Models of Meditation and How They Might Affect Us

I have been discussing with colleagues how the models we have, explicit or implicit, of what is possible and desirable, can affect how we function, even if we don’t know we have such models.  With respect to “meditation,” I thought it might be interesting to share one of the communications I have sent to my colleagues at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.  So….

Here I want to share one little “insight” – or perhaps it’s a rationalization – on the importance of making our models of spiritual development more conscious, as a contribution to why this line of discussion is important.

Models as Problem Creators:

I have always characterized myself as a “poor,” unskilled meditator, so while I may like the 20 or 30 minutes of relaxation from a daily meditation, I almost never think I’ve “accomplished” anything beyond relaxing for a bit.  To feel this way, I must obviously have some sort of standards, some model or models of “meditative accomplishment” that I am judging myself against.

For most of my life these models of spiritual/transpersonal insight have been rather vague ideas of some sort of dramatic, life-changing event, like sexual orgasm or a psychedelic drug experience.  Just feeling relaxed after sitting hardly qualifies!

The last few years I’ve eased up on the dramatic event model and had a more Buddhist model of deep, striking, probably life-changing insights into the fundamental nature of mind, perhaps the Buddhist trio of annica, annata, and dukkha, Impermanence, No Permanent Self, and the Unsatisfactoriness of all phenomena.  Intellectually I’ve always had some understanding of these – things change, my “self,” whatever it is, is a changing process rather than a hard lump of unchanging stuff, and there must be higher level satisfactions than ordinary ones.  But this level of intellectual understanding hasn’t had any particular effect on my life, so it must not, I’ve believed, be the real understandings of Impermanence, No Permanent Self, and Unsatisfactoriness.

Note the capitalization of these three terms: that’s how I hear them in Buddhist teachings or often see them explicitly spelled, they are Big Deals, leading to enlightenment, not ordinary intellectual understandings.  So here’s another model I’ve been implicitly and sometimes explicitly judging myself against and repeated concluding that I’m a unskilled meditator: I’ve had no dramatic, breakthrough insights into Impermanence, No Permanent Self, and Unsatisfactoriness.

Model Change:

A couple of years ago, at a retreat led by Shinzen Young, I was telling him about how my thoughts and eyes-closed imagery were always changing as I tried to do vipassana, so that I felt bad about it, like I couldn’t concentrate well or something.  Shinzen mentioned that I could reframe that as seeing impermanence.  Impermanence?  The Impermanence?  That Big Deal Impermanence?  Wow!

Well of course, in retrospect, that’s exactly what I’ve been observing for years, I was just judging it against vague standards that totally discounted my experience.  Maybe some people have sudden, terrific breakthroughs to see Impermanence, maybe some, like me, see it on a small scale over and over and over and that eventually leads to something interesting?  That I’m not “failing” here, but doing just what’s needed?  A different model….

Being a psychologist, of course, who’s had a life-long research project of trying to figure out Charley Tart, I also have to consider other possible explanations.  Like Shinzen’s teaching style, for instance, is very supportive of what students are doing and gently steering them in useful directions – it just wouldn’t be his style to say “You’ve indeed been wasting your time all these years and failing….”  And my feeling of having a great load lifted from my shoulders with the idea that I’d been observing Impermanence instead of being a failure – a grasping at a rationalization that makes me feel good?  I don’t have any final answer, but I’m feeling better, I’m paying more attention to this constant flow, morphing, changing of thought, sensation and imagery….

Next Model Change – or Rationalization?

So a few days ago I was doing vipassana – to be specific, sitting still, eyes closed, while trying to observe the whole range of sensory and mental (internal visual images and internal talk) experience with concentration, clarity and equanimity – and having one of my most typical experiences, slipping off into sleep, having tiny, quickly forgotten dreamlets, coming back to full consciousness and feeling inadequate and unskilled that I slip into sleep so much when I try to meditate.

Then last weeks discussion about models triggered an insight in me.  Was I just being “bad,” unskilled?  What was my model that I was judging myself against?  OK, it became clear, I have implicitly (and occasionally explicitly) had a model that there should be an objective, unmoved Watcher, or Watching Process (capitalization to make it a Big Deal again) that keeps track of all experience continuously, even as I slip into sleep, have dreamlets, go off on wandering thoughts, etc.  Either I didn’t have such a Watching Process or I couldn’t access it, so judged myself a failure.

But wait a minute.  Instead of putting myself down for all these failures, my habit, suppose I applied a new model, one about the importance of seeing No Permanent Self, Annata.  Oh my goodness, in my dissolutions, I was observing this truth!  There is no unchanging watcher, my conscious “self” is indeed impermanent, depending on circumstances (like not being too sleepy), and so it came and went.

Well this feels better than judging myself as failing over and over again….

Although I don’t feel enlightened or awakened, whatever that would be like, from realizing this.  Maybe as with annica, Impermanence, I have to keep observing this over and over and over and eventually something happens?

And, knowing what a rationalizer Charley Tart can be, maybe this is just a glorification of the simple observation that I get sleepy a lot and my mind drifts a lot to both rationalize away my failure feelings and trick me into thinking I was doing something “spiritual?”

Anyway, this was a good illustration to me, and hopefully might serve that function for others in stimulating personal insights, of how implicit, as well as explicit models of what spiritual progress, awakening, enlightenment is can affect what we do.  Didn’t Freud say something like our job is to make the unconscious conscious?


  1. Dr. Tart,
    I believe that the movie ‘The Game’ ( is very potentially powerful in awakening receptive viewers to our shared insidiously programmed societal values in a blind and meaningless pursuit of materialism for the therapeutic value in treating some unresolved unconscious psychological issues instilled and imprinted during the youthful formative years of one’s self concept.

    If one could take a step back from their daily programmed habit and routines and actually see life more as a meta-game, the natural question that one would need to ask oneself would be “What is the object of the game” to which this movie seems to imply that ” the object of ‘the game’ is to first figure out the object of the game”.

    Until one initially comes to clearly determine a validly meaningful and fulfilling “object of the game” for themselves, with the realization and total acceptance of physical death included into the finite time on this material plane equation, one can easily fail to autonomously define their own game and by default, play the ‘Accumulation Game’ that has been approved and determined for them by their materialistic societal programming.

    Regarding your statement on Freud’s assertion (“Didn’t Freud say something like our job is to make the unconscious conscious?”),it would be rational to first understand and identify subliminal motivators determining one’s reactions and behavior in order to modify and correct them.

    If one can attain the perspective of being objectively self observing, then one has the potential to identify and correct unconscious and unproductive negative programming.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *