This is a modification and addition of draft version of a chapter to appear in Kaklauskas, Clements, Hocoy, & Hoffman (Eds.), Shadows & Light: Theory, Research, and Practice in Transpersonal Psychology, to be published in 2016 or 2017 by University Professors Press
The Importance of Curiosity:
In Transpersonal Psychology, in Spiritual Development
Charles T. Tart
While participating in a meditation intensive practice led by Jeff Warren recently, he introduced the session with a word that I have seldom heard used or given very given much importance by many, perhaps all meditation teachers I have received instruction from. The word is curiosity. I have been thinking about curiosity for years, as one of the main reasons I have been interested in meditative and similar practices: curiosity about my mind, about other people’s minds, about how minds work, about how they can work better, etc. Of course that is just one motivation among many: I certainly would like to reduce my suffering and reach “enlightenment” (whatever that is). Hearing Jeff Warren use the word curiosity, though, stimulated me to write about curiosity, Buddhism, and modern psychology. I thought more deeply about my own curiosity and became curious about what brought me into transpersonal psychology and related fields. This something that I haven’t shared often, and it is nice to share it here. This will be in the style of personal storytelling, rather than didactic, academic lecturing, as I think it will more effectively communicate some points that way.
Becoming A Transpersonal Psychologist
To my conscious knowledge, there were two major forces in my becoming a transpersonal psychologist. The earliest was my childhood religion, Lutheranism. My parents weren’t religious but my maternal grandmother, Nana, who lived in the apartment downstairs from us, was very much so. Grandmothers, as many of you may personally know, are sources of unconditional love. She took me to church and Sunday school. We had a special bond, and I naturally felt that what was good enough for her in religion was good enough for me! –As a child and early teenager, then, I was quite devout and followed the practices and explored the beliefs of being a Lutheran and a Christian.
The second major force was science. As early as I can remember, I loved everything connected with science. As a teenager I read about science all the time, including a lot of “adult” books. In my basement I created chemical and electrical laboratories, became a ham radio operator, built my own equipment, and planned to be a scientist or engineer.
The teenage years are a time of starting to question what you’ve been taught and to think for yourself. I became aware, as most idealistic teens do, of the apparent hypocrisy of adults. Some of those church people were not living what they preached! Worse yet, I knew enough science by then to realize that most, if not all, religious ideas and beliefs were quite nonsensical from the point of view of science–just old superstitions. How could I reconcile this with the deep religious feelings that had begun in my childhood?
From an adult perspective, I know many teenagers go through similar conflicts between science and religion. A common “resolution” is to go to one extreme or the other: religion is all nonsense and materialistic science is right, or religion is the ultimate truth and science can be ignored when it’s inconvenient. I put “resolution” in quotes, for as a psychologist, I see this extremism as usually an incomplete and often psychologically costly way of dealing with the conflict, too much suppression of parts of our nature are involved.
Luckily the Trenton City Library was my second home, and it had many books on spirituality, religion, psychical research and parapsychology. My curiosity found a thousand ways to be stimulated, and sometimes fulfilled. I discovered in reading that many intelligent people had gone through conflicts similar to mine, and the founders of the Society for Psychical Research had come up with a brilliant idea. Instead of a wholesale rejection of all religion and spirituality and adoption of materialism in whatever form was then scientifically fashionable, why not apply the methods of science, the insistence on accurate data collection, logical theorizing, testing of theories, and the collegiality of full and honest sharing of data and theory, to the phenomena of religion and spirituality? Why not examine and refine the data and devise more adequate theories? I was inspired by this idea, and it has been the central theme of my professional work and personal life ever since. Look at the data of spirituality*, see how to observe it more accurately, create and test theories about it, share these with colleagues, and slowly work our way toward a spirituality based on as many observable/experiencable facts as possible.
* I switch now to talking about spirituality rather than religion, using “spirituality” to refer to the primary kinds of transpersonal experiences individuals have that, when turned into theories, beliefs, dogmas, become” religions.” Religions are more the province of social psychologists.
Of course there are deeper reasons, but let’s not stray too far from my (relatively) conscious mind… 😉
Psychic Experiences: A Reality Underlying Spirituality?
