Chapter 12



The realist persists in looking outwards only, unaware that he is a mirror. The idealist persists in only looking into this mirror, averting his eyes from the external world. Thus, both are inhibited from seeing that there is an obverse to every mirror. But the obverse does not reflect, and to this extent the mirror is in the same category as the objects that it reflects. The physiological mechanism whose function it is to understand the real world is no less real than the world itself.

Konrad Lorenz, Behind the Mirror

Three thousand million people live on a ball.

The ball is suspended in nothing.

What are these three thousand million people

doing on the ball?

And why, Mr. Zen Student, do you want to know?

You don't know that either.

Jan van de Wetering, A Glimpse of Nothing

Western scientists manifest a distinct inability to recognize the role of consciousness in their own projects. In an extreme and codified form, this inability produced the logical positivist paradigm within which science could proceed about its business as though it, itself, was not a problem. Positivistic scientists continue to proceed as though the act of observation were somehow removed and apart from the unfolding processes being observed. With the fall of logical positivism as a universal paradigm in science, and as a consequence of attacks by philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn (1974) and Paul Feyerabend (1962, 1965), to mention but two of many, and with the paradoxes of observation coming primarily out of physics, science is being forced to reconsider the role of consciousness in the process of observation. As Charles Dyke (1988: 10-11) notes:

Science has to be seen as the activity of a complex system of "knowers" and "knowns," investigators and the results of investigations. Remarks about results are necessarily also remarks about the investigations producing those results. The history of modern science itself tells us that some results modify the way the process of investigation is conceptualized. At the same time, some reconceptualizations of investigative procedures modify the investigation and articulation of results. We are always required to freeze ourselves in some historical slice of the investigative process, but we are also obliged to unfreeze and consider the process itself. Ultimate certainty falls in the light of our understanding of science as a human practice, i.e., as part of the subject matter of science itself.

As I have tried to show in the previous chapters, the incorporation of knowledge about consciousness into our understanding of scientific observation and theory building is seriously hampered by the failure of scientists to perform some kind of phenomenological reduction. Clearly, this failing is not going to be solved by writing a textbook from just the right point of view. The reduction is a process that must be mastered by each and every practitioner, or at least enough practitioners to carry the day. And yet, the cultures in which most western scientists have been raised and enculturated do not encourage the kind of serious introspection that would produce the reduction.

To make this point more forcefully, let me describe the results of a thought experiment carried out by my colleague and friend, John Cove, and me. We carried this out in a number of undergraduate classes and we call it the Levitating Monk Experiment. We gave each student the same task. We told them they were to imagine that they were given the unique opportunity to witness a monk levitate off the top of a Himalayan peak. The monk would do this only once, and this would be the only time the student would ever have to witness this event. We then asked, if the student could do but one experiment, or ask but one question about the event, and had all possible resources at his or her disposal, what would the experiment be?

We received all sorts of answers to this thought experiment: Tie a hook to the monk's bottom and measure the foot-pounds of lift the monk would generate. Will a levitating monk once in motion tend to remain in motion unless acted upon by an opposing force? If the monk were pushed laterally, would he follow the contour of the mountain, or would he drift in a plane perpendicular to the force of gravity? All sorts of interesting questions emerged. But of course our hidden objective was to see how many questions would be asked regarding the inner experience of the levitating monk. For instance, what was the mind-state of the monk just prior to liftoff? Occasionally we would get answers of this kind, but usually no one would ask a question about the monk's phase of consciousness. This illustrates the cultural bias toward interest in external events long before students become scientists themselves.

