Saturday, April 17, 2010

Toward a Science of Consciousness, Day 4: Transformations of Consciousness

I skipped day 3 of the Consciousness conference so that I could make a little money. But day 4, yesterday, was packed with new information that I want to share. There is a ton of stuff, so this will take a while to write up and post. Today I begin with the first session from Friday, Transformations of Consciousness.

Plenary 7: Transformations of Consciousness

First up, Cassandra Vieten details the transformative process of change and spiritual engagement.
Transformations in Consciousness through Spiritual Engagement. Cassandra Vieten, Marilyn Schlitz, Tina Amorok, Adam Cohen, John Astin (Institute Of Noetic Sciences, Petaluma, CA)

Spiritual and religious experiences and practices can result in transformations in consciousness - significant changes in people’s worldviews, motivations and priorities, perceptions of self and environment, cognitive/affective functioning, and behaviors. A series of studies including narrative analyses, focus groups, surveys, in-depth interviews, and longitudinal studies conducted by our research team has shed light on what aspects of spiritual experience and engagement predict health and well-being outcomes, as well as potential mechanisms of change. A model of the transformative process will be presented.
Vieten (who represents the Institute of Noetic Sciences) made a good argument for the study of transformations of consciousness, using a rather broad definition of consciousness: "The subjective internal reality and experience of the world, a perceptual view or worldview."

Her working model for transformation begins with a catalyst, a novel experience that launches the person into seeking an explanation or model for an experience. The catalyst can be an experience of awe or some kind of spiritual state, but just as often it can be painful, traumatic, or frightening. Importantly, she detailed what can go wrong at each stage of the process, and at this stage the person can simply reject the experience or deny its validity or impact in a variety of ways.

If the catalyst is not rejected, the person is likely to have seen the experience as profound or dramatic. They are more likely to have an openness of mind, be open to direct experience, to have repeated the experience, and have their experience validated by another person (often an authority of some kind).

The catalyst then launches the person into seeking behavior, looking for an explanation or model that can explain their experience. The downside is that people can get stuck in seeking and end up hopping from model to model and never really settle into any form of consistent practice.

If the person finds a suitable model, they then enter into a practice. She defines most practices as possessing the following qualities:

intention - desire, focus
attention - training the mind
repetition - keep doing it
guidance - a teacher or guide
community - like-minded people doing the same practice
cosmology - a model that explains reality
She also suggests that there are two pathways of practice:
training - top down, learning new habits, new methods for living
insight/realization - bottom up, worldview or mind-space shift as a result of experience
Again, people tend to get stuck in practice as end in itself. Rather than transferring the practice into their daily lives (life as practice, which is the opposite of being stuck), they are the equivalent of Sunday Christians (those who go to church on Sunday, but do not carry over the lessons into their daily lives). Another version of this is those people who get stuck in personal growth as the meaning of life. The healthier side of this is the shift from me to we - becoming of service to the world as a part of one's practice.

Finally, if all of these shifts are successful, the result is what she describes as living deeply. The problem in finding these people is that there is no adequate measure of this form of growth process. She would like to see the development of some diagnostic tools that can measure real depth of spiritual attainment (she and Jeff Martin, who was the next presenter, should talk).

In creating such a measure, she suggests the following qualities that might be included:
a more open stance toward experience
open/expanded sense of self
deeper sense of connectedness
shifts in temporal location
acting from attention/intention
values shift - worldcentric, cosmocentric
properties shift - context not content
Some mechanisms that might explain this shift include the following:
emotional regulation
meta-cognition shifts
subject/object shift
nondual experience
expanded compassion
Finally, she suggested that supporting transformational change in people is more about helping them live more deeply than it is about the change itself.

My questions:
1) What impact does the spiritual line of development have on other developmental lines?
2) How does someone stabilize the "state experience" (which is temporary) into a "stage attainment" (which is more lasting)?
3) How does one cope with the disruption to life that a transformative experience might bring? (As a side-note and self-promotional plug, I address this idea in my eBook on coping with change)

* * * * *

The next presenter,
Jeffrey A. Martin of Harvard University, has a project in which he seeks to verify people's claims to enlightenment. Of those he has tested, most seem to be failing.

