Curiosity: A Missing Ingredient in Buddhist Meditation Practice and Modern Psychology?

(Draft of 11-11-12 – C. T. Tart)

While participating in a meditation intensive practice led by Jeff Warren recently, I noticed he introduced it with a word that I have seldom heard used by many meditation teachers, or at least not given much importance, namely the word curiosity.   I have been thinking about this for the few years, as one of the main reasons I have always been interested in meditative (and similar) practices is curiosity.  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, though, stimulated me to write about curiosity, Buddhism, and modern psychology.

(I put in my usual qualification that I am not a Buddhist scholar, that Buddhism has many, many branches, and anything I say about it can undoubtedly be contradicted by the teachings and practices of some branches of Buddhism, but, as a longtime student of various branches of Buddhism, I hope to stimulate useful thought.  A more complete form of this qualification can be found at )

Figure 1, below, shows what Shinzen Young has characterized as the essentials that constitute Vipassana meditation practice, namely the development of concentration, clarity, and equanimity.  I show them as interacting and reinforcing each other.

Figure 1:

Fig 1: concentration clarity equanimity diagram













By developing greater concentration in observing some selected aspects of ongoing experience, for example, you experience greater clarity as to what is actually happening, and so you have less chance of being overwhelmed by various experiences through their ordinarily compounded complexity.  Such greater clarity makes it easier to develop equanimity about the experiences, to have less grasping on to them if you like them and less rejection of them if you don’t like them.  Further, by experiencing greater clarity, your implicit identity as a successful meditator is enhanced, which makes it easier to be equanimous about experience: you know you’re doing well.  In turn, greater equanimity allows you to concentrate more effectively, as you’re not constantly being thrown off-track by attractions and aversions, and so this virtuous circle goes round and round.

Shinzen sees these three basic factors as constituting the essence of Vipassana meditation practice, an analysis that makes excellent sense to me.  But, in my more than 50 years of experience as a psychologist studying not only ordinary consciousness but various altered states of consciousness (ASCs), I’ve come to be more and more sensitive to the fact that while we may isolate particular mental or behavioral factors for cognitive usefulness in understanding, they always operate within a larger context that affects how they operate.  For example, Figure 2, below, from my States of Consciousness book, shows the major types of factors that can affect the outcome of ingesting the drug marijuana.

Figure 2:

Fig 2: Factors affecting marijuana intoxication













The chemical nature of the drug itself, its dosage and method of ingestion, are only one part of a larger set of factors, which can determine whether any ASC develops at all, or, if ASCs develop, what the nature of these states is.  I won’t take time to talk about these individual factors here, but just use this diagram as a reminder that any procedure designed to affect consciousness, including meditation, is carried out within some kind of complex context which may have major effects on it.

 So let’s situate our basic practices and outcomes of concentration, clarity and equanimity within the usual Buddhist background that they are practiced in and manifest in.  This is shown in Figure 3, below.

Figure 3:

Fig 3: concentration clarity equanimity situated in Buddhism













When a student approaches a Buddhist meditation teacher (or, nowadays, many teachers who may not formally say that they are teaching Buddhism but have been strongly influenced by Buddhism), they bring pre-existing beliefs about Buddhism, the nature of mind, what meditation is, what it can do, what their own capacities are, what they expect from the teacher, etc. to the situation.  No student walks in with a mind totally free of preconceptions and expectations and is then told to practice observing their experience with concentration, clarity, and equanimity and nothing else.  Rather the situation is quite comparable to Figure 2 which showed the various factors that affect a person’s reaction to a psychoactive drug like marijuana.

What happens is that the student is taught the essence of a Buddhist worldview, including ideas like the reality of suffering, and that Buddhism offers a way to reduce and, indeed, to totally eliminate suffering.  Elimination of suffering comes about by reaching enlightenment, and thus while the practices of concentration, clarity, and equanimity may be taught in a relatively straightforward fashion, they are taught with the implicit or explicit background context that we are suffering and that the purpose of these practices is to lead to a reduction and eventual cessation of suffering through attaining enlightenment.

