A Peak Performance weblog

alternate text

Our typical approaches to resolving troubling conditions and issues are completely oblivious of the crucial fact that all these conditions as well as the self structure to which they seem to ‘belong’ are simply (convincingly real) instant-by-instant fabrications that don’t need solving. We can learn to see how the apparently continuous movie of life, with limiting habits of self at center stage, is actually a bewildering flurry of momentary, fleeting projections onto the screen of ordinary consciousness. Troubling scenarios clearly have no absolute or fixed, unchangeable nature—unpleasant experiences seem ‘real’ only because of the way of projecting.  We can let the projecting process go, without ‘freezing’ it and then trying to fix the problems that were frozen.  Aware of this projecting, we can redirect its energy, breaking up limiting scenarios as soon as they appear, and before we get caught up in the parts and story lines. By recognizing the ordinary structures of life before they are firmly in place, as they are just taking the stage, we can directly and powerfully break free from limiting patterns.  Without special effort—for no effort is needed—the whole of experience is already transformed. (DTS, p. 302) “Our whole purpose is to go beyond this typical lower time orientation of ‘someone’s doing something’. . . . If we can understand this correctly, then our difficulties in living can be solved very easily, naturally.”  (pp. xxxv, DOT I)  “The idea should be to not add or subtract anything from the immediacy of any knowing encounter.” (p.  xiii, DOT I)  “Everything required for contacting freedom and everything required . . . is already being done.”  (Interview with Tarthang Tulku)

For the second edition, go to:


There are many definitions of employee engagement, and none of them is universally accepted

A few years ago, the Engage for Success Task Force in Great Britain asked, “What’s holding back engagement in 2015?”

One thing I’ve noticed for sure over the past couple of years.   Promotion and application of engagement principles has been hindered by the lack of a clear definition of engagement.   In 2015, in response to my query about her understanding of engagement, Liz Kelly, the CEO of Brilliant Ink in San Francisco, which consults with organizations,  wrote, “there are many definitions of employee engagement, and none of them is universally accepted. In addition, most of the client organizations we work with have some kind of employee engagement survey, which measures engagement from a variety of perspectives, and not all of these are consistent either.”

Partly because of this lack of agreement in defining engagement, clarity is unusual in discussions and writing on the practice of engagement.  People usually presume they know what others are talking about–very seldom do people explain what definition they are using, or ask what definition others are using.

The relationship  of typical definitions of employee engagement to the range of human potential

Let’s take a typical current definition /description of engagement and see what we find.  The Engage for Success website asks, “What’s employee engagement for you and me as employees?”  I attempted to summarize their answer:  Employee engagement is about:

  • Being optimistic, having great ideas about what to do.
  • Understanding my role and where it fits in with the organization’s purpose and objectives.
  • Being focused on clear goals, trusted and empowered.
  • Receiving regular and constructive feedback.
  • Being supported in developing new skills, and being thanked and recognized.

Boiling their description down even further, one could say that engagement is about . . . our attitude, mood, and ideas, understanding our role in the organization, particularly how we are expected to relate to management; and being clear and focused on our goals.

Although I find this description typical of those for organizations, I also find it ‘lean’, with little guidance about what is possible or expected of employees, nothing even suggestive of a vision of peak performance.  Typical descriptions of employee engagement seem unaware or vague about human potential and peak performance.  Seldom is there any attempt to indicate the precise characteristics of peak performance, much less how to embody them.

A goal of engagement programs should be self-actualization, where we’re ‘at the top of our game’, most absorbed, problem-centered, and self-forgetful

Now let’s turn to the related work that Abraham Maslow did on self-actualization, integration, and engagement.   His research showed that when our inner resources are integrated in the state he called self-actualization, we’re completely, unselfishly, and efficiently absorbed in whatever’s at hand.

For our inner resources we can list:  Awareness, concentration, energy, openness, work capacity (the individual’s capacity to get things done), balance / equanimity, emotional intelligence, intellect / thinking capacity, discrimination / clarity, and appreciation / caring / compassion (and possibly others).

Maslow’s research showed that self-actualizing people are living and working ‘at the top of their game’, both as reported by themselves and as observed by others.   It is the growth-oriented, self-actualized person “who most easily forgets or transcends the ego, who can be most problem-centered, most self-forgetful, most spontaneous in his activities . . . . In such people, absorption in perceiving, in doing, in enjoying, in creating can be very complete, very integrated and very pure. . . . The more growth-motivated the person is the more problem-centered can he be, and the more he can leave self-consciousness behind him as he deals with the objective world.”  (p. 37, Toward a Psychology of Being)

Self-actualizing people are living and working ‘at the top of their game’, the most problem-centered, most self-forgetful, most spontaneous . . . . In such people, absorption in perceiving, in doing, in enjoying, can be very complete, very integrated and very pure. . . .

Thus one might say that the business case for defining self-actualization as a long-term goal of engagement was actually clearly and implicitly made by Maslow’s research decades ago.  This holds no matter what the organization’s mission–who would not want their employees ‘doing their best’, being ‘all they can be’?  Obviously, though it may be difficult to achieve, one end-goal of organizational and personal engagement programs should be self-actualization or integration of all ones’ inner resources.

One ultimate goal of engagement programs should be self-actualization or integration of all employees’ inner resources. This will raise (or even remove) the ceiling on ‘human resource’ potential, demonstrate the organization’s clear support for employee health, well-being, and realization,  relieve wasteful employee infighting, and provide unbounded opportunities for employee cooperation.

After clarifying that  self-actualization is a long-term goal of engagement,  individuals can be supported, encouraged, or even taught how to self-actualize and operate ‘at the top of their game’. Though self-actualization may be a long-term project, it does provides necessary long-range vision of our capabilities as human beings, and would clearly state the organization’s concern for employee health, well-being, and realization as well as ordinary productivity. 

Self-actualization continues to motivate to ever-higher levels

What else might happen if we adopted the long-range goal of self-actualization of all employees?  Andrew Grove, former CEO of Intel, wrote:

“The title of a movie about athletes, Personal Best, captures what self-actualization means:  the need to achieve one’s utter personal best in a chosen field of endeavor.  Once someone’s source of motivation is self-actualization, his drive to perform has no limit.  Thus, its most important characteristic is that unlike other sources of motivation, which extinguish themselves after the needs are fulfilled, self-actualization continues to motivate people to ever higher levels of performance. . . .

“A virtuoso violinist who continues to practice day after day is obviously moved by something other than a need for esteem and recognition.  He works to sharpen his own skill, trying to do a little bit better this time than the time before, just as a teenager on a skateboard practices the same trick over and over again.  The same teenager may not sit still for ten minutes to do homework, but on a skateboard he is relentless, driven by the self-actualization need, a need to get better that has no limit.” (pp. 163-4, High Output Management)

Besides a person’s inherent and unending self-actualization motivation, Grove clarifies the role of management regarding performance management:  “Once in the self-actualization mode, a person needs measures to gauge his progress and achievement.  The most important type of measure is feedback on his performance.  For the self-actualized person driven to improve his competence, the feedback mechanism lies within that individual himself.  Our virtuoso violinist knows how the music should sound, knows when it is not right, and will strive tirelessly to get it right.”  He can rely on his immediate experience, and will definitely no longer be dependent upon carrot and stick motivation from a manager.

So “Our role as managers is . . . to . . . bring them to the point where self-actualization motivates them.” (p. 168)  However, once an employee is using self-actualization as his/her motivating drive, emphasizing traditional performance appraisals will no longer be relevant for him/her:  one’s primary source of feedback will be inner, internal, immediately experiential.

To self-actualize, inquire:  How absorbed am I in whatever I’m doing?

If we now focus on Maslow’s description of the self-actualizing person, we see:   “absorption in perceiving, in doing, in enjoying, in creating can be very complete, very integrated and very pure.”   Given this characteristic absorption of our best performers, could the following inquiry provide an ongoing awareness and measurement of how close we are to being self-actualized?

How absorbed are we in whatever we’re doing?

What if we continually inquire:  “How close am I to (the state of) being completely engrossed in what’s at hand?  To the extent that I am engrossed,  I should be able to ‘leave self-consciousness behind’, be less self-centered and more problem-centered.

Thus the proposed main inquiry for inner engagement is:  How close am I to being completely engrossed?  What’s holding me back, interfering with complete engagement, being totally absorbed?

The query itself will bring immediate awareness of whatever factors are interfering with complete engagement. 

Following Timothy Gallwey, inner engagement can be defined as   I.E. = 100% – I (interference)

In an extensive survey, Engage for Success in England found that some managers in their programs did not believe that engagement was worth considering, or did not fully understand the concept and the benefits it could have for their organization. Among those leaders who were concerned with employee engagement, there was great variability in their views and commitment to it.

Isn’t the ‘more radical’, continuous improvement kind of engagement program proposed here so far the crux of what management dreams of?  A way for employees to gradually take responsibility and learn to motivate themselves, to leave self-consciousness behind and be more problem-centered and creative?  But compared to this approach emphasizing self-actualization, the potential of a typical employee engagement program is quite low.

We might call this ongoing measurement of our current degree of participation, our level of involvement, or our degree of inner engagement . . . whatever is useful.  In my present writing I most often use the term inner engagement, or simply engagement.  Whatever it’s called, the point is to monitor our real-time, ongoing, dynamic level of absorption in the scenario ‘before us’, to estimate how engrossed we are in whatever is immediately present.  Then we can see how closely we match what happens in the experience of the self-actualizers.

Tracking inner engagement simultaneously drives continuous improvement of productivity, quality of services and products, and the well-being, work capacity, emotional intelligence, and self-actualization of the worker

My research–presented in following blogs (send email requests to be on my engagement mailing list to Steve Randall, PhD at stevrandal@gmail.com)–shows this way of tracking inner engagement turns out to be a way to simultaneously drive continuous improvement of all the following:  productivity, the quality of services and products produced, and the well-being, work capacity, EI (emotional intelligence) , and self-actualization of the worker.

I.E. = k x P x Q x WB x WC x EI x SA.

Tracking inner engagement turns out to be a way to simultaneously drive continuous improvement of productivity, the quality of services and products produced, and the well-being, work capacity, EI (emotional intelligence) , and self-actualization of the worker. (See my article “Boosting Productivity, Quality, and Well-Being” in The Systems Thinker.)

Actually, most of us seem to know this already, if only implicitly:  Almost everyone talks about “getting into” something,  about being “into it,” or involved or engrossed  in something.   So to describe the process of gradually getting more involved in things, we can assemble this series of commonly used words:   denial, resignation, holding back, initiating, getting into it, involvement, absorption, being engrossed, and peak experience.

The following sequence of words roughly describes a process of getting more and more involved or engaged in what’s happening:   denial, resignation, holding back, initiating, getting into it, involvement, absorption, being engrossed, and peak experience.

Even these imprecise commonsense words and phrases give us a very useful description of our real-time state of increasing inner engagement:  the degree to which we are absorbed in whatever’s at hand.  Without feedback from some such real-time measure–whether we use these performance values already in common use, or others that suit us better–without this feedback, truly continuous improvement that moves us toward self-actualization and peak performance is probably impossible.   We seem to need such a way of bringing awareness or attention to the ongoing changes.   Chapters 6, 7, and 11 in my book All In show how to devise performance values for measuring inner engagement according to our individual preferences and maturity.

For upcoming blogs send email requests to be on my engagement mailing list to Steve Randall, PhD at stevrandal@gmail.com

  • What can we do to control or ‘regulate’ our varied emotions without having to ‘stuff them?  Is there a way of learning to better regulate our feelings while on the job?
  • Can we monitor and chart our moment-to-moment engagement in order to be aware of emotions in real time?  Might this provide a more effective (real-time, rather than via postmortem surveys) way to define and ‘use’ engagement in order to improve emotional intelligence and other inner resources?
  • Does defining engagement in this way more readily allow individual employees to take responsibility for improving engagement?

Call center performance management

Consider a scenario in which a call center customer service representative (CSR) named John just received a performance review stating that he became upset too often with his callers.  His manager requested that he undertake some kind of program to improve the quality of his customer interactions.  He consulted with his Human Resources department and talked to a representative named Angel.

Angel suggested bringing more awareness into John’s interactions with callers with a training program called a Quality Improvement Challenge (QIC).  She said that research showed that simply being more aware of certain aspects of the call would gradually provide more control of emotional reactions.

John was willing to give the QIC a try, and asked what they needed to do first.  Angel said they needed to determine some objectives that would satisfy John’s manager, so they undertook the first step.

1. Determine the object of the game you want to play. 

After some discussion, Angel and John came up with a conventional goal (with some ordinary external objective) of delivering good customer service phone responses (GCSRs) to 30 callers / day over the next month.  That was considered good productivity in the organization.  And they came up with an experiential goal (an objective to change something in one’s experience) of a maximum of 3 negative emotional responses (ERs) to callers per week over the next month.

Angel then checked these goals out with John’s manager, who decided that–if met–the two goals would show sufficiently improved emotional control during John’s calls.

2. Build a playing field scoreboard. 

Angel and John met again to discuss how to play and score John’s Quality Improvement Challenge (QIC).  Angel said that for each of the two objectives determined, they needed to define specific performance variables with a set of values that each variable could take on.

The conventional GCSR goal was easy.  John could simply tally how many good customer service responses he delivered through the day, aiming for at least 30 / day.

The customer service emotional response (CSER) goal was more complicated.  This was to monitor and decrease negative emotional responses by being aware of and counting the different emotional ‘events’ that John experienced during work hours.  Angel said that to monitor ‘negative emotional responses’,  John needed to determine what kind of experience he thought would constitute a ‘failed call’.  He replied that it could be feeling some kind of “emotion out of control” during a call.   Angel said, “OK, then the occurrence of such “emotions out of control” would be counted and charted for CSER during the day.”  She then asked what other kinds of related experience would be likely to occur.  John said that although he would consider them normal experiences rather than failures, related experiences would be an “emotional current” that would last a minute or two, and an “emotional spike” that would last only ten seconds or so.  (It’s important that the employee own this choice, and make sure it will work for him; this should not be imposed by management.)

Angel said that those three CSER performance values–emotional spike, emotional current, and emotion out of control–should cover one end of the spectrum of possible experiences, and then she asked about the other end of the possible spectrum of emotion.  After some discussion, they decided on “equanimity” and “balance,” neither of which had any negative emotional component, but represented a kind of “even keel.”  So the resulting spectrum of CSER performance values was:   equanimity, balance, emotional spike, emotional current, and emotion out of control.

Angel said that these values were probably sufficient to get started on the Challenge, though it was probable that John would discover others after he started.  (These personal discoveries are desirable and very common as one gains experience and learns how to be aware more closely of what’s happening moment by moment–ABC–awareness brings change.)

Angel suggested that these CSER performance values should be recorded on a chart whenever they occurred during the day.  She knew that this would ensure that he would pay extra attention to his experience–and any emotion, in particular–as he worked; and that whatever we can be aware of by means of charting, we can eventually understand, control, and change. (Again, ABC.)  She said that the real value of this kind of graphing is to become aware of opportunities for improvement and to be able to track the trend of his emotional experiences. (That is, the ‘accuracy’ or particular shape of the graph is secondary to the awareness built.) Many people found it helpful to make notes in a ‘running journal’ at the bottom of their chart as they think about their experiences.

The simple chart they designed for the CSER goal included work hours of the day labelled at the top, and possible CSER scores (values) on the lefthand side, with a clean chart to be used for each day’s scoring.  The daily chart, or scoreboard, looked like this:


After every call, if John had no emotional blowup, he would add to the tally of good calls, going for 30 / day.  And after every hour of work (marked by a countdown timer), he would recall his experience of the hour, and mark the chart appropriately.

3. Play and keep score over the time period chosen.

For a few days John worked, paid attention to his emotion-related experience, and found that he had plenty to enter on his chart, with quite a few emotional spikes and undercurrents.   But after a few days his feelings seemed to settle down, with fewer spikes and undercurrents.   He relaxed into his work a bit more, and less frequently looked forward to ‘better times’ (breaks, weekends, and vacations, e.g.) as he worked.

Toward the end of the first week of his Challenge, John began to see that he could refine the playing field and the scoreboard.  One time he noticed he was getting a little judgmental and ‘short’ with a caller.  During the following call he noticed he was feeling arrogant. So he added “feeling judgmental” and “arrogance” to the performance values.  They seemed useful as warning signs that he was getting close to an emotional reaction.  (Awareness sets up a kind of ‘radar’ for emotional responses on the ‘horizon.’)

The next day he came to work in a bad mood, and tended to neglect details in his calls.  So he added “emotional mood” to the values.  Finally, he noticed how “excitement” and “frustration” and “anxiety” tended to lead into emotion, so he added those to the chart.  John found this gradual discovery and refinement of his tracking process, and the tracking itself, quite interesting.  (This is typical of the curiosity and fulfilling learning done during a self-actualizing activity such as this.)  He felt he was learning something helpful on the job, but something that was also useful for his personal life.  Here’s the chart resulting from the first week:


Thus the initial spectrum of CSER performance values chosen was:  equanimity, balance, emotional spike, emotional current, and emotion out of control.   The final spectrum of performance values was:    equanimity, balance, excitement/frustration, anxiety, emotional mood, feeling judgmental, arrogance, emotional spike, emotional current, and emotion out of control.  This spectrum was not judged as complete, accurate, or ‘in the right order’, yet was viewed as more than sufficient for the purposes of making the desired changes.

4. When the time period for the game is over, determine whether you won and review what you learned in the process.

At the end of John’s first game (one week), in his opinion his emotional balance seemed a little better.  He felt a little more relaxed and confident, and his feelings had settled down, with fewer emotional spikes and undercurrents.  He was actually somewhat enthusiastic about continuing the challenge during the coming week. And his scores for both objectives showed that he won the first week of the Quality Improvement Challenge.

During the second week’s game, John was generally more upbeat and even somewhat joyful some of the time.  It seemed that this game was providing an opportunity to be aware of, and quickly drop all the tendencies he had to get upset.  He was becoming aware of finer and finer mental agitation and frustration.  (It often happens that the type of mental events changes in an awareness exercise such as this.)  This seemed to keep anything from really building up into a ‘real problem’ that would have to be dealt with in any of his old psychological ways.


With persistence with the way of attending to and charting predetermined performance values illustrated in this example, one can very reliably improve emotional intelligence, including the intensity and frequency of various types of emotional ‘events’, as well as the feelings of balance, joy, and equanimity in one’s emotional life.  What allows this technique to ‘work’?   Awareness of one’s moment-by-moment experience.  Timothy Gallwey’s books on the ‘inner game’ of life argued that simple awareness of some process–such as one’s tennis backhand stroke–was sufficient to bring significant change.  This method provides a more effective (real-time, rather than via postmortem surveys) way to define and ‘use’ engagement in order to improve emotional intelligence and other inner resources.

Three levels with border

Three views of the same scenario

The practice of reframing is commonly used these days to change something about yourself that you don’t like.  Reframing is a method of changing your perspective, or the way you frame or look at an undesirable event, situation, or object.  Despite its popularity, however, the range, power, and usefulness of its application are not widely known.

The first basic principle of reframing is that “events or situations do not have inherent meaning; rather, you assign them a meaning based on how you interpret the event. . . . Even when something seemingly horrible happens to you, it is only horrible because of the way you look at it.”  –Mikey  D., http://feelhappiness.com/reframing-your-thoughts-make-yourself-happier/

Tarthang Tulku, a Tibetan Buddhist master, makes a very similar statement:  “our problems do not lie in what we experience, but in the attitude we have towards it.”   p. 51, Openness Mind

So we may have considerable freedom in the way we can view and interpret our experience. The practice of reframing usually involves identifying negative thoughts or beliefs and replacing them with more positive or beneficial ones.  Thus reframing is very often an intellectual or cognitive process used in order to change one’s undesirable feelings or emotions about something.

Someone else  on the web wrote about those who use reframing to ‘chip away at beliefs’ that mistakenly support a negative conclusion:  “Chances are you have a limiting belief that is encouraging you to think negatively about your situation. This limiting belief is based on assumptions you have made that probably are not true. Find reasons why they aren’t true, and you chip away at the beliefs causing the negative thoughts [assuming that other thoughts somehow cause the troublesome beliefs]. This is the most powerful long term reframing technique . . . .”

This ‘chipping away’ at supporting assumptions is common psychological analysis, and may be somewhat helpful.  But is it true that this last method is the most powerful?  The least powerful techniques would probably make the most superficial changes to the  original content, event, or situation.  And the most powerful techniques would probably change aspects of the original content, event, or situation the most.

Deeper or more effective methods?

Are there even ‘deeper’ methods that more profoundly change the original content or scenario?

Instead of thoughts or beliefs, what about changing these:

  • Space within and between thoughts
  • Gravity, or momentum of thinking

Ownership and ‘conducting’ (by the subject or ‘doer’) of thinking and feeling

One might challenge the inclusion of the above on the list, and there might be other candidates as well.

Space within and between thoughts

We usually are concerned only with the content, or meaning of thought.  However, suppose we shift our focus instead to the ‘space between thoughts’?  Did you ever think of doing this?  What might result?  (See pp. 58-60, Time, Space, and Knowledge, Tarthang Tulku.)

The Time, Space, and Knowledge (TSK) discipline actually suggests that we experiment at length with this shift in focus.   People who do generally find more openness, peacefulness, silence, freedom, greater openmindedness, and greater relaxation.

Gravity, or momentum of thinking

As another example, suppose we shift our focus instead to the ‘gravity’ or ‘momentum of thinking’?  “Some thoughts loom large and others small, exerting a different ‘gravitational’ pull accordingly.” (p. 65,  Love of Knowledge, Tarthang Tulku)  What might result?  People who do this exercise a while  generally experience less pressure from anxiety, driven thinking, and time pressure.

Ownership and ‘conducting’ of thinking and feeling

As a third example, suppose our focus in thinking were shifted from the content to the ‘thinker’ who organizes, observers, interprets, and ‘owns’ the situation and the content.  What might happen?  (p. 41,  Love of Knowledge)

People exploring this exercise find a new kind of ‘knowing’ or nonverbal awareness can arise in contrast with a less ‘driven’ ‘train of thought’.  This different type of knowing is not affected by the usual distortion of the self, subject, or thinker and its kind of motivation, desires, and concerns.

Mind and the source of thought

Is there anything else to reframe, or to leave out of the frame?

What about the mind from which thoughts seem to arise?  Are thoughts limited to coming from our minds, or can they arise in some other way(s)?  TSK asks, when observing directly how thinking occurs, do we really see any ‘mind’ at its source?  Is there any ordinary source or ‘generator’ of thinking and experience in general?  What if the presumption of mental generation of experience is challenged, and the presumption of ‘an ordinary mind’ is dropped?

Time and the events of our lives

What about time itself, that presumed ‘medium’ that is thought to ‘carry’ or present the events of our lives?

TSK shows that the feeling of time passing from past to present to future can be reframed in many different ways.   Suppose you think, “I don’t have time to get everything done today.”

You might try to reframe the sense of not having enough time by (1) affirmative self-talk, saying to yourself, “I have enough time for everything I need to do today.”  Most people who try this find it doesn’t work very well.   “Replacing conventional constructs with new ones . . . will still leave us in the realm of descriptive knowledge and the narrative.” (p. 257, Love of Knowledge)  Self-talk and affirmations don’t seem to strongly affect the level at which our temporal experience is actually ‘operating’.

However, suppose we observe time flowing “from moment to moment in a way that makes available, on an ever ‘smaller’ scale, moments ‘between’ moments”?  After some awkwardness or confusion trying to ‘figure out’ how to do this, people usually find it quite effective.  Add extensive practice, and then you’ve got an amazing way to really start dismantling the time pressure in your life.   (p. 119,  Love of Knowledge)

Challenging our usual presumed frame of reference of the self

What about the usual ‘frame of reference’ itself that we try to maintain throughout our lives, holding a fixed point of view and referring all our experiences back to our self?  TSK notes that “Throughout history, we have been maintaining a fixed and limiting ‘focal setting’ without even being aware of doing so. Yet, although our familiar world seems to depend upon this ‘setting’, if we become able to change the ‘setting’, fantastic new knowledge and appreciation of life can be gained.” (pp. 4-5, Time, Space, and Knowledge)  “For example, it may be possible to discover a kind of space in some intimate connection with each thought, each sensation, each surface, and each conceptual category which constitutes our lived world. The availability of such discoveries is entirely a matter of the particular ‘focal setting’ or perspective we use.” (p. 4, Time, Space, and Knowledge)

Unframe Yourself

We are not limited to the comparatively ineffective conventional way of reframing just the mental contents of experience.  A far more encompassing and powerful version of reframing is possible.  We can include all  the apparently fixed framework of experience–including our mind, the self, as well as our sense of limited time and space.  Although these mental structures may seem inherently fixed, limited, or limiting, “The basic, absolute, or opaque character that some things have for us is [just] due to our unwillingness to change this ‘focal setting’ point of view, or to our assumption that it cannot be done. . . .” (p. 4, Time, Space, and Knowledge)

  1. Are you applying effort or control to something that feels separate from you, or does your activity seem to flow effortlessly “by itself?”
  1. Do things feel familiar, somewhat predictable, or even habitual, or does each new moment, along with all that appears in the momentary scenario, seem spontaneous and fresh?
  1. Are you looking forward to being done with the work, or are you currently fulfilled within your work-in-progress?
  1. Do objects and events take up space and appear to be separate and dispersed, or are do they seem intimately connected in and even as one space?
  1. Is there a private space or personal world that feels separate from everything outside, or do inner and outer, subjective and objective appear to be inseparable facets of the same undivided space?
  1. Is there a sense of self that stands apart from experience and externals, or do you feel identified with, or absorbed in, what is happening?
  1. Is knowledge simply something that you or others possess or lack, or is there a sense of being intimately part of what’s around you, knowing things that are happening ‘from inside’ them?
  1. Is knowledge only identification, categorization, judgment, and detached observation, or also an illuminating clarity merged with the subject being explored?
  1. Are there divisions among your self, mind, body, and personality, or is there a natural sense of wholeness, fulfillment, and satisfaction?
  1. Are you driven by a need or a desire for pleasure, or is everything being found to be immediately and inherently fulfilling?
  1. Do you notice a feeling of time flowing in the background, or are you timelessly involved?
  1. Does reality seem solid, fixed, and substantial, or does everything seem somewhat fluid or dreamlike?

