Here’s a short animated video in which our hero, Franz, contemplates mastery and flow.
Here’s a short animated video in which our hero, Franz, contemplates the research on happiness emerging from the field of positive psychology.
finishing up the first round of summer reading shown below. My favorite so far, How We Decide. It might just be a must-read.
Social Neuroscientist Cacioppo talks about his research on the dynamic relationship between health and loneliness. Really interesting nuggets throughout so don’t let the more physiological chunks deter you from watching the whole thing.
Science writer Sandra Blakeslee spoke at the Zen Brain gathering of meditators and scientists hosted at Upaya Zen Center in January 2009. She’s a fast talker and frankly, I don’t remember too much of what she had to say other than that she reminded me of Bud Craig’s work on the insula & awareness and Antonio D’amasio’s somatic marker hypothesis, theories I was familiar with as a result of attending the Emotion & Cognition Symposium at U of Wisc in Spring 2008.
I was surprised to see a copy on the shelf at my not-so-well-stocked local library recently and grabbed it along with the books I’d come for. Wide awake at 3 a.m. last night I picked it up and was treated to a most unexpected explosion of my mental phase space (I might be addicted to these explosions).
This book is a revelation. The ways in which she clearly articulates the disproportionate allocation of neuronal territory to pretty much everything in our experience (all of which builds up from our motor and sensory maps) has changed the way I look at everything from emotional intelligence, to my sucky cello playing, to teaching yoga (I’m only marginally better at that). I can’t recommend this book enough.
we contemplated it long enough and finally decided to take the plunge. get up-to-date twits on complex systems theory, emergence, self organization, punctuated equilibriums (equilibria?), yoga nidra, meditation, neurophilosophy, embodied cognition, positive psychology, and no-knead bread (!) at twitter.com/contemplatethis
Evan Thompson’s book Mind In Life is an illuminating followup to his earlier book, The Embodied Mind, co-written with the late Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch. Thompson’s first book introduced me to a uniquely framed model of cognition summarized here in Thompson’s own words:
Sensory stimulation does not cause experience in us, which in term causes our behavior…
…perceptual experience emerges from the continuous and reciprocal interactions of sensory, motor, and cognitive processing, and is thereby constituted by motor behaviors, sensory stimulation, and practical knowledge.
This sensorimotor way of being, in its full extent, comprises locomotion, perception, emotion, feeling, and a sense of agency, in other words sentience.
While Embodied Mind left me intrigued but confused, this latest presentation of ideas informing self-hood and consciousness lays out a clear and increasingly precise way of looking at the world, or more appropriately, being in the world. This way of being is the “enactive approach” introduced in The Embodied Mind, and while it is introduced as an enactive approach to cognitive science, Thompson proposes it as a method for increasing our understanding of the perception of time, emotion, empathy, evolution, and more. Most significantly, Thompson offers the enactive approach as a resource for closing the “explanatory gap,” an expression used to represent the idea that human experience has not yet been fully explained by physical processes. The enactive approach encompasses five ideas, summarized as follows:
- Living beings are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain themselves.
- The nervous system is autonomous and dynamic. Meaning is created through its circular and reentrant operation as opposed to being created in an information-processing, computational system.
- Cognition “is the exercise of skillful know-how in situated and embodied action.”
- A cognitive being does not move about in a pre-existing world, but instead the world is a “relational domain” revealed by an organism’s autonomous agency and interaction with its environment.
- Experience “is not an epiphenomenal side issue, but central to any understanding of the mind, and needs to be investigated in a careful phenomenological manner.”
The building blocks and application of these ideas are presented in a variety of contexts and domains including complex systems theory, philosophy of mind, molecular biology, neuroscience, evolution theory, and even artificial intelligence. The concepts presented apply to many levels of systems and organization and Thompson moves quickly between them. As a result, I found myself having to continually reorient myself to the current context. Reading about and integrating these interwoven ideas has, in itself, proved to be a self-organizing activity, dynamic and reentrant, and as such, a bit hard to wrestle with intellectually. As a way to organize these concepts, I will use the ideas of the enactive approach as a framework for both building up and drilling down, and in the end, if all goes well, this essay will coherently present my impressions of Mind in Life, a book I found to be chock full of resonant and world-view shifting ways of representing the dynamics at play in this organism and her environment.
The first idea in the enactive approach is essentially the theory of autopoiesis. Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana and his student, immunologist Francisco Varela, coined the term autopoiesis to describe the process by which biological organisms self-create and sustain themselves. The theory is most simply understood using the cell as model. A cell produces its own components, including the membrane that defines where it ends and the surrounding “molecular soup” begins. A cell produces itself in an “ongoing circular process.” Thompson provides a checklist to use for determining if a system meets the minimal characteristics of autopoiesis as follows:
1. Semipermeable Boundary: Check whether the system is defined by a semipermeable boundary made up of molecular components. Does the boundary enable you to discriminate between the inside and the outside of the system in relation to its relevant components? If yes, proceed to 2.
2. Reaction Network: Check whether the components are being produced by a network of reactions that take place within the boundary. If yes, proceed to 3.
3. Interdependency: Check whether 1 and 2 are interdependent: are the boundary components being produced by the internal network of reactions, and is that network generated by conditions due to the boundary itself? If yes, the system is autopoietic.
