Temporal Width of the Window of Observation (TWWO): Aspects of Vipassana Meditation Considered from a Systems Approach

[this is easily-read material about meditation that gets more and more generalized as I develop it.  I feel I should develop it as a formal contribution to the Transpersonal Psychology literature, but knowing I’m not going o have time to do that in the immediate future, have decided to put it up here on the blog for readers’ enjoyment and thought stimulation.  Should be especially interesting if you’re a meditator yourself…..]

The ideas in this paper coalesced as a result of some insights occurring in a 2-week vipassana meditation retreat taught by Shinzen Young in January of 2011,  these insights interacting with Daniel Ingram’s stimulating book on essential Buddhist meditation (Ingram, D., [2008] Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book) and with five decades of professional work, as well as personal experience, in studying consciousness and various altered states of consciousness (ASCs).  They concern the degree to which overall beliefs and attitudes, implicit as well as explicit, may affect the outcome of vipassana meditation practice (and probably any kind of introspective study).  I will focus on vipassana first, then generalize to a wider sphere.

I was taught basic vipassana meditation practice by Shinzen back in 1986, after hearing him speak at a scientific conference.  I started to type “I learned vipassana meditation practice….,” but, as a major point of this paper is that our own attitudes and personal and cultural expectations strongly affect our perceptions, thoughts and actions, what we learn, it seems more accurate to say Shinzen taught me some practices.  What exactly I learned may or may not be what Shinzen would call vipassana to various degrees, a question I will return to later.  At any rate, I was impressed enough with the results from what he taught me that I have been practicing my (slowly changing and, I hope, “evolving”) version of vipassana (as well as other psychological and spiritual practices) for more than two decades now.  My wife and I usually do one or two longer vipassana retreats with Shinzen each year, as well as the occasional half-day or one-day telephone mediated  retreat.

Key Element One: The Arrow of Intention/Attention

The first key element leading to this paper arose when, during the January retreat, Shinzen mentioned that one of his Eastern vipassana teachers, U Ba Khin, likened the intentional, immediate perception, of incoming sensations (both external sensory sensations, internal body sensations, and thoughts and emotions, regarded as sensations), carried out with concentration, clarity and equanimity, to an archer loosing an arrow and “penetrating” these incoming sensations, like a hunter would shoot birds flying overhead.  This concept of active, intentional attention to arising stimuli, and the effects of attending with concentration, clarity and equanimity, penetration, is one of the key elements leading to this paper.

Key Element Two: Speed of Scanning

The second key element is Daniel Ingram’s repeated insistence, based on his own experience as well as classical Buddhist teachings, that to really be successful at vipassana meditation – success meaning the attainment of deep insights that lead to classical Buddhist enlightenment – you must develop your skill in observing sensation so that you can clearly perceive and discriminate several, as many as a dozen or so, sensations per second of experience.

Ingram uses a parallel with the old computer game of Missile Command, a 1980 Atari arcade game (later available for home PCs), which many of us may have played.  A typical screen version is shown below.  Enemy ICBMs come down from the sky, targeted at the cities and your missile base, which you must defend from destruction.  As the game goes on, more missiles come in faster from various angles: you have to be really alert and concentrated to rapidly fire defensive missiles which will explode just in front of incoming ICBMs if you are fast and accurate enough in your responses.  It can certainly involve several perceptions and decisions per second.

Key Element Three: Context, Expectation, Bias

The third key element, a factor which has been a repeated concern throughout my career as a psychologist, is the degree to which various implicits, context, attitudes, personal history, and cultural conditioning, e.g., affect our perception, thought, feeling and action.  At a professional level, this has manifested as some explicit experimentation with detecting important levels of bias in experimenters who believed they were being objective in conducting an experiment (Troffer, S & Tart, C. 1964, Experimenter bias in hypnotist performance, Science, 145, 1330-1331) and frequent writing about this problem of experimenter bias in many professional articles and books in order to alert colleagues to the problem.  I will just briefly mention that this kind of issue is probably just as important in teaching meditation skills.