Empirically Testing Purported Claims of Enlightenment Using Standard Psychological Methods and Instruments. Jeffrey A. Martin (Harvard University; CIIS, Quincy, MA )

Alleged non-symbolic experiences have been reported for millennia (Stace, 1960, Hanson, 1991). These experiences are often attributed to spiritual and religious contexts, however atheists and agnostics also report them (Newberg, d’Aquili, Rause, 2001; Newberg, & Waldman, 2006; Newberg, & Waldman, 2009). They go by many names, popular ones include: nondual awareness, enlightenment, mystical experiences, peak experiences, transcendental experience, the peace that passeth understanding, unity consciousness, union with God, and so forth (Thomas & Cooper, 1980; MacDonald, 2000; Levin & Steele, 2005). Most nonsymbolic experiences are temporary, but some individuals have reported that they experience persistent forms of them (Travis, Arenander, & DuBois, 2004; Maslow, 1970, 1973; Butlein, 2005; Levin & Steele, 2005). Virtually all of the information about persistent forms of these experiences comes from self report data (e.g., Stace, 1960; McGinn, 1991). No comprehensive empirical investigation of persistent forms of these alleged experiences has been undertaken and completed. This presentation focuses on the first one that is underway, and includes preliminary data as well as an overview of the inquiry and what remains to be done. The overall inquiry focuses on three phases comprising many data collection efforts, each of which are quasi- or full experiments. The first phase focuses on obtaining comprehensive psychometric profiles of individuals who self report these experiences, as well as relevant qualitative data. Examples of measures used in this phase include those covering: psychopathology, big 5 personality, anxiety, absorption, and developmental levels (such as the Washington University Sentence Completion Test). The second phase involves testing psychological claims made by people who self report these states using well validated psychological experiments. These claims are often considered untestable because they are put forth in a spiritual or religious context, and frequently used to refer to ‘ultimate’ truths. However, when one views these claims as psychological there are many empirical tests and measures that can be used to examine the scope of claims being made. For example, claims of ‘loss of a personal self’ and ‘unity’ can be tested from many angles. ‘Self,’ as these participants define it, contains racial and gender bias, so loss of this ‘self’ should lead to participants scoring low on covert tests for this type of bias. Claims of unbiased perception of the world and of seeing ‘what is’ much more accurately in every moment can likewise be tested in many ways, such as using experiments involving visual inattentional blindness. These two phases are being conducted in parallel and have been underway for approximately a year. A third will commence after the first two are completed and will focus on brain imaging based on the data collected in phases one and two. Individuals self-reporting persistent forms of this experience are rare, and data is collected as they are encountered recruited as participants. Strong efforts are being made to attempt a sample that is as diverse as possible.
Martin's definition of enlightenment revolves around the notion of non-symbolic experience - this is from his website (if you think you qualify as having had an experience of this nature, go to the website and add yourself to the subject pool):
The Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness is dedicated to academic inquiry into non-symbolic perception and cognition. Broadly speaking, non-symbolic consciousness includes the following concepts, and several others:
Nondual awareness
Mystical experiences
Peak experiences
Plateau experiences Samadhi
Silence beyond sound
Unity consciousness

Transcendental experiences
Cosmic Consciousness Numinous experiences Deautomatization

Flow experience
The peace of God, which passeth all understanding
Shamanic ecstasy
And many more...
He is looking for persistent experience, not a single experience. There has been very little research in this area for a variety of career-oriented reasons, such as tenure, grants, respect of peers.

He begins by suggesting that among those he has tested and interviewed, there is a very low level of internal coherence in their self-reports.

His research takes a three-pronged approach (1 and 2 are concurrent):
1. Psychometrics: self-reports, psychopathology tests, Big 5 personality, anxiety measures, depression measures, Washington University Sentence Completion Test (Loevinger's developmental levels), and absorption tests, among others.

2. In-depth interviews lasting as long as four hours. Martin is looking for clarity of claims, languaging issues, coherence with personal statements.

3. Brain imaging - this part is still incomplete but is in the works.
Part of the problem with this research is the variety of metaphors used to define the experience, such as: enlightenment, nonduality, samadhi, nirvana, ego-less, no self, one taste, one-pointed, satori, Godhead, bliss, union with the Beloved, flow, and so on. Each of these terms has specific meanings to the people who use them, so any kind of comparison of the terms is a challenge.

