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?

Chaos and Void: Gnosis and Scientific Practice

Professor Farnsworth: And, now that I’ve found all the answers, I realize that what I was living for were the questions!
Fry: That stinks, Professor. Too bad the universe made it turn out that way and not some other way. I wonder why it did that.
Stephen Hawking: Probably magnets.

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Science is a discipline that involves personal and social inquiry into the nature of reality. While having its intellectual forebears, it truly evolved into its own in the past few centuries leading up to the modern age. Searching for material truth has led humanity to develop sophisticated systems that parse cause and effect towards finer control and repeatability.

Science shares space with other fields of human knowledge that make concepts, attempt to explain natural phenomena, and provide experimental knowledge. These other fields include religion and philosophy. While its claims are often presented with the ring of authority, its provisional character is less apparent. The same factors that influence personal works are at play in science’s quest for accuracy, including accident, intuition, and material design.

One of the most influential philosophers in the way I conceive science has been Paul Feyerabend. In his classic book Against Method, Feyerabend outlined a philosophical attack on “homogenous” reality, and attempted to subvert reductionist approaches to science and life. In the beginning “sketch of the main argument,” he said:

Science is essentially anarchistic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. This is shown both by an examination of historical episodes and by an abstract analysis of the relation between idea and action. The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes. For example, we may use hypotheses that contradict well-confirmed theories and/or well-established experimental results. We may advance science by proceeding counterinductively . . . Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding. Yet is is possible to evaluate standards of rationality and to improve them. The principles of improvement are neither above tradition nor beyond change and it is impossible to nail them down.

Feyerabend refers to this methodology as “ad hoc,” and this opportunisitic approach to explaining cause and effect relationships has a lot to offer us. It envisions a kind of science in which all things are open to interpretation, experimentation, and meaning.

The experiment is often the nexus of scientific practice.  There are many factors that can affect how scientific experiments are designed and their results reported. These factors can include the subjects used in the experiments, intended applicability of the results, current limits of technology, use of materials and how they are set up within the system, how those materials interact, and the interpretation and assumptions of the scientists involved.

These assumptions can be particularly important for our investigation of scientific practice. Many times our theories are the best approximations we can make of complex phenomena, and those approximations allow us to make certain predictions and material designs. We also have to consider the use of the data we are working with. This is a strength of the practice as well as a weakness: what our data may lack in completeness allows us to manipulate the experiment more effectively. However, we should not confuse this with any kind of “ultimate” truth. The Wikipedia article for fluid dynamics states:

In addition to the above, fluids are assumed to obey the continuum assumption. Fluids are composed of molecules that collide with one another and solid objects. However, the continuum assumption assumes that fluids are continuous, rather than discrete. Consequently, it is assumed that properties such as density, pressure, temperature, and flow velocity are well-defined at infinitesimally small points in space and vary continuously from one point to another. The fact that the fluid is made up of discrete molecules is ignored.

The trade off to making these assumptions is that scientific theories cannot possibly describe or account for everything. There are therefore multiple ways of doing different “taxonomies” of theory. How one organizes their information can affect the system in exciting ways. This is one of the first lessons I learned from the study of history – how the issues of perspective and assumption effect the kind of history we are writing. There is not necessarily one correct perspective in this regard. Manuel deLanda’s work A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History writes world history from three different viewpoints:  geological, biological, and linguistic.   All three are valid perspectives.

According to Amanda Geftner, a science journalist who wrote the great book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, we can’t really determine a “god’s eye view” of the universe in which there is one transcendent perspective for all subjects. She writes:

A participatory universe? Participatory, yes; a universe, no. It was one participatory universe per reference frame, and you can only talk about one at a time. Why the quantum? Because reality is radically observer-dependent. Because observers are creating bits of information out of nothingness. Because there’s no way things “really are,” and you can’t employ descriptions that cross horizons. How come existence? Because existence is what nothing looks like from the inside.

Earth is just one part of an incredibly complex, dynamic system that is continuously effected through interconnected levels. This generates questions that scientists are able to explore further. They are then able to make new creations by setting up interactions in ways that were not possible before. When we set up these interactions within experiments, interesting implications spontaneously emerge. These implications then have important bearings on how we can make and organize decisions.

Just as important for scientific practice are the moral implications of how one builds their world. This is where the importance of ethics come in, and which the spiritual attempts to address: the wider impact of human activity. For example, use of fossil fuel burning is beginning to shift, helping to drive alternatives to sustainable energy sources. While combustible engines are scientifically applicable, they are silent on the degree and morality of their use. This degree of use will also change based on present observations.

Spiritual practices, which aim at a gnosis that can’t be proven with science’s external instrumentation, attempt to put us more in touch with human subjectivity and morality. It is a knowing based on the fact of our own existence – and the profound questions that follow. It is a knowing that isn’t afraid of following those questions into interesting spaces for their own sake.

Speculating on why this might be the case – isn’t a universe in which constant discovery is possible preferable to one in which there are no longer any room for the subjective or idiosyncratic? A lack of transcendent law seems to be a way to make sure that each subject has the ability to contribute in their own way. This way involves participating in an unknown manner.  An episode of Futurama, from which the quote at the beginning of this article was taken, beautifully illustrates the necessity of unanswered and unanswerable questions to science.   Material answers point to the enormous question, also addressed in this episode, of why things are the way they are.

How we create life is a messy, complex, and unpredictable undertaking that cannot be revealed through only material concerns.  Following this undertaking requires luck, knowledge, and skill that develops over time, and in which we may need to dispense with to go forward.  Even a totally accurate theory may be rendered obsolete as the universe continues to develop.

This is because that universe is alive – breathing in, breathing out, and transmuting itself at every opportunity.