Prometheus and Atlas – Great Book Number 1

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Aug 262016
 

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Prometheus and Atlas – Great Book Number 1

Charles T. Tart

This month has been a rich time for receiving books that I not only ought to, but definitely want to read!  This is to tell you about one I received today and have already done some reading in, Prometheus and Atlas, by Jason Reza Jorjani, a philosopher on the faculty of the New Jersey Institute of Technology who teaches on science, technology and society.  It’s about that theme that is become so central in my life, building bridges between the best of science and the best of spirituality.

Prometheus and Atlas cover

I don’t usually even attempt to read books by philosophers anymore.  When I was young, I picked up a relatively accurate image of philosophers as very wise people who thought deeply about human life and the nature of reality, and who shared their reflections and understandings with us.  I thought of them as driven by that old maxim attributed to Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

For most of my adult life, however, I’ve found that most philosophers now seem to be caught up in word games.

In some ways, that’s OK and important.  We are verbal creatures, and deeper understandings of the way we use words (and the way words use us!) can be very useful.  One of the most important aspects of psychological and spiritual growth in my own life has been realizing that I’m too good with words, I can get entranced by them and lose touch with reality.  But it’s apparently too easy for philosophers too to get caught up in the formal, intellectual, grammatical properties of language and forget that what we really should look at if we want deeper understanding is the reality that those words either point to and/or distort our understanding of.

Jorjani’s book is not casual reading, but it’s not a swamp of philosophical jargon and word games either.  If you’re interested in the roots of both Eastern and Western cultures, and the conceptual systems driving so much of modern culture, including spiritual culture, it’s an excellent book.  Particularly, Jorjani is aware of parapsychological phenomena, the specters as he calls them, which official culture tries to banish, but which are very important to our full understanding of humanity and reality.  These “ghosts” just won’t go away in spite of our extensive use of “magic words,” masquerading as reason, to banish them!

I looked for his book when I received a notice that the Parapsychological Association, the professional group devoted to scientific and scholarly study of the paranormal, gave it an award for the best book in the area this year.  I can see why they did.  As I initially thought from a lunch conversation with him several years ago at one of the annual Parapsychogical Association meetings in Concord, Jorjani is very comprehensive in his understandings, so much so that I felt able to tease him about it after I started reading the book.  I wrote him, “For example, are you certain that you haven’t missed some relevant footnote by some obscure Western or Eastern philosopher that is relevant to your theme?  You seem to have gotten everybody and everything else!”

I started reading systematically from the first page, and quickly found I wanted more, I wanted to skip around sampling little gems here and there.  For instance Jorjani talks about how we had such rigid ideas that there are real facts out there facts that we have to distinguish from our theories from, whether they are just theories given us by our enculturation or with the prestige of modern science, but, as he notes on page 14 of the introduction,

“Theories produce “facts” on account of observational ideologies that are deeply implicated by them, so it is deluded to think that the validity of theories can be tested against “the facts of Nature”– as if these had an autonomous and objectively accessible existence.”

Part of me strongly objects to that statement, I want, I insist that there be facts, to check all our concepts on… But I do know an awful lot about how our psychological processes  selectively construct the apparent “facts” we perceive…

As another example of Jorjani’s insights, I wrote him:

“As you know from our conversation back in Concord, I certainly am in great general agreement with you.  We love to feel smart, and that’s even better if we get along well in the world because of our apparent smartness, so it so easy to become overly attached to one’s intellectual concepts.  I don’t agree with all aspects of Buddhism, e.g., but I certainly admire the emphasis there on the dangers of attachment, although I would argue against the dangers of over-attachment, rather than any kind of attachment at all.

Swiss army knife

You may remember that I routinely carry two knives on my belt, one of the big models of the Swiss Army Knife, and a Leatherman tool.  People sometimes ask me which one is better, and I asked them better for what?  There’s no absolute better or worse, it depends on the task.  And sometimes I find that I have to use both of them at once to adequately do a task.  But I also get lots of demonstrations of attachment.  I like both of them so much that I tend to automatically reach for them when there’s some mechanical problem, even though it should be immediately obvious that there’s some specialized tool that I will need, and I’d better go down and talk to the people in the hardware store…

Leatherman tool

I also have frequent demonstrations of how overly attached I am to the way I’ve been taught to perceive.  When I’m looking for some misplaced object in the house and can’t find it (of course I have to ask my wife where it is and she marvels at my inability to find things, it’s so stereotyped!), I’ve reflected on this and realized I call up a visual image of the missing object in my mind, and I’m projecting that image around the room with the expectation that when it’s projected on the actual object I will feel a sensation of matching, “mental bell” will ring, and then I’ll actually look and see the object. 