Have you heard athletes on TV talk about being in ‘the zone’ of peak performance?  I have, and they said little that was helpful to me in finding the zone during work or other activities.  But to work masterfully, it seems obvious that it would be useful to have a clear vision of the ‘zone’ of optimal work to provide some feedback about how things are going moment by moment.

What about your experience?

What if we do something almost unheard of, something almost never done—look closely at our own best work experiences to see what was essential?  On those occasions when you did your best work, were you aware of time passing? Most people—of the thousands I asked during twenty-five years of workshops I conducted—say “No.” Do you agree? During peak work performance did you feel separate from or merged with your actions? Most people say they felt merged. But what was it like for you?  During optimal work was the work naturally fulfilling? Most people say “Yes.”

Can such facets or qualities of experience—­a sense of timelessness, merging, and intrinsic fulfillment—serve as a guide to peak performance in the workplace? I think so!  But if, as I did, you review the literature on productivity and quality, you’ll probably find that our experience—and especially how we do things—is precisely what is usually ignored. Instead, the emphasis in productivity improvement is on (1) measuring results, the bottom line, (2) what we do–particular valued processes or techniques, (3) personality traits and habits of highly successful workers, or (4) corporate styles and structures. But none of these inherently inspires us, gives us moment-to-moment feedback on how we’re working, or is applicable to every work situation.

I propose that attending closely to essential facets of our own experience—not a focus on the bottom line or “best practices”—is the driver and the key to simultaneously improving productivity, quality, and well-being.  But what are “essential facets of our experience?”    I don’t think there is an English word or generally used phrase that fits what I’m getting at, so it’s difficult to describe. However, here’s a simple example to help distinguish “essential facets or qualities” from “best practices”:  Suppose you’re working on a top priority project under a tight deadline, are totally engrossed, and then someone interrupts you and asks whether you want to get a beer right now.   A best time management practice in this kind of situation might be to simply say “No.”  While this may be a good practice in general, it doesn’t begin to cover the full extent of our options.  There are many different ways to say “No.”  If I’m feeling pressured, I might angrily yell “No.”  If I’m really tired, I might long to take a break, and my “No” could have an accompanying feeling of regret.  If I perceive it as a kind offer, I might warmly and softly say “No.”  I might reply with an element of impatient disbelief if it seems that the other person has completely failed to understand what I’m doing.  Etc.

The best practice of saying “No” is what is being done here.  But how this is done is just as important, and perhaps even more important.  Some ways of saying “No” will destroy a relationship, while other ways will improve it.  Similarly, some ways of writing a memo or giving a presentation will produce good results and be fulfilling, while other ways of doing the same things may be irritating or depressing.  It’s aspects of these “ways of doing things” that I’m calling “essential facets or qualities of experience.”  “No” can be said with forceful and separating emotion, with a neutral sigh of regret, with an appreciative nonacceptance, or with dismissive derision.   This micro level of options and experience—in contrast to the macro level of best practices—is hardly ever discussed or even acknowledged, yet I believe it’s essential to understand and foster peak performance in our own and others’ experience.  Only the granularity of such a micro level of experience can allow for truly continuous improvement, which—to be truly continuous—must provide feedback over smaller and smaller time intervals, even shorter than the time it takes to say “No.”

What might such a vision look like?

To do our best, it seems it would be helpful to have a vision of how we do things moment-by-moment during peak performance–how we directly experience optimal work. Is there really a balanced, general vision of optimal work? Can it be described in terms of some micro-level of “essential facets of experience?” If it’s general, applicable to any person, environment, and task, it cannot be defined in terms of specific things, processes, structures, traits, or styles. This would align with the proposition that “The best things in life aren’t things.” Defining such a general vision seems elusive and difficult, probably because rather than the usual emphasis on things and processes, it focuses on what Peter Senge calls “the subtlest aspect of the learning organization—the new way individuals perceive themselves and their world.” (Senge, 1990, p. 12)

But if a general vision doesn’t tell us specifically what to do, perhaps it would tell us how to work best. Perhaps perspectives and qualities of experience can define the zone. In fact, these qualities are what stand out in descriptions of peak experiences by geniuses, mystics, and peak performers of all kinds.

Further personal exploration

Let’s explore all our past peak experiences a bit and see what we can learn from them. Peak work experience should be just a particular case of peak experience. What were some peak experiences you had? Perhaps the best athletic experiences, or spiritual experiences, or work or relationship experiences.  Take half an hour to recall a number of them, and make some notes about them. This will probably be a very pleasurable half hour.  Note the essential qualities of peak experiences that you recall. Not just the specific events, what you were doing, but the essence of the experiences.  What made them your ‘best?’

Can you draw any conclusions? Do any of your peak experiences have some of the same qualities? Do they have the same qualities but different proportions of the same qualities?  Do some experiences have different qualities?

My conclusions

Here are the results of my exploration—including my own experience, a review of others’ research, a pilot study done with others where I worked, and hundreds of classes and workshops led over twenty-five years.  The diagram below is what I call the optimal work circle, and it summarizes research I’ve done on the zone of peak performance, and how it compares with our ordinary experience. Twelve aspects of enlightened experience, collectively called the zone, are at the center. Twelve corresponding aspects of our ‘normal’ Western experience are depicted on the periphery.


Central values of the circle describe how, best ways, to experience, not what to do. At the center are deeply shared values, and our most valued and essential qualities. As we become masters in life, our experience changes from having the qualities on the periphery to having those at the center of circle. Continuous improvement can be defined as increasing involvement, moving from experience at the periphery toward experience at the center whenever possible. By fostering this type of continuous improvement, we have an effective implementation of “managing by values,” whereby the values are the boss, our principal guideline.

We have a means for “continuous improvement through a commitment to act on our expressed values.” (Blanchard, 1997, p. 68)

The twelve dimensions

Each radius or dimension of the circle above has a number from 1 to 12.  Looking at the part of radius #1 near the periphery, you can see that ‘self-effort’ and ‘controlling’ are aspects of our typical cultural view.  And near the center, on dimension #1, ‘unobstructed flow’ and ‘no controlling’ represent parts of a fairly enlightened view.

Each radius corresponds to one of the following twelve questions:

  1. What happens to personal will, effort, and control as one develops?
  2. What’s the source or cause of things? How does experience arise? How do answers to these questions change as one changes?
  3. How does the experience of accomplishing things change as we excel?
  4. How does the experience of space, boundaries, objects, and the world change as we grow?
  5. How do personal space and mind change?
  6. How does identity change?
  7. Where does knowing happen?
  8. What happens to the content of knowing?
  9. What happens to our typical fragmentation of being? How do health and wholeness arise?
  10. What happens to desire, need, and fulfillment as we come to live life to the fullest?
  11. How does the experience of time change?
  12. How does reality seem to change as one matures?

Other radii—or dimensions—could probably be used to represent other useful questions besides these twelve.  But the dimensions shown above hold considerable significance for most of us, and reflect might be called competencies for living.

On dimension #1, the central quality ‘unobstructed flow’ is something like an ‘answer’ to question #1.  The ‘answers’ at the center are what seem to be central to living all of life to the fullest—what you might call ‘optimal living’.  And all these central features taken together could be called a vision for living masterfully.  Most peak experiences can be characterized by the central qualities, although the qualities seem to appear in varying proportions in different experiences.

How does all this relate to work? 

