much of the time I am trying to function as I think a competent scientist would function, and my understanding of the essence of science is that data is far and away the deciding factor on anything and theory, while we love it, is secondary. This way I could technically say that some kind of postmortem survival strikes me as an excellent theory to make sense of the evidence we have to date, and so I take survival as a working hypothesis, but scientists must always be careful of finally accepting any theory, no matter how good, as a final answer. When you do that, you move from discovery to what historian Thomas Kuhn called “normal science,” which is very valuable, but which usually means your mind is now shaped to see further evidence in ways which fit your already accepted theory, and so you’re now working with reality with perceptual and intellectual blinders on. So survival is my working hypothesis, I give it a very high probability of being correct, but I’m willing to consider alternatives and my mind is always open to having to change my theory if future evidence calls for it.
Public Relations: Another big and conscious one is public relations. Psychical research and parapsychology are an embattled, persecuted, very small field of science, and one of the ways the bullying pseudo-skeptics constantly unfairly attack us is by calling us “believers.” By I and others talking about our working hypotheses, not that we believe, it makes it much harder for this discrediting adjective to be used in describing us.
State-Specificity: Another big and conscious one is my understanding that our ordinary style of thinking is a state-specific way of dealing with reality (see my article in Science)***, very good in some ways, poor in other ways, and we probably don’t know whether it’s good or bad in many other ways. My limited experience with altered states of consciousness (ASCs) has shown me that there can be quite different ways of understanding the world, and while those ways are not available to me in my ordinary state, nor do I have much talent for experiencing any altered states, at the least my old experiences of ASCs should remind me to not get overly attached to the understandings reached in my ordinary state of consciousness. There may be ASCs in which the data of survival point to a quite different understanding and, in that state, this new way is “obviously” true and matches the data.
Less Rational Reasons:
Now thinking about factors that are less rational and scientific, more a matter of personal psychology, but which are there.
Prestige: One of these is that to be considered a scientist is a relatively high prestige position in our society, certainly usually much higher than a “believer” in anything, at least in the social circles to which most of us move, and I enjoy this prestige. Here I, Charley, am an ordinary human being, but when Prof. Charles T Tart, PhD, speaks and writes, he gets more attention and prestige than most ordinary people. That’s a two-edged sword of course, it means the things I’m wrong about get more attention than they should, but all in all I like it and think I do well in mostly sharing factually correct and useful ideas. I discipline myself to not allow feelings of prestige to distort my teaching, lecturing and writing.
Fear: Another less rational factor, one I’ve admitted to over the years but which most of my colleagues never do, is a fear factor. The childhood religion that I was conditioned into when I was young may be consciously rejected by my current adult self, but I know it has effects at times. That includes a fear of punishment by a vengeful God if I believe the wrong things, and a fear of social rejection. Consciously I can reject this factor, but, as a psychologist and someone who has studied my own mind for a lifetime, I know I also have to respect the psychological level of my younger self, and deal with it skillfully, not just forcibly deny it or pretend it isn’t there.
Hate Being Fooled! Another less rational factor, probably stemming from some childhood experiences as well as a general aspect of the way we humans are built, is that I don’t like to be fooled. It’s embarrassing! Once I say I believe, I can be shown to be wrong and foolish, while as long as I talk about formulating and testing working hypotheses, I’m doing a great job of being intelligent and rational, scientific, even if it turns out that these hypotheses turn out to be wrong.
What the balance of these various factors is it any given time obviously course varies with the situation and my personal psychological state.
This has triggered some useful thinking for me, I hope sharing it is helpful.
Although I can’t put my finger on the quote right now, another colleague of mine summed it up quite well by saying that he teaches his students that to seek The Truth is excellent and noble, but it’s very dangerous to ever think that you have arrived at The Truth.
To think about….
When we research whether Person A survived death, the kind of material we consider evidence is of several kinds. A very important one is getting factually correct information about Person A (usually through a medium) while she or he was alive, information that we could not reasonably expect would be known to the medium through ordinary means. A second one, given considerable emphasis in some cases, is whether the ostensible spirit of Person A shows distinctive mannerisms of speech or behavior that were characteristic of Person A while alive, and, again, which we did not expect to be known to the medium by ordinary means and which are distinctive and uncommon.
My best working hypothesis at present is that when I die I am likely going to survive, although the form of my consciousness, without a physical body and nervous system to constantly shape it, will probably change significantly. To use an analogy, the “user” may survive, but the “user” is so used to functioning through certain programs, embedded in my body and nervous system, that it will be quite different to not have those familiar programs to work with. But, judging by mediumistic material, surviving spirits must be able to recall enough about their embodied lives to come up with unique, factual memories and have habitual mannerisms manifest.
To quote from the article, “Memory researchers used to believe that there was just one kind of long-term memory. But in 1972, Endel Tulving, a Canadian psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, introduced the idea that long-term memory comes in multiple forms. One is semantic memory, which allows us to remember how to spell a word like say, autonoetic. Years from now, you might recall how to spell it, but maybe not when and where you were when you first came across the word and its definition, perhaps in Wired.”
“Tulving argued that autonoetic consciousness is crucial for the formation of another kind of long-term memory—episodic memory—which integrates time and sensory details in the cinematic, visceral way remembering where and when you learn how to spell autonoetic: that’s in episodic memory.”
The article reports on studies of a woman therein called McKinnon, who simply does not have any episodic memory. For example, she and her husband took many vacation cruises, but “McKinnon makes clear that she has no memories of all those cruises.” No memories of buying the souvenirs displayed in her living room, in front of her and the interviewer. She doesn’t remember any vacation she’s ever taken. “In fact she cannot recall a single moment in her marriage to her husband or before it…” It’s not that she doesn’t remember these memories are in losing them, she’s never been able to remember them in the first place.
By and large she functions quite well as a mature adult. As the article notes, “McKinnon first began to realize that her memory was not the same as everyone else’s back in 1977, when a friend from high school, who was studying to be a physician’s assistant, asked if she would participate in a memory test as part of a school assignment. When her friend ask basic questions about her childhood as part of the test, McKinnon would reply, “Why are you asking stuff like this? No one remembers that.” She knew that other people claim to have detailed memories, but she always thought they embellished and made stuff up—just like she did.”
So what would happen if McKinnon died, her spirit survived, she was contacted by a good medium, and she was asked to prove her identity.? Assuming her consciousness survived pretty much as it functions now in life, she probably could certainly produce all sorts of every day, factual material, but no really personal memories. And so we would conclude that?
We have thousands of well-documented mediumistic cases, but this kind of memory loss is apparently quite rare, so I don’t think we’ll be in luck and find such a case…although those who know that literature better than me may find something…
It reminds me that one of the most basic questions in survival research is not so much survival per se but what is consciousness itself? A computer could store all sorts of facts about our lives, but, at least so far, we’re not willing to attribute consciousness to any computers….
Anyway, it’s a very rich article, and I recommend it. Being terribly old-fashioned, I subscribe to wired as a printed document, but I’m sure there’s some way to get it on the web.
I’m not sure where I’ll go in thinking about this, but it’s an unusual and interesting entry point for thinking….
Tags: attention, awareness, belief, Charles T. Tart, Charles Tart, death, dreams, emotions, materialism, memory, ordinary mind, Parapsychology, reincarnation, science, survival of death, Transpersonal, Tulving