The Varieties of Contemplative Experience and the Meditative Marketplace

By identifying a broader range of experiences associated with meditation, along with the factors that contribute to the presence and management of experiences reported as challenging, difficult, distressing or functionally impairing, this study aims to increase our understanding of the effects of contemplative practices and to provide resources for mediators, clinicians, meditation researchers, and meditation teachers. (1-2)

The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE) is an important and scholarly article that aims to expand public knowledge of Buddhist meditative practice and its range of possible effects.  Willoughby Britton is one of its contributors and has played an active role in the contemplative community.  She will be familiar to those of you who’ve read this article and have heard of Cheetah House, a place where those experiencing the abrasive effects of meditation can rest and recuperate.  VCE is a landmark study and anyone interested in starting meditation, creating a meditation group, or bringing meditation into the workplace should read it.

I have written several times on the broad spectrum of experiences brought on by my own meditative practice.  I have been practicing meditation daily for around nine years, and in that time I’ve experienced things that were life-changing, amazing, and positive.  Other parts of the practice pushed me into an extremely intense and profound dialogue with parts of myself that I had not yet fully processed or integrated.  Pursuing meditation on my own compounded these difficulties, and I lacked both community resources and a context for what I experienced.

That is why studies such as VCE are so necessary right now, especially given the current state of meditation in America and its position as part of a wider consumer culture.  Mindfulness is an example of a meditation practice that has gone mainstream and has been disseminated as a solution to a wide range of problems.  Meditation has therefore settled into an uneasy polarity with the marketplace at large, and is in many respects being bought and sold like any other commodity.  There is unfortunately still a lack of public dialogue and resources around these types of practices.

One of the main arguments of the article is that the “positive” effects of meditation are widely reported and emphasized, while “adverse” effects are little understood or appreciated by the wider public.

While these sources are often assumed to be indicative of ‘the effects of meditation,’ the focus on positive health-related benefits represents only a narrow selection of possible effects that have been acknowledged within Buddhist traditions both past and present. (2)

On the one hand, this is perfectly understandable, since capitalism has brought many esoteric religious teachings into the marketplace at an extremely rapid rate.  There is a public reckoning with these teachings that is similar to what is happening currently with psychedelics.  There is still some debate within various circles as to the merits of these kind of substances, but it seems that there is a general shift of opinion happening in this domain.  However, with psychedelics, the public seems to be much more cognizant of their dangers than practices such as mindfulness.

The situation with mindfulness and meditation is as if psychedelic substances were widely available and popularized without any kind of meaningful guide to the inner territories they explore.  I find it difficult to believe that mindfulness can truly be marketed as a wholly safe practice in light of studies such as the VCE.  The article provides an extremely interesting image in the form of a table of different types of meditation experiences of novice and seasoned meditators.  I have experienced many of these throughout my practice, and information like this table is a good general indicator of what the student can expect as they progress, and will hopefully become more prevalent as the public discourse around mindfulness begins to shift.

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The marketing of meditation and esoteric religious practices to a wider community than they were intended has both profound challenges and opportunities that are still being addressed.  The more I have studied meditation-based texts, the more I have appreciated their power and insight.  I have also come to a subtler understanding of the reservations that many of these texts express with their knowledge coming under wider public scrutiny.  This may be one reason why these kinds of practices were reserved for a select few, in ensuring that the student had the necessary training to use this practice in the most beneficial way possible and navigate the types of difficult terrain the VCE describes.

Maps of this terrain are very useful because they help the student understand these experiences in certain ways, as well as giving the student a basis to weather their many internal storms.  An example of this kind of system is found in the book Steps to the Great Perfection: The Mind-Training Tradition of the Dzogchen Masters A step by step process is laid out, giving the student different nodes to focus on, and giving them different kinds of trainings to engage in throughout.  Examples of some of these practices are impermanence, nonconceptuality, and the Buddha’s virtues (7). The author then proceeds to give different kinds of methods (including some pretty intense visualizations) to more fully understand each of these instructions.