Represented on the circle are different facets of perspectives.  Given any work—or any other activity, for that matter—that work can be done with many different perspectives or in different ‘ways’.  For example, you can sort checks in a way that’s timeless, or you can race against time while sorting checks.  The timeless facet is at the core of dimension #11, while racing against time is part of linear time, a feature near the periphery.  This circle depicts how we do things, and not what we do.  Anything can be done with lots of different world-views, whose features are presented on the circle.  My research so far indicates that the optimal way to improve anything, whether work or not, is to facilitate improvement along all twelve of these dimensions whenever opportunities present themselves.

The following ‘pages’

Corresponding to the twelve dimensions of the circle, the material on the following pages contains the above twelve questions, guiding principles, guiding questions, paradoxical statements, and quotes from various sources (see the bibliography at the end of this article) describing the central qualities.

The guiding principles attempt to summarize changes that occur as we move from the periphery of the circle toward the qualities at the center.  The guiding questions may be helpful during actual work situations to identify situations that can be optimized.


The word paradox is often taken to mean “a seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true.”  In this article the paradoxes have two parts:  the first part refers to a conventional or practical interpretation, and the second part refers to another interpretation that might be called “experiential,” or “as felt or perceived.”


Dimension 1:  Flow

What happens to personal will, effort, and control as one develops?


Guiding Principles:

As time and energy are fragmented less and less into the volition of a self set in contrast to the energy of nature and physical process, or into a potent doer dominating a passive experiential surrounding, the flow of events becomes more and more powerful and effortless; eventually action and movement do not exhibit any friction.

More simply:  The less willful imposition and resistance, the more powerful and effortless the flow of energy.


Guiding Question:

Are you applying effort or control to something that feels separate from you, or is your activity flowing effortlessly by itself?



There can be tension and resistance without effort by a self.

There can be coordination and order with complete spontaneity, and without control by a self.

There can be dancing without a sense of a dancer, or doer of the dancing.

There can be a particular person doing something while there is complete spontaneity, with no doer.

There can be attribution of causation without experiencing a causative entity or event separate from an effect.



Quotes for Dimension 1:  Flow

I discovered the middle path of stillness within speed, calmness within fear.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 11)

It’s a giddying rush that’s free of any effort on my part.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 19)

You do not let go the bow string, it just happens.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 25)

[football player Red Grange] runs . . . with almost no effort. . . . There is only the effortless, ghostlike, weave and glide upon effortless legs.   (Murphy, 1995, p. 86)

[golfer Bobby Jones:]  I was conscious of swinging the club easily . . . . I had to make no special effort to do anything.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 86)

He is no longer wasting effort fighting and restraining himself; muscles are no longer fighting muscles.  In the normal situation, part of our capacities are used for action, and part are wasted on restraining these same capacities.  Now there is no waste; the totality of the capacities can be used for action.  He becomes like a river without dams.  (Maslow, 1962, pp. 105-6)

[An] aspect of fully-functioning is effortlessness and ease of functioning when one is at one’s best.  What takes effort, straining and struggling at other times is now done without any sense of striving, of working or laboring, but ‘comes of itself.’  Allied to this often is the feeling of grace and the look of grace that comes with smooth, easy, effortless fully-functioning, when everything ‘clicks,’ or ‘is in the groove,’ or is ‘in over-drive.’  (Maslow, 1962, p. 106)

Experience is typically described as involving a sense of control—or, more precisely, as lacking the sense of worry about losing control that is typical in many situations of normal life.  (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 59)

. . . a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which he is in control of his actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment, between stimulus and response, or between past, present, and future.  (Ackerman, 1998, pp. 125-6)

When fully appreciated, Great Time is seen to be a kind of perfectly liquid, lubricious dimension—it is quintessentially ‘slippery’. . . . It is as though all the friction in the world were removed. (Tulku, 1977, p. 162)

Our speech and gestures become totally irrepressible and spontaneous, welling up from ‘time’, the dynamic center of our being. (Tulku, 1977, p. 191)

We have complete control in the special sense that we do not need to control anything. (Tulku, 1977, p. 254)

Discipline and a willingness to relax the usual temporal structures can be gateways to this pointless time, but ultimately such measures do not go to the essential ‘point’. When we adopt particular attitudes or release specific energies, we proceed from point to point. Now there is no point to such a procession and no place to arrive at. Without special effort—for no effort is needed—the whole of experience is already transformed.  (Tulku, 1994, p. 302)

Instead of objects presenting themselves to awareness, subject, objects, awareness, and experience are all given ‘by’ time. A steady flow presents itself without leading on to identity and substance, comment and construct. (Tulku, 1994, p. 311)


Dimension 2:  Creativity



What’s the source or cause of things?  How does experience arise?  How are things created?  How do answers to these questions change as one changes?


Guiding Principles:

The less the cause or source of experience and events is seen to be the self, the mind, some event in the distant past, the familiar here or present, or any other agent within a scenario, the more spontaneous and comprehensive the creative process becomes, ultimately leaving nothing outside its scope.

More simply:  The less the cause of things is seen to be a particular agent outside of or within a scenario, the more spontaneous and comprehensive the creative process becomes.


Guiding Question:

Do things feel familiar, somewhat predictable, or even habitual, or does each new moment, along with all that appears in the momentary scenario, seem spontaneous and fresh?



Appearance and events can have identifiable causes and sources within the world, and yet things can feel as though they come out of nowhere, with no source or cause.

The same objects, people, and world can be recognized repeatedly over time, and yet be seen as fresh, original appearances each time.

People and things can be assigned a historical identity while felt to be discontinuous or to be recreated moment by moment.


Quotes for Dimension 2:  Creativity

The source and resting point of all existence appears to be space. (Tulku, 1977, p. 10)

The source of experience is not the self, the mind, some psycho-physiological apparatus, or any other item within the ordinary world view. (Tulku, 1977, p. 49)

Great Space is not a separate thing or cause; it is not ‘elsewhere’, nor is its ‘creative act’ to be located in the time of the remote past.  (Tulku, 1977, p. 74)

We live in a very fantastic, magical world.  There is no ‘doer’ or performer of the magic. (Tulku, 1977, p. 107)

All drab items, facts, and trends can become alive, inspiring symbols….They are no longer seen as produced by—and tied to—a ‘horizontal’ temporal series.  So they, in their givenness with us, can point in what seems at first like a different, more vertical and liberating direction. (Tulku, 1977, p. 145)

There is no fixed world order that stands outside and around us, ensuring that our experience stays within proper limits. (Tulku, 1977, p. 253)

We are not creatures, products of Space and Time.  Nor were we caused at some time in the past and then left on our own.  We are all being newly born within Space and Time, second by second…. (Tulku, 1977, p. 300)

The less we insist, the closer we draw to the invisible energy of the Body of Time: the creative impulse through which appearance itself manifests. Allied with this creative force, we approach each challenge with new resources. Nothing is strictly impossible, for nothing is firmly established. (Tulku, 1994, pp. 165-66)

Everything—whether past, present, or future—is seen to be unoriginated, because ‘knowledge’ perceives that, in point of fact, there is no moving time. (Tulku, 1980, p. 54)


Dimension 3:  Accomplishment



How does the experience of accomplishing things change as we excel?


Guiding Principles:

The less effortful our operations on separate existents or events embedded in a temporal grid, the more balanced and the greater productivity is, with events and products appearing to be nonexistent, uncaused, and unoriginated, while in another sense remaining measurable and attributable to particular individuals.

More simply:  The less distinction between ourselves, our work process, the things we’re working on, and time, the greater the productivity.


Guiding Question:

Are you efforting or looking forward to getting things done, or are you currently completely satisfied within your work-in-progress?



While we can attribute production and service to a particular individual, that person can experience the work as an activity that flowed by itself, with no effort.