As a classical illustration of the bias problem in psychological research, a problem existing long before I became professionally involved in hypnosis research., there had been years of debate over just how powerful hypnosis was.  Could a hypnotist make a hypnotized subject do things he or she would normally consider immoral or illegal, and so would not ordinarily do?  Prominent authorities took both sides of the issue and cited experimental outcomes to prove their position.  Some studies showed, e.g., that hypnotized subjects could carry out all sorts of dangerous, immoral and harmful acts on command, such as picking up a gun and shooting another person or reaching out to pick up a live rattlesnake.  Other studies, cited by those of the opposite position, showed that when hypnotized subjects were given such commands they either just ignored them or awoke, often disturbed, from the hypnotic state.

Psychiatrist Martin Orne (Orne, M., 1962, On the social psychology of the psychological experiment: with particular reference to demand characteristics and their implications, American Psychologist, 17, 776-783) analyzed these studies and positions and introduced the term demand characteristics to explain the varying results.  Subjects may be hypnotized, but they are still alert, intelligent, members of their society, and problem-solving beings.  Thus a subject is usually sensitive to the overall context of the experiment. This could be expressed as a train of thought of the sort: “There is the obvious, overt purpose of this experiment, to determine whether I will shoot this person or reach for the snake.  But this is an experiment in a university setting, universities are devoted to research to lead to truth, it’s important that experiments give us the truth, so what is the right outcome here?  How can I be a ‘good’ subject and help the experiment come out the right way?”

Detecting cues from the experimenter as to whether compliance or non-compliance with the suggestions is desired is well within most people’s social skills.  Thus experimenters who thought it important to prove how powerful hypnosis was, transcending ordinary social limits, could somehow have communicated this belief to their subjects (subtle intonations of suggestions, body language, etc.) and got the desire results.  If a subject detected cues showing that basic morality was more powerful than hypnosis, though, then they would help the experiment give the “true” answer by refusing to do anything dangerous or antisocial…. And, after all, most subjects could reason, “Professors do not have convenient ways to dispose of bodies, so this looks like a real gun but it’s probably not, it’s just play acting at some level, so shoot!”  (It was loaded with blanks) “The snake is real, but there must be some hidden safeguard.” (A sheet of invisible glass was shielding the snake)

As a tangential (and sad) note, I should point out that concepts like demand characteristics and experimenter bias are threatening to most scientists, especially social scientists, who are ego-involved in beliefs about their objectivity and superiority to people in general because they are scientists, so these kinds of problems are still very much with us as almost all researchers refuse to recognize them….Who wants to think that most of the “facts” you think you and your colleagues have discovered might be just social games, and you’ve been fooling yourself as well as others?

At a personal level, this concern with bias has been one aspect of a life-long study of my own mental functioning, one of whose goals has been to detect otherwise implicit bias in the way I am thinking and perceiving.  At the professional, scientific level, this meant I tried to remember in planning any experiment that I was probably biased to get a certain result, as well as wanting to get a better, more truthful understanding.  If I admit to potential biases, can I figure them out and then do something to control for them?  As one example at a more personal level, I had a shocking insight during a psychological exploration of my conditioning some years ago that my concept of “God” was all twisted up with my deep-seated childhood feelings about and perceptions of my mother.  Particularly, as my mother was quite a perfectionist, never really satisfied with anything, God must be a perfectionist too, so anything I did, no matter how I tried, would not be good enough for God!  Discouraging, to say the least!  This was an insight that was very freeing as I realized I could ease up on my self-doubts and negative feelings about spirituality….

Aspects of Attitude in Vipassana Practice

Turning to vipassana practice now, the following speculations derive from the key elements above and my personal experience and intellectual/experiential knowledge of various forms of vipassana practice.  They probably apply at least occasionally to some other practitioners.  To those who are Buddhist scholars or much more advanced in actual practice and attainment in vipassana, I readily admit that they may be partial or incorrect, so the degree to which they can be generalized needs to be assessed for particular individuals.  Even if true in only some cases, though, they can affect the outcome (or lack of desired outcome) of vipassana practice, and so need to be recognized and dealt with.  And, of course, Buddhist scholarship and attachment to belief may itself have biases that prevent Buddhist scholars and practitioners from seeing some of their own biases….

To put it more positively, I think knowledge about our mental functioning helps us clarify and improve that functioning, so hopefully this may give some readers cues to understand aspects of their mind better.

