Are state-specific sciences of advanced meditative states possible?
Unpublished revision to presentation at the Towards A Science of Consciousness II Conference, 1998Copyright © 2006 by Michael Nagel. All Rights Reserved.
Tart has proposed the state-specific science strategy as a method of researching discrete altered states of consciousness (d-ASC), such as the advanced meditative states that expert meditators report. To obviate a methodological problem that confounds consciousness research, that being a subject’s privileged access to his own consciousness, Tart suggests that the scientist himself enter the d-ASC that has been targeted for research. Therein the scientist would conduct such activities as public observation, consensual validation, theorizing, and the testing of resultant hypotheses. In the several decades since his proposal, the state-specific science method has been applied with minimal success to the research of such d-ASCs as hypnotic trance, drug intoxication, and lucid dreaming. An examination of the applicability of the state-specific science method to the research of advanced meditative states partially explains why the method has not been applied with greater success. Advanced meditative states are reported to be characterized by qualities of nonreplicabilty, transience, nondiscursivity, and vulnerability to the effects of experimentation. An exceedingly rare meditative skill is required before a meditator can reproduce a meditative state at will. A similarly exquisite level of skill is required to sustain the duration of a meditative state. It is unlikely that a state-specific scientist would acquire the meditative skill required to reproduce a meditative d-ASC at will and for a specified duration, as would be needed to conduct state-specific research. Moreover many meditative d-ASCs are reported to be mutually exclusive with discursive thought. Such d-ASCs would terminate with the onset of the discursive thought that is required for the activities of public observation, consensual validation, theorizing, and hypothesis testing that the state-specific strategy envisions occurring in-state. Furthermore, many meditative d-ASCs may be vulnerable to the effects of experimentation; the very act of in-state experimentation may alter the state, as when the single-pointed concentration that a meditative d-ASC may require is broken to attend to an experimental procedure. If the state-specific science strategy has been applied with some success to some states and not others, perhaps this suggests that the method is not a panacea for the general research of altered states of consciousness, but rather a method whose applicability is itself determined by the intrinsic characteristics of the state that is being researched.
The state-specific science strategy is an innovative first-person research strategy that seeks to circumvent some of the methodological obstacles to scientific inquiry that are presented by a research participant’s privileged access to the participant’s own subjective consciousness. The strategy suggests that, if a scientist cannot objectively observe the content and process of a participant’s discrete altered state of consciousness (d-ASC), then let the scientist train himself or herself to induce that d-ASC, enter it, and therein make the trained observations from which a science specific to that d-ASC then can be developed. For example, the strategy has been incompletely applied with relative success to research on lucid dreaming (Tart, 1996).
However some critical thinking suggests that the initial partial successes of the state-specific science strategy may be due not to the robustness of the strategy, rather they may be due to the characteristics of particular d-ASCs. The following discussion suggests that the characteristics of some advanced meditative states (AMSCs) render the state-specific science research strategy inapplicable to them. Therefore, until the effects of these characteristics can be obviated, there cannot be state-specific sciences of these AMSCs. To substantiate this claim, I will
1. Synopsize the state-specific science research method
2. Survey 5 characteristics of AMSCs that thwart the method
3. Compare the constraints imposed by these characteristics to the requirements of state-specific research.
The State-Specific Science Research Strategy
Tart (1975a; 1986; 1971b; 1972; 1975c; 1996) describes a state-specific science as a scientific inquiry into a particular d-ASC when any or all of the scientific activities of public observation, consensual validation, theorizing, and the testing of resultant hypotheses are conducted by scientists while the scientists themselves are in that target d-ASC. The state-specific science strategy is commonly understood to imply that the scientist himself will serve as a participant-observer. Yet the strategy allows for data collection from other participants who experience the target d-ASC, given that the nonparticipant observer will perform some other activities of science making, such as validation or theorizing, while in the target d-ASC. Potentially there are as many state-specific sciences as there are d-ASCs.
The sine qua non of the state-specific science strategy is that the researcher must not only be trained in the skills of science but also he must be capable of inducing the target d-ASC in order to therein carry on his or her science making activities. A researcher cannot be a state-specific scientist without possessing the capability of inducing the target d-ASC, because only then can he enter the target d-ASC to carry on scientific activity while in that state.
Tart (1975a; 1986; 1971b; 1972; 1975c; 1996) hypothesizes that state-specific science will be characterized by state-specific knowledge and state-specific communication. State-specific knowledge is unique to and knowable only when in a target d-ASC. In the normal waking state, such knowledge may be forgotten, unknown, or unverifiable. For example, Stace (Stace, 1960) quotes St. Xavier:
It seemed to me that a veil was raised before the eyes of my spirit, and the truth of the human sciences, even those which I had never studied, became manifest to me in an infused intuition. This state of intuition lasted about twenty-four hours; then, as if the veil had fallen again, I found myself as ignorant as before. (p. 279)
Similarly, if the experience in the d-ASC is characterized by a logic that is unknown to our normal waking consciousness, then the state-specific knowledge claims that are made in that d-ASC may be incomprehensible to another scientist who is in normal waking consciousness. A humorous example is Ludwig’s (1990) admission that in his waking state the phrase “Please flush after using” just did not possess the same cosmic profundity that he experienced while being drug intoxicated.
