Here are some observations and thoughts that may be useful, both practically, to anyone trying to grow spiritually, and to[…]
What Meditation/Mindfulness Does for Me – Quiet Stuff – Part 1
Charles T. Tart
“Subtle is significant” – Shinzen Young
Recently a meditation teacher colleague of mine asked me what practicing meditation did for me. Uncharacteristically, I was at a loss for words. Since I’m not a masochist, and I spend 15 to 30 or more minutes most days practicing some kind of meditation, it must be doing something for me that I value. Continuing to think about it, I think it does a variety of things but they are “quiet” sorts of things. I think there may be some people trying meditation and mindfulness in its various forms who may think, as I too often did, that I wasn’t getting anywhere with this mindfulness stuff, so I will occasionally write about the quieter effects, to share what I’ve learned and perhaps to encourage some of you.
When I first heard about meditation many years ago, I formed the expectation that it should do incredible things. This seemed a reasonable expectation, as descriptions of meditation and similar spiritual practices often talk of wonderful outcomes. In my reality, though, not much of anything happened when I tried to meditate. But I figured I was new at it and didn’t really know how to proceed. Reinforcing this feeling that I wasn’t getting anywhere with meditation, I received the gift of a variety of a psychedelically induced experiences in a psychiatrist’s studies while in graduate school, so I knew what incredible, mind-blowing experiences were like. I also got a lot of valuable insights and demonstrations into how my mind worked, which were very useful all through my career. Wasn’t that what meditation was supposed to do, give deep insight into Truth?
Many years of trying various forms of meditation followed, without much result. I then tried the Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation, as it was billed as working for anyone. The results were interesting, (see A Psychologists Experience with Transcendental Meditation) but certainly didn’t produce any fantastic experiences for me, and by the mid-70s I had pretty much given up attempting to practice meditation. It struck me that it must require a special talent which some people, like me, didn’t have.
On the other hand practicing increased mindfulness in life, along the lines that G. I. Gurdjieff taught, was very rewarding, and I’ve written about its effects and relations to other psychological understandings in several books (Waking Up, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science). The application of Gurdjieffian mindfulness in everyday life, as I understand it, became my chief growth practice, and is still central today. I’ve also noticed that in half a century of practicing mindfulness in life and eventually a fair amount of various forms of formal meditation, I have changed a lot, but, by and large, it’s quiet change. I can’t say “I sit down to meditate and have these great experiences,” but once in a while I notice that there was this stupid thing I used to automatically do, with appropriate thoughts, emotions, actions and consequences, and, gosh, I haven’t done it in years! It just quietly fell away. So I’m going to take a look at some of this quieter stuff, this more subtle change, and, if it looks interesting, share it, both as a possible contribution to generally understanding meditation and mindfulness and, as I mentioned above, perhaps as an encouragement to other people who are still waiting for fantastic things to happen as they practice, but are perhaps getting impatient and discouraged.
Level of Arousal:
One of the things various forms of meditation –
Besides trying to be more mindful in everyday life, I generally do a form of vipassana (“insight” meditation) each day that I learned from Shinzen Young. There are a variety of ways to practice this, my favorite is focusing on observing flow and change, and gently trying to do so with concentration, clarity and equanimity. When I have some success at this, even for just a few moments, it drops my level of ongoing mental activity/arousal and physical tension. I’d like to say it can drop to zero, even if only for a moment, but it’s pretty rare to hit zero. But it can drop it to a much lower level than I habitually carry through my busy days.
Something I’ve noticed in bringing mindfulness into my everyday life over the years is that when something stimulating or stressful comes along, how much it affects me depends on my level of physical and mental tension at the time it happens. If I’m pretty relaxed, the stimulus might not have much effect, I wouldn’t even call it a stressor. If I’m already fairly stressed or tensed, though, it has a much stronger and usually negative effect. The arousal effect tends to last and only go down slowly, so the next time a stressor comes along it will have even more effects. I’ll sketch that common, everyday life process in the diagram below.
Starting in the lower left of the chart, something of a certain intensity happens that I sense, represented by the downward pointing arrows. If I’m calm when it happens we can think of it simply as a stimulus, but if it’s inherently threatening and/or I’m already in an aroused and defensive state, we could often more accurately call it a stressor. For simplicity, I’ll call all the stimulating events stressors from now on.
Then there’s a reaction – sensorially, mentally , emotionally, bodily – to the stressor, represented by the upward pointing arrows, with the size of the arrow representing the strength of the reaction. That results in raising my overall level of activation, represented by the wiggly line.
So with the first stressor there’s a quick reaction – possibly tightening of muscles, tuning my senses for clearer perception, stress hormone release, mental analysis, wondering whether it is dangerous, possibly bodily preparation for fight or flight. But nothing else happens right away in this case, so I start to calm down. Calming down usually takes a while compared to the immediate response to a stressor. But by the time the next stressor occurs, my initial overall tension level is higher than it was before, so I tend to react more strongly to the second stressor, even though it’s the same intensity, than if it hadn’t been preceded by something that already alerted or stressed me to begin with. My overall activation/arousal level goes up.
Our bodies and minds have a natural, built-in tendency to calm down when our world gets calmer, but calming down generally takes longer than a quick reaction to a stressor. So as you see in the chart, the third stressor is perceived when I am at a higher level of activation and produces an even greater reactive response. After a few of these stressors, I am way over-reacting and I am considerably mentally-emotionally-physically tense.
So if I can take even a moment to come to the present, the here-and-now, even better several seconds or more of being more in the here-and-now, there’s a relatively automatic relaxation of mental tension and physical tension. When I become consciously aware, of my body state, which is the usual immediate consequence of trying to be more here-and-now, and I notice I’m being uselessly tense about something, I automatically relaxed. It’s a silly and useless thing to be unnecessarily tense.
As a concrete example, I had a traumatic history with dental work as a kid and still haven’t completely worked it through. So sometimes my dentist (who is a very nice person!) is working on me and I’ll notice that my arms are tense, almost making fists! But that doesn’t accomplish anything, so I consciously I relax them – but half a minute later I may notice I’m doing it again! But when I’m lost in mental processes (that’s what “ordinary mind” is a great deal of the time, being absorbed, lost in ongoing mental/emotional processes), I may not be aware of what a level of tension I’m carrying along, and it has its consequences.
So let me see if I can sketch what happens to my mental/emotional/physical tension level if I’m present for even a moment every once in a while.
Suppose I’m doing a formal sitting meditation, like vipassana on bodily flow sensations, or staying pretty here and now in life situations by keeping some of my voluntary attention monitoring body sensations, a Gurdjieffian approach. Left alone, that means I am generally pretty calm. There are little fluctuations occasionally, even with a pretty quiet meditation I can suddenly remember I forgot to make an important phone call, for example, should I stop meditating and make it, should I just calm down and make it later, etc. But by and large I am calm, aware of my current environment and body, not striving to do anything in particular. If asked what happened in my meditation, it would be straightforward for me to answer, “Nothing much, really.” Compared to the usual frantic state of my “ordinary mind,” though, I’m doing a lot!
The next chart shows what happens when various stressors come along while I’m being more mindful, more present.
The clear difference is that my reactions to various stimuli is such that they really aren’t the usual “stressors,” my reaction/perception stays pretty much appropriate to the intensity of the stimulus. And I’m not accumulating arousal and stress that increases my reactivity, so at the end of this time period I’m still pretty focused, calm, and equanimous, rather than stressed out and over reactive.
That’s quite an accomplishment when I can also respond when asked about my meditation-mindfulness session, “Nothing special happened.”
I think almost all of us can learn at least this much “skill” in meditation-mindfulness, so it’s worthwhile to keep practicing…
I plan to write more about these quiet aspects of mindfulness and meditation.
Pain, Leaving the Body, Spiritual Realities or Illusion?
© Charles T. Tart 2016
Why are we here? What should we do? Why does it hurt so much sometimes? Can’t we just be given Certain Answers from Spirit? And….
One of my friends, let’s call him Ralph, is a very interesting and thoughtful person. He has had out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs), done some remote viewing (RV) under conditions which have shown ESP is involved — it’s not just an interesting but subjective, imaginary experience of viewing a distant place — and had physical problems much of his life that have forced him to deal with intense pain. I think the following excerpts from my recent correspondence with Ralph would interest some people.
