Ongoing Thoughts on Spiritual Ideas (Buddhism, e.g.) and Practices for Understanding Consciousness – 1

Charles T. Tart

I’ve always tried to get essential science (not dismissive materialism) and essential spirituality (ways of direct experience, not dogma) to interact to advance both areas.  Our knowledge in all areas is far, far from complete.  Advancing our knowledge, both intellectually and spiritually, is so important…

I’m focusing on Buddhism here, but consider this a general invitation to think about the usefulness of what we could generally call spiritual insights and processes in advancing knowledge.

Here are some thoughts I’m sharing with some scientist colleagues in parapsychology to see if I can stimulate to deep thinking.  You can comment below if you want, and I’ll eventually read them.  But I must confess I am so busy writing and the like that I get way behind on looking at comments, which is not helpful to stimulating discussion.  But I will eventually see your good ideas!

Back in early March of 2017, one of my colleagues posted some interesting material on Buddhism with respect to issues about reincarnation.  I was particularly interested in this approach, having long been a student of Buddhism (but not a Buddhist, mostly a pragmatist if I must be categorized), but we quickly drifted off on to other issues.  I want to respond to that posting to see if others are interested in developing this line of thought re spirituality, particularly Buddhism, and consciousness and psi.

Let me simplistically sketch my general working hypotheses to show where I’m coming from.  I’m sure I have a very selected, intellectual Westerner’s view, so some of you who are Indian probably have a practical, cultural as well as intellectual experience that may illuminate aspects of this better.

Way back in Gautama Buddha’s time and probably way, way back, there was (and still is) a lot of suffering in the world.  Religious beliefs and practices were intended, among many other things, to give a conviction that the universe made some kind of sense and, by living in accordance with religious and moral principles, you could be happier.  Worshiping the gods you were told existed, making sacrifices (bribes?  gestures of respect?), and following moral principles couldn’t guarantee happiness, but increased its likelihood, and often it was believed that the gods would reward you with a good afterlife and/or reincarnation if you didn’t reap much happiness in this life.  A recurring theme in human history.

One way of thinking about Gautama Buddha –- yes, I know, after 2500 years there are so many ideas and doctrines attributed to the Buddha that you can pick and choose to support any perspective you want, kind of like you can with the Bible –- is that after being shielded from the tough parts of life into young adulthood, a prince in a palace, he encountered suffering, sickness, old age and death, happening in spite of worshiping the gods.  It didn’t look like religion worked very well – but there was what was touted as a better solution, spiritual practice, illustrated by wandering, ascetic yogis.

Leaving his life as a pampered prince and becoming a yogi, he learned the primary yogic practice, concentrative meditation, learning the skill of focusing the mind so intently on a single thing that an altered state of consciousness (ASC) developed.  He got better at concentrative meditation than his teachers.  While tranced out, you were in some sort of abstracted state, no bodily sensation, and, indeed, all suffering was gone.  The problem was it was temporary.  When you came out of one of the concentrative ASCs (samadhis), all your bodily and other ills became apparent again…  By living a highly disciplined ascetic life you could spend a lot of your life in non-suffering ASCs, but it was a pretty restricted life…

As I’ve been taught it, Gautama’s big contribution was that his disappointment with the temporary nature of suffering reduction via ASCs led him to discover/invent/develop insight meditation, vipassana.  After enough basic skill in concentration had been learned, instead of just blissing out you could use that concentrative skill to examine in depth the way your mind worked, and start discovering the root causes of suffering and solutions to them.  In a sense there’s a parallel with the development of Western insight therapies like psychoanalysis.  You suffer because of pathological mental processes that are normally unconscious, but with the help of a therapist you can discover their nature and motivations and change them.  I’ve often thought you could see this as the therapist replaces the patient’s need to develop great concentration, the therapist is not so caught up in your neuroses and is observing you and reflecting things back that you would otherwise miss.  An “outside” feedback mechanism, rather than an “inside” vipassana one.

As I have learned it, Gautama Buddha wasn’t much interested in the ultimate nature of reality, and often refused to even speculate about it.  Speculating about abstract questions (like the meaning of life) was a way of avoiding working on the root causes of suffering.  He presented himself as someone who could teach people to suffer less and even eventually eliminate all suffering – enlightenment.

Again oversimplifying, basic Buddhist meditation practice, especially vipassana (insight), has two main effects.  One, it exposes to consciousness a lot of neurotic habits and processes, many of which can be dismantled by insight alone, others by insight plus corrective processes.  Two, by quieting the many processes that create, shape, and stabilize “normal” consciousness (it is a semi-arbitrary, culturally shaped process, not “natural” – see my systems approach to states and their induction), altered states of consciousness (ASCs) may occur which provide quite different, possibly more profound (as well as possibly more deluded) ways of seeing oneself and one’s world, which can lead to very deep change.

A major problem from my pragmatic and scientific perspective: the insights in ASCs can seem so profound and obviously True that they lead to the experiencer believing that these are Final Truths about Reality, instead of a way of looking at it that might or might not be true and useful, and which needs to be tested.  Ideally, like a scientific theory, it’s not enough that it’s clearly logical and brilliant and makes you feel smart, it needs to account for old data and accurately predict new things.

So, as a pragmatist and empirical scientist, I often think of Buddhism as having provided us with an “experiential microscope,” vipassana meditation, for making internal observations.  That’s my dominant view when I’m feeling fine.  When I’m ill or stressed with troubles, Buddhism’s potential abilities to reduce my suffering become much more prominent!

A friend mentioned the other day that the idea that 10,000 hours of practice makes you an expert in anything has become fashionable in the intellectual world.  Of course that’s practice of something you basically know how to do, not learning from scratch.  OK, let’s say you want to be a physicist, and your undergraduate study has shown you have the basic talents needed.  Now comes, say, 4 to 5 years of graduate school.  Assume about 50 hours a week devoted to learning and applying physics, 50 weeks a year (I’ll generously allow a couple of weeks’ vacation), 4x50x50, that’s 10,000 hours.  I think people who put that much practice into insight meditation would be really good at observing experience deeply, and I treat their insights seriously!  Seriously, but as theories for me as an outsider, of course, calling for examination and testing…  Some, I’m guessing, are indeed wonderful insights into the mind and/or reality, some are probably true only as one possible way of the mind functioning, some are probably false.

So I see methods and ideas of (some forms of) Buddhism as potentially very useful for studying the nature of the mind, as well as studying psi.  “Some forms,” as, of course, much of Buddhism has turned into ordinary religion, doctrine to be believed and followed without thinking, rather than dedicated practitioners of meditation.  And even among dedicated meditators, there are real issues of how much the meditator stays open to observing more closely what actually happens in the mind as opposed to automatically forcing the experiences into culturally and religiously prescribed “correct” and “spiritual” experiences…

Personally perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from my practice of various forms of insight meditation is how rare it is for me to be able to observe any aspect of my experience openly, without attachment to it being some “right” way according to people who are supposed to be way more spiritually advanced than me, or seeing aspects of my mind quietly “pushing” in the background to make it the “right” kind of experience…

OK, that’s enough, let’s see if this is of interest.





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