Bonnitta Roy anchors both perception and the self in the participation of mind, body, and brain in a phenomenalistic and integral redefinition of both self and experience. The result is a call for sensory clarity, as generated by extreme meditative, sport, and musical direct perception, as a prerequisite to authentic human relating. To this formulation Integral Deep Listening (IDL) adds an emphasis on a collectively-oriented, experiential and multi-perspectival phenomenology that demonstrates the necessity of the cultivation of morality and empathy as objectively-determined assessments necessary for the emergence of an authentic, balanced self.
What is a phenomenological approach?
When approached in an integral context, phenomenology is deep perceptual examination that is participatory, direct, and adequate. (Roy, 2017) “Participatory,” designates transactional, interdependent, and co-arising characteristics. Participatory perception is not an interaction between self and the other but among mutual selves and mutual others. Therefore, participatory perception is non-dual, due to its experiential mutuality. “Direct,” means “non-mediated;” therefore, simple and clear. “Adequacy” is defined by the purpose or intention of the act of perception. Therefore, an adequate perception is one that has adaptive utility.
Phenomenology, while traditionally considered a form of introspection that minimizes both assumptions and expectations, can be applied to any object of awareness, not only to interior ones. In fact, phenomenology, when rightly approached, recognizes introspection as an a priori assumption to be minimized, stripped away, or laid aside, in favor of simple and clear observation.
As a methodology of research, IDL, as a form of integral phenomenology, rests on three of the four axes of validation delineated by Roy (2017): 1) adequate participation with the topic through direct, phenomenological inquiry, 2) an individual, collective, cultural or political transformative potential, and 3) purposeful action-inquiry toward the good. (p. 7) To the good, IDL adds the true and the beautiful, the other two elements in the Socratic Triune. Each of these three counterbalance the other two, disclosing important domains of value in their own right, and each representing broader constellations of related, supportive families of values. Roy believes her four axes of validation of an integral phenomenology are best addressed through the four criteria of appeals to deepest spiritual intuitions, validation through scientific enquiry, are politically actionable, and aesthetically, generate harmony, balance, proportionality and other elements of beauty.
IDL criteria of organic enquiry as a form of transpersonal research include focus on transformative validity, that is, the thesis as an “evocative vehicle of feeling as well as thinking.” Roy, (p. 7) In IDL interviewing, we experience this in the affective elements of becoming a hedgehog, spit, or an infinite plenum of love and gratitude. Secondly, IDL reliably presents diverse and intimate views of whatever topic is under phenomenal investigation. Third, those who hear or read an interview become engaged in a parallel process of transformative interpretation.
What Roy calls the exploration of micro stages, states and the micro-genesis of experience through integral phenomenology Roy, (p. 8), IDL calls the exploration of intrasocial realities through an experiential and thoroughly phenomenological multi-perspectivalism.
Both Roy and IDL have arrived at a similar, desensionist approach to language as a result of the application of a rigorous phenomenology. Sam Harris has said,
“What the whole world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration.”
Roy’s deeply sacred approach to integral phenomenology minimizes the use of such terms as “spiritual,” “God,” “divine,” “soul,” and language associated with energy bodies, such as “etheric,” “subtle,” or “causal.” IDL does the same, based on the lack of reference to such language by most interviewed emerging potentials as well as the stripping away of associated assumptions as an aspect of its phenomenological method.
Roy on the nature of perception
“Perception is a kind of multi-layered ecology of participation, where figure and ground, agent and environment, content and context can filter themselves in or out.” Perception, according to Roy, can be differentiated from affect, cognitive assumptions (“tacit knowing”), and “virtual” perception. “Virtual perceptions” are simulated perceptions, including inner hearing, images, taste, smell and touch, whether experienced in memory, fantasy, dream, or an altered state of consciousness. They only are delusions if they are first assumed to be real and then discovered to not be what is assumed. However, as part of a phenomenological encounter, ontological status can be suspended as well, allowing the object of perception to define itself. “…correct perception as adequate participation; and perceptual errors as a consequence of lack of adequate participation. This solves the perennial parable of the snake that is mistaken for a rope.”
“Perception, as an ecology of overlay, can be construed as a continual dialing in and out of available features “afforded (offered or provided) by the world” until it satisfies the conditions for a needed or desired action. A convenient analogy would be tuning a radio to a station that satisfies a threshold of fidelity.” Roy views “…perception as the out-pouring energy toward the object that is desired or loved; whereas affect (is) the flooding-in energy of relationship…” (p. 70)
“…perception, as direct participation is perfectly attuned to the world, because it is something that the world does, in mutual participation with us. Error, confusion, deception and bias all result from a lack of adequate participation. Fully realized, authentic participation results in the experience of enhanced, direct perception of the rich, abundant, vivid display of reality, and a keen insight into our place in this sacred world.” “According to (Gelukba Sautrantika, a Tibetan Buddhist scholastic tradition with a highly refined theory of epistemology), the possibility for non-dual knowing is given by the interpenetrating mutuality of thought, perception, and world, which leads to liberating insight.”
“Direct perception, in the purest sense, is perception absent the participation of imagination. We can also think of direct perception, as degrees of awareness of the role of the virtual and imaginary in our experience. The greater degree of awareness, the greater choice we have to intentionally add in or subtract out the components of experience that are extraneous to the objects of perception. The integration of awareness and intention, consciousness and choice, is spiritual wisdom.”
While direct perception can be cultivated through mundane and secular trainings in sports, music, and other disciplines, it is most clearly and powerfully articulated and developed by Zen and Tibetan Gelukba.
The common assumption is that it is the responsibility of the self to do the integration of perception by mind, brain, and body. Perception is participatory and represented by the various intersections of virtual mind, body, and brain by Roy’s diagrams in her appendices.
IDL as an integral form of phenomenological enquiry
Several factors make Integral Deep Listening an integral form of phenomenological enquiry, following Roy’s criteria.
A phenomenological enquiry into knowledge
First, IDL applies a multi-perspectivalism to multiple sources of knowledge. Knowledge in IDL comes from learning and following the methodology. Learning IDL provides tools for objectification from scripting, drama, cognitive distortions, and intention in the form of personal goals, expectations and preferences. Following the method builds knowledge in the forms of trust in the methodology, multi-perspectival awarenesses, and the type of experiential knowledge that comes from the application of triangulated recommendations.
This is not fundamentally a cognitive process, in the way apprehension of both dreams and waking experience is normally understood. Rather, as elements of these sources gain our attention as wake-up calls or simply arouse our curiosity, whether in the form of life issues, dream material, or imagery, thought, affective, or intentional material from meditation or other altered states of consciousness, these elements become first objects of direct identification and then interviewed using the appropriate IDL interviewing protocol.
These multi-perspectival sources of knowledge may be internal, in the form of knowledge about the self, affect, cognition and virtual perceptions and information, and “sensory information.” “Virtual information” arises as thoughts and mental images, memories, fantasies and dreams, while “sensory information,” involving proprioceptive and other forms of sensory input, life issues that address either the immediate socio-cultural sphere of interpersonal relationships, financial security, and physical and mental health, on the one hand, and the broader socio-cultural sphere, on the other. These multi-perspectival sources of knowledge raise important issues, both via methodology and interview responses, in areas of enquiry, including the natural sciences, psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, literature, the arts; as well as transpersonal wisdom. Therefore, a phenomenologically-based experiential multi-perspectivalism is applied to both cognitive realms of knowledge and immediate realms of experience that encompass not only cognition and affect, but core connectivity to both body and ecosystems.
A phenomenological enquiry into wisdom
Second, IDL is intended to access wisdom in several ways. Wisdom comes from the objectification of self via repeated disidentifications with multiple perspectives that may or may not be self-definitions; this is an assumption laid aside by phenomenological methodologies. Wisdom in IDL also is a consequence of depersonalization without fragmentation or decompensation but, on the contrary, heightened integration through the incorporation of expanded, more adequate self-definitions into a thinner, clearer, more transparent sense of self. Wisdom in IDL also arises via identification with higher octaves of core values, such as confidence, empathy, wisdom, acceptance, inner peace, and witnessing; and a heightened ability to balance not only such values but the contents of each of the four quadrants (feelings, thoughts, and bare consciousness, multiple perspectives and values, behavior, and interaction with both others and the environment.)
Interviewed perspectives tend to possess more wisdom than we do because their perspectives include our own and therefore possesses our degree of wisdom while adding the wisdom intrinsic to their own perspectives, thereby providing perspectives that provide some degree of wisdom to that we already possess. Wisdom as well as knowledge in IDL also comes from the application of interview recommendations. This is not only because application provides opportunities for expansion of identity in ways that are increasingly adequate, but because becoming more adequate perspectives than our own at appropriate times and in appropriate ways is wise.
Phenomenological identification with transformational perspectives
Third, there is a good case to be made that experiential access to perspectives that both include and transcend our own is transformational. Interest in transformative knowledge for IDL involves both learning about and becoming the perspectives of interviewed elements from dreams or the personifications of waking life issues, collectively referred to as “emerging potentials.” These may reflect stuck, fixated, or regressed perspectives or subtle, causal, high witnessing (turiya) or non-dual (turititya) perspectives. Knowledge of these perspectives becomes transformative to the degree that they are successfully incorporated into an expanded sense of identity, as is the intent of such practices as Tibetan Deity Yoga.
Notice that those perspectives derived from “external” or Lower Right social, interactional and interobjective “Its” as well as others, including gurus, lamas, and experts, can be invaluable in the development of this or that line of expertise, while still not including our own perspective. This is because, after all, the perspectives of others are theirs, not ours, and the claim that those perspectives includes ours, while possibly correct in some broad metaphysical sense, is, on a functional level, not only an assumption, but an extremely dangerous one. For example, when Saul fell off his horse and had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, he reframed the meaning of Jesus’ life not only for himself but for all humanity. The assumption of universal validity, if fervently believed and accepted by others, becomes a toxic substitution for the impulse to find one’s own truth and path forward. IDL is also transformative in that it allows life to negentropically and autopoietically amplify its priorities in subjects, regardless of their level of development or state of consciousness.
Whole person involvement
Fourth, to the extent that the whole person can be seen as the interactive participation of mind, brain, body, and world, IDL attempts to allow life to sculpt or reorganize these into forms appropriate for the resolution of specific life issues and for the furtherance of the priorities of life itself. Whole person involvement for IDL involves personal investment in both primary and auxiliary integral life practices mediated and directed by triangulation.
Phenomenologically multi-perspectival, not psychologically geocentric
Fifth, IDL is integral in that it is experientially multi-perspectival in the sense that it is not self-sense oriented or centered. AQAL is fundamentally a cognitive multi-perspectivalism based on understanding multiple world views from a perspective of knowledge about levels, lines, states, quadrants, and styles. Because we tend to identify with our thoughts, our sense of self adheres to our level of understanding, meaning that because we understand 2nd Tier we assume we are 2nd Tier. IDL interviewing is an experiential multi-perspectivalism that is independent of one’s knowledge of integral AQAL or any other cognitive multi-perspectivalism.
While valuing and honoring both psychological geocentrism and psychological heliocentrism, IDL is a practice that de-centers identity from any one self or any particular cluster of self-roles. Nor does it attempt to access a unified, transcendent sense of self in the sense of either Jung or Vedanta. Instead, application of IDL interviewing reveals a self that is increasingly transparent and clear, without any particular locus of ownership. Instead, this orienting and adaptational core shifts from task and perspective without adopting some stereotyped role that is a subset of some broader definition of self.
Integrative of a spectrum of modes of knowing
Sixth, IDL attempts to integrate a spectrum of modes of knowing associated with the four quadrants of holons: sensory impressions, words and thoughts, images, feelings, dreaming and shamanistic or other states, images, whether from normal creativity, thinking, problem-solving, and higher order knowings that are subject to some operational form of objective verification, identification during interviewing and later, in specific waking contexts or in meditation, sensorimotor modes, and in direct means, that is, by becoming the object of knowing, as in IDL element identification.
One becomes the object of knowing through direct means by making objects within any of these domains subjects for identification in the interviewing process and later, in various forms of application. IDL also attempts to recognize and honor these holonic aspects of any specific interviewed element. We do so when we disidentify with our self-sense in order to respect, learn from, and transmute by taking the perspective of the experienced other. This can be a simple presence or an interview as elaborate and specific as those found in the IDL interviewing protocols. Such interviewing can be extended into dreams, both normal or lucid, or other states of consciousness, including meditation. The integration of a spectrum of modes of knowing for IDL involves the integration of sensory impressions, whether from waking, dream or other states of consciousness, words and thoughts in waking,
The importance of experiential multi-perspectivalism within a phenomenalistic context
Much traditional identification, such as becoming one with an object that is the focus of a meditation, like a flame or bodhisattva, or with an interior virtual flame or bodhisattva, or with the body-mind-brain constituents of the flame or bodhisattva, bypasses multi-perspectivalism in preference of unification. The result is a mergence of self and the object of identification without ever surrendering one’s sense of self and authentically taking up the perspective of the flame or bodhisattva as an equally authentic and autonomous perspective. Without this step, unification is relatively superficial, because there never has been a full realization and embodiment of the perspective of the other. This is rather like sex without empathy, without having experienced love, intimacy and oneself from the perspective of the other.
The relative superficiality and depth of transformation and transmutation that results from these different approaches is significant and important. Where transformation turns objects of fear, anger, sadness, or confusion into positives, transmutation, as defined by Wilber, is “looking directly into a negative state of Form in order to directly recognize its already present state of Emptiness of Primordial Wisdom.” The first tends to lead to psychological heliocentrism while the second to an authentic experiential multi-perspectivalism.
The line-dependence of enhanced perception
Roy differentiates “six key features of enhanced perception in extreme sports: clean intention, tuned attention, sensory acuity, enhanced proprioception, time-space dilation and self-less-ness,” and states that “it turns out that these are exactly the kinds of disruptions to the EBMB, “the embodied body-mind-brain”) that advanced meditation training (especially Zen, but including vipassana) are designed to do.” (p. 19)
“Such disruptions occur between self and body in specific auxiliary lines related to athletic training. We can suspect that the creation of such disruptions will take us to similar states associated with advanced meditation training at the interface between self and brain and self and virtual or imaginative realms.”
A basic problem arises. These states of selfless, exceptional harmony appear to be line-dependent rather than attributes of overall development. While they are authentic, generalized physiological states, functions, and adaptions, they appear to only express within this or that consciously focused context. For example, when a musician gets into a state of “flow” he or she can experience both spatial and temporal dilation and exceptional interpersonal connectivity among members of the ensemble. However, this appears to have no correlation with drug use or success in relationships. Why not? In another example, Joe Montana, the famous quarterback, reported that the entire time he played American football “unconsciously,” implying a selfless state of flow, yet there is no indication that this state extended into other lines, such as moral, empathetic or some sub-lines of cognitive development, such as world view. Why not?
This ties in with our knowledge that Zen monks could actively go to war for imperial Japan and Dzogchen Tibetan monks who could meditate in selfless flow and sensory clarity without experiencing any moral ambiguity about living in and supporting a feudal serfdom. It would appear then, that while these important and fundamental neurological and cognitive potentials and competencies have the potential to be generalized, they are generally limited in their expression to specific lines of conscious choice or preference. This is quite important, because most people think they are this or that developmental line. For example, most people identify with their emotions, which together comprise not only several sub-lines but a whole stage (mid-prepersonal) of development of the self.
In addition, most people identify with their thoughts; we typically think we are what we think; our world view, for example, defines who we are. If we learn AQAL and adopt cognitive multi-perspectivalism, we tend to assume we are developed to vision-logic, if not beyond, simply because we identify with the level of development of our cognitive line. If we develop status, we can easily define ourselves by the praise other people shower upon us; if we become wealthy, we can easily assume that we are powerful. Many athletes so focus on proprioceptive development that attention, awareness, and even identity are entrained to the physical. Therefore, if they have an accident and are no longer able to perform, they can lose purpose and meaning for living and with it, their sense of self. Obviously, there is great truth in the adage, “We become what we do.”
While meditation experientially teaches us that we are not what we think, feel, and do, identity itself still tends to be invested in this or that developmental line, generally the cognitive, several lines of ego (not self) development, and one or more highly developed auxiliary line. Even the amazing objectivity regarding identity that is developed by meditation, including the ability to stand back and watch ourselves go by, to disidentify with our thoughts, feelings, and actions, is itself a developmental line of witnessing or objectivity. When we identify with that, we may fail to generalize these extraordinary competencies to some underlying, ground, authentic self and not recognize it at all. Our tendency is to not only identify with our strengths but with those states which are blissful and that we most desire.
As a result, there is the distinct possibility of being an exceptional meditator, complete with all the sensory acuities: clean intention, tuned attention, sensory acuity, enhanced proprioception, time-space dilation and self-less-ness, while remaining a very imbalanced person who does not exercise, has a lousy diet, poor communication skills, or someone who does not give much back to society and the world.
The importance of generalizing enhanced perception to the self
Therefore, the key question to ask regarding a practice involving any of these three interfaces with self, (body, mind, brain) is, “What determines whether this expansion remains line specific, that is, activated only within the context of sports, music, or the expression of a particular line, or is generalized to overall self development?” This is important, because we can easily assume that such capabilities inure to the self, when upon examination, as noted above, we find that individuals with these very high aptitudes, including mystics who have developed clear awareness and objective witnessing to a refined degree, may not be well-rounded individuals at all. Therefore, a central interest of IDL is the promotion of a phenomenology that primarily brings these characteristics of advanced meditation training to the self rather than merely to this or that developmental line.
The question then becomes, “how do we cultivate a state of selfless flow that is foundational to development rather than associated with this or that line?” To do so we first have to differentiate a foundational sense of self from the self that is identified with lines of ego development or various other auxiliary lines. For example, for you or me to identify as a musician, mystic, business person, lawyer, as having a 2nd Tier world view, as an ethical or an empathetic person, or as high in this or that line of ego development, is different from cultivating a self that reflects a balance of cognition, morality, and empathy. If the self is that which climbs the ladder of development, then it must include whatever is the most lagging or fixated core line.
What is the core self?
Roy notes a number of characteristics of the self: “Normally, the perspective of the self includes 1) feeling of ownership of the body, 2) sense of agency over its actions, 3) being anchored to or located in the body and 4) referencing the world to the body and 5) referencing affects (emotional tones) to the self.”
We can also turn to AQAL for help in identifying what that self might be and what it might not be. Although Wilber does not seem to be insistent on this, or even consistent in making this assertion, it does appear that for AQAL the self, as distinguished from this or that other line, is dependent for its development on the evolution and balancing of at least four basic lines: the cognitive, which leads, the moral and relationship lines, and the self line itself, which therefore must follow, if it is dependent on the other three for its development.
It appears that Wilber believes morality is a core line because it seems unfathomable to posit a transpersonal self that has not first passed social criteria of trustworthiness, just as you cannot have trans-rational mystical experience without first developing and including reason. Otherwise, you merely generate the pre-trans fallacy, in which you are unable to differentiate prepersonal mystical openings from transpersonal mystical stages. Something similar operates on the moral line: You can’t have transpersonal morality that does not include “personal” morality, or morality dictated by social standards. If you look at the autobiographies of a considerable number of gurus and mystics, they provide examples of the moral version of the pre-trans fallacy, in that they think that they have transcended social moral standards when they have never first demonstrated respect for them or the ability to live in compliance with them.
The moral line is only determined by interior intention and judgment in its early developmental stages; as it evolves, it is increasingly accountable to others by the objective criteria of trustworthiness. You want to know, “Can I trust you?” “Will you lie to me? When? About what?” “Will I abuse you? If so, how? When?” You don’t care what my level of moral judgment is. You don’t care if my intention is not to harm you; your interest is whether I will harm you, and if so, when and how. Becoming accountable to objective standards of morality is a huge step and not to be assumed, as many integralists appear to do. It is obvious that many politicians, CEOs, lawyers, and spiritual gurus believe they are moral because they judge their morality by their intentions or peer appraisals, not by the court of the global commons, much less by triangulation.
The other line that Wilber appears to consider to be core is the relationship line, or that which deals with the quality of interaction that we have with others. Who gets to judge the quality of our interactions with others, ourselves, others, or both? Clearly, such judgments are interactional processes involving both, however higher order empathy is not determined by our intent but by the assessment of the global commons and beyond that, by triangulation. Like the moral line, the quality of relationship is objectively determined by others using criteria of trustworthiness, but more fundamentally, by respect and empathy. These two are more fundamental, because someone can act morally and still be respected, as a judge who makes what he or she, and even society as a whole, believes is a moral judgment but who does not demonstrate any empathy and therefore garners no respect. Therefore, of the multiple sub-lines that constitute the relationship line, the critical, irreducible line appears to be empathy: the degree to which others judge us as respecting, appreciating, and understanding their position. This does not require agreement, but only that the other assesses that they are respected, appreciated, and understood. Therefore, the formulation that we will use here is that at minimum, authentic self development is dependent on the development of the cognitive, moral, and empathetic lines. This means that while auxiliary lines can and do demonstrate remarkable selflessness and similarities to meditative witnessing at their higher reaches, there is no necessity that those benefits inure to the self line itself.
Like the moral line, it is only at early stages of the development of the empathetic line that we believe empathy is determined by our intention to take the perspective of others. As empathy develops, we realize that it is determined by the objective feedback of others. Do they assess us as authentically taking their perspective or not? Similar to morality, failure to take this step allows a version of the pre-trans fallacy regarding empathy to manifest. We believe we are being empathetic at a high level, in this case a personal-social level, when in fact we are functioning at a prepersonal level of empathy because we do not make ourselves accountable to others in our degree of empathy. We might say that like our morality, it may be authentic, but it is shallow. It lacks the depth that comes from submitting our own assessments of our intention and judgment to the court of the global commons.
Lagging and fixated core lines lead to an under-developed authentic self
If the self line is indeed dependent upon the development of the core lines of cognition, morality and empathy, then we have to tend to the most lagging and fixated of these lines, to give them priority, if we want to develop an authentic sense of self. If instead, we only focus on the development of one, like the cognitive, and assume that because we are our thoughts that our moral and empathetic lines naturally will evolve to keep up with our cognitive line, they are instead likely to remain lagging and fixated.
