Forty-five Years Ago I Woke Up

One of the things I am doing with this blog is putting in early drafts and beginnings of material which will be in one of my next books.  One of those book will be about looking for the Spirit in modern times, as seen through my eyes, with me probably being somewhat typical of a large class of people, a sincere but scientifically trained intellectual.  My training as a scientist and scholar has been to be as objective as possible, a very useful goal if not overdone, but which often means writing in as impersonal style as possible.  After all, “It happened” seems so much more objective than “I did,” doesn’t it?  But I’m slowly learning that people like some personal aspects of issues and it can be an advantage in sharing ideas if done right, so….this small contribution.

Forty-five Years Ago I Woke Up

Charles T. Tart

This is a partial transcript of an “online” (via telephone link) conversation between CTT and Shinzen Young on the evening of January 8, 2011, during Shinzen’s annual winter retreat at the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.  It’s “partial” in that CTT recorded his own words, but only did quick, dictated summaries occasionally of what Shinzen said, so Shinzen’s reconstructed remarks are [bracketed] and sometimes missing.  Shinzen has been too busy to check this for accuracy, so anything attributed to Shinzen is my memory/interpretation of what he said, don’t’ take it as a literal quote of his words or ideas.  This transcript is lightly edited for clarity.

(Note also that my dictated notes were sometimes unclear or the recording unclear, so a number of interesting directions are not quite spelled out – and I have left them in as mysteries to intrigue myself and the reader.)

CTT:  There’s a particular direction I want to take us in, and since it’s going to be an interesting story, if you don’t mind, I’ll record my side of the conversation.  And when you say something I especially want to remember, I will record a few words capturing it for myself.  If you don’t want to hear that, I’ll click my telephone mike off or I’ll let you hear me dictating….

[Fine with me, and I don’t care if I hear you dictating your notes]

Okay, good.  That simplifies things.

Okay, I’m going to manifest in a very different way tonight.  Usually, you know, when we play, I manifest as your friend, and when we’re on retreat, I manifest as a student of Buddhism who really wants to know and who, I think, is genuinely humble in the sense that I know I don’t know much.  But I try to learn.  Now, I’m going to do something different.  I’m going to manifest as a moderately attained student of another tradition in order to get your feedback as a very advanced student of another tradition on that, because I can’t get the feedback I’d like from that tradition.  Sound interesting?  Okay.


Yeah, OK.   Forty-five years ago I woke up.

Now, what do I mean by that?  I was reading Ouspensky’s book In Search of the Miraculous and came to a part where he wrote that what was essential to waking up was to have the arrow of attention simultaneously go inward and outward.

[Shinzen expresses great interest in this]

Yes, mm-hmm, double-headed arrow.

This is in his book In Search of the Miraculous which is… – I’ll send you the quote later.

[Shinzen wants to take some notes on this]

Okay.  You take notes.  (pause)

Right.  Okay.  I had read that two-way arrow of attention stuff intellectually before, and it was just an interesting concept, but somehow, this time, I actually did it, and I woke up.  Now, technically I’d say “relatively woke up,” because I don’t know what absolute waking up is.  But compared to the usual constant, ongoing stream of thoughts and hopes and fears and plans and memories and all that crap, I was present.  I was there.  I was alive.  And, by contrast, I hadn’t been alive up until that point.  Some “robot” must have been running the machine, making noises.

A few seconds later I went back to my comfortable sleep and forgot all about the fact that I’d woken up for a few seconds for, oh, months.  And after I remembered it, months later, I could talk about it to other people, but I never actually did it again for a long, long time.

Well, skipping over many years and many explorations, I eventually came in contact with a formal Gurdjieff training group out in California.  I was introduced to a specific technique for awakening.  You will love this technique because I can now put it in your system (of classifications of meditation techniques, introduced at this retreat) quite precisely.

What I did is a figure “J.”  You could start out imagining it as a fat exclamation point with a top very thick and it’s tapering down and coming to a point, and it’s all in the focus-out column.  It’s fat at the top because the recognition is that visual is most of the incoming information most of the time, so that’s where most of your attention is to be directed.  And hearing is next, and then you deliberately keep a little bit of attention in your body, specifically in the form of attending to the feelings in your arms and legs.

