Culture and Expectations Affecting Spiritual Practices

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology

Lecture 2, Part 1 of 15 parts – THIS IS WHERE THIS SERIES STARTS

[This is the second class of Charles Tart’s course on Basic Mindfulness at ITP, Class of October, 2007. The first class, Lecture 1, did not get recorded.]

CTT: If you don’t want to be recorded for posterity, not that you’re liable to be identified or anything, mumble softly when you say something (Laughter) and it will be effectively inaudible. I’m also going to take everybody’s picture at the end of class. I have a not too rare disease known as “namnesia.”

I have a hell of a time learning names. I’ve gone through my whole life where everybody in the world seems to remember my name and I don’t remember theirs. It’s very embarrassing when I’m in a meeting or something and somebody says “Hi Charlie!” Oh. “Hi.”


When I read your papers, I like to have some vague idea of whose paper I’m reading and if I have your picture there, I’ll know. So at the end of class I’m going to ask each of you to write your name in big black letters and hold it down on your chest while I come around and snap each individual picture. And then I will edit them in PhotoShop and make you look better than you actually look in real life. 😉


Before I ask you how your meditation practice has been going in trying concentrative meditation, I want to say a few words about context. One of the things Westerns have done in adopting techniques from other cultures, particularly Eastern ones, because spiritual practices in our own culture didn’t seem to work so well, is to simply adopt the obvious practices and leave out all the surrounding stuff saying, “Oh, that’s just culture. We want the real stuff that works.” I have been quite guilty of this myself and partly it’s a technical bent.

I was an engineer in the earlier part of my life before I got into psychology and I wanted to understand how electronic circuits worked and I didn’t care what color you painted the equipment cabinet or what figures you carved on it. To me that was all irrelevant. And yet I think we’re gradually learning that ignoring the cultural context of any kind of spiritual practice is tricky.

In some ways, some of the things are “just culture” in the sense that they’re not really essential to the practice and what it does. The practice is tapping something fundamental in the nature of human being. But in other ways, the stuff that we too easily dismiss as “just culture” is actually an important part of the mental set that makes the rest of it work.

In my altered states of consciousness class sometimes I tell people I’m going to introduce them to one of the most powerful altered states of consciousness induction techniques existing in the world. And I’m going to introduce you to it now. This is the technique.

(CTT draws a circle on the board, over and over and over again.)

This goes on for several hours in real use.


I’m not that patient. If you were an Eskimo shaman, and I’m being terribly vague when using such a general term as “Eskimo,” you would recognize this as a venerable technique for entering the spirit world and it would work for you that way most of the time.

Without that cultural context, this is drawing a circle over and over again. What an odd thing to do. It probably induces an altered state of extreme boredom. (Laughter) Context is extremely important.

Now as I say, we’ve tended to ignore the context a lot of spiritual practices come in. Partly that’s because we need to find an effective context to put things in within our culture, and partly we’re dumb. We are caught within our own cultural biases. We think we understand how certain things work and because that understanding acts as a psychological biasing mechanism, then they work that way within our culture. But that’s not the full understanding of the technique or what its possibilities are.

So what I’m bringing this around to is this in particular. When I introduce you to various controlled attention practices which are taken from particular cultural traditions, I by and large, give you almost nothing of the cultural context that they come from. Partly this is simply because I’m kind of ignorant. I don’t know that much about some of the cultural context. Partly it’s because some of that cultural context contains stuff that I don’t know whether it’s true and important or whether it is irrelevant and false for people in our culture today; or that it might be true and important but the way we are, the common biases we have, we’re going to take it the wrong way and it’s going to do the wrong thing. So I try to give you the techniques in, I don’t want to say a vacuum because that’s impossible, but in a way with a minimal amount of bias in it.

Partly also it’s my scientific training and my psychological knowledge that I know I can bias people. If I set up expectations that this procedure’s going to do such and such a kind of thing, it may do such and such a kind of thing, but it really has nothing to do with the technique and I’m just misleading you. It’s a matter of suggestion. It’s a matter of expectation and things like that.

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