Yet the need to be asking questions about consciousness are necessary at this point in the history of science, not to mention the history of our civilization. The urgency of this need was eloquently expressed by Edmund Husserl in his book, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology(1970), which was originally written between 1934 and 1937 in response to the threat of Nazi domination in Germany. And his expression of the need for greater self-awareness is as applicable today as it was then. He saw both science and civilization as being vassals to their own "historicity;" limited in their scopes and committed to actions by tradition and culturally imposed points of view (see Hayward 1984:65-85 on scientific revolutions). Scientists and citizens are thus unable to see and interpret outside the boundaries, the "horizons," of their respective lifeworlds. As David Carr put it, "The world with which the philosopher, the scientist, attempts to deal is this very world-horizon in which the naive life runs its course. This is the lifeworld, which is always "already there," "pregiven," when theory begins its work" (1970:xl). The only way to gain freedom from the bondage of our historicity is a commitment to phenomenology, to the course of self-awareness. Only by way of the reductions is the mind able to comprehend just how it constructs the world it responds to, and out of these responses and views, how it constructs its history. The Husserlian way is to come to know consciousness in the intimacy of the reductions, and then explore and theorize about the nature of the world.

The Sakyamuni Buddha taught in much the same vein. For instance, one day the Buddha was sitting in a grove with some of his disciples. He reached up and plucked a handful of leaves from a tree and asked, "What do you think? Which are more numerous, just this handful of leaves, or those leaves in the grove overhead?" "It's obvious," replied the disciples, "the trees have more leaves." "Right," said the Buddha, "and that is the difference between what I have taught you and what I know. And do you know why I haven't taught you all this other stuff? Because, this is all you need to know for your liberation." (1)


I believe what is needed in science right now is a cadre of what we have called mature contemplatives (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:24-25). Generally speaking, a mature contemplative is an individual that has trained their mind to sufficient tranquillity, concentration and interest that they can explore the structures of consciousness involved in producing experience. In Husserlian terms, this is someone who is able to perform the phenomenological reduction, although they may not have completed the transcendental reduction (see Chapter 4). In Buddhist psychology, this is someone who has realized stage four or above, but not necessarily stage 12, of the process of intuitive insight ( Satthipattana ; see Chapter 5). What this means is that the individual has come to realize in the course of their introspection that nothing arising in consciousness is permanent or has unchanging substance. Any object of experience, be it a thought, thing, feeling or quality of mind, is known to be impermanent, including anything identified as "me."

I am not suggesting just another theoretical treatment of perception. What I am describing is a mind that has trained itself to be sufficiently quiet and concentrated in its attention that it can study its own operations without the intervention of theories and small-m methodologies. The mature contemplative is involved in a trained process of self-discovery and reorganization, rather than someone who is carrying out naive introspection of the sort one finds in many philosophical projects. Consider the classic example of Descartes who begins his famous "meditations" by sitting before a fire and playing with a lump of wax. This is not mature contemplation. This is a philosopher who has decided to sit down and look at how his perception works and then reason about it. It is quite a different matter to train the mind to enter a tranquil state in which it can stop grabbing at objects every few seconds to fulfill its desires and look at its own processes with intense concentration. Mature contemplation comes after an often lengthy period of development in which the intention to train the mind to disciplined self-reflection is a major factor.

Associated with this development of self-awareness is the reduction of the "empirical ego." This is so important a maturational landmark that it is recognized as a distinct stage in the unfolding of insight. The realization that "I" am impermanent and without unchanging substance requires for its completion an extraordinary degree of calm and concentration, as well as a protracted state of curiosity about the nature of the self. The curiosity must be sufficiently strong over a long period of time to carry out a series of explorations that inevitably encounter numerous conceptual and emotional blocks. Very few scientists are capable of, or willing to carry out, this kind of intense self-exploration, and yet something like this process of reduction is absolutely requisite for the resolution of many paradoxes that seem to emerge around the role of consciousness in scientific research (see Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990: Chapter 12).

It is unrealistic to expect that most scientists can, or should become mature contemplatives. Would that it were possible to engender this level of self-awareness, not only in science, but in the military, in the police forces and in the top bureaucratic echelons of government generally. But this is an unrealistic pipe-dream at this stage of human evolution.

