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  States of Consciousness

    Charles T. Tart

        11.   Observation of Internal States

Observation of internal events is often unreliable and difficult. Focusing on external behavior or physiological changes in useful, but experiential data are primary in d-SoCs. We must develop a more precise language for communicating about such data.
    Observing oneself means that the overall system must observe itself. Thus, in the conservative view of the mind self-observation is inherently limited, for the part cannot comprehend the whole and the characteristics of the parts affect their observation. In the radical view, however, in which awareness is partially or wholly independent of brain structure, the possibility exists of an Observer much more independent of the structure.
    Introspection, the observation of one's own mental processes, and the subsequent communication of these observations to others have long been major problems in psychology. To build a general scientific understanding requires starting from a general agreement on what are the facts, what are the basic observations across individuals on which the science can be founded. Individuals have published interesting and often beautiful accounts of their own mental processes in the physiological literature, but analysis of these accounts demonstrates little agreement among them and little agreement among the analyzers that the accounts are precise descriptions of observable mental processes. Striving for precise understanding is an important goal of science.
    One reaction to this has been behaviorism, which ignores mental processes and declares that external behavior, which can be observed more easily and reliably, is the subject matter of psychology. Many psychologists still accept the behavioristic position and define psychology as the study of behavior rather than the study of the mind. That way is certainly easier. One hundred percent agreement among observers is possible, at least for simple behaviors. For example, in testing for susceptibility to hypnosis with the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale {144}, the examiner suggests to the subject that his arm is feeling heavier and heavier and will drop because of the increased weight. The hypnotists and observers present can easily agree on whether the subject's arm moves down at least twelve inches within thirty seconds after the end of the suggestion.
    Behaviorism is an extremely valuable tool for studying simple behaviors, determining what affects them, and learning how to control them. But it has not been able to deal well with complex and important human experiences, such as happiness, love, religious feelings, purposes. The behavioristic approach is of particularly limited value in dealing with d-ASCs because almost all the interesting and important d-ASC phenomena are completely internal. A behavioristic approach to the study of a major psychedelic drug like LSD, for example, would lead to the conclusion that LSD is a sedative or tranquilizer, since the behavior frequently produced is sitting still and doing nothing!
    If we are to understand d-SoCs, introspection must become an important technique in psychology in spite of the difficulties of its application. I have primarily used peoples' reports of their internal experiences in developing the systems approach, even though these reports are undoubtedly affected by a variety of biases, limitations, and inadequacies, for such reports are the most relevant data for studying d-SoCs.
    I believe psychology's historical rejection of introspection was premature: in the search for general laws of the mind, too much was attempted too soon. Mental phenomena are the most complex phenomena of all. The physical sciences, by comparison, deal with easy subject matter. We can be encouraged by the fact that many spiritual psychologies {128} have developed elaborate vocabularies for describing internal experiences. I do not understand these psychologies well enough to evaluate the validity of these vocabularies, but it is encouraging that others, working over long periods, have at least developed such vocabularies. The English language is well suited for making reliable discriminations among everyday external objects, but it is not a good language for precise work with physical reality. The physical sciences have developed specialized mathematical languages for such work that are esoteric indeed to the man in the street. Sanskrit, on the other hand, has many presumably precise words for internal events and states that do not translate well into English. There are over twenty words in Sanskrit, for example, which carry different shades of meaning in the original. Development of a more precise vocabulary is essential to progress in understanding consciousness and d-SoCs. If you say you feel "vibrations" in a d-ASC, what precisely do you mean?


