An Integral Postmetaphysical Definition of States

Inspired in part by Mark Edwards' dissertation, in which he calls for clearer definition of key Integral terms, I would like to open a discussion on this important Integral term.  In his work, Wilber obviously frequently uses the term, states, and discusses several types of states, but (to my knowledge) he does not give a clear, formal definition of this important concept.  Because it is such a key component of AQAL, and also is held by Integralists to be such an important aspect of spiritual realization, I think it would be worthwhile to really look at what we mean by it, and possibly see if we can together craft a satisfactory "Integral postmetaphysical" definition.  I ask specifically for an "Integral postmetaphysical" definition, rather than the definition, because obviously the term will be defined differently in different contexts, and at different stages.

What do you think?  If you're interested, let's give this a try.

To start, here are a few (relevant) definitions from

1. the condition of a person or thing, as with respect to circumstances or attributes: a state of health.
2. the condition of matter with respect to structure, form, constitution, phase, or the like: water in a gaseous state.
5. a particular condition of mind or feeling: to be in an excited state.
6. an abnormally tense, nervous, or perturbed condition: He's been in a state since hearing about his brother's death.

You can see right off that several "zones" are represented in these definitions.  An Integral definition, or series of definitions, would include even more zone-perspectives, and IMP may suggest ways these various types of "states" can be correlated.  But simple differentiation of zone-specific definitions will also be important, since I believe the failure to do this probably contributes not infrequently to conflicts and misunderstandings in Integral discussions.

As we discussed in an earlier series of threads (The Status of States), Wilber's use of certain states (particularly causal and nondual) seems still to involve certain metaphysical commitments, which we critiqued at length.  But I don't recall that we really arrived at any workable, formal definition of states, or understanding of what is involved in "state training" and "state stabilization" in spiritual development or "realization," so I'd like to return to this question here, if you're interested.


One systems-theoretic, naturalistic definition of states has been attempted by Charles Tart:


"Now I shall formally define a discrete state of consciousness (d-SoC) for a given individual (and I emphasize for a given individual) as a unique configuration or system of psychological structures or subsystems. The structures or subsystems show some quantitative and minor qualitative variation in the way in which they process information or cope or have experiences, but the structures or subsystems and their energetic pattern of interactions comprise a 'system'. The operations of the components, the psychological structures,interact with each other and stabilize each other's functioning by means of feedback control such that the system, the discrete state of consciousness, maintains its overall patterning of functioning within a varying environment. That is, the parts of the system that comprise a discrete state of consciousness may vary over various ranges if we look at individual components, but the overall, general configuration, the overall pattern of the system remains recognizably the same. As an analogy, you can drive your car faster or slower, with a varying number of passengers in it, or change the color of the seat covers, but it retains its identity as the system we know as an automobile. So one may have variations in consciousness, such as being more or less activated, more or less aware of the environment, etc. that represent quantitative changes in certain subsystems or structures of the system, but they do not change the overall, recognizable configuration of the system as being that of our ordinary [waking] state of consciousness, or, for that matter, of any particular discrete state of consciousness. The way to understand a discrete state of consciousness, then, is not only to investigate the structure of the parts in a more and more molecular way, but also to be aware of the way in which the parts interact and the 'gestalt' system-properties of the configuration that arise that may not be predictable from a knowledge of the parts alone." (Tart, THE BASIC NATURE OF ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS: A SYSTEMS APPROACH)


One question that I bring to this (among many) is whether we can define states postmetaphysically, but in a way that still respects and accounts for the "profundity" and power of certain state realizations -- that still can serve, in a sense, as a horizon of aspiration, without the metaphysical trappings.


I'm exploring a few thoughts in relation to this question and will post more on that soon.  In the meantime, I just wanted to post this initial question and get the feedback of other members here, if you're interested.

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As you know this is one of my favorite topics. The link you have to the prior "status of states" thread only has the first thread. This link has all 3 threads in one document. It takes forever to load the 164 pages, if it will load at all. But if you click on the download link and open in a word document it takes only a few seconds.
Great, thank you for that. One of these days -- and maybe soon, in relation to this new thread -- I plan to read through that entire discussion again.
This excerpt from the SOS threads is pertinent to Bonnie's inquiry in the "context transcending meaning" thread. From Feb 21, 2009, 8:42 AM I said:

"Here are some excerpts from New Developments in Consciousness Research by Vincent Fallio (Nova, 2007). For me it indicates that so-called “spiritual” states of consciousness probably arise in very early levels of consciousness and associated brain structures. Hence there is a very real sense in which “primordial” awareness is ancient, in that it arises from these early brain structures. But it is not timeless or absolute; it is grounded in our psychoneurophysiology.

