Samsara Sucks… But Attention/Intention Can Unstick It

March 18, 2015.  This needs more expansion, refinement, editing, but since I’m going off on a meditation retreat in a couple of days I’m liable to lose track of this (samsara sucks, as you’ll see) so want to get something up here.

Samsara Sucks… But Attention/Intention Can Unstick It

Thoughts on automatization, samsara, freedom, meditation, enlightenment, awakening, noting, labeling 

Charles T. Tart

Transferring Into Enlightenment - John Forrest Bamberger
Transferring Into Enlightenment – John Forrest Bamberger



In the way he teaches basic meditation, Shinzen Young asks us to first note an experience as it arises and progresses, and, if it is helpful, to also apply a label to it.  Noting is to consciously realize you are having a particular experience at the moment, and, as much as possible, to be aware of it with concentration, clarity, and equanimity.  That is, you steady your attention on it, “look closely” at it as it were, which leads to more clarity.  Neither try to make the experience last and be better than it is or to push it away if you don’t like it.  Be equanamous about it.



As our minds, to put it mildly, tend to drift with no respect to our conscious intentions, it’s helpful to add the process of labeling to noting, although it may not always be necessary.  Labeling means applying a word to the experience, classifying it.  At its most basic, an experience could be labeled as visual (seeing), auditory (hearing) or tactile (feeling).  The most minimal amount of labeling would be mentally applying a single label word to an ongoing experience.  The attention and effort involved in labeling could be increased by, say, actually whispering that particular word aloud (in a completely matter-of-fact tone) up to saying that word aloud loudly enough so that someone else could clearly hear you.  Having a student speak the labels aloud for a particular meditation processes is commonly used by Shinzen when he individually interviews and coaches a student to get a more direct report of what the student’s experience is like, possibly leading to procedural suggestions to make the meditative process more effective.

I have just completed a four hour telephone retreat with Shinzen and other students on a simplified version of his noting and labeling system, a very rich experience.  It stimulated a number of reflections I’ve had about the process to come together.


Living in Illusion, Samsara:

My understanding of the ordinary human condition, gained through my reflections on personal experience, my formal education in psychology, and especially working in the Gurdjieff tradition and in basic Buddhist meditation, has been that in many ways we live in a state of illusion and lack of freedom, what has been called samsara.  “Illusion” in the sense that we often do not have an accurate perception of the world around us, or our own internal psychological world for a variety of psychological reasons.  Lack of freedom in that many possible avenues of action are cut off to us by lack of knowledge of them, prejudice against them, or neurotic barriers.  A major consequence of living in samsara is that every life is filled with a great deal of suffering that is unnecessary.  Some suffering will occur: if you break your leg it’s going to hurt!  But much suffering wouldn’t arise, or would not be of any real consequence if we had a clearer perception of the reality of the external world and ourselves, and so were freer to choose appropriate responses and styles of living.

Although my knowledge of meditation then was shallow, back in the 70s, when I lectured on meditation in my popular altered states of consciousness class at the University of California at Davis, I over-simplistically said it had two main purposes.  One was to induce altered states of consciousness (ASCs) because the experience of being in such states and/or the insights gained from them had important values.  The other was to “purify” the functioning of ordinary consciousness, to reduce the distortions and perversions of perception, emotional feeling/thinking, intellectual thinking, and action so that our ordinary lives became more effective and happier.  Decades later I know the meditation can involve much more than these two dimensions, and they interact strongly anyway.  The remarks I want to make now are about this latter dimension, purifying ordinary consciousness.


Waking Sleep:

Fourth Way teacher G. I. Gurdjieff encapsulated a lot of truth in his simple and blunt statement, “Man is a machine.”  He meant that our mental lives are dominated by rigid, mechanical reactions.  Build a machine in a certain configuration or push a certain button on it and the outcome is certain, there is no question of choice or freedom.  In more modern psychological terms, I would say that much of our mental life is built of conditioned reactions, if A, then B, with no real choice.  We also have culturally biased and conditioned perceptions, feelings, and thoughts and/or with neurotically biased perceptions, feelings, and thoughts added to the mixture.  I would not state it as absolutely as Gurdjieff, and of course he did not really mean it in an absolute sense, for if we had no conscious choice at all, there’d be no hope of doing anything about it.  Still, it is extremely hard to develop enough understanding of the way your mind works, to be able to see more adaptive ways it could work, and to develop the willpower to do so.  So I would put it, we human beings are highly automatized in our perceptions, intellectual and emotional evaluations, and actions, but there are methods which have a chance of making these freer, giving us clearer perceptions and more choices as to actions.



