Observing vs. Developing

observing vs developing
You may be familiar with the work of Charles Tart, the person primarily responsible for popularizing the phrase “altered states”. Charley and I have been friends for a very long time and frequently exchange emails. Here’s a recent example.

Date Composed: April 30, 2014

Dear Shinzen,

Reading how mindfulness was done by Ledi Sayadaw within the scaffold of the Abhidhamma was very interesting.  It’s clear from psychological and neurological research that “perception” is not just taking a camera-doesn’t-lie photo, it’s a cognitive act, a construction. Automated, too fast, usually, for people to distinguish the jump from, to use the Tibetan frame, sixth consciousness to seventh consciousness.

This makes me appreciate your reframing even more.  To “label” (implicitly or explicitly) an observation that something in the quality of my experience has changed as “impermanence” makes me feel sophisticated and Buddhist, but that’s really jumping a long way from direct observation, “bare attention” to theory, interpretation.  Whereas labeling it more directly as in your approach, with more direct words like “increase” or “decrease” or “gone” is sticking close to the data, to switch to scientific phrasing, without forcing the data into a theoretical framework.

Since our minds are expert at (subtly) altering perceptions to fit beliefs, I think it’s wiser to not confuse observation and theorizing.

It’s not that clean a distinction, of course, as sometimes having a theoretical/descriptive system to fit observations into makes you more sensitive, but it can lead to distortion.  My personal observation, e.g., that the inner talk and imagery of my mind is constantly changing is an observation.  Declaring that “impermanence” is a fundamental property of the universe, on the other hand, is a big, big jump….

Anyway, thanks for what I’m calling the “cleanness” of your approach!



Hi Charley,

If there’s a cleanness to my approach, you can take some credit for that. Dialogues with people like you have helped me clarify many issues. I used to buy the claim that mindful practice involves nothing more than observing “just what is.” Of course, it’s true that as discrimination and detection skills grow, one starts to be aware of important things that were always there but were unnoticed previously. On the other hand, the techniques themselves may influence the form experience takes. That influence can be at a gross level or a subtle level.

Let’s start with gross impact. The gross level is what you refer to in your email. It’s characteristic of some people who work within the Mahasi tradition. They explicitly ask the student to experience the Three Marks of Existence – anicca, dukkha, anatta – in each sensory phenomenon that they note. Personally I would not encourage people to intentionally try to do that. It’s not that I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with doing so. In fact I think it’s a fine strategy that often works. The only reason I don’t encourage it is that I don’t want to set students up for failure, i.e., if they can’t perceive the Marks, then it fortifies the “I am less than” belief that so many people have. However I do sensitize people to the fact that a given sensory event may either be stable or changing, but I do that in a way wherein there is no implied preference for one possibility verses the other. And I do have students try to see that Suffering = Discomfort x Resistance. Finally, I do point out to students that if they happen to notice an “All Rest” moment within the inner system of See-Hear-Feel, that there won’t be a self there. In my way of thinking, sensitizing to the possibility of something is different from asking a person to find that thing.

Now let’s discuss the subtle impact.

The subtle way that mindfulness techniques might alter experience is that they can create positive feedback loops. For example, flow is usually a more pleasant way of experiencing the senses than is solid—and usually more efficient to boot! So naturally, the more you focus on flow, the more flowing the senses become. It happens automatically, natural selection at work on a small time scale.

In my current way of looking at mindfulness, I see neither the gross levels of impact nor the subtle ones to be in the slightest problematic. Mindfulness has a dual nature. On one hand, it’s a little bit like science where you observe what is with awareness extending tools. On the other hand, it’s also like going to the gym, where you intentionally alter the fabric of your being—but in a way that’s both natural and in the service of life. At the gym, muscle is broken down then grows back stronger. On the cushion, self is broken down then grows back cleaner.

As far as “seeing what’s really there” goes, one might distinguish three levels of claim with regards to what meditation does. The strongest claim is that meditation reveals important things about the objective nature of the real world. A somewhat more modest claim is that meditation reveals important things about the nature of consciousness and does nothing else. (By the way, for me consciousness ≡ sensory experience.) The weakest claim is that meditation reveals certain things about the nature of sensory experience but also alters sensory experience in a way that is conducive to human happiness. Historically, the great majority of contemplative masters make the strongest claim. Personally I think it’s intellectually safer to make the weakest claim. (Even the weak claim is highly non-trivial!) However, I would not in the slightest be surprised if the strongest claim turns out to be valid. Only time will tell. As Francis Darwin said, glory in science belongs not to the person who first states something true and important but rather to the person who first proves it!

Once again, I have you to thank for sharpening up my thinking around these issues.

All the best, Shinzen