'On a lower level can be found the state of alertness or of being conscious, which refers to a basic level of consciousness or matrix as a generalized state in which the system is receptive to information. This aspect of consciousness is clearly related to the concept of tonic attention, and is also related to neural mechanisms in the stimulatory reticular system, the thalamus, the limbic system, basal ganglia, and the prefrontal cortex' (81).

"And from the Feb 21, 2009, 3:11 PM post quoting Fallio some more:

'…a basic level of consciousness as a generalized state in which the system is receptive to information. In this sense awareness could be related to a tonic or basic attention; it is therefore important to realize that this type of consciousness should be understood as a 'condition for' and not so much as a function or cognitive process. As a result of this it can be affirmed that this notion of consciousness, this state of being aware, is a state that does not contain information'" (68).
And this post from Feb 22, 2009, 10:51 AM:

From The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness by Philip Zelazo et al. (Cambridge UP, 2007):

"A central goal of the practice of meditation is to transform the baseline state of experience and to obliterate the distinction between the meditative state and the post-meditative state…. Practitioners of Mindfulness/Awareness meditation aim to experience the present nowness, and this type of meditation affects the 'attentional baseline' by lessening distractions or daydream thoughts…. These qualities are thought to gradually evolve into lasting traits.

"From an empirical standpoint, one way to conceptualize these various meditative traits is to view them as developmental changes in physiological baselines in the organism" (528).
Roland Fischer's A Cartography of The Ecstatic and Mystical States might also be useful to bring in. He posits that nondual experiences of 'oneness' are related to integration of cortical and subcortical systems in the brain.
Indeed. And the cortical is the interpretative "I" and the subcortical "self" is ecstasy or samadhi. The latter is an "unlearning" and the former a cultural learning. What he doesn't discuss though is that this "self" experience of oneness requires the "I" to interpret it as part of the "integration." Those "self" experiences prior to the development of the "I" are pre-rational fusion, not trans-rational ecstasy or samadhi. He could use a good dose not of LSD but of Levin here, as well as Wilber.

I also appreciate his graph, with the "I" in the middle of both hyper and hypo scales, with the lemniscate at the bottom showing the inverse relation of ecstasy and samadhi. This is quite similar to my suggestion for the WC lattice, turning the "states" on top into a lemniscate mirror to the "stages" below, all with the "I" as the fulcrum.

And finally I like the notion that it requires dreaming or hallucinatory states, or metaphor or symbol as in art, for the "I" and "self" to communicate. Very much like what I was saying about the "bastard reason" required to apprehend khora.
I'd like to add this to the mix. Hope it's not jumping the gun.

Quoting theurj, The Status of States 2, Mar 10, 2009, 9:32 PM

"I’m not trying to be reductive, saying that meditative states are “just” Godzilla. I admit that I use such hyperbolic rhetoric, but only as a reactive balance to what I perceive of as an exaggeration to the other extreme, enlightenment as an end state. I’m trying to contextualize these states, showing their relative complexity and with what brain waves and areas they correlative. As I explained above, even if these states are the simple feeling of being they are invaluable and serve significant, foundational purposes. But they are not simply this either. They are both God and Godzilla, depending on what we mean by God. I happen to think that meditation training, along with other Buddhist training, actually integrates these lower structures with higher brain and consciousness structures. I’m simply trying to figure out a better, postmeta contextualization for this that makes sense and reduces if not eliminates some of the more dire consequences of a metaphysical interpretation-imposition-inquisition."
Balder opens the SOS thread discussion noting that states are enacted as well, not apriori, absolute, or timeless givens. Now if we look at tonic attention described above it is pre-reflective, something naturally "given" by virtue of our embodiment and with which we are familiar long before language or the "I." In that sense it is apriori and given. It is also close to being a direct correspondence with the natural environment, mediated only by the senses, which are accurate enough to allow for pragmatic interaction (survival) with said environment. But this tonic attention, which we share with the animal world, is not ecstasy or samadhi; it requires an "I" (which is social to begin with) to differentiate and qualify experience as such. And unless you're a wolf baby you're going to get your "I" fairly quickly, only to be alienated from your tonic "self" by formal operations, more or less so depending on your culture. As Levin makes clear, while this "I" might be in part the differentiation from the "self" (and hence gets bad press as antithetical to it), without this "I" to look back and integrate the likes of the tonic "self"* an integrated body-mind is not feasible. Unless you're born a wolf baby and never interact with humans you'll never get this unadulterated tonic attention back. Or you obtain cortical brain damage maybe, which does seem the case upon entering certain integral institutions. And metaphysical interpretations of such state experiences don't help the matter, as if they are separate from stages, a point Balder also makes in his opening statement. (Which metaphysical belief is a symptom of said brain damage.)

