A Discussion Between Charles Tart and Lucidity Letter Editor, Jayne Gackenbach, Examining Similarities Between Dream Lucidity, Witnessing and Self-Remembering
CHARLES TART and JAYNE GACKENBACH
University of California, Davis;Athabasca University and University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
Gackenbach: In a recent review of your book Waking Up, John Wren-Lewis said it was very relevant to those interested in lucid dreaming.
Tart: I was very honored that he would say that it is must reading for people who are into lucid dreams since lucid dreaming is mentioned only once in the book. You see, lucid waking is the topic of greatest interest to me nowadays.
Some spiritual traditions use an analogy that we live in a dream. In many dreams, you get pushed around by events. Youre not very smart. You dont re-member important, relevant knowledge. Youre inconsistent. You dont call on all your resources. You get in these terrible situations, but then you wake up! Not only does the dream problem disappear, but youre so much smarter by comparison. Smarter from the point of view of the waking state, right?
Now some spiritual traditions have used this as an analogy. They say that in our waking state (where we think were so smart and intelligent), were just as stupid compared to what could be. So that, in a sense, theres a kind of lucidity that could happen in ordinary waking. My Waking Up book is really about lucid waking; that would have been a good title. . .
Gackenbach: Whats your dream recall like these days?
Tart: Ive given my unconscious the instruction, "If its important, please make me remember it." Otherwise there are other things Im more interested in. I used to be an extremely high recaller. I used to wake up, and if I bothered to write my dreams down, Id spend an hour a morning at it! Now I typically recall part of a dream on waking. I scan it quickly to see if theres some kind of message or something exciting: if not, I let it go. Lucid waking is much more important to me than the lucid dreaming.
Gackenbach: As I understand the Ouspensky-Gurdjieff material, upon which your book is based, theres essentially an asking of a critical question, a self-reflectiveness, an attempt, purposely, to reflect on what youre saying and doing as much as pos-sible through the day.
Tart: Its not usually expressed as a question, but if you did, it would be asking yourself something like, "What am I doing right now, what am I feeling right now, what am I perceiving right now, whats my state right now?" You could do it that way, but its usually not done in such a verbal formation.
Gackenbach: How is it usually done?
Tart: Its an immediate shift of attention to being conscious of the normally uncon-scious. Once you do it, you realize that our ordinary state is that were "lost." We dont know whats going on much of the time. Were just as passive in ordinary life as we are in dreams. Events happen and our mental processes react. Buttons get pushed, to use that wonderful old sixties language and our conditioned responses occur. A set of mental scenarios begin. Normally youre just running on automatic with these things all the time. Becoming self-reflective, you consciously see your-self doing these things. As you pay enhanced attention more and more, you begin to get an option to be present to your experience more continuously, and to both have more control and be more open to new experience.
Gackenbach: Is there a distinction between being (I like the term) "present to your experience," and the concept of "witnessing" while awake, sleeping, dreamingtwenty-four hours?
Tart: Witnessing is a concept Id be very happy to use. There are a number of ways to observe yourself. Some ways are biased or have built-in preferences. For exam-ple, lots of people observe themselves from their superego. Your superego has a listing of what is good and bad. It watches you and gives you a shot of anxiety when it thinks you are doing something bad. Thats not what Im talking about. In the first place, superego witnessing is automated. In the second place its not yours, it was conditioned into you by outside forcessociety, your parents and so forth.
Theres another kind of witnessing where you look at everything from a spe-cific point of view. For instance, you could get into some spiritual system that said, you should recite this mantra all day long and you will go to heaven or achieve bliss or something like that. So you are intellectually interpreting everything that comes in in terms of keeping the mantra as an organizing core. But youve still got a par-ticular point of view.
Behavior therapy is a kind of self-observation, usually of a rather limited sort. Write down every time you do a certain thing. Its a very specific kind of self ob-servation. The kind of self-remembering Im talking about says, in the most abstract sense to be fully present to everything that happens and be fully aware of being present there.