The Process of Vipassana, “Insight Meditation”

The process of vipassana meditation, given my understanding of it, largely learned from Shinzen Young’s teaching, but influenced by other teachers also, is shown in simplified form in Figure 1.   A meditator usually sits still in a quiet place, relaxed, in some comfortable but upright position, usually with eyes closed.  I see this as basically “parking” one’s body in a comfortable but alert position, in a situation where there is little or no distraction from the environment.  She then chooses some aspect of experience to pay a special kind of attention to.  This kind of process is what I elsewhere call a Consciously-Controlled Attention Practice, a C-CAP, a term I am proposing to replace terms like “meditation” because “meditation” is used in so many inconsistent and contradictory ways in general writing.  For this paper, though, I will generally use the term “vipassana meditation” or simply “meditation” as here defined.

In more advanced vipassana, the focus of attention can be the entire range of sensations that arise, including those of both external and internal origin.  Thoughts (talking to oneself), feelings and internal imagery can also treated as sensations, so I’ll generally use “sensations” to refer to all these aspects of experience.  While initially learning vipassana and in various practice periods after, there is usually a restriction of range of sensation – the most prominent bodily sensation of the moment, or the breath, or internal visual imagery, e.g. – to make learning easier by restricting focus, and so making it clearer whether one is directing attention as desired or not.

Figure 1.  The arising and flow of sensation in vipassana meditation

In ordinary, non-meditative consciousness, attention is highly variable and selective, usually being automatically attracted to or deliberately directed toward pleasant sensations and away from unpleasant sensations, or involved  in mental or behavioral actions designed to increase pleasant sensations and make them last and/or to eliminate unpleasant sensations or shorten their duration.  Both external sensory sensations and internal bodily sensations also frequently trigger long reactive periods of continuous thinking and feeling, “thinking” herein defined to mean forms of internal imagery (usually visual) and internal talking to oneself (with subtle or overt auditory imagery), and “feeling” here meaning emotional components and reactions to such thinking.  Sensitivity and receptivity to external sensations or other internal sensations that do not fit in well with the ongoing themes of thought trains and fantasies is reduced in ordinary consciousness.  A primary cause of ordinary suffering is a person being so distracted by such internal processes that they don’t properly perceive information  about changes in their world or their own internal processes which require appropriate action.

By contrast to ordinary consciousness, in vipassana meditation as defined in this essay, a specified range of sensations is typically chosen as the object for a given session, such as the most prominent body sensation of the moment, as mentioned above.  There is the intention to control attention so it stays within this range.

Figure 1 above, and Figure 2 later, will expand our mapping of several aspects of a person meditating.  Various arising sensations are falling on the meditator’s sensorium and becoming prominent in her or his consciousness.  In the figure I have drawn the meditator’s mouth as smiling on one side, downcast on the other, to suggest the variety of reactions that might occur in ordinary consciousness.  The C-CAP, the Consciously-Controlled Attention Practice aspect of vipassana, is that of continually applying a set of intentions to the arising sensations, rather than just letting sensations and reactions be controlled by circumstances or habitual patterns of striving.

Intentionality in Vipassana:

The first intention is concentration, keeping attention focused in the desired range and, when the meditator realizes that attention has drifted outside the range, gently bringing it back.  If you find you’re mulling over tomorrow’s grocery shopping list, e.g., you remember to (gently) let it go and come back to noticing what is the most prominent body sensation of the moment.

The second intention is seeking clarity, what exactly does a sensation within the specified range feel like at the moment?  My most prominent body sensation at this moment, e.g., is strong pressure on the back of my head, and, to do this form of vipassana for a moment, I intend to open my mind to it, to sense it as clearly as I can.  If I drift off into verbal analysis, e.g., “I am feeling this strong pressure because I just crossed my hands behind my head while taking a break to think,” that is not clearly feeling the actual sensation, I’ve let most of my awareness drift into verbal thinking, thinking about an initial sensation rather than staying with it, so I gently return my attention to the actual sensation.  Since my intention was to focus on sensations, thinking about sensations is a distraction (although in more advanced practice the process of thinking can be taken as a meditative focus).

The third intention is equanimity.  Can I continue to pay concentrated, clear attention to the most prominent body sensation of the moment, whether I like it or not?  If the most prominent sensation of the moment is, e.g., a headache pain, I try to sense exactly what that feels like at the moment.  A part of my mind may complain that I don’t like headaches, I wish something else were happening, I want to change it, etc., but my intention in this C-CAP of vipassana is to clearly sense that sensation, since it’s the most prominent at the moment, and not get distracted by my desires or aversions concerning it.

