Chapter 8


Once I too sought expression; now I know my gods concede me only allusion or mention of a thing.

Jorge Luis Borges, Antologia Personal

I n a sense there are as many meditations as there are objects to meditate upon. As we have seen, concentration may be upon a variety of objects intrinsic to, or constituted by the neurocognitive system, including body sensations (like the wind on the skin, breathing or the heart beat), abstract patterns apprehended in the sensorium (like lines, boundaries and colors of things), ideas about the self or the world (like the permanence of the ego or the nature of thought), and essential structures of percepts (like dots and epochs).

There is a particular category of meditations that I wish to discuss now, and that are ubiquitous to shamanic and contemplative traditions all over the planet (see Noll 1985). This is the type of meditation that incorporates the practice of visualization. Visualization is the contemplation of an image produced and sustained by the practitioner before the "mind's eye" (i.e., within the sensorium, but without actual perception). I will first describe more exactly what I mean by "visualization," and this will necessitate looking at what psychological research on imagery has to say. I will suggest a general theory of imagery that will bring our understanding into line with what has been discussed previously. Then I will apply this material to some examples of visualization practice that I have encountered during the course of my own anthropological and phenomenological research. Once we establish a common understanding of the process of visualization, I can then go on to discuss the neurophenomenology of visualization.


Visualization practices are those in which the initiate is taught to produce an image in the "mind's eye" and hold that image as an object of continuous concentration and awareness. The image may or may not be initially induced by perception of an external object. Moreover, the imagery may occur during normal waking consciousness, or during certain alternative phases of consciousness such as a drug trip, trance, the hypnagogic, or dream phases. Visualization work may be initiated in normal waking consciousness in order to induce experiences occurring later in an alternative phase of consciousness.

Imagery .

But what do we mean by image? There are actually many types of images. In one of the best books written thus far on the psychology of imagery, Peter Morris and Peter Hampson (1983: 65) discuss a number of types -- primarily of visual images -- including memory images (those that are aroused from memory of past events), imagination images (those that may include material from memory, but that are newly constructed without reference to past events), after-images (those produced after staring at an object and then closing the eyes or looking at a neutral surface), dream images (those occurring during sleep), hallucinations (those projected "out there" and perceived as real), hypnagogic/hypnopompic images (those that occur during the onset of sleep, or while waking up), and eidetic images (those that occur very vividly, but not perceived as real). Although most psychological research is directed at visual imagery, images may arise in any and all sensory modalities. In fact, auditory and other non-visual imagery is often quite important in cosmological ritual and symbolism, and in meditative training cross-culturally (see Sperber 1975 on olfactory symbolism and Tuzin 1984 on auditory symbolism).

Eidetic Imagery .

Of these various types of imagery, I am primarily concerned here with eidetic imagery -- creating images before the "mind's eye" -- for it is the type most directly involved in visualization work in shamanic and contemplative traditions. Because my interest is quite limited, I will not undertake a review of the literature on imagery (see Paivio 1971, Kosslyn 1980, Morris and Hampson 1983 for reviews), but will be selective in those data I do utilize in order to forward our understanding of the use of visualization in contemplation.

In some respects eidetic imagery is distinct from other forms of imagery. First of all, the data suggest that, among North American subjects at least, a significant ability to produce eidetic images is rare (10% - 15% in children; Morris and Hampson 1983: 88). This is an unusual skill and one that is not encouraged by western education. Second, maintenance (or perseverance) of an image usually requires conscious effort, whereas other kinds of imagery, such as fantasy, hypnagogic and dream imagery occur spontaneously. Third, eidetic images tend to be more static within the "mind's eye" than other types of images in which there may be a great deal of motion or rapid transformation.

Yet in other respects eidetic imagery is similar to other types of imagery, so we must pay some attention to the general field of imagery. First, all types of imagery utilize sensorial structures, and hold at least some of these structures in common with perception (Kosslyn 1980, 1983). What we are concerned about here is intentionality fulfilling itself in sensorial events without the necessity of stimulation from the external operational environment. Second, as we shall see, intensive concentration upon eidetic imagery may lead to the spontaneous occurrence of other types of imagery (e.g., dreams, visions, hallucinations, etc.). For these reasons we should look at both the general properties and the neurobiology of all imagery. This will prepare us for our neurophenomenological exploration of visualization and the effects of visualization in contemplation.

Properties of Images .

After reviewing the wealth of research material available in the psychology of imagery, Morris and Hampson (1983: 202-203) summarize the general properties of images. As I can do no better than quote their writing, I will simply reproduce their list of properties here, adding my own headings for each property to make their list even more succinct:

1. Abstraction . The information from which images are constructed is represented in long-term memory in an organized and interpreted abstract format.

2. Penetration . Depictive and descriptive information can be used to generate visual images, a process which will take time, with more complex images taking longer to construct than less complex [images].