It’s not a bad technique in some ways, but a lot of times it doesn’t work because my visual image is slightly different from the orientation of the real object.  Then I have to fight my habitual attachment and look in a more comprehensive and open-minded way. 

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One other example of where I’m sure we’re in agreement, years ago I came up with a systems approach way of theorizing about what was meant by a state of consciousness and altered states of consciousness (described in my States of Consciousness, not to be confused with my earlier Altered States of Consciousness book).  I still use this conceptual approach in my thinking, although it didn’t generally get picked up, it’s too complex rather than having the simplicity people crave.  But eventually I realized that the structure of my theoretical approach was essentially identical to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigms.  A particular paradigm/state can be very useful when dealing with stuff that is actually behaving the way the paradigm/state calls for, but is a real blinder when that’s not the case.

A highly recommended book!  And also an incredibly unusual book, because almost all modern philosophers totally ignore the existence of paranormal phenomena, and insist on trying to explain everything in material terms.  That leads to a lot of very forced and incorrect explanations…

Bottom Line Spirituality: What Works, What Might Work Better

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Jun 262016
 

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Bottom Line Spirituality: What Works, What Might Work Better

Charles T. Tart

I was reading along, without too much enthusiasm, a discussion held online by a group of informed people aiming to advance spiritual development a discussion about what various spiritual teachers, especially the historical Buddha, actually taught.  I say without too much enthusiasm, as the only material we have to work with are written accounts which were often not actually written until dozens or hundreds of years after the spiritual leader had died, from the memories of various followers.  This kind of discussion may be interesting in trying to figure out what was really meant by certain spiritual ideas, but without actual written expression by the person who said it originally, and a profound knowledge of the culture and language that it was written in, we’re pretty much just speculating.  That may help, that may not.  My enthusiasm waned more as I saw some of the people involved in the discussion beginning to manifest a sort of dogmatic quality, a largely hidden quality on the order of “My spiritual path is more profound than yours.”

Buddha and Jesus

Experts devoted to improving our spiritual life shouldn’t get caught up in that kind of sectarianism, of course, but, we’re human, it happens.  I wanted to steer the discussion back toward practical matters, so I wrote:

I don’t know what the historical Buddha actually taught, but the bottom line for me is that he essentially said that if (a) you hold a certain world view, (b) live by certain sensible and moral rules, and (c) sharpen your mind with specific, learnable skills involving concentration and insight, you can reduce a lot of the suffering that we humans are subject to.  Indeed he took the last part further and claimed you could eliminate ALL suffering.  I have no idea if that’s true, but personal experience and what I know of others says you can certainly reduce suffering a lot in this way, and, combined with the bodhisattva commitment to help others, it works well for at least a significant number of people – and that’s wonderful!!!

Whether it’s the ultimate truth about things, I have no idea, but it’s a good way for some people to live.  By my values, of course, which value intelligence, kindness, openness.  But what is the “best” spiritual path for particular individuals?  Wow, that’s a tough one!  Trial and error at this time, maybe someday we’ll know better and be able to test people and say things like:

“The odds for your particular kind of person are a 60% high satisfaction for Path A, but a 5% psychosis rate and a 19% disappointment rate that nothing worthwhile happens, while for your particular kind of person Path B leads to….

That sort of thing is not any kind of ultimate answer, but can be figured out empirically if we put a lot of effort into it and track what happens with a lot of people of different types on different spiritual paths.

This is the task of a transpersonal psychology, yet to be developed….

One of the discussants, who is a recognized Buddhist scholar, made me feel very good by commenting that my post was entirely synoptic with the Buddhist teachings, that it was Buddhavacana.