* I put "self" in scare quotes because it is ludicrous to call it that prior to the ego, as if it is the type of inherent, timeless, metaphysical and pristine "state" we re-discover like an ultimate Self, a retro-romantic notion. This is part of what needs to change in a postmeta description.
Theurj: What he doesn't discuss though is that this "self" experience of oneness requires the "I" to interpret it as part of the "integration." Those "self" experiences prior to the development of the "I" are pre-rational fusion, not trans-rational ecstasy or samadhi. He could use a good dose not of LSD but of Levin here, as well as Wilber.

Yes, good point, and well said. He was writing before both of them, of course -- at least, before the publication of the books that make these distinctions -- but with the inclusion of these distinctions, I think his model might still be somewhat useful. Looking into this question this morning, I see that James Austin considers Fischer's view in his own reflections on the neurological bases or correlates of mystical state experiences, and he appears to consider Fischer's proposal helpful in some regards, but too simplistic in others. You can read his comments here.

Looking around the net this morning for more material from Austin, I found the following interview at Buddhist Geeks, which you can listen to at the links below. I'll copy the transcript here (which was a little sloppy; I've edited parts of it to make it more readable. I'm not sure about the accuracy of all my edits, though, so a listen to the podcasts is recommended). He is arguing, in much more sophisticated fashion, something I believe I argued early on in a discussion with Julian and/or Kela on the Gaia website: that sustained meditation or spiritual practice has the capacity not only to allow us to "verbally" reconstruct or retranslate experience according to a school's particular doctrinal commitments, but to structurally transform both the organism (brain & body) and the (phenomenal) self-world gestalt.

Part One

Part Two

Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks. This is Vince Horn and I’m here today joined over the phone by James Austin. James, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. It’s really appreciated.

James: My pleasure.

Vince: And just a little bit of your background, so people know your areas of expertise and specialty. You are a trained academic neurologist and researcher and also a long time Zen practitioner and it’s the intersection of those two fields which is really been one of your primary interests and you have written several book on the topic of Zen and the brain, and your most recent one is called Selfless Insight, which will hopefully get into. But first, I thought it’d be a good idea to give people a sense of what your background with the Zen tradition is, because you’ve been practicing for several decades and I thought it’d be cool if we could just hear about how you were first exposed to Zen and as I understand it was while you were in Japan, in Kyoto

James: Right. It came about by accident. I’d gone to Kyoto in 1974, to do research on the brain and I happened, as luck would have it, to be near, and was referred to an English speaking Zen Master Kobori Roshi. Kobori Roshi introduced me to Rinzai Zen and it was this really that captured my imagination, particularly after a few weeks, when during the moments of absorption, in the evening, I dropped into an alternate state of consciousness, in which my physical sense of self dropped down [out] of the center of my awareness and I also entered a state in which there was no sound, a state in which the vision was blacker than black, and a state which was later permeated by a sense of a bliss. For a neurologist, to drop into a state where vision dropped out and hearing dropped out, this was quite an eye opener for me, and led me to believe that there was really something to this Zen meditation and so this continued to enlist my interest in subsequent decades and really strengthened my resolve to continue practice and also my interest in finding out what actually was going on in the brain when one meditates and when one entered these alternative states of consciousness.

Vince: Right. And that is one of the main topics we waned to explore with you because is such an interesting one and maybe we can kick it off by discussing or exploring some of the main distinctions you make in your writing work. And the first one I thought would be interesting to take a look at is a difference between what you’re calling top-down and bottom-up modes of attention. I was wondering if you could say something about that distinction.

James: Yes. These two words top-down and bottom-up have entered into our understanding of attention pretty much in this last decade, and let’s start with top-down attention cause that’s the way we usually begin to meditate.

We usually, literally, look down, usually at some spot that’s on the floor in front of us or the wall and we engage in a concentration that is more voluntary, it’s intentional. It’s executive and it’s more or less exclusive in the sense that we are excluding everything outside that small focus of our original attention. It turns out that when this particular style of attention is studied in normal people, it’s found to engage mostly the regions in the upper more dorsal part of the brain.