My more active probing of possible realities underlying spirituality began when I was a sophomore at MIT, studying electrical engineering, I conducted my first parapsychological experiment, using hypnotic suggestion as a (hoped for) way of producing out-of-body experiences (OBEs), so my subjects’ “minds” or “souls” might leave their bodies temporarily and see and accurately describe a target locked in the basement of a distant house. Looking back, the experimental design wasn’t bad for a teenager, although I didn’t have an objective way of evaluating the data I hoped to get, a qualitative description of an unusual target (nor did the field of parapsychology as a whole at that time). I didn’t formally write the results up until many years later (Tart, 1998), by which time I had carried out five others studies of OBEs.
While at MIT I met other students interested in parapsychology and we formed a student club to talk about it and ask speakers to lecture us. One of those speakers was Dr. Andrija Puharich,
whom Eileen Garrett (one of the world’s most famous spiritualist mediums and head of the Parapsychology Foundation) had told me about. Puharich was a physician researcher who not only claimed to have a way of making quantitatively measurable (hits above chance in a matching test) telepathy work better or to block it, he was doing it with electrical devices, Faraday Cages. Invented by renowned British physicist Michael Faraday, such a cage is an all metal enclosure that keeps electromagnetic waves from penetrating to its inside. What could rouse the curiosity of students of electrical engineering and physics than this? Some of us visited Puharich’s laboratory in Maine and thought his work seemed basically sound. He gave a lecture on his findings at MIT for our club, and I was intrigued enough – and needed the money! – to ask him for a summer job. So I saw some of his research up close for three months in 1957.
I was young and, of course, rather naïve, so didn’t fully realize that, in spite of being rejected by mainstream science, the few parapsychologists around did not all band together in a friendly way to present a united front to irrational criticisms. There was a parapsychological “establishment,” centered in Professor J. B. Rhine’s laboratory at Duke, and Puharich was definitely not part of that establishment; he was a “bad boy.” I had already met Rhine when he came to lecture in Boston several times and had corresponded with him. I wanted to switch from electrical engineering to psychology, to prepare for a career in parapsychology. MIT had no psychology programs at that time, but Rhine helped me transfer to Duke as a psychology major, and had indicated he would find a part-time job for me in his laboratory. However once he discovered that I had spent the summer working for Puharich, and would not admit I was foolish to have done so, he decided I did not have sufficient discrimination to make a scientific parapsychologist, and the promised job disappeared. I was, a friend told me, put on the list of people to be discouraged from visiting Rhine’s lab. I was a “bad boy” now myself, in a minor way. And discovering that curiosity might have lip service paid to it by an otherwise pioneering scientist, J. B. Rhine, but there were strong social and psychological forces channeling it into approved directions, away from non-approved directions.
Still an idealistic young man, I was naturally miffed over this treatment, although, as I matured, I realized I would probably have acted the same way as Rhine in a similar situation. If I had devoted my life to making a case for my field, based on very careful, methodologically sophisticated research, I would discourage wild young people from getting involved and undermining my work with questionable work of their own!
On the other hand, J. B. Rhine had given a talk to the entering freshmen women and invited any of them who were interested in parapsychology to visit his lab. So there I was reading books in the Parapsychology Laboratory’s library (I did not accept Rhine’s ban) when this beautiful young woman came in and asked me, “Do you believe in ESP?” More than 50 years of marriage later, Judy tells me I still use the same response I did with her way back then: “It’s not a matter of belief, it’s a matter of evidence…” said with a subtle, but certain air of snootiness… So Rhine was the proximate cause of far more happiness than unhappiness for me, and he did decide after another 20 years or so that I had enough discrimination to make a good parapsychologist….and the next 50 years were quite interesting….
Curiosity about the female mind was, of course, a big factor in dating and getting married – and I’m still trying to figure out the female mind… Wonderful, puzzling, delightful, frustrating… 😉
And just to put a cap on these beginning threads of my career pursuing my curiosity, Puharich became even more of a “bad boy” to the parapsychological establishment by getting involved with things like UFO studies, while I became a part of that tiny parapsychological establishment. Puharich eventually got too far out for me with this (“What? I have some rigid, conservative beliefs? Me?”), but it’s a shame that his basic finding, that Faraday cages may amplify or shield psi have been ignored, as they may be a key to a major advance in getting reliable psi in our laboratory work. As far as I know, I’m the only one who did even a partial replication study of his work, with supportive results. Two former students of mine are now starting to continue this work with Faraday cages.