One aspect of this, based on years of psychological and meditative observation of my own mental processes, as well as general psychological knowledge , could be put bluntly as saying that “Automatized processes suck!”  That is, when circumstances (external events, or reactions to external events) trigger many highly automatized processes of perception, thinking, feeling and reaction, those processes not only run and progress, they tend to suck up most or all of our consciousness in ways that reinforce these processes.  Somebody looks at you funny from across a room, for example, which triggers automatized perceptions and reactions that “People don’t love me!”  In the first second or fraction of a second, this is a relatively low intensity reaction, but in many cases it kind of sucks up more and more of consciousness, and within two or three seconds you are feeling really bad about nobody loving you, and your perceptions are now further biased so that, for example, you’re more likely to notice anybody looking at you with an unpleasant expression on their face, further strengthening the process of feeling rejected.  A funny look from somebody lasting half a second might make you feel miserable the rest of the day.

When I practice Vipassana meditation (mostly in the way Shinzen Young taught me), I’m usually relatively passively observing the flow of whatever experiences come up.  My practice can be allowing seeing, hearing, or touching modalities, or whatever mixture of modalities happens to arise at a particular moment.  I’ll use the visual modality as an example here.

A visual image arises, and sometimes I’m able to observe it with relative concentration, clarity, and equanimity.  It passes, or morphs into another image, I observe the next one, etc.  But frequently I cannot keep up this somewhat independent, intentional sequence for very long, as a particular visual image sucks in the rest of my mind.  What was primarily an emotionally neutral visual image, located in my habitual image space (behind my closed eyes), rapidly, instantly it often seems like, turns into a brief dream, a dreamlet, sometimes a longer dream, where I’m absorbed in the world of that evolving image, things are happening in it, and relevant thought (internal speech) may become a part of it.  It may take several seconds (or sometimes a minute or two) before I realize that in terms of my starting intention to observe the flow of a modality with concentration, clarity, and equanimity I’ve lost it !  I’ve been sucked into a little dream,  losing track of the rest of me and my intention.  That’s why I talk about the sucking power of ongoing internal processes, that automatized processes suck.

Now, my reflection on being caught in samsara versus freedom or awakening.


Consensus Reality Orientation (CRO) Activity:

My experience suggests that there is a continuous generation process of images, thoughts, and feelings going on all the time outside of the central focus of ordinary consciousness.  (Shinzen once suggested to me that this is what the Hindus called the Bhavanga, but the more I read about the Bhavanga, the less I become sure there is any one clear definition of what’s meant by that term)  This process could be what has been called the unconscious in Western psychology, and it becomes more pre-conscious when I’m practicing Vipassana.  In my own formal theorizing about the nature of the mind, I think of this flowing stream as the action of the Consensus Reality Orientation (CRO), a part of our mind devoted to rapid simulations of “What if?” scenarios, based on what’s happened recently and what might happen soon, and that it may have a useful function in bringing knowledge that could be useful in the immediate future closer to consciousness, so it can be more rapidly retrieved than if it had to be brought out of deeper storage layers.  Whatever….

If you’re interested in understanding how your mind functions, as I have been all my life, it’s been a great blessing to learn how to observe this ongoing CRO stream.  It’s not that it’s given me specific “insights” in the Western psychotherapeutic sense of that term, so much as a feeling for an important process of the mind.

It’s hard for me to observe this ongoing imagery process in my ordinary waking state, but with my eyes closed, intending to observe it in the Vipassana-like way, it becomes much clearer and stronger.  This makes it more observable, but remember that it sucks!  When I “get closer” to it to see it more clearly, I’m more likely to get sucked into it.

I’ve been fairly good at times at being able to go somewhat further “in” and still realize, in spite of the overall fuzziness of consciousness such “penetration” creates, that I am there to observe it with concentration, clarity, and equanimity, but it isn’t easy.  I’ve likened the CRO stream to a valley running through my mind, with all sorts of events happening in the Valley, more events the deeper you go.  As I get close to the “rim,” I can start to see some of these deeper events, and if I start down the gentle slope of the rim it gets clearer and clearer: except the chance of slipping and being totally sucked into ongoing dreams gets greater and greater!  Sometimes I’m pretty good at going part way down the sloping rim and still staying aware, other days I have to stay further from the rim, even if the observation isn’t as good, or I just can’t maintain my balance.