3 Inspection and Scanning . Once it has been generated, the surface image can be scanned and inspected. The longer the distance scanned the longer it will take, and the larger the property to be detected the quicker it will be spotted.

4. System Limitations . The processing capacity of the imagery system in general and its ability to display conscious images in particular is limited. [Processing may involve the expendature of effort.]

5. Reverberation . Surface images need to be regenerated continuously to sustain them. Scanning the surface image may help in its maintenance by revealing which parts need to be refreshed.

6. Image Transformation . Images can be transformed in a continuous fashion, by operating directly on the display as in mental rotation or scanning.

7. Memory Induced Transformation . On the other hand, images can be modified by activating different parts of the long-term data base....

8. Transformation of Part or Whole . Transformations of the surface image can be applied to the whole [field] or part ...of the image display.

9. Perception and Imagination . Images tap the perceptual processing system at many levels including those that cannot be consciously monitored....

10. Vividness . Often, the more vivid the subjective image the stronger are its percept-equivalent effects. ...images can act as the inputs to, as well as being the outputs of perceptual processes.

The Neuropsychology of Imagery .

A controversy of long standing persists in the psychology of imagery. On one side of the debate are those like Pylyshyn (1984) who hold that verbal and nonverbal symbolism are but epiphenomena of a single, tacit computational (or propositional) process of cognition. On the other side are researchers like Kosslyn (1980, 1983) and Paivio (1971, 1986) who argue that verbal and imaginal systems are two, distinct and independent modes of representation. Fortunately for us, nearly all of the neuropsychology available comes down on the side of the multiple representation model (see Bogen 1969, Bogen et al. 1972, Geschwind and Galaburda 1984, Sperry 1982, Ley 1983, Bryden 1982, Gazzaniga 1970, Gazzaniga and LeDoux 1978, Paivio 1986). Neuropsychological data suggest that the neocortex of the human brain is organized into distinct and interacting functional areas that process information differently depending upon the adaptively appropriate, abstract qualities being extracted. The sensorium is, as we have seen, a part of the neocortex and is itself divided into distinct functional areas, as well as areas that specialize in combining multimodal information within unitary models of stimuli (we can recognize a person by the sound of their voice or by the form of their face). Abstract qualities produced in and abstracted from raw sensation (such as color, line, form, etc. for vision, or frequency, direction and distance for audition) define the parameters of recognition and cognitive, affective and motoric association.

There appears to be an asymmetrical predominance of right hemisphere processing of nonverbal imagery, and of left hemisphere processing of verbal symbolism. But caution must be exercised in attributing all imaginal processing to the right hemisphere, for, as Paivio (1986: 260) notes, predomiance of one hemisphere over the other may be accentuated with more abstract meaning and disappear with more concrete material. For example, recognition of common, concrete objects presented visually seems to be distributed equally in both hemispheres. The left hemisphere does seem to demonstrate a dominance for visual recognition of language text, and auditory recognition of spoken words, but Paivio (1986: 260-261) suggests that this dominance may apply only to words representing abstract concepts and may disappear with words representing common objects. And the right hemisphere seems to specialize in recognition of melodies and the nonverbal sounds made by common objects (Kimura 1973, Bryden 1982).

The best information we have suggests that the more abstract the meaning associated with nonverbal imagery, the more the right hemisphere predominates (Ley 1983, Paivio 1986) in establishing, retaining in memory and processing those cognitive associations. Moreover, as we have noted in an earlier chapter, the left hemisphere predominates in the processing of analytical and sequential ordering in knowledge, whereas the right hemisphere predominates in processing synthetic, simultaneous spatial relations. Imagery evoking emotional associations would also seem to be processed primarily in the right hemisphere. Thus nonverbal imagery associated with both affective and complex, abstract, multimodal and intuitive cognitive associations will tend to be mediated by networks largely (but not exclusively) located in the right hemisphere.

Yet the brain works as a unit and the hemispheres are intimately interconnected across the corpus callosum and other commissures. Complex meaning primarily associated with nonverbal imagery and mediated primarily by right hemisphere tissues may become associated with left hemisphere conceptual structures and be expressed via left hemisphere language functions (e.g., written scores of melodies, mythic stories). Likewise, cross-talk between the hemispheres may result in left hemisphere conceptual knowledge being expressed via right hemisphere imagery (e.g., illustrations, metaphors). I will return to the neuropsychology of imagery in a later section, for as we shall see, the cross-cultural data on symbolism and phenomenology also come down on the side of a multiple representation model of the symbolic function.


It is my opinion that imagery in all sensory modes arising spontaneously in consciousness is the fulfillment within the field of sensorial dots of non-sensorial cognitive, affective and somatic networks. And when such imagery results in symbolic action in the world, it becomes an expression of those non-sensorial networks.

Imagery in Its Fulfilling Mode .