Tart’s (1975a) conception of state-specific science making is quite practical. Consider this example of what is possible when two or more scientists are capable of simultaneously entering into a targeted discrete state of consciousness (d-SoC):
Let us now consider the case in which a scientist enters d-SoC #2
The state-specific science strategy would appear to provide a credible research strategy to circumvent the problem of privileged access to a participant’s consciousness that stymies consciousness research. If the trained observer does not share the participant’s privileged access to the participant’s stream of consciousness, then let the trained observer become the participant. Furthermore the state-specific science research strategy would seem to answer the calls of meditation researchers (Shapiro, 1980; Shimano and Douglas, 1975; Walsh, 1984) for experimenters who are more knowledgeable or who are practitioners of contemplative traditions.
Nevertheless the state-specific science strategy is not without problems. While the next section explores some problems that are specific to the characteristics of AMSCs, let me here document several more generic problems. The state-specific science strategy is especially vulnerable to the unconscious psychological effects that ensue from the loss of observer’s objectivity (Tart, 1971b). Of course, arguments more recent than Tart’s state-specific science proposal have undermined the epistemology of strict scientific objectivity. Yet those arguments are further exacerbated by a state-specific science strategy that promotes a participant-observer role. Therefore experimenter bias is a basic concern (Shapiro and Giber, 1978). But potentially most damning is Ferrer’s (1995) criticism of inner empiricism. He suggests that whether the constructivist interpretation of mystical experience as a product of an individual’s psychosocial history is true, or the perennialist interpretation of mystical experience as consisting of a universal core interpreted differently by local cultures is true, in either case there cannot be an inner science that leads to the apodictic truth to which empirical strategies, such as Tart’s, might aspire.
Although Tart specifically recommends state-specific science as a strategy for the research on meditative states, there have been very few participant-observer studies of meditation. Tart (1971a) and Walsh (1977; 1978) have recounted their experiences with meditation practices. Hendlin (1979) and King (1961) have reported on their experience at meditation retreats. Shapiro (1980) has described an empirical study of his own meditation practice. Yet none of these studies targeted a specific, meditative d-ASC for study. Kiefer (1971) did target samadhi as a d-ASC to be researched, but he was unable to induce it over 14 days. Also Patrik (1994) performed a phenomenological reduction on her own meditative experience. Although these studies did apply a participant-observer design, none could be construed as an example of Tart’s state-specific science strategy.
In fact, I am unaware of any study of any AMSC in which a participant-observer targeted a specific meditative d-ASC for study, then entered that d-ASC, and either collected data, or theorized, or tested hypotheses, or collaborated with other in-state participant-observers for consensual validation. Moreover, Tart (personal communication, June 10, 1996) is unaware of any d-SoC other than drug intoxication that has been researched by two or more state-specific scientists who have simultaneously entered the d-SoC and collaborated in-state as per the state-specific science strategy. Since Tart’s first state-specific science proposal, 25 years have passed and almost 2,000 meditation studies have been published. Given that not one of these studies has applied the state-specific science strategy, perhaps we should more closely examine whether the state-specific science strategy is the panacea for AMSC research that it once appeared to be. Certainly the characteristics of AMSCs suggest that the state-specific science strategy may, in fact, be inapplicable to many advanced states of meditation.
Some Characteristics of Advanced Meditative States
The experiences of mystics, meditators, and contemporary researchers suggest that the intrinsic natures of many AMSCs may significantly impede in-state data collection, just as the natures of ESP and mystical phenomena have frustrated laboratory research efforts. The following section discusses these significant and frequently reported AMSC characteristics: rarity of advanced meditation skill, nonreplicability, transience, nondiscursiveness, and vulnerability to the effects of research activity.
Rarity of Advanced Meditation Skill
As anyone who has ever tried to concentrate upon a single thought for only 60 seconds will testify, meditation is a skill. If meditation is a skill, then AMSC state-specific science research requires state-specific scientists who are sufficiently skilled so as to be able to induce whichever AMSC that they have targeted for research. Although general meditation research sometimes requires participants who are advanced meditators, the locating of sufficiently skilled participants in the general population is a major methodological problem. How much more difficult then is the locating of sufficiently skilled meditators among the population of scientists?
Imagine, for example, the level of skill that is required of a meditator who has perfected the realization of the more advanced states of Tibetan Tantric meditation, when Brown (1984) writes about the basic stages of practice, “The yogi cannot advance to the fundamental [italics added] concentrative meditations until he can uninterruptedly maintain awareness of all his inner experience and outer actions 24-hours per day” (p. 289). How frequently will we find such an ability to concentrate in the population of scientists, let alone the general population of meditators? Persons who possess the meditation skill that is required to induce the more exalted AMSCs are as rare to find as those states are difficult to realize.
Just how rare in the general population are participants whose religious genius can induce the most extraordinary AMSCs, such as Buddhist nirvana? Concerning the arhat, or person who has attained the fourth and final stage of enlightenment in the vipassana tradition, the Buddha (1985) notes, “The one who has conquered himself is a far greater hero than one who has defeated a thousand times a thousand men” (p. 55). Similarly, Goleman (1972b) reports of the attainment of other supernormal capabilities associated with meditation skill that the classic Buddhist Visuddhimagga text estimates, “Only one person in 100,000 or one million will achieve the prerequisite level of mastery” (p. 16). Granted these are speculative remarks, nevertheless they are suggestive.