Another important aspect of equanimity is being content with my experience of the prominent sensation of the moment and with its natural changes.  If it gets stronger, fine.  If it gets weaker, fine.  If it changes into something else, fine.  If it doesn’t change, even though I’m getting restless, fine.  As noted above, this is very different from our ordinary, largely automatic attentive strategy of constantly manipulating our attention and behavior to increase pleasant sensations and decrease unpleasant ones.

How Many Sensations per Second?

Now we come to the temporal and consequent phenomenological differences between my understanding of vipassana as I learned it from Shinzen, contrasted with Ingram’s admonition to detect a dozen or so sensations per second.

The right hand side of Figure 2 sketches what I normally do in vipassana, as I learned it from Shinzen.  In my practice in general, I have a variety of focal ranges as to what to attend to, but for simplicity let’s assume it’s just the strongest body sensation of the moment, represented in the figure by the half dozen little icons at the top which arise in my sensorium one after another.  There is no particular symbolic meaning intended for these half dozen here, they are only different to represent that they are segments of a continuous stream of sensations that arise over time.

A sensation arises, let’s say one represented by the little star.  My intention is to perceive it with concentration, clarity and equanimity.  I represent this intention as shining a flashlight on the sensation, a gentle form of concentration designed to increase the sensation’s clarity.  This would correspond to the traditional vipassana admonition to “note” sensations,  although it does not imply the additional step in some vipassana procedures  of verbally “labeling” them.  I do verbal labeling sometimes when I’m having trouble concentrating, but let’s stick with simple noting here, with gently shining the light of increased attention on arising sensations.

I have always interpreted Shinzen’s admonition to “note” sensations for a few moments as “grokking” them, in what I believe is a main aspect of the sense Robert Heinlein meant in coining the word grok in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, as letting a sensation soak into you, as being open to both its obvious and more subtle characteristics, taking it in with openness and equanimity.  A good analogy would be a friend giving you some special food they have cooked, with your friend’s cooking known for its subtle and delicious flavor.  You would not gulp it right down, but sniff it a bit, chew it slowly, open to its various flavors.  Hmmm, vanilla with just a hint of bitterness, changing to an esthetically neutral but tingly feeling….  So I generally stay with a sensation for a few seconds, perhaps roughly the time of one breath, taking it in.  Then if it stays, I continue grokking it, otherwise I turn my attention to whatever the next sensation is, or to any change in the quality of this sensation if it persists.

Reflecting on this, as well as trying to observe my own mental processes more closely, several factors are apparent as affecting this process.  One is a pervasive attitude on my part, usually implicit, sometimes explicit, that life is interesting and basically good, so I am gently welcoming each new sensation, trying to get to know it.  (I mention this attitude as it may contrast with the apparent primary appeal of Buddhist meditation to some people as a way to escape pervasive suffering.)  Since I also have the attitude/belief that the kind of examination of experience represented by the C-CAP of vipassana can lead to greater self-knowledge, and greater self-knowledge is important, I also try to be equanimous, to stay with grokking a sensation clearly even if I find it unpleasant or painful. This can be difficult, of course, the habits of my ordinary mind want to make an unpleasant sensation go away as quickly as possible, or dull my perception of it by wandering off into thoughts, but I’m moderately skilled at staying with sensations now, groking them.

But I believe, both from thinking about it and from observing my use of subtle intention during vipassana practice, that I am also implicitly slowing sensation down some, implicitly wanting each major sensation to last a few seconds so I can fully and properly grok it  I will recognize, note sensations that come in and change faster, but I really prefer slowness, so I often subtly “push” or “pull” on sensations, to extend them, so they have time, as I’ve shown analogically on Figure 2, time to stop for a bit and have a “cup of tea” and a “bit of conversation” with me if they “want” to.

When I first wrote the above description, I hadn’t had a chance to talk about this subtle temporal extension intention observation with Shinzen, so didn’t know if this was what he intended back when I was first taught vipassana by him.  In a recent conversation, though, as he remembers his teaching years ago (he experiments with new forms of teaching all the time), he wasn’t expecting people to slow down sensation in order to grok this way, he basically did not specify anything here as he strongly believes in letting students find what works for them.  This conversation was a good reminder of the point I made at the beginning of this essay that what I “learned” from Shinzen may not be the same as what he “taught.”