Of the 300+ people in his database so far, the diversity is pretty extreme. What he has found:
People are unlikely to stand out in a crowd
Super-achievers range from "rock stars" in the field to the homeless
Most are religious or spiritual
Age ranges from early twenties to early nineties
Globally dispersed, although 2/5 are in US, of which 40% are in California
Generally highly educated
Skewed toward men
What follows are the core claims made, in some form or another, by most of those who self-report an enlightenment experience or attainment. [It was unclear if these were among the 300+ confirmed cases or general self-claims that have been tested and rejected.]
Loss of self: However, most still take the "I" position in conversation. According to the psychometric tests, very little about (if anything) about their self is out of the ordinary. They seem to maintain their addictions, their mental disorders, their racial and gender biases, and so on. Those who know them often report no differences in their personalities.

As an aside, he mentioned one person who was taking anti-anxiety medications. This person reported absence of anxiety and appeared to test as such. However, he reported that if he did not take his meds, he would begin shaking and have an anxiety attack.

Absence of thoughts: This is a false claim. All those who make this claim still can communicate, problem solve, and so on. He suspects that they mean a reduction in self-rumination or emotionally-charged thoughts. However, during fatigue, hunger, or upon waking, emotionally-charged thoughts can creep back into awareness.

Oneness/Nonduality: No adequate test for this state/claim.

Inner peace: Most still subject to "troubling" emotions.

Reduction of autobiographical self: Psychometric testing suggests this is not true.

Lack of agency: No "doer," no free will - ME: witness state?

Things pass through: Not getting hooked, non-attachment. May be one of the best indicators in my opinion.
For all of those tested, orientation in time and space was consistent, and physical/emotional arousal still occurred.

The proposed mechanisms for how these people have these experiences are similar to what was presented by Cassandra Vieten in the first presentation:
1. Effort: Long-term meditation practice, or other practice. These people have devoted their lives to attaining this state/experience.

2. Self-objectifying event: A crisis, a trauma, or some other form of life-changing event launches the person into a position of experiencing self as an object of awareness.

ME: This is a major event for most people when it happens for the first time, but is this really an enlightenment experience?

3. Unknown: For these people it is unclear how or why this state emerges. This is the smallest category of the three.
As to the question of whether or not this state is permanent, as most who have been tested have claimed, the answer seems to be no. Many people have lost access to the state as a result of stress, illness, or other issues (one lost it when his wife divorced him).

Others reject the experience and want to be "normal" again. These folks do not like the changes it brings into their lives. I wonder if these may be the more authentic experiences?

I have some issues with this study.

My guess is that he is failing to distinguish between ego consciousness and witness state consciousness, and he assumes that if one is enlightened, the ego is no longer present or the person no longer feels normal human feelings, which is so wrong as to be laughable in my opinion. This quote explains the fundamental error in his approach (in my opinion):
"Many people make the mistake of thinking that since ego is the root of suffering, the goal of spirituality must be to conquer and destroy ego. They struggle to eliminate ego's heavy hand but that struggle is merely another expression of ego. We go around and around trying to improve ourselves through struggle, until we realize that ambition to improve ourselves is the problem." Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche: Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
When people achieve enlightenment, which may be more precisely defined as a permanent access the Witness State, the following conditions seem to apply:

1. the ego does not cease to exist
2. we do not cease to have normal human feelings
3. we do not stop experiencing pain
4. we do not lose temporal awareness
5. we do not stop thinking

However, from what I gather, we cease to attach to any of these things. We see painful feelings come into awareness and watch them dissipate when we do not attach to them, or get "hooked" by them in Pema Chodron's words.

In the famous Zen saying:

Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.
I think that Martin is doing something important, but I think he needs a better understanding of what enlightenment is or is not, and how it changes or does not change those who experience it.

* * * * *

Speaking of enlightenment, the final presentation in this plenary session comes from ZaChoeje Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk teaching in Scottsdale, AZ.