[Q from Shinzen on why arms and legs]  Yes.  Technically, I think the arms and legs were chosen because of the feeling that a lot of people had undergone emotional traumas which “resided” in the body, and if you got people attending to their body sensations too soon, you might activate those, and, because of the reactivation of suffering, they might quit practicing.  That’s true in my own practice with my students.  Some people can’t stand to spread attention this wide into their bodies, they activate pains and tensions.  They gotta stay in the –

[Shinzen interrupts with note about similar restriction in vipassana practice]

Ah.  So in Goenka retreats they cut the focus down when people get too agitated?  Good.

[Another Q from Shinzen, content not remembered]

Yeah.  I still present it to people with arms and legs getting about ten percent of your attention, and tell them the main purpose of this is not that those sensations are so important per se, but they provide an anchor in the hear-and-now instead of letting you drift off totally.

That’s right.  And it’s –

[Focus out]


And I also teach this self-remembering technique with an admonition to actually look, actually listen.  Don’t just sort of mechanically move your eyes around and let your ears pick up sounds.  When you look at something, look to see what it actually is.  It’s like that extra attention, that intention – it’s like a moment of noting (vipassana technical term for paying open, concentrated, equanimous attention to ongoing stimuli), I realize now, after a new sensation comes in.

[Inclusive noting and focus out was (unclear)____ all.  Excellent.]

Yes.  Now, for me, the arms and legs thing long ago spread to a generalized sensitivity to my whole body, and I found that, even though the conscious focus is on external sensations, sight and sound, this practice made me much more aware of emotional feelings as they came up.  And it also kept emotional feelings or fantasies from running away with me because I was consciously controlling my attention and using a lot of it for being deliberately present, in the here and now, so that extra mental and emotional energy wasn’t there for my craziness to automatically take up.  Okay?

So years later, after I relearned this technique again, once again I started having the experience where. when I did this, I was suddenly present, and it was clear that before that I’d been relatively “unconscious;” the “machine” of my mind and senses was just operating.  And when I’d stop doing it, stop “sensing, looking and listening” as the technique is called, I’d fall back into that ordinary consciousness.

Another formal technique name for this in the Gurdjieff work is self-remembering, but I should note that people within the Gurdjieff tradition would probably think I’m being too casual with terminology.  But that’s not important for our discussion tonight.

Although I’ve always thought of the re-membering as a pun on sensing your arms and legs, your members.  [Laughs] Who really knows?

But the big thing is that you’re adding conscious intention to all sorts of stuff that’s normally just unconscious habit that you do.  And so sometimes there are sorts of specific increased sensitivity to specific aspects of sensations, perceptions, and the like, but it’s that increased feeling of consciousness that, to my mind, makes a difference.

************(not understandable)

This kind of self-remembering is the primary technique that I know of, but here’s my story/question gets complicated.  After Gurdjieff died, a lot of people said in effect “He didn’t name a successor, but of course I was the one who was going to be named his successor.”  So, there are many fragmented, little Gurdjieff groups.  They often tend to be rather secretive, so some of them may have developed some other techniques, but it would be very hard to know in general.  It’d be much easier to know what the range of techniques is in Buddhism, by comparison.

[lost remark from Shinzen]

Yeah, right.  Yeah, it couldn’t be that jerk over there when I was obviously the one of the elect.  This situation creates problems.  That’s also the reason there isn’t really anybody within the Gurdjieff tradition I know of that I can talk to about what I’m going to bring up next.  The one person I know very well in the tradition is a wonderful guy, he has a brilliant intellect, but when I ask him any kind or question, or invite some speculation – I feel like he can’t deviate from orthodoxy.  When I bring up any kind of topic that asks a question about something, it’s like an iron curtain of orthodoxy slips down over a brilliant mind and…..

I can’t get him to speculate, to play with alternate hypotheses like I’m used to doing as a scientist.  He won’t compare the Gurdjieff work with other things.  And I’ve noticed that in – I would probably notice this in other groups if I thought about it, too –  but I’ve noticed in Gurdjieff groups I’ve visited that there’s a lot of questions and answer with the instructors, and some of it is indeed increasing the student’s knowledge, but some of it is shaping, it’s socializing, it’s conveying to the student what it’s proper to think about and what it’s not proper to think about.  I’m sure you’ve seen that in a lot of places too.