However, with a change in the current epistemological paradigms in science, it may be realistic to expect: (1) that more scientists will become mature contemplatives, and (2) that science itself will become increasingly sensitized to the importance of mature contemplation. This movement will involve science in becoming what Charles Tart (1975) called "state specific;" that is, the phase of consciousness of the observer will be included in any description and explanation of the scope of inquiry. This is not merely a typological exercise in which phases of consciousness are categorized and correlated with observational invariants. Rather, this movement entails the discovery of those structures of experience that produce the world and our knowledge of that world. This movement will also lead research into the domains of "transpersonal" experience, because it will be sensitive to the full range of human experiences, and not just those experiences considered "normal" by the empirical ego, or a particular culture.


It is my view that the training that produces a mature contemplative, regardless of the tradition, is primarily a process of transforming the intentional structures of the human brain. Granted, it is not necessary to conceptualize contemplative training in neurological terms. One can follow the paths of transcendental phenomenology or Satipatthana (or Qabbala, Zen, neo-shamanism, the Rule of Saint Benedict, or Sufism for that matter) without ever mentioning the brain. But there are distinct advantages in considering the neurological concomitants of transformations of consciousness and I Have already noted some of these in Chapter 2. Perhaps the two most important of these are: (1) neurophenomenology allows the results of contemplation to be interpreted in a scientific framework outside the culturally loaded interpretive framework of the tradition institution, and (2) neurophenomenology requires independent confirmation both from the neurosciences of intuited essences derived from contemplation, and from contemplation of structural relations adduced to support theories in the neurosciences.

But in addition, neurophenomenology may perhaps offer science an account of the training of contemplatives that will bolster confidence in the value of mature contemplation for science. In this way, we may come to set aside such habitual, residual, positivistic beliefs as that which inspired this book, the belief that no useful data may be gleaned from introspection. I have shown in the preceding chapters that the results that may be expected from mature contemplation differ considerably from those derived from naive introspection. I have also shown that contemplation requires the use of the very same intentional structures as does other kinds of scientific observation. What has been transformed is the uncritical and tacit assumption that consciousness itself is not a major problem to be explored. When consciousness itself becomes the scope of inquiry, the structures that mediate experience become the focus of awareness, and this eventually results in a radical shift in consciousness toward its own constructions. A vast reservoir of previously inexcessible and unconscious material opens to disciplined scrutiny.

Gone is the naive notion that the "observer" is in the brain and the "observed" is out there in the world somewhere. The neurophenomenologist comes to understand the conscious self as an experiencing brain-body, as it were, "without a head" (Harding 1986). The contemplative understands that in training the prefrontal intentional processes he is reorganizing his very nature. The contemplative comes to view the world and himself differently, yet in a way that should have been obvious from the start, had he not been deluded by his own natural attitude. For he never really was a "wee me" sitting behind the eyes staring out at the "objective" world. He understands himself as he always has been, a brain producing its transcendental subject and its world of experience within the field established in the perpetual dialectic between the prefrontal cortex and the sensorium.

The neurophenomenologist is not, and could never be a neurobiological reductionist. He understands that observations of the brain are but another kind of experience in which the brain is a transcendental guide. What most people mean by the "brain" is the cognized brain. The cognized brain is a set of models about a part of the human body that we suspect is the organ of consciousness. But the operational brain, the noumenon in the operational environment toward which our observations are directed, is as transcendental as any other locus of patterned energies in the operational environment. We can only know consciousness imperfectly, whether we study it from the inside via contemplation or from the outside via neurophysiological observations. This is why cross-checks between mature contemplation and the neurosciences can provide such robust theory building. There are simply more windows onto the transcendental scope of the human psyche.


However, whether or not they are eventually interpreted in a neurophenomenological frame, I would like to suggest some of the many advantages of enlisting mature contemplation in the scientific enterprise. Some of these advantages derive automatically from experiences and insights that a mature contemplative accrues during the process of training. I have touched on several of these advantages already, so their addition may be considered as a reminder within the present context.

1. A mature contemplative knows the "real now." As we have seen in Chapter 7, what most people consider to be the real now is really a concatenation of three aspects in the production of perceptual epochs: memories (Husserl's "retentions"), anticipations (Husserl's "protentions") and the phenomena arising and passing away in the moment. During the process of maturation, the contemplative has realized what is left over in the act of perception when memories and anticipations have dropped away. Again, I would emphasize that this is a realization grounded in the experience of the real now, and not merely an analytically derived distinction.