As I have gotten older I would like to think that I have stayed curious about the many questions that are very difficult to answer, to re-question any answers I think I may have found, and to question the answers others promote with certainty. Despite my curiosity and uncertainty about most things, and my immediate knowledge of how little I actually know, others often see me as an expert, though, and I often receive inquiries from others looking for answers about parapsychological and spiritual matters.
Can I illustrate using words to stimulate curiosity and possibly help understanding without getting too caught in them?
Defining the Non-Material
As an example, recently a colleague emailed me that he was on a Quixotic quest for a definition of the non-material. He elaborated that it seems like defining or describing consciousness itself is Quixotic in that everyone seems to recognize it when they see it (I assume you, dear Reader, have consciousness yourself and can recognize that simply by turning your attention inward for a moment), but have no clue what it specifically is. I think some folks would find my response interesting. Words can stimulate and really help curiosity, and can also derail us and drive us kind of crazy…
The Email on Defining Non-Material:
Dear Colleague, yes, that makes consciousness just like pornography, like the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart who said he couldn’t really define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. So for some fun off the top of my head, without going to any authorities like the Oxford English Dictionary, I did an exploration myself about how I may go about defining such ideas at this point in my life.
I like to look at what is implicit or assumed in questions and ideas, so let’s start with the assumption that we ought to be able to “define” the “non-material.”
At one extreme we can get into a rigid kind of arrogance, we humans are the smartest things in the universe and we can define everything! We can make everything make sense in terms of our human conceptual systems — with the usually unvoiced corollary, that if we can’t satisfactorily define it, it doesn’t exist and/or isn’t important, so let’s ignore or suppress it. I’m all for giving things a good try – but also think it’s a good idea to practice a little humility and remember that we may not be smart enough to figure everything out. And/or maybe we’re just temporarily stuck and a new approach will arise later, or a new tool be developed to work on the problem. But I won’t be surprised if we run into some things we never make any progress in explaining properly.
At the opposite extreme, I have no interest in the ideas of those who claim a-priori that we cannot know about X and should not try. That’s an uninteresting recipe for failure. As Henry Ford is reputed to have said, “Those who think they can and those who think they can’t are both right…”
So we may not be smart enough to ever “define” the “immaterial,” or maybe just not smart enough to do it now, but I’m pretty sure there’s something there of interest and importance.
Now on to “define.” To me that means come up with a verbal (or special language, like math) formulation about a phenomenon, X, that makes “sense,” that makes it fit “logically” into the rest of our valued knowledge base. As with the implicit aspects above, there’s an implicit assumption that we ought to be able to do this and that our current knowledge base is correct enough and expandable enough to handle X. To which I have the same maybe as above.
I get a lot of headaches and I’m also good at using language fairly precisely, but if you ask me to exactly define “what” or “where” my headaches are…well, damn it! They move around, some qualities change, and have lots of qualities I just can’t find satisfactory words for! Yet I know it when I have a headache, it’s certainly real – and it’s not like pornography!
So if I say something is “non-material,” without making any absolute or final statement, I’ll make a pragmatic one, given what we/I know currently or reasonable extensions of that knowledge. It is important to remember that such a statement is subject to change if the right new data comes along.
Let me try to illustrate with respect to psi, the general term now applied in parapsychological research for acquiring information about or affecting observable processes when there is no reasonable explanation in terms of what we know about the physical world. If I ask you to tell me the order of a deck of thoroughly shuffled, ordinary playing cards on a table in a locked room next door, e.g., you ordinarily have to use known physical energies like light to determine this, or if I ask you to watch, via video, a machine in that locked room throwing dice, but I want you to make more threes come up than would happen by chance, you have to apply physical energies to the dice to affect them. If you are too correct in calling the cards or affecting the dice just by wishing, determined by statistical analysis, we talk about psi. We could call your correctness with the cards the form of psi we call clairvoyance or, if someone in that locked room is looking at the cards, telepathy. If you significantly affect the outcome of the dice rolling, we call that form of psi psychokinesis (PK).