Anyway, this kind of relative awakening from practicing self-remembering is and was really important to me because I’m not a kind of person who has mystical experiences and things like that.  I’m very practical, and this kind of experience of relative awakening was and is my main connection with feeling that, “Gee, there really is a higher level of consciousness available,” and I could see how repeated practice and experience gradually made changes in me over the years.  So this self-remembering was my central practice for many years.  It’s still my central practice in life, because I find it works much better for being mindful in life than formal meditative techniques.  It’s funny, too when I study dzogchen, it’s like when they talk about how someday they’ll talk about integration, I think, “I started backwards.  I began with integration.  What’s all this sitting still, not moving, not looking around stuff they want you to do?”

Anyway, this led on in many interesting ways, okay?  I’ve been thrown out of various Gurdjieff groups for daring to ask questions.  I ran my own Gurdjieff-style group at one of my teacher’s requests  for a year and a half, and deliberately and pleasantly dissolved it when I saw that people were getting transference reactions on me that I couldn’t get rid of.  So self-remembering was quite central for me for a long time, especially before I learned to be somewhat successful at vipassana as a result of your teaching.

But now, here’s the interesting question that I finally get to.  I can still do the technique, but it doesn’t feel special. Okay?

I mean right now, e.g., I can look more consciously at what I’m looking at, while simultaneously keeping some feeling in my body to center me in the present, and it seems like, yeah, that’s just something I do sometimes.  The world around me is more real, I’m more real, none of that seems particularly special.  And I don’t know – is it just that I’ve done it so much over the years that there isn’t this huge contrast any more that made it seem very special?  Or have I really screwed up whatever the hell the technique is and I just don’t do it right any more?  Or what?  Now, that’s what I’m wondering what you might have some reflections on.

[Shinzen asks whether earlier and continued practice has had long term effects on me]

Oh, yeah.  No, in terms of immediate special feelings, but if you ask about long-term growth, I’d say yes.  Long-term growth continues.  I’m a more aware, compassionate, present, practical kind of person than I used to be.

[Shinzen notes I’ve been into many kinds of growth practices, what have they done?]                     ]

That’s true.  Your kind of meditation has probably been my main practice for the past few years.  The Tibetan dzogchen stuff, that’s a whole other conversation because I vary considerably between thinking, “Of course, dzogchen is basically waking up like this,” versus “What the hell are they talking about?  Pure perception?  I have no idea at all.”  But this trying to be present in life by anchoring in the body and consciously looking around at my perceptions is my main technique in life.

[Shinzen remarks that he does mostly focus out into the world, for his practice in life.  He is pleased I think there’s been growth over time]

Yeah, there is definitely growth over time, so I’m glad you think I’m doing fine.

[Shinzen would call self-remembering an “even coverage on focus out,” within his current terminology for describing meditation practices.  He thinks that  what I’m doing with it and vipassana, and what I’m doing on dzogchen with Sogyal Rinpoche seems to be fine.]

[In terms of it not seeming that different, it’s true that we acclimatize.  In some ways it doesn’t seem that different for me, the way I am now, to where I was 40 years ago, as I’m just boppin’ in the world.  But I know that I’m like totally and completely different, but I’m just acclimatized.]

[So it’s not like you’ve done something wrong with it; you’ve acclimatized]

Yes, it’s abiding.  That’s probably the main factor.  That’s very helpful to hear from you, Shinzen.

Well, see, there’s a likely psychological projection problem here, too, because I think, “Shinzen – oh, my god, he’s done all this meditation.  I know he’s had some very deep experiences.  He must go around having really deep experiences all the time, even though he acts like a normal guy.”

[It’s true I go around having deep experiences all the time, but I’m not particularly aware of it as being special in any way at all.]

[Right now, there’s no separation between me and this room.  They’re a wave that’s absolutely connected, and I didn’t have to do anything to make that happen.  It’s just as soon as I pay attention to it, it’s there, but it takes 40 years to get to that point.  As I’m talking to you, I’m not on an acid trip behind it.  I’m acclimatized.  I’m just like ordinary.]

That’s very interesting.  Okay, yeah.  Of course I’m biased to think it’s acclimatization because I certainly know I’m a better person than I was 40 years ago, and I’m – for instance, there’s an interesting distinction in Gurdjieff’s teachings.  They talk about seven levels of man, and the first three levels are just descriptive.  They’re not really numbers that add up, just nominal.  Man Number 1 is a person who’s mainly centered in his body and instincts; the second in his emotions; the third in his intellect.  And they’re all sort of equally deluded, equally asleep, because they’re just living in parts of themselves.  So the first level of real development in the Gurdjieff work is what he called Man Number 4, where there’s a relatively balanced development of emotions, body instincts, and intellect.  I’m still an intellectual, but I feel like I’ve got a reasonably functioning emotional intelligence now, and I’m in good relation with my body and pick up a fair number of those instincts now.  So that’s one of the main ways I describe the change there.  There are higher levels in  his system, Gurdjieff gets into funny cosmological stuff that I have no idea whether it’s real or not, so I don’t think much about it.

