By Carlton F. "Perk" Clark
Tucson (April 25, 1998) Charley Tart, PhD. came to town with hundreds of other researchers to participate in "Tucson III: Toward a Science of Consciousness" Conference. This long-time researcher into altered states and mindfulness offered a day-long workshop which offers solid basic material for on-line participants of Mindful Awareness Magazine.
He represented the "non-reductionist" school of consciousness studies which explores awareness phenomenologically rather than breaking it down into its apparent component parts. "I take experience as primary," said Tart. "I am experience."
In a low-key but clearly informed fashion Charley presented on "The Observing Mind." He offered didactic material and experiential exercises representing three forms of mindfulness: concentration, insight meditation, and self-remembering.
EDITOR'S NOTE:Attention is called to the "intuitive" and unorthodox style of MAM's reporter in the use of quotation marks in his report on this day of riveting training by Dr. Tart. Faced with the truly unique challenge of "taking notes in class," similar to any reporter's job, while at the same time truly and fully participating in the experiential exercises that took up most of the day-long workshop, which require 100% of a person's attention and focus, reporter Clark has come up with a method of notation for this article that permits only approximations of direct quotations. MAM has faith in our reporter's accuracy in this transcendental task. Clark had done similar training with Dr. Tart previously, and is highly familiar both with his methods and with the daily practice of "self-remembering" which Dr. Tart teaches. We hope that Dr. Tart will not mind that we take such liberties in sharing his marvelous methods with our readers here. ("I'm in an altered state where I'm just trying to get the essence of what is being said," Clark explained to his nervous editor. Double quotes are real quotes; single or no quotes are approximations.)
Charley placed these forms of mindfulness in a context that he labeled "essential science, not scientism." He asked his audience to create a certain context to approach this material. It begins with the motivation of "curiosity about a topic, plus the humility to really learn." He noted that this is a good way to begin any form of psychological or spiritual growth, and that the real work is probably on the "humility" part. [I suspect he would have agreed with Idries Shah that humility is cultivated not because it 'makes us good or morally upright' but because it is a method, an instrumental technique in itself, setting the crucial stage for learning.]
Tart's second element of context is "getting the data," just observing what actually happens. 'You don't think about how your mind works -- you just observe it. As you gather that data you remember that you are likely skewing what you see, so you keep refining your instrument, as one might where a team of observers would each observe one part of an experiment. You use these forms of mindfulness to refine your instrument for your observations.'
The third element in this context is finding out what the data means --analyzing the data: so here you theorize, using a consistent logic, about what it all means. Eventually, you hope, an 'aha!' occurs, 'that's why this happens!' You have this moment of insight. And then you can take your data, apply this insight, make it into a theory, and make predictions about what you will observe in the future, and then test the theory out over and over.
His point is that this essential science should occur in the psychological-spiritual growth disciplines too, but that often people get attached to the 'aha!' part, get emotionally involved with that, and forget the rest of the project. So he encouraged listeners to consider: what does it mean that my mind operates like this or that? What impact does this have on my emotions, behavior, moods, energy, relationships, etc.?
His fourth element is communication with your peers. You let them know what you've been observing -- they accept or expand on it or reject it-- this is the social part of the essential science process. It aides in producing what he hopes is a 'science of mind,' rather than investigators who are clinging (consciously or unconsciously) to various paradigms.
Tart contends that psychology began as an introspective effort to develop such a science of mind, but that investigators could not agree on the basic data to collect, nor what it meant. So then along came behaviorism, where people could agree on the data but had to throw out much of interest in order to do that. He speculates that 'trained observers' in that era of studying the mind had "ten to twenty" hours of training. "We now know that it takes about 5,000 hours of meditation training to be in a position to really observe the mind," he noted. [This is by approaches relying chiefly on sitting meditation, but not as with the so-called "sudden" approaches.--Ed.] And the second problem was that of bias, since having a spiritual mentor or lineage, or working for the Great Professor, will likely skew what we think we are observing. He concludes that a science of consciousness needs: (1) to cut down on all the ordinary agitation that keeps us from seeing that consciousness, and (2) attention to the biases that exist in we who are being observers.
Here the workshop moved into an instructional phase for the eighty or so assembled scientists. Tart led them through the classical moves: get into a quiet place where you'll be undisturbed; have a way to keep track of time (such as a timer) without watching a clock; pick a duration for this practice moment and stick to it; still your body, close your eyes, keep your attention on your belly as your breath moves it up and down. When thoughts or images come up, just return your attention to that breathing.