And there are two particular areas called modules that are involved in this top-down attention. The first is an important one, in the parietal lobe, and the second area that’s involved in top-down attention is another area in front of that, in the frontal lobe in the region of the frontal eye field, the area that helps us gaze to certain parts of our environment. So these two modules, one parietal, one frontal in the dorsal part of the brain have been identified, particularly by the group at Washington University at St. Louis, Corbetta and Shulman, and these areas respond to cues that the investigators have presented to their subjects that tell the subject what they might be experiencing in a few seconds, where the stimulus might be coming from, and even when the stimulus might be occurring. So this is kind of an intentional, focused, intelligent way that’s voluntary to responding, it turns out, to the opposite side of the environment. So, in these words I’ve been trying to put together what the dorsal attention system does when it engages in what we call top-down attention.

Now, the second kind of attention that we pay, normally, to our environment… actually, it’s a misnomer to use the word “pay” because this is a kind of subtler attention that is reflexive. It’s automatic. When it attends it’s on the lookout for things that might happen unexpectedly. Researchers don’t warn their subjects about stimuli that might be coming in. The subjects pretty much have to pick up these stimuli automatically by staying aware and by staying alert. This has also been called a kind of choiceless awareness, in the sense that the subject is not choosing to pay attention to one focal region, but stays attentive to whatever might happen out in the external environment. And that’s called bottom-up attention.

It turns out that actually the parts of the brain that are responsible for this kind of attentive processing are located at a lower, more ventral level, than the dorsal attention system. The particular areas are mostly in the temporal parietal junction on the right side. And the other right-sided region is in the ventro-lateral frontal cortex, again on the right side. So, what do these mostly right-sided regions do? It turns out that they pay this involuntary, reflexive attention to both the right and left sides of the environment. Now, if you’ve sort of been prepared to accept that your left sided temporal and frontal regions are most concerned with your language operations, with words and your expressive speech, and your receptive speech, it becomes a little easier to understand that the brain delegated to the right side of the brain this important function of paying attention to both sides of the environment.

So to summarize then, we’ve got two different modes of paying attention. One sort of looks down and is mostly in the upper part of the brain. When it looks down it pays attention mostly things that are in front of it. It pays attention to things that we can grasp close to are body like tools, and in doing that by the way, in grasping things close to our body with our hands and fingers using tools we’re mostly relying on our senses of touch in our fingers and proprioception in our fingers. These are clearly parietal lobe oriented functions, so I hope you’re getting the sense that were talking more about a top-down function that is more in the parietal lobe.

On the other hand the central attention system, because it’s mostly coursing through lower parts of the brain, particularly in the lower temporal and lower frontal lobe that’s relying more on our senses of vision and sense of hearing, and these senses are designed to help us detect and identify things that are out of reach of our finger, things at a distance, things way off in the distance. In fact and instead of looking down in order to identify these its efficiencies are designed more in the direction of identifying and seeing and hearing things in the at a distance from us often by looking up or by listening up. So there you are, two forms of attention involving very different parts of the brain and the importance of these for meditators I think with a little reflection you can start beginning to imagine because basically our two different kinds of attentive arts we engage in when we meditate fall into similar categories

Vince: Right

James: Our concentrative meditation is more effortful. It’s more sustained, focused, and exclusive it requires top-down attentive processing. It’s more self-referential. It may evolve into the absorption of the jhānas, and it can be kind of summarized as paying attention. Whereas the more receptive modes of meditation are more unfocused. They’re more effortless. They’re more open. They involve only a bare awareness that expresses bottom-up modes of processing -- they're more involuntary, they're other referential, they're tuned to the world outside and they’re the ones who can shift into our more intuitive and insightful modes of awareness and they’re clearly choiceless because we’re not in there choosing to do with them, they more or less take place automatically. So it’s these two major modes of attention that overlap in significant ways with comparable styles of meditation; the one is concentrated and the other is receptive.

Vince: And this really closely connects to what you call egocentric and allocentric. The certain senses are kind of focused on the self, and then other senses…

James: Right

Vince: …are kind of refocused on the outside, and that seems to bring up this interesting question about duality in the brain.

James: Well, it turns out that the brain really has two ways of perceiving reality. Reality is something, in one sense, that clearly refers back to us as an experiencer, back in the center. That’s one way, that’s called egocentric processing. But there’s another way of processing reality, which is not egocentric. Ego, has as its opposing word, Allo. Allo means “other”. Ego means “self” centered.

Other-centered processing refers to the way we identify things in the outside world, out there, more or less leading [leaving?] them out there where they exist in co-relationships with other objects that are “out there”, away from us. Clearly, our egocentric way of processing things is inherently more subjective, because we’re “in there.” We’re the subject. There is an inherently more objective, that is non-personal, impersonal way of perceiving objects, and that is accomplished by the allocentric processing stream.

