Is Meditative Observation Fast Enough?
Charles T. Tart
Initial Draft: May 11, 2015
One of my tasks as a transpersonal psychologist is to compare knowledge and theories about observations and beliefs/theories from traditional spiritual paths with modern scientific knowledge, hopefully to the mutual benefit of both. The following is some speculation along that line. I start from two foundations.
My first foundation is general knowledge of the nature of states of consciousness. Studies of various altered states of consciousness (ASCs), such as hypnosis, drug induced states, dreaming and the like have been a central theme in my career. My current best working hypothesis about the nature of ordinary consciousness, resulting from all this, has been that waking consciousness, ordinary consciousness, is a semi-arbitrary construction, is basically the same as nocturnal dreaming, but with one massive difference.
In both cases, mind creates a world and an enveloping space-time framework for it, and events unfold within that experienced world. In the case of nocturnal dreaming, this is accompanied by sensory deprivation, so the constructive and creative processes in nocturnal dreaming, while shaped a lot by the habits of our life experience, are relatively free running, unconstrained by sense input, so occasionally we talk about the bizarreness of dreams, even though dreams reflect ordinary life most of the time. In waking consciousness, on the other hand, while a basic space/time/world framework is created as in dreams, it has to constantly deal with massive amounts of information input from our senses. Its creation must be modified and updated on the fly to adequately represent those. It’s one thing to dream of an attractive road that you wonder across while looking at the wind in the leaves of the lovely trees. When you reach such a road in waking life, your experienced world had better be modified by the oncoming car and the danger it represents if it hits you!
My second foundation was originally drawn from Gurdjieff’s teachings about the Fourth Way spiritual path, supplemented and basically validated by my own experiential observations, namely that we have three kinds of data processing processes or “brains,” as Gurdjieff called them. One is (a) intellectual, words and the logic of words, a second is (b) emotional, a feeling kind of processing, although it may also employ words and images, and the third is (c) body/instinctual processing.
Gurdjieff taught that the emotional brain is faster than the intellectual brain, and may reach a conclusion about a situation you are in and spur you toward action before the intellectual brain has hardly begun to understand the situation, much less work out a sensible course of action. I’ve observed this in myself many times. This distinction has now been validated in terms of neurophysiological studies. Our sensory pathways split in two. A shorter neural pathway goes to older, more “primitive” parts of the brain that can trigger emotions, while a longer (more time-consuming relays from one neuron to another) pathway goes to the “higher” reasoning processes in the frontal cortex. Thus the emotional brain perceives the world quicker, although generally considered to do so in a cruder, less discriminative way than our higher functions. If it sees danger it may “hijack” overall brain processes by massively increasing the level of activation, stimulating hormonal production, and producing imagery and words that are a major part of an emotion. Someone walks into your peripheral visual field, for example, who resembles, but not actually is, an enemy of yours that you realistically have to be wary of. Before you can take a good look and realize this is not your enemy, you have a jolt of fear or anger or both, your body starts getting ready for flight or fight. It’s hard to calm down once your mind has been hijacked like that, and your ongoing perceptions may be further distorted to support the activated emotion.
The speediness of the emotional brain can be adaptive as well as crazy-making. Eastern teachers, for example, use a traditional analogy that you’re walking along a jungle path in the twilight and you see something that looks like a snake. You’re frightened and leap back. It turns out to be a piece of colored rope lying on the ground. This is used as an example of misperception, but it could be just as well used as an example of adaptation. It’s much better for the emotional brain to crudely but mistakenly think it’s a snake and have you jump back before you can be bitten than to stand there while waiting for higher brain functions to get clearer about it and perhaps get bitten and die.
Now my question about how fast meditative observation can be.
I’m thinking about the emotional brain’s function from an engineering perspective, in terms of efficiency. Insofar as you want it, when perceiving possible danger, to react as quickly as possible and so get you away from the danger, the output of the emotional brain, images (in any sensory modality) and emotional feelings and words should be powerful and easily and quickly displayed. For our example of the possible snake on the path, you don’t want to take a long sequence of moments to display, say, any small harmless snake, which in several stages morphs into a bigger, fairly poisonous snake, you want a poisonous snake in a threatening posture to display as close to instantly as possible. An extra tenth of a second delay in getting the information to consciousness may be the difference between jumping back in time or getting bitten. Then you jump back or, unfortunately, are paralyzed with fear. After that initial message, the emotional brain and/or higher centers can work on presenting more accurate information, a visual image of the actual kind of snake it is.
Now I’ve been told that practitioners who are really good at Vipassana meditation have learned to detect briefer and briefer events, including their rising, staying, and fading. Or you could say able to detect a larger number of brief events per second.
I’m not good at this personally. In my normal Vipassana practice, I prefer and probably implicitly will a slower rate of change, say one event per second or even several seconds per event, so that I can equanimously take in particular events in more detail (detect — grok with equanimity — allow to stay, morph or go). If I set my intention to looking for faster changes, I can work up to perhaps three or four per second, but by then my actual perception of the individual events has become quite blurred. By analogy, I could listen to a series of click-like brief sounds, each one of which was slightly different, at a slow speed and hear the differences, but at several per second it just becomes a kind of buzz.
So my question (not expressed as clearly as it could be as I’m still groping for something here), for those much more skilled than me, is, when doing Vipassana, and an event arises which has some emotional significance, is the initial information generally “generic,” rather than specific? And then after a few instants it is further processed and becomes more accurately specific?
To make up a possible example, I’m meditating and a car backfires on the street outside. I’ve been shot at in the past, so sounds like this are threatening. Perhaps, for example, a generic image of a man with a rifle rises in my mind, to be corrected a few instance later by an image of a car with a puff of smoke coming out of its tailpipe? Visual imagery is easiest to describe, of course, but I ask this question with respect to all sensory modalities.
I’m particularly curious whether any skilled meditators actually experience things this way. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are Buddhist scriptures that make relevant claims, but I tend to have a suspicion that when you have a tradition that has had 2500 years of scholars associated with it, many of whom may not have actually meditated much themselves, the concepts-to-reality ratio may have gotten rather high.
I suspect that electrophysiological studies will eventually be able to measure when a generic information presentation by the emotional brain gets replaced with something more specific, although that may be a subtle enough transition to not be detectable for a long time. Indeed my best guess about the nature of consciousness is that there is some real but “dualistic” component, so that a complete understanding will not come from neurophysiology or the introspective disciplines alone, but from a study of both components and the outcomes of their interactions.
Meanwhile, I wonder….