Personally, I would much rather deal with pain in a distant, intellectual way, but biology too often takes away that luxury… I was going to put a wry smiley face 😉 after the previous sentence as I found it amusing, but of course a wry frowny face is just as or more accurate… ;-(
Talking about a life of pain and his experience of OBEs, why they happen to him, Ralph notes that he had a great need to completely disassociate from his body when he went in for frequent surgeries, as the usual pain killers pretty much stopped working for him.
I wrote Ralph that I get upset just reading about the level of pain he’s had to deal with in his life, oh my God! “Although it’s not your intention, you also make me feel like a real wimp! What, I complain because for years now I’ve had headaches essentially all day long, only partially helped by medication, massage and other methods.” Nothing compared to what Ralph deals with.
I don’t know if you’re aware, Ralph, that I did hypnosis research for the first decade or so of my career. Although pain wasn’t of that much interest to me back then, it wasn’t impacting me personally, I was amazed that 20 to 30% of ordinary people had enough hypnotic talent to experience considerable pain reduction when it was suggested, and maybe 10 to 20% could completely cut off pain. One example that dramatically brought it home to me was a standardized test item widely used in research to assess very high levels of hypnotic talent. After a subject was hypnotized, for about a minute I would suggest that she couldn’t smell anything, and then asked her to take a good sniff to see that she couldn’t smell.
Then I uncapped a bottle of household ammonia and held 1 inch below her nose.
The result always amazed me. Not only did talented hypnotized subjects report that they didn’t smell anything when I asked them if they had, they didn’t show any sign of pain! To me, sniffing household ammonia that way is like a thousand tiny pitchforks come into your nostrils and start jabbing away!
[If you’re curious, do not try this at home this way, start with the ammonia bottle further from your nose so you’re not overwhelmed with pain…]
And for the really talented hypnotic subjects, we purchased laboratory ammonia that was 10 times as strong as ordinary ammonia…
Absolutely mind blowing! And I was always a little envious, I’d like to be able to turn off pain that way, but I have very little talent for being hypnotized, although the meditative techniques I’ve learned from Shinzen Young help me deal with some kinds of pain to a useful degree, but far from not feeling pain at all. As to lack of hypnotic talent, probably for all my intellectual open-mindedness, some part of me says “No way is anything outside my precious ego going to exert control over what goes on in my mind!”
A nice, intellectual hypothesis, but the reality of it was strongly demonstrated to me back around 1959 when I was one of the first WASP Americans to take mescaline. It was given to me by a visiting Austrian psychologist, Professor Ivo Kohler, who had done some research in Europe on it, but didn’t know of any literature about the reactions of Americans to mescaline. I had read Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception” so was really interested and open (I thought), and Kohler gave me what I realize later was a very strong dose, 400 mg of the chemically pure mescaline.
And nothing happened…
I had even skipped breakfast to take the mescaline on an empty stomach. At that time in my life, that was a big sacrifice!
So he told me I could go home, we could call it a day — I guess he figured Americans were different from Europeans — or he could give me some more. Luckily for me, I chose the latter option and got another hundred milligrams, and little while later suddenly went from being perfectly straight to the peak of the psychedelic experience! It’s been more than 50 years, but oh wow oh wow oh wow!!!
I realized later that for all my intellectual openness, some control freak part of my mind had basically clamped down on all the chemical changes so they weren’t sufficient to actually affect my consciousness, but I was finally overwhelmed by the increased dose. God bless mescaline, God bless Aldous Huxley for his psychological programming of my first trip!
I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about how our socialization and cultural context affects how we interpret experience. I took the mescaline already being deeply into science, knowing that a drug was affecting my brain, so I had a kind of psychological safety valve that I didn’t really have to take anything about the experience too seriously if I didn’t want to, I could just call it altered brain functioning, chemical illusions. But if I had been raised in a non-scientific culture, a religious culture, the obvious interpretation would have been that my experiences were clearly a gift from God, and I might very well have become a mystic.
In my conventional role as a psychologist, I learned an enormous amount about the way the mind could work from that and some later psychedelic experiences a local psychiatrist was conducting. Some of those experiences translated into concepts I could talk about or use in my research, but some experiences still struck me as obviously sacred, not the kind of thing I would talk about to hardly anyone. Indeed, there were a few (luckily I don’t really remember them consciously) where it was clear to me that I was not ready to handle them and I asked if they could please be “put into storage” as it were, and only come back if ever I was ready, but otherwise to stay out of sight, they might just inflate my ego. I’m not sure it’s right to even mention these, but my commitment to using science properly stresses being complete about data…
Ralph goes on to write that pain medications are of little help to him now, so he has to dissociate from his physical body in order to handle the pain. This kind of “dissociation,” an OBE or “astral projection” is typically experienced as leaving his physical and traveling “out” or “in” to elsewhere into the cosmos, and experiencing whatever happens. But, Ralph notes, these “other world” journeys are confusing for him, as he can’t tell if they are “real” worlds in our space/time dimension or worlds in “other dimensions…” Or….
Real or not real? What is “reality” anyway? But in terms of his happiness, escaping overwhelming pain, I wish Ralph bon voyage! Who gives a damn whether their “real” or not when they can help him so much?
But looking a little deeper, that question of the reality of these kind of internal experiences is a real tough one. I certainly take, as a working hypothesis, that there may be other kinds of “spiritual” or “non-physical” worlds out there that people may contact sometimes, as well as knowing of our ability to imagine things. But please don’t ask me to rigorously define what I mean by “spiritual” or “non-physical”… And note I say working hypotheses, this is an interesting and perhaps useful way to think about these things, it’s the scientific way, but I have no idea what the ultimate nature of Reality is…
What complicates interpretation for me of such ostensibly OBE experiences is knowledge from my own research with hypnosis, some of my own meditation experience (which isn’t very “deep,” but informs me) and the work of others, which leads me to see our ordinary consciousness experience as life in a virtual reality, like in some kind of computer game.
The clearest experience of what we might call a pure virtual reality is nighttime dreams: I’ve almost never heard of anybody say they’re consciously working at creating and running a dream, but there you are in another world, things happen, characters act. We have been taught to question dreams’ reality when we wake up, but while we’re in them we usually automatically accept them as real (we won’t deal with lucid dreams here). In the kind of vipassana meditation I usually do I slip down to hypnagogic experience all the time, and in an instant a world and a scenario is created (not quite as vividly as my nocturnal dreams, but usually totally absorbing at the time it happens), things happen, it disappears and suddenly another world and scenario is created, and on and on.
I think our ordinary waking consciousness exists within the virtual reality that is created by the hardwiring of the brain, the way it has been a socially and personally programmed, hopes and fears, etc. I’ve detailed some of this in the article in the pic. But what’s different from the nocturnal dream and hypnagogic stuff is that there are massive amounts of sensory input coming in all the time, and so the virtual reality you exist in, the 3D model of world and self, must constantly and rapidly adjust to reflect the state of that external reality, your body sensations, your thoughts and feelings. Otherwise you bump into things or walk off the edges of cliffs and don’t last very long. Survival and happiness require us to make our internal model, where we experientially live, an adequate reflection of external reality.
So somebody reports a spiritual experience, it’s very real and important to them. Is it just something created in our virtual reality theater, just our “imagination,” or is it a relatively accurate perception of an independent reality?
A remote viewing in which the viewer gets really involved with the distant target is an interesting case. The viewer may start to feel like he’s there at the target site, rather than staying, as is typical in remote viewing, anchored in his physical body but seeing visual imagery he hopes is of the distant target. In so far as what you experience as being at the target site actually corresponds to what’s physically there and represent psi functioning, I find it useful to think of it as involving actual (para)”sensory” contact with the target site. But how much other stuff in the “visit” is merely the creation of our virtual reality process?
I think successful remote viewers have developed some rules of thumb to give less attention to certain kinds of things they experience when remote viewing than others, as that style of things has turned out to seldom correspond to the target. An example with successful viewers is the emphasis on avoiding “analytic overlay:” if it feels like your mind is running associations to a viewed element rather than actually paying further attention, getting further and further away from the basic psi impressions of the target, tone that down. Other kinds of stuff you want to “look at” more closely…
OK, feel like you’ve been introduced to some very interesting questions? OK, so far so good, but where are The Answers?
I know so much more than I did as a teenager very interested in matters of spirit, of science…and know even more deeply how little I actually know….
But what interesting questions! 😉