Intention and Practice, Groking versus Shooting Down:

Now a quick discussion of the left side of Figure 2, to illustrate the potential importance of context and intention.  The following is not what Shinzen meant when he described U Ba Khin as talking about attention penetrating perceptions like a hunter’s arrow penetrating game, but is a theoretical (and sometimes practical) point I want to make.

I don’t know how many actual meditators do this, but suppose you have a very pessimistic, ostensibly Buddhist (I avoid discussion of how much this really represents Buddhism for this paper) view that life is indeed inherently unsatisfactory.  You’re born, you suffer, you can’t help but suffer, if you don’t manage to get enlightened you suffer until you die, you suffer in the dying, you get reincarnated and suffer again and again and again…  Insofar as each moment of experience leads to suffering, then the arrow of intention is not simply for open grokking, there’s an implicit, if not an explicit intention to “kill” the power of sensations to make you suffer by penetrating each one with your arrow of attention/intention before it can cause you to suffer.  Such penetration takes away the power of the rising sensation to grab your attention in involuntary ways.  Thus I show the arrow of intention shooting incoming sensation, represented as a little man in this instance, shooting down, penetrating and “killing” sensations as they come in.  There’s a belief (which usually seems true in my experience) that if you consciously grab a sensation as soon as it arises, it has much less power over your mind.

It is known psychologically that some people (or perhaps all of us at one time or another) try to lessen their suffering by dulling their perceptions, usually by habitually directing their attention away from unpleasant sensations.  Is this “penetration” also a powerful way of doing it?  I know from personal experience experimenting with this kind of defensive penetration that it can work to some extent.  How well?  Can the “life is suffering” theme in much of Buddhism often bias this C-CAP of vipassana so it becomes a way of “shooting down” sensation rather than groking it?  So that this form of vipassana becomes one of the many methods of the spiritual bypass process discussed in transpersonal psychology, using an ostensible spiritual practice to avoid dealing with ordinary psychological problems?

A Bias Toward “Insight”

As I understand a (the?) major purpose of vipassana from both Shinzen, Ingram and others, it is to see the fullest (experiential) “reality” of each arising experience.  This reality in Buddhism classically includes the fact that (a) a sensation arises, it didn’t exist before that moment of arising; (b) a sensation lasts a while but often changes within that lasting; (c) a sensation ceases or morphs into something else and is gone; (d) sensations are just sensations, there is no inherent “self” in them; and (e) there is an inherent “unsatisfactoriness” about any and all sensations.  Factors (a), (b) and (c) above are traditionally described together as impermanence, anicca, (d) as annata, no inherent self, and (e) as dukkha, unsatisfactoriness.  Deep understanding/realization of these factors is required to lead to Buddhist enlightenment.  Our clinging to positive experiences, our aversion to negative experiences, all of which are inherently unsatisfactory and which are organized around a persisting delusion of a permanent and real “self” are what leads to our present unenlightened, suffering, deluded condition of living in illusion, in samsara.

(The above paragraph is my current intellectual understanding of the basics of Buddhism, but I do not feel I have a deep realization of the truth of these ideas.)

“Insight” and the TWWO

As a Westerner and as a psychologist, the term “insight” has a powerful and culturally determined meaning for me.  I’ll call this “psychological insight” in this essay.  Rather than deeply seeing the nature of a tiny moment of reality, a passing sensation, I usually think of psychological insight as dealing with my and others’ psychological structure and functioning.  To “have an insight” means something like suddenly understanding why I have repeatedly done some stupid action or suffered from some illogical feeling:  “Ah, I see, it’s because of such-and-such an event in my past, which I now remember and, hopefully, because I remember it clearly, it will no longer have such an automatic effect on me.”  The personal example of a psychological insight I gave earlier, e.g., of suddenly realizing my mother’s perfectionist judgments were overlaid on my thinking about the nature of God, freed me from all sorts of both amorphous and concrete feelings that I wasn’t good enough in the way I was living my life or pursuing spiritual goals, giving me some free energy to use more constructively.