Gackenbach: So the "effort" aspect is not there?
Tart: There is an effort but it is a small effort. Its not much . . . The effort is to remember to do it, because what you discover is that youre constantly swept away by phenomena. Gurdjieff once put it that the idea we automatically have self-consciousness must be a cruel joke played upon us. In point of fact, most of the time we are not fully conscious. I can say from my experience, unfortunately, its true. Most of the time theres nobody home. Gurdjieff put it very strongly. Were machines; were running on automatic. You know the East has a similar sort of idea that we live in samsara or maya. Its translated to mean the world isnt real, but thats not the correct translation. Its a recognition that were constantly filtering our experiences through an automated psychological superstructure that distorts our per-ceptions of reality. In that sense we live in illusion. You know the thing that really amuses me? The East has the idea that we live in a state of illusion, but western psychology has the nuts and bolts of just how we live in illusion down to a very fine degree of precision. We know the way we construct what we call reality and we know about defense mechanisms. We just dont put it together somehow. We dont question our idea that were conscious and have free will.
Gackenbach: What about the new work in perception and imagery? It deals with the inner interplay at higher levelsone affects the otherits not just that one is the other.
Tart: Thats clarifying the nuts and bolts issues. The reality is that we open our eyes and assume theres a real world out there. Its a very handy working assumption. Some stimuli hit our sense organs. Some neural impulses are produced, and we as-sume that we see things as they are. But I think psychology now makes it clear that there are all sorts of abstractive, constructive, additive processes that interfere with a realistic perception of the world.
One of the analogies that I use in the Waking Up book is that we live in a world simulator, like a flight simulator. When youre in one of those things you think youre in the cockpit of a plane. It does all the appropriate things [and the view from the window looks "real"]. We live inside our world simulator. Not only that, we love it. Not only that, we dont know were in it, which is a dangerous thing. Once you get the idea that you might be distorting things, theres an obvious moral. Pay more at-tention, dummy! Check up on yourself! But until you get that idea, you dont check up on yourself. You dont make the effort to know it. I look a little more clearly. I watch my reactions while Im looking to see if theyre distorting things.
For example, youre making the effort to be more present to experience: you look at someone, and its immediately unpleasant. You notice you turned away. Wait a minute, who turned away? I didnt decide to turn away. My God, Ive got some automatic reaction: when I see such and such, I automatically turn my head. Whos running this show? Maybe you make yourself look back, and you feel sick. Can you stay present to exactly what the experience of feeling sick is like? Can you learn to stay in reality and study yourself? Watch your reactions? And eventually get back to seeing reality? Eventually you see that this actual person doesnt make you sick at all, but he really reminds you of this [other] guy who pisses you off no end. Your mind is just automatically turning anybody whos tall into this guy, or some-thing like that.
Gackenbach: Paul Tholey has a strong viewpoint which most people in lucidity work agree with. The crucial way to obtain lucidity, hes decided, is to ask the critical question, "Am I awake, or am I asleep?" and while awake, force an aware-ness of the state, of the nature of the state. Eventually it will translate into sleeping. Thats a view we see a lot in the lucidity literature. Is this what youre speaking of?
Tart: I lecture on it to my students all the time, advising them to observe themselves.
Gackenbach: Ive learned from people Ive been working with at the Maharishi International University (MIU) that the Maharishi some 30 years ago met a few of Gurdjieffs students in England. What he felt (I gather to some extent based on those experiences, although it may be that there are other reasons) was that the Gurdjieff method was too forced. Witnessing, he feels, is a natural state of the organism. It will emerge naturally. His technique, of course, is through the practice of Transcen-dental Meditation. The witness will emerge at various times in the cycle of sleep, dream, waking, hypnagogic, whatever. It will naturally emerge. The problem with the other technique, as he understood it, was that there was a force element. And thats of course exactly what Pauls saying. Can you respond to that?
Tart: There certainly is a forced element. Theres several things I could say about that. One is that Eastern teachers tend to come from cultures that have much more faith than we do, that things will happen, right? Just say your mantra and things will eventually happen. We Westerners, were impatient. We dont have that much faith and we want to make sure we do it right. So we tend to force.