Nan (1993), a Buddhist-Taoist teacher, confirms the rarity of high attainment, “Out of ten thousand men who cultivate practice, not one realizes the fruit of enlightenment” (p. 171). Kornfield (1992), a psychologist, former Buddhist monk, and meditation instructor, concurs, noting about the third stage of enlightenment in the vipassana tradition that, “I’ve probably met only a handful of people, in all of my travels around the Buddhist world, that would claim to have that level of experience” (p. 24).
Granted, not every AMSC to be researched requires the same meditation skill as does nirvana and not every AMSC study requires that its participants be as enlightened as a Ramakrishna. Nevertheless empirical studies corroborate the claims of contemplative traditions that the meditation skill required to induce even the less extraordinary AMSCs is found only infrequently in the population of meditators. Brown and Engler (1986b) reported that of 30 participants attending a vipassana meditation retreat during which they meditated for 16 hours a day for 3 months, one half of the participants showed no formal progress, 3 perfected “access concentration” (a beginning level of concentration), and 1 attained “equanimity.”
Kornfield (1992) reported that at 3-month vipassana retreats, of 100 retreatants, perhaps 20 will experience “pseudo-nirvana” (a minor state) and 12 will experience “high equanimity” (1 stage short of stream entry, as described by the classical texts). Elsewhere he (1976) estimates that 95 percent of 3-month retreatants will experience various blissful phenomena associated with jhanic concentration; 35 percent will report very high states of concentration and initial insight. He (1976) also reports anecdotally that of 200 persons attending meditation retreats at the Burmese monastery where he taught and studied for a year, perhaps 3 percent experienced all the stages of insight reported in the classic Buddhist literature. So too, Goldstein, a vipassana meditation instructor, suggests that of 100 three-month retreatants, perhaps 1, or maybe 2, will experience the initial nirvana moment of stream entry (J. Goldstein, personal communication, May 27, 1996).
There is some evidence that suggests Asian meditators may develop meditation skill more rapidly than their Western counterparts. Several studies report that, compared to Western meditation students, significantly more Asian vipassana meditation retreatants attain the higher levels of concentration and insight (Brown and Engler, 1984; Engler, 1983; Engler, 1986; Epstein and Lieff, 1986; Kornfield, 1979). For example, Engler (1986) reported, “Asian [vipassana] practitioners progressed much more quickly, even though they spent considerably less time in the intensive practice in retreat settings. The majority had done only one or two 2-week retreats before experiencing First Enlightenment” (p. 27). Indeed Brown and Engler (Brown and Engler, 1986a) reported of their Asian participants,
According to teacher ratings, 5 subjects had attained first enlightenment, 4 had attained second, and 1 had attained third. In interesting contrast to the Western group of meditators, most of these Asian yogis had a minimum of prior retreat experience. Most of their practice was done at home in the context of daily family life and vocational activities. In all but one case, the actual experience of enlightenment did occur during a retreat, but a retreat of short duration and often the only retreat the individual had done. The length of time from first beginning practice to the experience of enlightenment ranged from six days to three years. (p. 172)
Nonreplicability of AMSCs
The experience of researchers who have attempted to study the state effects of the more extraordinary AMSCs (e.g., samadhi) suggests that meditators cannot reliably replicate these AMSCs under laboratory conditions, unless they possess exceptional meditation skill. Yet, even when using skilled participants, there may be problems. Not one of Wenger and Bagchi’s (1961) 45 skilled yogis was able to replicate his or her highest meditation experience under laboratory conditions. Similarly, Green and Green (1977) observed that the highly skilled Swami Rama had greater difficulty generating some physiological phenomena under laboratory conditions than when outside the lab. The problem of replicating AMSCs under experimental conditions is so pervasive that M. Murphy (personal communication, May 24, 1996) argues that it is one of the two foremost difficulties affecting AMSC research (the other being the difficulty of locating qualified participants). Can we expect state-specific scientists to be more capable of replicating AMSCs which “professional” meditators cannot replicate?
The nonreplicability of AMSCs may derive in part from some of the same reasons that have deterred the research on other exceptional human capabilities. Farthing (1992) observes that the scientific research on mystical experiences has been hampered because of the difficulty of reliably reproducing mystical experiences in the laboratory. So too, Tart (1975b) reports that the research on psi phenomena has been obstructed, because “they are elusive and generally will not appear on demand in our laboratories in any quantity” (p. 5).
The parallels between psi phenomena, mystical experience, and AMSCs suggest that some AMSCs may not be replicable in the laboratory. Like the ability to induce psi phenomena upon demand, the ability to induce some extraordinary AMSCs at will is an exceptional human capability possessed by the rarest of participants. Like psi phenomena and mystical experience, AMSCs may be less accessible in disciplined inquiry. For example, M. Murphy (personal communication, May 24, 1996) observes that meditators may experience difficulty generating AMSCs, because their concentration can be distracted by the physical discomfort and novelty of unnatural laboratory conditions such as meditating with thermometers inserted and 32 electrodes with wires attached over one’s body.