In this regard, imagery is no different than perception. The network of multiple associations (cognitive, affective, somatic and other abstract structures) initiating the image is fulfilling itself within the sensorial form as the object of its intentionality (see Kosslyn 1980 for a consonant view). The network "desires" its object and produces the object it "desires" through a network of homeomorphogenic entrainments culminating in the sensorium. We have already encountered this basic principle in intentionality and perception in Chapters 1 and 7. It is also the principle behind the the classical notion of "projection" in Jungian psychology.

The crucial difference between imagination and perception is simply that the network intending the object does not produce the object by fully controlling the organs of external perception (i.e., exteroception) so as to produce external stimulation. The object (image) is produced entirely within the cognized environment, and without direct apprehension of stimuli within the outer operational environment.

The image experienced within the phase of entrainment we call "being awake" is typically weak relative to any perceptual object. The reasons for this relative weakness are that: (1) "Being awake" refers to those phases of entrainment of conscious network neurognostically structured to adapt the organism to the external operational environment (see Laughlin et al. 1986 for an elaboration of this point). (2) The principal mechanism for producing objects in normal waking consciousness is by way of exteroception requiring stimulation of peripheral sense receptors that drive sensorial networks, that in turn constitute the object. (3) The object intended by prefrontal and association cortex is constituted within sensory cortex (not within exteroceptive networks). (4) The average individual is not conditioned to drive the sensorium from intentional structures without the mediation of exteroceptive stimulation. (5) But, because prefrontal and other intentional/cognitive cortex is reciprocally interconnected with sensory cortex, sensorial activities may be driven more or less weakly from intentional/cognitive networks in the absence of exteroceptive input. (6) And, because the act of perception involves knowledge (recognition) by conscious network of the source of its objects (Morris and Hampson 1983: 74), an automatic intuitive distinction is made in waking consciousness between image and percept (e.g., percept is "out there" and image is "in here").

The primary variable influencing the vividness of imagery is the intensity of intentionality. Under the conditions of hypointentionality, imagery will tend to be considerably weakened, whereas stronger intentionality will augment its imagery. Under conditions of hyperintentionality, however, imagery may be augmented to the extent that it may become an autoreverberative sensorial object, one that may reach the amplitude of a percept. Hyperintentionality during sleep produces lucidity in dream imagery, and during hypnagogic may expand the phase in time and produce extreme vividness in imagery. The important factor in determining image latency and vividness is to what extent intentionality is able to produce a continuously reverberative network incorporating prefrontal intentional, cognitive and sensorial networks within a conscious network in the absence of sustained exteroceptive stimulation.

The ability to enhance imagery (e.g., increase the latency and vividness of the image) is a skill that may be learned (Morris and Hampson 1983: 147), and this sort of learning forms an indispensable element in shamanic initiation (Noll 1985: 447), as well as in the contemplative traditions I will discuss below. What this kind of learning -- what Noll (1985) calls "mental imagery cultivation" -- entails is selective augmentation through repeated, ritualized practice of the reciprocal neural pathways between prefrontal intentional and (primarily right hemisphere) sensorial networks, and auxiliary structures such as subcortical arousal and parietal attentional structures.

Imagery in Its Evocative Mode .

As is the case with all forms of dialogue between prefrontal intentional and sensorial processes, the process may be reversed from a fulfilling to an evocative mode of processing. Imagery may penetrate to and evoke intuitive cognition, affect, autonomic and other networks via homeomorphogenic entrainments. But unlike the evocative mode of perception, with imagery the initial catalyst for neuronal activity is entirely intrinsic to the being. In the absence of exteroceptive stimulation, the image will only arise if it is desired by some network within the nervous system. This impetus may derive from a cortical network, or it may be driven from proprioceptive stimulation within the body.

However it is initially stimulated, once it has been constituted within conscious network, the image may then become the object of intentionality and cognitive associations that will constellate about it. For example, a fantasy may arise out of memory and become the object of introspective interest. Or a dream may be the expression of unconscious tensions or disease in the body and become the object of scrutiny. In either case, the imagery is constituted by sensorial activity fulfilling some unconscious network's desire within its field of dots, and then may become the object of scrutiny by conscious network, a process that may in turn penetrate to associations within a wider cognitive field. This is one of the chief mechanisms by which unconscious processes become relevated into awareness via homeomorphogeneic linkages with the sensorium.

Augmentation of Eidetic Imagery .

Thus far the theory has addressed all types of imagery. But I now want to apply it to a clearer understanding of the processes by which eidetic imagery is constituted and how the facility of image production may be augmented. Because augmented eidetic imagery is a principle fundamental to so many contemplative traditions (Noll 1985), we need to appreciate the way in which the facility to imagine may be learned and improved. Image production may be augmented by training the intentional processes of the brain to concentrate upon and configure neurocognitive associations upon an internalized image. However, before analysing the structure of this process further, I will take the time to describe its use in two types of Buddhist meditation, traditions that are representative of the most sophisticated form of contemplation utilizing images as big-S SYMBOLS (see Chapter 1) to evoke intuition.