Now Im quite aware that forcing can ruin a technique. Ive ruined experience many times by adding a too forced quality. "Force" does something useful, but it too easily puts a tension and a constriction in there. It doesnt need to be in the process; you can use just the right amount. One of the things Im personally working on now is to get the "superego" as it were, out of the self-remembering process.
Gackenbach: Ive been interviewing long-term meditators who witness and Im try-ing to identify to what extent it is like lucidity. It seems that an active/passive model is a pretty good one for distinguishing between them. Lucidity basically [involves] a physically and psychologically aroused, actively involved participant. With wit-nessing theres more of the predominance of the observer. Its non-involvedalmost like a movie screen. It can go either way, from lucidity to witnessing or from witnessing to lucidity. Some will argue that lucidity is a first step to witnessing, that its a developmental sequence. I wonder if it can flip back and forth.
Tart: Id be more inclined toward that.
Gackenbach: I think, in fact, that you can probably call witnessing, "lucidity" as well. Quiet lucidity versus active lucidity.
Tart: Based on all the literature Ive read and on my own experience of it, I would say that lucidity in a dream is an altered state of consciousness. Whether or not there is self-remembering in a lucid dream is an entirely separate dimension. In a lucid dream a person experiences a shift in the qualities of consciousness. So the way my mind is operating feels more like waking than sleeping, and includes factual know-ledge: Im actually in bed dreaming, still, or I remember how to operate this kind of equipment in real life so I can operate it in dreams. Lucidity brings an ordinary level of conscious knowledge into the dream, which in a sense is a higher state phenom-enon. You, your ability, your freedom of operation throughout the dream world clearly goes up when it becomes lucidwhen you know youre dreaming.
Now, the kind of lucid waking Im talking about, self-remembering, involves a big jump up from the ordinary waking state. So, you could have a lucid dream that did not involve self-remembering, but in theory (I havent done it and I dont know anybody who has) someone whos good at self-remembering could have an ordinary dream, turn it into a lucid dream, and still not be self-remembering. They could then begin to self-remember within the lucid dream itself and go up to another level.
Gackenbach: To paraphrase then: When you know youre dreaming then either it follows or simultaneously you have full recall of your memories, you have volition and control at much higher level. Is that self-remembering or is self-remembering even beyond that?
Tart: Self-remembering is beyond that stage. Right now, here I am in the ordinary state not doing the process of self-remembering. Here in my ordinary state I have a certain vantage point with lots of knowledge, but my knowledge. My ordinary identity carries a framework, an emotional-cognitive framework, that organizes everything going onwhats important to me, whats not important. Things are being processed through my personality. That also happens in the lucid dream: your ordinary waking personality now becomes the processing center rather than the usual greatly "shrunken" dream personality center.
If Im self-remembering, by contrast, when you ask me who am I, I could give you a conventional answer if I think thats what you want to hear: all the facilities of ordinary waking consciousness are available. But the truth of who I am is that Im not my personality anymore. Its hard to express in words, but I am a process that can know. That process has a tremendous amount of freedom compared to my ordi-nary personality. Its far more open-minded, it has far more access to possibilities.
Gackenbach: Is there a sense of separateness?
Tart: "Separateness" is a poor word to use for this. Its not like Im standing behind myself. Or that Im "detached" in the sense of not caring about whats going on. I may be more vividly aware of ordinary experiences than I normally am. The ordinary world becomes a little more real. But simultaneously it seems it is just a particular flux of phenomena at this time. Im not identifying with it.
Gackenbach: As I understand it, thats what my colleagues at MIU call "witnessing." It naturally emerges as a function of meditation. This is almost identical to the kinds of things youre saying.
Tart: Possibly meditation does produce very similar results.
Gackenbach: Then in sleep, and specifically in dreams, how are these states the same or different? Im beginning to wonder if you cant be both lucid and witnessing or self-remembering simultaneously. Or one or the other.