{noise on phone connection}

You still there?


So I just finished talking about Gurdjieffian higher levels which are very cosmological, and I have no idea if they’re true.  So, okay.

[Anything else you want to go over?]

That was the main thing – well, I wanted to get you to explain to me what dzogchen is, but that may be too much for tonight.

[Doing nothing, and expansion and contraction, and spaciousness – this would map onto dzogchen.]

This may just be me, but I have the feeling sometimes that in Tibetan Buddhism they’re very good at withholding information because it keeps paying students around longer.  And it’s a funny way for me to feel, because, for instance, Sogyal Rinpoche – I like the man.  One of the main reasons I stopped doing formal Gurdjieff work was that, while I was continuing to get ahead in it, there was a cold, unheartful quality to it that I didn’t really care for.  I was already too cool, too intellectual.  Sogyal Rinpoche came along and was clearly a very compassionate person, as well as such a competent teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.  That really appealed to me.

Now, I don’t know, incidentally, if Gurdjieff would have wanted it that way, emotionally very cool, but that’s the way a lot of his followers went, because if you look at Ouspensky’s book in particular, Ouspensky was a hyper-intellectual.  He was like us, dude!  And I don’t know if he ever got out of being just an intellectual, but…  I think you and I are more than just intellectuals, though…

[Shinzen remark lost]

Oh, but I thought it was the same thing rather than Ouspensky’s technique being different, because in sensing, looking, and listening, you have a two-headed arrow of attention.  Most of it’s deliberately directed out; 10, 15 percent or so is directed in; and the exact percentage varies.  I make a big point of telling students the percentage distribution of attention will change with circumstances though.

[Shinzen says if you hold subjective and objective space in awareness simultaneously, it breaks down the boundary between in and out.  I’d have to think about that.  I don’t know if it breaks down the boundary for me.  It’s –]

Ah, boundary.  I guess –

Yeah, you can’t stop me from thinking for a minute, man.  I’m an intellectual.  I don’t think there is a boundary when I do the self-remembering technique, okay?  I mean, in retrospective description, I say the outside world did such-and-such, and I was more clearly aware that I was in this location, and maybe I felt so-and-so.  But I don’t feel a heavy inside-outside kind of split.  But…

[What would happen if you were sitting in a swarm of black flies and doing that technique?  Would you still be able to say there’s no boundary on those black flies?]

Yeah, I might be able to do that, although it seems like a horrible experiment to indulge in.

[So the only way to get a merging then is to affirm the in-and-out simultaneously, and they become a single swirl.]

[What I’m describing works if the “in” is not too stimulated.  What I’m describing is a proactive thing to not have a boundary.  But if “out” is impacting and causing huge “in” reactions, it won’t work.]

Yeah, I think you may be right there.

[If I simultaneously go in and out, they become one flow.]

Yeah, it may be like that.  I’m not sure.  If I’m thrown into a stress situation, I think I will automatically start doing this self-remembering.

And yes, I’m not saying I can’t be thrown off if the situation gets really bad.

[Want to try something like that now?]

Yeah, okay.  All right.  Maybe you can give me a little experience of that because I had that problem the other night when I cancelled our online session.  I think it was a combination of the cold and the fever and a reaction to the Sudafed that I’d taken.  My imagery went mad and I couldn’t do anything about it.

Well, actually, it’s gotten pretty late, and I’m quite satisfied with our conversation, so why don’t you just work with the other two folks on other lines for now, and thank you for a great retreat!

And I’ll even try to get over my fantasy of the next retreat.  I’m gonna stand at the food service table and stare balefully at people who don’t sterilize their hands[1].  Bastards!  [Laughs] Okay, bye-bye.

[1] CTT contracted a bad cold for the second half of the retreat and felt it happened because too many mindless or careless students didn’t bother to follow the instructions to use something absorbent, like a folded coat, to catch their coughs and to use hand sterilizer before handling the food serving instruments.

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