As an example, I would say that psi is “immaterial” or “non-material” compared with our current knowledge of electricity or reasonable extensions of that knowledge, it just doesn’t show the kinds of qualities electricity does. Translating that into pragmatic decisions, I would say that if someone says they want to take all of what little money currently supports psi research and put it into buying more sensitive radio receivers to detect psi, “That’s almost certainly a waste of time, you can’t have the money.” When I say psi is “immaterial” in the larger sense of the term “material,” I’m saying that what we currently know about the physical world and reasonable extensions of it does not offer any satisfactory explanations of psi. My criteria of “satisfactory” would be both that the physical theory of psi makes conceptual sense in terms of our physics database and allows someone to build a material gadget, working according to known physical principles, which would significantly amplify psi*: the old-fashioned prediction and control criteria for judging scientific theories.
* You may wonder, then, if the Faraday cage effect is real, does it mean psi is electrical in nature? Probably not, given other factors, but it may cut down ordinary noise in our physical brains which thus allows us to pay better attention to faint psi signals…
At present we have some odd and occasional correlations of psi with physical variables (e.g., local sidereal time, geomagnetic weather, a possible Faraday cage effect)* but they don’t really make “sense” of it as far as I can see. Note that I don’t buy into what philosophers long ago termed promissory materialism here either, I’m not much for untestable faith that someday they will explain psi in terms of physical principles. Maybe, but that’s faith, not science. Someday is always in the future, and you can never prove that someday it won’t happen, or that someday it won’t all be explained by invisible, tiny green angels.…
Note too that by saying psi is “non-material” by present knowledge standards, I’m not saying it does not obey any laws or that we can’t figure out how it works or what it means someday. That is I have no “supernatural” theory of a non-understandable god meddling to change things sometimes – although I’m not arrogant enough to say that I’m so smart myself that I can declare there are no beings more intelligent or powerful than me.
The pragmatic bottom line for me is that I’m not saying don’t look for physical correlates or explanations of psi – I love those attempts, I’m a nerd and fascinated by technology! – but I am saying don’t sit back and fail to investigate what the actual characteristics of psi (or other transpersonal phenomena) are because you assume “they” will explain it all someday in terms of physics.
This is exactly the same position I have about consciousness in general. Yes, the brain is heavily involved in what we ordinarily experience as our consciousness, but don’t ignore those characteristics of consciousness that don’t readily fit into a physical, neurological model; get on with investigating them on their own terms.
So “immaterial” pragmatically means real phenomena that do not follow known physical laws and which should be investigated in a variety of ways until we find some that make a new kind of sense out of them. And of course it’s more complicated than this, but enough! See how you’ve overstimulated my brain/mind first thing in the morning? 😉
With best wishes,
End of the Email on Defining Non-Material:
* After my response I did go check in with an authority, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and here is the essence of each definition rather than the whole thing: material: an adjective – Of or pertaining to matter or substance; formed or consisting of matter; corporeal, and immaterial: An adjective – not material; not consisting of matter; spiritual.
Curiosity as Blessing and Curse:
Even after writing the above email, my curiosity about and musings on defining immaterial and consciousness have not, of course, ended. My interminable supply of curiosity has been a gift for me, albeit not an unmixed blessing – it gets me in trouble sometimes – and one that can be extended to contemporary spirituality and psychology. Later in my life, for example, I increasingly developed a somewhat dedicated routine of Buddhist practices. But as someone raised as a Christian, I have a strongly conditioned idea that to be a “good” member of a religion you are supposed to believe all aspects of it. In that sense, I’m not a “good Buddhist” or a “dedicated Buddhist.” While I have great respect for this tradition, and make it one of my main sources of practical guidance in life, I don’t have a blind faith that all aspects of Buddhism are true. Many followers of Buddhism act as if that’s the case, of course, although Gautama Buddha, in his Sutta to the Kalamas*, warned people not to take any of his teachings on faith, but to thoroughly test them to see if they indeed made sense and worked for them. Using one’s curiosity, and being pragmatic about it. I also am someone who is very scientifically oriented. I realize that we humans make observations and have experiences and then we come up with intellectual explanations, theories, to explain them. It’s one of the most important aspects of being human. I’m sure that Buddhism, indeed probably all religions, started with powerful and moving transpersonal experiences, but then people invented theories, then called doctrines in religious context, to make an acceptable sense of them. As a scientist, though, I have the pragmatic, working belief that all theories are tentative, working hypotheses, never The Truth. They are the best we can do intellectually at the time with the data we have, but it’s important not to get overly attached to them because new data/experiences/understandings coming in may show that they are inadequate and need modification or replacement. This has manifested many times in the history of modern science. All that was important in some field of study was perfectly understood, everyone felt very smart and smug, and Bang! Data came in that required an overthrow of the reigning paradigm and a new one to be formed. Thomas Kuhn documented this so well in his work on the history of science.