The use of external objects to stimulate eidetic images for the purpose of meditation is a method ubiquitous to spiritual and religious traditions the world over. For example, mandalas are very common devices for evoking insights (see Carl Jung, Collected Works , Vol. 9, Part 1; Tucci 1961, Arguelles and Arguelles 1972, MacDonald et al. 1988). The most ancient form of Buddhism -- Theravadin, or Southern Buddhism -- utilized a great many such meditative techniques to train the consciousness of serious practitioners. Among these techniques were the meditation upon templates (Skt., kasina ) that represented the four elements: fire, air, water and earth (Buddhaghosa 1964). Other devices represented space, light, the three primary colors and white. These practices probably originated from meditations upon naturally occurring phenomena, like sun light falling in patches on the floor of a forest, or a bear patch of earth. But monks were later instructed to craft their own devices which were often portable and used in the monastery.

I will describe a couple of these kasina practices to give a flavor of the method, and then pass on to the more complex forms of Buddhist SYMBOLIC penetration devices. The first is the meditation upon the "water element" ( apo-dhatu ; Buddhaghosa 1964: 177). A special place is set-off for working with the device. The initiate then fills a neutral grey (other brighter colors interfere with the purity of the image) ceramic bowl with clear water and sits in front of the bowl at a distance of about 2 1/2 times the distance between the initiate's elbow and middle finger, for me a little over four feet. The initiate sits in a relaxed yet alert posture, looking at the water for short intervals (say from 5-20 seconds) while repeating silently the word "water." The object of the exercise is to look away or close the eyes and hold the image of the water in the mind's eye. The initiate learns to hold the eidetic image of the water for longer and longer periods of time, until the initiate is able to get up and move into another room without losing the image. When the eidetic image can be constituted and held in a stabile manner without recource to the external device, the role of the device is finished.

The real meditation work is upon the eidetic image-as- SYMBOL . Concentration upon the eidetic image is continued and intensified until all obstacles and distractions are overcome, and until an "archetypal sign" (Pali, patibhaga nimitta ) arises. (1) Archetypal signs in this sense are phenomenal experiences that occur as a consequence of the meditation upon an image, and are lawfully related to the form and qualities of the image. Water archetypes include "streams" running through water, "bubbles emerging from the surface of water, or "steam" rising from the surface of water. These archetypal signs are common precursors to the classic water element experience which is often perceived as a "crystaline network" arising either in space or in one's body. The intuitive insight that arises simultaneously with the coutersign is the connectivity or cohesion associated with the SYMBOL of a network. I place all of these signs in quotes because the phenomena that arise are universal and archetypal to meditators, but are recognized, labeled, and interpreted in accordance with one's linguistic and cultural conditioning. The actual form of the archetypal sign may be influenced by culture in that they appear as a pot giving off steam or bubbles in a glass of champaign. But the "bubbles," "streams," etc. are universal SYMBOLS .

The initiate is instructed to then meditate upon the archetypal sign. Concentration upon the archetypal sign is further intensified until "access concentration" (Pali, upacara jhana ; Buddhaghosa 1964: 131) is attained (see Chapter 5). This is a state of mind which is characterized by a delecate balance between alertness and profound calm and in which the trained meditator can choose to remain detached from the archetypal sign or intensify the concentration further and enter an absorption state ( jhana ) in which the mind and archetypal sign are experienced as a non-dualistic unity -- in this case, the whole of consciousness becomes the essence of connectivity (see Chapter 5; also see Buddhaghosa 1964: 142). Thus there is a developmental sequence in the learning of kasina work proceeding from the construction of a SYMBOLIC device, internalization of its eidetic image, meditation upon the image until one of its archetypal signs and associated intuitions arises, then meditation upon the archetypal sign image until absorption in the archetypal sign occurs. (2)

Let us take another kasina as example, so as to highlight the essential structure of the technique. This time it is the meditation upon the earth element (Pali, pathavi-dhatu ). This time the device is constructed as a disk (3) of "dawn colored" clay spread smoothly over a network of sticks and lashing. The clay disk should be placed in the same fashion as for the water device and again used to internalize an eidetic image. The image of the disk, once it is stabilized in the mind's eye, becomes the object of meditation until the archetypal sign of the earth element arises. The archetypal sign in this instance is difficult to describe, for it is a field of sensorial illumination that is a purified and ramified extension of the disk, but is no longer a form or a color. And it is paired with the intuitive grasp of the essence of the earth element which is the quality of the "ground of perception" (Buddhaghosa 1964: 130). Again, concentration upon the archetypal sign leads to absorption in the essential nature of the element, and the unity of consciousness with "earth."