Thompson contends that autopoiesis is a concise and unambiguous way in which to define “life”, while other, more commonsense, means would be insufficient or unclear. To illustrate this point, using the above criteria, a bacterium and amoeba are autopoietic (and so living) but a virus and mitochrondia are not. Maturana and Varela claim that “autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize the organization of living systems.” Thompson leaves open the question of whether autopoiesis is sufficient for cognition, which he defines as “behavior or conduct in relation to meaning and norms that the system itself enacts or brings forth on the basis of its autonomy.” Instead, he settles on using the thesis that living systems are both autopoietic and cognitive as the basis for exploring the “deep continuity of life and mind.” This expression summarizes an important idea contained in Mind in Life, that “organizational properties of mind are an enriched version of those fundamental to all life.” At one end of this deep continuity of life (autopoiesis) and mind (cognition) is the single celled organism. As previously mentioned, a single cell is autopoietic: it creates and maintains is parts, including its own boundaries. The most basic elements of mind are evident as well, as illustrated by what happens when it is placed in a sucrose gradient. The cell moves randomly until it happens upon the orientation that increases its exposure to sugar and subsequently swims toward the area of greatest concentration. This example is revisited often and will illuminate later concepts.
The first idea of the enactive approach states that living organisms are autonomous. Autonomy is defined in this context using systems theory which models autonomous organization as one in which constituent processes…
- recursively depend on one another for their generation and realization as a network,
- constitute the system as a unity in whatever domain they exist, and
- determine a domain of possible interactions with the environment.
As previously described, the emergence of autonomy in the biological realm is autopoiesis. The autopoietic organism, once formed, is in no way static as it must continually renew its insides and its boundaries to remain an entity. Organisms must change to go on being, hence autonomy is inexorably dynamic. As Thompson writes “…stasis is impossible. The organism must eat and excrete; otherwise it dies. Without incessant metabolic exchange with the world there can be no emancipation of dynamic selfhood from mere material persistence.” But the system is not merely dynamic, it is complex. Described in the language of the nonlinear dynamic-systems approach, the self-organizing behavior of autopoietic organisms is “neither random nor ordered and predictable; rather it is in between, exhibiting changing and unstable patterns.” As Thompson points out, this kind of complexity is found “from the molecular and organismic to the ecological and evolutionary, as well as the neural and behavioral.”
In the context of cognitive science, the enactive approach applies the elements of autonomy and dynamism to the nervous system. The second idea of the enactive approach is elaborated by Thompson here:
The second idea is that the nervous system is an autonomous dynamic system: It actively generates and maintains its own coherent and meaningful patterns of activity, according to its operation as a circular and reentrant network of interacting neurons. The nervous system does not process information in the computational sense, but creates meaning.
While Thompson alludes to the analysis contained in Mind in Life regarding various approaches to cognitive science in the previous quotation (for instance, viewing the mind as computational), more interesting to me the explanation of how meaning emerges. The phrase he uses is “meaningful patterns of activity” and, as often happens for me when questioning the bedrock of my worldview, even this basic phrase, the constituent words of which could so easily be taken for granted, needs to be carefully examined. In this case it’s somewhat amusing since it led me to look up the meaning of meaning, that is, the linguistic meaning of the word “meaning.” In my understanding, in this context, meaning refers to the value or worth of an experience to an organism. So how does this value arise? Up until now, we know only that the autopoietic organism is autonomous and dynamic and that it must be so to maintain its existence. It does this is by sensing and moving. Maturana and Varela describe this sensorimotor interplay as “living is a process of cognition,” and “living is sense-making,” respectively. Thompson returns to our single cell bacterium moving through a sucrose gradient to illustrate this most basic example of the concept of sense-making:
The cells tumble about until they hit upon an orientation that increases their exposure to sugar, at which point they swim forward, up-gradient, toward the zone of greatest sugar concentration. This behavior occurs because the bacteria are able to sense chemically the concentration of sugar in their local environment through molecular receptors in their membranes. They are able to move forward by rotating their flagella in coordination like a propeller. These bacteria are, of course, autopoietic. They also embody a dynamic sensorimotor loop: the way they move (tumbling or swimming forward) depends on what they sense, and what they sense depends on how they move.
The meaning of sucrose as food is revealed only in relation to the cell. In and of itself, the sucrose molecule has no foodness. It is in this process of sense-making, of living, that meaning and value are are revealed. As Thompson puts it, “Sense-making changes the physicochemical world into an environment of significance and valence…” This sense-making is cognition as described in ideas three and four, the summaries of which are reiterated here:
Cognition “is the exercise of skillful know-how in situated and embodied action.”
A cognitive being does not move about in a pre-existing world, but instead the world is a “relational domain” revealed by an organism’s autonomous agency and interaction with its environment.