Of the factors that might contribute to the nonreplicability of some AMSCs, the vulnerability of AMSCs to the effects of research activity will be discussed separately in this section. And, I previously discussed the rarity of meditation skill that is required simply to experience a target AMSC, let alone to replicate it at will. Remaining for immediate consideration is the possibility that some AMSCs may not be reproducible, because their mystical nature is presumed to confer an attribute of spontaneity.
Reports of spontaneous mystical experiences are commonplace in the world’s mystical and religious literature. For example, both James’s (1902/1982) and Stace’s (1960) studies of religious and mystical experience are replete with personal accounts of spontaneous mystical experience. The extrovertive mystical experience is often reported to have occurred without prior volition, conscious preparation, or intentional activity. An example is this often cited passage describing Bucke’s illumination (1901/1969):
He [Bucke] and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. They parted at midnight, and he had a long drive in a hansom. His mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quiet, almost passive, enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were, by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire – some sudden conflagration in the great city. The next (instant) he knew that the light was within himself. (unnumbered page of the chapter, “The Man and the Book”)
Such accounts of spontaneous mystical experience tend to confirm Maslow’s conclusion (1968) that “peaks are not planned or brought about by design; they happen” (p. 113).
But is this so? It may instead be an inductive fallacy to generalize from the large number of personal accounts of spontaneous mystical experience that occur in the world’s religious and mystical literature to the conclusion that mystical experiences (and, by inference, AMSCs) are characterized by intrinsic spontaneity. Such a presumption is reminiscent of other instances when ignorance of causal conditions resulted in a false interpretation of phenomena, for example, when magical powers were attributed to ancient priests and priestesses who successfully predicted solar eclipses. Rather than presume that mystical experiences possess a magical spontaneity, perhaps we should instead presume that, at present, we are ignorant of the causal conditions that result in extrovertive mystical experience. Were the causal conditions of extrovertive mystical experience known, then perhaps we could induce such experiences at will. The discussions of AMSCs found in contemplative literature certainly suggest that this is true of AMSCs.
In contrast to the presumption of the spontaneity of mystical experiences (and AMSCs), the Theravadin Buddhist tradition presumes that samatha and vipassana AMSCs are reproducible, at will, for whatever duration the meditator intends. There is only one stipulation: The meditator must possess the requisite mastery of the target AMSC.
In the Theravadin tradition, learning to master a meditative state of consciousness is often described as a multistage process that develops deftness in a variety of meditative skills. At first a new AMSC is experienced by the naive meditator as a spontaneous breakthrough of a new dimension of awareness. The meditator’s prior preparation and meditation skill has resulted in a temporary constellation of psychophysiological factors that are the requisite conditions of the AMSC. My own experience of more than 20 years of daily meditation confirms that the initial experiences of a jhana for a person such as myself are fortuitous happenstances that demonstrate a meditation skill not unlike finding oneself hit in the head by a fallen meteor. But, for want of experience and skill, the temporary constellation of factors is unstable, and the new AMSC quickly passes, sometimes in an instant. With continued practice, the new AMSC returns with increasing frequency. With each new occurrence, the meditator further learns to discriminate the AMSC’s constituent factors and to consciously manipulate those factors. Thereby he or she learns how to induce and to stabilize the constellation of psychophysiological conditions that are the AMSC’s prerequisites.
In addition to the ability to stabilize an AMSC, before a meditator is deemed to have mastered an AMSC, Theravadin Buddhism requires that he or she demonstrate other meditative competencies. For example, the Patisambhida-mattta sutra, lists five skills that the meditation adept must master, before the meditator can be said to have mastered a jhana (Cousins, 1973). The meditator must also be able to (a) induce access concentration at will, within seconds; (b) choose which subsequent jhana will be the target state; (c) determine the length of time that the jhanic experience will last; (d) withdraw quickly from the jhana; and e) continuously maintain within consciousness the requisite psychophysiological factors. The meditator who possesses these five additional skills may be said to have mastered a given jhana; that is, at will he can enter and exit a target AMSC within seconds, and he can remain in that AMSC for a predetermined amount of time.
Still the Theravadin tradition describes even more accomplished degrees of AMSC mastery. In the Mahanidana sutra, for example, the Buddha describes the abilities of one who is “both-ways liberated”: When once a monk attains these eight liberations [jhanas] in forward order, in reverse order, and in forward- and-reverse order, entering them and emerging from them as and when, and for as long as he wishes, and has gained by his own super-knowledge here and now both the destruction of the corruptions and the uncorrupted liberation of heart and liberation by wisdom, that monk is called “both-ways-liberated.” (Walshe, 1995, pp. 229-230)
The assertion that the mastery of an AMSC results in the ability to enter and to exit a target AMSC at will and for as long as one wishes is not unique to Buddhism. Other contemplative traditions attest to this possibility. For example, Goleman (1972b) describes the mastery of Hindu nirvikalpa samadhi (described in Patanjali’s yoga sutras,(Taimni, 1961)) as the ability to enter and exit that samadhi at will.