2. A mature contemplative knows that the world of experience is a construct of consciousness. This realization in no way denies that there is an operational environment, that there is a "real world out there" of which we are an inseparable part. The nature of the real world may or may not be problematic to the contemplative, as perhaps is also the relationship between the world of experience (or cognized environment) and the operational environment. The Buddha remained perhaps wisely mute on this question. Husserl implied that any science of reality must be founded upon the reduction that brings this realization to fruition, and that would eliminate the fruitless search for knowledge about an "objective" world -- in any event, a contradiction in terms.

3. A mature contemplative has realized the phase of consciousness in which discursive thought and imagery have temporarily ceased. He or she knows that knowledge can arise intuitively within the act of perception and without the intervention of conceptual reason. The mature contemplative knows the spacious field of consciousness (momentarily at least) devoid of all the usual conceptual chatter, fantasy movies and emotional turmoil. In this state, the contemplative knows well the tranquil, pure "mirror" of the mind that reflects back to the subject the answers to any real questions.

4. A mature contemplative's concentration may become so intense that the perceptual processes experientially "slow down." There may be an awareness of the "pure" sensory form arising prior to the arising of meaning associated with that form -- Buddhist psychology calls this namarupa , or naming-forming. This experience may be associated with the realization of the way that the mind generates sensations which may or may not have anything to do with noumena in the operational environment. I am not referring here to naming in the strict linguistic sense, but rather to the experience in which there is first awareness of the sensory form and then awareness as a meaningful recognition.

5. A mature contemplative is aware of the process of fulfilling meaning. The intentional processes may initiate the process of perception; may go looking for sensations that will "fill up" an anticipated meaning. But at a very subtle level of awareness one sees that the construction of the world of experience is brought about by a continuous dialogue between the structures of intention and meaning on the one hand, and sensation on the other hand.

6. A mature contemplative may (but not necessarily) may become aware that all sensory modalities operate upon the production of a basic unit, what I have chosen to call the "dot " (see Chapter 6). In summary, this is the experience of sensation in any modality when the mind is sufficiently calm and perception sufficiently "slowed down," to perceive its own "stuff." The particles of experience are usually "seen" first in the visual perception, but there may come a time when the mind intuitively leaps to the understanding that all phenomenal reality is made up of these particles. This is the realization of the "plenum void" aspect of experience.

7. A mature contemplative knows that all phases of consciousness, no matter how brief or expansive, are intentional. In other words, there is an object to every moment of consciousness, even if that object is a principle, function, or aspect of the mind itself. It becomes apparent to mature contemplation that although a form -- say a word on this page -- appears to remain fixed over time, the dots that make it up are appearing and disappearing all the time. The field of perception, including the object of perception, is renewed afresh every moment. But the quality of experience depends in part upon the intentional organization of that experience. Change the intentionality and the experience changes. There is really no substance that endures in perception. Knowing this quality of renewal of every moment of consciousness is the realization of the "pure void" aspect of experience.

8. A mature contemplative gains control over attention. Attention can move freely and wilfully within the field of the sensorium. But as the mature contemplative knows, the attention does not move freely under the conditions of the "natural attitude" of normal consciousness. Rather, the attention, and the rest of intentionality, is conditioned to react to stimuli. In other words, the state of awareness in the "natural" (culturally conditioned) mind is a continual leaping of attention from one object to another in a constant scanning for objects of interest. And by "interest," we should read interest to adaptation.a After all, this is the primordial biological function of the intentional processes, the scanning of the cognized environment for any likely food or predators.

9. A mature contemplative has access to creative intuition. By the time a person has trained themselves to be a mature contemplative, he or she knows first-hand the magical process by which intuitive knowledge appears suddenly before the mind (see Chapter 3). Intuitive insights arise, as it were, as made from whole cloth. One also realizes that intuition is not a rational process. By that I mean that if there is a "logic" to intuition, that "logic" is unconscious. The mature contemplative knows that creative knowledge depends largely upon intuitive processes and not upon reason, although reason may play a major role in setting the problem before the mind. This is the realization of what Jung called the "intuitive function." The mature contemplative also comes to realize that the ability to calm the mind-body enhances one's access to intuitive processes. The more tranquil the mind, the more in touch with the depths one can become.

