We’re joined again on Buddhist Geeks by one of the most influential figures in the transpersonal psychology movement, Dr. Charley Tart. We cover a huge range of topics in this interview, covering many things related to what he refers to as a “broad scale approach to meditation.”
Charley starts off by speaking about several hypnosis and sensory deprivation research studies, wherein the “demand characteristics” of the experiments dramatically affected the results of the research. We explore the implications this might have on the “set” or context that is used to set up meditation practice, and on the results people experience. We also discuss the lack of useful feedback that occurs in meditation communities, and the dramatically lower success rates of meditation communities, when compared to Western educational institutions.
- An Evidence-Based Spirituality for the 21st Century
- The Buddhist Atheist
- The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal Is Bringing Science and Spirit Together
Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn back again and we have a guest who we’ve had on the show before and it’s great to have him back. We’re joined today with Dr. Charles Tart who goes by Charley. So, I’ll refer to him from that here on out. Charley, it’s great to have you on the show again. I’m really looking forward to this conversation.
Charley: It’s a pleasure to be back, Vince. I’m a geek deeply at heart, so we’ll have fun.
Vincent: Yeah and last time for those that have been following the show we did a really interesting bit on evidence-based spirituality. And in some ways it was based a lot on your own writing and work. And then in part it was also a response to an earlier interview that we had done with Stephen Bachelor. You’re presenting some different counter points to some of the stuff that Bachelor said in his interview and it ended up being one of the most popular back and forths we’ve had on Buddhist Geeks. People really enjoyed seeing these different perspectives laid out together and it really evoked a tremendous amount of response and conversation. So that was really spectacular.
Charley: That’s good. I like it when I can stimulate conversation. Although, the flip side of that is that I sometimes warn my students that I can be awfully convincing in the way I say things and fool myself. So they should never just believe me, but just take it as stimulation and think about it.
Vincent: Okay. Well that’s a great set up for this conversation. And for those of our audience who may not be familiar with your background, kind of what you’re bringing to this conversation, I’ll just mention that you’re a psychologist. You’re kind of a seminal figure in the whole transpersonal psychology movement. Your first couple books were really important part of that whole movement, Altered States of Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychologies. You’re a professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto. You’re a professor emeritus at University of California Davis where you taught psychology for many years. So you’re bringing like a really interesting and powerful academic perspective as well as being a practitioner. I mean you’re really serious, committed spiritual practitioner.
I don’t know if we talked about your background last time. But I know privately that you’ve studied with different Buddhist teachers. Maybe you could say a little bit about that because I think that would be interesting.
Charley: Oh, well that’s been very interesting. I was raised conventionally. My grandmother took me to Sunday school. Grandmothers are the source of all love so what as good enough for her was good enough for me. So I grew up a Lutheran but then as a teenager I began asking questions of course. And like many teenagers seeing how hypocritical adults were and whatnot. And learning science at the same time which I really loved and seeing more and more the science seems to say it all this spirituality was a lot of crap.
So I was very lucky. I mean most people I know either kind of bought what they thought was science and said “right all spirituality is crap” and forgot about it or they got real rigidly locked into some religious belief system and tried to ignore conflict. But I was lucky in coming across the old stuff on psychical research and parapsychology, which said you could apply open-minded science to some of this and begin refining your beliefs. And sure enough there as a core of stuff that said people have qualities that you would expect a spiritual being could have.
That’s what my last book, The End of Materialism, was all about. How there’s enough good quality scientific evidence around us on a scientific basis alone you could see it’s reasonable to be both scientific and spiritual. Not that there isn’t a lot of nonsense under both those labels. We still need to learn to discriminate. But it’s not inherently crazy or dumb to be spiritual in your orientation.
Vincent: And what kind of things lately have you been into on the spiritual side of things, like are there certain teachers or techniques or things that you’re interested in?
Charley: Oh yeah. I have an interesting background that way. When I finally realized that some kind of meditation was a key to an active spiritual life I tried to learn it. And I read a lot of different books on it. I got instructions from a number of different teachers and so forth. And eventually decided that whatever kind of talent it took to be a meditator I guess I didn’t have it so I gave it up. [Laughs]
I mean, in retrospect I could look back and see they all seemed to say first quiet your mind and then… and I could never get to the and then part. [Laughs]
But luckily somewhere in there I came across Gurdjieff’s work where I could begin developing presence and not have to have a perfectly quiet mind to begin with and then meeting Shinzen Young who had broken meditation process, vipassana down to something I could go. So now I meditate pretty regularly. But I don’t think I’m a very traditional practitioner in any sense. I have a very broad scale approach to meditation instead of “well this is the doctrine and I should do it exactly this way and such and such a result will occur.”
Vincent: Yes, and that’s going to be really a big part of what we’re going to talk about today. You gave me just a perfect segue so thank you.
We wanted to talk today because you and I had been going back and forth on email talking about different things it might be interesting to explore in another interview. And you presented something that I thought would be really fascinating. You told me in one email that you’re interested in how the background and implicit surroundings of the spiritual search have really important effects on what spiritual techniques, practices, actually reveal. And that’s a very dense statement so I figured to start off with if you could maybe unpack for us what you mean when you say that?
Charley: Yeah. Well I think of vipassana, primarily the way I think Shinzen Young does, is it sort of creates a microscope. It trains you to really be able to observe the ongoing processes of your mind and your world with much more clarity and equanimity and concentration and so forth. And a microscope is a great tool. I mean that’s how science advances. You invent tools that let you look at the world more precisely. And if you want to develop a science of mind you obviously need something like a microscope to look at your own mind better. But a microscope is actually a very specialized kind of instrument. You don’t hold the microscope to your eye and you start wondering around the world, waving it around at random. You have to put a slide in the microscope. How do you pick the slide and how do you prepare a slide? From a little bit I’ve done back in biology I know that you can take the same sample and you prepare it different ways, you’ll see quite different kinds of things.
So you can in a sense very abstract the process of vipassana and talk about trying to be a scientist and objective and all that. But nobody learns vipassana or any technique like that in a vacuum. They learn it in a set of expectations they bring to it and a further set of expectations that are taught by the people who teach them vipassana. And I’m sure that’s going to have a major effect on what it is they begin to be able to see.
Now let me make that less abstract by using a much more concrete example. For years, one of my main focuses as psychologist was research on the nature of hypnosis. One of the big questions in hypnosis for many decades, even before I got involved, was just how powerful was it. How much control does the hypnotist have over a subject’s mind? And that could get into giving a particular example, could you make someone do something against their moral and ethics by hypnotizing them and suggesting that they would do it?
Well you can blabber on about that theoretically but the bottom-line if you’re going to be scientific about it is you do experiments to see if you can indeed use hypnosis to make that happen. And a funny thing happened. There was quite substantial proof that people would do things they’d never normally do once they were hypnotized. That included taking a gun and shooting the research assistant, throwing acid in the research assistant’s face, reaching into the box with a live rattle snake in it, going and stealing stuff from the coat room, and stuff like that. Case proven. Except all these other equally reputable investigators did the same sort of experiment and their subjects simply totally ignored the suggestions that came out of the hypnosis.
We had a real puzzle here. We had solid evidence that you could and you couldn’t. Well one of the giants of hypnosis researcher psychiatrist named Martin Orne back at Philadelphia eventually realized that you had what we called demand characteristics. An experiment didn’t take place in a vacuum. You didn’t walk into a laboratory and you were sort of blank slate and you got instructions A, B, and C and that was the end of it. You came into any laboratory with expectations from your culture. And as an intelligent person of course you were kind of psyching out the situation all the time. And eventually what looked like the best explanation was that subject could psyche out what was the right answer in terms of advancing science. And as it was important to prove that hypnosis could make you antisocial things, they did it. Because they knew that there had to be blanks in the gun, right? Professors don’t have easy ways of getting rid of bodies so even though something looks pretty awful, it’s not really that way. Whereas the ones who psyched out that it was really important to prove to people that ethical standards couldn’t be violated, they didn’t do it.
Now that’s where the fairly obvious thing like hypnosis, how about where the effects are much more subtle in terms of internal experiences. How much do the expectations you have control what you’re actually going to experience?
Vincent: That’s really interesting. And then with meditations it seems like that is one of those areas that’s quite subtle.
Charley: Yeah. This goes back to that thing that I mentioned a minute too. We could do a whole show on this hypnosis and meditation. Western psychologists have always had a vague thought up until fairly recently that meditation must be some kind of self hypnosis, although they couldn’t very well unpack what that meant. But hypnosis was something we thought we understood and that made this mysterious meditation stuff go away. But actually there’s a lot of differences in the process if you take the extremes of the two practices. But then again there are some meditation practices that sound a lot to me like they’re hypnosis and some hypnosis practice sounds a lot more like meditation. And again what are the expectational backgrounds that are going to come through in that? If you don’t know those things you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Well it’s very similar in the early days of psychedelic drug research too. When people thought these drugs produced model psychosis, they did. I have an even more dramatic example for you. Remember sensory deprivation research where they put you in a completely dark quite room and it’s known that it makes people crazy?
Vincent: Yeah, I’m looking forward to doing that someday.
Charley: Yeah. Well there were lots of experiments demonstrating this. Okay. They put people in these rooms and they went nuts. Somebody finally did it at the University of Massachusetts. This was a graduate student named Scheib. And he had subject come in one at a time. And what they actually did, they sat in a little room off the hall with the lights on in a hard chair and a table for an hour. And it wasn’t a sound proof room. It wasn’t dark. You could hear people walking by and the cars were outside and all that. They did have a button they could push if they couldn’t take it. But for half the people who came in, he would meet them, dressed very casually, introduce himself as a graduate student. And for his research he had that people sit in this room for an hour and then he was going to ask them how it went. Those people all basically reported they were bored.
The other half, he wore a white lab coat and a stethoscope and introduced himself as Dr. Scheib and this was an experiment in sensory deprivation. And in the corner beside him you could see a tray of hypodermic syringes labeled emergency tray. And then they filled a three-page release form releasing the hospital, the State of Massachusetts, the National Institution of Mental Health and the United States Government for any and all consequences resulting from participating in this experiment. Well a lot of those people pushed the button before the hour was up. It got just too weird and they reported all the classical effect of sensory deprivation. Their body changed in shape and size. They had strange emotions and all that kind of thing. All done by manipulating the set. They never made it as obvious as you’re likely to temporarily go crazy from this but people figured that out.
Vincent: That’s so interesting. Let’s talk about, because you’ve really explore this in other areas, I’m not sure that this something that’s been explored so much in meditation research, although, please bring that in if you’re aware of it. Let’s talk about the implications for things related to Buddhist practice.
Just as you’re talking I’m already thinking, “Wow the way that these practices are framed then if we follow that logic through would have a huge impact in what people experience or how they understand their experience.”
Charley: Well look at one traditional framing. Buddhism is about the diminution and cessation of suffering.
Charley: Well right away you started thinking about suffering now. Well that probably means when I meditate I should have some bad things happen, right? Because I’m dealing with suffering and all that.
How about if the same technique were presented as this is the way of increasing your efficiency and calmness and nothing was said about suffering. I think it would make a difference. Now of course we all suffer to various degrees but if you put the emphasis on suffering.
Yeah, I’m an optimistic kind of guy. And I’m especially puzzled by the Tibetans. They’re always talking about the end of suffering. I keep thinking they don’t look like they’re suffering very much. But that’s the official theme song there. Or people who learned a meditation technique because they have a physical disease problem or something like that; they’re not interested in enlightenment and spiritual growth and all that. Those things make a difference. Like with the psychedelic drugs again. Do you expect this as something that makes you crazy or something that gives you wonderful visions that will enrich your life, makes a difference.
Vincent: Nice. And it’s interesting because the research you talked about seems maybe that’s its really making that point strongly but then it sounds to in what you’re saying I don’t hear you saying that it make so much of a difference that it determines the experience. Rather it sorts of shapes or influences what… you used the term emphasis like an emphasis on suffering.
Charley: Sometimes it determines rather than just shaping. Let me give you another example. When I was in graduate school many years ago, we understood the biological basis of fear and anger. I may have reversed these two chemicals now after 50 years. It was something like anger comes when you have a high level of adrenalin in your blood stream and fear comes when you have a high level of noradrenaline in your blood stream. And this was in the textbooks. It was widely accepted because it’s been shown time after time that if you give people an injection of adrenalin they’ll get afraid and if you give them an injection of your noradrenalin they’ll get angry.
Well finally somebody did that same experiment injecting people with these things but they did it double blind. That is the person giving the injection did not know what they were injecting into the subject. And the subject did not know what they were getting or what was supposed to happen. And my gosh, you know what we discovered? Both adrenalin and noradrenaline make you tingle. How you then interpret the tingle determines whether it turns into fear or anger. We thought we were dealing with basic biology there. But huge differences just based on the expectations that had been communicated before.
Vincent: And this is I guess in some ways really core paradox in the whole scientific world. I mean thinking of things like nature and nurture. Things like that where, I know this is not exactly the same, but there’s a sense of to what degree is experience scripted by our expectations and what we think we’ll happen.
Vincent: I had a student actually I was working recently and I sort of shared a little bit about this practice that we were going to do together. And he said at one point don’t script me too much. And I was thinking, “huh, I wondered to what degree this is scripting and to what degree it’s actually setting someone up for success and being able to do the practice and understand what it’s aimed at.”
Vincent: So that’s maybe an interesting question to, is this bad news, is it good news or is it neither? What does it mean for our practice if we’re really interested in getting some sort of results from practice?
Charley: It’s good news if you know consciously that this is what you’re doing and you know how to do it skillfully. It’s bad news if you don’t know what you’re doing and/or you’re fooling yourself about what you’re doing.
So for instance if I think I’m conveying a completely neutral message to someone who will find out a technique does all on its own with no expectations, but in point of fact I’m creating expectations. I’m fooling them. I’m fooling me. I’m producing reports in the scientific literature that are going to confuse people and so forth.
On the other hand, if I know what I’m doing, that’s different. I’ve been writing a little bit recently for instance that I would like to get rid of the word placedo. The word placebo was originally a neutral scientific term. It meant you responded to something that wasn’t known to be chemically active for what it was responding to. But yeah it’s acquired the implication that a placebo reactor is somebody who is dumb and naïve, right? This person is so naïve I could give him a sugar pill and big things happen to him and all that.
And the doctor giving a placebo kind of knows that and this produces a funny interpersonal situation here cause people are in communication. I’ve been arguing let’s replace placebo with PEP. Let’s talk about a Psychological Empowering Process, PEP. Wouldn’t you feel much better giving someone a psychological empowering process than assuming their naïve enough that you can fool them even if it’s for their own good?
We’re getting into the real complications here now, Vince, because scientists are human. And scientists have a big attachment to the idea that they’re totally objective in their search for truth. Even though in point of fact they got the usual hope and fear that all the rest of us have. And a lot of time their research is biased.
The kind of bias experiment I told just about a minute ago, those scientist don’t want to think about those kind of things because it really complicates their experiment. I’ve been interesting in the bias question for a long time. Because, yeah, of course, I want my experiment to come out the way I want them too cause then I’ll think I’m so damn smart and all that sort of thing. But actually I’m really interested in getting closer to the truth. So I admit that I’m biased and try to figure out what my biases are and can I do anything to compensate for them. But if I don’t admit to myself that I’m bias then my biases are going to run riot and do all sorts of things. So there’s resistance at the scientific level to understanding how much we’re having an interpersonal relationship and how much that’s doing things.
I want to jump back to something you said earlier too. A lot of times when I’m doing some version of vipassana, I think my conscious thought is that what I’m doing is that I’m sitting quietly there, trying to observe whatever comes along or certain ranges of thing that come along and look at them clearly and with equanimity. And neither rejecting nor holding on to something like that.
But my main insight when I do this kind of meditation that happens every once in a while is I realized in spite of years and years of trying to be this, I’m actually subtly pushing or pulling. I have my idea of what this phenomenon ought to be like at this moment. And so I try to tell myself I’m leaving it alone and just observing clearly, and I see I’m pushing and pulling and trying to manipulate. I figure if I could ever actually stop manipulating I might finally do the meditation right.
Vincent: And then I can see because of my background with practice that there’re always in the way practices unfold, typically, we hear kind of the results upfront. You know vipassana is about clear seeing. You’re describing exactly descriptions of vipassana that I’ve heard. And then like you’re describing there’s a process of figuring out what that actually means on an experiential level. And then in my experience there’s like a cyclical process of that of experiencing it a deeper and deeper levels. How do you think that sort of process fits in with what you’re talking about, if it does?
Charley: Well I see the problem you mean because of course we want to get to the final truth and get it over with, right? And not have to keep working at it. What I do for myself at my best moments, at my worst moments I just fuss and sputter. But at my best moments I remember okay I’ll do this process and see what I see and if possible learn from that and not get too attached to or rejecting of the results. But not assume I ever finally got it or this is the final truth on that thing.
I’m a good scientist in that sense, because the brilliant thing about science is there’s a recognition that we love to figure things out. So even though we say we’re just studying the actual data of the world or our experience we love it when we come up with the brilliant theory. But the beauty of science is recognizing we can rationalize anything in retrospect. So once we have that theory that we love so much and that makes us feel so smart, we still have to work its logic and predict new things. If it doesn’t predict new things, out it goes or big modifications.
So I have little insights sometimes about how things work. I let myself feel good. I mean I can’t deny that. But I have to remember okay this is the best way I can figure it out at the time, maybe it’s true, maybe it’s only partially true and maybe it’s a delusion. But keep looking at what reality actually is.
Vincent: And have you gotten some value out of that process?
Charley: Oh, yeah. I mean having years ago decided I had no talent to be whatever a meditator is, I don’t think of myself as talented meditator but I sit practically everyday and I’m glad that I do. I go off on a retreat every once in a while and say yeah it’s a good couple of weeks. [Laughs]
Vincent: It’s just so interesting exploring things this way because in some ways I’m thinking of your points as in some ways pulling the rug out from underneath some of the assumptions that are often brought to certain practices. The main one being I think that these traditions and what they’re pointing to are kind of objectively true. And I know people don’t necessarily say that when they come to Buddhist practice. But I think for many people they feel that way at least I know for myself and for many people I know they do seem to feel that way. So then the question is well if they’re not, or if we even open to that as a possibility, where does that leave us?
Charley: Well I think we have to take a more nuanced position, Vince.
Charley: I mean you’re not going to do any of these practices unless you think they’re at least partly true.
Charley: But on the other hand to assume that they’re completely true, well on the one hand, that gives you a lot of power because you can really invest yourself in it. But on the other hand, you’re probably buying into illusions just as strongly as you’re buying in the truths. So every fanatic that we’ve heard about has had some great religious belief and experience that’s given them a lot of power and so forth. So there’s a funny combination of believing enough to really put energy into it but not getting overly attached to what you’re doing.
Now I envy the people who are really gung ho about a lot of things. I wish I could believe that much. But on the other hand, I have a hard time consciously lying to myself. I’ll give you one example to that and how it affects the whole system. I do Sogyal Rinpoche’s US retreats once a year and I’ve been a student of his for a long time. And a lot of times we’re at a room on a retreat and Rinpoche is teaching. It’s 500 students in the room and he makes some point in his teaching and asked do you get it? And I don’t get it because I think it was kind of a murky point. So I sort of frown or shake my head no. But the other 499 heads in the room are all smiling and nodding yes. Now I think well it’s possible I’m the dummy. It wouldn’t be the first time. Or its possible people are being nice or they’re caught up in the romance and they’re not only fooling themselves but they’re giving false feedback to our teacher.
When I teach in an ordinary class, I don’t want my students to nod and admire me if I say something that I didn’t say well enough for anybody to understand it. I wanted to say “Huh? I didn’t get it. What did you mean?” And I think that happens a lot. We have criteria for advancement in meditations sometimes. But I think a lot of times what that amount to since we want to think we’re getting ahead, we twist or distort our understanding of our own experiences to make them fit in with the system and start to give a false validation to the system that way instead of honestly saying no I don’t get it.