The Observer

    In science the word observation usually refers to scrutiny of the external environment, and the observer is taken for granted. If the observer is recognized as possessing inherent characteristics that limit his adequacy to observe, these specific characteristics are compensated for, as by instrumentally aiding the senses or adding some constant to the observation; again the observer is taken for granted. In dealing with the microworld, the particle level in physics, the observer cannot be taken for granted, for the process of observation alters the phenomena being observed. Similarly, when experiential data are used to understand states of consciousness, the observation process cannot be taken for granted.
    For the system to observe itself, attention/awareness must activate structures that are capable of observing processes going on in other structures. Two ways of doing this seem possible, which we shall discuss as pure cases, even though they may actually be mixed. The first way is to see the system breaking down into two semi-independent systems, one of which constitutes the observer and the other the system to be observed. I notice, for example, that I am rubbing my left foot as I write and that this action seems irrelevant to the points I want to make. A moment ago I was absorbed in the thinking involved in the writing and in rubbing my foot, but some part of me then stepped back for a moment, under the impetus to find an example to illustrate the current point, and noticed that I was rubbing my foot. The "I" who observed that I was rubbing my foot is my ordinary self, my personality, my ordinary d-SoC. The major part of my system held together, but temporarily singled out a small, connected part of itself to be observed. Since I am still my ordinary self, all my characteristics enter into the observation. There is no objectivity to my own observation of myself. My ordinary self, for example, is always concerned with whether what I am doing is useful toward attaining my short-term and long-term goals; thus the judgment was automatically made that the rubbing of the foot was a useless waste of energy. Having immediately classified foot-rubbing as useless, I had no further interesting in observing it more clearly, seeing what it was like. The observation is mixed with evaluation; most ordinary observation is of this nature.
    By contrast, many meditative disciplines take the view that attention/awareness can achieve a high degree or even complete independence from the structures that constitute a person's ordinary d-SoC and personality, that a person possesses (or can develop) an Observer that is highly objective with respect to the ordinary personality because it is an Observer that is essentially pure attention/awareness, that has no judgmental characteristics of its own. If the Observer had been active, I might have observed that I was rubbing my foot, but there would have been no structure immediately activated that passed judgment on this action. Judgment, after all, means relatively permanent characteristics coded in structure to make comparisons against. The Observer would simply have noted whatever was happening without judging it.
    The existence of the Observer or Witness is a reality to many people, especially those who have attempted to develop such an Observer by practicing meditative disciplines, and I shall treat it as an experiential reality.
    The question of its ultimate reality is difficult. If one starts from the conservative view of the mind, where awareness is no more than a product of the nervous system and brain, the degree of independence or objectivity of the Observer can only be relative. The Observer may be a semi-independent system with fewer characteristics than the overall system of consciousness as a whole, but it is dependent on the operation of neurologically based structures and so is ultimately limited and shaped by them; it is also programmed to some extent in the enculturation process. Hilgard {26} has found the concept of such a partially dissociated Observer useful in understanding hypnotic analgesia.
    In the radical view of the mind, awareness is (or can become) different from the brain and nervous system. Here partial to total independence of, and objectivity with respect to, the mind/brain can be attained by the Observer. The ultimate degree of this objectivity then depends on whether awareness per se, whatever its ultimate nature is, has properties that limit it.
    It is not always easy to make this clear distinction between the observer and the Observer. Many times, for example, when I am attempting to function as a Observer, I Observe myself doing certain things, but this Observation immediately activates some aspect of the structure of my ordinary personality, which then acts as an observer connected with various value judgment that are immediately activated. I pass from the function of Observing from outside the system to observing from inside the system, from what feels like relatively objective Observation to judgmental observation by my conscience or superego.
    Some meditative disciplines, as in the vipassana meditation discussed earlier, strive to enable their practitioners to maintain the Observer for long periods, possibly permanently. The matter becomes rather complex, however, because a major job for the Observer is to Observe the actions of the observer: having Observed yourself doing some action, you then Observe your conscience become activated, rather than becoming completely caught up in the conscience observation and losing the Observer function. Such self-observation provides much data for understanding the structure of one's own consciousness. For a comprehensive discussion of this method of understanding, I refer the reader to Riodan's and Goleman's chapter in Transpersonal Psychologies {128}.


Self-Observation During Transition Periods

    The distinction between these two kinds of observers is important in considering the transition period between two d-SoCs. If we ask questions about what phenomena are experienced during the transition period, we must ask who is going to make these experiential observations for us. Since the ordinary observer is the structure, then the radical destructuring necessary for transition into a d-ASC eliminates the ability to observe. At worst, if there is total destructuring we can expect no direct experiential observation of the transitional period, perhaps only a feeling of blankness. Such blackouts are often reported.
    Yet people do report transitional experiences. Destructuring of the b-SoC may not be total, certain parts of it may hold together a subsystems through the transition period, partial observations may be made by these subsystems, and such observations are recoverable on return to the b-SoC or in the d-ASC. But the observations are necessarily limited and incomplete, since they come from a partially incapacitated observer.
    Now consider the role of the Observer, if it is well developed in a particular person, during the transition from one d-SoC to another. Because the Observer is either not at all based in particular structures, only partially based in particular structures, or based in structures that are not part of the b-SoC undergoing destructuring, it should be able to observe transitional phenomena. Exactly this sort of phenomenal report has come from reporters who feel they have a fairly well-developed Observer. They believe this Observer can make essentially continuous observations not only within a particular d-SoC but during the transition among two or more d-SoCs.
    For example, Evans-Wentz {17} describes the following Tibetan yogic exercise for comprehending the nature of dreaming:
That which hath been called "the initial comprehending of the dream," refereth to resolving to maintain unbroken continuity of consciousness throughout both the waking-state and the dream-state...sleep on the right side, as a lion doth. With the thumb and ring-finger of the right hand press the pulsation of the throat-arteries; stop the nostrils with the fingers (of the left and); and let the saliva collect in the throat.

    Evans-Wentz comments:
As a result of these methods, the yogin enjoys as vivid consciousness in the dream-state as in the waking-state; and in passing from one state in another experiences no break in the continuity of memory.

    I can say no more about the nature of the Observer here because we know so little about it in our Western scientific tradition. However, I think it is extremely important to find out to what extent the Observer's apparent objectivity is a reality and to what extent a fiction. Insofar as it is a reality, it offers an objectivity and a possible escape from cultural consensus reality conditionings that are highly important.
    I must, however, caution the reader against taking this discussion of the Observer too concretely. I am using words to describe a certain kind of experience, but the words are not the experience. As Korzybski said: "The map is not the territory." Unfortunately, we not only habitually mistake the map for the territory, we prefer the map to the territory—it is so much clearer! I find it difficult to express the concept of Observing, and words can do no more than create analogies that point to aspects of your own experiences. The term Observer is a way of referring to an important aspect of experience, a process, but we must not become too attached to the concept of one "thing" separate from and observing another "thing."

Chapter 12

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