Thompson points out that the term cognition could be said to be conflated with adaptation and notes that the distinction in this context is that “adaptation is a condition,” and “cognition is an activity.” It’s worth taking a tangential foray into evolutionary theory with Thompson before returning to the subject of cognition. When addressing the conventionally held view of organisms adapting to external environmental pressures, Thompson offers up a different perspective that more accurately reflects the process of “dynamic stabilization.” Organisms do not evolve towards an optimal fit for a given set of environmental conditions, but persist so long as they are viable. Thompson writes, “Natural selection is actually a process that emerges out of autopoiesis…” and later, “Self-organization and natural selection (dynamic stabilization) are not opposed but actually two interwoven aspects of a single process of enactive evolution.”
He spends considerable time addressing the ways in which organisms and their environment co-evolve, and despite the fact that evolutionary theory is well outside my understanding, his treatment of the subject, like his writing in general, is accessible and engaging. In his chapter on development and evolution, he challenges the metaphor of DNA is a set of intrinsically meaningful instructions, a view he refers to as “informational dualism.” A more appropriate metaphor is offered in the expression, borrowed from Varela, of “laying down a path in walking.” In this view, there is no distinction between a plan of action and its execution. Though he cites often used language of genes “coding for” a protein or phenotypic characteristic, he points out that there is not a one-to-one relationship between DNA and proteins. Enzymatic processes inside the cell control a multi-step process that can use an identical sequence of DNA to produce different proteins depending on the chemical or environmental state of the cell. It’s interesting to note that DNA is, itself, produced by the cell’s own autopoietic system.
I return now to the topic of cognition in autopoietic organisms. Thompson never assumes we have fully integrated the novel ways in which he is using familiar terms, and thankfully helps us along by periodically reinforcing them for us, as he does here: “Cognition is behavior or conduct in relation to meaning and norms that the systems itself enacts or brings forth on the basis of its autonomy.” (emphasis mine).
Figure 1. presents the relationship of autopoietic organization, cognition, and the deep continuity of life and mind. From single cell to higher order organisms, living systems are both autopoietic and cognitive. Cognition, enaction, and sense-making are descriptors for the processes by which autopoietic organisms sustain themselves through sensorimotor interaction with their surroundings.
Figure 1. Autopoiesis, cognition, and the deep continuity of life and mind
Where the first four ideas laid the groundwork for our understanding of the enactive approach, the final idea is one of application.
Experience “is not an epiphenomenal side issue, but central to any understanding of the mind, and needs to be investigated in a careful phenomenological manner.”
As conscious humans, we take ourselves as inhabiting the most extreme end of the continuity of life and mind, and Thompson proposes that our best methods for investigating the nature of consciousness is through first-person methods. Towards this end, Thompson brings in and expands upon the philosophy of phenomenology as developed by Edmund Husserl, and later, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The motivation being that if the enactive approach is to be applied to the explanatory gap, a first-person method of skilled inquiry will need to be developed and employed, and phenomenology could form the basis for such a method. Viewed phenomenologically, there is no reality apart from that which is disclosed to us by way of the intentional activity of consciousness. The word intention, in this context, does not denote having a purpose in mind when acting, but instead is used to describe consciousness as “aiming toward” something beyond itself. It is in this context in which phenomenology contends that consciousness is intentional. Intentional experiences are described as “mental acts” which include “perceiving, remembering, imagining, empathizing, and so on.” This intentionality or aiming beyond may or may not be object-directed. For instance, perceiving is a mental act, or intention, that is object-directed while elation need not be directed toward, or about, any object. In attempting to grasp this concept of intentionality, it seems important to understand that mental acts cannot be understood independently from that which they intend, but rather the relationship between subject and object is what’s being described.
If this first level of investigation described by the phenomenological method is focused on the relationship between subject and object, the next step in its evolution, as developed by Husserl, is the inquiry into the “genesis of intentional experience in time,” termed genetic phenomenology. Returning once again to our most basic of autopoietic organisms, the cell, we have seen that it cannot continue to exist in a static state but must continually maintain its own existence. Thompson writes, “If the organism must change its matter in order to maintain its identity, then the organism must aim beyond itself in the here and now.” He later continues, “This necessity propels the organism both forward and outward. An organism must project beyond itself, opening into the temporal horizon of its own life cycle or lifeline and the spatial horizon of the outer world. In this way, autopoiesis and sense-making enact or bring forth biological time and space…” (emphasis mine).
Need propels the cell outward and forward in time. Thompson quotes Merleau-Ponty who writes, “perceptual synthesis is a temporal synthesis” to make the point that one must take up the analysis of time-consciousness as it relates to experience of intentional objects. Thompson devotes an entire chapter of Mind in Life to relating the enactive approach to the relationship between time and experience, and, in the process, introduces neurophenomenology, a scientific methodology that brings the first-person methods of phenomenology to the study of consciousness in the context of experimental psychology and cognitive science. An interesting hypothesis is presented, based on experimental studies conducted by Varela and others, that perceived time is not based on any ticking clock, either internal or external, but instead arises from neural coherence. Also called phase synchrony, neural coherence refers to synaptic firing patterns that are synchronized across disparate populations of neurons. Further, Varela proposed that the perceived present moment, or “now” has a measurable and variable duration defined by transient patterns of synchronous neural firing. In other words, “now” is actually a brief block of time.