So my basic observation process of this ongoing stream is vipassana plus noting.  Adding labeling to that noting definitely stabilizes me.  I can get more into the phenomena, but the need to keep my “balance” means that at the very least I must mentally apply a label to it, and, even more so, saying a label out loud tends to keep me from slipping and getting lost.

There’s a whole technology of labeling involved here for me.  For example verbally complex labels, those of several syllables or several words, interfere with my observations too much, I don’t like to do them, and they tend to make me so alert that the imagery tends to disappear.  Single syllable, easily pronounceable labels are the best.  Hear.  See.  Feel.  (I’ve been experimenting lately with adding other single word labels that I’m finding useful.  Try.  Blur.  Clear.)


Okay bringing this back to what I experienced a lot of today, noting and labeling both need to vary in their intensity from moment to moment for optimal effects for me.  At some of my best moments, I don’t have to consciously “note” a particular experience, I just am experiencing it steadily and clearly and with equanimity.  At many, if not most of my moments, the sucking power of ongoing experience is pulling at me though, so I can lose “me” in the ongoing stream of experience, get absorbed* by it, which doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment, since I get distracted in ordinary life all the time.  As I feel the sucking power be too strong, though, I can add deliberate noting, in the sense of running a parallel process from just experiencing something to using one of those classificatory noting words, and, if the sucking power is really strong, adding a verbal label, particularly a spoken label, helps me keep my observational balance.

[*  Something I’ve never understood properly, incidentally, is why “absorption” is often spoken of highly in spiritual/mystical literature.  I get sucked into stuff all the time.  If my automatized habits are good ones that may simply mean I do what work is needed well, but the automatization of ordinary life can too easily lead to useless suffering.  Probably there is some special meaning of “absorption” but I don’t begin to get it.]

Okay, there’s someplace else this needs to go yet, but I don’t know what it is yet, so I’m stopping writing for now…


Samsara Has Demonstrated Its Ability To Suck: 

Waking in the middle of the night, I realized that samsara or the CRO process had demonstrated its ability to suck the more conscious parts of my mind into what was happening in the very course of my writing about it.  I had gotten absorbed in, sucked in by the details of the above, fascinating lines of reasoning, and had totally forgotten a main dimension that I wanted to talk about through this discussion.

One of my prime understandings of what it means to be “asleep,” “waking sleep” in Gurdjieff’s terms (similar to but probably not identical to “unenlightened” in Buddhist terms), is that practically all of our mental, emotional and physical life can be sucked up by subroutines that largely run automatically.  Attempts to change these, and creating more desirable subroutines, habits, themselves become automatized, and so we become more asleep while having interesting ideas about waking sleep.


Relative Awakening:

I recall the time half a century ago, reading Ouspensky’s book In Search Of The Miraculous, about Gurdjieff’s ideas.  One day I actually applied Gurdjieff’s technique of directing my attention both inward and outward simultaneously (“self-remembering”) and, compared to my usual state of consciousness, I “woke up!”  My recollection of it is not too dependable at such a time distance, of course, but for a few seconds I was what seemed fully alive and aware.  In that period, all the rest of my life, by contrast, seemed to have been just a bunch of mechanical sequences.  Nobody was “home.”  After a few seconds at the most of this, I slipped right back, hardly realizing I slipped back, into my usual automatized, “normal” consciousness.  While I thought about the experience and talked about Gurdjieff’s ideas about awakenings once in a while, it was many years later that I actually tried and successfully made the self-remembering effort which gave me more moments of awakening.

To be more accurate, I call my early experience a “relative awakening,” relative to my ordinary state of consciousness, as I have no direct, experiential idea what more is possible beyond this heightened state of awakeness and alertness.  But if that early, momentary state could feel so much more aware and alive compared to my ordinary state, are there states even higher?  “Enlightened” states?

I’m resisting the sucking power of samsara now, although it would be interesting and useful to be drawn along in the direction we were just going in.  Back on track!


Freedom of Attention/Intention vs Automatization Dimension:

The dimension of conscious functioning I want to introduce is this.