We did that for ten minutes. Then there were questions and answers. 'What should I do with the faces I see?' 'Just let them come, and return your attention to your breathing.' 'Sometimes I concentrated on a prayer too.' 'Just follow these instructions right now if you want to make observations about this form of meditation.' 'How can you call this mindful if I just get off into my thinking mind?' 'I'm using mindful to mean aware, attentive: we are setting out a simple purpose and following it through. Another version of this would be, 'remember to stay grounded in body sensations while my boss says stuff that drives me crazy.' Just as in the older Buddhist stories, he encouraged people with 'even if a god or a goddess arrives, just keep your attention on your breathing.'
Tart then introduced the group to this form of meditation, specifically, the Vipassana school. He used the term insight to mean 'a clearer than usual perception of what is happening in the moment,' much like paying attention to what is without worrying about what it is. The same techniques applied for the concentration meditation above, but this time the injunction was to pay attention to whatever body sensations that arose. Then we did this for ten minutes, and again there were questions. Tart responded to most of them with, 'yes, that happened, and then you just return your attention to any sensations that you notice.'
He spoke of the compulsive mental labeling that many of us do, and how that takes energy and attention that might be used in other ways. He sees this as a form of intellectualizing without choosing to do so. A few people noticed that when they focused on some pain or sensation, often that disappeared. Charley made the point that one of his teachers (Shinzen Young) has used the formula "suffering = pain [actual neurological sensations] x resistance," and that this attention to sensation means a decreasing of our resistance to do so, thus a decrease in suffering. [Long-time students of gestalt therapy or the early est training recall similar injunctions and strategies. Learning to exaggerate pain and learning that "resistance creates persistance" are two versions of this.] Tart spoke of the goal of being able to have the capacity to concentrate on even very unpleasant experiences with full intensity, that not-clinging to pleasant sensations is also part of the goal. The effort was to control one's attention, not one's pain.
After another ten-minute round of sitting, Charley modified the exercise as a prelude to the afternoon's presentation: here he asked people to spend time dividing the focus of their attention. The idea was to place some of it on body sensations, and the rest of it on sounds in the surrounding environment. He left people with the suggestion to 'listen with your feet' during the lunch break, meaning to feel the sensations in one's feet as others say things, or as a sound is heard, etc.
After lunch this excercise was explained: 'we get fixated on getting information in certain ways,' and this was one way to note that information is arriving in ways we might not have observed previously. He also made a very important point at this time, one that Idries Shah elaborates on in Learning How to Learn: meditation techniques are invented for a particular time, place, person, tradition, and teacher. They might work then but not work now. 'If you don't know the context of technique, you don't know how it will affect the user of the technique... Meditation can induce altered states of consciousness or it can be about purifying ordinary consciousness... about (identifying) the patterns of ordinary life, especially cognitive patterns... by tuning in to on-going reality.'
He urged people to get individual coaching from a meditation teacher, citing one of his own teachers, Shinzen Young, who has tracked a 95% drop-out rate for meditators. Young has established "meditation buddies," not teachers but friends who can bring some social support to the effort of meditation. [See the on-line mindfulness training school that is the companion of this magazine, and the Library there for links to meditation schools. We've just learned on June 10 that Shinzen's new website will be going on-line in July, and we'll post a link to it in the Library then.]
'You can thus develop clearer perceptions-insights about who you are,' he said, 'and what you do. Sometimes just that perception is enough -- sometimes you have to hang in there.' He mentions it took him three years to learn to observe his mind in the situation where someone was tailgating him on the freeway -- I recalled it took me eight months to be an observer when moving the lid from the Mr. Coffee carafe to the right side of the sink....
'Yes, ordinary life is a drag, and a real challenge. Wouldn't it be nice if you could do something like this (listen, sense, watch) while a co-worker pressed your buttons??'
G.I. Gurdjieff who studied with the Sufis at the turn of the century said that if you want to understand people, know that "man is asleep." Ordinary daytime consciousness is so dream-like, distorted, that it is like night-time dreaming. Gurdjieff said that another awakening is possible from ordinary consciousness into what he called an "awakened state."