Tibetan Buddhist Perspective on Consciousness, Enlightenment and Reincarnation. Za Choeje Rinpoche (Emaho Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ)

A Tibetan Buddhist Lama shares how thousands of years of spiritual and philosophical tradition can give fresh insight on the nature of consciousness, causality, and ideas about Self. Experience firsthand how exploring new ideas can transform your world. The co-author of “The Backdoor to Enlightenment”, Za Choeje Rinpoche is a Tibetan Lama who was recognized as a reincarnated spiritual Master when he was an adolescent. He left behind his life in a refugee camp to live and study in a traditional Tibetan monastery as a student of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The next generation of spiritual teachers, Za Rinpoche incorporates ancient wisdom with a sharp understanding of the problems of our modern world.” Rinpoche is a spiritual leader of the Tehor region in Tibet. He represented his region in the presentation of the long life prayer to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in 2005
In all fairness, ZaChoeje (whose original name was Choejor Dhondup) makes no claim to enlightenment, and although he was recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the 6th reincarnation of the great ZaChoeje Rinpoche (whose last incarnation died in a Chinese Prison), he has no memory of any of his past lives. [However, he completed the trainings for the title of Rinpoche - the Geshe Lharampa degree, equivalent to a PhD in Buddhism - which generally take 25-30 years in only 10 years.]

Rinpoche presented the general Tibetan version of mind and consciousness, defining consciousness as the essence of mind, and not a physically identifiable thing. Brain and mind are connected, but not identical. Consciousness is the clarity element of mind.

The two elements of mind are consciousness and perception. We all have six senses, the five physical senses (taste, touch, vision, scent, sound) - each of which has its own consciousness - and mental consciousness, which is the sixth sense (identifiable most easily in the dream state).

He defined enlightenment as the transformation of consciousness: discovering impermanence, recognizing our inherent Buddhanature. This is seen as nonduality, one consciousness inhabiting all things in unity. All sentient beings have Buddhanature.

All beings can attain enlightenment by recognizing their always, already present Buddhanature. For him, enlightenment is a permanent state (we are already there, we just don't know it).

Some great quotes/koans:
Remaining unstruggled in the struggling world is enlightenment - He compared this to "coming home to the present moment."

Enlightenment is the DUH! moment - The Buddha giggled when he discovered his always already enlightened self, finding it funny that it had been there all along while he had spent years seeking it. It's a realization, not an achievement.

"We think of samsara (the reality that generates suffering) as being here and nirvana being somewhere out there, but it is the opposite. We are out there in samsara and we need to come back here to nirvana."
An important point related to the last presentation - Rinpoche says the Buddha still experienced struggling after his enlightenment, because struggling is the nature of this reality. However, and this is the key point, Buddha did not struggle with the struggling.

On the topic of reincarnation, Rinpoche says there is no proof. There are no physical markers than persists from one incarnation into the next.

At the moment of death, we dissolve (he used the word deconstruct) through eight progressive stages until at the moment of death he experience Clear Light, a very subtle state. At this point, all personal traits associated with that body are lost.

My thoughts:
His philosophy of consciousness seems to be monist in each person's lifetime, then dualist at the moment of death - very interesting approach. For this life, body and mind are unified as far as our experience is concerned, so that is how it is treated in practice.

He also supported the quote I presented in the last section from Chogyam Trungpa on ego - He made the point (during the Q&A) that ego is necessary for survival in this world. It is also necessary for development - we cannot transcend/subvert the ego in the return to our true nature if we have not developed a healthy ego in the first place. If we have no ego, we have no safety and will not survive.

Moreover, he made the point that centralization of identity in the ego is crucial to our development - this statement came in response to a question about raising our children without the supposed limitations of ego consciousness. He said, "We must consolidate before we can transcend."

Again, this question from the crowd of philosophers and neuroscientists seems to suggest a persistent and widespread misunderstanding of ego and enlightenment.

* * * * *

I have a lot more to discuss, including a new presentation from Antonio Damasio on his Neural Theory of Self, a look at Panpsychism (as closely as I can make sense of it), an effort to make sense of Damasio's "core self" and Buddhism's meditation practices to dismantle the self (another misunderstanding of Buddhism, I would contend), and a look at Rita Carter's presentation on multiplicity in the self (based on a lot of work by other people whom she failed to credit AT ALL), and more.

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