This is highly likely, because human nature is to want to succeed and not to fail. To succeed we develop our strong lines, our assets, our strengths, because others respect, praise, pay us and otherwise reinforce us when we do so, and because it is both easier and more fun to develop our strengths, our natural aptitudes, than it is to focus on areas where we know we are weak or feel we are a failure. Typically, the result is that we develop a sense of self that is identified with the level of development of our cognitive line in conjunction with whatever auxiliary lines we have developed, such as marked proficiencies, like sports, music, math, or art, as well as various ego lines (Loevinger’s ego development, ). In fact, we can so build our identity around a highly successful auxiliary line, as professional athletes, performers, artists, businessmen, and politicians do, that even our cognitive line is lagging. One can be wealthy, famous, charismatic, and powerful and be non-empathetic, immoral, and pre-rational. That is, our reasoning is determined by our emotions. One can have mystical experiences or be a proficient meditator, and have the morality of a rabbit and zero empathy. In such cases, what does it mean to talk about “self development?” If we equate self development with sensory acuity in such individuals, what sort of self are we glorifying and building?
The line dependence of both perception and identity
IDL argues that perceiving the world as it really is, is line dependent. If you develop proprioceptive abilities, then you experience the world as it really is proprioceptively; if you develop objectification abilities, you experience the world as it really is by interior, cognitive and consciousness measurements of objectivity. These can and do differ from socio-cultural contexts in which we are immersed, as we have seen with the examples of Zen Monks and Tibetan Dzogchen masters.
The “conscious I” cannot function on a personal level, much less a transpersonal one, without objective feedback from the environment. This is not merely the sensory environment, but the social environment – how others evaluate our trustworthiness and ability to demonstrate respect. All four quadrants require interdependent balancing for tetra-mesh, or development of the self to the next highest level. Mystics tend to take social criteria for granted, because their emphasis is on interior and personal criteria – their state of consciousness and their own ability to sharpen their sensory acuity in different specific desired circumstances. Mystical experiences themselves trivialize socio-cultural contexts.
The mystical mind participates in the idea of enlightenment, a relationship between the self and the virtual, rather than the perception of who and what they are in the context of life itself. The talented individual, whether in sports, musicianship, the visual arts, or mathematics, participates in the idea of a gifted, capable self rather than the perception of a grounding in an authentic self. The knowledgeable individual who understands cognitive multi-perspectivalism participates in the idea of a self developed to 2nd Tier rather than the perception of a self balanced in its moral and empathetic, as well as its cognitive development.
What we select into or out of participation with our idea of the self is largely a product of what is culturally and personally valued and therefore reinforced or encouraged. That means that some combination of a partial, and therefore inaccurate, cultural context, and a partial, and therefore inaccurate, personal context, determine our idea of the self. This “idea” therefore may have little relationship to self from the multi-perspectival perspectives taken by life itself regarding the level of development of the self.
Our mind therefore participates in a subjective, delusional, dreamlike “idea” of the self rather than veridical perception, which arises with increasing approximation to the perspective that life itself takes in its perception of the self. Not much of reality, that is, the perspective of life itself toward the self, gets through our filtering, because it has no survival value, nor is it reinforced. Life itself may care nothing about adaptation, which is about survival, since life itself is not born and does not die since it is not some thing. Survival is a structure enabling evolution, but is not negentropy, autopoiesis, and evolution itself. Survival is set up to filter out the perspective of life because life itself cannot live or die and cares nothing about adaptation, successful or otherwise. Manifesting forms care about such things; to continue to manifest in form and as forms, we must care about such things. However, any definition of life that contains both the manifest and unmanifest honors a context that includes and transcends both. Forms, like snowflakes, live and die, but those events do not affect life itself whatsoever. It is in this sense that the perspective of life takes a radically different approach to the self than living, breathing forms require in order maintain existence. “In itself, consciousness has very little to do with information. Consciousness involves information that is not present; information that has disappeared along the way.” (Norretranders, 1991 pg. 125)
“What is excluded from consciousness is as important, if not more important, than what enters it. The brain is assaulted by at least ten million bits of information from the eye every second, the skin is sending a million bits a second, the ear one hundred thousand, our smell sensors a further one hundred thousand bits a second, our taste buds perhaps a thousand bits a second. … All in all, over eleven million bits a second from the world to our sensory mechanisms. We consciously perceive about forty bits a second– and that figure is probably exaggerated.” (Tor Norretranders (1991). p. 126)3 This is one reason we are not all “psychic.” I have known, and perhaps you have too, psychics who were unable to screen out impressions about the lives, feelings and futures of others as we normally do. These people can be miserable, inundated and overwhelmed by information, much of what is not understood, helpful, or rational, because the contexts which give it patterning and meaning is missing. Those who seek broader, non-filtered perception without first creating clear mechanisms for the selection of affective/sensory input are asking for trouble. The lack of information is in fact an asset in the context of whatever is the focus of attention, generally the development of one or another auxiliary line.
Achieving non-filtered perception as an attribute of the authentic self
Because it is exactly through the high development of such lines that the sacred is most likely to manifest, their development is viewed as desirable. But how do we develop non-filtered perception as an attribute of the self? First, we need to develop our lagging, fixated core lines. This means that we need to submit our morality to the judgment of the global commons, not just our intentions or the assessment of our peers. Similarly, we need to submit our empathy to the same standard of evaluation. Secondly, we need to listen to the assessment of our morality and empathy by interviewed emerging potentials, primarily because such perspectives are more likely to disclose the priorities of life itself, rather than contemporary socio-cultural norms. Comparing the resulting perspectives with those of others and common sense is triangulation. Third, we can develop our morality by treating a wide variety of others in the three realms of brain, mind, and body, as we would want to be treated by cultivating deep listening in an integral way to all three. We do so when we interview either actual elements from these realms or their personifications, and follow those recommendations that pass the test of triangulation. Fourth, interviewing forces identification which in turn impels the evolution of empathy, making sure that it does not remain a lagging line. Fifth, we need a regular meditative practice that authentically discloses the impermanence of particular elements of experience.
Our “emancipated perception from the socially performing, intersubjectively focused ‘I’” is not necessarily a return to an authentic self, but a return to an authentic relationship to the context of the here and now. The distinction is important. A skunk or a criminal can have an authentic relationship with nature. We can even say that their sense of self is authentic, in that it may be authentically balanced in the core lines, at early or mid-prepersonal. Perception that is emancipated from the socially-performing, intersubjectively focused “I” can be expedited by identification with intrasocially-performing, intrasubjectively focused “I’s.” Intrasocial perspectives are not only interior collectives, but exterior collectives that are virtual in that they are perceptual abstractions from the simplicity of what is. Interviewing both interobjective and intersubjective “I’s” turns them first into intrasocial and intrasubjective “We’s,” and then into multiple authentic “I’s.” The result is that we not only dissociate from any one central locus of identity, but get behind the apparent ontological reality of personifications of intentions, opening up spaceless, timeless, and non-dual ways of perceiving the secular, moment to moment, with “ordinary mind.”
Reversing the construction of the self
Regarding the creation of both self and “reality, Roy states, “Some of this sculpting and carving would be done in primordial, pre-intentional stages, while some would be guided by intentional states and attentional needs, as well as eidetic phases involving memory and mental image-making while further cuts would be made through meaning-making processes of the social self. The whole gestalt would eventually, in imaginative and synthetic parts of the mind, be polished by symbolic, narrative, linguistic and conceptual elaborations of many kinds.” (p. 45)
“For Brown (2002), the affect-laden intentional states preconstitute the subjective ground of experience. His theory of microgenesis places the “image” stage as a prior and requisite stage for the “body” to appear, and as a result exists for the subject as an object among other objects in the world.” When we dream, as when we are awake, we “are aware of the image, the product of the process, but not of the imaging itself.” (Heron, 1992. p. 145)
Applying this idea to dreaming, dream perception is not about overlaying direct perception with the imaginative aspect of experience (“eidetic elements”), but mistaking the preconstructed affect-laden intentional states for reality itself. When we take the perspective of one of these intentional states itself, we can begin to perceive the “intention of the intention,” or the emptiness behind and within the preconstituted affect-laden intentional state.
We back up or reverse the gates of microgenesis, moving from dream action (the experience of the perspective in its role in the dream) to conception (the interpretation of the perspective of its role in the dream) to imagery (the awareness that the role itself is ad hoc and without bhava, or “own-being,” or any determinate ontological status), to emotion (the objectification of affective aspects of the perspective) to intention (the recognition that the intentions that are personified by the perspective are themselves empty.)
IDL interviewing is a complementary adjunct to meditation in accomplishing the reversal of this creative process. It tackles the entanglement of identity with virtual, eidetic reality. We can think of the dream image, say a cabbage, or the pit that personifies our depression that we interview, as the “whole gestalt would eventually, in imaginative and synthetic parts of the mind, be polished by symbolic, narrative, linguistic and conceptual elaborations of many kinds.” The mental images, concepts, and eidetic phases offered up by the interviewed element is a step backward in the sculpting process. Both their remarks and our identification with their perspective or world view itself reveal its intentional states and attentional needs that gave rise to the image. Beneath that, if we pay attention, we can easily experience in the primordial, pre-intentional nature of the perspective, non-dual, deathless, impermanent specifics within a very concrete, autonomous, and highly relevant eidetic construct. These openings are not only duplicatable; their infinite variety quickly teaches us that unmanifest, impermanent, and highly authentic life is innate within every moment and occasion.
IDL interviewing demonstrates the truth of Roy’s statement that “participation is never replication. It always creates emergent novelty.” (p. 67) When we participate in the perspective of this or that emerging potential, the emergent novelty of what is created is typically unexpected in the authenticity of its “fit” in all four quadrants of our current experience.
Complementary aspects of Roy’s phenomenology of perception and IDL
Roy’s integral phenomenology “provides a foundation for an embodied approach to both introspection as an inquiry into the nature of thinking, and metaphysics as an inquiry into the architecture of thought.” IDL is not particularly interested in or designed to investigate either the nature of thinking or metaphysics. As an integral life practice designed to direct other integral life practices, IDL is not primarily interested in the architecture of thought. Instead, IDL is an integral phenomenology that focuses on actionable identifications. It asks, “What, if anything, are the consequences when I 1) become some interviewed element, both during an interview and afterward, in specific, recommended contexts, and 2) follow the triangulated recommendations of these emerging potentials?”
Roy’s integral phenomenology also “combines a direct examination of lived experience in contemplation and vipassana meditation, with contemporary neuro-cognitive science and neuro-affective science.” While IDL respects neuro-cognitive and affective sciences as validating contexts, it is not particularly integral in that regard. It does not have interest in combining its practice, as a dream yoga and integral life practice, with the blessings provided by seeming correlations with high science. Rather, its proof claims are essentially those of transpersonal empirical yogas: follow the instructions and validate them by submitting your results to peers in the method. Beyond this, to keep from getting lost in the echo chamber of collective dogmatic groupthink, results need to be validated by their efficacy in the eyes of the global commons as well as scientific elites. Do these methods make sense to the children of third world farmers? Can they make a transformational difference in their lives? Can they be implemented by adolescents, the lonely, alienated, depressed or anxious in ways that improve their lives?
For Roy, “the ultimate goal of integral phenomenology is for individuals to shift from the passive modes of experience, to their active, enlightened modes. When the modes of experience remain passive, highly conditioned and habituated, the person expresses socially conventional, self-referential, neurotic forms of behavior, that are primarily unconsciously and reactively driven. Enlightened modes of experience provide the basis for enlightened action in the world, which is post-conventional, other-referential, compassionate, and open to more degrees of freedom, in awareness, intention and choice. Activating the modes of experience means shifting affect to intuition, perception to insight, tacit knowing to open participation, and inner perceptions to creative imagination.” (p. 8)
IDL uses experiential multi-perspectivalism as one tool in a toolbox. The issues to be “fixed” by these tools, and which Roy refers to as “passive modes of experience,” it calls “sleeping,” “dreaming,” and “sleepwalking.” For IDL, “activating the modes of experience” means shifting to “waking up,” which is plainspeak for enlightenment. IDL prefers “waking up,” because while enlightenment implies a specific destination and perfection itself, “waking up” implies ongoing holonic evolution and involution, that is, a continuous, non-ending developmental process. The “dreaming,” or “passive modes of experience” addressed by IDL are scripting, drama, cognitive distortions, and self-directed goal setting. The “waking up,” or “activated” modes of experience addressed by IDL are goal setting directed by triangulation, IDL interviewing, application of recommendations that meet the test of triangulation, and meditation.
Roy describes enlightened action in the world as “post-conventional, other-referential, compassionate, and open to more degrees of freedom, in awareness, intention and choice.” IDL describes action that is reflective of waking up as invested, that is, embodied, grounded, or participatory in identification in all four quadrants; empathetic, that is, validated by others as reflective of deep listening in a respectful and clear way, and objectifying, that is, that practices identification with experiential multi-perspectivalism as a yoga of witnessing and waking up.
IDL is not interested in shifting affect to intuition but in making both authentic. Similarly, it does not recognize a necessary dualism between perception and insight but instead focuses on developing embodied wisdom through experiential multi-perspectivalism. IDL views tacit knowing as a necessary preliminary step to open participation, two necessary steps in a developmental progression of application, rather than as oppositional constructs. Similarly, IDL values both inner perceptions and creative imagination. For example, the perspectives of interviewed elements are their inner perceptions, intrinsically authentic and valuable. At the same time, they are intrinsically manifestations of creative imagination.
Roy refers to awakened, active perception as insight. She also describes it as “direct perception: a sustained open awareness of one’s lived experience as direct participation.” She describes direct participation as including “interactions among the multi-modal perceptual organs within the body-brain-mind of the person, as well as interactions between the person and the living world.” “If experience is an ecology of participation, then states of mind should be expected to be fluid and transitory between a spectrum of varieties of experience. In other words, because of the deep continuity of world, body, and mind, all experiential states are inclusive of world, body and mind—all the time.” (p. 84)
What this definition does is divide the objects of direct participation as interactions with micro and macro realities. IDL views this as a reflection of a perspective of the self, of psychological geocentrism. When one takes the perspectives of various interviewed emerging potentials, the result is that the clear-cut, “normal” distinction between subjective and interior and objective and exterior experience is replaced with a multi-perspectivalism in which there is no clear self that is the locus of experience. Therefore, experience is no longer reducible to either the body-brain-mind of a person, or to interactions between someone and the living world. Ontological status is indefinite, with objective/subjective realities neither affirmed nor denied.
Roy states, “Sensory clarity, I believe is the pre-requisite for authentic human relating. We have to get to square one before we can build a shared or collective understanding…” (p. 69) “…meditative practices can train the mind to decouple the imaginal or eidetic component of perception from the experience, creating a more naïve, more direct perception.” (p. 78) The sensory clarity that can be provided by meditation and which is exhibited in states of flow are extraordinarily important not only for decision-making but experiencing world views and self-definitions that far transcend our typical, socio-cultural, scripted identities. However, we can only hope that we do not “have to get to square one before we can build a shared or collective understanding.” IDL views sensory clarity as one manifestation of “square one,” essentially for the individual interior intentional-cognitive and exterior behavioral “brain” quadrants. “Square one” for the collective quadrants is equally important and involves fundamentally different perspectives and perceptions because “direct participation” in individually, or self-driven contexts, is bound to locate both etiology and expression in vastly different domains. It is not that the sort of sensory clarity Roy is describing and recommend does not embrace, enhance, or encompass the collective quadrants, only that the world, others, and ourselves look quite at variance based on our starting position.
With IDL, that starting position is consciously collective and “other,” with disidentification from any and all self-definitions and attempts at both identification and unification with multiple “Its.” A phenomenology of the collective quadrants does not assume an interior or introspective orientation, but drops that assumption, with objects of observation those that are typically perceived as “other.” These include dream images while we are dreaming and the contents of mystical experiences. A collective orientation, phenomenologically-based or not, assumes accountability to and with others that is not necessarily implied by individual quadrant orientations. This is because both perception and development have the self as the primary locus of attention, not the collective. Again, this is not to imply that individual quadrant emphasis ignores or takes a reductionistic approach to collectives, only that contexts are structured by perspectives that take the self as the organizing principle. We know this is occurring when one thinks, “But how could one do otherwise?” “And if one could, wouldn’t it lead to fragmentation, decompensation and regression?”
IDL interviewing demonstrates definitively that such concerns are artifacts of identification with an individual quadrant focus rather than experiential realities. This identification is a by-product of the formative years of our life when self-control and the creation of a sense of self were the primary work. That orientation then becomes either a habitual bias or a fear-based addiction, or both which is not automatically outgrown because one embraces cognitive multi-perspectivalism or high development on this or that line. This critique embraces the vast majority of mystical narratives, which are either psychologically geocentric or psychologically heliocentric. They do not relate the experiences from the perspectives of multiple participating “others.”
The foundational nature of relationship creates an intrinsic emphasis on accountability in the collective quadrants. Morality and empathy become fundamental criteria instead of sensory clarity or cognitive objectivity. This is the case because trustworthiness and respect, as determined by objective others, are as important fundamental criteria in the collective quadrants as sensory clarity and cognitive objectivity are in the interior quadrants. Any adequate definition of a healthy self that is balanced in its development is going to meet criteria in all four areas by emphasizing, teaching, and balancing sensory clarity, cognitive objectivity, trustworthiness, and respect. This awareness is not based on insight, as normally understood as heightened awareness by an experiencer regarding either an interior or exterior problem, experience, or relationship. However, the result is comparable: a growing awareness that “the perceptual organs and the living world are not two, but one larger ecology…” (p. 18)
In every IDL interview we can ask ourselves, “What are we participating with?” The answer may be, “With my own projections, my thoughts, feelings, preferences and interpretations.” The participation may involve “memories, fantasies, worries, cognitive and culturally conditioned biases.” Or, it may be, “I am taking the perspective of this dream goblin or cobra personification of my life fear of snakes as completely as possible.” The assumption that such perspectives are “shadow,” “self-aspects,” “parts,” or “subpersonalities” inhabiting the unconscious, subconscious, personal or collective unconscious, another dimension or realm, are all assumptions that are tabled in any authentic phenomenological methodology. IDL simply refuses to make such assumptions in order to give preference to integral deep listening. The reward is participation with authentic embodied perspectives that are both transformational and transmutational.
Cognitive multi-perspectivalism, which typifies the arc of integral into 2018, creates a false identification of the self with the cognitive line which far surpasses the other core lines of morality and empathy in its level of development. Therefore, because we tend to identify with our leading lines, the pervasive delusion within the integral community is that an understanding of AQAL and subsequent integral developments indicates a self that has evolved into 2nd tier. This delusion is supported by approaches to integral that bias the interior quadrants that intrinsically organize reality around a stable, central self. The result is a massive pre-trans fallacy, not regarding spiritual experience, but regarding the development of identity itself. Sensory clarity by itself has not been able to either spot or rectify this fundamental perceptual delusion; what is required are collectively oriented forms of experiential multi-perspectivalism which not only de-center the self but determine level of development not only by interior and individual criteria but by the assessments of the global commons and triangulation.
As a yoga of the collective quadrants, IDL not only needs but requires the participatory integral phenomenology of sensory clarity integrating body-mind-brain in order to bring all four quadrants into developmental balance. It is only with an accurate assessment of the level of development of the authentic self that we can hope to lift it beyond the socio-cultural scriptings that keep it fixated at mid-prepersonal.
Anderson, R. and Braud, W. (2015) in The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology, (Friedman & Hartelius, eds. 2015).
Brown, Jason (2008) The Inward Path: Mysticism and Creativity, Creativity and research Journal Vol. 20 # 4: Taylor and Francis Online [http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10400410802391348]
(2005) Process and the Authentic Life, Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Books (2002) The Self-Embodying Mind, Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press
Heron, John (1996) Cooperative Inquiry. London: Sage Publications
Norretranders, Tor (1991) The User Illusion New York: Viking
Roy, B. (2017). Awakened Perception: Perception as Participation.
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Perception as Participation
Bonnitta M. Roy Masters of Arts Consciousness Studies The Graduate Institute August, 2017
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Abstract …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 4 Guiding Inquiry………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 5 Methodology: Integral Phenomenology …………………………………………………………………………….. 6 Part I: Discovery …………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 8 Introduction……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 8 A brief history of perception…………………………………………………………………………………………… 12 Perfecting perception …………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 15 Perception by the numbers……………………………………………………………………………………………… 25
Some definitions ……………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 25 Part II: Background……………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 33 The Phenomenology of the Background…………………………………………………………………………… 33
Searching for the Background …………………………………………………………………………………….. 34 Neurodynamics of the Background …………………………………………………………………………………. 45 Neural Gates……………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 50 Opening the Gates of Perception …………………………………………………………………………………. 53 (Re)Directed Perception…………………………………………………………………………………………………. 58 Part III: Mind ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 63 The Perceptual Brain……………………………………………………………………………………………………… 63
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The Primacy of Participation ………………………………………………………………………………………….. 67 Sensory clarity ………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 68 From Self to World ……………………………………………………………………………………………………. 71
The Role of the Imagination …………………………………………………………………………………………… 77 States of Mind …………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 83 An Ecological Theory of Perception………………………………………………………………………………… 85 Affordances………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 86 Enhanced Perception………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 95 Part IV: Awakened Perception………………………………………………………………………………………. 100 A Buddhist Examination………………………………………………………………………………………………. 100 Part V: Concluding Remarks ………………………………………………………………………………………… 106 References………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 109
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Perception has been called into questions by eastern traditions and western scholars for millennia. In a few “secret” places in Zen, Chan and r-Dzogchen Buddhism, the ultimate valid truth is directly perceived. I propose a modern methodology called integral phenomenology that integrates deep phenomenal examination with contemporary research (both east and west) on perception, to reclaim the notion of direct perception as adequate participation. In doing so, I develop an ecological model of perception, which includes “hybrid zones” where different perceptual states overlay each other, leading to non-ordinary experience, state transitions, and eventually, self-liberating insight and non-dual wisdom. This modern methodology must pass the critical examination of the highest Buddhist authority on direct perception—the Gelukba Sautrantika school. This is a critical challenge, and yet, if successful, shares the Sautrantika’s schools optimism that liberating wisdom can be gained by starting with everyday ordinary experience—a hallmark of integral phenomenological method.
Keywords: Direct perception, participation, kensho
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The hypothesis beneath this work is that a modern minimalist approach to awakening, can accelerate conscious transformation. In this approach, “awakening” is defined as awakening to the nature of experience. This paper focuses only on one of the four1 key aspects of experience: perception.
My guiding question in this paper:
Can a model of perception based on participation pass the critical examination of the Buddhist traditions, complement neurophysiological research, and support meaning-making around first- person accounts of ordinary and non-ordinary perceptual experiences?
My guiding purpose in this work:
To develop modern approaches and heuristics to accelerate transformations of consciousness toward re-enchantment with the world, and to create conditions for people to flourish and the planet to thrive.
1 The other three are: affect, tacit knowing, and virtual perceptions(inner hearing, inner images, inner taste, inner smell, inner touch, and other simulations of perception)
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Methodology: Integral Phenomenology
The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology (Friedman & Hartelius, eds. 2015) includes a section on future directions for transpersonal research. In it, Rosemarie Anderson and William Braud (2015) highlight three approaches that are particularly suitable for transpersonal research: intuitive inquiry, integral inquiry, and organic inquiry. My approach, which I term integral phenomenology borrows from all three approaches in the following ways.
reflecting on extant topical texts and developing the preliminary interpretive lenses
transforming and refining interpretive lenses
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a. the goal of acquiring both knowledge and wisdom
b. interest in transformative knowledge
c. whole person involvement
d. integrating a spectrum of modes of knowing: sensory impressions, words and thoughts, images, feelings, intuitions, realizations in altered states of consciousness, sensorimotor modes, and direct means (becoming the object of knowing)
e. integrating sources of inspiration, including the natural sciences, psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, literature, the arts; as well as spiritual wisdom and folk traditions; and personal and anecdotal evidence.
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3. From organic inquiry a. focused on transformative validity, i.e., the thesis as
i. ii. iii.
an “evocative vehicle of feeling as well as thinking presenting a diverse and intimate view of the topic in order to engage the individual reader in a parallel process of transformative interpretation
In addition to the above, integral phenomenology relies on the research data from the field of neurophenomenology as a source of valid interpretation of direct, phenomenological inquiry. (Laughlin and Rock, 2015). As a methodology of research, integral phenomenology rests on four axes of validation: 1) adequate participation with the topic through direct, phenomenological inquiry, 2) corresponding or confirming evidence from the neurosciences, including neurophenomenological evidence, 3) an individual, collective, cultural or political transformative potential, and 4) purposeful action-inquiry toward the good. A rubric for addressing these four criteria is what I call the 4-A’s (Forays):
1. Appeals to our deepest spiritual intuition
2. Available to scientific inquiry
3. Politically Actionable
4. Aesth-ethically beautiful
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Part I: Discovery
This paper is part of a larger project on what I call integral phenomenology. Integral phenomenology is a methodology for people to become aware of the nature of experience. This approach examines the micro-states, micro-stages, and micro-genesis of experience along four foci of inquiry: affect, perception, tacit knowing, and inner perceptions. It provides a foundation for an embodied approach to both introspection as an inquiry into the nature of thinking, and metaphysics as an inquiry into the architecture of thought. Integral phenomenology combines a direct examination of lived experience in contemplation and vipassana meditation, with contemporary neuro-cognitive science and neuro-affective science. Its larger, “big picture” interpretive framework includes the three narrative sciences of development, anthropology and evolution. The ultimate goal of integral phenomenology is for individuals to shift from the passive modes of experience, to their active, enlightened modes. When the modes of experience remain passive, highly conditioned and habituated, the person expresses socially conventional, self-referential, neurotic forms of behavior, that are primarily unconsciously and reactively driven. Enlightened modes of experience provide the basis for enlightened action in the world, which is post-conventional, other-referential, compassionate, and open to more degrees of freedom, in awareness, intention and choice. Activating the modes of experience means shifting affect to intuition, perception to insight, tacit knowing to open participation, and inner perceptions to creative imagination.
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First, by disentangling the modes from the knot of phenomena and stimuli that constitute conventional experience, we can begin to examine their underlying dynamic patterns and processes. This can be done by integrating phenomenological methods of inquiry, with scientific, philosophic, and narrative works associated with them. By going back and forth, from reading about a specific experiential mode to direct inquiry of that specific mode, through phenomenal examination of ordinary experience, integral phenomenology builds greater and deeper understanding, and accelerates personal transformation.
The focus of this paper is on perception– its micro-state, micro-stages, and micro-genesis. I will explore how perception can shift from its conventional, passive role to a more awakened, active role called insight. I will explore the notion of direct perception as a sustained open awareness of one’s lived experience as direct participation. This direct participation includes interactions among the multi-modal perceptual organs within the body-brain-mind of the person, as well as interactions between the person and the living world. In enlightened states of perception, we have the insight that the perceptual organs and the living world are not two, but one larger ecology, in which myriad phenomena emerge through dynamic participation, eventually giving rise to innumerable subject-object definitions at the terminal end-states of experience.
Perception has been called into question by scholars and philosophers and scientists, spiritual traditions and artists for more than 2500 years. This had led to paradoxical conclusions. On the one hand, everything we can know about the world relies on some mode of perception. And yet, we are all familiar with many ways in which perception succumbs to error and illusion. We
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delight in perceptual illusions of all sorts, and are dumbfounded by experiments like the Gorilla, who saunters across the basketball court, hidden in plain sight. Science has the tools to prove perception wrong, but every one of its tools ultimately relies on some mode of perception to get to that proof. Whether we use the scientific method to correct and revise, or question and replace ordinary sensory information, we must concede the fact that in the process we are also simultaneously confirming our confidence in our own ordinary senses, since all empirical science ultimately rests on ordinary sensory observation—whether that is a blip on a computer screen, sounds from a recorder, or colors on a photographic plate.
Time and again we are reminded of the failures of the eyes to directly see and the ears to directly hear what is actually happening in the real world. And yet, athletes are capable of extraordinary feats that would be impossible if the senses were not operating exactly in tune with reality. We are told that perception biases the self, and yet, it is in certain states of flow, or when under extreme conditions and outrageous challenges, when the sense of self is absent, that perception performs in optimal ways.
Spiritual adepts of the east tell us that all we can perceive is but an illusion or a dream, but their behavior tell us otherwise, since they all performed as if the perceived attributes of experience were real. In the western philosophical tradition, we see more of the same. David Hume, for example, declared that there was no reason to believe the perception that it was preferable to walk out a building on the first floor rather than from the third. And yet, he never walked out of the third floor window. Kant said that perception had to be overcome by the use of cognitive faculties that transcended the phenomena, and the postmodernists have argued that all perception
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is linguistically and culturally mediated. And yet Johnson and Lakoff (Johnson 19787; Lakoff and Johnson 1999; Lakoff and Nunez 2001) have argued that all cognitive and linguistic faculties, including logic and mathematics, ultimate derive their meaning and their architectures from embodied modes of perception.
In this paper I hope to resolve these paradoxes through the notion of perception as different configurations of participation. In each experience we can ask ourselves “What are we participating with?” In some cases, the participation will involve memories, fantasies, worries, cognitive and culturally conditioned biases. In some cases, the participation may be pared down to raw data streams interacting with neural cells, as for example, light exciting retinal cells. In between there is a huge spectrum of variation, depending upon what levels of experience are “in play” and which are absent, determined by what aspects of perception are “online” and which are “offline.”
Here the notions of hyper-trophy or amplification and hypo-trophy or attenuation of perceptual modes become important concepts. They are associated with the neuroscience of perception which demonstrates that perceptual experience is determined by complex global dynamics that emerge from excitatory and inhibitory feedback processes in the brain. This dual relationship, between excitation and inhibition explains the complex causal relationship between perceptual experience and non-ordinary states in meditation practices and scientific exercises designed to elicit them. For example, exciting some areas of the brain inhibits the activity in other regions, but these other regions may themselves have inhibitory effects on different areas, which has a net effect of exciting them.
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We shall also see that each perceptual organ (defined as the sensory organ and its associated body-brain networks) interact in multiple complex ways among themselves to produce variations of perceptual experience. Furthermore, every perceptual experience is associated with a discrete “subject” or “sense-of-self” that is partially determined by what aspects of perception are amplified, attenuated, or absent. These three correlations: 1) among the aspects of perception, 2) exciting and inhibiting feedback loops, and 3) the sense-of-self that occurs, can be shown to delineate as different states of consciousness that have been described by spiritual traditions, and identified by neuroscience as discrete brain states. This will enable us to derive a definition of direct perception, or more accurately, of sensory clarity. I will argue that sensory clarity is awakened perception, and that it is a key credential to any claim of enlightened awareness.
Sections of this paper describe my own journey towards a better, more robust understanding of unconventional, non-ordinary perceptual states that I have experienced at different times in my life. I interweave my own stories with accounts that appear in the literature resources I have incorporated into my research. In the final section of the paper I subject my work to a critical examination to the framework of direct perception developed by the Sautrantika scholastics of the Gelukba tradition, considered the highest r-Dzogchen school of Buddhism.
A brief history of perception
Countless arguments have been made calling perception into question. Some of us are aware of the eastern religious traditions that strongly assert that all perceptual phenomena are illusory. The Sanskrit term “Maya” involves a rich and complex history of meaning around the illusory nature of experience, warning us that reality does not exist as it appears, that perception is peppered by
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error, confusion and ignorance, that the mind veils, the emotions cloud, and thought obstructs perception in ways that deliver a false impression of reality. In the eastern traditions, this false impression is blamed for the human condition of dukkha, our ordinary state of suffering which is called samsara. Samsara is contrasted with nirvana, the enlightened condition associated with the cessation of suffering. In the enlightened state a person is said to be able to directly perceive the true nature of reality. Still, what is revealed as reality’s true nature differs quite dramatically among the traditions. Some traditions, such as Hinduism and certain “mind-only” schools of Buddhism describe the true nature of reality mostly in mystical, metaphysical or idealist terms. In contrast, other traditions, such as Daoism, Hua-Yen or Chan Buddhism in China, and Zen Buddhism, seem to describe reality in ways that remind us, as western readers, more of what we commonly think of as nature—that part of reality that involves mind to some extent, but exists, and carries on in a sense “by itself.” On the one hand we are told that the nature of reality is the nature of enlightened mind; but on the other hand, we are told that reality is that which originates and evolves minds, some of which happen to be in enlightened states.
Although we typically think of western culture in terms of scientific materialism, western philosophy has also been firmly steeped in idealist positions for more than 2500 years. Consider Plato’s Allegory of the Cave which describes a world where perceptions are mere shadows projected on the walls of a cave, and like prisoners who cannot break free of their chains and escape the cave, most of us never break free of illusion and escape into the light of reality. Here, in this light, we would discover the Pure Ideas and True Forms of a higher, more real, reality, that are accessible not through perception, but through enlightened Reason.
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Although the modern enlightenment produced a philosophy of Reason that laid the foundations for scientific materialism, this philosophy, primarily based on the work of Kant, maintained a skeptical attitude toward perception. This attitude still afforded the mind and its faculties of reason, a more direct route to reality than the body and its faculties of perception. Kant built an impenetrable wall between phenomena which is what we experience, and noumena which is what is real, by saying that we can never actually perceive the real, we could only investigate it through various means. This led to a kind of correspondence theory of reality in which certain tools of logic, mathematics and reasoning, when used according to certain rigorous methods, could be trusted to map directly onto the noumena. The best we could achieve would be an accurate map of reality. Science was understood to be the practice of continuously improving and updating the map. As a result, science would go on to substantially undermine the common- sense perceptions of ordinary people, with fantastic notions of relativity and quantum mechanics.
The post-modern critique completely debunked any lasting notion of naïve perception and replaced it by firmly establishing the social, cultural and linguistically constructed nature of experience. It emphasized the constant processes of social, cultural and linguistic conditioning that over-determined the outcome of perceptual processes. Post-modern variations of Buddhist traditions highlighted the problematic self-reflective and self-referential properties of the ego, and its infinite regress into conceptual abstractions. The wall that Kant had built between experience and reality, was reinforced with self-confirming loops of media to such an extent that problematized not only perception, but also of any hope of “authentic, unmediated raw experience.” In this world, there would never be the possibility of a “seeing the clouds for the first time” or “experiencing your first kiss” because all “first impressions” were always already
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mediated impressions, always already primed by social media and fashioned into existence first in the mind, and etched into lasting existence in inescapable memories. It seemed that perceptual moments had become obsolete. Or had they?
If perception proved not to be trustworthy in the mind of thinkers it would prove to be more than trustworthy in the bodies of extreme athletes who had trained to be able to give up thinking when it mattered most.
When he went to strap on his chute, he noticed the canopy was wet. It should have been the end of his plans. A wet chute is unevenly weighted. When deployed, parts will inflate, others will not. Potter, not thinking clearly, decided the water was evenly dispersed and wouldn’t be a problem.
And it wasn’t a problem– at least not for the first five seconds of the jump. “When I leaped,” he says, it was right into the zone. Immediately my senses started peaking. I was moving at ninety miles per hour but could see in credible detail– minute fissures in the rock, tiny patches of lichen, bat guano.
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At the six-second mark, roughly 500 feet from the ground Potter deployed his chute. It opened asymmetrically. The wet sections collapsed, the dry ones inflated. Instantly, with the air currents unevenly distributed, Potter started spinning. From above, his friends started shouting “Avoid the walls!” Important safety tip, except with his guidelines twisted, there was no way to steer .
Then the miraculous intervened: the guidelines began to untwist. Potter seized the moment, yanking his toggles. He knew the better move was to reverse his direction– which would have sent him backward and out into open space– but for reasons he still cannot fathom he turned left instead. He was now heading directly toward the cave wall. Worse, the moment he turned, his chute collapsed, draping itself completely over his head.
But Potter’s senses were peaking. In the fleeting instant before his vision vanished, he caught a glimpse of orange. “We were filing the jumps,” he recounts, “so we’d hung a rope about 400 feet off the deck for the camera man. It was glowing orange. And that was what I saw: a flash of glowing orange.”
He reacted immediately, grabbing for the rope, catching it too. But there was no way to tighten his grip. Potter was less than 300 feet from the ground and closing in on terminal velocity. His hands were already burning from the
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instantly cauterized. The pain was unbelievable.
….Potter did manage to stop himself for a moment — but couldn’t hold it.
Again he started plummeting. Again he clamped down. Again he managed to stop. Not a moment too soon. With the chute still covering his eyes, he had no way of knowing, but Potter had halted himself merely six feet above the ground.
His friends shouted down “Just let go!”
Potter landed in a heap on the cave floor. His hands were destroyed, other parts as well. (Kotler 2014, pg 51-52)
How was he able to do this – make his senses keen(peaking)
Dean Potter is just one of thousands of extreme athletes who are pushing human performance beyond all previous measures and expectations. Cliff jumping and wing suit flying may be examples of how technology opens up new performance ventures, but in these cases technology is not the limiting factor—human potential is. And within our human potential, we are pushing beyond not so much the limits of the body (that’s where technology steps in to help give us
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wings and reinforce out outer protective shell)—but we are experimenting with the upper limits of human consciousness. In particular, these upper limits relate to our intentional-motivational and attentional states. Intention processing and attention processing follow discrete neuro- chemical pathways in the embodied brain-mind that contribute to global participatory processes of the living person—the “embodied body-mind-brain” (EBMB).2
In addition to physical skill and endurance training, extreme sports requires athletes to train their consciousness to access not only higher degrees of potential, but also higher human potentials that are essential to perform in these domains, where “performance” often means “to survive the ordeal.” Intentional states need to be clean, i.e clear of emotional associations. Attention needs to be sharp and fine-grained to relevant targets (that are usually moving and changing at the same time). Performance at this level requires keen sensory acuity (what Potter refers to as “his senses peaking”) and enhanced proprioception—a more-than-ordinary awareness of the body’s own position, orientation, and angular momentum in space operating at levels beyond the normal human capacity to deal with accelerated change.
There is something even more exceptional happening here that separates the top athletic performances from the rest of the field—and often separates those that survive and those that don’t: the ability to dilate the experience of space and time, and the ability to turn off the central governing “self-complex.” These six key features of enhanced perception in extreme sports: clean intention, tuned attention, sensory acuity, enhanced proprioception, time-space dilation and
2 I will use the term EBMB as a holistic view of the body, as the actions of the person, the brain as the neuro- chemical processes of the person’s body, which include the brain and its afferent and efferent networks, and the mind as the subjective experience of the person, to suggest the global participatory dynamics in operation. EBMB is neither a physical nor a metaphysical attribute, it is a process term which represents “the human operating system.”
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self-less-ness, can only be attained by techniques specifically designed to take advantage of the neural plasticity of the EBMB. These techniques first disrupt the habitual, default patterns of the human operating system, and then secondly, train them to handle novel action potentials. It turns out that these are exactly the kinds of disruptions to the EBMB that advanced meditation training (especially Zen, but including vipassana) are designed to do.
The physics of baseball (Adair, 2002) prove that the fielder must start running before he hears the crack of the bat, and that when he catches the ball over his shoulder, it had been impossible for him to see it first. His EBMB was processing an enormous amount of information in order to deliver his glove to where the ball was headed, just at the right time. For this to happen, the EBMB must be perfectly aligned with how the world really is. The same extraordinary levels of performance characterized the career of quarterback Joe Montana. But Montana reports that the entire time he played football “unconsciously.” There are coaches of trainers all over the world, training people how to perform better by “getting the self out of the way” (Gallwey, 2010). In these non-ordinary states of performance, the EBMB is more attuned to the world as it really is. So what goes wrong with everyday ordinary perception? And why are we so concerned that we don’t actually perceive the world how it really is?
In the summer of 1978 I was living in Berkeley California as a first-year graduate student. One night, two friends took me up to the observatory high up in the northern hills of the city. From there you could look out over the bay to the beautiful nightscape of San Francisco. When you get to the observatory, you park on one side of a pedestrian bridge and walk onto a huge terrace courtyard on the other side. The courtyard is surrounded by a 4’H stone wall. Because the way it is built, at night you don’t realize you are several stories
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high. The short wall gives you the impression that you are standing on a courtyard at ground level. This turned out to be almost a tragic illusion that one night. We brought with us a frisbee and took up positions at the periphery of the courtyard, the three of us like points along an equilateral triangle. We lost ourselves in the warm and sweet scents of the Berkeley hills, the wafting breeze and the flow of the game.
The last frisbee throw of the night got away from me. It soared above the short periphery wall into the complete darkness of night. There were no lights illuminating the distances below. Spontaneously I jumped over the wall like I had jumped over many stone walls that line the pastured fields all across my home state of Connecticut.
The next sequences of events are clearly etched into my memory like years in a storyline. Yet they must have happened in less than 2 seconds:
As I leapt, and while still on the rise of my jump, my ears tuned into a familiar set of sounds—the HVAC equipment that was running outside the main building, some 4 stories below. Instantly, this perception triggered up with some episodic memory in my mind—matching perfectly with the sounds of the HVAC that I heard for two years outside my 4th floor dorm room back in college. Somehow, all in an instant of time, my EBMB processed this information, realized I was not 4 feet but 4 stories above ground level, turned myself around, got hold of the outer edge of the wall, and pulled myself up, over and back onto the terrace floor.
Stunned, my friends hadn’t even time to move from their positions.
Had perception both failed me and saved me at the same time? What part of my perception was sleeping when I jumped over the wall? What had awakened my perception of the actual reality? Notice I say “my ears heard” not “I heard” the sound of the HVAC below. When the EBMB “takes control” of the situation, in this case out of necessity, it is as if the first person subjective
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“I” gets brushed aside, and this third-person objective “organism” chooses how to act. This organism scans the environment and chooses the course of action in a nano-instant. Like a reflex, except that there is a whole lot more information loading up and matching up. One door of perception is closed—the intersubjective “I” who is playing frisbee, and the other door of perception is thrown wide open. The “I” discovers itself to have been separated from reality, distracted by the intersubjective and social themes that were playing out between friends. The organism always returns to reality, always finds itself at one with the reality, and therefore recovers the act-uality, which is to “act in accordance with reality.”
Extreme athletes are learning how and training each other to emancipate perception from the socially performing, intersubjectively focused “I” and return it fully to the organismic EBMB in order to capitalize on its perceptual acuity and instinctive and spontaneous athletic acumen. In other words, they are training themselves to enter into the “zone of peak performance.” One of the key attributes of this zone is time dilation—the sense that the sequence of events that ordinarily would be crammed inside too thin of an instant to detect, let alone assess the situation, discover affordances to work with, formulate options and choose to act—that the sequence of events unfolds in a way that we observe it, we live it out, even though the “we” is not the EBMB in charge.
Steven Kotler (2014) talks about the new science of ultimate human performance as learning to hack flow states from both a body and a mind perspective, and by integrating both psychological and neuroscientific approaches. Flow states are associated with neurochemical systems that function as performance enhancers as well as mood-boosters. The neurotransmitters most
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involved are dopamine which creates engagement and increases attention; norepinephrine which directs focus and locks attention on target, as well as increasing arousal without spiking emotional imbalance; endorphins which alleviate any potential pain signals and keep them from delaying action or reducing endurance; anandamide, which is a psychoactive chemical that elevates mood, amplifies lateral thinking, and inhibits fear response; and serotonin which enhances coping and endurance capacities. Kotler (2014) writes:
These five chemicals are flow’s mighty cocktail. Alone, each packs a punch, together a wallop. Consider the chain of events that takes us from pattern recognition through future prediction. Norepinephrine tightens focus (data acquisition); dopamine jacks pattern recognition (data processing); anandamide accelerates lateral thinking (widens the database searched by the pattern recognition system). (p.68)
As I mentioned above, this chain of events, unfolds in the time-dilated state of flow. “We” are allowed to witness, to observe intently, but not to interrupt or insert an agenda that is meaningful only in the context the intersubjective “I.” Josh Watizkin (2007) interprets the experience of time slowing down as the same as opening up the space in which we can act. Reflecting on a push- hands match he won to earn a world champion Tai-Chi title, Waitzkin writes:
Now think of me, Josh, competing against a less refined martial artist. Let’s say I am in the process of instigating a throw that involves six technical steps. My opponent will experience an indecipherable flurry of action, while for me the six eternal steps of the throw are just the outer rim of a huge network of
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chunks. Our realities are different. I am “seeing” much more than he is seeing. (p. 143-144) … The slightest variations in the way my opponent responds to my first push will lead to numerous options in the way I will trigger into the throw. My pull on his right wrist will involve twenty or thirty subtle details with which I will vary my action based on his nuanced micro-responses. As I sit back on the ground and trip his right foot, my perception of the moment might involve thirty or forty variations. (p. 145-146)
These are, Waitzkin explains, the space-time dilation of flow states is a kind of sensory precision that is gained through intense focus on simple perceptual details.
Now my unconscious navigates a huge network of subtly programmed technical information, and my conscious mind is free to focus on certain essential details that, because of their simplicity, I can see with tremendous precision, as if the blink in my opponent’s eyes takes many seconds.
The key to this process is understanding that the conscious mind, for all its magnificence, can only take in and work with a certain limited amount of information in a unit of time—envision that capacity as one page on your computer screen If it is presented with a large amount of information, then the font will have to be very small in order to fit it all on the page. You will not be able to see the details of the letters. But if that same tool (the conscious mind) is used for a much smaller amount of information in the same amount of time, then we can see every detail of every letter. Now time feels slowed down. [emphasis mine] (p. 146)
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It was the summer of 1977. I was a junior in college, working at Princeton University on a National Science Foundation grant for a lab that was researching the neurophysiology of learning. My role there was to prepare the research subjects –species Limax maximus—the common garden snail—by vivisecting the nervous system wholly intact from the body, and set micro- electrodes into key neural nuclei so the electrical patterns could be visualized on an oscilloscope. My instruments were tiny micro-fiber glass filaments attached to scalpel handles. I had to work with my arms secured by the wrists in stirrups to stabilize my movements. Precision required all work to be done under a microscope. The first day I watched as the microfiber blades hopelessly flailed under the microscope from the otherwise imperceptible trembling of my hands. This meant I had to give up all sugar and caffeine for the summer. Still, I found it impossible to work with required precision, and ruined specimen after specimen. I just couldn’t imagine how I might make the precise, micro-level movements that were needed, with my macro-level hands and fingers. The coordinates just wouldn’t compute. How could I have control over my hands at a level I couldn’t perceive?
Then one day I had an idea. I looked through the micro-scope and transported myself into the micro-world that existed there. I imagined my fingers to be telephone poles, and the spaces between my hands to be entire football fields. I drew imaginary yard-lines in between and envisioned how I and an entire team of football players could run around in between. In this imaginary world, the micro-fiber blades were the size of kitchen knives, and the specimens were the size of whole salmon. Still a difficult task to fillet out all the bones—but no longer an impossible one. In this virtual world the space to act had been opened, and with it came the slowing down of time. Each specimen prep took 4-6 hours of uninterrupted work, not unlike the demands placed on a surgeon facing a long procedure. Yet before I had a chance to be
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distracted by the thought “I wonder what time it is,” the requisite hours had passed and the work was done. Soon I was depended upon to do all the specimen preparations for everyone in the lab.
What is clear from these accounts, is that perception can be emancipated from the concerns of the social self, from the numerous distractions of the intersubjective “I”; from the compression of time and compaction of space, from worry and fear and rigid adherence to a single-minded ego- centric frame of reference, into a time-space dilation in which perception functions with speed, precision and efficacy. Furthermore, this emancipation is associated with the experience of being “in the zone” or an extraordinarily pleasant states of “flow”; and that this zone or these states are dependent upon discreate neurochemical pathways that rely mostly upon five neurochemical transmitters. These flow states are also related to experiences of time-space dilation brought on by demands for extreme perceptual acuity and achieved through intense focus, and/or the ability to tap into time-space dilation through imaginative exercises.
Perception by the numbers Some definitions
Neuroscience has calculated the way information flows through our sensory organs and how that information is (or is not) exchanged with the brain and the conscious mind. In order to make sense of this, I want to precisely define “sensory organs,” “brain,” and “conscious mind.” They are all functions within what we have previously termed the EBMB – the embodied body-mind- brain. We can say that the sensory organs are mainly “part of the body,” while the terms “brain” and “conscious mind” refer to the mind-brain of the EBMB. The word “embodied” in EBMB
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seems to be redundant, but in this case embodied means more than the body as conventionally understood as built upon a skeletal frame and outlined by our skin. In this case embodied refers to an ongoing interaction with the world, of other sentient and non-sentient participants. Embodiment is fundamentally participation.
The phrase “sensory organs” refers to the conventional ways we point to our eyes, ears, skin, tongue, nose, as the “instruments of perception” but includes more than them. The phrase “sensory organs” includes both the afferent and efferent electro-chemical neural networks through which information flows and is processed at specific sites along discrete pathways, through the body, to and from the brain and other organs such as the gut, heart, and lungs. The term “brain” here specifies those regions of the neural networks that are confined to the anatomical region of the brain—the organ in your skull. The brain has been extensively mapped into specialized regions, and its electrical activity has been extensively studied to give us a pretty good idea of the brain’s unique roles in perception.
Finally, the term “conscious mind” refers to that part of perceptual information that we have conscious access to at any given time. It refers to the perceptual information that the subjective “I” perceives consciously. Consider, as an example, the Buddhist story of the man who mistakes a rope for a snake. Assuming his sensory organs and brain are normal, we would say that the sensory organs are perceiving the qualities of the snake, in the context of the light, angle, sounds, how much of the snake is exposed, etc. Some of this information reaches the brain, and some of it does not. In addition, the brain is processing memories and thoughts, and incorporating imaginative “leaps” while attempting to integrate these into the sensory information to get a “full understanding” of the situation. Now remember, embodiment means participation. As all these
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elements of the embodied experience come together, some aspects will become more conscious to the “I” and some will be “deselected” from the conscious experience. The conscious mind that emerges, depends upon what information is selected and what is deselected. The conscious “I” therefore, ends up participating with an incomplete set of information. If the information that is “served up” to the “I” is heavily biased by memories of being bitten by a snake, or by warnings that primed the imagination to see a snake, then we would say the “mind” is participating with the idea of a snake, rather than the perception of a rope.
This notion of selection and deselection is a very important aspect of perceptual experience, and suggests something like an evolutionary-adaptive fitness landscape.(As Jason Brown (2005) surmises: “Is speciation in the process of evolution analogous to specification in an act of cognition?” The point here is that not everything the sensory organs are participating with, gets through to the conscious I. In fact, not much actually gets through!
The fact is that every single second, millions of bits of information flood in through our senses. But our consciousness processes only perhaps forty bits a second– at most. Millions and millions of bits are condensed to a conscious experience that contains practically no information at all. Every single second, every one of us discards millions of bits in order to arrive at the special state known as consciousness. But in itself, consciousness has very little to do with information. Consciousness involves information that is not present; information that has disappeared along the way. (Norretranders, 1991 pg. 125)
“The numbers are vast,” writes Tor Norretranders (1991)
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The eye sends at least ten million bits to the brain every second. The skin sends a million bits a second, the ear one hundred thousand, our smell sensors a further one hundred thousand bits a second, our taste buds perhaps a thousand bits a second. … All in all, over eleven million bits a second from the world to our sensory mechanisms. We consciously perceive about forty bits a second– and that figure is probably exaggerated. (p. 126)3
“That is to say,” Norretranders (1991) emphasizes, “only one millionth of what our eyes see, our ears hear, and our other senses inform us about appears in our consciousness.” The neuroscientist Jason Brown (2005, 2002,) says that this singular conscious perception, is a terminal outcome of a global microgenetic process which follows a branching, evolutionary-tree-like pattern. This microgenetic process includes several pre-conscious stages that progressively unfold the perception of a space-time world of objects. His microgenetic process model includes the sensory organs, but does not begin there. Microgenesis begins in deeper regions of primordial awareness associated with the neuro-affective pathways of the EBMB. Roy (2015) also describes the microgeney of perception (what she calls “percepto-genesis) as a tree-like architecture
Perceptions, although primed by affect, are not guided by them. Rather, perceptions are guided by what we might call the ‘appetitive drive of the senses.’ The senses are not passive organs that function like windows opened up onto the world. The senses are more like open roads—they are designed to go somewhere. This is something that Goethe knew—our senses are not passive receptors but they are dynamic and creative actors that enact
3 Norretranders later says the more correct figure is 16 bits a second.
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to reaching toward the world is a process called ‘perceptogenesis.’
It is a process that can be described as having a tree-like architecture, where the roots represent the affect channels, which are immersed in and draw from the given-ness of the world, and the branches that reach toward the sky are the sensory organs. The affect channels provide the energy, the intentional- motivational state that vitalizes both the penetration into the world through the sympathetic drives of feeling, and the thrust out toward the world through the appetitive drive of the senses. The two movements prescribe an arc of transformation, where affect and perception objectify as image in the mind of a self. (p. 52)
The image of a tree helps us understand the way the sensory apparatus “sculpts” information content into sizable “chunks” for the conscious mind. “The primary activity of mind is to chunk experience into public and private events,” writes Jason Brown (2005); where we would substitute his term mind with “body-brain” and the notion of public and private events to conscious mind and unconscious process. “The price of this chunking,” Brown (2005) goes on to say, “is a loss of relations and a delimitation and focality of the events of interest.” We are hard- wired at birth for perceptual processes to sculpt information in ways that evolved for us as a species. Microgenetic theory (Brown 2002) adds to this notion of sculpting, a sense of evolutionary “survival” of the perceptual objects that make it through to conscious mind, by surviving the sculpting processes of progressive specification (speciation) of the perceptual objects. For this Brown (2002) requires making the distinction between sensation—which is an
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in the conscious mind.
Sensation enters into the microgeny at successive points. … a deep preobject is gradually sculpted by sensation to a final object. … The object is what survives a transit through this sequence. It is whatever happens to actualize. Depending on the moment in the object structure that predominates, one has a dream, an image, or an object perception. (Brown 2002 p. 8)
People tapping into states of peak performance, have learned to make these unconscious processes conscious so they can be tuned to different advantages. It is possible to train the EBMB to sculpt perfectly tuned patterns which embed an enormous amount of information relative to, let’s say a game like chess, and packaged in the right sized “bits” for the conscious mind to access and bring to conscious perception on demand. The world Tai-Chi champion Josh Waitzkin introduced above, is also a world chess champion. He now heads an educational organization devoted to his “Art of Learning” program, where just this kind of “enhanced perceptual training” is being developed. “The clearest way to approach this [topic],” Waitzkin (2007) writes, is with the imagery of chunking and carved neural pathways.
Chunking relates to the mind’s ability to assimilate large amounts of information into a cluster that is bound together by certain patterns or principles particular to a given discipline. The initial studies on this topic were … performed on chess players who were considered to be the clearest example of sophisticated unconscious pattern integration. (p. 138)
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Evolution has already given us a default setting on how our neural pathway are carved, limiting most of the perceptual information to unconscious processing, so as not to overwhelm the conscious mind. The next section explains the bio-neurology of these pathways, with their various gates of entry, as discrete regions whose functional anatomy have been shaped by evolution. It will detail from a neurophysiological perspective, why Brown’s microgenesis model, Roy’s tree metaphor, and Waitzkin’s analogy are all correct: that the mind has “the ability to take lots of information, find a harmonizing/logically consistent strain, and put it together into one mental file that can be assessed as if it were a single piece of information.” (Waitzkin 2007 p. 139)
And while it is true that these neural pathways are developmentally conditioned during one’s lifetime, they are not developmentally fixed. In other words, they can also be developmentally repatterned. Old pathways can be made flexible, and new pathways can be carved into new sensory flows that dramatically enhance the ultimate perceptual experience. Understanding this, we will find that it is possible to turn what looks like a deficit (the lack of information reaching conscious mind) to an asset (training and tuning the more powerful unconscious processes toward a conscious focus).
For now, we can translate these different ways of talking about the content of perception into the terms I am using in this paper, namely EBMB, sensory organs, body, brain and mind, in the following way:
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The EBMB is a participant in the world actively engaging and exchanging millions of bits of information back in multiple directions. The body as a holistic organism, cognizes all this information in specific dynamic patterns that have evolved as the species evolves. The sensory organs are active participants in the world—they scan and probe, seek and hunt for those relationships in the world for which they have specifically been tuned by evolution. The sensory organs also participate with the brain through discrete neural pathways that lead to and from the brain. These neural pathways are not simple, open highways—they comprise a complex network of “gates” which select and deselect information, route and re-route the direction of information, and chunk information into manageable portions that can serve as conscious perceptions in the mind. This has the net effect of “sculpting” a conscious perception consisting of a tiny fraction of the global sensory information from world to the “I” of the mind. Note, however, that the “I” of the mind itself participates with more than just sensory information. The mind also participates with virtual information arising as thoughts and mental images, memories, fantasies and dreams. Virtual information is associated with different regions and different dynamics of the brain. The mind has to integrate sensory information with this virtual information. Yet something very important is still left out—the information that is “perceived and processed” by/in the body itself—the rich and complex proprioceptive operations, which by far outnumber all the other information flowing through the EBMB. The body itself is a perceptual organ, that “cognizes the lived experience into the background of all perceptual experience.
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Part II: Background
The Phenomenology of the Background
Until recently, Western scientists and philosophers have missed the role the body plays in constituting the “background field” of perception. Typically, perception has been viewed as a cognitive function of the brain and mind. Studies were limited to the brain’s neural processing of sensory information and the mind’s conceptual framing of it.
When we think of the body, we usually think in terms of sensations rather than perceptions. We relate to bodily sensations as “feelings”—both physiological and emotional. We are able to make these feelings conscious, to hold them into awareness, without conceptualizing or naming them. In fact, the philosopher Eugene Gendlin (1962 ) has shown that the bodily felt-sense is more precise than language. There are many ways we try to describe our feelings beyond merely labelling them with a word. And although language often proves itself inadequate for this purpose, we usually don’t become skeptical about whether we are really feeling a particular sensation. In other words, we can foreground the bodily felt-sense in our consciousness without naming or conceptualizing it.
The percepts of the body, on the other hand, are embedded in the deepest unconscious processes that are responsible for the most primordial levels of experience. These body-percepts are deeper
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even than the felt-sense, because they are the background information that enables us to locate the felt-sense in our own body. Only in rare, non-ordinary states do these percepts rise above the threshold of conscious experience, so it is more accurate to say they are processes of proto- experience. They are the processes of the “background.” The proprio-percepts of the body enable us to experience the sense of the body as occupying space, as well as enable us to have the sense of space surrounding us in multiple dimensions. When the proprioceptive organs work along with the other senses, the body “cognizes” its own action in the world, making it possible, for example, for the outfielder to run to where the ball will fly, before they hear the crack of the bat; or for the batter to start their swing before the release of the ball, in order to have time to hit it.
Searching for the Background
The deeper “layers” of the psyche lose their individual uniqueness as they retreat farther and farther into darkness. “Lower down,” that is to say as they approach the autonomous functional systems, they become increasingly collective until they are universalized and extinguished in the body’s materiality, i.e., in chemical substances. The body’s carbon is simply carbon. Hence “at bottom” the psyche is simply “world.”
~ C.G. Jung, “The Psychology of the Child Archetype” (1940), In CW, Vol. 9, Part I: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, p. 291
Trying to “find” sub-threshold percepts is like the fish trying to find the water it swims in. On the one hand, it is everywhere, and pre-constitutes or is the precondition of being-in-the-world. On the other hand, it must, in some way, be also hidden in plain sight. For this reason, scholastics in
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the east and philosophers in the west and have been searching for “the phenomenon of the background” ever since the axial age (Bellah and Joas, 2012) when consciousness leaped into its modern, theoretic-rational structure. Prior to the axial age, humans were not capable of reflective consciousness—they could not use their minds to “turn around” to search inside their consciousness. When we did, we discovered divergent ways to think of the background—as something transcendent or as something transcendental.
In the east, the move was toward the transcendent—that the “background” that composed or pre- constituted human awareness, was a transcendent consciousness that existed independent of the material world. This consciousness (Big Mind, Brahman, storehouse consciousness, Clear Light, Pristine Awareness) is often conceived as having different layers or levels of ever-more subtlety. These levels are often simplified to the terms gross, subtle and causal levels of consciousness. In the east, “searching for the background” is a vertical and additive process of awakening, in which we are trained to dis-embed our attention from gross or coarse appearances, and expanding one’s personal awareness into more subtle levels of consciousness. It is a vertical process because the more subtle realms of awareness are construed to be accessed by “higher levels” of consciousness. It is an additive process because each higher level transcends and enfold the lower levels so as to be both higher and more inclusive. (see Roy 2014)
Following the enlightenment, western philosophers rejected mystical explanations of the background phenomena, and turned instead to meta-physical/ meta-cognitive explanations. This resulted in the positing of transcendental causes that were construed as pre-given mental events
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that were accessible to the human mind through laws of logic and reason. Like eastern transcendents, these transcedentals were outside the realm of phenomenal experience, which involves appearances and sensory perceptions. But unlike the eastern explanations, transcendentals were properties that existed because of human minds not beyond them. Transcendentals existed because human minds could reason through the phenomena to them. These were the noumena that could never be experienced, because they were necessary pre- requirements or apriori in order for experience to happen. The Kantian transcendentals include logic and mathematics, and the apperception of space and time. Western enlightenment therefore was vertical but not additive—it required higher capacities of reasoning, to get at deeper, more fundamental truths, such as laws of logic and science. Science and the academic disciplines thereafter supplied the additive practices – augmenting the fundamental laws of nature with more and more empirical descriptions.
A third approach in searching for the background, is neither vertical nor additive. Rather it is pursued through deeper-descending and subtracting practices. Husserl’s introspection for example, entailed a process of “bracketing” out the world (the subtracting phase) and tuning in to the primordial phenomenological apperceptions underlying conscious experience (the deeper- descending phase). Gallagher & Zahavy (2008) Varela & Shear (2002). Husserl was especially interested in the phenomenology of time consciousness. Husserl described three overlapping yet successive phases of consciousness: protention-primal impression- retention. Pro-tention is basically a pre-conscious orienting phase, of “pure intention” or “intention without an object” which overlaps and gives way to the primal impression of phenomenal objects, which in turn
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 37 overlap and give way to a retention or subtle memory of the object. This last phase then giving
way (and overlapping) the successive protention phase of the incoming “next moment.”
By bracketing experience and focusing down onto a core component of consciousness, namely the presentational present, Husserl not only revealed the phenomenal nature of time- consciousness, but also excavated a new transcendental explanation of the background phenomenon as the “stream of experience” occasioned by the succession of intentional states.
Gallagher and Zahavi (2008) point out how Husserl’s analysis of the structure of inner time- consciousness serves a double purpose for western phenomenologist in the tradition of introspection: “It is not only meant to explain how we can be aware of objects with temporal extension, but also how we can be aware of our own stream of experiences. (p.88)
There are thus two important aspects to this [Husserl’s] retentional continuity. The first, the ‘longitudinal intentionality’ … provides for the intentional unification of consciousness itself, since retention is the retention of previous phases of consciousness. Second, since the prior phases of consciousness contain their respective primal impressions of the experienced object, the continuity of that experienced object is also established. (p. 88)
Husserl’s presentational time serves as an invariant structure that makes possible the flow of consciousness as we experience it. They are structures not given in experience, but invariant structures that are independent and prior to experience. Unlike Kant’s transcendentals, however,
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they do not exist on some metaphysical plane, but are structures of mental states associated with intention, and as such, can be made explicit as phenomenological processes in introspection. Husserl’s temporal structure brought the notion of the background back from the noumenal to the phenomenal—that of the processural structures beneath experience. Still for the most part, this background was thought of as comprised of mental events. Husserl called these mental states “validities” (Dreyfus 2012) that “make up the ‘unnoticed,’ ‘concealed,’ background. [emphasis mine]
Heidegger led the way for a new kind of existential phenomenology whose adherents rejected the idea that mental events, such as intentional states, could relate subjects to objects. (Dreyfus 2012) Instead, they said that all mental events, including intentional states, depended on a background that could never be made explicit, because the background was part of the phenomenon of world. Heidegger described this “world-bearing” aspect of being as “absorption.” “[His] existential phenomenology discloses the holistic, preconceptual, preintentional background into which we are already absorbed. Heidegger thought of the background “as an atmosphere” (i.e. like water to a fish) and as an atmosphere
the background is precisely not the aggregate of mental states that Husserl from his detached phenomenological point of view mistakenly assumes.
It is in this sense of absorption, that the background withdraws from phenomenological examination, in order to be the background. The background is in a sense a “performance of the world” that enables the absorbed subject to pre-figure phenomenal objects in consciousness.
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 39 Over the course of the 20th century, “the notion of the background has progressively moved into
the foreground of philosophical discussion. (Shusterman, 2012)
Over the past century, philosophers have increasingly recognized that the mental life of which we are conscious and through which we act to realize our intention cannot adequately function without relying on a background of which we are not properly conscious but which guides and structures our conscious thought and action. (Shusterman, 2012 p. 206)
It was generally agreed that the background would not only be pre-conceptual and pre- representational, but also pre-intentional. Over the course of few centuries, the background had “moved” in the imagination of scholastics and philosophers, both east and west, from the highest domains of the mystical and metaphysical, to the realm of the mental and intentional. Now it was generally agreed that the background was to be found elsewhere, even further down in proto- realms of experience.
The theory of the body is already a theory of perception. ~ Merleau-Ponty
It was Merleau-Ponty (1964) who first claimed the primacy of perception as the ground of experience: “The perceived world is always the presupposed foundation of all rationality, all value and all existence.” (p. 13)
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By these word, the “primacy of perception,” we mean that the experience of perception is our presence at the moment when things, truths, values are constituted for us; that perception is a nascent logos; that it teaches us, outside all dogmatism, the true conditions of objectivity itself… (p.25)
Making perception primary, was and remains a radical philosophical position. It implies that perception is prior to experience and is pre-requisite to experience itself. His claim runs straight against Kant’s transcendental idealism and Husserl’s transcendental intentionality. In fact, Merleau-Ponty argues that perception has been called into question, because whenever you make the transcendental the priority, you have a contradiction of thought, that “turns perception into mere appearance.” Although he accepts the Kantian doctrine that “all our experience of the world is through a tissue of concepts that lead to irreducible contradictions,” he argues that the consequences of this even Kant failed to grasp. Here he echoed the American pragmatists, whom he alluded to as “the realist philosophers of America,4” who helped him distinguish between the “universe of perception” and its “intellectual reconstructions. As early as 1900 William James, writing about “The Abuse of Concepts”, (James 1977) in philosophical inquiry, rather casually implicates the perceptual order as the prior ground of experience:
The intellectual life of man consists almost wholly in his substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which his experience originally comes. (p. 234)
4 According to an entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/merleau-ponty/
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“The great difference between percepts and concepts” James writes, “is that percepts are continuous and concepts are discrete.” Concepts “make cuts” in the unbroken flow of perception, that are “purely ideal.”
If my reader can succeed in abstracting from all conceptual interpretation and lapse back into his immediate sensible life at this very moment, he will find it to be what someone has called a big blooming buzzing confusion, as free from contradiction in its ‘much-at’onceness’ as it is all alive and evidently there.” (p. 233)
Note that James was already intuiting the “sculpting and carving” functions we talked about in previous sections. The contradictions of conceptual interpretation result from the “cutting up” of the ongoing-continuity of the perceptual processes.
“Conceptual knowledge is forever inadequate to the fulness of reality to be known,” writes James (1977). “Reality exists of existential particulars … and of existential particulars we become aware only in perceptual flux.” (p.245)
James warns us that concepts are secondary and inadequate that “falsify as well as omit, and make the [perceptual] flux impossible to understand.” He explains why intellectual examination of perceptual experience creates the impression that perceptions are mere appearance, writing that “Conceptual treatment of perceptual reality makes it seem paradoxical and incomprehensible; and when radically and consistently carried out, it leads to the opinion that perceptual experience is not reality at all, but an appearance or illusion.” (p 245-6). Why this is so, James summarizes in the following way:
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Briefly this is a consequence of two facts: First, that when we substitute concepts for percepts, we substitute their relations also. But since the relations of concepts are of static comparison only, it is impossible to substitute them for the dynamic relations with which the perceptual flux is filled. Secondly, the conceptual scheme, consisting as it does of discontinuous terms, can only cover the perceptual flux in spots and incompletely. The one is no full measure of the other, essential features of the flux escaping whenever we put concepts in its place. (p. 246)
A century later, Merleau-Ponty took this line of reasoning further, into the search for the “background phenomenon” by identifying “bodily space” as the “silent, structuring, concealed background. In his book Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty (1962) attempts to redefine the “body” beyond its interoceptivity and proprioceptivity, and associated changes in the body’s posture and gestures and their associations with images and significance via a perceptual translation into visual and articulate language, which as such pinpointed the body as the center of classical perceptual experience. “And yet,” Merleau-Ponty writes, “the body schema clearly overflows this associationist definition.” (p. 101)
Rather, these associations must be constantly submitted to a unique law, the spatiality of the body must descend from the whole to the parts, my left hand and its position must be implicated in an overall body plan and must have their origin there… (p.101)
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The emphasis here is away from body-as-schema and toward spatiality as given through the body. Remember, spatiality had been, for both Kant and Husserl, a transcendental category of experience. Merleau-Ponty is pointing to the body as the “perceptual organ of spatiality.” With latitude, we might say that the body “casts” spatiality, a field of continuous flux and flow which is simultaneously both body and world in participation. The body is expanded to mean, in a very real sense, an emanation of the space of participation.
The emphasis here is on perception as direct participation of the body’s spatiality, which is to say of direct involvement in a “field” of body-and-world. The emphasis is on its direct or unmediated nature, “that there is no intermediary (image or representation) between perceiver and object perceived.” This cuts strongly against the grain of classical, representational theories of perception:
According to one classical formulation of this representational view, our mind cannot on its own reach all the way to the objects themselves, and the typical claim has therefore been that we need to introduce some kind of interface between the mind and the world if we are to understand and explain perception. Our cognitive access to the world must be mediated by some kind of mental representations relating to the everyday objects we ordinarily claim to perceive, as inner effects to external causes. [According to this view, then] to perceive the world is to generate a representational structure within the mind—something like a picture or map that represents external reality. (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2012 p. 101)
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Merleau-Ponty opened up the possibility that the background is not the pre-perceptual ground, but the perceptual-as-ground itself. It suggests that there are perceptual processes that are pre- intentional, pre-representational, and pre-conceptual. These would mean that the background was the pre-intentional pre-representational, and pre-conceptual perceptual processing of the world.
Bodily space can be distinguished from external space and it can envelope its parts rather than laying them out side by side because it is the darkness of the theatre required for the clarity of performance, the foundation of sleep or the vague reserve of power against which the gesture and its goal stand out, and the zone of non-being in front of which precise beings, figures, forms can appear. (Merleau-Ponty 1997, p. 102)
It would be a participation where world and body meet in the very fine-grained, finely attuned places where the distinction between “world” and “body” became too fuzzy to conceptualize. This field would be pre-ordered, open potentiality, where proto-perceptions emerge from the adaptive coupling of body and world, in active mutual participation.
“The world is experienced, not as a fully formed presence, but as a set of possibilities determined by an on-going dynamic interplay of environmental opportunities and sensorimotor abilities. (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2012 p. 111)
These proto-perceptions would then go onto different phases of “sculpting and carving” at different mind-brain “stations” along perceptual organ pathways, neural networks, and cognitive streams of consciousness. Some of this sculpting and carving would be done in primordial, pre-
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intentional stages, while some would be guided by intentional states and attentional needs, as well as eidetic phases involving memory and mental image-making while further cuts would be made through meaning-making processes of the social self. The whole gestalt would eventually, in imaginative and synthetic parts of the mind, be polished by symbolic, narrative, linguistic and conceptual elaborations of many kinds.
Neurodynamics of the Background
The body cognizes itself through its own body-consciousness, namely that of touch, which is “self-othering. The eye cannot see itself, the ear cannot hear itself, the tongue cannot taste itself, the scent organs cannot smell themselves. Neither can the self cognize itself; rather it is the outcome of a cognized moment. Only the body can cognize itself through its own body-consciousness, namely that of touch, which like one’s own two hands embracing, is simultaneously self-othering. In this very same way, the body’s aspect consciousness, its kinesthetic awareness, simultaneously self-others the world. This is the definition of unmediated cognition– the primary anchoring of perception in the world with and as the world, in participation.
In this section I want to introduce the notion that the “body cognizes itself.” What I mean by this is that the perceptual processes associated with the EBMB create a holistic “knowing” of the body’s relation-in-the-world. This tacit knowing emerges through continuous participation with the world, down to finer and finer graininess where the boundary between body and world becomes “fuzzy” for the categorizing, conceptual mind. Consider for example, tasting food. The
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molecules of the food come into contact with my tongue. At this level of detail, the food is part of the world and the tongue is part of my body. At a finer level of detail the molecules of the food come into contact with the molecules of my taste receptors. From there on, it’s all chemistry, which is the same “kind of chemistry” we find in the world. Chemistry is itself a participation at a fine level of detail.
The body “cognizes” by integrating three parallel-processing streams: interoceptive, and proprioceptive, and exterioceptive. These parallel streams are sub-systems that semi- independently integrate perceptual information (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, kinaesthetic and vestibular organs) according to three different referents. Interoception processes the body’s position in space, mainly by referencing the head and its movements. Proprioception cognizes the body’s own position, mainly by referencing its center of balance. Exterioception cognizes the body’s position in the world, mainly through referencing relative positions of other objects. It’s truly extraordinary how much information the body must work with simultaneously: processing six perceptual data streams through three parallel processes, into a holistically cognized tacit knowledge of its worldly participation. In this case, “to cognize” means to realize itself as both body and world. These are the processes of the “background” that Merleau-Ponty described. The background is a holistic continuous inter-integration of body and world. It does not “appear” because it is not a thing, nor does it come to rest as a terminal point in a perceptual stream. Rather, as background, “the body” performs a “cognizing purpose” through continuous
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 47 participation at the rhizomatous interface of body and world. The background is hylozoic5
James H. Austin (1999) describes the perceptual spaces of the body as “the normally hidden capacity for sensate inferences.” It allows us to maneuver in 360 degree (i.e. circumspatial) space through a holistic integration of position, balance, movement, and enormous processing of incoming perceptual information. Unlike ordinary, conscious perception, which references experience to the body as a single point location and the world in front of our eyes—or even unlike inner mental images and thoughts that do the same—the body’s perceptual space includes the ever-expanding and unfolding continuum of space in all directions. Hence, the athlete’s space becomes an enlarged skill-filled volume of possibility. The outfielder runs in concert with the ball before the crack of the bat, negotiating body and ball through vast, circumspatial trajectories, just as we “know without thinking” to “reach without looking” behind us for our scissors or beneath us for our keys.
In contrast, [to normal frontal-local perception] our hidden awareness is unconscious and circumspatial. It may seem to start out with that property which we refer to by calling it our ordinary “sense of place.” But psychological tests suggest that our usual sense of place is already relatively large, and that it does not restrict itself to that limited zone which ordinary frontal vision perceives out in front of us. No, our true sense of space goes on to encompass a cycloramic field of no less than 360 degrees. Indeed, as our large visual brain
5 Hylozoism is a philosophical point of view in which matter is in some sense alive, or that matter and life are inseparable.
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 48 goes on to represent this huge space, its scope extends in back to encompass a
whole “visual world behind the head.” (Austin 1999 pg. 488)
These background processes explain why, after higher level processing, we can parse the neurology of visio-spatial awareness into egocentric and allocentric frames of awareness. fMRI identifies these as discrete neural pathways through the temporal lobe, the one progressing upward in a dorsal stream, the other pursuing a downward course through a ventral stream. (Austin 1999).
The egocentric mode references objects to points along the midline axis of our head and body. It takes the form of an object as it appears to me, the viewer. Its, purpose is design for action. It is hard-wired into our nervous system along with the dorsal-ventral body plan in utero:
How did we develop this capacity to be aware, so unconsciously, of the spatial envelope around us? In utero, as yet unborn, our brain stem had no context for the richness of adult three-dimensional space, let alone for the extra dimensions it could reach during the alternate states of maturity. This tiny stem was still largely unconditioned. Yet the brain stem of a new-born baby is no tabla–rasa, no blank floppy disk on a computer. It is already channeling stimuli into certain designated regions. These will serve its primitive needs to localize. In this sense, the stem is a floppy disk already formatted. (Austin, 1999 p. 490)
Allocentric perceptual modes, by contrast, are more like GPS systems. They are tuned to detached, objective spatial information. This perspective develops later in children between the
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ages of 3 and 5 years. (Austin, 2009 p. 55). It is fundamentally world-referenced. It coordinates objects in the world in relation to each other and their environment ‘out there.’ The Allocentric mode takes the form of an object as 1) an independent entity, 2) with its own intrinsic center, 3) occupying a position in the environment relative to other objects, and 4) is independent of our presence. It is only in the unconscious levels of perceptual processing that these two modes operate independently, because by the time they are once again further passed along and integrated into manageable chunks for the conscious I, they have been integrated into a holistic baseline perception, in normal, ordinary awareness:
Normally, this second, other-centered version will go on silently to join our first Self-centerd frame of spatial reference in a merger as complementary as yin and yang. In this ongoing synaptic alchemy, a mosaic of interactions blends two parallel physiologies into a joint working partnership. (Austin, 2009 p. 57)
These two modes of perception are normally merged in conscious experience. But they can sometimes become unhinged, and therefore experimentally detected. Take for example an ingenious experiment designed to elicit selective deficits of egocentric or allocentric processing in patients with temporal damage to different temporal lobe areas. The experiment involved subjects looking at two groupings of (images of) apples—four on their left field of vision, and four on their right. Patients with parietal lesions associated with deficits in egocentric processing. failed to report the four apples, exclusively on one side or the other, depending on the side of the parietal lobe damage. Patients with parietal lesions associated with deficits in allocentric processing were also shown apples in two groupings (left and right); but in this case six of the eight apples had a black “spoiled” marking either on the apple’s left or right side. There were
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 50 three “left spoiled” marked apples, and three “right-spoiled” marked apples and two unmarked
apples. The apple images were arranged in the following grouping
Left visual field: left mark, right mark, no mark, left mark Right visual field: left mark, right mark, no mark, left mark
Patients with allocentric deficits identified only the apples with markings on the opposite side of the patient’s dysfunction, regardless of the side of the visual field the apples themselves were placed. These experiments confirm that the “hidden background” of spatial processing operates along two discrete phenomenological streams of perception. For one of these streams the primary anchor of reference is the ego-body. For the other, the primary reference is distributed throughout “objective” relational space among the objects themselves. Along with the interoceptive, proprioceptive and exteroceptive cognizing functions, these two “streams of spatial reference) constitute the manifold of “bodily (world)-space” – the primordial, perceptual background of experience.
We look at much more than we “see.” Each second, by gross estimates, somewhere between 10^7 and 10^11 bits of afferent information smite our various sensory end organs. To shelter us from this barrage, the normal brain engages in an enormous filtering operation. Only the rare stimulus, murmuring the right password, manages to pass through. As a result, consciousness finally
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 51 registers and perceives only a mere sixteen to twenty bits of information each
second. (Austin 1997 p. 278)
The neurodynamics of the EBMB are mind-boggling in their complexity. The holistic performance of the perceptual system depends on dynamics of feedback, feedforward, timing delays, excitatory and inhibitory responses, serial and parallel processing, and whole-part relationships. The key layers of this complex architecture are (from bottom up):
1) Holyzoic zone a. Level 1 – Participatory interface with world
. 2) Level 2 – Bodily Space (the background is “cognized” through a manifold serial processing system)
i. exterioception (primary purpose: action)
ii. proprioception (primary purpose: balance and skill
iii. interoception (primary purpose: well-being)
. 3) Object-Space (referential processes of figure-grounding)
i. Allocentric modes
ii. Egocentric modes
. 4) Mind-Space (deselection through serial processing)
a. Carving and chunking through serial processing of information 5) I-me-mine Self Complex
a. Accommodating and assimilating perceptual dynamics with virtual components of mind, i.e. memories, mental models, narratives, linguistic, conceptual and abstract thinking, imagination, dream and fantasy
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We can use a heuristic to illustrate the various levels as a simple illustration of these levels of consciousness. (see appendix A). In this heuristic, the world and the cognizing body start at the bottom, and more “refined” perceptual information moves toward the top, toward the final self- complex. The bottom sections comprise the “EB” of our “Embodied-Body-Mind-Brain” model. The top sector represents the “M” mind, and the pinnacle is the Self-structure, which includes more than just the EBMB. (We might say that, when we add the self, we are working with the EBMB-S) The “B” brain would be the hard-wiring that is diagramed in the illustration. The horizonal dashed lines represent where we would expect to find discrete “neural gates” which selectively allows certain information to pass “up” while confining most of the perceptual information to deeper levels. These “neural gates, would be the reason we have different layers of “accessibility” – from the pre-conscious (world) to the fully conscious self.6 The deepest levels are completely unavailable to what we ordinarily think of as “consciousness” and yet they constitute the profound consciousness of the embodied body which “cognizes the hylozoic realm.” Introspective practices can reveal the complex knot of thoughts, stories, memories, expectations and fears that constitute the subconscious layering of the Self-complex.
Contemplative practices and focusing-attention practices such as chess and Tai-Chi enable people like Josh Waitzkin to become consciously aware of the normally pre-attentive dimensions of mind. While we have seen that the allocentric and egocentric modes of perceptual processing were proved to be discrete by neuroanatomical and neuropathological experiments on patients in whom they stopped functioning holistically, it is possible, through advanced meditative
6 This paper stops with the fully conscious, but pre-reflective self. The self-state system becomes extended through self-conscious, reflection, and then further toward social, collective and transpersonal states. These latter are outside the scope of this paper.
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practices, to tease them apart and to experience their subtle nuanced natures. It is also possible, in rare meditative states, to experience some of the deepest of the background processes, including the spatial dimensioning of reality that the body performs in the hylozoic zone.
Usually, though as consciousness descends deeper into the bodily domain, the threshold of consciousness is rarely breached, and the body “steps into the flow and performs in the zone”— as we see with extreme sports and exceptional athletes.
Background processes, not ordinarily available to conscious awareness, can become conscious perceptual experiences, when the “neural gates” reverse themselves. This “reversal” wherein the background processes come forward, entails the absence of ordinary perceptual features such as sense of self, a relatively “bland” external world of static objects, the body’s positional orientation in object-space, and a normal sense of time duration. Every night we go through processes where the action along these neural gates changes. No longer are outside percepts allowed through. No longer are the body’s percept allowed through. No longer is the information selected and integrated into a waking sense of I-me-mine. Instead, am explosion of virtual scenes are activated, including a dream-self and her imaginary worlds.
Opening the Gates of Perception
During a 13-day period of radical transformation, I didn’t fall asleep at all. Instead, I would lie down and fall into deep relaxation. Soon I would witness
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my body going into sleep paralysis. I could “look for” my limbs, my head, my pelvis, but could not “find them” in any part of my awareness. As the feeling of the physical body disappeared, consciousness seemed free floating. Keeping my eyes open, I was immersed in deep blackness, which I could not determine was the darkness inside the room, or the blackness behind my eyes. Either way, the blackness was strange, because usually some faint light can be seen through the windows, or some virtual imagery is active behind one’s eyes. By contrast, this was complete darkness, very still. This void eventually would become more and more spacious, and tiny little specks of “light particles” were flickering. I would say though, that only about 1 -2 percent of the area was occupied by these tiny particles – most of the “space” was a dark void. The greatest impression of this void is that it was 360 degree dimensional. And expanding into ever-increasing dimensional space. There were no objects that could be used as referents to this dimensionality. The impression of dimensionality was given by this “movement” of expansion into spherical space. My consciousness seemed to expand with it. It was as if I were a particle of light that I could not, of course see. A tiny speck of awareness flickering in a great sea of expanding void. Most of the experiences were affectively neutral. But one evening, this expansion into the infinite void was accompanied by an increasing feeling of bliss. Of freedom. The further my awareness expanded, the more bliss, the more freedom. “Going out to forever” became a subtle goal, a probable destination. Then the body called me back. I heard a very faint, child-like voice, way back down from “where I had come” calling me to re-occupy the physical body, so “she”(the body-child) would not die. I experienced this as profound spiritual choice—absolute freedom and bliss on the one side, and guaranteed suffering on the other. I realized the Bodhisattva commitment to embodiment, for the benefit of all sentience. And so, I returned. This was the 13th and final evening of my most radical transformative journey. I had come back “for good.”
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My experience shows how the “background phenomenon” can be experienced as a non-ordinary state of consciousness. This was not a dream—as I had full waking consciousness, which included the ability to witness and record the progression of experiential events. The background phenomenon constitutes the “spatial dimension” we create in our dreams. This one evening, however I was not dreaming, and my sensory perceptions were “gated out” through the phases of deepening sleep. And yet, “I” remained awake to witness as the background phenomenon predominated my experience. This process is described as the “downward passage” (Bradford, 2008) “which follows an orderly sequence characterized by “loss of [perceptual]objects” as they “degrade in a predictable fashion,” as aims dissolve and motoricity ceases through relaxation practices (associated, in my case with the on-coming of sleep paralysis).
In pursuing the downward passage, the mystic is buffeted by feelings embodied previously in objects of desire, affection, and fear. Ideation likewise runs forward with increasing independence of conscious intention. Inner- speech may surface in conscious awareness as auditory hallucination. (p.57)
The end-state of such “downward passages” is an outcome of what goes off-line, and what remains on-line. In many cases, described by Brown, the downward passage “opens the gates of eidetic and archetypal images to flood through, as temporary substitutes for lost objects.
“The many forms of imagery, dreams, memory and thought images, hallucinations and illusion, eidetic and afterimages are markers of successive phases in the object-development … .” (Bradford 2008)
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… dreams, hallucinations, and imaginal images, followed by memory and thought images; then illusions, eidetic and after-imagery and finally the physical objects whose veridical perception entails the conviction of their being real. (p.59)
Of course, what is meant by “lost objects” in this paper, is not merely a phase in a microgenetic process. In this paper “loss of objects” also refers to an interruption of the body’s participation in the hylozoic zone, that result from sleep paralysis, and neural gating of perceptual information that occurs during sleep processes. In my case, there was at first absolutely no eidetic content, with only the background and a few tiny specks of light, which were most probably effects of baseline retinal activity—and only in the final stages followed by the auditory hallucination and a “return to the body.” Similar states occur during normal sleep phases—processes that are highly dependent upon “neural gating” at reticular nuclei junctions in the thalamus. Austin (1999) describes the role of this neural gate in desynchronized sleep (D-sleep) which ‘enables our brain (a) to reactivate itself during otherwise drugged stupor of slow-wave sleep, but (b) to accomplish this so gently that we’re not sent all the way up to the waking state.
During our waking hours, stimuli from the outside shape consciousness. But during D-sleep the field of awareness can turn inward.7 Now it can pursue directions other than those dictated by new sensory stimuli entering from the outside. In many other respects, D-sleep and wakefulness seem to be “fundamentally equivalent brains states.” (p. 316)
7 Where “turning inward” means 1) participation exits the hylozoic zone and 2) allocentric processes are interrupted.
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Traditional meditation rituals are designed to take advantage of key triggers associated with “the passage downward” to root, background experiences. (Austin 1999) These include sleep-wake cycles timed to circadian rhythms that are most likely to express D-sleep. Depending upon the “spiritual pedagogy and doctrine” that accompanies students throughout their training, these state experiences can be seen for what they actually are—revealing the innate background processes of human consciousness—or for what we wish or imagine them to be—astral, divine or transcendent phenomena. Nature-based traditions such as Zen (Japanese) and Chan (Chinese) Buddhism tend to select the former, while the theistic tendencies of the Indo-European cultures, tend to elevate these experiences to transpersonal and divine domains.
Zen does, however have a term for such events: internal absorption. It arises as a paradoxical result of being both intensely awake and perceptually asleep. Its main characteristic is how much drops offline from experience while the sense of self remains strongly online. (Contrast this to normal dream states where exterior sensations drop offline, but virtual perceptions—images, stories, entire dream worlds and a virtual self—come online; while the waking self is completely absent. In states of internal absorption
The person’s mental field lacks sensations of vision, hearing and touch. Something stops them from entering from outside the world. Absent too are the subtler proprioceptive sense arising from inside the physical self. All that remains is clear awareness expanded to the nth degree throughout a vacuum plenum. (Austin, 1999 p. 476)
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Most of the EBMB’s consciousness-processing happens below the threshold of our conscious awareness. Perceptual information is directed along multiple subsystems that integrate multi- modal information in various ways to create discrete layers of awareness. In addition, what comes “online” and what remains “offline”, changes through ordinary sleep-wake cycles each day. The background processes are ever-present and constitute some of the most subtle of meditative experiences. These experiences “reveal the water to the fish” as it were; in moments of profound insight about the nature of the hylozoic zone and the non-separation of self and world. Some of what we know about the background comes from patients who suffer unusual perceptual disorders. Consider for example, the phenomenon known as Blindsight. Ordinary sight involves two visual systems. The higher-order system (the “first system”) is the one that crosses the threshold of conscious experience. It processes in the lateral geniculate regions of the visual cortex in the (B) brain. Here is where the data from the retina is translated into a high- resolution image of the object so that it can become a conscious visual percept in the (M) mind. The second visual system is gated below the threshold of (M) mind by the superior colliculus to pulvinar processing stations in the posterior parietal lobe of the (B) brain. This second system is the “background operating system” of the visual perceptual organ, but is not limited to sight. Like other “background operations” it is an integrated polymodal processor, which wholly unconsciously “constructs an orderly visual envelope of space enlivened by our hearing, touch, and other sensory modalities. (Austin, 1999) How can it do all this?
Because its single, so-called visual cells are not exclusively visual. Many of them also respond to the auditory and somatic sensory stimuli which enter from that very same region of space. They are polymodal, synesthetic. (pg 242)
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So, in the colliculus, hearing, feeling, and seeing come together. Through selective amplification and (de-selective) attenuation of vast amounts of stimuli, the system “promotes less to become more.”
Suppose its cells receive a single sensory stimulus, and they make only a relatively weak initial response. The colliculus then “turns up the gain.” Its circuits amplify the interactions among incoming stimuli. The result is to multiply, not merely to add, the physiological impact from each successive stimulus. In this manner, collicular nerve cells boost their responses enormously. (p. 242)
In patients who suffer from blindsight, the first visual system is temporarily or permanently “off- line” leaving only the second, background system. For these patients, their visual system seems to work “intuitively” since the fact they can point to and correctly manipulate target objects without consciously seeing them, suggests that there is a deeper, intuitive intelligence at work. Blindsight unveils the performance of the deeper, synesthetic visual system. In normal sighted persons, the perceptual information is “passed up” through a series of both hierarchical and horizontal processing. Complex negative (inhibitory) and positive (excitatory) feedback mechanisms sharpen, refine and complexify, through visual association processes, a sophisticated perception of the object. “Currently, thirty or more cortical regions function as visual association areas,” Austin (1999):
When anatomists try to plot out their intricate interconnections, their diagrams resemble the map of the Tokyo subway system. Some areas function more as feature detectors, Others go on to process representations of images. Out of
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granted: the miracle of vision. (p.243)
Similarly, in special meditative cases and “happy” accidents, the egocentric spatial-referencing system may drop offline, leaving only the allocentric system operating in the background. Apparently, this is what happened to Douglas Harding, when, as a young architect trekking in the Himalayas, he was struck with a peculiar absence of localized space. Instead, he experienced the global awareness of space-surround, “utterly free of me.” “I had lost a head and gained a world. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself, I was nowhere around.” (Austin 1999).
Just how intricate, effective and independent of I-consciousness these background processes are is mind-boggling and ego-humbling. The Daoists have a term for it: Wu-Wei which means doing by not-doing. It is spontaneous effective action guided by direct participation.
One night, in the middle of my 13 days of radical transformation, I received a call from the person who took care of my horse at her barn. The horse, a big thoroughbred named Remington, had a history of very bad stomach ulcers, and seemed to be in so much pain that he might die. Since I was in a permanent state of awake witnessing, I drove to the farm in the middle of the night to be with him. I walked into his stall, and sat down on the floor. He thrashed about in pain for several minutes, then collapsed with his head upon my thigh. Normally, I would have been very emotional through this; but since I was in this altered state of witnessing, I was filled with a sense of charged clarity. It was not a calm state, but a state of intensified energy and awareness. It was as if his energy body suffused with mine, and expanded out into the
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universe. Only the body was perishing. His eyes rolled back into his head, and his tongue crawled out of his mouth and onto my thigh. There was nothing but intensified silence and a huge expansion of energy. He died. I did nothing. I was nothing more significant at that moment, then a simple prop to keep his head from falling into the manure. Then the energy aroused itself, and he stood up, gently as not to hurt me. He shook his head and got on with eating his hay. I returned to my truck. It was an early winter evening, a moonless night with a soft snow falling. I drove the unlighted curvy backroads to my home. I remember being mesmerized by the way the headlight illuminated the treeline of the country roads. Suddenly, I was transported into a space that seemed 3000 feet above the road, like when you are in an airplane, taking off or landing. My conscious self occupied the background space of expanded awareness, while my body-self continued to navigate the truck on the journey home. I remember wondering to myself “who is driving that truck?” I brought my “self” back down and into my body by intentionally “feeling for” the steering wheel. The first perceptual inputs were auditory—the sound of the tires and engine humming along the road. Then when I could feel my hands on the wheel, the entire scene recomposed itself.
There are two exceptional things happening in this event: 1) the “location of the self” and 2) the independence of the action-oriented body. The sense of self comes to be located in the “expanding disembodied space” of the background phenomena, absent any perceptual information, while the body itself navigates perfectly, guided by sensory processing. From the view of the self, there is what is called in Zen, the experience of internal absorption, (Austin, 1999) which is characterized by
(1) no spontaneous thought; (2) an intensified, fixed, internalized awareness; (3) an expansion of especially clear awareness into ambient space; 4) the disappearance of the bodily self; (5) a distinctive closing off of all sight and
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respiration. (p. 475)
What remains most amazing to me, is not so much this “apparently transcendent” experience, which can be ascribed to discrete changes taking place in the “neural gates” of the hippocampus labelled by neuroscientist as CA1 and CA3 cells (Austin, 1999)
What would happen if a person stopped that stream of messages which normally flows from CA3 cells on to CA1 cells? As part of his theory, Mandell postulates that such a deficit of messages might cause the comparator functions of the hippocampus to fail. As a result, the theory goes on to propose that … a “transcendent” consciousness would arise. (p.184)
Rather, what is most striking to me is that the EBMB carried on perfectly well “without me;” while “I” dallied about, happily discombobulated in ambient space!
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The Perceptual Brain
Part III: Mind
So far, we have discussed the embodied, body, and mind components of the EBMB. The “embodied” aspect pertains to the hylozoic zone and the interparticipation of body and world; “body” pertains to the full spectrum of “bodily space”: the exterioceptive, proprioceptive, and interoceptive perceptual organs, as well as the allocentric and egocentric orientations. “Mind” refers to the serial processes that create “chunking” of information, as well as the functions that integrate the virtual perceptions, associations and memory into the I-Me-Mine self-complex.
This section focuses on the “B” brain aspect of perception. We can think of “B” representing the “wiring diagram” of the illustrations in the Appendix. In other words, “B” represents the neurological relationships and anatomical structuration that are responsible for perception. The neurophysiology of perception is excruciatingly complex, and researchers feel they have just begun to identify some of the key dynamics and relationships. This paper addresses just a few aspects that are key to our understanding of the perceptual pathways from world to self. These pathways can be thought of as having “neural gates” that stratify information processing into deeper, polymodal subsystems that process a huge amount of information through parallel processes; and “higher” order systems that are themselves stratified across the three thresholds of consciousness—subconscious, conscious, and self-conscious.
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From a neuroanatomical perspective, the stratification primarily occurs in two discrete regions: 1) the deep mid-brain centers such as the thalamus, superior colliculus, and central gray, and 2) specific nucleated sites along the dorsal-ventral pathways of the temporal lobe. From a neurodynamic perspective, electrochemical pulses, “neural firing dynamics” up to speeds of 350 times per second, are responsible for bursts that can last or as long as 1.5 seconds. (Austin 1999) In certain regions, such as the reticular nucleus of the thalamus, when these bursts fire, they “close the gate” within the thalamus and block sensate messages from passing further up the perceptual brain. Typically, after a burst, there is a pause, which can last up to 3 or 4 seconds. This produces an overall effect of rhythmic, wave-like activity, that flows across key neuroanatomical features.
The conventional belief is that the reticular nucleus does not actually… “slam” the sensory gate within the thalamus. Rather, it helps the brain generate complex, rhythmic oscillations. First, these shift in the direction of hyperpolarization. Next, they rebound toward greater degrees of depolarization, that tendency toward excitation which is its functional opposite. As these oscillations shimmer in thalamocortical circuits, their waves take the form of rhythmic spindle activity in the EEG. (Austin, 1999 p. 267-8)
Cycles of excitation and inhibition also operate in a top-down fashion, such that increased activity in the evolutionarily newer parts of the cerebral cortex, excites GABA cells downstream in the reticular nucleus, which in turn activates the inhibitory bursts that attenuate sensate processing up the perceptual brain. (Austin 1999) In this way, higher-order attention processes in the mind can and do shunt away sensate information arising from the lower-order background. These higher-order attentional processes, associated with manipulating concepts and other virtual
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objects in thought (such as planning seating arrangement for a wedding in your head) has long been known to create “absent minded-ness” with regards to perceptions in the concrete world. Fortunately, the background processes most often “catch ourselves” being oblivious of things like oncoming cars. We are beginning to understand how to hack these processes in reverse, by quieting the symbolic, representational, and incessant worrying activities in our prefrontal cortex, in order to slip into the stream of peak perception required of exceptional performance—a condition that is often termed “hypofrontality.” Hypofrontality with heightened sensory awareness enables extreme athletes to achieve remarkable feats. However, due to the excitatory- inhibitory cycles of the nervous system, once the task is done, the sensory gates crash and close out all perceptual information. Absent both higher order processes and the sensory stream coming in from the sensory organs themselves, these athletes slip into deep unity-absorption states associated with the ambient, circumspatial “vacuum plenum” of the background. Whatever perceptual information is left—the vast expanse of space, the towering mountain, or a dying bird—everything, including the sense of self, collapses into it, creating an incomparable experience of one-ness.
Later on that fateful day of errors described earlier in this paper (Kotler, 2014)
When Dean Potter (see above) finally got that parachute off his head, he found himself sitting on the floor of the Cellar of Swallows. Above him, his friends were running around, trying to facilitate his rescue. He paid them little mind. His body was pretty destroyed—again he didn’t notice. Instead, his focus was entirely on the ground beside him, where a small swift with a broken wing lay dying. Instinctively, Potter picked up the bird, cradling it in his shredded
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palms. The connection was immediate. As soon as their flesh touched, he felt a powerful psychic union, as if his consciousness had merged with the bird’s consciousness. In that instant, they were no longer two wounded creatures: they had become one… (p. 55)
Potter ended up in this place of unity-consciousness: “I know it’s hard to believe,” he’s recorded saying, “but the experience was so powerful, the connection so true. I just sat there with that bird, holding it while it died. When it died, I died with it. And I don’t mean that metaphorically, I mean I became that dying bird.
From a phenomenological perspective, the stratified perceptual brain can be understood in several ways: 1) what sensate information is “online” and what is “offline”; 2) what threshold of consciousness has the information crossed; 3) what aspects of experience are hyperactive, and which are hypoactive; 4) what sensations are amplified, and which are attenuated; 5) what is foregrounded and what is backgrounded; 6) where (if any) is the inside-outside boundary and 7) which (if any) self-state arises.
Research that integrates neurology and phenomenological reports from meditators trained primarily in Zen traditions, suggests that when meditators sustain global awareness or maintain single-pointed concentration, they are training the perceptual brain in ways that uncouple the recurring cycles of the brain’s neural gates into more highly flexible and variable configurations. From this standpoint, Zen meditation training can result in notable effects: 1) Allow for persistent attention through wake-dream-sleep phases; 2) lower the threshold for conscious
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awareness into deeper layers of perceptual streams; 3) flood the conscious mind with vastly more perceptual information; 4) open the background processes to perceptual experience by, for example, consciously toggling between egocentric and allocentric modalities, which would disrupt the interior-exterior boundary of experience; 4) merging with the open, spatial modality of the background processes; and 5) awakening to the (nondual experience) of participation in the hylozoic zone. These effects are considered desirable to the extent that they dampen symbolically-conditioned and ego-centered modes of perception and amplify allocentric modes. This expands both the range of awareness into more inclusive domains of compassion and care.
The Primacy of Participation
As you read this paper, take a moment to reflect on the question:
What are you participating with?
There is not a lot of perceptual information in the grayscale marks on the page—and yet they provide stimuli for all kinds of activities in your mind. The phonetic alphabets enables simple marks on the page to be modulated from exterior perceptual data (the markings) into interior, aural perceptions as speech inside your head. Speech in turn invites mental images, and associative memories and feelings that participate in chunking the information into packages of salient meaning. The message I am trying to convey is translated into meaning you are attempting to make. The meaning is always a variant of the message. Participation is never replication. It always creates emergent novelty.
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The Zen notion of direct perception was never meant to suggest that we can see the world as it is. It is more correct to say that the awakened state sees the perception for what it is. Perception is a matter of degrees of constraints in an infinite field of participation. The first, obvious constraint, is our human species biology. A second constraint involves our individual physiology—whether the perceptual organs are fully developed and healthy; as well their degree of skill, i.e. degree of attunement, refinement and acuity. A third constraint is state-specific and concerns a person’s thresholds for conscious awareness—our ability to be “aware of” if not “fully conscious of” for example, the saccadic movements of my eyes, the perspectival constraints of my language, or even the normally pre-attentive ground of perceptual experience. While it is not possible to break through the first two constraints, direct perception in the Zen sense of Kensho-awareness, deepens and expands awareness such that it lowers the threshold of consciousness, such that even the background composition enters into the perceptual experience. Still, amongst these rare experience that qualify as Kensho, there are different degrees of perceptual awareness. The full spectrum of the perceptual experience might not come into conscious awareness all at once. There are often initial phases of absorption in the spatial ground, followed by an intensely vivid, and polymodal synesthetic “surround sound” phase whose panoramic vistas may (or may not) be accompanied by a subtle egocentric reference.
Over the last 10 years I have worked with many groups and individuals both in the context of cooperative inquiry. When groups come together for transformative practice, they go through stages wherein they dis-embed from the limited role of their social self, and move into deeper, more authentic engagement with each other. (See Roy, 2016). There is a key indicator that the
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group is shifting from inauthentic modes of relating to open, participatory complex processes of relating that are creative, insightful and generative of collective healing. The key is when individuals begin to fall into a state I call sensory clarity. They realize, as if for the first time, that there is just a group of people sitting in a room together. This realization comes after a tortuous experience where people debate, challenge, attack, disassociate, pontificate, politick for power, complain, agonize – a full spectrum of neurotic behaviors set into motion by the projections, fears, defenses, and narratives stored up in the false persona of the social self. Once all this is dropped, and only when all that is dropped, do the senses actually come “on line” and people see each other as they really are, perceive the “scene” as it really is, in its simple, ordinary concrete reality. The experience is both remarkable and humbling at the same time. Remarkable, because as the senses come online, the colors, textures, and scents become vivid and crisp; and the heightened sense of touch can activate the sexual libido (kundalini) of the body (lower chakra). It is humbling in its complete ordinariness: absent the incessant internal dialogue, social strategizing, and psychic warfare that we are always otherwise participating with, the simple fact of our ordinary humanity comes to the foreground of our perception.
Sensory clarity, I believe is the pre-requisite for authentic human relating. We have to get to square one before we can build a shared or collective understanding—what Martin Buber 8called I-Thou -ness. Understanding perception therefore, becomes a matter of importance in the realm of human relationship. Too often we facilitate group process by mitigating emotion, whereas too little attention is spared for the senses. It all comes down to What are you participating with?
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If sensory clarity is a marker of the possibility for relational depth, I began to wonder if activating and alivening perception could be a portal to generating relational depth and intimacy. Too often we associate intimacy with affective modes of being—with feelings and emotions. I began to think of the many ways people have always added color and jewelry to themselves as part of their courting behaviors—effectively making the perceptual experience more intense. I also began to think of the role of music and song, and the way that being in the rich perceptual environment of nature or a museum, makes a great first date! Not to mention the deeply sensory experience of two people touching. I began to think of perception as the out-pouring energy toward the object that is desired or loved; whereas affect was the flooding-in energy of relationship. I wrote (Roy, 2015) “perceptions are guided by what we might call the ‘appetitive drive of the senses.’”
The senses are not passive organs that function like windows opened up onto the world. The senses are more like open roads—they are designed to go somewhere. This is something that Goethe knew—our senses are not passive receptors but they are dynamic and creative actors that enact perception. (p.52)
Equine Assisted Therapy
For over 15 years I have partnered with my horses to create equine facilitated transformative practices for adults. For the first 10 years, the practices involved mostly working with affective dimensions of human experience. Horses are especially good at stripping away our monkey minds and social narratives and allowing us to drop into our bodily sensations. Most people go
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about their ordinary lives with something like “locked-in” syndrome – they are participating only with thoughts, mental models, narratives, expectations, associations, etc… in their mind. Over time, however, I noticed that people involved in certain spiritual communities who seemed to be able to quiet their monkey mind, were often less successful in engaging the horses beyond passive accompaniment. The horses wouldn’t bond, follow, joke around, or engage. Eventually I discovered that there was another kind of locked-in syndrome in which the person is fully absorbed in their body, and incapable of experiencing the outer world. They were in a very real sense, perceptually dead. I actually had to train people to use their everyday senses – like their eyes and ears and hands – to experience the horse in a sensory way. This was a real shock to me, and it continues to boggle my mind today. No wonder people don’t have any clarity around their experiences in the world! Can it be true that most of us are dissociated from our bodies and disengaged from the world? If so, we are only left with the coarse-grained linguistic categories with which to relate – leaving us misunderstood and isolated in the process.
From Self to World
The perceptual organs are in direct participation with the world. But the ordinary, everyday self withdraws into a simulated world of virtual perceptions, memories and thoughts that create and maintain the I-me-mine complex. This is the “house that monkey builds” (Trungpa 1987), the illusory fantasy world of ignorance (Austin, 1998) that splits us off and trap us inside. This creates an existential condition I call “Locked-in Syndrome” and leads to the errors and confusions that call perception into question. We can think of “locked-in syndrome” as the ego’s frame of reference. From this particular frame of reference, visual perception is deceptive, because it does not correct for refraction of light in water. However, if a person uses their body
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to throw a spear at a fish, the perceptual EBMB as a holistic participation does the “calculation” perfectly. Locked-in syndrome makes us think that vision operates like a camera, rather than understanding perception as a holistic participation with the world. Experiments in visual perception exacerbate the locked-in frame of reference, as subjects’ heads are literally held in place in front of displays. As it turns out, saccadic eye movements, subtle movements of the head, and the body’s proprioceptions of angular rotation, play essential roles in perceptual acumen. (Clark, 2011). When we are locked-into our monkey mind, mistaking the simulated world for the world that arises from direct participation, our science degrades into linguistic recursion. For example, we know that the color blue was distinguished as its own color much later in human history than the other primary colors. From the point-of-view of the ego, obsessed with the virtualized world of language and thought, the reason why must be because there was no word for the color—that the word invented the perception, rather than the other way around. Recent research (https://www.dunnedwards.com/colors/specs/posts/the-history-and-science- behind-the-color-blue) suggests a more embodied reason—that colors become lexically distinguished when people develop distinct uses for them. Just think about how significant this explanation depends upon embodied participation. Whether the color “exists or does not exist” in the environment is not the question. The question becomes “whether there is adequate participation” for the color to emerge as a distinct perception. This brings us to the notion of correct perception as adequate participation; and perceptual errors as a consequence of lack of adequate participation. This solves the perennial parable of the snake that is mistaken for a rope. As Roy (2014) describes:
Let’s go back to the story of the rope that is mistaken for a snake. The senses perceive “what is.” If all of the reality enters in as context, then the person will
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experience the rope as a rope. If, however, the context is limited to a memory of a snake that once bit a dog, then the person is most likely to experience the rope as a snake. When the villagers hear her story, even though their senses perceive the words directly, if the context is limited to this story, then their experience will be one of limited participation, and they too will mistake the rope for a snake.
Adequate participation perfects science as it leads us to a “good” theory which “orients us toward a correct view,” which is to say, away from the separate, privatized view of the ego complex, and toward a view with more degrees of freedom. The ideal view, therefore, would be one with the requisite degrees of freedom to perceive that slice of reality of interest.9 Participation, therefore, is the way our own EBMB activity enacts or brings forth new systemic wholes (Varela 1991) which in turn creates new potentials for participation. Furthermore, the notions of adequate participation, informs the enactive and embodied aspect of skillful action and ethical wisdom in the world (Varela 1992).
Recent studies in enactive neuroscience (Clark 2016, 2011; Gallagher 2008, 2005; Gibson,2015; Noe,2004) stretch the focus of enactive participation further into the dimensions of the “body- mind” (the “BM” in the EBMB). In these approaches, the BM itself doesn’t sit inside the brain, the mind or the body, but is fully extensive with “world” through the body’s gestures. The complexity of our human activities, they reason, are such that they cannot possibly be encoded
99 The astute reader will recognize this as a version of the law of requisite variety in cybernetics: see http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/REQV AR.html
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and stored representationally in our separate bodies. Rather the body “stores the activity codes” for the kinds of participation that will retrieve the relevant information or compute the relevant data. We all know how we learn to count using our fingers. Clark (2011) tells us that gesture goes far deeper than that. He shows how gestures alone, or motor acts in general, “somehow shifts or reduces aspects of the overall neural cognitive load” in an “organismically extended process of thought.” Consider writing as an example. Clark’s view suggests that it is not that the paper serves merely as a medium in which to store our thoughts, rather, the participation is a bi- directional and emergent one where “the paper provides a medium in which… via some kind of coupled neural-scribbling-reading-unfolding, we are enabled to explore ways of thinking that might otherwise be unavailable to us. (p.126) Physical materials, as Vygotsky (1986) understood them to be, are carriers of cognitive effects. According to McNeill (2005), then, this implies “that the gesture, the actual motion of the gesture itself, is a dimension of thinking.” (p.98) Echoing McNiell, Clark (2011) writes
Our free (i.e. spontaneous, nonconventional) gestures are not… merely expressions of or representations of our fully achieved inner thoughts, but are themselves “thinking in one of its many forms.” (p. 127)
Ordinarily, we think of painting as depicting an eidetic image in the mind of the artist. A theory of action in perception (Noe, 2004) considers painting to be a deictic act, wherein the artist is not depicting, but reaching and pointing through polymodal bodily actions, involving the hand, the head, the eyes and more. “Instead of plotting a course through an internal map, you act on what you look at, and you let the fact that what interests you is there in front of you place a guiding function.” (p. 24)
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Seeing, on the enactive view, is like painting. … The painter looks to the world, then back to the canvas, then back to the world, then back to the canvas. Eye, head, canvas, paint, world are brought into play in the process of constructing the picture. Seeing, like painting, involves the temporally extended process of reaching out and probing the scene. (p.223)
Andy Clark (2011) calls Noe’s model of perception “SSM”- a strong sensory-motor model. SSM’s extend perception into the world through the activity of the body. Clark identifies a possible model that push the EBMB even further with his Hypothesis of Extended Cognition (HEC). The HEC predicts that whenever and wherever possible, cognitive information is exported onto the physical world in ways that create “affordances” for continued skillful action. Writing down a note to pick up a friend on the way to work, and placing it on the seat of my car is one example. Perception and cognition thus become not a matter of perceiving and knowing a world, but of reaching toward and building a world of affordances through gestures.
Neural correlates suggest that this “dual-stream” hypothesis is correct—i.e., that there is a perceptual system that is EBMB-based, and one that is further removed from the realm of direct sensorimotor engagement. (Clark 2011) According to this research, the visual processing system has two streams—a ventral stream geared toward “enduring objects, explicit recognition, and semantic recall” associated with more eidetic types of perceptual cognition. This stream operates whenever real-world objects are unavailable for employing as external instruments of perception. When such real-world affordance are available, another, semi-autonomous dorsal stream,
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operates in the here and now, to guide motor action in the world, without the mediation of eidetic representation. Like so many other recent discoveries, these distinct streams were “teased apart” by studying patients with deficits in one but not the other visual processing stream (Clark 2011). 10The discovering of “dual-streaming” processors lead Clark to suggest a new hypothesis of embodied perception and cognition: HOC (Hypothesis of Organism-Centered Cognition) which states
Human cognitive processing (sometimes) literally extends into the environment surrounding the organism. But the organism (and within the organism, the brain/CNS) remains the core and currently the most active element. Cognition is organism centered even when it is not organism bound. (p. 139)
Some of the hypothetical territory here depends on how far are we willing to go with our conceptual categories. Consider again, for example, how we maintain our balance (part of the proprioceptive functions). Inside the inner ear a grain of calcium rocks on a kind of “saddle” that is lined with tiny hairs that sense its movements. As the head moves relative to the center of the earth’s gravity, the tiny hairs perceive the movement and position of the calcium. Now imagine being in a row boat, with a saddle for a seat. In your imagination, place a smooth and rounded stone in that saddle, and think of how you could use it to keep your balance as you stand in the boat. What if you had a serious ear infection, and your internal balance system went offline?
10 Note, previously we described the ego-centric and allocentric pathways that correlated with the ventral and dorsal subsystems of bodily space, which is consistent with the ventral-dorsal properties of visual processing described by Clark.
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Would you be willing to extend the category of perceptual organ out of the EBMB and into the boat? Switching to the notion of correct perception as adequate participation, resolves the problem in one fell swoop. Perception is not a static architecture bounded within a conceptual category of one’s choosing. It is an active operation involving organism and world, that both extends and contract, reaches and retracts, to optimize participation.
The Role of the Imagination
In ordinary experience, the imagination is tightly woven into the fabric of perception at various layers. There is the imaginary part that is intentional—for example, when we allow ourselves to imagine faces and animals in the morphing shapes of clouds. There are pernicious types of imaginary components that lurk beneath our consciousness, such as when we overlay bias and prejudice in creating false memories in reporting on crimes and mishaps. Direct perception, in the purest sense, is perception absent the participation of imagination. We can also think of direct perception, as degrees of awareness of the role of the virtual and imaginary in our experience. The greater degree of awareness, the greater choice we have to intentionally add in or subtract out the components of experience that are extraneous to the objects of perception. The integration of awareness and intention, consciousness and choice, is spiritual wisdom.
Perception and imagination begin to interweave deep in the (ordinarily) preattentive, subthreshold levels of experience. Because of this, the early phenomenologists (Crowell 2001; Gallagher & Zahavi, 2008; Kockelmans 1967; Welton, 1999;) argued that the imaginal, eidetic properties could never be perceived, because the perceptual properties of experience were
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 78 themselves, products of imaginal operations. Only recently has western neurophenomenology
and neuroscience begun to unravel their relationships in deeper layers of the EBMB.
Consider, for example, how we ordinarily perceive “first person perspective.” We look from “here” to “there.” We are unaware of the perceptual processing deep in the EBMB which subtle image-mind the shape of your body into this “picture” of reality. If you watch this video of a squirrel running up a tree, you will have what I call “go-pro” perspective. Because the movements are unfamiliar, the “body” your imagination ordinarily supplies as the “background” doesn’t match up with the perceptual experience. Of course, there is a little bit of both “go-pro” and “first person” perspective in your experience. The point is, meditative practices can train the mind to decouple the imaginal or eidetic component of perception from the experience, creating a more naïve, more direct perception. Thereafter, the imaginal functions of the virtual-simulation operations of the mind, could reconfigure themselves in a kind of retroactive fashion, and offer you an imaginal body to go along with the video experience. You would be able to become squirrel. It is precisely this kind of “shape-shifting” that fascinated the Daoists sages and Shamans, who noticed that energy conspires with form to create perceptual experience. (Angle, Hall and Ames 1998; 2009; Hansen, 1992; Kjellberg and Ivanhoe 1996; Mair, 1983).
This imputing of a subtle mental model of the body onto “first person perspective” has led philosophers and phenomenologists to assume that the imaginative aspect of experience must be prior to the bodily spatiality of the world, and hence must somehow “taint” or “indirect” this aspect of experience. This has led to the idea of “the body in the mind.” (Brown 2002, 2005; Heron 1992, 1996). For Brown (2002), the affect-laden intentional states preconstitute the subjective ground of experience. His theory of microgenesis places the “image” stage as a prior
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and requisite stage for the “body” to appear, and as a result exists for the subject as an object among other objects in the world. In similar fashion, Heron (1992) describes the basic life-cycle of the ego as moving from emotion to imagery, then conception and finally action. “the imaginal mind [is] at work in perception … it is a shaping and moulding process; perceptual imagery is being made by the psyche…
I am not aware of my imaginal mind busy with the generation of perceptual imagery whether through seeing or hearing or touching. I turn what is a continuous process, a transaction, into something out there that I am looking at. I am aware of the image, the product of the process, but not of the imaging itself. (p. 145)
While it is correct to say that first person perspective already includes eidetic elements, it is incorrect to conclude that perceptual experience begins at first person perspective. Gendlin (2009) was already aware of this distinction when writing about the implicit understanding in the body:
The first person process is not a ‘perspective’ First person process has been widely misunderstood as being inside an externally-observed body.15 I have tried to show that first person process is bodily-implied environment interaction. Our conceptual systems are explications developed from within environmental interaction, and then tested in it. In the usual view there is an unbridgeable gap between first and third person ‘perspectives’. But only the
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third person is a perspective, a view (the ‘view from nowhere’, the observed without the observer). [page 349] The word ‘perspective’ assumes that the environment is something merely viewed, not interacted with and behaved in. First person process is not a perspective. If first person process is understood from first person process, we can explicate how it is bodily, implicitly conscious, far exceeding the objects of attention (of viewing), always an implicit understanding, needing no added observer.
Thompson (2005) uses the term “sensorimotor subjectivity” as the “zero point,” the “null point of orientation,” or absolute indexical “here” prior to subjective being in relation to which things appear perspectivally:
The lived body manifests itself in perceptual experience, not primarily as an intentional object but as an implicit and practical “I can” of movement and motor intentionality. (p. 249)
The question is not whether we can virtualize the body using internal images and representational simulations. Rather, the debate involves whether virtual imagery is necessary for perceptual experience to occur. A third option is to suppose that the virtualization of visual perception is necessary but not sufficient for conjuring up mental imagery; and that in order to do so, requires the facilitation of on-going sensorimotor processes. The distinction between body schema and body image, described by Gallagher (2005) can help us better understand these options. For Gallagher, the deeper proprioceptive layers of the body are responsible for maintaining a coherent schema that locates and coordinates body movements. Body image on
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the other hand, involves higher-order processes that rely on mental framing at or above thresholds of conscious attending. Gallagher compares patients who suffer from two dramatically different types of deficit in their body awareness. Personal neglect” resulting from brain injury, involves the loss of “ownership” over movements in parts of the body. Arms and hands may manipulate objects successfully (as in dressing or undressing oneself) but the person is not aware of the intention or the act. According to his terminology, in cases of neglect, the deficit involves the imaging functions of the EBMB. In very rare cases, the body fails to locate or coordinate itself by itself and instead requires the patient to continually reference their body image and attend to their body as object, in order to make any movement at all. In the first case of neglect, Gallagher argues, the body schema is intact, but parts of the virtual body are lost.
In the second case, the body schema is lost, and the body image operates as the compensatory function. In some instances, for example with a patient named Ian, needs to see not only the target object, but also his hand in order to successfully reach out for objects. In other instances, Ian relies on cognitive control under the guidance of virtual body imaging, to articulate basic movement such as walking. This results in movement that is less fluid than normal—movement which looks more like a result of robotic “decision-path” calculation, rather than organic, embodied activity. The kind of movement that people ordinarily make when learning a complex dance sequence for the first time. For Ian, “imagined movement,” Gallagher says, “lowers the threshold for continuous action.”
In place of the missing body schema processes, we might say that Ian has substituted a virtual body schema—a set of cognitively driven motor processes. This virtual schema seems to function only within the framework of a body image that is consciously and continually maintained. If he is denied access to
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a visual awareness of his body’s position in the perceptual field, or denied the ability to think about his body, then, without the framework of the body image, the virtual body schema ceases to function—it cannot stand on its own. (p.53)
Ian’s condition shows us that in normal experience “there is no phenomenal difference between motor space, proprioceptive space and perceptual space.” Yet it also brings up a kind of chicken- and-egg question, as to which is more fundamental. Gallagher surmises that it is only because Ian’s vestibular and proprioceptive functions of his head and neck remain intact, that the visual- imaginary mapping successfully links the body to action. (p.63) Further research is warranted to determine the minimum viable structures and relationships required for different sensorimotor functions and associated actions. In any case, Gallagher anticipates that what will be found is something like an “ecological circle” between afferent signals coming from the body schema pathways, and efferent signals relaying back from the body image network. This of course, is the same kind of “circle” responsible for neuropathies such as phantom limb. (Doidge, 2007).
This notion of an ecological circle in the EBMB is useful in other ways (see Appendix C). We can think of the body schema as located in the hylozoic zone—the ecological overlay of the body and the world. We can think of the body image as the ecological overlay of the body and the virtual mind. In this way we can calibrate the continuity of world and image, body and mind.
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 83 States of Mind
The imagination plays a preeminent role in the emergence of non-ordinary states of consciousness. The notion of “ecological overlay” is helpful in understanding how perceptual experience organizes as different state experiences, without disrupting the continuity of the EBMB. Thompson (2015) identifies what he terms “altered embodiment” along this ecological spectrum. These experiences are associated with specific neural correlates that overlap with those that specify first-person and third-person perspectives. I have already described how even in conventional first-person perspective, there is a subtle imaginative overlay of some third- person perspectival content. It is not difficult, therefore, to think of how amplifying one or the other, or combining elements of both, would result in non-ordinary experiences of world spaces and body spaces, and the location of the self.
Normally, the perspective of the self includes 1) feeling of ownership of the body, 2) sense of agency over its actions, 3) being anchored to or located in the body and 4) referencing the world to the body and 5) referencing affects (emotional tones) to the self. Any and all of these can be amplified or attenuated in non-ordinary states of mind. (Thompson 2015) Autoscopy is a phenomenon wherein the person perceives their body from an outside, third-person perspective, while otherwise fully awake. “Fully awake” here means you are simultaneously perceiving yourself located inside your actual body, for which you assume ownership and agency; while in addition, you perceive a duplicate body which arises as object of a third-person perception which you neither “occupy” nor “move.” A slightly different phenomenon, where the sense of the “I” that owns and controls, and to whom the world appears, alternates back and forth between the
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 84 first-person and third-person body image. For brief moments, the two persepctives can be
combined, a state experience called “bi-location.”
As I walked down the rows of corn growing in the valley, my sense of relative size became fluid. As a grew smaller and smaller, the corn rose higher and higher, until it seemed like I was looking up at the sky from the bottom of a deep canyon. The sun caught me at my throat and split me in two—a tiny self at the bottom of that canyon, and an expansive self who was floating above in the sky, witnessing its disappearance into nothingness.
“The world of out-of-body experiences,” concludes Thompson (2015) “seems to be the world of the imagination.”
In my view, the impression of seeing things in an out-of-body experience is like the impression of seeing things in a dream; in both cases, what’s happening isn’t perception, but the mental simulation of perception. (p.224)
Perhaps it is helpful to say that an OOBE, is a particular ecological overlay between the perceptual body and the imaginal mind. Perhaps it is too rigid to assert that a given experience is “one kind of experience” and not another. If experience is an ecology of participation, then states of mind should be expected to be fluid and transitory between a spectrum of varieties of experience. In other words, because of the deep continuity of world, body, and mind, all experiential states are inclusive of world, body and mind—all the time. The differences Thompson has been describing all involve the degree to which the body schema operates and the degree of the body-image(ined) overlays. We might say that the “overlay” can be transparent in
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ways that complement the body schema, or, as the overlay becomes more opaque, the image- minded, virtual bodies, conflict with and eventually displace the embodied body schema. Falling asleep is an ordinary phase transition in this process of attenuation of the body and amplification of the imaginal mind.
First our ordinary perceptions quiet down, and the body sensations cease. We lose contact with our senses, and control over our bodies. The imaginal mind creates the dream world out of the overlays of perception, perspective, memories, fantasies, and narrative scenes and stories. Like film clippings on the floor of the editing room, snippets of reality can be spliced apart and spliced together in an infinite number of ways. One of the best ways to explore what imaginal overlays are operating in the background of waking life, is to learn how to be lucidly aware of the dreams you make.
An Ecological Theory of Perception
Using this notion of overlay, we can extend the scope of continuity of experience beyond conventional waking states and into other states of mind, such as the dream and sleeping states, and also including the mind’s dying process and excursions into non-ordinary states of consciousness. Perception is a kind of multi-layered ecology of participation, where figure and ground, agent and environment, content and context can filter themselves in or out. I am thinking of the slider tool in a photo imaging app, where the transparency of objects can be set from 0 to 100 percent. Similarly, the overlays of perception, operate in continuously shifting modes of transparency, creating different reveals, revealing new worlds. It should be noted that these
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 86 “transparency settings” are not reserved to visual objects, but involve what we are calling all the
“perceptual overlays” that make our experience complex, dynamic, and richly textured.
In the Appendices C-H I try to illustrate this idea of an ecological overlay of perceptual experience. Appendix C illustrates where the hylozoic zone is created by the overlay of the world and the body. This composes what we have been describing as the bodily space or background, (Merleau Ponty 2012, 1964), body schema (Gallagher 2005), first person process (Gendlin 2009), and the zone of sensori-motoricity that Thompson (2007) refers to as the “null zone” or “zero point.” The shorthand I have used in this paper is simply EB, embodied body. In contrast, the body image, (Gallagher 2005) participates in the overlay between the body and the virtual functions of the mind—what we commonly refer to as the imagination or liminal space, and what I have labelled as the BM, body-mind. Appendix F is a way to illustrate where the ecological overlay of the many virtual bodies described above by Thompson (2015) would appear and disappear, phasing in and out of transparency, moving back and forth between the realms of possibilities and actualities (Whitehead 1978). Perception “rescues from vagueness”, wrote Whitehead (1978) and warned us of “reducing perceptions to consciousness of impressions on the mind.”
In our ecology of perception, we identify the hylozoic zone as the world-body overlay; and the body image as the overlay of body-mind. What I construe to be the overlay between world- mind? I call this overlay “brain” since “brain” is the physical, or worldly aspect of mind. More
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significantly, “brain” represents what has evolved through the world as world. This is the MB, mind-brain at the end of our EBMB (embodied- body- mind -brain). This is the region labelled “affordances” in Appendix E. It is the region where the world accommodates the brain and where the brain accommodates the world. Brain and world constitute a continuum, in the same way as body and world—through complex, dynamic processes of relating. This dynamic “structural coupling” (Thompson 2007; Varela, Thompson and Rosch 1991) of brain and world is the basis of the notion that the world offers up novel possibilities, or “affordances” (Gibson 2015; Masciotra 2007) for the world and brain to co-create novel ways to participate.
A good example of affordance is the how we invent new uses for old items, when we don’t have the right tool to do the job. Objects, lying around in the world, “afford” possibilities that the mind doesn’t always see, until it sees it in a new light. We scan the room and go through the drawers, “looking” to find something we are not sure what we are looking for—until we find it. Then, brain and object, mind and world become one in the action made to solve the functional problem. Objects take on new meaning, the world grows richer. A blade of grass becomes a reed in a whistle, a whistle becomes a straw, the straw a handle to hold a nail in a tight spot. Every object in nature affords some possibility in the mind of a person. Affordance is a result of tight evolutionary fit between the organism and environment, which allows the organism to “dynamically steer” in the direction of the “good;” which is a satisfaction of a “search drive” in an adaptive landscape. Perception, as an ecology of overlay, can be construed as a continual dialing in and out of available features “afforded by the world” until it satisfies the conditions for a needed or desired action. A convenient analogy would be tuning a radio to a station that
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 88 satisfies a threshold of fidelity. The imagination may or may not play a significant role in the
final configuration. Regardless, the continuum from world to mind, is never broken.
This is a dance of “dynamic co-emergence” (Thompson, 2007): “all that a subject perceives becomes his perceptual world and all that he does, his effector world” (p. 59) This way of talking about affordances is subtly biased toward the subjective or organismic pole. The complete set of couplings between world and mind, constitute what von Uexkṻll Barbieri, 2008; Buchanan 2008) called the Umwelt, or the world that is disclosed through participation of the organism and their world. The emphasis here is on the world-building or world-disclosing activities (Heidegger 1962). We can think of two agents participating in an overlapping Umwelt, where worlds and minds collide. This extension of perception extended as world, is illustrated in Appendix E. The intimate connection between the natural objects and the perceptual organs of man, was something that Goethe (1988) recognized:
The human beings knows himself only insofar as he knows the world; he perceives the world only in himself, and himself only in the world. Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us.
Goethe is saying that every new connection extends the organs of perception further as world, and generates self-knowledge. This very closely parallels the notion that perception, when awakened, gives rise to insight-wisdom in the Buddhist tradition (see following section). This underscores the fact that the perceptual organs are not merely passive instruments or message bearers, but they are actively engaged in the creation of a significant environment.” (Buchannan 2008). Furthermore, the mind is not required to interpret meaning from this engagement, because
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the significance is entailed in the environment-organism coupling, which acts as a “storehouse of meaning” that is accessible through iterative process of probing and participation. Pick up an old baseball bat, and you will re-live the significance of the hit; slip on a baseball glove, and you will recapture the significance of the game. “The creation of the Umwelt occurs through the interpretive work of the organism” [emphasis mine], writes Buchanan (2008):
the interpretive process remains a biological relation that occurs between an organism and its other, where neither is reducible to a cause-effect scenario. They both give and receive the sign of the others, and it is in the convergence of these signs that an interpretive process takes place. [emphasis mine] (p.33)
Goethe wrote: If the eye were not sun-like It could never behold the sun
to which von Uexkull replies If the sun were not eye-like It could not shine in any sky
(Buchanan 2008, p.33)
In other words, there is something about the sun that affords seeing. This is not a trivial statement. That the world affords significance points to its inexhaustible richness and generativity. This is the basis of how perception gathers the world-disclosing information that generates insight-wisdom.
Gibson’s (2015) own ecological theory of visual perception describes in detail the key aspects of the animal-planetary overlay that generates perceptual information. These aspects are the
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invariant constants that have been present throughout the evolution of animal life. We might think of them as the way that the planet has extended itself into animal life. The fundamental affordances of animal life are (1) The Medium: water, earth or air; (2) The Substance: water, earth or air; (3) The Surfaces: where media meet and create an interface. Note, according to Gibson’s taxonomy of affordances, water is a medium for aquatic animals, but a substance for land dwellers (whose medium is air). The affordances of the environment, are what it offers, provides, or furnishes, either for good or ill. Like vonUxekull’s Umwelt, and Thompson and Varela’s notion of structural coupling, affordances, for Gibson, imply the “complementarity of the animal and the environment.” Gibson offers a radical hypothesis of perception, which says that to perceive is to reveal what the world affords. Its radical implication is that to perceive is already an act of evaluation and meaning-signifying. This would explain the deep purposiveness interwoven into the very fabric of existence. As Roy (2006) emphasized, our fundamental values are laid down in the very primary micro-stages of moment-to-moment awareness. She writes
I look out over a springtime meadow, taking in all the colors and textures and aromas. My eye settles on a daisy—not just any daisy, but just this particular one. My mind relaxes in the joyful play of this daisy and I. These are inherently valuable existents which exteriorize for me over the duration of the cognitive moments. For the bee, bird, and butterfly, there are a set of different values… (p.145)
Changing values changes the way we participate in perceiving the world. This reveals different affordances. Think of the way we might scan though a bookshelf at a
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bookstore, without looking for something in particular. What catches our eye, depends upon some subtle ways our intentional-motivational state primes our behavior. We move along, picking up information—clues where to move next. We may be irritated in the self-help section, and get pleasantly lost in the biographies. A book of images, photographs or artwork draws our attention, and we move as our values move. We move, in a very real sense, guided by the appetitive drive of our senses. This is the same way that we move in and among the worldly significance. We interact with the world, and change it. Change affords new affordances, new significance, new ways of participating. “For all we know,” writes Gibson, “there may be many offerings … that have not been taken advantage of…” (p.121)
To perceive directly, for Gibson, is to participate as the world affords. There is complementarity, but no intermediary. Take light, for an example. We ordinarily consider it a medium of transfer of information, between the world of objects and our perceptual organs. But, Gibson argues, we don’t see light itself. Light in the environment is ambient array. It is an aspect of the medium (atmosphere or water, for land or aquatic animals) which, along with other aspects of the environment, i.e. substances and surfaces, interacts to create information. We in turn perceive this information directly. We see the green leaf because we receive this information: “the leaf is reflecting green and absorbing red.” Perception is the direct receipt of information in the environment. As such it needs no interpretation. In a structureless environment, the ambient light itself would carry no information, and hence, could not be seen. Seeing is gathering information about the real world. It is direct participation with information that is structured in the environment. We not only perceive the world directly, but we directly perceive the structure of
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(2014) calls perceptual learning. It is an intimate process, in which the world enters us:
It adds that we resonate to and incorporate the information that specifies those phenomena directly into the neural networks that our perceptual systems activate. This process changes us… we are no longer our old self that has simply added another item to our archive of retrievable information. By incorporating new structural information directly into our appropriate neural network, we become a new, reorganized self… (p.39)
The above discussion shows how a theory of affordances dissolves the crisp boundary between world and self, object and subject, in the same way that our theory of the hylozoic zone dissolved the sharp categories of world and body. Appendix G illustrates a third “fuzzy boundary”—the zone that overlays world and mind. We can think of this zone of extended mind, in terms of what Masciotra (2007) calls the network of virtual actions and spielraum (room to maneuver). The mind, in this case, constitutes the network of virtual actions; and the world of affordances constitutes the spielraum. We often think of creative insight as an activity of mind. The mind’s virtuality and ability to simulate novel experiences, is only one key component of creativity. It might be secondary to how we participate with, and what affordances are provided by, the environment.