Transience of AMSCs
Transience, or the limited temporal duration of a mystical experience beyond a couple of seconds or minutes or rarely longer, was considered by William James (1902/1982) to be one of the four defining characteristics of mystical states. Like nonreplicability, the presumed transience of AMSCs could profoundly circumscribe the possibilities of state-specific science data collection. Can we, for example, reliably measure the EEG of an AMSC occurrence that is so momentary as to result in a measurement that is indistinguishable from instrumental noise? Or while in-state, can we describe the lived experience of an AMSC that may have ceased at the very instant that it was cognized?
Like the reported nonreplicability of AMSCs, Eastern contemplative literature suggests that the transience of some AMSCs also is correlated with meditation skill. For example, Goleman (1972a) observes that the initial experience of Buddhist jhana is momentary. However, he continues to note that with continued practice the meditator can gain such mastery of a jhana that he can experience a jhana for a predetermined period of time.
Whether an AMSC’s transience is inversely correlated to meditation skill and how long an AMSC can be sustained are, of course, questions for research. Yet the Eastern contemplative literature suggests some interesting possibilities. Nan (Nan, 1993) reports several instances of samadhi lasting for several days, such as when Hu, the governor of the P’ing-yang, remained in samadhi for 5 days. Goleman (1979) indicates that nirodha can be sustained for up to 7 days. And some contemplative traditions teach that the later stages of contemplative development are marked by the ability to sustain exalted AMSCs outside of meditation. Along these lines, Ramana Maharshi (Goleman, 1972b) distinguished nirvikalpa samadhi from sahaj samadhi by noting that sahaj samadhi is attained when the meditator can no longer distinguish between samadhi and the waking state. Perhaps the extreme of such spiritual realization is represented by Ramakrishna who was reported to have uninterruptedly sustained a state of identification with Brahman for 6 months (Stace, (1960).
If the transience of AMSCs is mediated by a participant’s meditation skill, then our discussion again underscores how critical it is to locate participants who possess the requisite meditation skill. But what are the prospects for state-specific data collection, if state-specific scientists who possess the skill required to sustain the duration of an otherwise transient AMSC cannot be found? Then, I believe the possibilities would be severely limited. State-specific qualitative research would be prohibited. L. Patrik (personal communication, July 15, 1996) notes, for example, that the transience of an AMSC would prevent a phenomenological eidetic variation upon the AMSC, if the AMSC could not be sustained for the duration of the inquiry.
The rarity of meditation skill, the nonreplicability of AMSCs, and the transience of AMSCs are characteristics that pertain possibly to the efficiencies or inefficiencies, as the case may be, of the training programs of contemplative traditions. As such, I am not asserting that it is impossible for there to be state-specific sciences of AMSCs that are characterized by these attributes. Rather it is highly unlikely. The following two characteristics pertain to the intrinsic nature of some AMSCs.
Nondiscursiveness of AMSCs
In reports of mystical and contemplative experiences, it is often mentioned that such states are nondiscursive. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines discursive as, “1. passing aimlessly from one subject to another; digressive; rambling. 2. proceeding by reasoning or argument; not intuitive.” Both of these denotations are applicable to the study of mystical and contemplative practices. The former meaning is inherent to the discussion of the nondiscursiveness of AMSCs that are induced by concentrative practices (e.g., samadhi); failure to maintain concentration (to restrain the aimless wandering of thought) results in the abatement of the AMSC. The latter meaning is inherent to the discussion of nondualistic AMSCs wherein the subject-object distinction is lost; the language and logic with which one reasons and analyzes typically is dualistic.
What then are the possibilities for AMSC state-specific qualitative data collection and other science making activities, if these discursive activities possibly can result in the cessation of a nondiscursive AMSC that is being researched? The rambling nature of some verbal self-reports, the logic with which subjective experience is analyzed and organized for presentation, the language with which the self-reports are constructed, the activities required for public observation, consensual validation, theorizing, and hypothesis testing-all these may alter or terminate the AMSC being researched. So disturbing are the implications of the nondiscursiveness of AMSCs for research, that Shapiro (1980) has described trying to research nondiscursive AMSCs as a “scientist’s nightmare.”
The nondiscursiveness (in both senses of the word) of various mystical and contemplative states of consciousness are attested to by many Eastern and Western contemplative traditions [Neoplatonist (Rodier, 1982), Christian (Ferrucci, 1990), Hindu (Stace, 1960), and Buddhist (Walshe, 1995)]. Among some Eastern contemplative traditions, the absence of discursive thinking is considered sometimes a prerequisite for the induction of some AMSCs, especially those AMSCs derived from concentrative meditation practices. Theravadin Buddhism’s ritualized description of the differences between the first and second of eight jhanic states resulting from samatha meditation (a concentrative meditation practice) is that the first jhana is “with thinking and pondering, born of detachment, filled with delight and joy” and the second jhana is “without thinking and pondering, born of concentration, filled with delight and joy” (Walshe, 1995, p. 286). Whereas the first jhana can be induced even by the practice of ritualized discursive meditations that explicitly exercise reason to analyze subjects such as compassion, the second jhana can be achieved only by ceasing reasoning (and wandering thought) and replacing the first jhana’s object of concentration (e.g., compassion) with the second jhana’s object of concentration – the phenomenological experience of rapture. Each succeeding jhana’s object of concentration is a more subtle quality of the meditator’s experience (Aranya, 1983; Buddhaghosa, 1991; Goleman, 1988). Similarly, Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga (a concentrative meditation technique) requires that, in order to attain samadhi, the citta, or mind-stuff, be quieted and devoid of the perturbations to quiescence that could result from discursive thought in either sense of the term (Taimni, 1961).