A comparable example that often occurred in my early research on ASCs was in my research with hypnosis.  To hypnotize a person in our culture, you probably tell them to go to “sleep.”  But the person being hypnotized knows you don’t really mean sleep in the usual sense of the term.  If they went into actual sleep, they wouldn’t be able to be hypnotized, so they automatically reinterpret the word “sleep” in terms of general cultural information about hypnosis, such as expectation that a hypnotized person is passive and active only when action is suggested.  Just as no one walks into meditation instruction without pre-existing beliefs and feelings about what meditation is and will do, no one in our culture goes into a hypnosis session without pre-existing beliefs and feelings.  Indeed, a study of college students found that they generally had a quite accurate knowledge of what it is like to be hypnotized.  Which, of course, raises interesting questions about what hypnosis really is in some universal sense, versus the degree to which it is a semi-arbitrary construction of a particular culture.  We’ll raise that same type of question about meditation practices later.

I started this essay by noting my impression that the word “curiosity” is seldom mentioned by Buddhist teachers, or not given any particular importance if it’s mentioned in passing.  My feeling is that the implicit and explicit background of the Buddhist worldview, in common with any detailed worldview, basically inhibits curiosity.  It’s as if Gautama Buddha figured out everything of importance, pointed out the one important goal in life, the cessation of suffering, and mapped out the way to get there, so there are no other important questions.  There may be technical questions on using the methods most effectively, or adapting them to an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, but there are no basic questions.

This is the reason why I have long 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 may be initially taught certain basic principles 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 manner, not in questioning these basic principles.

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 small, technical improvements within the worldview they were already given.  This is essential and important to the progress of any field of science.  The historian of science Thomas Kuhn 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.

Figure 4 takes the Vipassana method, the basic methods/outcomes of concentration, clarity and equanimity, and situates them within an overall context of general curiosity.  The Vipassana meditation method, the development of concentration on particular aspects of experience, leading to greater clarity/insight, leading to equanimity/objectivity which also allows greater concentration, then greater clarity, etc., is seen here by me as a general purpose “instrument” which can be used in a wide variety of ways, not only within a traditional Buddhist worldview leading only to classical Buddhist enlightenment.

Figure 4:

Fig 4: concentration clarity equanimity situated in curiosity













That a powerful belief system can stifle curiosity has been applied to Buddhist, Vipassana meditation here, but it obviously has more general applications.  One of most concern to me is my own field of psychology.

Lack of Curiosity in Modern 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 on 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 of 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? – but left out the whole interior side of human experience.

As I have written about elsewhere,(Tart, C., 2005, Future psychology as a science of mind and spirit: Reflections on receiving the Abraham Maslow award.  Humanistic Psychologist, 33, No. 2, 131-143), 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 experiences could give basic insight into the way a standard mind worked.  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.  Thus the fact that untrained, introspecting observers did not produce reports which agreed with one another is hardly surprising.

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 the general curiosity emphasized in Figure 4 is not there.

The exciting question, for me, is what would happen if we developed a lot of people trained in these basic Vipassana methods (while figuring out better ways of training), and then applied them in the sense of real 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?

This idea is very exciting to me!

And as for meditation practice, Figure 5, a modified version of Figure 2, reminds us of the many blanks that need to be filled in if we are to fully understand and utilize Vipassana practice….

Figure 5:

Fig 5: marijuana factors affecting meditation














  1. Investigation is one of the Seven Factors of Awakening.

    Sometimes you have to be curious – like a scientist – “what if I just observe this strong emotion arising and not get swept up in it?”

    Curiosity is essential to progressing on the Buddhist Path and I am fortunate to be a research scientist as well and can apply that curiosity to my work.

    1. Wordsworth:
      There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
      The earth and every common sight
      To me did seem
      Appareled in celestial light,
      The glory and the freshness of a dream.

      Then he switches to adult perspective (unfortunately too true…)
      It is not now as it hath been of yore.
      Turn wheresoe’er I may,
      By night or day,
      The light which I have seen
      I now can see no more….

      I was like that as a kid…then I was properly socialized and became “normal”

      Blessed be curiosity!

  2. Hi Charles,

    I enjoyed your post, thank you for sharing your curiosity. I too am curious. Could you help me clarify your thesis and entertain a few questions of my own?