Now, here again, the egocentric processing stream, having started visually in the occipital lobe, has its trajectory that moves upward and toward the parietal lobe in the dorsal part of the brain. In contrast, the allocentric processing stream, having also started occipitally, has its trajectory downward moving, toward the inferior temporal region, and then on into the interior frontal lobe. The egocentric processing stream is clearly oriented to serve our own abilities to act in the environment. The allocentric processing stream is much more relative. It can be highly abstract. It depends on vision and hearing. It taps into the stream that asks, “What is it, out there in the outside environment?” In contrast, the egocentric processing stream is designed to say, “Where is it?” and to answer that question, and then to proceed to answer how one should act as a person.

So we’ve got these three general topics. The first is attention. The second relates to meditation, the ways we meditate. The third relates to the question you asked about how do we process reality in two different ways, and there are very important “overlappings” between these three topics. The overlappings show that they are as complimentary as yin and yang. They’re opposite functions, and yet they’re balanced and they operate in a neat, balanced way to help us function both as meditators and as people who are interpreting and acting in the real world.

Vince: So, taking those three things that you talked about. First, the two different kinds of attention, and second, how meditation relates to both top-down and bottom-up attention. Then thirdly, the different ways of processing both self-centered processing and other centered processing, or what you call egocentric and allocentric.

I’m interested in getting into more specifically, in the Zen tradition, what’s often described as kensho or satori. This kind of significant spiritual openings and how some of the stuff that we’re talking about is related to that. But first, I thought, maybe it’d be good to just explore what’s normally meant by kensho and satori, from more of a traditional Zen perspective. That way, we get clear about what’s usually meant by it, and then, we can get in to the ways that you understand it working.

James: Well, these two words are referred to both an earlier and then a later state of development on a long spiritual path. One usually needs to be on such a path for years before one drops into, first, kensho and then satori. I think, most people will regard kensho as an initial or preliminary state of awakening and reserve the term satori for a later and more advanced state of awakening. But then, what do we mean by awakening?

I think, one of the crucial elements in the state of awakening is the realization that there is no central self that is in charge of consciousness at that moment. That there is neither a sense of the physical self back in the center of awareness, nor any sense of an individual with a long history of psychic concerns back in the center of awareness.

You might say, well, if there isn’t any physical self in the center of awareness during this alternate state of consciousness and there isn’t any psychic sense of awareness back in the center, then the individual must be unconscious. Not so. Basically, consciousness goes on – very well, thank you – without any sense of the physical or the psychic sense of self back in the center.

What kind of consciousness is capable then, of being conscious of a single state of consciousness? By definition, thus far, it needs to be an allocentric state of consciousness because there isn’t any self-centered consciousness back in the center doing it. This is where the difference, that we’ve outlined in terms of egocentric and allocentric processing become so crucial for meditators and for Zen meditators, in particular. Because Zen, traditionally, concentrates on the nature of what it is back in the center that is conscious.

It’s throughout the long history of Zen, the word “self” and “selfless” are very important. Zen doesn’t pay very much attention to bliss or to scholastic concepts. It really concentrates on what you learned about consciousness as a result of engaging in attentive processing while you’re on the mat or, equally important, while you’re out in the outside world. What you’ll learn when you’re on the cushion is that you’re engaged in what we might call “attentive processing.” The art of attention begins with really the important part of the order of these two words – attentive processing.

Let’s back up and look at these two words first in order to get further into this topic.

Attentive processing — those two words place attention. First, attention is a vanguard function. Attention is the sharp point at the tip of our mental functioning that pinpoints the target object and holds it so that the rest of brain processing can get in there, adapt it, massage it, and work with it, and interpret it. And that makes attention, both top-down and bottom-up, very important for our understanding [of] what meditation is all about.

Now, getting back to kensho and satori. The thesis that we’re talking about here puts bottom-up attention through the temporal parietal junction and the inferior frontal cortex particularly on the right side. It’s very important preserved modes of attentiveness that help to point allocentric processing in the direction of perceiving the outside world as it really is. This is sort of [a] Zen definition of suchness. It also implies that there is, at the same time, an emptiness of self back in the center. At the same time that suchness, the sense of the inherent things are as they really are out in the outside world without you back in the center experiencing them. We’re trying then to put in words a dual shift in consciousness that drops out the sense of the psyche and the somatic self back in the center and that at the same time enables other referential allocentric processing to proceed in a liberated manner.