Tart: You lost me.
Gackenbach: By way of explanation, let me tell you about this interview I had with this mathematics professor whos been meditating for seventeen years and has very clear experiences. I think because hes not a behavioral scientist, hes able to com-municate better, without jargon. He described how he conceptualizes the continuum from the stage of dream lucidity to the stage of witnessing. First he saw them in de-velopmental sequence. The first step is consciousness; you know youre dreaming. Its minimal lucidity, as we would name it. The actor-observer roles change in the sequence. In lucidity you know youre dreaming; the actors very dominant. The observers there but its not as dominant a role. Then, as you move into witnessing, the actor becomes more suppressed and the observer role more dominant.
Tart: So in a paradoxical way you lose the freedom to change things that occur in lucid dreams and you let the dream run passively again?
Gackenbach: Yes, the passivity is the big dynamic. Not only that, the dream begins to fade. You realize youre dreamingeverything out there is my fantasy, is me. Everything goes very naturally. Im not going to make it go away, but rather let it continue. You still have a self-representation of the body. That goes. You still have a representation of the self but its not a "physical" self. Then that goes. Youre left with awareness of awareness. Then you go into that and the experience opens again, but it is not "sensory" experience; rather it is conceptually based. So he talks about living mathematical constructs at that point.
Tart: He probably goes to the world of Platonic forms. Where elsewhat would a mathematicians idea of nirvana bePlatonic forms, formulas!
Gackenbach: He sees it as some kind of abstract algebra, thats his area. It goes further. But after that, I had no idea what the guy was talkin about.
Tart: Let me distinguish two categories now in terms of self observation and self-remembering. One is what Ive been describing to you. Its very prominent in the Gurdjieff tradition, and the place its almost exclusively done is in the midst of ordi-nary life. Were being bombarded with sensory impressions, were socially inter-acting, the phone could ring, theres lots and lots of input. Now lets operate on a model which I find works well for a lot of things, namely that the total amount of attention available to us is fixed, but we can divide it up. With self-remembering, instead of your attention becoming all absorbed in either outside events or the inter-nal processes triggered off by them, you keep a part of it free to observe the rest. Instead of letting a hundred percent get lost in phenomena, you keep, say, ten per-cent in self-remembering. Paradoxically, this makes the other ninety percent more vivid, but at the same time, youre not so trapped in the particulars of experience.
Now lets look at Buddhist vipasana meditation, which Im trying to learn to do well. In vipasana meditation you sit down in a place thats extremely quiet com-pared to ordinary life. Nobodys going to talk to you; theres nothing you have to do. Its a reasonably undisturbed place. You sit still. All the body stuff is greatly re-duced. You just try to clearly observe whatever happens in your mindyou make no attempt to control it. Theres no good or bad thing you try for, theres no control you exert. You just try to be clearly aware of whatever is happening. Now youre doing something thats much like self-remembering. But, in a sense, the "noise level" is way down, so instead of self-remembering where its all terribly agitated by external events, vipasana is self-remembering down here where theres much less confusion. Thus you can begin to observe much subtler aspects of mental function. So this process, carried out from two different places, could lead to different things.
Now, lets follow the vipasana meditation model. I may be sitting with my mind wandering (which is usually what happens, because its hard to do!) But then I focus for a moment, Im paying clear attention to whatever sensations come and go in my body. Theres a line of sensations in my leg, e.g. it comes and goes. That starts to raise a thought and I see how the thought starts to rise. I watch the process but then it just fades. Im tuning into the finer, subtler thought. Vipasana can become much deeper as your perception of a thought becomes finer and finer. Its like you turn a microscope on your sensations, and, as you zoom and focus the microscope, the power gets higher and higher. There comes a point where, when you look at any-thing, it dissolves into nothing but vibrations. A friend of mine whos a very experienced meditator describes it this way. Any sensationa painful sensation, a pleasant sensation, whateverthat he looks at closely in this vipasana way dis-solves into vibration. You can then reach a kind of psychological state where all the usual objects of the world we experience, including your body and your sense of self, just become vibratory waves. A lot of people would call that a highly enlightened state.