* A translation by Gates (1989) that I like is:
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
My Curiosity and Buddhism:
So I regard the doctrines and belief system of Buddhism, indeed of all religions, as theories and practices that undoubtedly have some usefulness and truth value, yet are probably inadequate and need revision in other ways. It’s more complicated than formal science, though, as most people in a religion are really strongly attached to doctrines at an emotional as well as an intellectual level. Questioning any of the religion’s doctrines is generally not valued, indeed may be considered heresy. People who think of themselves as scientists may forget the tentativeness of their theories also, believe their science has found The Truth, and get emotionally attached to these apparent truths. What makes this transition from science as a method leading to working hypotheses to the ossification of believing we know the all the important truths is that the people to whom it happens generally don’t know it’s happened, they continue to think they are open-minded scientists. But, believing that the methods of essential science can help us clarify many things in the spiritual area, I respect doctrines, but ask questions. Hopefully my questions are always based on a desire to be clearer about what’s more or less useful and not just an emotional reaction to what I don’t like.
I tried to find an image of a Buddha who looked curious, who was wondering what else there was, but couldn’t find one. The Buddha seems to be always depicted as content, not wondering… Although with all the variations of Buddhism in the world I’m sure there are some curious Buddha images somewhere…
So, I find that a lot of Buddhist ideas and practices make sense and work for me. I can see in my own life experience that I’ve come to understand my mind better and live a somewhat kinder and wiser life. As to more metaphysical aspects, such as psychic blessings from the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, I hope that those are real, I would be glad to receive them, and will be happy to treat them with respect. I, and most of us, can use all the help we can get! But I don’t know whether Buddhist world view and formulations are ultimate truths or just good theories given the present state of our empirical knowledge. Perhaps not fully adequate theories, so I can and do ask questions, and continue being curious.
I also believe (I should say I treat as a useful working hypothesis, to follow my own advice above) is that the implicit and explicit background of the Buddhist worldview, in common with any spiritual system’s detailed worldview, may basically inhibit curiosity. I worry that some believe that Gautama Buddha figured out everything of importance, pointed out the one important goal in life – the cessation of suffering – and mapped out the best way to get to that goal by becoming enlightened in a Buddhist style. Consequently some may believe there are no other important questions, so why waste your time on anything that isn’t following the traditional Buddhist path as much as you can? There may be technical questions on using the methods most effectively, or adapting them to a particular individual’s strengths and weaknesses, but there are no basic questions.
This is the reason why I have long technically characterized Buddhism and other spiritual systems not as spiritual sciences, but as spiritual technologies*. A scientist, in principle, can be curious about anything and everything. A scientist is initially educated in certain basic principles and findings considered fundamental to her field, but may well go on to question these basic principles and find them erroneous or in need of revision. A technician, on the other hand, is trained in the application of basic principles, in applying them in an effective technical and practical manner, not in questioning these basic principles.