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While I don’t think that a system is necessary for every practitioner,  with them the student is less likely to get lost or focus on the things that don’t lead to a more refined practice.  And even with a practice as seemingly simple and straightforward as mindfulness, any sustained amount of time spent observing our own mental processes is bound to bring up plenty of ancient, hard to integrate material.  The more students and teachers become aware of the wide range of experiences that can occur in any kind of meditation, the more robust our public discourse will be at handling these kinds of situations.

The VCE fills this role admirably and widens the lens of the possible effects of contemplative practice.  I hope that more people who are utilizing meditation read VCE and give it the attention it deserves.  And as someone who in many capacities has gone it alone for almost a decade of meditation – please don’t go it alone.  Find people you can dialogue with and a teacher who can help put things into perspective – until you reach a point that you can decide whether that specific perspective is still needed.

Other Minds, Other Stars

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I recently finished the book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith and would highly recommend it.  Through the focal point of the octopus, Other Minds provides an extremely realistic way of understanding animal intelligence and behavior.  It not only looks at what sets the octopi apart from other creatures, but how their unique path on the evolutionary tree helped shape their biology.  Their nomadic lives created an increased intelligence which seems to have close parallels to human evolution.

[Octopi] are smart in the sense of being curious and flexible; they are adventurous, opportunistic . . . Cephalopods, with the partial exception of squid, acquired a non-social form of intelligence.  The octopus, most of all, would follow a path of lone idiosyncratic complexity. [64-65]

One of the things I most enjoyed was how Other Minds approached evolution and analyzing how intelligence is shaped by evolutionary circumstances.  Part of the book examined how complex nervous systems evolved, including our own.  According to Godfrey-Smith, tracing the roots of consciousness lies at the beginning of life on earth, and minds later evolved in relation to other creatures.

Nervous systems evolved before the bilaterian body plan, but this body plan created vast new possibilities for their use.  During the Cambrian the relations between one animal and another became a more important factor in the lives of each . . . This entanglement of one life and another, and its evolutionary consequences, is due to behavior and the mechanisms controlling it.  From this point on, the mind evolved in response to other minds.  [36]

Later on, Godfrey-Smith takes apart several important evolutionary factors comprising human minds.  One of the most important of these is  inner speech, which Godfrey-Smith describes as how your brain creates a loop.

Inner speech can feel a bit like reafference – like the result of an action that affects your senses – but inner speech is confined inside, hence not really heard (at least when things are working as they should).  If inner speech is a kind of broadcasting of information in the brain, it resembles the loop of reafference seen when you talk aloud to yourself or write notes to yourself.  But this time the loop is tighter and more confined, invisible rather than public, a field for free and silent experiment.

When we see the human mind as the locus of countless loops of this kind, it gives us a different perspective on our own lives and those of other animals.  This includes the cephalopods discussed in this book . . . The human case – an extreme case – suggests that the opportunities associated with reafference help to drive the evolution of a more complicated mind.  Cephalopods are on a different road. [156-157]

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In coming to terms with our own minds, it is important to realize how those minds absorb, filter, and create their own unique perspectives in light of natural selection.  Thinking in this way, and how experiences of other animals differ based on their evolution, is an important tool for broadening our perceptions.  Godfrey-Smith touches on this in his book, and wonders about the differences and commonalities between octopus experience and our own.  This is important for how we view ourselves, planetary evolution, and the shifts that seem to be happening everywhere.  In order to bring this out a bit more concretely, lets conduct a thought experiment in that vein.

Begin to ponder the similarities and differences in how an octopus perceives relative to human experience.  How an octopus feels each tentacle thinking and moving on their own, idiosyncratic habits of perception, their own private yearnings and daily pains. Wonder if there is communion found in the gnawing hunger that disappears as quickly as it rose.