    Am I correct in saying that you’ve stated the goal of vipassana meditation is to eradicate mental defilement, thus eradicating suffering through enlightenment, but that the practice is limited to only this outcome. Since the path is defined/constricted to this outcome, the practice leaves no room for additional curiosity and you wonder what else can be accomplished through internal observation?

    My questions are: what variables are you looking to measure outside of the ones vipassana observes? Vipassana teaches observation of the breath and bodily sensations. Are you proposing that observers change these elements of attention to reach new conclusions? The methodology is that the body is scanned with awareness of sensation objectively with equanimity. Are you proposing that the methodology change to reach new conclusions? Vipassana gives insight/wisdom into the fundamental nature of the human experience. More specifically, one who practices observes the laws of nature (cause and effect, constant change, suffering). What subjects, apart from the realities of human life, are you looking to garner insights from? I’m definitely curious what you mean here!

    Also, it’s my understanding that the purpose of the practice is not necessarily to teach people to be ‘normal’, but rather to teach people how to reverse the habit pattern of the mind away from reactivity. In fact, given the current adoption rate of meditation, I would assume that the mind’s ‘norm’ in today’s society would be a wandering mind. Or am I mistaken and you are saying that ‘normal’ in the cultural context of Buddhism is a mind free from suffering, and therefore it would be interesting to teach someone these techniques without that context and see what insights they come up with given the same direction?

    Perhaps this is naive, but I’m going to hypothesize that there’s nothing “more” inside that we can comprehend with the limited faculty of the mind. I think that is why, as you said, that behaviorism grew in popularity, because of its objectiveness.

    Perhaps with technology there’s a way, but it seems the path has already been mapped out to its fullest.

    Maybe I’m not understanding correctly, but would love your thoughts and to start a discussion. Thanks for spurring curiosity and sharing your interests, Charles. Talk soon.


    1. >Am I correct in saying that you’ve stated the goal of vipassana meditation is to eradicate mental defilement, thus eradicating suffering through enlightenment, but that the practice is limited to only this outcome. Since the path is defined/constricted to this outcome, the practice leaves no room for additional curiosity and you wonder what else can be accomplished through internal observation?<
      Remember I’m not a Buddhist scholar, and there are a zillion varieties of “Buddhism,” so I know anytime I say something like “Buddhists think…” or “Buddhist do…” there are undoubtedly some ancient and venerable “Buddhist” groups who don’t do that. But in the various vipassana teachings I’ve gotten some instruction on over decades, I don’t recall any that have said “Diminishing suffering is our primary goal but it’s interesting to “look around” in the mind and see what’s new…”
      When I’m suffering, diminishing suffering is number one for me, but I’m lucky, I’m not suffering all the time and I am curious about the way my mind, and presumably others’ minds, work…

      >My questions are: what variables are you looking to measure outside of the ones vipassana observes?<
      Everything! Starting with the cultural matrix in which vipassana is taught, interacting with the biological/physical nature of the human body/brain, interacting with situational variables, etc…

      >Vipassana teaches observation of the breath and bodily sensations. Are you proposing that observers change these elements of attention to reach new conclusions?<
      Those are common foci of observation, but hardly all you can do. I find, e.g., that sometimes I detect subtle intentions without specific bodily components, and it’s interesting to see where they go and what they do to my experience. Shinzen Young’s new book The Science of Enlightenment covers lots of things you can focus on. To what extent, e.g., is the particular that you focus on not particularly relevant compared to learning to focus per se?

      >Also, it’s my understanding that the purpose of the practice is not necessarily to teach people to be ‘normal’, but rather to teach people how to reverse the habit pattern of the mind away from reactivity. In fact, given the current adoption rate of meditation, I would assume that the mind’s ‘norm’ in today’s society would be a wandering mind.<

      “Normal” is wanting to buy things to increase the gross national product, isn’t it? ;-(

      You ask great questions and my time here is always too limited, but I would suggest that any view that Technique A is to do ONLY B can be unnecessarily limiting…

      I’ll also note my cultural context is the widespread belief in PROGRESS, whereas Buddhism was created in a world view of endless cycles of suffering…that’s got to shape experience…

      Keep thinking, and thanks for commenting.

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