Mindfulness and words

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

Lecture 4, Part 1 of 19 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

CTT: All right. Just for the sake of upholding various spiritual traditions I’ll be traditional: 😉 (Rings bell).

I’m inclined to do something different tonight, partly brought on by inspiration, partly brought on by you know what. My first inclination was that it was jumping a little too far ahead too fast to do this already, but then I realized I don’t know that from experience. That’s just a belief I have. If I don’t test it out by experience, I won’t know.

What I’m talking about is that I will try to move us toward a condition in which we can both have the relatively intellectual discussion, a scholarly sort of discussion, while maintaining awareness in the present. The two don’t normally go together. Normally you get some ideas and you get drunk on them, and the body stays behind back there somewhere, with not much relevance. Normally I work up toward doing both at once after you’ve had a fair amount of experience with some SLL, some sensing, looking and listening, in everyday life. But I feel like jumping ahead faster on it tonight so, rather than give you a special experiential warm-up, I’m just going to ask that we begin directly doing it.

So, for instance, when I start the sign in pad going around, get it mindfully, sign your name mindfully. Start a rumor that if you could actually sign your name mindfully you’ll become enlightened. 😉


Pass it on to the next person mindfully. I want to start that rumor because of my experience teaching at U.C. Davis for many years. The university required many, many signatures from me on various forms, most of which I considered meaningless. Consequently my ordinary mind, which was always in a hurry, learned to write my signature faster and faster until it became something that kind of started out looking like a C in Charles but then was just an almost straight line blur after that.

So on the humorous side I could blame the University for ruining my signature. But in point of fact, the desire for speed contributes to mindlessness, because you need speedier, more intense stuff to keep you stimulated if you’re not mindful, I just went on and ruined my signature. So maybe it’s actually a true idea that if you could sign your name mindfully, being conscious all the way, you might be significantly waking up.

I’m going to ask another question before I move to the main thing I want to do. Did folks get two or three emails from me by now?

Student: I got one.

Student: Just one.

(Unison of one responses)

CTT: Let’s have that pad start from back here again and everybody do your email address real clear again because something is wrong. Normally I collect email addresses the first night of the class, I send out some kind of a test letter, two or three of them bounce because things weren’t written quite clearly, I get those corrected, and I can assume communication after that.

The inspiring email I thought I sent to everyone this week (Laughter) contains something I came across in my file while I was reading people’s papers. I keep it in there as a reminder to me. And remember, you’re keeping track of your arms and legs now, or at least some part of your body, all through the class even though we’re dealing with ideas. [Italicized phrases in this transcript are a reminder to actually do sensing, looking, and listening rather than just get lost in the content.]

This is something I got from one of the discussion groups I’m on. I’m on a group called The Forge, which is a relatively new organization, five or six years old, something like that, its purpose is to promote the idea of trans-traditional spirituality. The idea of a spirituality that goes beyond any particular tradition, since traditions, particular religions, tend to squeeze spirituality down and strangle it. I’m not quite sure why I’m on it, because it’s supposed to be for “spiritual leaders,” but I think I’m their token scientist. Anyway, somebody said something very useful on that which I passed on, and some of you’ve gotten an email and some of you didn’t, but I’ll read it to you. I read it to remind myself once in awhile.

Although I know they are not the truth, but only at best pointers to the truth, I’m in love with words and infatuated by my own ability to deploy them effectively. This is only ego. May all I say or write be in the service of the Divine, and not for the gratification of my pride.”

Sound familiar to anyone? Let’s see how many people. (Lots of hands go up) Wow!

Student: It’s posted on your office door. Yeah.

CTT: Okay. (Laughter) Yes. It is on my door. I’m glad to know someone read it.

All of you are going to be academics, therapists, and the like. All of you have good word power, right? Hopefully you have a lot more as a result of ITP’s education than just word power, but you’re all going to be good with words, and you’re probably all pretty excellent already. Watch out! They are so tempting and intoxicating.

If I can ever figure out the email thing, maybe I’ll send it around again.