So this is what I believe is sort of the essence of what the state of kensho is. Which is a state that one drops into, you can’t get there by any will power. You drop into it and if you’re fortunate and have had a long background in meditative practices before then, such a state has transformative potentials in the sense that once you’ve lost that self-centered I, me, mine, hyper self-centered state, once you’ve lost that once you see what that feels like the relief that attends getting rid of all that limbic baggage. Once you’ve had that experience then you have a rather different perspective on how important you are, and are better prepared to value what’s going on in the world outside of your very own skin. Does that help?

Vince: Yeah, no, that’s great. So it sounds that kind of both a description from the Zen perspective on kensho and then also your hypothesis about what’s actually going on in the brain. The mechanisms leading up to and then the actual event itself. And then you say in your books that you present a lot of testable hypothesis… hypotheses. I’m wondering is this something you think is testable?

James: People are putting a lot of weight and emphasis now-a-days on functional MRI imaging and on simultaneous electroencephalography or magneto encephalography. If people who meditate are studied longitudinally by well established and careful investigators, it should be possible if suitable funding can arise, it should be possible to get a sufficient number of baseline observations on meditators over the years, and then be poised literally, like physicians are poised in an emergency ward, to attend to emergency situations and their patients. It should be possible to have the technologies poised to study a mediator who happens during, let’s say a meditative retreat to undergo an episode of kensho or satori. And with the suitable instrumentation, and the suitable technology, and the suitable experimental design, and the suitable human researchers on hand.

Because kensho has an immediate residual that will last for many minutes [if] not hours. It should be possible to define what changes have just taken place in that subject's brain. To do that of course, you need to have a new baseline, so let’s say at the start of a one-week retreat. So if during the retreat, the meditator dropped into kensho, you should be Johnny-on-the-spot and able to tell whatever changes that might have occurred in the brain, in the interim. So I think this is feasible and I think sooner or later, maybe not in this decade, which were almost out of, but in subsequent decades… I think it should be possible, theoretically, to determine more about the underpinnings of kensho and satori.

It would be my thought that when this happy event occurs, the researchers will discover that the self-referential regions have dropped out of the picture, to a substantial degree. And that the bottom-up, allocentric attentive processing, will be more or less in the foreground. This is not, by the way, the impression that we have when we’re usually conscious. We don’t have that no-self perspective. What we do have is an entirely self-centered perspective that keeps us thoroughly convinced that we’re in charge of all of our perceptions. Well, that’s not the way the brain is set up to operate in its lower right side. That’s one of the reasons why when kensho does occur, it’s so startling and so novel and so fresh and so unexpected. Because when allocentric perception is liberated and no-self isn’t around there to take credit for it, it’s a very startling experience for the person who is undergoing that experience impersonally.

Vince: So the way I am understanding is that, there these, kind of, non-event, events. There is no one there to observe or experience them because like you’re saying allocentric processing has been liberated.

James: It’s basically… it’s not self-centered.

Vince: Gotcha! And so given that it sounds like what you’re describing is something of a temporary realization that has larger implications. I’m wondering if you have any hypothesis for how the brain or the system of someone who has been meditating for a long time, and who has undergone a few of these shifts, would there be a long-term way in which their brain is kind of, for lack of a better word, rewiring itself or changing in some way?

James: It’s not a very bad word that you’re putting into a phrase because the evidence, I think, is consistent with the fact that the brain is rewiring itself. The brain of a sage person I say certainly is pursuing impulses through rather different pathways and experiencing the world phenomenologically, in a rather different way from how they started out, many decades before. So rewiring I think is an apt phrase.

Your question was, how does it come about? In advanced, rare sage [stages?] [a] person does see the world differently and does respond differently. I think we have a few clues theoretically at least, and they’re again based on some of the functional anatomy of the brain that has been unveiled just in the last decade or so. An important way to look at this, I think, is to take a look farther away from the cortex and drop down and see what things are like at the level of the thalamus.

The thalamus is a paired structure in the center of the brain. And it’s a weigh station if you will, a gateway if you will, through which all of our perception, with the exception of smell, must proceed on the way from our basic sensory nerves up to the cortical level of the brain.

So, the thalamus, as the gatekeeper and as the weigh station to our more sophisticated cortical processing, exercises a crucial influence in consciousness. It basically is organized in two major layers, which we’ll call the dorsal tier or thalamic nuclei, and the ventral tier or the thalamic nuclei. Don’t be afraid of these two words, dorsal and ventral, because as we’ve just explained earlier, there is the dorsal part of the cortex as well as the ventral part of the cortex. And, it turns out that the dorsal part of the thalamus interacts with the dorsal part of the cortex and in ways that are very illuminating.