Quotes for Dimension 3:  Accomplishment

The person in the peak-experiences usually feels himself to be at the peak of his powers, using all his capacities at the best and fullest. . . . He is at his best . . . . This is not only felt subjectively but can be seen by the observer.  (Maslow, 1962, pp. 105-6)

His behavior and experience becomes . . . self-validating, end-behavior, and end-experience, rather than means-behavior or means-experience.  (Maslow, 1962, p. 110)

[My self-actualizing subjects were] uniformly more capable of effective action.  (Maslow, 1962, p. 124)

In . . . healthy [self-actualizing] people we find duty and pleasure to be the same thing, as is also work and play, self-interest and altruism . . . .  (Maslow, 1962, p. 163)

To the extent that we try to master the environment . . . to that extent do we cut the possibility of full . . . non-interfering cognition. . . . To cite psychotherapeutic experience, the more eager we are to make a diagnosis and a plan of action, the less helpful do we become.  The more eager we are to cure, the longer it takes.  Every psychiatric researcher has to learn not to try to cure, not to be impatient.  In this and in many other situations, to give in is to overcome, to be humble is to succeed. (Maslow, 1962, p. 184)

The purpose of Zen archery is not to hit the target, but rather the concentration . . . . When the archer does hit the center of the target in such a state of mental calm, it is proof that his spiritual discipline is successful.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 11)

Chains of events even within our ordinary space are seen to be nothing other than a kind of ‘space’ projecting ‘space’ into ‘space’.  Yet…such an orientation…may seem to conflict with ordinary categories and distinctions unless we are sensitive to its purpose and range of application. (Tulku, 1977, p. 7-8)

‘We’, our position, goal-orientedness, and experience . . . are . . .  nonoccurring and nonlocated. (Tulku, 1977, pp. 100-101)


Dimension 4:  Objective Space



How does the experience of space, boundaries, objects, and the world change as we become more virtuous?


Guiding Principles:

The less we try to establish ourselves as autonomous beings confronting reality as a contrasting world of entities that are separated from each other by space, the more we see how we and all familiar things, while distributed over ordinary space, are nevertheless unseparated and even intimately connected within and as a higher-order, dimensionless space.

More simply:  The less things and beings seem separated by ordinary space, the more they are interconnected as dimensionless space.


Guiding Question:

Do objects and events take up space and appear to be separate and dispersed, or are do they seem intimately connected in and even as one space?



Familiar things, while separate and distributed over ordinary space, are nevertheless unseparated and even intimately connected within and as a higher-order, dimensionless space.

While the physical world may be a referent for any activity, no world order seems fixed outside and around us.

Objects may have an inside and outside, yet they need not have any perceived depth.

While there may be measurable lengths, there is no felt distance.

Although objects have volume, they aren’t experienced as extending in space, or exclusively occupying space.

Geographical coordinates and points, and ‘here’ and ‘there’ can mark positions; however, there are no felt spatial divisions or extension—everything is the same space, ‘here’.


Quotes for Dimension 4:  Objective Space

[long-distance runner Bill Emmerton:]  I felt as though I was going through space, treading on clouds.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 17)

[golfer Jack Fleck:]  I can’t exactly describe it, but as I looked at the putt, the hole looked as big as a wash tub.   (Murphy, 1995, p. 38)

[Charles Lindbergh:] . . . as though I were an awareness spreading out through space, over the earth and into the heavens, unhampered by time or substance, free from the gravitation that binds men to heavy human problems of the world.   (Murphy, 1995, p. 65)

Everything is made of emptiness and form is condensed emptiness.  (Einstein)

One small part of the world is perceived as if it were for the moment all of the world.  (Maslow, 1962, p. 88)

The astronomer is “out there” with the stars (rather than a separateness peering across an abyss at another separateness through a telescopic-keyhole).  (Maslow, 1962, p. 105)

A truly comprehensive ‘space’ . . . is not set in contrast to solid, opaque ‘things’. (Tulku, 1977, p. xi)

When a single feather and a thousand worlds are equally this space, who can say which contains which? (Tulku, 1977, p. xli)

Dichotomies like ‘existence’ and ‘nonexistence’, ‘object’ and ‘space’, become resolved in the light of different and more accurate conceptions. (Tulku, 1977, p. 14)

Surfaces can appear as such and still be more transparent, because—in a sense—they ‘reflect’ the degree of our own relaxation. (Tulku, 1977, p. 16)

Although…structures…are finite in size, the…’space’ dimension may be those structures without thereby being finite. (Tulku, 1977, p. 39)

The Great Space dimension reveals an all-inclusive unity that, rather paradoxically, is not spread out over any region. (Tulku, 1977, p. 62)

Great Space . . . has no extensive dimension. (Tulku, 1977, p. 112)

While all familiar things are…distributed over ordinary space . . . , they are all intimately connected insofar as their Great Space dimension is considered.  (Tulku, 1977, p. 112)

Each finite . . . region of our realm is virtually infinite in its Great Space aspect. (Tulku, 1977, p. 112)

All existence and experience is like an apparition, a surface with no substantial core, no dimensions to it, no wider and founding environment. (Tulku, 1977, p. 199)


Dimension 5:  Mental Space



How do personal space and mind change?


Guiding Principles:

The less the sense of separation between ‘our private world’ and the ‘world of others’, the mind and physical reality, the more inside and outside are deactivated, and it becomes clear that the self, the ordinary mind, ‘personal space’, and ‘objective space’ all derive from a higher space; eventually an overall understanding—which is itself a kind of space—expresses and is all presentations.

More simply:  The less separated ‘our private world’ and the ‘world of others’, the more inside and outside are seen as the same undivided space.


Guiding Question:

Is there a private space or personal world that feels separate from everything outside, or do inner and outer, subjective and objective appear to be inseparable facets of the same undivided space?



I can have a mind without needing to feel that it’s separate from others’ minds.

I can have a mind without feeling that it’s stable, continuously existing, or independent of ‘the outside’.

I can have a personal space or position without having to feel separate from anything/anyone else.


Quotes for Dimension 5:  Mental Space

He is more able to fuse with the world, with what was formerly not-self, e.g., the lovers come closer to forming a unit rather than two people, . . . the creator becomes one with his work being created, . . . the appreciator becomes the music . . . . (Maslow, 1962, p. 105)

Lower space is like a walled enclosure.  If these walls can be somehow rendered transparent without thereby setting up new walls and points of view, the notion of inside and outside is thus deactivated . . . . (Tulku, 1977, p. 15)

We, our space, our awareness are all deriving from a higher space and understanding. (Tulku, 1977, p. 42)

The more you ‘open things up’ . . . the more you experience yourself as . . . Space, which has no ‘place’, no ‘position’. (Tulku, 1977, p. 45)

There is actually no ordinary mind at all. (Tulku, 1977, p. 63)

We completely transcend a self-centered orientation and become fully with everyone and everything else.  Locations and attitudes, problems and confusions, no longer bind us.  (Tulku, 1977, pp. 113-114)

The shape and form of what appears becomes inseparable from the shape and form of mind.  (Tulku, 1994, p. xliii)


Dimension 6:  Identity



How does personal identity change?


Guiding Principles:

The less ‘charge’ that the self-component has as the agent dominating a passive surrounding, the clearer it is that the ‘self’ is a generalization of many instantaneous presentings of ‘time’; eventually our sense of identity is seen to derive from an awareness that is not limited to a particular position or ‘point of view’ at all.

More simply:  The less the self dominates ‘its’ surroundings by taking various positions, the clearer and more fluid our awareness.


Guiding Question:

Is there a sense of self that stands apart from experience and externals, or do you feel identified with, or the same as, what’s happening?



There can be people with names and histories who nevertheless have no sense of substantiality or continuous existence.

There can be recognizable personality without an experience of personality-owner and without a feeling of repeated patterns.


Quotes for Dimension 6:  Identity

Being ecstatic means being flung out of your usual self. . . . consciousness vanishes . . . and you feel free of all mind-body constraints.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 19)

[When judo is practiced properly,] There will be no curtain to separate you from your opponent.  You will become one with him.  You and your opponent will no longer be two bodies separated physically from each other but a single entity . . . .  (Murphy, 1995, p. 32)

[auto racer Jochen Rindt:]  You just . . . are part of the car and the track.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 23)

[auto racer Jimmy Clark:]  I don’t drive a car, really.  The car happens to be under me and I’m controlling it, but it’s as much a part of me as I am of it.   (Murphy, 1995, p. 32)

We had known some of the most exciting climbing of our lives, had reached a level of unity and selflessness that had made success possible. . . . we felt . . . an extraordinary elation, not solely from our success, but also because we had managed to become such a close-knit team.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 112)

[Japanese swordsman:]  When the identity is realized, I as swordsman see no opponent confronting me . . . . every movement he makes as well as every thought he conceives are felt as it they were all my own . . . . (Murphy, 1995, p. 130)

[Stirling Moss:]  You have to be part of the car.  It’s no longer that you’re in a car and doing something with it, that’s why I refer to this as a complete entity. . . . I feel a car is an animate object.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 133)

An actual appreciation of ‘time’ shows that the way in which it presents identities, differences, and interrelations is a direct evocation of ‘space’, of ‘no-things’, of non-plurality. (Tulku, 1977, p. 146)

Our usual rigidity and lethargy derive from the fact that the ‘self’ that we ordinarily try to improve is a generalization of many instantaneous presentings of ‘time’. (Tulku, 1977, p. 178)

This Knowledge is not oriented around us as the subject in a world of objects.  It is with everything and reveals everything, without establishing an ‘active subject’ and a ‘passive object’. (Tulku, 1977, p. 252)

Forms appear but do not take birth; they exhibit but do not take up the conditions they portray. A new condition prevails: ‘things’ as appearance are space, while space appears ‘in’ things. The borders between ‘is’ and ‘is not’ are no longer solid in the same way. Appearance shares in the ‘no identity’ of space, ‘taking’ form without a body. (Tulku, 1994, pp. 33-34)

We too appear in the dance of time. At one level, we continue to ‘be’ our patterns and our limits, our prospects and our aspirations, the identities we proclaim and the perceptions we own. But . . . things are and are not. Opposites unite, for it is only the rational that makes divisions.  (Tulku, 1994, p. 147)


Dimension 7:  Locus of Knowing



Where is the locus of knowledge?  Where does knowing happen?