By extension, then, how does this kind of diverse experience of everything else mesh with our own?  What are the minds of trees, rocks, and soil over the vast, alien scales of geologic time?  These diverse views all hint at an infinite intelligence that rises out, expressing itself depending on different conditions.  These evolutions lead to all kinds of what we consider intelligent and adaptive behavior and have given birth to the various kinds of life we share this reality with.

This opens the door for all kinds of evolutionary paths for other planets to take.  We may not have heard from alien species since our kind of intelligence is not the only kind, and not the only way to measure evolution.  Since we have not yet discovered life on other planets that we perceive as intelligent, it may simply be that other species have developed many different kinds of intelligence, communication, and behavior that reflect their planetary conditions.  We may not have heard from them since they have not yet communicated in a way that humans find meaningful.

As we become more skilled at manipulating our environment for our own purposes, perhaps we are in the throes of leaving this planet for another.  This has led us to a time of intense anxiety, where we increasingly face an incomprehensible future.  The effects and predictions of global warming seems to be upsetting many of our traditional models.

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On this note, I bought the book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World.  The book so far has outlined what author Timothy Morton describes as hyperobjects, which are highly distributed, and cut across numerous particulars.  Hyperobjects dissolve what we tend to think of  conventional objects in terms of locality and boundedness.  Global warming, according to Morton, is a good example of this, and like the iceberg on the cover, indicates something giant beneath a seemingly placid and substantive surface.

In The Ecological Thought I coined the term hyperobjects to refer to things that are massively distributed in in time and space relative to humans . . . Hyperobjects have numerous properties in common.  They are viscous, which means that they ‘stick’ to beings that are involved with them.  They are nonlocal; in other words, any ‘local manifestation’ of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject.  They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to.  In particular, some very large hyperobjects, such as planets, have genuinely Gaussian temporality; they generate spacetime vortices, due to general relativity.  Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time.  And they exhibit these effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects.  The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge: it’s a hyper relative to worms, lemons, and ultraviolet rays, as well as humans. [1-2]

Unlike many philosophers, Morton is an excellent writer.  His writing does a great job of evoking what he is describing.  He freely ranges across topics in a way that anchors his central thesis, tying together many different histories and perspectives like the hyperobjects he describes.

This sense of reality is one in which many of our cherished ways of understanding are collapsing under the weight of global human advancement.  It ties into one of the most important developments happening at the moment – the development of machine intelligence.  Many of us have come to rely on technologies such as smartphones that manage our lives through effective manipulation of our data.  A distinct possibility exists that we will only merge further with our machines, and create something which supersedes us in the process.

I’ve heard this growing machinic presence referred to as a “Cambrian explosion,” and which seems to be currently happening within many different domains of human life.  Perhaps machines are emerging as the dominant form of life and are simply a natural reflection of this diverse universal intelligence – and yet another path to take down the rabbit hole.

Like the octopus, have we opened a door into a rich and unique form of evolution?  Are there evolutionary forces at work now pushing us towards other minds, other worlds, and increasing intelligence?  And is this evolutionary door a crucible for humanity – the challenge that determines whether we can actually control this planet on such a scale that we make a form of life never seen before?

Free Solo and Beginner’s Mind

I recently caught the documentary Free Solo at my local theater. The film follows rock climber Alex Honnold in documenting some of his rock climbing feats, leading up to climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. What makes this feat so impressive is that Alex climbs this 3,000 plus foot wall without any kind of ropes or support. To prepare, he climbed El Capitan numerous times while figuring out his route. Once he had a route established and memorized, he climbed utilizing the moves he had worked out beforehand.

Go and see Free Solo if you’re able to. It asks a lot of interesting questions about what it takes to climb like this, about Alex as a person, and whether his kind of life is reconcilable with the needs of his romantic relationship. The film also lends additional perspective to Alex’s uncanny abilities. Far from being the mediated experience many of us expect in the outdoors, Alex is thousands of feet in the air, with vastness all around him.

As I was watching the movie, I got a sense of the way in which Alex’s creativity on the rock mirrors some of what I’ve learned through meditation. Zen’s free-form approach to inquiry provides space for our own effort and is similar to Alex’s approach.