At any given moment, as well as on average and for longer stretches of time, how much of our consciousness is sucked up in automatized experiences and reactions to experiences, and how much is relatively free to have a wider, clearer perspective and possibilities of action?  At this moment, for example, my background mental processes, the CRO, have a bunch of interesting memories and ideas ready if I want to pursue them, but part of my mind is remembering that I want to write about… Struggling to find the best words here, come on, CRO, do your thing!…  the use of deliberate intention and attention to unstick ourselves from these samsaric, automated processes and so let us live, at least for moments, in a consciousness that has* a clear perception of the world around it and its own inner workings, is able to focus more clearly and intentionally, and is better able to resist the sucking pull of ideas and emotions.

[* I say “has” as that was the immediate experience, I was obviously much more awake, but, to be more objective, I should say “seemed to have.”  I don’t know of any objective tests of ostensibly more awake states of consciousness that actually demonstrate more accurate perceptions, styles of thinking, etc.]

This is an interesting struggle I’m going through right this moment… Concepts and words are not coming to me readily, they’re taking longer and I have to keep pushing for them, and it’s very tempting to just sip my coffee, go look at my e-mail, allow myself a pleasant ride along with the habitual patterns of my mind.

Okay I’m just going to say it straight, instead of staying lost in trying to figure out the best way to say it. 

To the degree to which you learn to use deliberate attention and intention, you have an opportunity (results not guaranteed) to become clearer and more awake.  Although I’m not a totally convinced believer of any religious/spiritual doctrines, my working hypothesis here is the Buddhist idea of original purity, that our nature is basically that of any Buddha’s nature.  So to the extent that we unstick ourselves from automated, samsaric life, we will naturally not only become more perceptive and intelligent, but more compassionate and wise.  This will be a natural progression, wiser and more compassionate actions will just become the obvious thing to do, not a bunch of “shoulds” forced on us from the outside.

This ratio of available, conscious intention/attention to automated processes dimension is not a dimension I hear of in formal Buddhist teachings very often, although it may be there expressed in ways that I don’t fathom.  Thus it’s not so much the specific form of meditation, what you focus or don’t focus on, etc., that matters, it’s the practice at creating and holding deliberate attention and intention that builds strength of these areas, thus increasing the ratio of conscious processing to automatized processing, and is a major factor responsible for any psychological and spiritual growth.


Open Exploration versus Reinforcement of Conceptual System:

Above I saidTo the degree to which you learn to use deliberate attention and intention, you have an opportunity (results not guaranteed) to become clearer and more awake.”  We might distinguish here a kind of “pure” use of attention and intention whose only goal is purer, perhaps totally pure, perception of what actually happens, a kind of scientific curiosity.  But in real life we use attention and intention, both in ordinary life and in specialized ways like meditation, to discover and understand better ways, happier ways to live, and to guide ourselves to evolve in that direction.  To recognize its actual complexity, meditation is not simply a variety of techniques for studying and using the mind, it’s a variety of techniques done within conceptual, philosophical frameworks about the way reality is and what is desirable for human beings.  To the extent that there is a single, absolute Truth about reality, and to the extent that a particular conceptual framework in which meditation is taught and practiced mirrors that Truth well, no problem if the conceptual system tends to mold your experience.  To the extent that the conceptual system does not mirror that absolute Truth, or that there may not be a single Truth, problems can arise.  While believing we are understanding the operation of our minds more clearly, we may be also shaping and conditioning them to operate in other ways, which may seem like self-evident truths, but which are distortions of reality, which are samsaric, deluded.

From my earliest exposure to techniques of meditation, I was already firmly in love with the ideal of science being a search for Truth per se, no matter what you wanted it to be or preferred it to be.  This was it’s great nobility, the transcendence of personal beliefs and desires, often with the personal sacrifice of knowing you could find out you were  Wrong about things, in the search for Truth.  (Or, since Truth was probably far down the timeline, for better and better understandings that lead toward Truth)  Thus when I was exposed to vipassana meditation teachings, the common translation of the vipassana as “insight” meditation sucked me right into the scientific framework: vipassana was another way of nobly searching for Truth, regardless of what you wanted or believed.

Yes, I also wanted to be happier, more intelligent, wiser, more compassionate, etc., but I always thought of those sorts of things as relatively automatic effects of having deeper and deeper insights into Truth, especially its spiritual nature.  Thus I was somewhat surprised and shocked in reading Braun’s 2013 scholarly book (The Birth of Insight.  Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw. ) about the origin of the modern vipassana meditation tradition by the Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw.  Ledi Sayadaw recommended great familiarity with the basic Buddhist texts, especially the Abhidhamma, before even starting meditation practice.  Indeed, it was best if you had memorized the Abhidhamma.  Then when you practiced vipassana meditation, you were to immediately recognize the nature of each experience that arose in terms of these preset Buddhist philosophy and categories.!