Let’s start with the back of the dorsal thalamus, a very big nucleus called the dorsal pulvinar. It’s our major association nucleus for much of what we hear and see and perceive in the back of our brain. What does it do? Well, here we are looking at this outside world with a blizzard of potential stimuli out there. And, based on all of it’s associations with the cortex, and all of the information that it receives from lower down. The pulvinar assigns salience that is instant meaning to a certain target that it detects in the stimulus array in the outside world. And, that assignment of salience allows attention to focus on it and put that sensory target in the foreground of perception. And, at the same time, it relegates all of the surrounding stuff out there that would be confused with that target, into the background. So, this is how you recognize a friend’s face when you’re out in a crowd, pick it out automatically, it pops out at you. That’s what the dorsal pulvinar helps you do.

Well, right in front on the dorsal pulvinar is another dorsal nucleus called the lateral posterior nucleus. What does that do? It’s nicely interconnected with the superior parietal lobule. The superior parietal lobule is our major somato-sensory association nucleus. It’s responsible for putting together our senses of arms and legs and backs and heads and everything into an organized body schema. In other words, it’s the cortical association center for our physical sense of self, our soma.

Not surprisingly, the superior parietal lobule is right up there in the parietal lobe, which is in the center of the egocentric processing stream. So, here’s the anchor that helps us have the feeling that we’re a physical, experiencing object back in the center of all of our perceptions. So much for our somatic sense of self and its perceptions.

But, even more important, because we’re psychic beings, are the three nuclei in the dorsal part of the thalamus that lie in front of these two nuclei. Each of these is a limbic nucleus of the thalamus, so called. What does that mean? A limbic nucleus of the thalamus funnels all the information from our limbic system, and processes it on its way, and exports it up to the cortex. These three limbic nuclei of the thalamus are all there in the dorsal part of the thalamus, ready to export all of our fears and our limbic-oriented over-conditioned histories up to the cortex to cause us untold suffering.

Okay, so if the thalamus and its dorsal aspect has so much self going on, and so much subjective self and suffering going on, and exporting it up to the cortex, how do you get rid of all that? What does meditative practice do? What does kensho or satori do?

Part of the answer, I think, depends on how we interpret something called “triggers”. We haven’t used the word trigger thus far Vince, but triggers are fairly important. Zen history puts a great stock on triggers. It turns out that a triggering stimulus is so effective that it can cause the dorsal thalamus to become deactivated. And when the dorsal thalamus is deactivated by the inhibitory nucleus that caps it, then the corresponding dorsal parts of the cortex are also deactivated.

If you’ve been able to follow the foregoing description of what goes on in the parietal and frontal lobes in the dorsal part, you may recall that these are the part of our egocentric self-processing pathway. So what we’re talking about here is an inhibition of the dorsal thalamus caused by an overlying inhibitory nucleus, a reticular nucleus, that is then manifest as a deactivation of the self-referential parts of the brain up in the cortex, dorsally.

This, I believe, is the explanation for why a trigger can be so important as a catalyst that successively sets in motion the sequence of changes that can deactivate the physiological core of our egocentric self and spare, by the way, the ventral parts of the thalamus, through which allocentric processing can still proceed through the lower parts of the temporal lobe and the lower parts of the frontal lobe.

Vince: Okay, very cool. Thank you. Appreciate that explanation. That’s interesting.

James: It’s complicated, but we are talking about the brain…

Vince: Yeah.

James: …and there isn’t anything simple about the brain…

Vince: Right.

James: …normally, and therefore there isn’t anything simple that’s going to explain either Zen, or the alternate states of consciousness that can occur in Zen training.

Vince: Just to backtrack a little bit before we kind of wrap up the discussion…

James: Uh-huh.

Vince: …you and I were talking before the interview and discussing, some of the questions, and you mentioned that it’d be really important to make a distinction between what you’d call quickenings or absorptions, and kensho or satori. That these are two different things, and it’s important to make the distinction, especially for practitioners.

James: Yes, it is. When we’re talking about kensho and satori, we’re really talking about states of consciousness that are advanced and that generally require, at least on the meditative path, years of practice for them to happen. Much more commonly experienced, are lesser states of consciousness — little quickenings which may be hallucinatory, little states of elevated mood that may occur during retreats, little states of epiphanies where minor insightful, more intuitive, grasping of ideas coming in. These are all very common on the meditative path and many people experience one or another level of these quickening after they have been on a retreat or two or while they are actually on the retreat.