The analysis of the first-person experience of the present moment logically flows into the study of consciousness itself. In contrast to theories that postulate representative neural states that correlate with conscious experience (NCC or neural correlates of consciousness), Thompson writes that neurophenomenological studies show that “ongoing patterns of cortical synchronization and desynchronization correlate with fluctuations of conscious perception.” Put another way, consciousness is not a function located in some region of the brain but instead, it emerges out of changing patterns of the firing of neurons widely distributed throughout the brain. He quotes J.A.S. Kelso who writes, “Mind itself is a spatiotemporal pattern that molds the metastable dynamic patterns of the brain.”
Thompson elaborates on the ways in which neurophenomenology is developing into an experimental methodology in which first-person reports of subjective experience are correlated with brain activity. He describes neurophenomenology as requiring three nonreducable components of analysis: phenomenological, biological, and dynamic. He points out that the inclusion phenomenology reveals the elements of “selfhood, purposiveness, normativity, subjectivity, intentionality, temporality, and so on– that would otherwise remain invisible to science. Put another way, phenomenology offers a way of seeing the inner life of biological systems.”
Thompson expands the subject of time-consciousness, relating it to emotion and in doing so, illuminates the strong connection between the affective valence of experience and actions alluded to in the earlier cell example. The cell’s movement through the surrounding environment of a sucrose gradient can be viewed as being guided by the attractive/repulsive valence of experience. Returning to the groundwork laid by Husserl, Thompson introduces his three intentional aspects of time-consciousness: primal impression (each “now phase”), retention (the just passed now), and protention (the now about to occur). Thompson cites Husserl’s example of listening to a melody to illustrate the interdependence of these aspects of time-consciousness:
For each now-phase of the melody, each currently sounding note, there is a corresponding primal impression directed exclusively toward it. (There are also, of course, primal impressions of the now-phases prior to and after the completion of the melody.) Primal impression involves no reference to either the past or future, and so by itself is insufficient for the perception of the melody (and for the experience of any temporal object, no matter how brief its duration). Primal impression must be accompanied by retention and protention.
One might be tempted to think that protention is unnecessary to the experience of melody, but it is noted that if the music were to suddenly stop, it would be startling. Our consciousness of the coming now-phase “always involves an open and forward looking horizon.” It is evident that retention and protention are qualitatively different as one is filled with a just-passed experience, and the other has contents yet unknown. This all gets quite confusing when Thompson points out the recursive nature of the flow. Retention is not only retention of what just occurred but also retention of the protention of the previous now. It is by virtue of this fact that Thompson is able to introduce motivation and emotional valence into the perception of every moment. He writes, “Retention always includes retention of protention and the way protention is fulfilled or unfulfilled…” Instead of being linked together, the present now’s retention pointing to the previous now, etc… as in the top half of Figure 2., now’s are nested recursively as shown in the bottom half of Figure 2.
If I were to apply Merleau-Ponty’s three-phase model of time-conscious to the cell in sucrose example, I imagine it would proceed something like this: the cell senses the presence of sucrose in the current “now-phase” and protends/anticipates its continuation in the next moment. If it encounters less sucrose it will be received as negatively valanced and alter course. If it encounters more sucrose it will be received positively and continue forward. The past, present, and anticipated nows are all necessary to effectively guide the cell.
Applying the enactive approach to emotion and cognition, neural processes can be viewed as having cyclic components of action-perception and sensation-movement. Thompson writes that “Emotion is embodied in the closed dynamics of the sensorimotor loop, orchestrated endogenously by processes up and down the neuraxis, especially the limbic system.” A “neurodynamical model” of emotion and cognition, developed by Walter Freeman, is presented by Thompson to address the question of how unconscious and conscious emotive behavior emerge out of neural activity. I can’t begin to make sense of this model which includes feedback and feedforward sensory, proprioceptive, motor, and time-space loops. Nonetheless, I am fascinated by Thompson’s observations of how Freeman relates his model to consciousness. Freeman proposes that global, coherent patterns of neuronal activity correlate to awareness, and as Thompson describes it, that “consciousness consists of a sequence of such states.” He continues to describe the implications of Freeman’s model, writing that, “Awareness, according to this model, far from being epiphenomenal, plays an important causal role…” regulating dynamic activity. He summarizes that, “…according to the enactive approach, sensorimotor processes modulate but do not determine, an ongoing endogenous activity, which in turn infuses sensorimotor activity with emotional meaning and value for the organism.”
Thompson proposes first-person methods, like those offered by phenomenology, could be developed to hone one’s attentional skills and provide a rich source of data to compliment conventional science’s third-person observations. The positive feedback loop created in the process of cultivating awareness opens up intriguing possibilities in the study of consciousness.
When viewing one’s self as an autopoietic organism, quotes like this one from J.A.S Kelso are intriguing. Referring to collective self-organization and dynamic systems he writes, “the system organizes itself, but there is no ‘self’, no agent inside the system doing the organizing.” It’s no surprise that, in his earlier writings with Varela, Thompson delves into buddhist mindfulness practices. The absence of an agent in autopoietic organisms, ourselves included, is consistent with experiences of “no-self” that emerge from countless contemplative traditions that hone attentional skills. Though commonly viewed as two sides of an unbridgeable gap, the inner and outer worlds of subject and object are integrated in the enactive approach that takes us from the most basic forms of biological life to the most vexing and long-standing questions of human existence: questions of consciousness, identity, and even free will.