10. A mature contemplative comes to know the structures of experience. The contemplative becomes increasingly aware of the previously unconscious processes of the mind underlying the apparent cognized environment (or "lifeworld"). I am talking about apprehending the structures or principles of mind that produce the phenomenal world -- Wundt's unbewussien Selle , or unconscious determiners of the world of experience. Husserl and Schutz, as we have seen, had a lot to say about these unseen movers of the natural attitude and the lifeworld (see Chapters 4 and 10). So had the Buddha. An essential question underlying all their teachings is: How can one become free without becoming aware of the conditions that produce one's psychic slavery?

11. A mature contemplative knows how to bracket point of view. He also knows how to drop a point of view (Wertheimer's "fixation," Husserl's "horizon" and "theory of the world") about the world and how to bracket knowledge. This does not mean that the contemplative has been raised in the western phenomenological tradition and knows that what he or she is doing is called "bracketing." Buddhists have different words for the process of bracketing. But what the contemplative essentially learns to do is to recognize the arising of sensation, the contact of attention with sensation, the process of "naming" or perceptual categorization, and the attribution of meaning, and to know that these are separate segments of a total process which can be wilfully tracked and studied, and to some extent controlled.

12. The mature contemplative knows that bracketing changes perception. It is an active process. As Husserl taught, the process of bracketing is a developmental one and is much like stripping away the layers of an onion one at a time. It is not as though one sits down and in a moment of wilful concentration brackets all points of view and all the processes of mind at once. Arguments have raged over the centuries as to whether "enlightenment" is a gradual or sudden experience. The answer naturally enough is both, depending upon whether one is talking about the developmental processes requisite to intuition, or the sudden "seal experience" of intuitive realization. The essences intuited are relative to the bracketing that has gone before. Bracketing changes intentionality -- literally changes the internal organization of the brain. What is intuited as essential to perception now -- after today's bracketing -- becomes part of what is bracketed tomorrow. The process is a stripping away of the layers of cognitive presumption that form the "natural attitude," and it is questionable whether there is ever an end to the stripping away.

13. A mature contemplative comes to know the relationship between part and whole. He/she knows, not only the relationship of figure to ground (or object to sensorial field), he/she also knows what happens when the ground itself becomes the figure (or the sensorium becomes the object). The contemplative knows thereby what consciousness of totality as system means. Small as a mustard seed, large as a mountain, was a metaphor used by Jesus and one which may well refer to the realization that the mind can attend a particle (a dot) or it can attend the entire field of consciousness. In fact there are exercises in some contemplative traditions in which one trains to narrow awareness down to the tiniest object one can perceive, and then suddenly expand the awareness out to the most spacious object possible. In this way one learns to move the focus of intentionality from the infinitesimal to the infinite and to know the relations between the two.

14. A mature contemplative knows the integrating role of imagery in cognition. As noted in Chapter 8, it has long been erroneously thought that the highest form of knowledge takes the form of logical propositions expressed in natural language or mathematics. With the fall of strict adherence to logical positivism and the rise of cognitive science, there has become an increased interest in, and study of the importance of imagery to knowledge. To put it in terms of the modern neuroscience zeitgeist, right lobe processing has taken an equal status with left lobe processing. The contemplative comes to realize that in the process of unfolding self-awareness that images experienced in dreams, fantasies and meditative visions perform an integrative function within the field of consciousness -- that much of self-knowledge is organized around images. Such imagery may be in any modality, be they visual, haptic, or auditory.