When we go to a Zen center and begin to learn meditation, there is no fixed idea of what we have to learn there. The teachers there never told me that I had to learn anything from meditation or that I had to accord with any kind of group belief. We do have to internalize specific social rules so that we don’t disturb anyone’s practice (i.e loud breathing, constantly moving on the cushion, etc.). If we are staying as part of a community, we will have to learn certain ways of living in and contributing to it. We also take the rules of sitting posture seriously since these are crucial to this type of practice. Beyond that, we are allowed room to explore.

Similarly, without any kind of climbing dogma, Alex is attuned to the things that interest him. He has developed a custom set of techniques around these interests. These include visualization, keeping detailed records and journals, and athletic conditioning. All of these things are uniquely calibrated to contribute to his goals. Alex uses these as a way to expand himself and his field. He has taken climbing’s history and technology, and completely remapped what is possible within it.

In order to do this, he appears to always keep himself open to what he learns. This is an example of “beginner’s mind,” a phrase used by Shunryu Suzuki and featured in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. This book is a short and wonderful introduction to Zen. Beginner’s mind connotes a mind that is dynamic and responsive at each moment, without fixed ideas. It may take a great deal of practice to see beginner’s mind in ourselves within those fixations.

My experience of beginner’s mind emerged once I started to understand my own insubstantial basis. In meditative practice, we are drawing closer to that mystery which underscores human accomplishments in every field. In St. John of the Cross’ diagram for Ascending Mount Carmel, the phrase “Nothing, nothing, nothing, and on the Mount, nothing” appears centrally and vividly. The more I meditate, the more I have come to feel that I too am this nothing. This realization has prompted some interesting consequences to the way I think, feel, and experience life in general. The discoveries shed light on the precipitous climb that starts on our own self-centeredness and culminates in looking into our source. We are reaching towards something The Zohar calls “end of thought.”

The way this insight changes everything is that realization that we are that something called “end of thought” creates a different sense of life in which there is nothing that can’t be rewritten or relearned. Alan Watts has a wonderful story that demonstrates this about a Zen priest and a geisha, with each demonstrating beginner’s mind.

A Zen buddhist priest was attending a dinner party one evening. The guests were all seated on the floor around a low rectangular table. On the table in front of each guest was a small hibachi grill filled with hot coals. The diners were cooking their own servings of meat and vegetables, which they took from various bowls on the table.

Several geishas were serving the guests. The priest noticed that one of the geishas conducted herself as if she might have had some zen training.

He decided to test her, so he called her over.

The geisha knelt across the table from the priest and bowed. The priest bowed in return, and said: “I would like to give you a gift.” Using his chopsticks, he reached into the hibachi, picked up a hot coal, and offered it to the geisha.

She hesitated for a moment, then finally pulled the sleeves of her kimono down over her hands. She grabbed the coal, ran into the kitchen, and dropped it into a pan of water. Her hands were not hurt, but the beautiful kimono gown was ruined.

The geisha went back to the table and knelt across from the priest. She bowed to the priest. He bowed in return. Then she said: “I would like to give you a gift too.”

“I would be honored,” the priest replied.

She picked up a pair of chopsticks, removed a hot coal from the priest’s grill, and offered it to him. The priest reached into his robe and took out a cigarette.

As he leaned forward to light his smoke he said, “Thank you. That is exactly what I wanted.” (Text courtesy of Reddit)

Alex’s incredible climbing prowess reminds us of the power of each of us to do this on a daily basis. If someone offers a method, it invites reflection. But don’t assume that this method is a substitute for our own efforts. We may find something different when we do the same thing for ourselves. Being alive is responding to ever-changing conditions, and the capability to try the new every day. This ability to respond becomes even more important as we communicate with others and grow into this uncertain future together.

Congratulations to Alex. You can buy his book Alone on the Wall from Norton here. Alex also has a charitable organization called the Honnold Foundation that installs solar energy in needed communities. You can donate to his foundation here.