Not only is the cessation of discursive thought considered to be a prerequisite of some AMSCs but also it is thought to be inimical to some AMSCs. Hesychius of Jerusalem, a fifth-century mystic, considered discursive thought (i.e., wandering, unconcentrated thought) as “enemies who are bodiless and invisible, malicious and clever at harming us, skillful, nimble and practised in warfare” (cited in (Goleman, 1972b). And Khenpo (1995) wrote of the relation of discursive thought (i.e., reasoning and conceptualization) to AMSCs:
The great demon of ignorant and discursive thought
Causes one to sink in the ocean of samsara.
But when freed from this discursive thought,
There is the indescribable state, beyond conceptual mind. (p. 95)
Some nondiscursive AMSCs also are reported to be experienced as pure consciousness. Pure consciousness has been described as consciousness without differentiation (e.g., without sensory impression or subject-object distinction). In effect, states of pure consciousness are insensible. Walsh (1990) cites several examples of the insensibility of some meditative states. He notes that Eliade has described samadhi as “an invulnerable state in which perception of the external world is absent” (1990, p. 228). Walsh also notes, “the Buddhist and Hindu meditators who attain nirvana and nirvikalpa samadhi, respectively, are both in states in which no thoughts, images, or sensations arise to awareness; there is only awareness and nothing else” (p. 228). Similarly Kapleau (1965) describes the Shojo Zen state of mushinjo as one in which consciousness ceases. By definition, such insensible or pure-consciousness AMSCs that are devoid of thought, images, sensation, and so forth also would seem to be devoid implicitly of the discursive reasoning that would enable the production of in-state verbal self-reports. Whether this is so is a question for future research.
Vulnerability of AMSCs to the Effects of Research Activity
Contemporary epistemological discussions acknowledge the inseparability of the observed from the observer (Harman and de Quincey, 1994). Cognitive psychology has demonstrated that scientific activities such as hypothesis construction, observation, and theorizing cannot be separated from the experimenter’s cognitive and linguistic constructs. Similarly physics has shown that the very act of observing subatomic phenomena evokes effects in those phenomena. It should therefore not be a surprise to learn that AMSC researchers also have discovered that some AMSCs are vulnerable to the effects of observing them; that is, the very effort to observe a target AMSC sometimes prevents, modifies, or terminates the AMSC.
Research literature provides various examples of the effects of experimentation upon AMSCs. Osis et al. (1973) learned that, “the task-oriented testing [experimental] situation quickly terminated the meditative mood in spite of the subject’s efforts to maintain it” (pp. 131-132). Similarly, in his review of the history of Zen meditation research, Akishige (1974) speculated that the poor or irregular performance of some meditators may have been due to psychological tensions resulting from meditating under unnatural conditions in the laboratory. Similarly, J. Smith (personal communication, May 23, 1996) reported that his typewriter keyboard variation of Van Nuys’s (1971) push-button method of obtaining concurrent validity of AMSCs did unequivocally intrude upon his participants’ subjective experiences.
On a more mundane level of practice, Shapiro’s self-experiment (1980) in meditation also demonstrated effects of research activity. For example, he wondered whether the very act of recording observations about his meditation experience resulted in his being more aware of the contents of his consciousness during meditation than would have been the case had he not conducted a self-experiment. And Kiefer (1971) lamented about his failed efforts to maintain an alpha state, “It’s very frustrating. When you try to increase alpha, it doesn’t; when you give up and quit trying, it increases” (p. 12). His remarks resemble Shimano and Douglas’s (1975) observation that the very effort to categorize Zen kensho experience results in its loss.
Why are some AMSCs vulnerable to the effects of scientific inquiry? If we presume the inseparability of the observer and observed, then we might argue that the science making activities of observation perturb the experience of the participant, and so they inhibit the mental quiescence upon which so many AMSCs are reported to rely for their induction. For example, in cases of nonparticipant observation, perhaps the unnatural situation of meditating with 32 electrodes and wires attached to one’s body results in a subliminal psychic tension that thwarts the meditator’s psychic quiescence.
Despite the evidence of research and the claims of contemplative traditions, my personal experience suggests that some methods of in-state data collection may not result in effects upon some AMSCs. Shinzen Young, a vipassana teacher, has invented an Online Support method of instruction that permits, for at least some AMSCs, the unobtrusive in-state qualitative self-reporting of meditation experience. While meditating, the meditator wears a telephone headset that has an attached microphone and pushbutton. The headset is cabled to a telephone switchboard that Young monitors from another room. While the meditator remains in-state, Young uses the telephone to interrogate the meditator about his immediate meditation experience. While he meditates, Young then provides feedback and instruction. My own experience of Young’s Online Support method of instruction was that I was able to mindfully dialogue with Young while remaining in an AMSC resembling the vipassana state of access concentration. This innovative method of meditation instruction warrants the further attention of meditation researchers as a potential method of in-state qualitative data collection.
Although Young’s Online Support technique and other data collection techniques that have yet to be devised may offer the hope that state-specific science activities pertaining to AMSCs may sometimes be possible, the evidence of research and the claims of contemplative traditions would suggest that some AMSCs still will be vulnerable to some effects of research activity. Therefore those AMSCs will not be susceptible to in-state data collection.
Among the implications of the vulnerability of AMSCs to the effects of research activity, we should distinguish between the possibility that some states may not be conducive to in-state data collection and the possibility that some methods of in-state data collection may be inapplicable. In perhaps the only application of philosophical (i.e., Husserlian) phenomenology to meditation experience, Patrik (1994) compares the purposes and methods of phenomenology and meditation. According to Patrik, the purpose of philosophical phenomenology is to identify and describe the objects of consciousness, and the purpose of vipassana meditation is to discriminate the processes of consciousness. Whereas the phenomenological method requires such discursive activity as eidetic variation, the vipassana method develops a nonintrusive tranquillity that conceivably could be occluded by intentionally directed discursive thought. Notes Patrik
What may prove to be the biggest obstacle to their [phenomenology and meditation’s] collaboration is the difference between the meditator’s need to sustain meditation unbroken and the phenomenologist’s need to experiment upon meditation experiences by intervening with eidetic variation. Meditators sustain their meditation for the long-range purposes of uncovering truth, and of changing or clarifying deeper levels of consciousness. . . . Phenomenologists, on the other hand, wish to identify and analyze the subjective processes and the contents of meditation experiences; especially by performing the eidetic reduction, they run the risk of interrupting meditation in order to make their analysis methodologically complete. (p. 51)
Given the above, it is plausible that phenomenologists might try to adapt their methods to the exigencies of meditation. However, the resulting meditation (and AMSCs, if AMSCs are an artifact of technique) would be unrepresentative of either mindfulness meditation (characterized by noninterference with the activity of consciousness) or concentrative meditation (characterized by nondistraction from the chosen object of concentration).
Some Implications of the Characteristics of AMSCs for the State-Specific Science Research Strategy
For the sake of analysis, the preceding discussion has considered separately the AMSC characteristics of nonreplicability, transience, nondiscursiveness, and vulnerability to effects of research activity. However in the lived experience of the meditator and the state-specific scientist these characteristics are inextricably interwoven. Together, these characteristics may conspire to present obstacles to research that may be so formidable as to render state-specific AMSC research impossible, if only for the present. The following section compares the requirements of the state-specific science strategy to the constraints imposed by the AMSC characteristics which were discussed previously.
Requirement: For there to be state-specific sciences of advanced meditative states, there must be state-specific scientist who are capable of inducing the AMSC that is being researched. As discussed previously, many AMSCs are extraordinarily difficult to induce. Depending upon the AMSC, the induction apparently may require a meditation skill that can necessitate decades of around-the-clock practice to develop. Such AMSCs are as difficult to induce as are the meditators who are capable of inducing them are rare to find. Although it is not inconceivable, it is improbable that a state-specific scientist (“one able to enter a particular d-ASC and carry out scientific work there,” (Tart, 1975a), p. 29) would become sufficiently skilled in meditation as to be able to experience the more difficult AMSCs, such as the fourth Buddhist jhana or nirodha. For example, M. Murphy (personal communication, May 24, 1996) considers it most unlikely that a scientist would sacrifice decades of life in order to learn how to induce, for only the sake of scientific study, a state such as Ramakrishna may have experienced. Moreover state-specific science activities that require the simultaneous in-state collaboration of two or more state-specific scientists are even more improbable. Therefore it also follows that collaborative in-state activities will not be possible, unless there can be found more than one qualified state-specific scientist.
Therefore: If scientists who are capable of inducing an AMSC which has been targeted for research cannot be found, then by definition there cannot be a state-specific science of that AMSC.
Requirement: The simultaneous in-state collaboration of two or more state-specific scientists requires that the target AMSC be replicated at the will of the researchers and for a predetermined duration. Therefore not only must each state-specific scientist be capable of inducing the target AMSC at will but also each scientist must possess a mastery of the AMSC that overcomes the state’s initial tendencies to nonreplicability and transience. However, as discussed previously, such mastery is an accomplishment that is even more difficult to develop than is the meditation skill that results in the spontaneously induction of an AMSC.
Therefore: The finding of two or more scientists with the requisite mastery of a target AMSC is even more improbable than previously described. For each AMSC where two or more scientists with the requisite mastery do not exist, there cannot be the simultaneous in-state collaboration envisioned by Tart.
Note that Tart (Tart, 1972) does recognize that few persons may have the requisite skills to become state-specific researchers of meditative states. Yet he (C. Tart, personal communication, June 10, 1996) raises the question of whether the relatively rare number of skilled meditators might reflect not the difficulty of meditation but rather the possible inefficiencies of the meditation training systems. For example, he compares the training system used to get a Ph.D. in physics with the training system used in meditation:
The [physics Ph.D.] training system has evolved over a long time and for certain kinds of people, you know, people with mathematical ability and the like; it’s a very efficient training system. I don’t think we can make similar claims of efficiency about any of the meditative traditions by comparison. We don’t know whether they’re efficient. It could be most meditation systems are notoriously inefficient. . . . We only hear about the fewpeople who had a very high talent for it and for whom it worked out. And actually, if you think about it, the drop-out rate for meditation is extremely high.
Whether or not the meditation training systems of the contemplative traditions are inefficient remains a research question. However, either of two implications are likely to result. If the apparent difficulty of attaining AMSCs is in fact a product of the inefficiencies of meditation training, then the proposal of state-specific science is premature for meditation research, and its applicability to AMSC research awaits a time when more efficient meditation training programs will have been developed. On the other hand, if contemplative training systems are found to be efficient and the attaining of various AMSCs is confirmed as being exceedingly difficult, then the applicability of state-specific science to AMSC will flounder for want of qualified state-specific scientists.
Nevertheless, the inapplicability of state-specific science strategy to AMSC research is not decided by the meditation skill issue alone. For the sake of argument, let us overthrow the entire preceding discussion about the difficulty of locating qualified state-specific scientists, and, instead, let us grant that not every higher meditative d-ASC is so difficult to induce. Let us presume that at least some state-specific scientists will be able to enter at least some higher meditative d-ASCs. Let us also presume that for some of these AMSCs, there will be a fewer number of state-specific scientists whose meditation skill does permit them to induce those AMSCs when, where, and for how long they choose. In conceding these points, we should not minimize just how much more difficult is the induction of even these less exalted meditative d-ASCs, compared to the induction of the relatively mundane d-ASCs of alcohol inebriation, drug intoxication, auto-hypnotic trance, and lucid dreaming to which the state-specific science strategy might be more easily applied. Granting these several points, were state specific scientists able to induce a target AMSC, what then would they likely discover?
Requirement: State-specific science activities such as in-state data collection (observation, analysis, categorization, recording), hypothesis testing, theorizing, and consensual validation, require discursive thought and sensibility. However, as discussed previously, many AMSCs are nondiscursive and some are even insensible. AMSCs for which nondiscursiveness is a sine qua non will be inaccessible to state-specific science, because discursive science making activities will terminate the state. AMSCs which are insensible will prohibit state-specific scientists from communicating with each other and carrying on collaborative activities.
Therefore: Tart has assumed that “communication within some d-ASCs is adequate: this is a necessary foundation for the creation of state-specific sciences [italics added]” (1975c, p. 205). Because the nondiscursiveness or insensibility of some AMSCs precludes the requirement of in-state communicability, there cannot be a state-specific science for such AMSCs.
Requirement: The state-specific science strategy depends on the epistemological assumption that the observer-observed, subject-object distinction persists in some form. But as discussed previously, some AMSCs are qualified by a pure consciousness that nullifies the subject-object distinction. For such AMSCs, if there is no observer, then there cannot be an in-state, objective observer (Globus, 1980; Ward, 1985).
Therefore: There cannot be a state-specific science for any meditative d-ASC wherein there is no subject-object distinction.
Requirement: The in-state activities of state-specific science making require that target AMSCs are invulnerable to the effects of scientific inquiry. But, our previous discussion demonstrated that some AMSCs are vulnerable to the effects of research activity. Indeed, Tart (personal communication, June 10, 1996) acknowledges this, but he requests that, rather than presume that all AMSCs are vulnerable, instead we proceed to evaluate empirically which specific AMSCs are subject to which effects.
Therefore: For each AMSCs that is empirically found to be vulnerable to the effects of experimentation, it follows that there cannot be a state-specific science.
An Uncertain Future for State-Specific Sciences of AMSCs
The state-specific science research strategy represents an innovative approach to the research of some discrete altered states of consciousness such as drug intoxication and lucid dreaming. But is it really applicable to the research on meditative states of consciousness as at first we might presume?
Some meditative d-ASCs may forever be beyond the capability of ordinary, unsaintly, state-specific scientists to experience. Others may be beyond the capability of scientists to induce at will. For these AMSCs, by definition there cannot be state-specific sciences, if there cannot be state-specific scientists. For the meditative d-ASCs which remain as possible candidates for being the objects of state-specific sciences, many will be found to be nondiscursive, insensible, or without the subject-object distinction. For these AMSCs, by definition there cannot be state-specific sciences, if scientific activity cannot be performed in-state. Which AMSCs then are left as candidates for state-specific sciences? Those that are sensible, with subject-object distinction, and not terminated by discursive thought. Yet, even some of these have been demonstrated by Kiefer (1971) and Shapiro (1980) to be vulnerable to the effects of research activity.
Can we then accept without qualification that the state-specific science strategy is generally applicable to meditative states? Moreover can we accept without question the state-specific science strategy as a panacean research method for d-ASCs in general. The track record of the state-specific science strategy has been most limited, and it has been nonexistent in relation to the study of meditative states. Perhaps we should ask if the presumed utility of the state-specific science strategy is a function of the robustness of the strategy or rather a function of an altered state’s invulnerability to being effected by in-state scientific activity. If the latter, then the future may not be bright for the development of state-specific sciences of meditative states.
Whether the state-specific method is a bold conception that is ahead of its time or it is inapplicable to the research of AMSCs will be determined only when we learn by empirical methods which, if any, AMSCs are in fact nonreplicable, transient, nondiscursive, or vulnerable to the effects of research activity. Until then, we can only wonder, are state-specific sciences of advances meditative states possible?
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