Okay, insofar as there is one ultimate Truth and Buddhism is an excellent reflection of that, that’s probably helpful.  We automatically and intellectually analyze experience practically all the time normally, and to have that analysis be in a correct philosophical and reality framework as opposed to an incorrect one is generally bound to be useful.  But it’s not science, it’s training yourself to habitually see things in terms of a dominant mainstream (in Buddhist cultures) theory, rather than observe as carefully as possible and then think about your observations in whatever sorts of ways turn out to be useful.  Indeed, many of the most important advances in science have occurred because scientists have noticed that their observations, the data, did not fit with the prevailing mainstream theory (the field’s paradigm), and so a totally new overarching view, a new paradigm, was called for and was created.  At its worst, then, vipassana meditation in this original form can be seen as a form of reconditioning, of “brain washing.”

Okay, drifting, getting sucked in various directions again…, Time for a break…


To be continued sometime…




  1. Hello Charles, I hope you are well.

    A long post with many topics!

    For what it’s worth, here are some of my thoughts after reading:

    > My experience suggests that there is a continuous generation process of images, thoughts, and feelings going on all the time outside of the central focus of ordinary consciousness.

    > (…) practically all of our mental, emotional and physical life can be sucked up by subroutines that largely run automatically.  Attempts to change these, and creating more desirable subroutines, habits, themselves become automatized, and so we become more asleep while having interesting ideas about waking sleep.

    > That is, when circumstances (external events, or reactions to external events) trigger many highly automatized processes of perception, thinking, feeling and reaction, those processes not only run and progress, they tend to suck up most or all of our consciousness in ways that reinforce these processes.

    > This ratio of available, conscious intention/attention to automated processes dimension is not a dimension I hear of in formal Buddhist teachings very often, although it may be there expressed in ways that I don’t fathom. 

    I like your presentation of this ‘automatization’ and ‘sucking’.

    Let me suggest that Buddhism originally is not preoccupied with anything but what you are describing here.

    In brief, the premise is that the mind is originally pure (or ‘luminous’ as they would have said in the Buddha’s milieu), as you mentioned, but has become—and continues to be—involved with “asava”, but can again achieve purity.

    In the language of Buddhism, “asava” are the defilements, taints, in/outflows, fermentations, addictions (and many other translations), and they are sustained by craving or thirst.

    The path and practice of again realizing the original stainlessness of the mind involves an allegorical, all-out, nuclear warfare with the asava’s, eventually expelling the darkness of ignorance—the cheif taint—and thereby extricating the mind from it’s slavish entanglements.

    The path is introspective ingenuity: exposing, dismantling and dissolving the defilements through firmness (samadhi, concentration) and sharpness (prajna, discernment) of mind.

    The practice is resting (samatha) & inspecting (vipassana). By resting, one attains a stable and compact mind, strong, contented and steady in its own. By inspecting, one attains an inquisitive and incisive mind, sharply and clearly seeing.

    Besides the training of the mind, the defilements are the main focus and target. In the West, it seems we are a little too busy with the training of the mind and not so interested in its proper application. Knowing what is meant by defilements is key and maybe the next big step for us wanna-be Buddhists in the West.

    Technically, the defilements are what makes the mind spin, swirl and twist, instead of staying calmly within its own sphere. Practically, the defilements are closer to us than we dare to admit. They are whatever lures us out of ease. They are our lusts and wants, our ideas and esteemed principles, and our self-righteous and twisted “freedoms”. In short, the defilements range from our most casual whims to our dearest clutchings.

    Let’s get those suckers out of here, and see if also we can attain the true Dhamma as the Buddha promises that we can! 🙂

    1. Yes, damn those defilements! We have good intentions and then our thoughts, feelings and actions go astray…
      I would add that Western psychotherapy has learned a lot about the dynamic aspects of “defilements” and I imagine a bit of psychotherapy can really root some of them out. One of the jobs of transpersonal psychology is to figure out how to apply Western knowledge effectively here. When it’s most effective to meditate more, when it’s most effective to sit down with a therapist who can help you see things that tricky mind doesn’t want you to see…
      As to our perfect original nature – I don’t know. No doubt we are badly warped, but is our more basic nature perfect, or just a good starting place to evolve from?

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