This understanding of psychological insight, increasing self-knowledge,  as a desirable experience is probably a factor in my semi-automatic intention to “slow down” the passing stream of experience when I do vipassana.  It involves  a feeling that there is a different temporal scale for psychological insights, that they occur, say, more on the temporal scale of a second, or several seconds, rather than on a rapid-fire scale of several per second.  So I need to slow experience down, stretch it out, to grok it, to hopefully increase the chance I will get psychological insights from experience  (although such classical psychological insights are relatively rare in my personal meditation practice).

Now if I were a really thoroughly believing Buddhist, if I accepted Buddhist ideas and practices as leading to the only real spiritual growth, to enlightenment, I would see my attachment to psychological insights as largely a waste of time and a diversion from what really matters.  Indeed, Ingram believes that such caring about psychological insights among Western teachers and students of Buddhism has the effect that they don’t really practice meditation correctly and so seldom reach classical enlightenment.  So from this perspective, I should be learning to speed up my observations to fleeting sensations/experiences, narrowing the Temporal Width of the Window of Observation (TWWO), instead of widening it to have psychological insights.

But I don’t think of myself or represent myself as a “Buddhist,” in the sense of devoutness or accepting all of Buddhism as necessarily or ultimately true.  I represent myself, in what I believe is an honest and scientifically sensible way, as a student of Buddhism, as well as a student of many spiritual traditions, as a scientist, committed to testing ideas not simply believing them, and as a transpersonal psychologist, a psychologist dedicated to helping to refine the world’s spiritual traditions.  I take as my working hypotheses that there are many important truths and practices within the fabric and tradition of various forms of Buddhism, but I don’t know that Buddhism is the “highest” form of spiritual knowledge, or even whether it’s the most suitable form and practice vehicle for me, or anyone in particular, in any ultimate sense.  Buddhism’s psychological emphasis, it’s meditative practices, it’s emphases on developing wisdom and compassion – all have deep appeal to me.  But I also believe, perhaps from my conditioning as a Westerner, perhaps realistically, that progress is possible in understanding and practicing the spiritual, as well as all areas of life.  So Buddhism is inspiring and interesting and useful – but I’m not a “Buddhist” in a typical sense.  I’m a human being, which involves many roles – citizen, parent, scientist, hiker, tinkerer, etc. – as well as student of Buddhism.

So am I doing vipassana “wrongly?”  Am I doing it correctly, but at a beginning level and someday I might be able to speed up my observations enough to deeply realize annica, annata and dukkha, and get enlightened?  Am I correctly reframing the C-CAP of vipassana as a tool that can be used in more ways than it’s classically used by varying the time interval of observation, the TWWO, and the implicit and explicit intentions behind its use?

Temporal Width of the Window of Observation (TWWO)

Reasoning more generally about learning more about anything, the time-scale of observations must be relevant to the phenomena being observed.  If I were teaching a course in writing, e.g., I could be looking primarily at students’ sentences, or paragraphs, or whole stories, seldom at the individual words they produced, as the meaning resides primarily in these temporally longer units.  Similarly for a movie or play: the quality of the whole gestalt of the movie or play would be most relevant.

Narrowing the TWWO to take in a half dozen or more events per second would destroy any real grasp of a sentence, a story or a movie or play.

Narrowing the TWWO is like reductionism in science, you try to understand things by breaking them down into finer and finer parts as it continues to be useful.  Disciplined reductionism has been very successful in many ways.  Indeed Shinzen Young sometimes describes vipassana as reductionism applied to the inside world, of experience, leading to enlightenment, rather than applied only to the outside world, leading to advances in material science, as has been done in the West.

Systems Approaches to Understanding

Reductionism (when not fanatically adhered to) is a valuable way of increasing understanding.  However we also understand that many things in the world, including us, are systems, interacting, interconnected processes that produce new, emergent properties by virtue of their interactions.  These emergent properties can be analyzed to find component processes, subsystems, and that’s usually useful in one way,  but its fundamental in systems theory that in many cases the properties of any higher level system cannot be rationally predicted by knowledge of the parts, the subsystems.