Guiding Principles:

The less we see knowledge as just something located inside our heads that we try to achieve during certain acts of knowing, the clearer it becomes that knowing is not just a particular type of event, but a mode of ‘seeing’ which is not limited to a particular position or ‘point of view’  relative to passive objects; eventually there is a balanced encompassing of the whole situation, a ‘knowing’ clarity that does not radiate from a center, but is rather in everything, and everything is in it.

More simply:  The less knowledge is that which is both lacked and held by a self, the more it becomes a balanced, unowned encompassing of whatever manifests.


Guiding Question:

Is knowledge simply something that you or others possess or lack, or do you feel intimately part of what’s around you, knowing things that are happening from inside them?



While an individual can know and perceive, knowing need not feel like it belongs to a person, takes time, or radiates or occurs from a center.

When a particular person knows an object, there may be no felt distinction between knower and known.

When a particular person knows a locatable object, knowing can be experienced as a nonlocated encompassing field.


Quotes for Dimension 7:  Locus of Knowing

It is possible that ordinary ‘knowing’ and the observed insentient physical basis for it are both the result of a higher-order ‘knowing’ having taken up a certain stance or position. (Tulku, 1977, p. 25)

The knowing ‘by-standers’ and the known ‘outside-standers’ are no longer accepted as what is really knowing and known. (Tulku, 1977, p. 240)

We can develop a mode of ‘seeing’ which is not limited to a particular position or ‘point of view’ at all. (Tulku, 1977, p. 27)

The higher-order space or field is not falsified or blocked out by the appearance of discrete objects.  Thus, we might say that higher-order knowledge does attend to conventional items and perspectives. (Tulku, 1977, p. 30)

We, our space, our awareness are all deriving from a higher space and understanding. (Tulku, 1977, p. 42)

Knowing is . . . particularly not just something located inside our heads, as the conventional picture of an isolated knower would have it. (Tulku, 1977, p. 240)

This Knowledge is not oriented around us as the subject in a world of objects.  It is with everything and reveals everything, without establishing an ‘active subject’ and a ‘passive object’.  The apparent object pole and the containing world horizon can all be ‘knowing’. (Tulku, 1977, p. 252)

There is no longer a ‘looker’, but instead, only a ‘knowingness’ which can see more broadly, from all sides and points of view at once.  More precisely, the ‘knowing’ clarity does not radiate from a center, but is rather in everything, and everything is in it.  There is neither an ‘outside’ nor an ‘inside’ in the ordinary sense, but rather a pervasive and intimate ‘in’ or ‘within’ as an open-ended knowingness. (Tulku, 1977, p. 282)

Full knowledge dissolves the ‘distance’ between knower and known that characterizes conventional not-knowing.  With no distance, an intimacy of knowing emerges, and knowledge becomes inseparable from love. (Tulku, 1987, p. xlviii)


Dimension 8:  Content of Knowing



What happens to the content of knowing?


Guiding Principles:

The less that knowledge is a possession that only allows the self to identify and distinguish what is desired from what is not, to place what is ‘known’ into familiar categories and judge in terms of oppositions such as good and bad, the more that knowing illuminates the relationship between subject and object; eventually knowing merges with the subject under investigation, becoming an awareness that seems to ’embody’ both clarity and appreciation, ‘understanding’ and ‘feeling’.

More simply:  The less that knowledge is restricted to a self’s identification, categorization, and judgment, the closer it comes to a clear appreciation merged with the subject under investigation.


Guiding Question:

Is knowledge simply identification, categorization, judgment, and detached observation, or is awareness an illuminating clarity merged with the subject being explored?



While particular objects, events, or thoughts are known, still there can be a sense of comprehensive, unbounded knowing.

The perception of a particular object need not involve a sense of a perceiver nor any feeling of separate context for the object.

Thoughts can express distinctions without referring to experientially separate objects, people, or events.

Memories need not refer to a separate past position, and hopes, anticipations, and expectations need not refer to separate future positions.

Pain, suffering, and emotion can appear without a relatively positioned victim or owner.   


Quotes for Dimension 8:  Content of Knowing

At the level of self-actualizing, many dichotomies become resolved, opposites are seen to be unities and the whole dichotomous way of thinking is recognized to be immature.  (Maslow, 1962, p. 207)

[Soccer player Pelé:]  Intuitively, at any instant, he seemed to know the position of all the other players on the field, and to sense just what each man was going to do next.   (Murphy, 1995, p. 38)

[weightlifter Yuri Vlasov:]  Everything seems clearer and whiter than ever before, as if great spotlights had been turned on.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 119)

With all ordinary thoughts—even as these thoughts—you may discover…freedom from subject-object fragmentation. (Tulku, 1977, p. 61)

Knowingness has the quality of perfection.  It is not simply a content of knowledge, for it involves no sense of a subject-object duality. (Tulku, 1977, p. 219)

Great Knowledge is….Arguments and assertions cannot single it out or refer to it.  It is not a meaning….It is unlearned or nonlearned learnedness. (Tulku, 1977, p. 253)

‘Knowingness’ is inexhaustible and can be neither fragmented into little knowable packets nor foreshortened by known content of any sort.  This does not mean that ‘knowingness’ is a vacant absorption, but rather that ‘things’ and encounters are themselves ‘knowingness’. (Tulku, 1977, p. 271)

The shape and form of what appears becomes inseparable from the shape and form of mind.  (Tulku, 1994, p. xliii)

Mental projection can practice the instant reflection of images, arising within memory or awareness like an image in a mirror, but never entering the mirror itself. (Tulku, 1994, p. 151)

In this new vision, distinctions come from wholeness and remain within wholeness. (Tulku, 1994, p. 165)

This knowledge was freely available:  less a possession to be obtained than a luminous, transparent ‘attribute’ of experience and mental activity. (Tulku, 1987, p. xlv)

As we learn how to take knowledge itself as the topic, inquiry and wonder give rise to the love of knowledge.  The source of our knowing merges with the subject under investigation, and knowledge becomes an ever-present companion and guide. (Tulku, 1987, p. 14)


Dimension 9:  Well-Being



How do health and wholeness arise?  What happens to fragmentation of being?


Guiding Principles:

As habitual self-images lose their feeling of reality and the boundaries among self, mind, body, personality, and others become more open, experience becomes less fragmented and conflicted; eventually we draw a wealth of nourishment and energy directly from our own being, free of separations and disharmonies.

More simply:  As inner and outer partitions lose their feeling of reality, greater nourishment and fulfillment is drawn directly from being.


Guiding Question:

Are there boundaries and divisions among your self, mind, body, and personality, or is fulfillment and satisfaction naturally and directly accompanying a sense of wholeness?



There can be a person with a personality, reasoning, emotion, sensation, intuition, and different body parts without any sense of fragmentation or feeling of separate ‘parts’.