* Note I am not downplaying the immense value of accomplishments on various spiritual paths but, if you believe in progress, as I do, realizing that accepting any world view and spiritual goal as final, ultimate Truth, may seriously discourage you from looking for alternatives that might even be more valuable, and certainly a part of reality…
Of course a lot of people socially designated as scientists actually behave as if they were technicians, never really asking any fundamental questions, but just creating and implementing small, technical improvements within the worldview they were already given. This valuable work is essential and important to the progress of any field of science. When a field of science is dominated by a theory that has implicitly or explicitly accepted as the Truth and habitually molds thinking and action, the famous historian of science, Thomas Kuhn (Kuhn, 1962) called this normal, paradigmatic science. But this scientist/technician distinction is useful. If you’re working in a spiritual tradition that already knows all the important answers, no basic curiosity is needed. But we may want to be curious about that, especially if we are transpersonal psychologists, dedicated to expanding spiritual knowledge, not just applying it.
Similarly, I am curious about curiosity in contemporary psychology. In the late 1800s, when psychology began differentiating itself from philosophy, one of its primary methods was introspection. This was basically a method of examining inner experience, and some of the early psychologists wrote about having “trained observers” examine and report on their experience. Unfortunately, psychology failed to establish itself as a useful discipline with this approach. There was simply too much disagreement among the results from various laboratories as to what was observed in the mind and why these things were observed. Introspection became discredited as a method, and replaced by behaviorism. Behaviorism produced much more objectivity. Did a person do external, behavioral act A or not? You could get perfect agreement among observers about that. But this left out the whole interior side of human experience.
As I have written about elsewhere (Tart, 2005), with the wisdom of hindsight we can see many reasons why this introspective approach didn’t work. There was no understanding of the importance of individual differences, for example, but rather a naïve belief that each of us possessed what we might call a “standard mind,” so anyone’s observations and experiences could give basic insight into the way a standard mind worked. I assume there is some really basic core to mind at some deep level, but the semi-arbitrary qualities added on top of that through enculturation and personal experience may keep it quite hidden. There was also no understanding of the vital importance of experimenter bias, an issue still largely avoided even in modern psychology as we cling to the idea of being “objective observers.” Most importantly, when “trained observers” were talked about, this usually meant people who might have had 10 to 20 hours of training on how to report a particular aspect of experience. With our current familiarity with meditation systems from Buddhism and other spiritual disciplines, however, I’ve heard Buddhist teachers estimate that it generally takes at least 5,000, if not 10,000 hours of disciplined practice to become a really good observer of one’s own experiences. This 10,000 hour figure has been applied now in many fields as a foundation for real mastery (Gladwell, 2008). Thus the fact that untrained, introspecting observers did not produce reports which agreed with one another is hardly surprising (Tart, 2005).
In the last couple of decades psychology, particularly clinical psychology, has discovered that aspects of meditative practices can be therapeutically helpful in relieving a variety of conditions. But note that we have a close parallel to what I said about Buddhism above, namely we have an overall belief system, our culture’s beliefs, about what is normal and how a normal mind should operate. Meditative methods are now seen as an adjunct to other forms of therapy which are designed to help patients’ minds operate in accordance with our views of normal. It’s wonderful that aspects of traditional meditation systems have been adapted in ways that reduce human suffering, but a general curiosity is not there. The exciting question, for me is what would happen if we developed a lot of people trained in spirituality, mediation, psychology, and related fields and then tasked them, in the sense of essential science, to investigating all aspects of experience, all aspects of reality? Not simply those that help people be “normal” and get rid of their specific kind of suffering? Could we develop a new introspective psychology that actually worked? Could we expand upon what we currently know and open new doors to new areas of study and knowing.
For me, curiosity is the heart of science, psychology, and spirituality. At their best, these fields search for truth, or at least a deeper and fuller understanding of ourselves, others, and our world. Curiosity embodies all our senses, our mind, brain, and spirit. Everything we see and all things unseen. What do we think we know, how do we think we know it, what else may be also seem true, and what may we be overlooking? Curiosity has filled my life with confusion at times, but also vital life energy. I humbly suggest you try it.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers. Boston: Little, Brown and Company
Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.
Tart, C., (1988). Effects of electrical shielding on GESP performance. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 82, 129-146.
Tart, C. (1998). Six studies of out-of-the-body experiences. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 17 (2), 73-99.
Tart, C. (2005). Future psychology as a science of mind and spirit: Reflections on receiving the Abraham Maslow award. Humanistic Psychologist, 33(2),131-143.