What could I say but thank you! Buddhist scriptures w out bkgrnd

Well, of course, there was a lot more I could say toward expanding this line of thinking.   And while I’m glad I understood this part of Buddhism correctly, I don’t know about its “ultimate” truthfulness…

Given how much I admire Buddhism as a spiritual path, I’m glad I’ve got at least some of it right!  And a real Buddhist scholar telling me that, wow!  With a really impressive word that I had to look up: Buddhavacana, consistent with what scholars understand the historical Buddha would’ve taught.

Meaning: We’ve Got to Have It!

To expand a little, what I said was my practical self writing.  If it’s one thing I’m pretty darn sure of, it’s that we human beings need to have meaning.  We need to feel that the world we live in makes some kind of sense and that we have a sensible and valuable place within that world.  Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a lot of ways for that to work.

Maslow hierarchy of needs updated

You can have a worldview that the universe is, as the poet Tennyson phrased it, red in teeth and claw, it’s all dog eat dog, and so your job and satisfaction is to gain glory by eating them before they eat you!  Since at least some of our human capabilities are things like bravery, cleverness, and fighting ability, that certainly produces at least partial satisfaction.  It also produces a lot of karma, karma in the sense of given the way we are, when you beat the shit out of other people they are just waiting for their chance to beat the shit out of you… That’s not my preferred worldview, but I understand how it can work for people.

I do have another self that looks for a deeper, truer understanding of reality, and that usually has to work in different ways than the self that likes to be helpful to other people.  If I have a Buddhist friend who is dying, e.g., I’m going to do chants and say prayers to Buddhas and bodhisattvas with her or him, and not talk about cultural relativity, that there’s a certain arbitrariness about the Buddhist worldview it could be constructed in other ways, etc.  If my dying friend is a Christian, I’m happy to pray with her or him to Christ or to God.  And I’m not going to engage in discussions with them about how much our concepts of God the Father (or God the Mother) are based on projections of our human biological characteristics, our history of being helpless and depending on a man and a woman who were godlike in their capacities compared to us as infants and children, etc.

In a general sense I think that almost all belief systems give power.  When you’re unsure how the world works, or what your capabilities are, or what you should do, there’s a lot of “stuttering” in your actions and reactions, such that they’re not very effective.  “I should, no, maybe I shouldn’t, but, and what about, why aren’t I actually doing it, but…”  When you’re ready to give everything for The Cause, for a particular religion that’s promised you salvation, it gives direction, courage, social support, etc.

Belief and Reality:

More deeply, I assume that in general the closer your belief about reality comes to the way reality actually works, the more likely it is to be effective.  I’ve read that in one of those colonial wars in Africa, e.g., the local shamans gave their people amulets which they promised would deflect British bullets so they couldn’t be hurt… and then the British machine guns mowed them down by the hundreds… So on a practical, everyday level I prefer to support people to reduce their suffering in whatever reasonable (my value judgment, of course) belief system they operate in, but as a caring being and as a transpersonal psychologist, I would like to understand reality more deeply so as to help shape belief systems to be more and more effective.  I consider “effective” in terms of my own values, of course, but that’s another issue to understand my own values, decide when they are helping me or others, when they are hindering me, etc.

As an example of applying this attitude to Buddhism, I notice that many of my Buddhist friends and a lot of Buddhist teachers believe the historical Buddha was fully enlightened, that Gautama Buddha at least knew everything that was important to human happiness, if not everything, period.  As an element of world view, of faith, that’s empowering!  Remembering those endless hours of attempts at meditation,  I was often convinced I would never get anywhere with it and wondered if this was all a lot of crap anyway.  The idea I tried to hold that the Buddha at least knew far, far more than me, and if I kept meditating it would eventually work, kept me sitting on the cushion.

CTT meditating from back

On the other hand, as an educated Westerner, as a trained psychologist, as someone who spent a lot of time trying to figure out how my mind works, I realized that Gautama Buddha lived at a particular period in history in a particular culture, and that the way he was raised and what he saw around him shaped his thinking and experiencing to various degrees.  The obvious difference I see from my own childhood was that I was raised in a culture that believed in Progress, and that belief has been validated strongly in my own life.  Yes, lots of bad things still happen in the world, but my ancestors were peasants and factory workers, and I’ve not only been to college, I’m a professor!  I like to learn about things, think about things, and share my understandings of other people—and, by gosh, the University pays me to do that!  That sure is Progress in my book!