This is part of a question I would like to ask our spiritual and specially my religious friends once in a while and it usually bugs the hell out of them. I ask them has there been any advance in spirituality in the last few centuries? Now you know in most every other field of human endeavor science in particular we could say sure medicine is infinitly more effective and all that. But do a higher percentage of people who start meditating actually accomplish anything? Do a higher percentage of people get saved or anything? And I don’t think so because you don’t get honest feedback on a lot of these things which would enable people to then change their technique.
I don’t want my students fooling me. I teach a course on mindfulness at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology for instance and I try to model being mindful. And my proudest moments in that come when my students catch me losing it instead of modeling mindfulness. When they have enough taste of what it is to be more present and mindful and say, “Hey Charley you’re getting carried away and losing it there.” That’s wonderful. I hate it if they just said oh that’s wonderful.
Vincent: It sounds like in a lot of ways what you’re pointing to is a very different kind of relationship between teachers and students and a very different understanding of those roles and their purpose. Which to me has a lot of implications on things like how do we create a learning environments which encourage honest reporting and honest feedback even if it doesn’t line up with the systems expectations for instance.
Vincent: Anyway, you’re bringing up some really provocative and interesting things for me, and hopefully for other people that are listening to this.
Charley: One of my earliest effective spiritual teachers was the Chilean psychiatrist, Claudia Naranjo, who taught a combination of very powerful spiritual technique mixed in with psychological growth and exploration techniques. And that was really valuable to me to see what that could do. And so I’ve seen this many times for instance that people who have a teacher start having what psychoanalysts called a transference reaction. We all have the experience of when we were little kids we have this god and goddess, our parents, who were so powerful and were so magic. And even in later life that childish attitude gets projected onto people. That happens with spiritual teachers a lot. They become the magic mommy or the magic daddy. But that’s not what they really are. So in a sense you get a very powerful relationship, which brings lots of energy and can make things happen but it’s not based on reality.
And I think that’s one of the reasons why so often you find someone who’s been in a spiritual group for many years and they love their guru. She was the most wonderful person in the world and all of the sudden that transference flips from positive to negative. And she was exploiting me all that time and they lose everything because they were building the structure on fantasy instead of on a realistic perception.
What would be a major advance in spiritual teaching is when someday we now have a combined psychological growth and spiritual growth so we don’t have so much of this transference kind of problem, the projection stuff, that goes both ways incidentally. But we’re still a long way from that. People are still fooling from it but wow it’s a big one.
Vincent: Now you brought up this interesting point and maybe we could use this as a closing point that you’re not convinced that there’s been huge strides in terms of effectiveness, increased effectiveness of these wisdom traditions or wisdom techniques necessarily because of a lack of real honest feedback. Do you think that if there were better means of feedback and therefore means of improving how these things are taught, how they’re communicated, how they’re learned, how the teacher and students interact, if we could do that what do you think it might look like? And maybe what do you think are just a couple small steps that we might take both as students and teachers and all the roles that we fill in these communities towards something like that?
Charley: This is a major concern of mine and why I’m devoting the rest of my life to developing this field of transpersonal psychology where we not only understand spiritual experiences better but can make things more effective. An illustration: Years ago, I was having a conversation with Shinzen Young just sort of casually I asked him, if you teach people meditation what’s your success rate? And he said something like well if he does retreat or class or something like that practically everybody feels they’ve learned something and it’s going to be a major part of their life. And if he comes back a year later and 5% of them are still meditating he’s done very well. I was shocked. I was absolutely shocked, right? My criterion is western educational systems. I expect a 5% dropout or flunk out rate but not a 95% flunk out rate within a year. I sputtered and he said, no that’s not unusual. All the Western teachers he knows report a same sort of things and even the Eastern teachers. But it doesn’t bother the eastern teachers cause they say well you know it’s the student’s karma.
Charley: They got the karma to come around, they’ll come around. If they don’t have the karma to stick around maybe 10 lifetimes down the road they’ll come back. Well maybe that could be true but it’s also a marvelous psychological projective teaching system so the teacher doesn’t have to think “my teaching style is not working very well.” I want to get that 5% way up there.
Vincent: That’s interesting. So it’s like No Yogi Left Behind or something.
Charley: Of course, some of the people aren’t really ready for it and some of them have psychological problems they need to go off and work on. But not a 95% dropout rate, you’re not doing something right.