Tart suggested people begin to become aware of the ordinary state not via intellectual analysis but by getting the data, making numerous observations of what they are really like. Freud called the observer the super-ego, but this is the part of the self that has a stake in things. Gurdjieff was talking about taking mental snapshots during real-life events, as would a fair witness, a neutral observer, unbiased. Gather data and don't try to change yourself, he said, until you build a fund of understanding by creating a non-interfering part of you that just watches.
The essence of it, Charley said, is to note exactly how, that is, where do I feel tense, what is the tone of my voice? This on-the-spot living style is along the lines of what all the traditions say about living in the moment. It involves the technique of splitting the arrow of attention so a small amount of attention always goes to the observer her/himself. There is a kind of spaciousness that ensues... life is not so hectic.
So here is an exercise: split your attention so that some aspect of sensation is being tracked in your body while simultaneously looking, listening, tasting.
Being aware of the body and its sensations can anchor you in the present moment: the automatic machinery (of thinking about it conceptually) is not stimulated as quickly. And you are there with just the raw experience. You can do this by taking ten minutes to just tune in to body sensations. Then you can try to keep track of arm or leg sensations (as an anchor) as you go about the day.
Jung talked about the constellating power of the unconscious: just try to look at the Big dipper as just a bunch of points of light -- this is really hard to do: once a thing is constellated in your mind, it's hard. These techniques of deliberately controlling attention stop this constellating from happening. It is very hard to keep this practice up. We don't have a social system that values awake people. I tell people that I am a "transpersonal behaviorist," that people can be understood as machines. If you spend more time in this state you begin to see that we live in an art museum....
You can make up lots of exercises for yourself to explore this work, like the one where you commit to always noticing when you walk through a doorway which foot you put through first. This works really well for a while, but after time it no longer wakes you up. You have to keep examining your own mind and keep changing the exercises. [Gurdjieff taught the idea of frequently varying the daily exercises one practices in order to keep their awakening effects vivid and fresh. The website accompanying this magazine will be a cornucopia of innovative experiential exercises during the rest of 1998, for the use of those who are interested in varying their own daily practice of awareness in this way.]
Gurdjieff said that we are born with an "essence" and a "false personality," the latter being all the things you are conditioned to think and do. This leads to mid-life crises where people realize they have not chosen what they really value, or to be who they really are. [See A. H. Almaas' book, Essence; also the writings of M. Shafi.]
You can't force self-remembering. There does have to be this intentional act of will.
A science of mind has to be really open-minded. Could we train our scientific observers to calm the ordinary mind, to use concentration methods that stop that storm in the mind, then to get data from that mind, and to share it with others?
The context where the meditation is taught brings with it specific expectations: heaven? enlightenment? A western scientist has a set and setting of interest, curiosity, learning methods-techniques, openness, and wants to make a contribution. The ideal scientific method would be to train a group of practitioners who have no expectations about what will happen. Insight meditation can help you see the biases that one brings, and it might help you filter those biases out.
Consciousness has been out of fashion for a long while: this Conference has come from people who are studying brain chemistry, and are programming computers. I hope we will really look at consciousness per se.
Question from the audience: "Are psychedelics of value in this effort?" "Yes, if used properly and ignoring for a moment their illegality. The classical psychedelics seem to interfere with the neural processes that construct reality -- that give us a world simulation. A person gets a more valid view of life. But illusions can also be increased, especially in an untrained mind. In traditional shamanic use, where a discipline is brought to the use of psychedelics, socially useful experiments are carried out. By the way, I was a subject in some of the early LSD experiments, and I learned later they were funded by the CIA! I think I benefitted greatly from psychedelics, but it is a forced technique."
Self-remembering is intentional, not forced. Even when you see you are dog shit: keep paying attention, keep that equal attention to the inner and the outer world. Self-remembering is an exercise to get closer to the truth, not happiness. If you pursue truth, happiness comes as a side-effect.
Carlton F. "Perk" Clark, MSW, ACSW is a psychotherapist in Tucson since 1975. He has studied gestalt, bioenergetics, ego psychology, and transpersonal psychology, as well as Tibetan Buddhism and Sufism. He also consults to businesses on the topic of organizational development.
ALSO, through the June cover, see the accompanying article, "Part 2: 'The Hard Problem'" for more discussion of this teacher's approach. (And see Letters to MAM.)
DIRECT LINK to: Charles T. Tart, Ph.D., and his Works.
Mindful Awareness Magazine, June cover
Teaching Tools for Mindfulness Training on-line experiential tutorial