Suppose you took a very intelligent person from some “primitive” culture that was totally isolated, that had had no contact with the modern world, and, blindfolded, transported one of their smartest (by their cultural standards) members into a windowless warehouse.  You had earlier taken an automobile and completely disassembled it and spread the parts around the floor at random.  You take the blindfold off the eyes of our primitive genius: what are the chances that she or he will ever come to the conclusion that, with the right assembly, these parts can interact to form a machine that can speed her all over the country?  We can’t really appreciate this example, as we are all familiar with automobiles,  but I doubt very much that our “primitive,” no matter how inherently intelligent, will ever divine the nature of the system that can be assembled from the multitudinous subsystems and sub-subsystems scattered about the floor.

Now automobiles, as we know too well, can cause suffering by running into people and maiming or killing them, and we could certainly prevent all that harm by dismantling all automobiles.  The parallel I’m drawing here is that our ordinary consciousness, our personality, our “ego,” is a systems emergent from the complex and habitual interactions of a multitude of subsystems.  If you see your “ego” as a source of suffering, as it sometimes certainly is, then by “dismantling” it, it can no longer make you suffer.  From this perspective, the very fast perception of a dozen or so aspects of experience per second, as per Ingram and classical Buddhist practice, probably disrupts the habitual, automatized assembly of sub-subsystems and subsystems into the system of ego.  From my systems understanding of altered states of consciousness (see as a primary source, Tart, C. T., 1975, States of Consciousness, New York, E. P. Dutton, POD edition from www.iUniverse.com, 2001), with this noting 10 times or so per second, you will also have destabilized your ordinary state of consciousness, inhibiting the fast, automatized assembly of lower level components into higher level ones, making it easy for an altered state, a discretely different interaction arrangement of subsystems, to occur.  The induction of any altered states results from two, interrelated processes, (1) the destabilization of the starting, baseline state, usually “ordinary” consciousness, and (2) the application of patterning forces, psychological factors which guide the systems emergence of a new, qualitatively different state, an altered state.  (See the above book for more detail and/or my more recent (2008) “Accessing state-specific transpersonal knowledge: Inducing altered states” in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 40, No. 2, 137-154.)

This induction of an altered state will also be facilitated by the explicit and implicit expectations of what vipassana will lead to, viz. one’s understanding of the Buddhist concept of enlightenment.  I would also predict from the perspective of my systems approach to understanding altered states of consciousness that this same procedure, rapid noting, if taught and practiced in a different expectational (explicit and implicit) context might lead to other altered states than classical enlightenment.



  1. Here Vipassana is tought in the Goenka tradition, in ten days retreats with very strict rules(silence,two meals a day,etc.), rather difficult for people with laboral and familiar duties.
    Is the same way in your experience?
    Greetings from Argentina. I follow your blog with deep interest and respect.

    1. There are many ways to teach vipassana, and the question as it comes into modern Western society is what is essential to make it work and what is cultural accretion which may be useful in the original culture, but is an obstacle in a new culture. E.g., many vipassana teachers for many years would not allow coffee at retreat, only tea. Well caffeine is caffeine, and if you’re going to use it to stay awake, why not have it in the form that’s most effective for you? Of course we have to guess at what is essential and what is cultural and outmoded. Take posture, e.g. In my experience, what is essential if you’re going to focus on observing your mind is that your body should be comfortable enough to not distract you too much with pain – although learning to take pain as the object of vipasana is a useful skill – but not so comfortable that it’s easy to fall asleep. I used to sit using a seiza bench, a traditional Japanese alternative, but I can’t say that my meditation were any better than when I sat in a chair. As long as the chair wasn’t so comfortable I fell asleep too readily. And as to sitting full lotus….well all those early monks and nuns were wanderers, it wasn’t practical to carry a chair around on your back all day, and all the common folk were used to sitting on the ground anyway. Today we have no lack of chairs…

      1. I agree with your point of view. Many people misses the benefits of meditation because of rigid teachers. I remember the (for me) valuable work of authors like Lawrence LeShan,Charlotte Seever and others. We live in a culture that uses chairs and drinks coffee.

  2. Sir, i have done many vipassana meditation course,In case of anicha & annata,If i follow the rule by dropping the game of sensation then life seems to be sad.My mind wants to do something for living life, when i start to observe sensation as a witness, then what benefits would be ? please reply.

    1. Any meditation technique is a tool, a method, a way of shifting perspective, but you need your own basic motivation as to where you want to go. If you’re interested in building a house, e.g., it’s useless for someone to give you a set of tools. And various meditations may be useful tools for some things, useless for others. Think about what you deeply want…..Good luck!

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