  1. SLL (sense/look/listen) reminds me of TSS (touch/sight/sound) which I learned from Shinzen Young’s website.

    After some months of practicing awareness of TSS + FIT (feel/image/talk) in many situations, ranging from formal seated meditation to having an argument, I’ve noticed that “getting high on words” still happens, but more and more there are small pauses in which I feel like stepping back a bit and looking more objectively at what is going on inside of me. It’s great to see this progress (however slow), and to be able to point out this practical use of meditation to friends of mine who think my practice is all about escapism. 😉

  2. I wish words came easier for me. (BTW, how did you, as a scientist, get so good with words? Most of the people I hang out with took “English for Engineers” or “Scientific Writing” as their one required English credit 🙂 .) I’ve been answering questions about my NDE for a researcher recently, and I have to tell you that words suck. But I do have to admit that the time I spend writing in my blog, commenting on your blog, and discussing these topics in forums has probably helped me find better words to use to describe my experiences. There are no perfect words, but my frustration with words isn’t what it used to be.

    The mindfully exercises probably help too. It is almost like getting small manageable experiences through daily meditation helps you get used to the idea of the really big experiences (like NDEs). The NDE doesn’t seem too big to think about the way it used to. I’m able to sort through it better and I can even talk about it a bit, which I couldn’t do at all just a year ago.

    I still need to work on finding better words. Perhaps they need to come up with an English credit for NDErs?

    1. I think you are being beaten down by the scientific “culture” that thinks terse, hard to understand sentences are harder to understand, Sandy. Careful there! Fit in when appropriate, but don’t let them beat you down.
      “Funny” story. When I was up for a routine promotion at the University, they denied it to me, in spite of my having published one book (Waking Up) and many articles in that evaluation period. The real reason for the denial, I believe, was to punish me for daring to be interested in parapsychology. The ostensible reason they gave – I know this is hard to believe, but they put in in writing – is that the book I wrote in that period was so clear and understandable that it couldn’t be of scholarly value….
      And after all those years of trying to learn to speak English….

  3. Dr Tart, I understand what you mean in terms of scientific writing. I’m lucky that I chose a very interdisciplinary area of study, because finding clear language that can be understood by all disciplines involved in a project is important. Not all scientists agree with this.

    About a month ago I had a meeting with a few members of my thesis committee. One individual has an expertise very close to my own (which is why he in on my committee), and he gets very annoyed at any deviation from traditional ways of presenting data. I showed my data plotted and explained in the format that he insisted on, but then I also plotted the information in a different way that made it much easier for anyone to understand the data. You didn’t need an advanced degree in a very specialized field to understand exactly what was going on in the study area the way I had plotted things. The other members of my committee were thrilled with my work because they could see how it complemented the other research being done on the study site very easily. I didn’t even have to explain the data because of the clear concise way it was presented. Unfortunately, the traditionalist on my committee is still mad at me for doing stuff in a way that he isn’t comfortable with and he thinks I made him look silly in front of the other members of my committee on purpose. (I probably will end up working at the local beer store once I have my doctorate.)

    That being said, I still find it difficult to find the language to describe my NDE. As a scientist I spend my time looking for ways to convey things that are difficult to quantify. Textures, patterns and cycles found in nature. The meaning in mud. You would think explaining what happened to me when I died wouldn’t be so hard after that, but it is. Words don’t really exist in the same way in the NDE place. Information is conveyed very differently than the way it is here. That makes it really hard to carry the experience back here in a way that can be explained and understood. It all brings me back to the fact that sometimes words really suck, at least for me they do. But I am working on that. 🙂

  4. Dr Tart, I kind of get what you mean about words. At least today I do. I’ve discovered that how I normally experience the world changes drastically when I’m ill. I don’t see colors around things. When my husband yells at sports on TV, I can’t feel how pissed off he is. I feel very separate, and a little bit lonely. But I don’t really mind being this way too much. It would be normal if I wasn’t so sick.

    Words seem so much more important when you can’t just feel what someone wants you to know. I’ve always been frustrated that words don’t seem to be as useful a way of passing along information as the way that information gets conveyed in the NDE place. Since I’m not currently having an NDE, I can’t seem to use that method of communication here very well, even at the best of times. But those odd leftover bits of the NDE place that I seem to have carried back here – the colored lights, picking up emotions, seeing people that aren’t there – still influence how I think information should be transmitted here. Without those anomalous sensations, all I have left are words. I can understand why people place so much emphasis on them now.

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