Often, however, the episodes of kensho or satori that we are talking referring to [do] not occur during the retreat, they occur after the retreat. Meanwhile, to the uninitiated, people all over of world, are naturally interested in being awakened or enlightened. Meanwhile there is a lot of confusion about the lesser alternate states of consciousness, the quickening or the absorption.

The internal absorption that I mentioned at the start of this interview, the one where vision and hearing dropped out and my physical sense of self dropped out… It is possible, I think, to interpret these as due to inhibitory effects of the reticular nucleus. On certain nuclei in the lower back of the thalamus, not the dorsal part, but down in the much more ventral parts and most posterior parts of the thalamus, because there are two falamic nuclei called the lateral janiculet, which is important for vision, and the medial janiculet, which is important for hearing. And just a little gabo inspired inhibitory effects of the reticular nucleus can deactivate these to relay nuclei in the lower back of the thalamus and temporarily disconnect visual processing and auditory hearing processing.

Moreover, just in front of the ventral posterior lateral and medial nuclei and these nuclei and these on each side are responsible for sensations from one’s body and one’s head. The thalamus is set up to be able to block sensory transmission in ways that are very relevant to the absorptions. But these are preliminary, and the absorptions don’t have the potential of changing traits of consciousness and performance. The absorptions do, on the other hand, inspire one’s curiosity; it certainly inspired mine to go further and to inquire what is going on during these meditative changes.

So let’s not down play the absorptions and let’s not downplay the more concentrated modes of attention or meditation, because these do help the amplitude of conscious awareness and the vividness of it and the sustainability of attentive processing in ways that are very important.

On the other hand let’s not minimize the receptive kinds of open awareness that one can practice when you are off the mat, out of cushion, in the outdoors, being on bird walking expeditions, keeping your eyes and ears wide open for the next bird that might happen to come along unexpectedly and in particularly if you are out at night looking up into the dark sky to see the rising of the moon which was a important part of the Zen cultural traditions in the old days.

Also, let’s not look over either the fact that 2500 years ago or so, it was when Siddhartha looked up and saw the planet Venus as the morning star that the legends tells us that he was enlightened. So looking up may be one of the important ways that a trigger can catalyze states of consciousness.

[Balder's note: Interestingly, on Dzogchen retreats I've attended, upward-directed eye gazes are used deliberately at key junctures of practice.]
Theurj: Balder opens the SOS thread discussion noting that states are enacted as well, not apriori, absolute, or timeless givens. Now if we look at tonic attention described above it is pre-reflective, something naturally "given" by virtue of our embodiment and with which we are familiar long before language or the "I." In that sense it is apriori and given.

Yes, I agree. If we want to be self-reflexive about our model-building, then we can acknowledge that the notions of "nondual states" or "pre-reflective modes of tonic attention" are themselves culture- and tradition-specific enactments. But within the model that we are trying to articulate, I am perfectly comfortable calling this form of attention an organismic (or holonic?) a priori.

Lol, quoting Theurj: "I’m not trying to be reductive, saying that meditative states are 'just' Godzilla. I admit that I use such hyperbolic rhetoric, but only as a reactive balance to what I perceive of as an exaggeration to the other extreme, enlightenment as an end state. I’m trying to contextualize these states, showing their relative complexity and with what brain waves and areas they correlative. As I explained above, even if these states are the simple feeling of being they are invaluable and serve significant, foundational purposes. But they are not simply this either. They are both God and Godzilla, depending on what we mean by God. I happen to think that meditation training, along with other Buddhist training, actually integrates these lower structures with higher brain and consciousness structures. I’m simply trying to figure out a better, postmeta contextualization for this that makes sense and reduces if not eliminates some of the more dire consequences of a metaphysical interpretation-imposition-inquisition."

Thanks for highlighting this, Lol. I don't regard it as premature at all. I think this initial sort of gathering of perspectives will be helpful in articulating a clear (if still provisional) postmetaphysical model of states and state-training. From my side, while I think the neuroscience perspectives are valuable and important to bring in, especially in the interest of postmetaphysically situating an account of spiritual experience, I also am not interested in an account which only speaks in neuroscientific terms and ignores the rich phenomenological "pointing out" instructions of the contemplative traditions themselves.
His top-down and bottom-up attention are consistent with my understanding. However I question a couple of things. 1) He emphasizes the bottom-up as indicative of "awakening", of "perceiving the outside world as it really is," and 2) this prejudice misses the significance of an ego-allo integration. Both of these items are metaphysical interpretations in an otherwise accurate and useful phenomenological and psychoneurological perspective.
I've also been revisiting the thread on Epstein, Psychoanalysis and Buddhism.

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