15. A mature contemplative achieves integration of intellect and affect. This may occur in every domain of knowledge from a bridging of the dualism between "science" and "mysticism" at the institutional level, to a merger of reason (logos) and relatedness (physis or eros) at the personal level. Environmentalist J.A. Livingston has written a scathing criticism of modern views of wildlife conservation from an understanding of the possibility of such an integration of intellect and affect in consciousness:

There was a time when sensible people knew that reason and experience could not be torn asunder; together, they were "knowledge." It is this knowledge of which I speak -- the state of being that is wildlife preservation. Today, however, its two parts are conceptually polarized. We have rationality (science) and we have mysticism (non-rational experience). We have intellect as distinct from emotion. We have reason/feeling, and we have man/nature... . I have complained long and widely about the intellect/emotion duality in the conservation context. Anyone with a shot glass of intelligence can follow most logical argument, but inevitably there appears some "block" that prevents the emotional acceptance of man as a biological being, with all that implies. We have forgotten that what makes the world go round is compliance, not logic.

(Livingston 1981:103)

16. A mature contemplative recognizes both the ego-conditioning and the transcendental nature of the social Other. Because of the inherent recognition of the Other as the same as me, the mature contemplative comes to know the essential nature of the Other by knowing his/her own essential nature. Just as the contemplative knows his/her empirical ego for the fiction that it is, he/she also knows the signs of the empirical ego in the expressions of the Other. This knowledge broadens the range of responses the contemplative may give to the project-serving action of the Other. For instance, the compassionate teacher may respond to the student in a way that may frustrate the desires of ego, but forward the growth of the being. Also, the student of culture may come to both appreciate the dazzling cross-cultural variety of lifeways, and yet realize cultures as so many styles of bondage for the human spirit.

17. A mature contemplative will gain knowledge of eros and death via awareness of the body. Contemplation inevitably brings us back into touch with the eros factor -- a factor that is already there every moment of existence. The route to awareness of the eros factor is, quite naturally and lawfully, via awareness of the body. This may prove to be an arduous development, for to awaken to the body may be to awaken to the dissonance, confusion and turmoil created by the unconscious knowledge of our creatureliness -- our impermanence and inevitable death, and the attendant negative feelings this engenders. As Becker (1973) noted, the urge to deny the fact of our creatureliness and the inevitability of our death underlies many of the more phenomenologically naive institutional religions among the many cultures on the planet.

Almost by definition, the mature contemplative has transcended this basic schizm in consciousness, for he or she has seen that no distinction between reason and feeling (mind and body, culture and nature) is given in essential perception. Rather, what is given to direct experience is the totality of being. The totality of being is alive and is in constant flux. When people realize the nature of totality, they:

...recognize it is something in nature that awakens in humans a sense of wonder or produces a momentary thrill. It lies at the root of all transcendent experience, which is not the prerogative of Oriental cults, but is such a basic part of human life everywhere that it must be considered a biological phenomenon. ...This phenomenon is what makes it possible for us to see things as holy. We set them aside as "wholly" other, while recognizing, if only for a fleeting instant, that we are an essential part of this big thing, that it somehow depends on us for its wholeness, or holiness.

(Watson 1982:78)

Along with the realization of totality may come the realization of its impermanence and the inevitability of death. Unless the contemplative has realized Void consciousness, he or she will have experienced only intuitions about the real nature of dying. He or she may not yet have experienced the death and the rebirth of consciousness. But the contemplative has experienced (has not merely reasoned about) the singular, monadic nature of the world, the totality of being, and the inextricable connectedness of being and world. Duality of view is thus anathema for the contemplative, not merely because such a view contradicts his/her point of view, but also because it does not coincide with his/her direct experience of existence. And this experience of totality is the seed of true compassion of the sort Livingston sees as lacking in conservationist thinking and policy today. To fully experience the totality of being produces the certain knowledge that to damage the world is to damage the self. The number of human beings capable of this kind of compassion are but a tiny fraction of the world's human population. This fact alone is worth considering relative to the future role of science in the world. The question that troubles me is, will that role be informed by mature contemplation, or will it carry on in ignorance of its own essential nature?


1. The original story is in more stilted language and is found in the Kindred Sayings About the Truth, Sansapa Grove, of the Sanutta Nikaya . It is recounted in both Hiriyanna 1932:137 and Oldenberg 1971: 204-205.