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“It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996 p.1)
The spielraum represents the conditions in the environment that set both the contraints on and possibilities for creative excavation of affordances that have not been previously seen. This is perception as insight – bringing into reveal, the structures of the world, such that they align with creative ways of acting. A spielraum is not constituted merely by the objects in the environment, but by the objects as they relate to actions the body is capable of performing. Consider, for example, two climbers facing a rock wall. Their perceptual organs “see” the same wall; but the more experienced climber will see more “holds” for climbing. The more experienced climber will be able to virtualize more possibilities for a route up the wall, and then exercise these possibilities in real actions. For the expert, there are more affordances in their spielraum, including more potentials through which they can search in the virtual possibility space. The expert can translate these potentials into training exercises for the amateur, which will then, above a certain threshold of experience, become part of their real-world-actionable spielraum.
All agency is born of this suitable fit between the network of virtual potentials in the mind of the actor, and the set of affordances provided in the space in which the actor maneuvers. We might say that, in this zone where the mind and the perceptual world overlap, the mind provides the possibility space, the perceptual organs provide the search engine, and the world supplies the affordances.
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Where then, might we ask, is perceptual information stored? Is it in the virtual simulations of the mind? In the perceptual pathways of the EBMB, or in the world? From the enactive view described here, the information is not stored any where but it is stored in the number of possible functional relations between mind, perceptual body, and world. In this sense, information is more of a result of being able to anticipate and respond; to be able to search and retrieve affordances as needed, then the ability to store some thing some where and subsequently to access it from there. Rather, what Clarks is describing is an active, in-the-present-moment, dynamic, living participation. This is the sense in which Any Clark (2011, 2016) alludes to when talking about cognitive extension and “supersizing the mind.” Here intelligence is thought of as the ability to organize virtual networks, with affordances in the world that are always “ready at hand” (Heidegger 1962).
Perceptual acuity, (direct perception, adequate participation) reveals what is “ready at hand.” Clark see this as an economy of embodiment, such that whenever and wherever it is possible to export the cognitive load of information/retrieval/storage tasks into the world, organisms will always choose to do so. According to his hypothesis, the organism retains the sensorimotor action- patterns that will generate successful search and retrieve processes in response to anticipatory processes set in motion by perceptual flows and intentional states. His three threads and two hypotheses are significant enough to quote in their entirety, so I have included them in Appendix I. They explain why the storage, processing, and transformation of information is spread indiscriminately among the brain, body and world—hence the idea of an ecology of overlapping perceptual zones which self-organize the continuity of living body and dynamic world. Clark proposes a Principle of Ecological Assembly which states that “information-
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external resources.” (p.197)
So far, I presented an overarching model of perception as an overlapping ecology of mind, world, and body. I named the hylozoic zone where world and body overlapped; body image where body and mind overlapped; and affordances where mind and world overlap. In addition, I discussed that each of these overlaps could be extended further, to explain phenomena such as virtual bodies, extended mind and enhanced perception. Appendix H illustrates the zone of enhanced perception, which is an extension of the hylozoic zone in the overlay of world and body. This extended overlay represents what perception might be like if the sub-threshold information came into vivid awareness. In Zen Buddhism the experience is called kensho and it considered to be the confirming experience of direct perception. The following four excerpts are first person accounts of this type of enhanced perceptual experience.
Peter Matthiessen The Snow Leopard
(In this short excerpt, Matthiessen gives us a sense of the preparatory space of kensho, which beings with a sense of reorganization, recognition, and the clearing away of mental and emotional obstructions.)
The search may begin with a restless feeling, as if one were being watched. One turns in all directions and sees nothing. Yet one senses that there is a
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source for this deep restlessness; and the path that leads there is not a path to a strange place, but the path home. . . The journey is hard, for the secret place where we have always been is overgrown with thorns and thickets of “ideas,” of fears and defenses, prejudices and repressions. ~ Peter Matthiessen
Scott Russell Sanders Staying Firm (In this passage, Sanders describes what I call “sensory clarity” something that on the one hand
is ordinary, but, due to its perceptual vividness, becomes a sacred engagement.”
I have spied that secret place from time to time, usually as through a glass darkly, but now and again with blazing clarity. One time it glowed from a red carnation, incandescent in a florist’s window. Once it shimmered in drifting pollen, once in a sky needled with ice. I have seen it wound in a scarf of dust around a whirling pony. I have seen it glinting from a pebble on the slate bed of a creek. I have slipped into that secret place while watching hawks, while staring down the throat of a lily, while brushing my wife’s hair. The experience is not a glimpse of realms beyond, nor of becoming someone new, but of acknowledging, briefly and utterly, who I am. ~ Scott Russell Sanders
Alfred Starrett, Your Self, My Self & the Self of the Universe
(In this longer excerpt, Starrett wonderfully describes the no-self/Universal self experience of kensho, and its profound allocentric qualities resulting in an intensely luminous “surround- around” spatiality of creation.)
In the year 1925 my family lived on a small farm in Danvers, Massachusetts. My father was chief engineer at the Salem Electric Light Company. He had
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neither the time nor the inclination to work the land, but the farm was a pleasant place for the children in the family—two older sisters and a younger brother besides myself. I 5 was ten years old that summer and thoroughly enjoying my love affair with the world. One pleasant moonlit night I responded to the call of some inner urge for adventure by climbing out of my bedroom window to the roof of the porch just below. From there, as I knew from many past excursions, it was easy to cross over the top of a couple of intervening sheds and reach the edge of the roof of the big barn. Soon I was up on the ridgepole of that tall building and I sat down feeling that I was at the highest point in all creation. The old farmhouse and the outbuildings were at my back and before me stretched low rolling fields toward a distant stand of trees and then rising hills. The air was clear and still. Moonlight washed out most of the stars and illuminated the scene. Below me Grunt, our pet pig, was making snuffling noises in his pen. As I sat quietly there on the roof of the barn I began to notice a strange transformation coming over everything I could see. Things were becoming luminous before my eyes. They shone from within, flowing with light in a riot of colors that continuously increased in intensity. It was as if the grass of the fields, the brown fences, the red barn that belonged to our neighbor, the white walls and green roof of our own house when I turned to look back—as if they all were made of stained glass with sunlight shining through them. As this inner light grew brighter I noticed that it pulsed with a steady rhythm that appeared to me to be the beating of some gigantic heart, as if it were the life-throb of the Self of the World. The scene became a living, scintillating dance of glory— everything beautiful and everything just right in relation to everything else. The very darkness of the distant trees and hills became shining purple and blue. Then something more strange happened. While still retaining awareness as an individual, the sense of “me” at a fixed location in space and time expanded into less limited conscious perception. I can try to suggest what happened by saying there was a shift of identity from the self of an observer to all that was there to be observed. Instead of seeing that living light, I became the light. It was seeing without any specific person
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doing the seeing from any particular perspective. The whole circle of the horizon was before my eyes simultaneously. My personal life became universal life. The rhythm of the luminous pulse beat was the surging rhythm of my own vital processes which had become identical with inner shaping and sustaining power of all creation. I could feel directly the variant urges, strivings and relationships of the different forms of the one limitless life. I felt in a tree its love for the earth and air; the holding-on of fence posts; the grass reaching toward the light; all things gathered and held in the supporting embrace of earth. I was also sensitive to conflict among the various forms, where life struggled with life and one kind of existence was absorbed into another kind. But the opposing tensions were experienced as one hears dissonant chords in great music which add to the beauty as they are resolved in harmony. How long the experienced lasted I cannot say, but eventually the process reversed itself. My conscious awareness took up again the perspective of a particular location on the roof of the barn. The light of glory faded. My seeing became a natural human vision again and I had returned to the sensory limitations of a little 6 boy with an aching bottom from sitting for some unknown length of time on the ridgepole of the barn roof. ~ Alfred Starrett
In the fall of 2004 I had a radical shift in consciousness. I had this profound insight that there were no sources or sinks – that Love was not something stored over there, that could be moved to where it was needed; or that I could give or receive love. Rather, Love was the ground and dynamic source of all that is. I realized how all my life I had been running around trying to redistribute Love—from the perceived sources, to the perceived sinks, from those that could give to those in need. This included myself (give love to helpless animals, protect vulnerable people, look for someone to love, and for someone to love me). It was a kind of transactional kind of love, underscored by a sense of scarcity. In one fell swoop this final, underlying structure of my
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 99 being was shattered. I entered in the dynamic continuum of love, a living flowing, dynamic
stream of cosmic consciousness. I was going to the post office to pick up the mail. Boom!
Everything grew crystal clear like something completely transparent, except with brilliant hues of color. A hundred thousand kinds of crystal light—indigo, crimson, gold, sapphire, verdant greens of all hues—shown with incredible vividness and brilliance, yet with the transparency of crystal. I could hear the “clank clank clank” of the flagpole being rung like a bell by the metal end of the rope, high up in the air and behind me. At the same time, I could hear the soft “swish swish swish” of the blades of grass, each distinctly, like a slow progression of brushes over an orchestra of cymbals. To my surprise the sound they made tasted sweet. I could feel the undulating clouds beneath me and the warm breath of the earth, rising up to kiss them. Every sense was heightened and expressed itself overall as a kind of surround-around spaciousness. I did not want to move, for it seemed that taking even a single small step would be an impossible brutish act in an otherwise perfectly resonate energy field. No such disruption happened, for a long long time. But soon the ordinary way of seeing things, redeemed themselves from this spell of grace, and I made it into the lobby where the post-office boxes were lined up. At first, I couldn’t remember which box was the one to open—and it felt strange, like a small amnesia. Which box? Which box? I had lost the memory in my body that knew which box it was. Then I reasoned—for the first time—that the number “30” in the address “30 South Main Street” identified the number on the box. It was like a grand puzzle was finally solved! The mind is useful, after-all.
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Part IV: Awakened Perception
A Buddhist Examination
No paper on awakened perception would be complete without passing the test of a Buddhist examination of the notion of direct perception. The key question in this section is whether this model can withstand the scrutiny of a Buddhist examination of these topics. Does the model provide useful heuristics for disentangling the complex ways in which the traditions talk about them? If so, might there be a need for the model for a modern approach to consciousness studies based on integral phenomenology?
Of course, there are many different Buddhist schools, whose opinions, beliefs and scholastics differ significantly from each other, not unlike the many different ways that western neuroscientists, phenomenologists, cognitive scientists and psychologists hold different accounts of perception. In this paper I rely on Anne Klein’s (1988) interpretation of the Gelukba Sautrantika system, considered to be the most advanced exegesis of the direct perception, its relationship to conceptual thought, and their complementarity. It is a version that offers ordinary people the very real possibility of non-dual self-knowledge—which is simultaneously knowledge of self and world, self as world, and world as self—and as such has much of the defining characteristics of the ecological overlay model. According to this tradition, the possibility for non-dual knowing is given by the interpenetrating mutuality of thought, perception, and world,
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 101 which leads to liberating insight. Hence, the ecological overlap might be a model of this
possibility of liberation through awakening perception.
The Gelukba’s hold that conceptual thought can lead to direct perception and the non-conceptual realization of self-liberating insight. This possibility however depends on having a correct conceptual framework. There are several key tenets to the Gelukba’s framework. The first tenet has to do with ultimate truths, which are non-conceptual and apprehended directly, and conventional truths, which rely on conceptual apprehension. The key characteristics of ultimate truths is that they apprehend what is called “specifically characterized, impermanent phenomena”; whereas conceptual truths apprehend “generally characterized phenomena.”
William James (1977) also noticed this distinction between perceptual flux and flow, the “big blooming buzzing confusion,” the “aboriginal sensible muchness” and the concept which “never varies” and “expresses eternal veritas.” In the western mind, it was therefore the “staying power” of the concept, James noted, to “contrast the knowledge of universals and intelligibles as god- like, dignified, and honorable to the knower, with that of particulars and sensibles as something relatively base which more allies us with the beasts. Hence these conceptual, intelligible universals were associated with ultimate truths in the western mind.
.. by all rationalist authors the ultimate reality is supposed to be static also, while perceptual life fairly boils over with activity and change. (p.247)
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In the three highest Buddhist systems, Sautrantika, Cittamatra, and Madhyamaka, the opposite position was established, where only the impermanent, non-conceptual and specifically characterized were considered as ultimate truths (Klein 1998). In line with the Buddhist schools, James understood that that to be conceptually known, “our flowing life must be cut into discrete bits and pinned upon a fixed relational scheme.” James understood the problem with intellectualism, is the need to pin something down, as a fixed, permanent thing, and the farther we push it down the path of conceptual definition, the farther and farther removed it is from perceptual experience, which is movement, flux, variety, change—in other words, impermanence.
But intellectualism quickly breaks down. When we try to exhaust motion by conceiving it as a summation of parts ad infinitum, we find only insufficiency, Although, when you have a continuum given, you can make cuts and dots in it ad libitum, enumerating the dots and cuts will not give you your continuum back. The rationalist mind admits this; but instead of seeing that the fault is with the concepts, it blames the perceptual flux. (p.247)
The Buddhist schools, on the other hand, understood impermanence, motion, flux, and change as the first noble truth; and the direct ascertainment of subtle impermanence as a sign of the highest instance of direct perception. In the Gelukba’s framework, impermanent things fully appear to direct perception, and permanent things are apprehended by conceptual thought. (Klein 1998) Furthermore, what makes the things apprehended by conceptual thought, permanent, is not that they themselves are lasting and eternal, as thoughts come and go just like everything else in the phenomenal continuum. What makes them “permanent” is their ability to affix a single, unchanging generalized category, onto phenomena that are otherwise always undergoing
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continuous change—regardless whether that change is observable or imperceptible. Consider, for example, the category “chair.” The conceptual mind is happy to stick with this term, regardless of whether the chair has three legs or four, undergoes multiple replacement parts, is constructed ad hoc by a convenient stump on the side of the road, or is displayed as an image on a screen. Despite these dramatic differences, the word chair remains the same. The instances of all the “chair” themselves is never specified, but only generally characterized.
In the Gelukba’s view, conceptions are valuable because they are essential tools for overcoming ignorance. And yet, our primary ignorance results from not recognizing the generalizing, categorizing, static and reifying nature of conceptual thought. This too can be directly perceived, through non-conceptual meditative awareness of the thought processes. By which faculties does the EBMB perceive the nature of its own mind? By lowering the threshold of consciousness such that one can follow the cutting, carving, chunking processes of thinking. Through meditative training, accessing flow states, and “happy accidents” awareness is able to access the deeper body-world interfaces where impermanent perceptions flow. That path to where knowledge is liberated from ignorance, requires that the subtle impermanence of even the most fundamental things, is cognized in a non-conceptual way.
In the Gelukba system, each perceptual organ is understood to be its own consciousness—eye consciousness, ear consciousness, taste consciousness, etc. These are said to be hampered by their lack of ascertainment. The mind also has its own consciousness, which is said to be “hampered by a lack of specificity.” Yet, according to the Sautrantika view, each type of consciousness—sensory and mental—are ultimate consciousnesses when directly perceived.
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To perceive directly means to “engage with the entire collection of features,” in other words, to be aware of the ecological field of participation, from world to thought and back again. In doing so, we see that conceptual thought is not the omega point of conscious arising. Rather it is just another node in a continuous network of flow.
A conceptual thought, which is an object of mental consciousness, takes on the appearance of standing in for the whole, but the individual who perceives the experiential flow knows otherwise. Each thought is an iota, a grain of sand in an endless desert, whose shape constantly shifts in the eternal winds. An ultimately valid knowledge would be simultaneous awareness of the grain (the perceptual data) the desert (the generalized whole), and the shifting winds (the process of cognizing whole experiences).
An ultimately valid object—whether it be a thing, a feeling, a thought, a concept—would therefore be defined as a “set of direct perceptions that satisfy a duration of mind.” The duration of mind might remain below the threshold where the hylozoic zone emerges from the world, and as such remain simply, world. The duration of mind might extend all the way through the formative processes of the fully articulated, self-reflective I-me-mine. The duration of mind might extend into the spaces that overlay the ecological field of participation, constituting novel states of experience. This notion of duration, is complementary to the Gelukba’s emphasis on the process nature of consciousness (Klein 1998)
Conceptual thought and direct perception can operate simultaneously, but they are not established or initiated simultaneously with respect to the same object.
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 105
In the first moment of seeing an impermanent object such as a tree, direct perception– the eye consciousness– is active’ then there is a moment of mental direct perception, which cannot be noticed by ordinary persons. Following this, conceptuality begins to operate. Thus, in the first period there is only direct, clear perception by the eye consciousness; once conceptuality begins, it operates simultaneously with subsequent moments of direct perception. This means that while the eye consciousness, for example, is apprehending the specific characteristics of its object, the thought derived from that eye consciousness superimposes a meaning generality onto that object. (p. 130)
“By understanding the profound compatibility between thought and insight,” writes Klein (1998) one can have confidence that what begins as a mere echo of sound in the mind can progress to actual direct experience.” The model of perception as ecological overlay, is offered to echo this sound, and to help build confidence. Integral phenomenology, as a method of unpacking experience through the examination of everyday ordinary affective, perceptual and conceptual phenomena, is offered as a “good enough” starting point, since, as Klein tells us, the Gelukbas emphatically believed :
“The starting point is precisely the ordinary type of conceptuality and direct perception one now has.”
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AWAKENED PERCEPTION 106 Part V: Concluding Remarks
Perception is a key domain of experience, yet it is hardly ever the focus of contemporary awakening practices, which have emphasized the affective and virtual domains (usually prioritizing the former, and prejudicing the latter.) In both the eastern traditions and western science and philosophy, the emphasis has been on calling perception into question. In the process we have de-realized the world, and pushed it forever out of our reach. The core theme of this paper is that perception, as direct participation is perfectly attuned to the world, because it is something that the world does, in mutual participation with us. Error, confusion, deception and bias all result from a lack of adequate participation. Fully realized, authentic participation results in the experience of enhanced, direct perception of the rich, abundant, vivid display of reality, and a keen insight into our place in this sacred world. There is a sense of re-enchantment with the world. The philosopher Roy Bhaskar (2002) hoped that this kind of re-enchantment would set humans on a new course toward helping each other flourish and helping the planet to thrive. Our ability to perceive the deep continuity of body and mind, world and body, and mind and world are key to this journey away from destruction and toward regenerative practices.
In this paper I have introduced the notion of perception as an ecological overlay and a simple set of heuristics to illustrate them. The illustrations enable us to point to “What are we participating with” for any perceptual experience in different states of consciousness. Here the notion of what is hyper-active and hypo-trophied, what parts of perceptual experience are amplified, and which are attenuated, what is online in consciousness and what is offline, what is part of the I-me-mine self complex and what remains subthreshold to self consciousness—and how all these phrases
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ultimately point to complex neural processing systems, comprised of parallel subsystems, function as “neural gates” through feedback-feedforward, excitatory and inhibitory-dis-inhibitory relationships in the body-brain. I have introduced the notion of the EBMB, the embodied-body- mind-brain and the organs of perception as a useful way of conceptualizing the complex interactive and overlapping dynamics of perceptual experience.
This term “EBMB” underscores the overlapping of the world and body, hence “embodied body”, the overlap of mind and brain, hence “body-mind”, and the overlap of the mind and the physical brain, hence “mind-brain.” The brain, being a physical organ, represents the physical world, and completes the ecological circle. The heuristic of ecological overlay enables us to use language that is more nuanced and reflects the subtle distinctions in perceptual experience, beyond the coarse categories “body,” “mind,” “world.” In this way we are better able to talk about new areas of interest: how affordances are situated in the world and are revealed through insight; the distinction between body schema and body image; the hylozoic zone and bodily space; the allocentric and egocentric systems in object-space; among others. Furthermore, I have shown how and where all these “hybrid dimensions” can be further extended into a larger and larger perceptual field. The heuristic gives us an easy way to map the kinds of phenomena that happen in these zones of extension, such as virtual bodies, extended mind and enhanced perception (kensho). These zones of extension can be helpful in mapping the territory of non-ordinary states of experience. An adequate theory of perception must accommodate all of them.
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A “good” theory orients us toward the direction of a correct view, where direct perception arises with the experience of an adequate participation with reality. (Roy 2014) In this sense, we might consider the Gelukba Sautrantika system a “good” theory. Any new theory of awakened perception must pass its strict examination, and few western theories of perception have complied with its view. On the other hand, the Sautrantika system does not pass the test of our modern scientific understanding which continues to expand the field of our knowledge about perceptual participation. I hope that integral phenomenology, which integrates direct experience with a scientific curiosity, can help bridge these gaps.
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Andy Clark’s Theory of Ecological Assembly
The Three Threads
1. Spreading the Load. The body and brain, thanks to evolution and learning, are adept at spreading the load. Bodily morphology, development, action and biomechanics, as well as environmental structure and interventions, can reconfigure a wide variety of control and learning problems in ways that promote fluid and efficient problem solving and adaptive response.
2. Self-Structuring of Information. The presence of an active, self-controlled, sensing body allows an agent to create or elicit appropriate inputs, generating good data (for herself and for others) by actively conjuring flows of multimodal, correlated, timem- locked stimulation.
3. Supporting Extended Cognition. The presence of an active, self-controlled, sensing body (a) provides a resource that can itself act as part of the problem-solving economy and (b) allows for the co-opting of bioexternal resources into extended but deeply integrated cognitive and computational routines.
Hypothesis of Cognitive Impartiality
Our problem-solving performances take shape according to some cost function or functions that, in the typical course of events, accord no special status or privilege to specific types of operation (motoric, perceptual, introspective) or modes of encoding (in the head or in the world).
Hypothesis of Motor Deference
Online problem solving will tend to defer to perceptuomotor modes of information access. That is, we will often rely on information retrieved from the world even when relevant information is also neutrally represented.
Bonnitta Roy’s article is forthcoming in Integral Review with sneak previews at her Patreon: