Altered States of What?

Writers on “meditation” sometimes characterize contemplative processes as altered states of consciousness. In many such discussions of comparative experience, “consciousness” denotes the condition of being wide awake, responsive to stimuli, and able to deal with the events of everyday life in the usual ways. Ordinary consciousness so conceived is made to serve as the default setting for experience. All other “states” are considered to be deviations from a mode of mental operation alleged to be normal for the quotidian.

Sunrise Santa Cruz

One problem with that concept is that our knowledge of ordinary, everyday consciousness is so slight. We know very little of how our minds work from moment to moment and day to day. And why should we? Most of the time we are following the dictates of archaic biological dispositions, social necessity, or momentary desire, and therefore we are properly focused on getting the job done. Although the notion of a single, basic mode of mental functioning has great appeal—if only on account of its simplicity—it is very much more likely that in the course of a day our minds cycle through a great many diverse “states,” the precise nature of those modes depending upon the varying circumstances. At least that is the tentative hypothesis to which I am led by my own attempts to monitor the vagaries of moment-to-moment mental functioning.

Everyday life (as it is known) is replete with frequent, if unpredictable, instances of the marvelous and the extraordinary, though of course we must have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. That is, we must be capable of a presence-of-mind that is one of the necessary conditions for the contemplative life. Then again, at the extreme of attentive fixation, dissociation, or imagination, events can occur so far out of the ordinary that they can shed a transfiguring light upon our day-to-day lives, or utterly resist assimilation, and leave us speechless. Yet even when we acknowledge the possibility of stupendous phenomena, it is safe to say that there is no standard-of-consciousness against which to measure them.

It is flattering to suppose that from the moment I awaken until the time I fall asleep I maintain the ability to engage in abstract thinking and problem-solving. It would be more accurate to say that, part of the time, I am in a state of readiness to be fully conscious at a moment’s notice. The rest of the time I am daydreaming, dozing, absorbed in contemplation of a mountain view, performing a familiar task automatically, or otherwise occupied. I am not always in full possession of my faculties and ready to rumble, and there is no point in claiming otherwise. It is more fruitful to think about consciousness as a menu of modi operandi from which the organism and the environment together select the one that is the best fit with the situation, without bothering to consult the higher executive functions. That is why, until I began to explore the opportunities for self-awareness, I did not have to think much about what I was doing.


In short, when we do not need full consciousness we do not use it. We employ higher-level conscious functioning sparingly because it is slow, costly to maintain in terms of physiological resources, fatiguing, and potentially dangerous—while we are inventing the wheel a saber-toothed cat might be able to sneak up on us. And, as it happens, neither are we nearly as conscious as we think we are when, as in “meditation,” we are making as special effort to be more conscious! I shall expand upon that point in the next post.

E2. Exploring Sensations

Sensory stimuli are the raw materials of experience. When we are infants we know sensations as they present themselves, or else as more or less crudely shaped by innate perceptual mechanisms. Because the events of infancy are not associated with words and concepts, it is hard for us to remember them. When they are recalled, they come to us suddenly and involuntarily as vivid sense-memories with little in the way of context. Later in life we know sensation mostly in its “cooked” form, as abstract summaries of episodes, scenes from our lives that have been reduced to a kind of code.

Moreover, since the adoption by human beings of agriculture (approximately 10,000 years ago), a sedentary way of life, and civilization (no less than 6,000 years ago), the importance of technical knowledge and problem-solving ability has increased exponentially. The transition from a culture dominated by the sensuous to one dominated by the intellect has been gradual but pervasive. The net result of these shifts is an overemphasis on cogitation which, together with the increasing pace, complexity, and busyness of our lives, has greatly reduced our opportunities to enjoy sensory phenomena as they are. Sensations have become mere indicators of the objects to be used in pursuit of our goals or else ignored.
paleolithic horse
It comes down to this. We think too much about too many things, and all that thinking gets in the way of our fully knowing and appreciating our bodies as the source and vehicle of sensations in themselves. Thoughts are also sensations, but it is almost impossible for us to see that when we are caught up in thinking. Bodies are not mere vehicles to be directed by minds. Minds are the work of bodies, the signals generated by the organism as it communicates with the world around it and among its various internal systems. The primary activities of mind are to eliminate sensory redundancy and to construct entities out of sensations. The things so fabricated include the world, the self, and the concept of mind.

The exercises given below will help trainees to restore the immediacy of sensory phenomena, free of self-consciousness and instrumental agendas. Learning to recover the knowledge of sensory stimuli as such is one of the primary tasks of a student of the contemplative arts. It will change the quality of your moment-to-moment perception. It will put you back in your body, where you belong.And it will greatly expand your sense of what it means to be a body.

body space image

Exercise 2
A. Bodily sensation
In a comfortable seated posture, practice each of the following exercises for a period of not less than nine minutes and not more than 40 minutes, in sessions separated by at least twelve hours. Until you have become both familiar and comfortable with a given exercise, do not move on to the next. The order of the exercises is progressive. Once mastered, they can be performed in any order. The best place to begin is with attention to posture.
i. Monitor the postural indicators listed in the RUBS-BETH acronym. [See On Posture (3)]. Go through the whole sequence from at least three to as many as twelve times; then see if you can get a sense of the body’s posture as a whole. Repeat the process for several days running. It is fundamental.
ii. Directing attention according to your inner somatic map, scan or sweep whole body, starting with the crown of the head and moving slowly down the front. Be alert for signs of tension and any other conspicuous sensations. Where you find them, pause for a moment, giving the spot your full attention, and see what happens. Then move on. Perform the same procedure for the back side of the body. When you become skilled in this technique, you may notice that you speed up as your inner gaze moves through the body. Try to keep a moderate pace. Lots of interesting things are happening, and you don’t want to miss them on account of impatience.
iii. Attend to any and all sensations associated with posture. Allow attention to float freely among them, but do not get lost in space. Stay with the posture for the full period. If attention wanders, or you find that you have become caught up in thinking, bring your attention back to any aspect of bodily posture, and proceed from there as before.
iv. In this exercise we will focus on a single sensory cluster associated with posture, preferably one that is both relatively strong and constant, and therefore available most of the time. Examples are the thumb-tips, where they meet, and the left palm resting upon the right. You will find others. Pick one and stick with it.
v. Focus on the lowest point in the body where there is a strong sensory constellation, such as the buttocks just below the sit bones, where they meet the cushion, or the soles of the feet if you are sitting in a chair. This is an effective technique for overcoming agitation, and for getting out of your head during storms of compulsive thought.
vi. Letting the attention roam freely, but always with alertness and comprehensive awareness, focus on whatever cluster of sensation happens to be the most prominent at the moment. Stay with it until it breaks up or another event comes to dominate the sensory field. Shift attention to the new tactile alpha. Repeat for the duration of the session.
vii. While remaining alert, relax the focus of attention and enlarge the field of awareness to include the totality of bodily sensations, as much as possible all at once. This can be challenging at first. There is a strong tendency for the undirected attention to flit from one sensory event to another. When the mind grasps something, just remember to relax and let go, again and again, until the mental faculties that select objects have learned their lesson and calmed down. (This practice has been included just to give you a taste of freedom and to provide a hint that it is not always either desirable or necessary to concentrate. If you find that it is extremely frustrating, feel free to drop it and come back to it later when you have become adept at some of the simpler associative methods.)

Bodily sensations that arise in connection to the cycle of breathing in and out are a major component of somatic awareness. They are also the focus of a great many methods of cultivating self-knowledge and mental stability across the whole range of contemplative traditions. Because the topic is so big, we will ignore it for now and return to it in future posts.

B. The Dominant Senses: Sight, Sound, & Touch
In the formal practices of sitting and walking there is little opportunity to observe the senses of taste and smell. Therefore we will limit ourselves to the senses of sight, sound, and touch. The idea here is simple, namely, to learn to clearly distinguish between the (subjective) sensory realms associated with the three selsected sensory faculties, as such. As we shall see a bit further on, the ability to discern the several types of sensation quickly and easily will be a valuable asset when we turn to the development of insight. It will be enough for now just to become skilled at “tuning in,” one at a time, to each of the three dominant senses of Sight, Sound, and Touch. It does not matter where you start.

You may find it helpful to conceive of three distinct sensory realms before you begin. The visual realm is the size and shape of your visual field and includes everything that occurs within it. The auditory realm is located in the vicinity of the ears and (for some people at least) between them. The tactile realm is roughly bounded by the outer layer of skin, & likewise includes all sensations—and there are many different kinds—that occur upon and within the body.

Your task in this exercise is simply to learn how to shift from one of these realms to another. So, having chosen one of the sense-fields, bring it to the foreground of awareness. Fully occupy it with attention, spending as much time as you like in becoming familiar with it. Pay particular attention to its special characteristics. Get a feel for it. Stay with it for, say, a session of nine to fifteen minutes. If your object in the first session was Sight, move on to Sound in your next, and Touch in the one after that. When you have devoted a number of periods to each sense separately, then practice shifting from one to another during a single session. You might begin by devoting a minute each to Sight, Sound, and Touch, over the course of a nine-minute period, thus performing three cycles in all. An athletic interval timer is perfect for measuring exercises of this kind. I believe you will quickly find this work to be fascinating. May you be well and happy!

There Is Always Time Enough (Nine Minutes of Quiet Sitting)

[The shortcut to regular sitting sketched in this post was written with beginners in mind, but experienced meditators might find it useful.]

The most important element in a successful practice is regularity. (We can put off the definition of “successful practice” for now.) To do some amount of seated, inner work on a daily basis is the quickest way to acquire the skills that make it possible to bring about lasting changes in attitudes and behaviors. It is also the key to consolidating the gains made in “breakthrough” moments. Retreats provide opportunities for extending and intensifying contemplative experience, and should be attended as often as possible. However, in the absence of a regular schedule of cultivation, the benefits of intensive practice quickly dissipate because they cannot be sustained or integrated. There is no substitute for daily sitting.

The single greatest obstacle to the establishment of a regular sitting practice is the perception that there is not enough time. A common response to the prospect of daily sessions is something along the lines of “I already have too much to do. Sitting is just one more thing to fit into an overcrowded schedule.” Signs of stress can manifest at the very thought of adding yet another commitment to a long list.

clock running

Some of you will be familiar with an anecdote that is pertinent to the topic. The new student asks how often s/he should sit. The teacher suggests that s/he might start with half an hour, twice a day. The student becomes agitated, and says, “That won’t do at all. I’m much too busy to sit for 30 minutes twice a day!” “In that case,” the teacher replies, “Sit for an hour twice a day.”

The point of this story has nothing to do with time. Rather, it is a way of saying that we all take the concept of time far too seriously. Time is an idea, whereas the sense of time’s passage is a measurement of events in relation to each other, mental events included. Time expands and contracts according to the way we choose to observe the many changes that are always happening and how we feel about them. Ultimately time is just what we think it is. Therefore, when we cease to pay attention to our thoughts and begin to observe the various kinds of change within the flow of sensation—which is what we do when we meditate—the sense of the passage of time is attenuated. We could say that constraints on our time get in the way of our practicing only when we think about them.

A friend’s young son was disappointed because while on vacation they could not stop to visit an amusement park that was located along their route. The boy listened as his father explained that he had to be back at work by a particular date. “I just don’t have enough time,” he said. The boy pondered the matter for a few moments. Then his face brightened and he said, “I know! I’ve got plenty of time. I’ll give you some.”

The objective aspect of time comprises events and their relations, but those relations frequently change, and the perspectives from which we measure them shift with changing circumstances. The subjective aspect of time is marvelously elastic. Despite those challenges, and the social pressure to believe that time is an external force driving us along inexorably, it is possible to initiate a regular daily practice of meditation by adopting a simple strategy, namely, to set one’s sights upon a modest goal to be attained by modest means.

Anyone, no matter how busy, can sit for nine minutes a day. If necessary you can set the alarm clock to ring ten minutes earlier than usual and sit as soon as possible after waking up. There are at least two obvious virtues to such a discipline. First, the early part of the morning is quiet. If you arise before the others in your household, you are less likely to be disturbed. Second, within fifteen minute after rising you have accomplished your task. If you can manage to sit for nine minutes in the evening, too, so much the better.

For some people it will be necessary to drink a caffeinated beverage first thing before sitting; others will find that a warmup and stretching, or a 30-minute walk, will greatly improve their ability to relax and focus. Do what you must, but sit. Set the timer for ten minutes and give yourself a few seconds to assume the posture and settle down.

Bear in mind that, in the cultivation of mindful attention and clear comprehension, quality is more important than quantity. Nine minutes of consistent attention to posture, for instance, is preferable to forty minutes of daydreaming and waiting for the buzzer. For nine minutes, make the effort to stay on track. Unless you are one of those rare “naturals,” you will be distracted at some point, probably by your own thoughts. Don’t be hard on yourself if you find it to be difficult for a while. Perfect concentration is not the practice. Returning again and again, calmly and gently, to the task at hand, that is the practice. Stay with the process for nine minutes and do not concern yourself with the results, which will show themselves in their own good time.

Time Is On My Side The Rolling Stones

Why Meditate?

There are several ways we might divide up the field of spiritual science and technology, and one way is according to primary interest. Is the trainee’s dominant aim know, to heal, to feel, or to act?

Depending upon the answer to that question, we can posit four main categories of motivation, namely, the Gnostic, the Therapeutic, the Hedonistic, and the Magical.

Edgar Ende, Die Wartenden

The Gnostic Path comes in two flavors, the Scientific/Philosphical and the Religious/Spiritual, and asks the following kinds of questions:

What is the nature of experience? How does my world come to be known?                                                (Epistemological)

Who or what am I? What is at the root of my sense-of-self? (Psychological)

What exists and what is ultimately real? (Ontological-Metaphysical)

Can I confirm my beliefs and/or the teachings of religious authorities?                                                        (Empirical-Mystical)

The process of investigation devolving from such questions as these is believed to lead to the condition known as enlightenment.

The Therapeutic Path has practical wisdom as its goal. It aims to realize one or more of the following conditions and capacities:

Peace of mind;

Improved mental acuity;

Management of self-hatred, guilt, stress, pain and/or phobias;

The overcoming of compulsions and/or addictions;

More skillful interpersonal and social relations;

Greater compassion, moral sensitivity, and rectitude.

The Hedonistic Path has amusement, pleasure, and entertainment as its goals, which may include the attainment of extraordinary bodily and mental states and visions. The hedonistic adept is a tourist of mental processes.

The Magical Path, or the Path of Power, is concerned with the acquisition of special abilities for purposes of control over the environment and other people.

There is a fifth path, the Path of Liberation. Its aim is nothing less than complete freedom from bodily and mental constraints. Whether or not the realization of that goal entails the permanent loss of consciousness and life itself is a matter of controversy among the several Buddhistic traditions.

Some of us are primarily motivated by the desire to more deeply understand the nature of self-reflexivity as well as the self and its experience. For us it is fair to say that the primary, overall purpose of our work is to find better ways of training ourselves to alter the quality of experience for the better, more or less at will, through systematic development of certain skills. One way of looking at the activities in which we are engaged is as an exploration of natural systems of biofeedback. Following both traditional and experimental instructional protocols, we discover many interesting things about how the mind works, how experience presents itself, how the various psychophysical faculties and their functions contribute to building and maintaining the sense of self.

Getting a Handle on It

We have already made note of the fact that methods of “meditation” vary according to the aim, goal or purpose of a person’s training. Moreover, the various practices can be more or less suitable depending on the character or personality type of the individual being trained. Within a single contemplative tradition there may be several fundamentally different approaches and dozens of variations. In Buddhism, for example, lengthy books have been devoted to outlining the scope of contemplative activity and sketching the many kinds of exercises performed by monks and householders within a single school.

A given person’s meditation practice can be religious or secular, a temporary expedient or a lifetime commitment. We are not forced to choose between one kind of practice and another, one set of motives and another. But it is crucial to be clear about what we are doing and why we are doing it. At one end of the motivational continuum, the bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be, is propelled along the path by the aspiration to fully awaken for the sake of all sentient beings. That resolve is called bodhicitta, the wholehearted commitment to the task of waking up. In mythic terms the project is described as taking an astronomical number of lifetimes to complete. It is not for everyone.

Another sort of person will forego nirvana in favor of samsara with the maximum upgrade. The stressed-out middle manager, for instance, may take up the practice of mindfulness as way of better coping with increased responsibilities and a deflating salary. There is nothing wrong with the decision to settle for less than perfect Buddhahood, provided you are honest about it. The difficulty with striving for the ultimate goal is, of course, that until the trainee realizes for herself knowledge of a very rare kind, she has only the most general and abstract idea of what lies at the end of the path. Not everybody knows what Enlightenment is, wants it, or even believes in the possibility of it. It may seem prudent to reserve judgment in the matter. While the jury is out, there is a lot you can do with meditation to make the problems of everyday life less painful, your behavior less driven, and your moment-to-moment experience more interesting. The panoply of methods is large. There is at least one kind of contemplative exercise for everyone.

Rocks lagoon

Each of the world’s cultural traditions embraces and combines in various ways three distinct approaches to spiritual practice that correspond to three basic attitudes to the problem of life. These three approaches are (1) striving for control of nature through technology, art, and/or magic, (2) striving for self-control, and (3) not striving at all. Each of these three tendencies has its exemplars in religion. The ritualistic aspects of Daoism, Veda, and tantra fall into the first category. Early Buddhism belongs to the second, along with disciplines such as Loyola’s Exercises and most of the varieties of yoga. Latter-day Pure Land teachings go into the third category, together with bhakti-yoga, Islam, contemplative Daoism and Dogen’s “zazen.” A healthy spirituality blends two or more of these tendencies, and we could probably identify types of “spiritual” persons based on the degree to which one or another is dominant.

Of the many factors that motivate people to take up meditation, the most common are probably curiosity; desire to experience altered states of consciousness; the acquisition of power over nature and/or other people; and the desire for inner peace. Among additional reasons to meditate are what might be thought of as subsidiary goals and benefits, of which the following are the most salient:

  1. increased control of psycho-physiological processes, such as respiration, heartbeat and blood pressure, leading to
  2. bodily and mental refreshment through rest, relaxation and reduced stress;
  3. improved performance of everyday tasks due to greater mental stability and acuity; and
  4. better relations with people.

There are many good reasons to take up meditation and few bad ones. Even at entry level the practice of mindful attention and clear comprehension can help us to avoid toxic states of mind—greed, aversion and delusion in the multitude of forms that give rise to human suffering. To the extent that the practice of meditation leads to wholesome states of mind, then any reason to meditate is a good one.

What Is Meditation? (O1)

You are thinking about taking up meditation because you have heard that it can enable people to manage stress, aggression and pain more easily; or because you believe it can deepen your understanding of yourself and life; or because you desire to gain access to a realm of “extra-sensory” experience and altered states of consciousness; or because you wish to become a better person; or because according to esoteric tradition the practice of meditation confers paranormal powers. Or, perhaps, you are one of a very small number of human beings who genuinely aspire to attain nirvana, the condition of being free from all attachments whatsoever. And those are only the more respectable reasons for meditating.


A plethora of motives for beginning the practice of meditation has, over the centuries, generated a diversity of methods. Each of the goals listed above requires a slightly different approach. Yet the means employed to reach them share certain common features. They all require a modicum of sustained attention, the ability to stay on task, and a clear understanding of the particular project in which the trainee is engaged. Developing each of those capacities to the requisite degree is a preliminary discipline in itself.

Because the word “meditation” has come to designate all such activities, including methods whose practitioners insist that they are not practices, it is a term both convenient and dangerous. As it happens, the differences among the various kinds of meditation are as important as the similarities. To remain ignorant of them is to risk following a path that cannot take you to your chosen destination. That is true even if you have no destination in mind.

Therefore, the first task is to get an overview of the terrain. Of necessity I will have to define a lot of words, in part because ordinary language tends to obscure rather than illuminate this field, and in part because clear writing on the subject in English is as yet relatively scant. We are only just beginning to develop a vocabulary specific to the description of self-reflexive mental processes. There is bound to be a lot of groping for words, and it may even be necessary to make up a term or two along the way.

The Indic word used by Buddhists when they are talking about “meditation” is bhāvanā. It means roughly the same as the English words “development” and “cultivation.” It applies to the whole panoply of mental faculties, in all possible combinations, from the most ordinary to those that are rarely exercised in the course of daily life. As we shall see, a great many things fall under that rubric. We will make a start at sorting them out in a future entry.


The discipline of maintaining a healthy and comfortable posture can be extended to the activities of standing, walking, and lying down.

Set aside a day, or part of a day, to spend in focusing attention and the other metal faculties upon the sensations and physiological processes of the body.

Take special care to monitor the qualities of spinal alignment, muscular tension, and breathing at frequent intervals.

As always, when distracted from your primary task by persistent thoughts or the demands of everyday life, gently return your attention to the sensations associated with structure, balance, relaxation, etc., as soon as you have noticed that the mind is wandering.

It can be instructive to keep a journal of such exercises as this so that in future you can assess their contribution to your overall understanding of contemplative practice.