As I understand it, Gautama Buddha, on the other hand, lived in a culture which was relatively static.  A few people got ahead in life, some people’s situation got worse, but, especially as Buddhism continued to grow over the ages, the caste system meant that most people were going to be doing the same thing all their life, which was the same thing their ancestors had done, which was what their children would do.  Particularly if you were lower caste, that easily leads to a view that existence is per se pretty bad, and the idea of getting out of here is very appealing.  Then you add in a common belief in reincarnation: not only are you inevitably suffering now, you’re going to continue to suffer lifetime after lifetime after lifetime, unless you really follow the Buddhist system to get enlightened, and that’s hard to do and may take many lifetimes.  Okay, let me out!

When I first heard about reincarnation as a Western child of Progress, my thoughts were more on the order of “I like to learn things, there’s so much more to learn than I possibly have time for in one lifetime, but wow, I’ll have lifetime after lifetime to learn more and more and get better and better!”  (Yes, I was one of those nerdy children who likes school.)  An attitude that was reinforced by my reading as a teenager about autosuggestion and actually practicing the system of autosuggestion developed by Emile Coué in 1922 a whereby many times each day you repeated the suggestion, like a mantra, “Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better.  Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better… Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better.”  And gosh!  I think it’s worked!

So when you have a deep belief in progress, you can believe Gautama Buddha knew a lot of very useful and valuable information, but it’s hard to imagine he knew everything.  And the kind of enlightenment that Buddhism may lead you toward, and possibly even reach, sounds like a wonderful accomplishment, good for all of us, not just the person who gets enlightened, but is it the ultimate possible for us?

In the everyday material world, old-fashioned Newtonian physics works just fine.  Solid objects are solid, you don’t have to deal with weird ideas that they actually are practically all empty space with incredibly infinitesimally small particles or processes or waves or strings or curves in space-time or whatever actually underlying it all.  Yet I doubt we would have developed computers and cell phones, e.g., if we continued thinking only in terms of Newtonian physics.  It’s a complex process, of course, but I really do think that with the proper application of open-minded science and scholarship, we can achieve deeper understandings of the spiritual as well as the rest of reality, and develop more effective ways of spiritual development.

Okay, my Buddhist scholar friend, I don’t know if this is wandering too far, but thank you again for a wonderful complement.  I’ll take as my preferred working hypothesis that Gautama Buddha himself knew that he had something great to share with people, but tried to stay open-minded about the possibility of more.  And I hope that the great religious figures of other traditions also remembered the virtue of humility, even if their teachings have way too often been distorted into tools for social control.

And I’ll admit that it’s not easy to switch between two or more perspectives, “This is the Holy Truth, I give it my Head and Heart and All!” and “Good, but let’s look deeper.”

 

 

CCCE: Concentration, Clarity, Curiosity, Equanimity

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Jun 082016
 

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CCCE:  Concentration, Clarity, Curiosity, Equanimity

Charles T. Tart

I teach a three-week web course on meditation and mindfulness a few times each year, giving students basic understanding and practice in developing essential skills for meditation practice, but even more for their eventual mindfulness application to everyday life.  Our mind can working in kind of crazy, mindless ways while we’re sitting on a little cushion doing formal meditation, and while that may bother me at times, there is generally little harm coming from it.  But when our minds do crazy things, mindless things, in the midst of everyday life, we sign contracts, write checks, say things to friends who now perhaps become former friends, etc., things that can get us into a lot of trouble.  It’s nice and better than nothing if a few hours later (and too many times a few weeks or more later!) if you suddenly realize “Why in the world did I say something so stupid!” but it’s much better to learn to spot some funny feeling starting to warp your mind before you open your mouth!

buddha of treehous w oval select

I enjoy the feedback I get from students in these courses, as it helps me understand certain fundamentals of mindfulness more clearly, as well as practically helping me to teach others more clearly.  This essay came from a student’s puzzlement about what I meant by “clarity” when I talked about it as an essential aspect of meditation and mindfulness practice.

 

 

Dear Student,

The words “meditation” and “mindfulness” are used in a wide variety of ways, so much so as to be almost useless for trying to understand what in particular someone is talking about.  For our purposes, I like the formulation I learned from meditation teacher Shinzen Young that a good part of the essence of meditation is when you focus on something, a fixed something or the passing stream of experience, with Concentration, Clarity, and Equanimity.  I would also explicitly add Curiosity to those 3, and say that meditation and mindfulness involve doing something with the intention (and varying degrees of success, moment to moment) of CCCE.  Curiosity, Concentration, Clarity, and equanimity.

 

You’re taking a web course on meditation and mindfulness.  Even without knowing you personally, I think that means, at a minimum, that your life is not completely satisfactory and there is suffering in it (so far I’m basically including the entire human race), and you realize that at least some of that suffering is caused by the fact that in some ways you don’t understand, your own mind, is too often out of control.

How do you get better understanding and control?  You practice both control exercises, like Concentration meditation, and you practice Vipassana, insight meditation, to get a better understanding of what your mind actually does moment-by-moment in various situations.  You cultivate skill in Equanimity so that you can concentrate and perceive more clearly by not overreacting to the contents of your ongoing experience.  In formal Vipassana, where you’re sitting quietly, you get to observe your mind when there is little outside disturbance so you can see its internal dynamics pretty well, in (Gurdjieffian) Self Remembering in everyday life you have to deal with more distraction from outside events, but this is where it really matters to better understand what your mind does.

When you get better at observing your own mind, you will see many situations where something happens (someone says something, or a memory or thought comes up), some thought or feeling reactively pops up in your mind and tends to take your mind over.  In turn, related thoughts and feelings come up…and come up and come up and….for way toolong!  Your initial perception of what happened may be unclear because you didn’t have concentration, things kept changing too fast, too automatically, for you to get a good look.  When you are able to concentrate better on things that come up, you may then see more clearly exactly what it is, or, realistically, at least more clearly what it is even if not exactly see it, and this gives you a possibility of intelligent change.

Sometimes just seeing one of these automatic aspects more clearly once or a few times is enough to drain the emotional and cognitive power out of it so it stops happening, sometimes it’s tougher than that (there is a whole chapter devoted to this in my Waking Up book, and it’s touched on numerous times in my other books, Living the Mindful Life and Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People on mindfulness) and you have to do something more specific to change it.  So clarity is about both slowing down the rate of change in something, it’s hard to see what it is if it’s replaced almost instantly by something else, as well as a clearer perception.  One aspect of increased clarity, for example, is that sometimes you see that what you thought was a single emotional quality to an experience actually consists of two or more, and you won’t really understand it well until you can separate out these different aspects.  Concentration supports Clarity and Equanimity, Clarity supports Concentration and Equanimity, and Equanimity supports Concentration and Clarity.  They’re different ways of looking at aspects of a single mind in operation.

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Now, when I divide things into CCCE, in some ways that’s a linguistic maneuver which hopefully will communicate more clearly what I’m trying to point your attention to.  But the reality is CCCE is a convenient, but not absolute, analytical division of what happens in your mind, and different parts of it may be interacting or essentially the same at times.  To give an example:

 

My truck is 19 feet, 6 inches long, has 4 wheels, and is painted blue.  (My wife says it is painted teal, which just shows what an insensitive male I am)     :-). 

My truck is a Ford F-150, with 8 cylinders, and runs fine on regular gasoline, not requiring higher test gasoline.

Which is the truer description?

Of course that’s a silly question.  A more realistic question would be which is the more useful description?  The answer to that, of course, would depend on what you want to do.  If my problem is the engine running irregularly when I’m on the freeway, the first description is of no value whatsoever, the second allows a mechanic to start thinking about more relevant things.  If my problem is that I would like to have the truck painted a different color but I’m not sure whether I can afford it, the first description is much more useful to allow an auto painting shop to begin to make an estimate of what it would cost.

If you took a momentary slice of your experience in time, you could make some estimates of how concentrated were you, how clear were you on what was happening, how equanimous were you about what was happening, how genuinely curious were you.  But remember the point is to have more focused, more clear, more equanimous perceptions of what’s happening to you, rather than making intellectual distinctions about aspects of the process.  Unless making those distinctions helps you carry out the process better, of course.