The procedure for realizing the essence of the other two elements is exactly the same. For the fire element (Pali, tejo-dhatu ) the device is a fire viewed through a hole (4) cut in a cloth suspended between the fire and the initiate. The archetypal sign of the fire element may be something like a red or golden field or pillar accompanied by the intuitive grasp of "transformation" or "change." And for the air element (Pali, vayo-dhatu ) the device is simply the effect of wind blowing over the tops of grass, shrubbery, and the like. The archetypal sign is stillness, and the associated intuition is of the essence of "motion" or "movement;" which incidentally has much to do with the construction of movement across perceptual epoches (see Chapter 7). In a similar manner the colors, light and space are explored using outer devices to evoke eidetic images and depth realizations.


Although it is clear that the use of eidetic imagery is virtually ubiquitous among the world's shamanic traditions (Noll 1985), the systematics, complexity and sophistication of image-based contemplative traditions may vary a great deal. In the course of my research I have yet to encounter a system more sophisticated than that used in Tibetan Vajrayana. (5) Carl Jung seemed to appreciate this fact and saw as well the congruence between the psychology of contemplation in the Tibetan tradition and his own form of depth psychology. Jung wrote seminal introductions to both The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation , as well as other reflections pertaining to eastern religious practices (see his Collected Works , Vol. 11). What seemed to strike Jung as especially important was the use of techniques of initiation into the mysteries of consciousness collectively termed arising yoga .

Despite its obvious sophistication, its dramatic ceremonies, its myriad texts and its dazzling array of yogic practices, the intent of Tibetan Vajrayana is fundamentally simple. As with any form of Buddhism, Vajrayana is concerned with the inherent struggle (Pali, dukkha , meaning also pain and suffering) of life, and the cessation (Pali, nirodha ) of that struggle as the only source of liberation. Struggle results from desire for phenomena, and thus cessation of struggle requires awareness and full realization of the emptiness (Pali, sunnata , Tib., stong pa nyid ) of phenomena. (6) Full realization of emptiness can only occur while the contemplative is experiencing a very rare state of mind called mahamudra (Tib., phyag rgya chen po , or upachara jhana in the psychology of Theravadin Buddhism).

Attainment of the true mahamudra mindstate (7) is produced when the psychosexual energies (Pali, viriya ) of the being become organized in the requisite way; namely, unblocked and freely flowing in all the channels (Skt., nadi , Tib., rtsa ), concentrated in the appropriate energy centers (Skt., chakra , Tib., rtsa 'khor ) along the body's central channel or axis (Skt., susumna , Tib., rtse dbu ma ; see Laughlin 1989, 1991, Laughlin, Chetelat and Sekar 1985), and feeding a consciousness concentrated upon the essential emptiness of things and free of attachment to, or avoidance of any phenomenon whatsoever. The various arising yoga practices available in the Tibetan vehicle are all geared in one way or another to reorganize the psychosexual energies in order that the practitioner may realize the full meaning of a diety-as- SYMBOL and thereby attain the mahamudra mindstate. And all such practices utilize eidetic imagery to one extent or another to further this aim.

A practitioner is initiated into the practice (Skt. sadhana ) of an arising yoga -- that is, the arising of the form of one diety or another -- through participation in a ceremony of empowerment (Tib., dBang ) offered by a lama. The lama will also offer the traditional reading of associated texts (Tib., lung ) and pith instructions for practice (Tib., ti ; see Given 1986, Laughlin, McManus and Webber 1985). Among other things, the lama introduces the initiate to a series of symbols and practices that the initiate is to use in his/her own private meditations upon the diety.

The private meditations are also ritualized, and carried out in a standard sequence. First the initiate carries out certain initial procedures to quiet the stream of discursive thoughts and fantasies, and to calm the body. She learns to perceive her body as hollow and her mind as an empty vessel. Only when calm and empty does she then construct an image of the appropriate diety in her mind's eye, with or without the aid of an external picture or icon. The initiate meditates on the completed image, or on those aspects of the image that remain stabile, at times while repeating an incantation ( mantra ) appropriate to the deity. Once the eidetic image is stabilized in the mind's eye without having to refer back to the external picture, the initiate dissolves the image into her own body and becomes one with the diety. The movement here is from imagining the diety as "out there," perhaps floating in space above the head, to imagining the initiate's own hollow body as being identical to that of the diety.

The initiate may be given a more advanced practice in which additional SYMBOLS are imagined within the body (which is now also the diety's body). These are inner yogas in which the body's various mystical centers and channels, as well as the energies flowing in and around them are imagined. Inner yogas may incorporate various breathing and other physical exercises along with the generation of eidetic imagery. The initiate will eventually dissolve the image of the diety, which is still identified with the initiate's own body, part by part until all that is left of the form is a tiny spot of light. Then the spot is made to vanish and the initiate meditates upon the place where the spot disappeared. The initiate continues to meditate upon the empty sensory field for as long as concentration can be maintained, or until the image of the diety spontaneously reappears in the mind's eye. The practice ends when the image is finally dissolved by the initiate back into the sensory field.

This is, of course, a simplified picture of the visualization practice carried out by Tibetan adepts (see Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:199-200 for a more detailed summary of this practice). What we are most interested in for our present purposes is the bare bones of the visualization technique. (8) Learning to produce eidetic images that may be held for lengthy durations before the mind is not, of course, the be all and end all of Tibetan arising yoga. The intent of the practice of visualization is, like that of the kasina practice, to evoke experiences, internal transformations of consciousness, exploration of the depths and intuitive insights. To this end, and as with most other forms of insight meditation (9) , rational thought is eschewed. The benefits of the practice accumulate as a consequence of concentration upon the objects of meditation and an active curiosity about the exploration.


As we have argued elsewhere (Webber and Laughlin 1979, Laughlin, McManus and Webber 1985, Webber, Stephens and Laughlin 1983, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:198-211), the structure of the symbolic system that results in the evocation of insight and experience is very likely universal to humanity and a fundamental process of the nervous system. We have modeled this process of symbolic penetration -- at least for the kind of contemplative traditions described here -- as a five stage process: (10)

1. Working with the outer SYMBOL . The process of initiation into the mysteries of meaning will usually begin with concentration upon an outer SYMBOL . An object is presented to the initiate for the purpose of eventually evoking a response in the form of experience and knowledge. The object may be suggested verbally or in text, or it may be an actual object or event in the operational environment. Examples of outer SYMBOLS would include the kasina devices noted above and the visualization of Chenrezig (Figure 0 above), as well as a Zen garden of raked pebbles, a wooden cross, a shaman's mask, the haptic pattern of the rising and falling abdomen during breathing, a lit candle, a didactic story, a painting (e.g., a Tibetan tanka or a Navajo sand painting), a cube, a crystal, a pungent odor, a gem stone, an alchemical experiment, a piece of music, a chant. The range and selection of possible outer SYMBOLS is virtually endless, and any one of the sense modes can be a portal for penetration.

But objects are never offered at random, for there exists a non-arbitrary relationship between the object presented and the experiences and insights that arise as a consequence of the work. Some objects such as water, fire, body parts and processes, locomotion, and incantation may be found all over the planet. In other cases the object may be related to the range of environmental and cultural conditions influencing the particular contemplative tradition; for example, a mask of an animal indigenous to the environment, characters in a didactic story having cultural meaning. In any case, the object produces a percept -- that is, the object for the initiate is a percept stimulated by the operational environment and constituted within the initiate's own nervous system -- and brings with it a perceptual context that is rarely left to chance. In fact the object is frequently presented within a ritual context in order to control the nature and extent of penetration (Laughlin 1989b, Laughlin et al. 1986).

2. Working with the inner SYMBOL . The outer SYMBOL eventually becomes internalized as an eidetic image within the cognized environment. This is the inner SYMBOL ; an image that is stored in memory and may in time be constituted by the initiate before the mind's eye without the necessity of stimulation by the outer SYMBOL . And an inner SYMBOL may be generated from within the being without any outer SYMBOL being involved. For example, one may concentrate upon internally generated hypnagogic or dream images, and later choose to bring these back from memory as eidetic images for further reflection. Of course, outer SYMBOLS may be used to "incubate" or suggest dream imagery that then becomes the source of inner SYMBOLS for reflection.

The form of, and cognitive associations configured upon the inner SYMBOL will reflect the cultural and individual conditioning of the outer SYMBOL . For example, the eidetic image will be that of Chenrezig and not Jesus if one was doing the Tibetan yoga related to Chenrezig.

But the inner SYMBOL will be changed relative to the outer SYMBOL , often in subtile ways. Perhaps only a partial image of a diety may be retained, and perhaps emotional associations ineluctably added to the perceivable form. As we saw with the kasina work above, the inner SYMBOL will tend to become simplified and perfected (Morris and Hampson 1983: 83 use the term "idealized") within the cognized environment when the corrective stimulation from the outer SYMBOL is removed. And the image may leak into other sensory modalities. One may see patterns of coloured lights while imagining a symphony. One may smell or feel the touch of a visualized human or animal form. Also, the intensity of the inner SYMBOL may range from barely discernable to lucid. The penetrative effects of concentration upon the inner SYMBOL may be experienced regardless of the intensity of the image, although it seems that the more lucid the image, the more profound and rapid will be its effects. It may become so lucid in fact that it is actually hallucinated.

3. The Arising of the Universal SYMBOL . Concentration upon the inner SYMBOL (in some instances the outer SYMBOL as well) may produce a transformation in the image and there will arise one or more universal SYMBOLS . These are sensory events, often images with detectable affective, intuitive and other associations, that suddenly and spontaneously arise in consciousness. They are non-arbitrary in that they are the lawful and ineluctable consequence of having concentrated upon a particular inner SYMBOL , and when reported to a shaman or master may be considered evidence of a discrete stage of maturation or social status. Moreover, they are archetypal, for they may be experienced by any contemplative from whatever cultural background who meditates upon that particular inner SYMBOL -- every koan has its answer, every kasina has its archetypal signs and realized meaning. Just how the universal SYMBOL is interpreted, of course, will vary enormously with cultural tradition.

What is happening, according to our penetration hypothesis, is that intense intentional focus of all the higher cortical faculties upon an eidetic image (the inner SYMBOL ) produces a reorganization of neurocognitive structures outside of conscious network and situated at any or all levels in the hierarchy of the nervous and other somatic systems. New entrainments are formed and develop, and when they become autoreverberative networks in their own right they may express themselves within consciousness by way of homeomorphogenic interconnections producing imagery and intuitive insight. In certain complex contemplative traditions, including the Tibetan Vajrayana, a regimen of SYMBOLIC work may be used to "fish for" and flesh-out the development of unseen neurocognitive structures whose maturation is requisite to the intuitive grasp of ultimate truth, thatever that truth might be.

4. Absorption in the Universal SYMBOL . Under the conditions of hyperintentionality directed at the universal SYMBOL as object, absorption in the universal SYMBOL may be experienced. The object is no longer experienced as separate from the subject. Conscious network is fully entrained to the sensorial object with such an intensity of concentration that consciousness is completely absorbed in the quality of mind represented by the outer and inner SYMBOLS . The experience, however long it lasts (mere seconds for a beginner) becomes, combined with later interpretations, the meaning of the outer SYMBOL .

Absorption in the universal SYMBOL inevitably signals the participation within consciousness of the hidden cognitive structures intended by the practice. An example of this would be a shaman becoming a jaguar or wolf. For whatever duration of time, the shaman is experientially an animal, the consciousness totally at one with the universal associations intended by the form of the animal taken as inner SYMBOL (Harner 1973, Eliade 1964, Webber, Stephens and Laughlin 1983). A developmental phase may or may not have been required prior to this phenomenon. For the seasoned, mature contemplative, the movement from the presentation of an outer SYMBOL , through internalization as an inner SYMBOL , penetration to the universal SYMBOL , to absorption in the universal SYMBOL may be virtually instantaneous, or take a very short time. For the beginner, the process may take weeks and even months or years to complete.

5. Absorbtion in the Transcendental . Under certain very rare circumstances, the initiate may experience absorption in the Transcendental; that is, absorption in that which is considered by the tradition to be the ultimate reality beyond all illusion. This is considered by the tradition to be the Ultimate Experience, the intuitive grasp of the nature of things that is the culmination of all previous developmental stages, the final intent of all practices and techniques. The "object" (no longer necessarily associated with any sensorial form) of this experience will tend to be one of two types, a Sense of God (Bowker 1973) or Pure Consciousness ( Voidness ; Nishitani 1982). Again, I will have very little to say about this domain of experience, as this book is more an exploration of the developmental principles and practices productive of the mature contemplation requisite to a neurophenomenology.


It is my opinion after years of working with various visualization traditions that the eidetic images produced are mediated by the more abstract levels of the sensorium once they are released from exteroceptive stimulation. The images themselves are probably constituted by secondary and tertiary sensory cortex, (11) combined with right hemisphere multimodal and imaginal association cortex (12) and prefrontal intentional cortex. (13) In other words, my analysis of the neurophenomenology of visualization supports more a "dual coding" model of representation (a la Paivio 1971, 1986) than a propositional model. Nowhere in the visualization practices summarized above are initiates encouraged to "think about," or rationally attain the meaning of the SYMBOLS upon which they are instructed to meditate. Language is used to setup the conditions of the meditation: how to construct the device, how to avoid errors and hindrances, how to sit properly, what to do when certain transformations of the image happen, etc. And, language is used to report experiences to the master and to later reflect upon those experiences (a la Ricoeur 1962). But during the actual practice of meditation involvement in discursive verbalization and thought is eschewed and these processes are allowed to drop away of their own accord. The basic message in these traditions is to meditate upon an image until certain intuitions mature and manifest themselves within consciousness as spontaneous imagery and insight. Indeed, as with the Zen practice of the koan , visualization work seems geared to out-flank rational, propositional approaches to knowledge and penetrate directly from SYMBOLS as "things-in-themselves" to intuitive apprehension of their universal significance.

This underscores the importance of homeomorphogenic entrainments (see Chapter 1) between sensorial and cognitive structures. Moreover, it suggests that the establishment of such entrainments is requisite in some circumstances for the development of cognitive systems normally excluded from entrainment to conscious network. Consciousness is SYMBOLIZED in the east as a mandala of many interrelated parts. Normal enculturation produces an uneven development across the cartography of the full mandala. (14) In order to flesh-out the full mandala, it is said, meditation must be directed at the weaker poles and points of development. The greedy might meditate upon death and giving, the hateful upon loving kindness, the opinionated upon impermanence, etc. One way of doing this is to focus the intentional processes on the weakest, most unconscious and least developed aspects of the being by directing consciousness to SYMBOLS homeomorphogenically entrained to those undeveloped structures. My suspicion is that many neurognostic structures in the nervous system cannot begin to develop, or reach optimal growth without being activated from (i.e., be evoked by) events in the sensorium. And once they begin to develop, they will tend to fulfill and express themselves via the sensorium. This is one role of homeomorphogenesis in facilitating the integration of consciousness.

A subsidiary role of homeomorphogenic entrainments is the use of SYMBOLIC penetration in healing. The use of SYMBOLS in healing rituals is also ubiquitous to the world's cultures (Dow 1986). Healers everywhere manipulate the perceptions of patients by performing often highly dramatic SYMBOLIC acts repleat with exotic regalia, masks, demons, and so on. We now know from the study of cortical regulatory activities linked to activities of the endocrine, autonomic and immune systems that manipulation of symbolic events may drive the activities of these subordinate systems (see Ganong 1986, Ader 1980). Psychological integration may be reestablished by SYMBOLICALLY penetrating to unconscious and repressed areas of the nervous system, giving them public exposure and relevating their activities to consciousness (see e.g., Wallace 1959 on Iroquois psychotherapy, Peters 1982 on shamanic healing and psychotherapy among a Napali group).

SYMBOLS are in a metaphoric sense the "faces" of the hidden aspects of the being. We may face ourselves and our natures by facing appropriate SYMBOLS . We construct knowledge by associating obvious perceptual objects and events with the more abstract and hidden depths of intuitive knowing (Fernandez 1986). And this is a reciprocal process, for the hidden aspects of our being may express themselves via a SYMBOLIC face, or the SYMBOLIC face may, as it were, be sent in search of its hidden body. In either direction, the intentional processes must become engaged in the activity in order for the full impact of homeomorphogenesis to be felt upon the integration of the highest levels of consciousness, and in order for a more mature dialogue to develop between the conscious ego and the greater being. Many of the world's contemplative traditions at least tacitly recognize the efficacy of SYMBOLIC penetration for accessing, creating a dialogue with, healing, and integrating the different networks ordinarily hidden from mundane consciousness.


1. Signs may actually arise when gazing at the outer device and before the eidetic image is fully internalized, but more frequently they will arise after the internalization of the image is accomplished.

2. There is contemplative work on the jhanas that carries on from here as well, but this is beyond the scope of this chapter.

3. A disk measuring the span of one hand plus four finger widths of the other hand, for me around a foot in diameter.

4. Same dimension as the earth disk.

5. Vajrayana (Tib., rdo rje theg pa ) is the overall cover term for the Tibetan version of Mahayana Buddhism. "Vajra" refers to the "indestructible diamond mind" of the wisdom accruing from the direct realization of emptiness. "Yana" means "vehicle" and points to the inseparability of method and wisdom, means and ends, that is so fundamental to the Tibetan form of contemplation.

6. Emptiness is not an easy concept to define in our culture in which the concrete, material nature of reality is taken for granted. The term does not refer to a vacuum, but rather to the absence of enduring substance of any and all phenomena. To make the notion a bit more comprehensible, as all phenomena are constituted in the brain and experienced as forms within the field of sensorial dots, and as all dots and formations of dots are insubstantial, are subject to dissolution every moment, and have no permanence in consciousness, therefore all phenomena may be considered empty. This view in no way makes any reference to the external operational environment, but rather to the constitution of the cognized environment within the conscious brain.

7. The term mahamudra may be used to refer to a type of practice, or to the attainment of the state of mind intended by the practice (Wang-ch'ug Dorje 1978). I am using the term here in its latter sense.

8. Readers wishing a more complete picture of Tibetan sadhana are directed to Beyer (1973), Willis (1972) and Blofeld (1974).

9. The exceptions being where the essential structures of thought itself are the objects of contemplation, as with some mahamudra work (Wang-ch'ug Dorje 1978).

10. The concept of penetration was originally suggested by John McManus (in d'Aquili et al 1979) and the stage model of symbolic penetration was worked out in collaboration with Mark Webber. I wish to acknowledge my special debt to these two friends.

11. Researchers have reported suppression of EEG alpha over the occipital cortex during visual imaging (see Morris and Hampson 1983: 72).

12. See Geschwind and Galabura (1984).

13. It should be remembered that all sensory modes are represented by discrete areas of prefrontal cortex (see Chapter 7).

14. Piaget called this unevenness of development "decalages."