In the late 1990’s, not knowing the slightest thing about yoga, I
gamely joined a friend for a $5 yoga class at a local church. The
lasting memory from that first class was one of being stunned by how
little my body could do. The fact that I was an avid rock climber at
the time confused me no end. I could scamper up steeply overhung rock
faces with a respectable amount of grace, but triangle pose left me
wondering when living in a body had become so difficult. In hindsight
it’s obvious that my body and brain had been at war for quite some
time. By day, I used my vessel relentlessly, giving its needs only
passing thought during endless hours of writing software, and only
then, when the pain in my shoulders demanded I get out of my chair.
Despite that rough start, or more likely, because of it, I was hooked.
Soon, yoga’s gifts of cultivating balance, exposing paradox, and
revealing quiescence were spilling over into life off the mat. So
enamored was I with learning about all things yogic, that I signed up
for a yoga teacher training. Though I never thought I’d become a yoga
teacher, I wanted nothing more than to fill in the gaps in my yogic
landscape with more sanskrit, more philosophy, more poses, and more
fun adjustments. My yoga teacher training offered all those things and
Throughout my arc as a yogi, I have explored many styles, from the
gentle flow of kripalu yoga, to the physically active flow of ashtanga
and vinyasa; from the heart centered anusara, to the intensely
engaging kundalini, but the real insights for me have come in
stillness. No matter what the style of practice, the pristine clarity
and peaceful quiescence of savasana is the jewel at the heart of any
yoga practice. This affinity for the vastness outside of time and
space is, no doubt, what has fueled my interest in the practice of
yoga nidra, or the sleep of awakening.
What sounded to me like a supreme waste of time in the go-mode of my
younger days has revealed itself to be a playground of creativity,
sensation, and awareness. Yoga nidra’s apparent power to alleviate
physical suffering, unwind outmoded thought processes, dissolve no
longer useful emotional associations, and just plain relax the body
have inspired me to learn more about just what it is that goes on when
we cultivate sustained attention during meditative practices. This
curiosity that has landed me in the Individualized Master of Arts
program at Goddard College where I am supported in my study of
whatever I feel will enrich my understanding of what happens when we,
as embodied beings, engage in contemplative practices. So far, this
has included neuroanatomy, biology, psychology, cognitive science,
philosophy, and, of course, contemplative practices, both moving and
still. It is with great joy that I continue to learn and to share the
practice of yoga in all its many forms whether engaging, restorative,
gentle, empowering, or just plain still…
Last week, I drove from Baltimore to Montreal for the sole purpose of retreating into silence with a group of six strangers. This was the third time in my life I have attended a silent retreat. The first time was for three days, the second was for ten, and this latest was for four. There is fairly wide agreement among those I meet that this is a strange and undesirable way to spend time, but I do not agree. Yes, it might be strange, but in fact, I can think of nowhere I would rather be. Having tasted the vastness of awareness that opens so easily in communal silence, I have found myself craving it, especially following busy times in my life. After my longest retreat at Santa Sabina, hosted by Richard Miller in the spring of 2007, I swore that I would never again miss that yearly opportunity to move into silence with a group of like-minded folks and gifted teachers. As 2008 arrived, I was given a work-study scholarship to the May Santa Sabina retreat, but I was unable to accept it due to a schedule overlap with final exams for my first semester as an adult student. I have since left the mainstream academic world of final exams, embarking on a self-directed study of contemplative practices at Goddard College. While studying contemplative practices it seemed to make sense to incorporate some personal contemplation and so I included this retreat, held in the mountains an hour east of Montreal. The retreat was lead by Joan Ruvinksy who I met, in silence, at Santa Sabina in 2007. Joan was one of many participants, in addition to Richard, who led practices during the ten days in Santa Sabina. What follows is an essay on this latest period of silence including a description of my understanding of the nondual teachings/philosophy as I’ve absorbed them from Richard and Joan, an overview of the practices used, and first-person observations of my experiences of contemplative communal silence.
As Joan puts it, on retreat “we meet in the paradox of apparent teachings,” apparent being the operative word. I come away from encounters with Joan and Richard with the sense that there is nothing to be sought. “Practice or don’t practice,” still there’s just this. Richard and Joan were both students of Jean Klein, a French doctor and chamber musician who, as they put it, “never took himself to be a teacher of anything.” What was offered by Jean Klein, and in turn by Joan and Richard, is a freedom from the need to be a student. There are no methods to learn, no practices to engage in with discipline or otherwise. There is nothing to believe or adopt. Nothing offered in their apparent teachings need be taken as truth, but instead, can be explored using a radical empiricism of first person experience. In my time with them, these apparent teachers have offered useful guideposts with great patience, described here as I currently understand them:
Doing happens, there is no doer.
Perceptions, thoughts, and actions arise, all within unbounded awareness. It is only after the fact that the story of self as controller is instantaneously and convincingly crafted to own the sensation, thought, or action. The moment of ownership presents an opportunity to return to presence. There is a palpable contrast in the global feeling tone when one takes ownership of an event arising in conscious experience. The first is a closing around the event and the second creates space around it. For example, when the event is the sensation of physical or emotional pain, the automatic framing is that I am in pain. In contrast, the framing of this sensory event as pain is arising feels different in the body. There is a space created when perceptions are free to arise within an expanded attentional field of awareness.
There are many ways in which meditation teachers encourage opening to the good and the bad in our lives, to all that is. The following Rumi poem is frequently evoked in yoga circles.
This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
When we close the door to shame or malice, we are in effect saying no to the present moment. Byron Katie calls our closing to the chunks of life we don’t accept as arguing with reality. The practice Joan offers during these arguments with reality is the useful expression “this too”. I have found it most useful when I become aware of a ‘no’ and, in fact, have begun to cultivate the practicing of listening for no. Attending to these moments when we wish things were other than they are illuminates their pervasiveness. It’s easiest for me to catch the arrival of no when I’m in physical or emotional pain. The identification with pain and the subsequent no happen quickly in the wilds of life, but relaxing into this too opens the experience up and the pain appears as but one of a myriad of perceptions arising in the present moment. While on silent retreat, I have had experiences where it feels as if I’m practically swimming in no, but gradually, there appear cracks between the no’s and I am able to open to this too.
There is no separate self, no separate other.
The first time I heard Richard present this idea, he described meditating on a rose long enough to realize that you are the rose. “There is no separation,” he said. This was many years ago and at the time, my mind balked at the apparent illogic of it interpreting it as some sort of semantic gamesmanship in which separation of my self from the rest of the world was merely a matter of perception. I have since heard this premise of nondualism framed in many ways, some of which have appealed more to my thinking mind than others. More importantly, I have had first person experiences of this nonduality which can best be described as an opening into pure consciousness in which my own previously identified self, as well as the perceived other, were both arising. Put another way, moment to moment, my own embodied being provides me with the capability to perceive the portion of the world with which I am currently in contact, both inner and outer. All of these percepts, whether originating from inside or outside this body/mind are arising within pure consciousness, hence no separation. The trap often comes by assuming that we are the self we have become so firmly identified with.
Until I arrive at a better understanding and ability to articulate these non-teachings, I will simply note that I have found the combination of doing happens and this too provide an applied philosophy that translates well into engaged living outside of the protective cocoon of silent retreat.
During retreats with my nondual guides, there are many practices offered, though each is presented as completely optional. This is not a nondual school of the zen variety. Discipline is neither demanded nor encouraged. The teaching lineage was never embraced by Jean Klein, and so lost, but it is known that these are tantric teachings rooted in Kashmir Shaivism. Though there are ancient texts available for study and modern Indian teachers who continue to teach this brand of nondualism, Joan warns of closing around cosmologies, practices, and doctrines. The following is a brief description of the practices employed during these silent retreats. The descriptions are not here to provide instruction of how one might perform them, but instead to provide context for the experiences presented later.
The morning practice on retreat begins with kapalabhati, sanskrit for skull shining breath. This is a breathing technique which incorporates a gentle but active drawing in of the abdominal muscles during exhalation and a passive relaxation of those same muscles on the inhale. Each breath cycle happens fairly quickly and is relatively shallow. Kapalabhati is considered a kriya, or purifying practice, done before other breathing techniques of pranayama (energy/breath work).
Alternate nostril breathing
Several forms of alternate nostril breathing practices are employed including nadi shodhana, viloma, anuloma, and pratiloma pranayama. These practices include various combinations/alternations of inhales and exhales through one or both nostrils. For instance, during anuloma pranayama (anuloma means “with the grain”) one inhales through both nostrils, exhales through the left while closing the right nostril with the thumb, inhales through both nostrils, and exhales through the right nostril while closing off the left with the ring finger.
The word mudra in sanskrit means seal. Though many mudras are gestures that involve the whole body, the term is often equated with those gestures conducted using only the hands. A simple mudra most people are familiar with from images of meditating yogis is the cin, or consciousness, mudra in which the tips of the thumb and forefinger touch to form a ring and the remaining three fingers remain open. There are many mudras presented during the morning practices of these retreats. They can be done alone or in conjunction with the kapalabhati. Richard even teaches a sequence of mudras, one for each of the 29 syllables of the morning chanting of the Gayatri Mantra.
Yoga nidra is a form of meditation in which attention is directed to sensation, breath, feeling, thought, mental imagery, identity, and pure presence. One could contrast it with other types of still silent meditation that engage either open attention or sustained focused attention on a single object. In yoga nidra, attention is cycled through the body. In classical yoga nidra, this rotation of consciousness maps closely to that of the sensory cortex. Additional attentional exercises incorporate combinations of a large number of passive techniques, sequentially addressing each of the aforementioned realms of experience (breath, feelings, and emotions, thoughts, etc…)
The practice of body sensing appears to be unique to the students of Jean Klein. Body sensing could be thought of as yoga nidra in motion, bringing in the motor element missing in a still, supine yoga nidra practice. Body sensing is a moment to moment inquiry into unmediated sensation during movements that arise spontaneously. The language of the guide encourages the student to move effortlessly (or to notice the arising of a doer) with exquisite attention to sensation. Movement is invited to arise without will so that motion and sensation may be observed arising within an expanded field of attentional awareness. It is a practice that does not make much sense to the thinking mind but one in which the senses themselves come alive. The practice is heavenly for some and excruciating for others.
This is a simple practice of using the eyes of another as the object in awareness. While it is quite simple, it can be a bit tricky. Many retreatants have described it as a difficult and uncomfortable practice during which self-consciousness, projections, judgement of self, and judgements of their partner arise. When one can relax into an open attention in which the perceptions of self and other arise within pure conscious awareness it can be a powerfully illuminating tool for dismantling limited concepts of separation. I have found this and other open-eyed meditation practices to be very effective techniques for guiding me fully into the present moment in which what arises is simply observed, not identified with nor projected onto the other. In contrast to the open-eyed sitting meditation technique of zen’s zazen, having an “other” with which to work illuminates moments in which the experience of self and other arise.
Though I wanted to remain open to whatever the experience of four days of silence offered, the 650 mile drive through blazing fall color in the Catskills and Adirondacks gave me ample time to build up expectations. I was a bit concerned that four days was not enough time to settle into the silence but the first morning of awakening to the pre-dawn intoning of the tiny Tibetan cymbals called tingshas brought me right back to the slow oscillating, dynamic equilibrium of luxurious silence. Each day began with one hour of optional practice. This time is for one’s personal practice. The nondual tradition taught by the teachers with whom I’ve attended silent retreats is one that offers techniques as tools, not as disciplines. This non-dogmatic outlook attracts people from many different backgrounds and so all manor of personal practices might be in evidence during the first hour of the morning. Though I had planned to do my own, often lazy, hatha yoga practice, the stunning beauty of the mountain sunrise transfixed me and I spent every morning in the warm quiet kitchen, looking out the east-facing windows with a cup of black tea, milk, and sugar (ed. note On reading this essay, Joan pointed out that mountain-gazing is a yoga practice described in the ancient text, Vijnana Bhairava. Maybe I’m not as lazy as I think I am.)
At 7:30 a.m., the tingshas called the group together for morning practice. We began by chanting three rounds of the Gayatri mantra ( known as the celestial song of light), practiced kapalabhati with accompanying mudras, and pranayama followed by silent sitting meditation. Not that long ago, I would have read the preceding sentence and promptly labeled this whole business as suitable only for new agers. I consider myself lucky that my first yoga teacher was a former sales rep firmly rooted in western normalcy and that only later was I introduced to these practices in bits and pieces, never receiving a chunk large enough to be considered a threat to my supremely rational self. Even after several years of yoga classes, I was alarmed to learn that my yoga teacher training would include the presentation of something called “alternate nostril breathing.” Despite my trepidation, the practice, known as nadi shodhana, has become one of my go-to tools for dealing with stress, but I digress.
When the morning practice hour ended, we moved into our silent breakfast, free to do as we pleased until late morning when the group reconvened for body sensing and yoga nidra. In the past, body sensing has been the practice I most enjoyed while on retreat, but the first two days in Montreal it was especially difficult to do the practice. I simply wanted to be still. And who was stopping me? This is the kind of question that arises in experience hundreds of times a day during silent retreats, and once it surfaced in this context, I did, in fact, lay flat on my back during body sensing, with movements so small they could probably not be seen by an outside observer. As has been my experience in previous retreats, these micro-movements amplified the sensory volume to levels I have never before experienced, and allowed short durations of pure sensation, beyond thought, image, body awareness, or proprioception. It is the experience of unmediated sensation, and one that proves surprisingly elusive. It is difficult to illustrate to one who is currently engaged in reading but I’ll try, nonetheless. Once you read my suggestion, maybe you will take a moment to take a break from reading this essay to give it a try.
Close your eyes and bring your attention to the sensations arising in the inside of your mouth. As you shift awareness from left to right sides, top and bottom surfaces of mouth and tongue, upper and lower teeth, notice if you find yourself thinking about or visualizing these parts of your mouth. Continuing to explore sensations while softening the eyes away from mental images, softening away from thought and continue to experience the entire inside of your mouth as a mass of pure sensation arising in open awareness.
This is the kind of guidance offered during both body sensing and yoga nidra, which was our last practice each morning. From 10 to 11:30 we moved like glaciers through a long body sensing practice, took a 15 minute break, and returned for 45 minutes of yoga nidra. Since yoga nidra is most often practiced lying down and the long drive had taken its toll, I struggled to stay awake during the first two day’s yoga nidra practices and fell fast asleep almost the instant I got supine. Lunch following yoga nidra was a riot of sensation, further amplified by the freedom from the distraction of the social demands of speech. Our time was unstructured until the late afternoon where the group came together for 20 minutes of silent meditation followed by a check-in to share whatever was arising. This introduction of dialog was a bit hard to transition into and out of and I wished the plan had been to remained in silence for several days before engaging one another. The act of speaking was so heavily laden with the emergence of my own sense of “I”-ness that I was not able to fully welcome it at the time. In retrospect, the contrast it provided was illuminating and reminiscent of coming out of silence after my last, much longer, silent retreat at which time I was painfully aware of the reemergence of my own personality. The third day of the retreat, our afternoon dialog was replaced with partner gazing. Though I was disappointed in having only one day of partner gazing practice, we were able to sit with three different partners in succession, each providing new insights. Silence returned as we moved into the dinner break and the evenings were spent chanting and reading poetry.
Each night I went to bed the moment the evening gathering ended at 9 p.m., falling quickly to sleep.
I’m afraid my insights will read like the nonsense William James found upon emerging from a seemingly insightful nitrous oxide episode. Everything he wrote down to capture the “fire of infinite rationality” turned out to be “meaningless drivel.” So it goes. What follows are random observations of what arose during the retreat, in no particular order.
Being elsewhere. For the first few days I found that each time I began to settle in and enjoy the silence I was pulled elsewhere. It was as if an epiphany or simply a good feeling was being co-opted by my personality, projecting it into the future and attempting to figure out how I could possess this good feeling and trot it out whenever I desired. My insights during these first few days just as often projected me back in time, eliciting judgements of how my ignorance preceding this wonderful new knowing were evidence of my lack of fitness as a meditation and yoga teacher. The tyranny of my identity became grossly apparent.
Dynamic equilibrium. I awoke during the middle of my first night to the sense that I was experiencing, in real-time, the firing of synapses, a sparkling network of transmission and feedback echoing like sound waves in a cave. It felt as if I could sense the interference patterns evolve into a steady state of softly oscillating patterns. The theme of oscillation continued throughout the retreat, fed by readings in the ancient text The Spanda-Karikas (The Divine Creative Pulsation). Pulsation, or as I was experiencing it, a dynamic equilibrium of gentle oscillation, was evident as subject and object repeatedly emerged and merged. This happened in partner gazing, during body sensing, and while just sitting focused on nothing, as my rods and cones tired and colors and shapes became only dimly present amid spreading ripples of dim and light not unlike those one often sees with tightly closed eyes. Once I began to settle into this experiential playground of openness in which all perceptions were heightened, though not necessarily distinct, it became harshly apparent when the tyrants of I, me, and mine arose to ruin the fun. This too.
The gap. As we sat with closed eyes during the morning meditation, there was an abrupt and fairly loud sound. During that afternoon’s dialog, Joan described how in the stillness of the morning’s meditation, a gap opened up between the sensation of sound and the formation of its resulting perception/realization that a bird that had just flown into the large window of our meeting place. I too have noticed the formation of these gaps between sensation and perception, but during this retreat, I was aware more often of the simultaneity of the two occurrences. Perhaps with a few more days of silence I would have once again witnessed the slowing of time and the opening of such a gap, but my predominant experience on this retreat was one of perception as a reminder to revisit the echo of sensation, attempting retroactively to experience it in a form unmediated by thought.
The power of an ‘other’. In keeping with my earlier experiences on retreat, partner gazing turned out to be a powerfully illuminating practice. My first two out of three experiences were full of the oscillations between self emerging and merging. The sense of “I” emerging was accompanied by inner dialog. In fact, inner dialog is often a reminder for me to sense back to the ground in which the dialog is arising. My sit with a third partner was similar to an experience I had at Santa Sabina. While this experience was not accompanied by the slowing of respiration that occurred in 2007, it did have a similar immediacy of presence. These moments are difficult to describe. It felt like sense domains softened and blended together and the air itself becomes more substantial as if thick and palpable, having texture and sound. In my earlier experience at Santa Sabina, this perceived thickness pervaded even cognition, as the thought process slowed enough so that the formation of thoughts themselves could be witnessed in realtime. An interesting paradox considering the simultaneous sensation of real-time immediacy, as if there was no lag between stimuli and perception.
Hypnogogic <-> Hypnopompic. When setting up for yoga nidra practice on the third day I chose to sit up. I wanted to stay awake during the practice but within minutes I found myself zooming down through the hypnogogic state at the edge of sleep. Since I was sitting up, the swaying of my head brought me back up through hypnopompic state that usually accompanies the transition from synchronized sleep to wakefulness. Following the practice I was puzzled and a bit frustrated that I had not heard a word that Joan said. Only much later, once I had returned from Montreal, did I realize what an interesting experience it had been since we normally have only one opportunity each day to experience each state and when going to sleep at night we are rarely aware enough to observe the transition. During that forty minute practice, I’d passed through both the hypnogogic and hypnopompic states, however briefly, about 20 times. In fact, it felt as if I was oscillating steadily between the two states. The phenomena present at the moment of ascension when full awareness returns is very much like that described in the previous description of immediacy of presence. As if reality is simple more real and completely unadulterated by thinking.
In the days since my return to interactive life it’s been difficult to sustain even glimpses of this unadulterated realness. The first few days I awoke early and continued the hour of morning practices but the perception of a self that needs to do things has whittled away more and more of the time allotted to just sitting. There are books to read, papers to write, classes to teach and the ownership of doing is returning so much more quickly than I’d hoped. While on retreat, the morning’s progression from darkness to sunrise was my most consciously open time of day. It was the time of day during which my oscillations between separation and union were at their slowest. It is also the time when, now home, I am most able to sustain the quickly fading insights of silent retreat. The sense of self as doer is back and any thoughts on when/if I will ever come to reside in just this is yet another attempt to hang on to the wondrous experience of being at play in each moment. This too.
if the shoe fits…
: an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income
Etymology: Yiddish luftmentsh, from luft air + mentsh human being