Gackenbach: But theres still more.
Tart: Yes, I dont think thats the only way it can go. In the Tibetan tradition of Dzogchen meditation, that kind of thing can happen in meditation, and then you in-tentionally destroy it because youre getting caught up in it, which is a form of sub-jectivity. If you become proficient, youre able to simultaneously contact that in-credibly expanded, nonverbal, holistic view of reality while in the midst and flux of everyday life, being good at living everyday life. So theres various directions you can go in.
Gackenbach: I have talked about this at length with my colleagues at MIU, partic-ularly the concept of the quiet, and the subtleties.
Tart: Let me give you a view of either lucidity or witnessing. Its a totally relative view. Theres a continuum. At one extreme you are totally caught up in whatevers happening. The other opposite end is that you are totally out of it. Now there are varying degrees of [lucidity along this continuum]. For instance, even simple ani-mals make cognitive maps of their environment. In a sense, thats a kind of lucidity. It may be a very mechanical kind of thing, like a conditioned response. But theres a sense in which lucidity or witnessing gives us some perspective on experience while its happening. Even in ordinary consciousness we bring some perspective, some cognitive maps.
Self-remembering, which Im talking about, introduces a new dimension. Self-remembering does not mean you have some point of view that you claim is higher. It means you exercise a bit of volition to try to be totally open to whatever is hap-pening at the moment. Its very different from all our ordinary acts of cognition using the conceptual tools already given you.
Gackenbach: So its passive?
Tart: No, no. Self-remembering is not passive. Its definitely active in a sense that you must make a small effort to do it. Its not automatic. Its always a certain kind of effort. But its not the usual kind of effort. Usual efforts not only have force behind them, they have a direction and goal. Here the effort is simply to pay attention openly but not force it in any particular direction. Im saying you can use "lucidity" or "wit-nessing" to describe two levels of an operation. You have immediate experience and another level of perspective on experience. This can be purely mechanically-operated kinds of perspectives. But theres another kind of lucidity or witnessing whose goal is the transcendence of all concepts, all dualities, all formulations and it involves simply an effort toward openness.
Gackenbach: Its active in the sense of doing, its happening, and in the sense that theres some effort. Its passive in the sense that, if you start to act on what youre experiencing, you lose the experience: mood making.
Tart: Now thats an important difference. To me, looking at it from a Gurdjieff perspective, losing it means you havent learned how to do it very well. There are techniques that are essentially passivemore witnessing and the universe will be revealed to you, right? And there are techniques that bring full knowledge and are not totally passive; there are times that require action by you.
Gackenbach: Thats it exactly. According to my colleagues at MIU you take time to cultivate the state through meditation, but that for most of the day you go about your business. The self-remembering or witness perspective spontaneously emerges from time to time.
Tart: Is it supposed to happen by itself as a result of your meditation periods?
Gackenbach: Yes, you dont force it.
Tart: This is a traditional model, but I dont think it is completely adequate. Let me illustrate. Recently I was in a Buddhist group meeting and a woman there was com-plaining that after shed been to a retreat for a couple of weeks, where shed been so mindful, that it all faded within a few hours of going home! She just couldnt be mindful at home. Thats a very common experience. Now the traditions usually say just keep up your meditation mindfulness practice, do your sitting every day and eventually it will start to transfer. Indeed, all of them admonish you to transfer it to everyday life, but, the classic Eastern traditions that I know actually dont have much in the way of skillful means for transferring mindfulness to everyday life. They dont have much technology for how you do it. The Gurdjieff tradition, on the other hand, by and large doesnt teach people passive sitting meditation. It starts you right off practicing mindfulness in the midst of life. So Im writing a paper for the Journal of Humanistic Psychology comparing these two traditions and suggesting some ways to take this mindfulness and start practicing it in situations closer to ordinary life. Then itll transfer to the everyday life we leadit will give us "lucid waking."
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