A very important point to consider though is to be careful not to fall into grandiose, absolute definitions of CCCE.  There are extreme values, but I don’t think they mean much to us who are learners rather than experts.

Some meditators, for example, judging from their self-reports, can put their attention on a single concentration point (their own breathing is a common example) and report that they didn’t think of another single thing for an hour of more!  I think of that as Olympics level Concentration.  That is so far beyond me that I have to remember to not automatically assume that they are lying.  Some meditators will report experiences of Clarity where the thing being focused on at the moment was the absolutely only perception they had and it was brilliant, glowing, psychedelic, full of meaning and wonder!  Some will report horrible memories of, say, torture arising in meditation but they were able to let the memories just flow through their mind, cognitively and emotionally, with little or no emotional reaction.  As to Curiosity, that’s tougher, but some people report suddenly understanding something during meditation as if they finally know the Absolute Truth about it, and whatever Curiosity they might have had is completely satisfied.

My advice about these absolutes?  Forget them!

I’m talking about a strategy for learning to get better at this, of course, not any absolute rule about the way to deal with life.  For whatever reasons, I tended to judge my own meditations in absolute terms for many years, as I’m sure some others do.  Why couldn’t I be aware of one thing for more than 2 seconds at a time before something else came in?  Why were my thoughts, feelings, perceptions kind of fuzzy, instead of possessing a kind of psychedelic clarity where I would jump up and say “Wow!  Now I really understand this!”  Why would I notice that when anything came up that I didn’t think was properly “spiritual,” much less pleasant, my mind automatically tried to change it into something that met my standards of spirituality better?  And I didn’t even notice that for all my conscious commitment to being Curious about the workings of my mind, I was manipulating, or at least trying to manipulate, my experience instead of really paying attention to what it actually was at any moment.

concentration clarity equanimity absolute

So it might help to take half a minute at the beginning of a meditation session to consciously remind yourself of your goals.  That might even involve saying your goals out loud.  “In this session, I want to have my mind be steadier so I can learn better Concentration.”  Or “In this session I want to be less reactive to whatever arises in my experience, without immediately trying to change it.”

Note very carefully that I did not say “steady,” but “steadier.”  I did not say “un-reactive,” but “less reactive.”  My experience is that if you remember these things are on a continuum, then you will slowly notice you get better and better at these practices, even though there are occasional reverses.  But if you judge them according to absolute standards, you’ll probably have the kind of experience I had for the first few years of attempting to learn meditation, that I was no good at it at all!           :-

In all of the teachings in our webinar, I constantly put things on a relative basis, as I think it allows almost everyone to progress much better.

>2. Once in a while during meditation, I felt like coughing, yawning, sneezing, adjusting body position or taking a deep breath. Should I go ahead just do it or just experience the sensation of wanting to do it during the meditation?<

I think the main thing that matters here is that you remind yourself of what the rule is for this particular session at the beginning.  If you constantly interrupt your meditative focus by coughing, yawning, etc., such that it’s a real problem for you, then it would be good to have practice sessions where your conscious goal was to indeed notice the sensations but not act on them.  This runs a danger of getting too harsh on yourself, but you should be able to control sensations when it’s necessary.  But to think that you always need to control every sensation that might lead to an action is pretty extreme, so I generally prefer the other Vipassana type rule that when you have that need to move, or the like, do it slowly and mindfully.  That way you’ll mindfully come into motion from where you were just before that and make it easier to mindfully get back into where you were going after that.

Thank you for the questions!  As you can see, as I’ve gone on and on, I think it was a good idea to clarify these things.  You certainly will find teachers and systems that have more rigid rules for dealing with all these, but my own preference is developing mindfulness in changing situations, like life, that is more useful for most of us, so mindfulness of whatever you do in various situations is a good idea.

But, careful!  Part of my mind says, saying that will make people think they’ve got to go around being really uptight and fanatically examining every sensation every moment of life!  No!  When you’re lying on the couch reading a good novel, forget your body, the sight of the room, the sounds of the room, and enjoy!  When you’re walking down the street, on the other hand, do not look at the tiny screen on your phone and block out outside sounds with your headphones, you may get mugged or run down… Practicality, sensibleness!