Quotes for Dimension 9:  Well-Being

It happens when our inner forces are resolved.  And when a person’s forces are resolved, it makes us feel at home, because we know, by some sixth sense, that there are no other unexpected forces lurking underground. (Alexander, 1979, p. 51)

[defensive tackle Joe Greene:]  Playing with every part of yourself [with] the will to get the job done. . . . You have great awareness of everything that is happening around you and of your part in the whole.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 7)

[climber Arlene Blum:]  Like coming home to a place of beauty, splendor, and peace—a place where I felt I belonged . . . . (Murphy, 1995, p. 10)

[climber Rob Schultheis:]  I felt . . . bliss, a joy beyond comprehension . . . a feeling that all ills were healed, everything was all right, always had been, really, and always would be.  There was nothing wanting in all of creation; anything less than perfection was impossible.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 124)

An integrated, natural intelligence, unfragmented into reason, emotions, sensations, and intuition, is our greatest treasure, and our key to progress. (Tulku, 1977, p. xxxiv)

No aspect of an experience is ‘outside’ or apart from knowingness according to this perspective.  Everything is now ‘within’. (Tulku, 1977, p. 268)

No separations or disharmonies are found when appearance is seen as the embodiment of Knowledge. (Tulku, 1977, p. 277)

We participate in an uncontrived intimacy.  (Tulku, 1977, p. 287)

Wealth is intrinsic to our Being.  When this is recognized—without there being a recognizer—there can be no bondage, fear, or worry, and no ugliness or imperfection, for the presence of these is itself incomparable beauty. (Tulku, 1977, p. 297)

In this new vision, distinctions come from wholeness and remain within wholeness. (Tulku, 1994, p. 165)


Dimension 10:  Need and Fulfillment



What happens to desire, need, and fulfillment as we come to live life to the fullest?


Guiding Principles:

The less we see our selves as lacking and needing pleasures and things, the more everything—all situations, thoughts, and emotions—is found to be immediately fulfilling; there are no isolated packets of nourishment to be grasped at in an anxious or a ‘venturing out’ manner.

More simply:  The less a self is seen as needing things, the more everything is found to be immediately fulfilling.


Guiding Question:

Are you driven by a desire for pleasure or a need, or is everything being found to be immediately and inherently fulfilling?



A person can have desire and preference, or can pursue this or that course of action, without any sense of need or deficiency.

Whether a situation is labeled positive or negative, ugly or imperfect, fulfillment and complete appreciation are immediately available.

Within a finite duration of clock time infinite fulfillment is available.

Though most of the world is outside the individual, a person need not feel cut off from or lacking anything.  


Quotes for Dimension 10:  Need and Fulfillment

We can find everything to be clear and fulfilling, and can see that there are no isolated packets of nourishment or knowledge to be grasped at in an anxious or a ‘venturing out’ manner.  (Tulku, 1977, p. xvi)

‘Space’ and ‘time’ are not just backgrounds or supporting mediums for further experiences.  They provide a very special form of nourishment for our humanity, which is usually nurtured only indirectly through the pursuit of our physical pleasures and needs, and our ego-centered values. (Tulku, 1977, p. 156)

This idea of infinite growth does not mean that we need to follow some long, difficult path.  Great Knowledge grows, not by making linear progress, but by opening up to the infinite perfection that is ‘here’. (Tulku, 1977, p. 216)

Although infinitely greater ‘knowing’ is available, it is not ‘here’ in this or that, nor is it outside or elsewhere.  This is not meant as a riddle, but as the suspension of the riddle which our common condition of searching for fulfillment is always posing. (Tulku, 1977, p. 241)

Fulfillment is available within all situations, thoughts, and emotions, whether convention labels them as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. (Tulku, 1977, p. 271)

We participate in an uncontrived intimacy.  We are also absolutely self-sufficient in a nonegoistic sense.  We can draw nourishment and energy directly from our own being, directly from Space and Time. (Tulku, 1977, p. 287)


Dimension 11:  Feeling of Time



How does the experience of time change?


Guiding Principles:

The less that time carries the existential character of being an inescapable force compelling us to move within a linear temporal grid, the more that all going from place to place and from experience to experience seems to occur as a succession of experiences in the same ‘spot’; eventually time appears as energy that does not occur in moments, and is neither linear nor sequential.

More simply:  The less compelling our sense of time passing, the more time appears as a nonlinear and nonsequential dynamic process.


Guiding Question:

Do you notice a feeling of time flowing around you, or are you timelessly involved in things?



There can be distinguishable past, present, and future times without any felt separation between the times.

Events can ‘occur’ without any experienced movement or transition from one to another.

Clock time may be finite and limited, but the experienced duration of a period of clock time is not at all fixed.


Quotes for Dimension 11:  Feeling of Time

A single play may seem like forever or an inning may seem like only a second.   (Murphy, 1995, p. 40)

[football player John Brodie:]  Time seems to slow way down . . . . It seems as if I had all the time in the world . . . and yet I know the defensive line is coming at me just as fast as ever.   (Murphy, 1995, p. 42)

[Tom Seaver:]  As Rod Gaspar’s front foot stretched out and touched home plate, in the fraction of a second before I leaped out of the dugout . . . my whole baseball life flashed in front of me . . . .  (Murphy, 1995, p. 47)

There is a common experience in Tai Chi . . . . Awareness of the passage of time completely stops.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 47)

Different times do not violate the nondistributive nature of Great Time.  They are not linked, in a way that irrevocably separates them, by their respective positions in a temporal series.  The ‘series’ is a fiction. (Tulku, 1977, p. 106)

Time is neither linear nor sequential; in fact, there are neither moments nor successive movement, and thus no succession. (Tulku, 1977, p. 136)

Time, any ‘time’, is actually enabling, not restraining, if appreciated and used with the right ‘Knowledge’. (Tulku, 1977, p. 142)

Time ceases to be seen as unfolding distributively, from one thing to the next.  Instead, it penetrates directly through all meanings and partitions to show Great Space in a perfect, timeless encounter—timeless in the sense of being unconditioned and without ordinary duration. (Tulku, 1977, p. 150)

The Body of Time transitions the appearance of what appears. Without confirming division, it allows for the conceptual separation into past and present and future. (Tulku, 1994, p. 162)

The boundaries distinguishing five minutes from one second are unreal in a certain sense, and so any amount of experience constituting five minutes could also be had in one second.  The ‘small’ interval is not really smaller, nor is the ‘larger’ one really larger. (Tulku, 1980, pp. 41-2)

We are ‘time’, rather than merely isolated objects located in, but separate from, it. (Tulku, 1980, p. 53)


Dimension 12:  Feeling of Reality



How does reality seem to change as one matures?


Guiding Principles:

As experience, events, and substance are explored, the fixed sense of reality grows more attenuated, eventually giving way to complete openness.

More simply:  When ‘happenings’ and existents are thoroughly explored, nothing substantial is found as a ‘core’ or foundation.


Guiding Question:

Does reality seem solid, fixed, and substantial, or does everything seem wondrously ephemeral?



While objects and people exist and interact, they can seem ethereal and insubstantial.

When events occur, it can seem dreamlike, as though nothing at all is really happening.

The clearer our perception, the less we see reality as a compounded object.

Though knowledge may refer to physical and mental realities, certainty is diminished in proportion to how experientially separate entities seem.

Experiential fragmentation of objective reality destroys certainty.


Quotes for Dimension 12:  Feeling of Reality

[Charles Lindbergh:]  All sense of substance leaves.  There’s no longer weight to my body, no longer hardness to the stick.  The feeling of flesh is gone.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 116)

People have told us that the world “seemed like a dream” after an uplifting game or sporting expedition.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 117)

[runner Ian Jackson:]  My body seemed insubstantial like some ethereal vehicle of awareness.  (Murphy, 1995, p. 135)

Everything is made of emptiness and form is condensed emptiness.  (Einstein)

Substance gradually grows more attenuated, eventually arriving at a final stage that is open and empty.  (Tulku, 1994, p. 4)

Substance is a mysteriously condensed form of what in our ordinary way of speaking we would call ‘nothing at all’. (Tulku, 1994, p. 5)

For each appearance, there is nothing above or beneath it, no point of origination more solid than its own communication. (Tulku, 1994, p. 18)

‘Before’ the present manifestation, ‘before’ the ‘before’ that manifestation presupposes, appearance without substance offers the other side of birth . . . . (Tulku, 1994, p. 27)



Ackerman, L.S. (1998). The flow state: A new view of organizations and managing. In J.D. Adams (ed)., Transforming work (pp. 125-126). Alexandria, VA: Miles River Press.

Alexander, C. (1979). The timeless way of building. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Blanchard, K. (1997). Managing by values. San Francisco:  Berrett-Koehler.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Grove, A.  (1983). High Output Management.  New York:  Random House.

Maslow, A. (1962). Toward a psychology of being. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.

Maslow, A. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking.

Moon, R.H., & Randall, S. (Eds.). (1980). Dimensions of thought: Current explorations in time, space, and knowledge (2 vols.). Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing.

Murphy, M.H., & White, R.A. (1995). In the zone:  Transcendent experience in sports. New York: Penguin.

Petranker, J. (1993). Mastery of mind: Perspectives on time, space, and knowledge. Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing.

Senge, P.M (1990). Fifth discipline. New York: Doubleday.

Tulku, T. (1977). Time, space, and knowledge:  A new vision of reality. Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing.

Tulku, T. (1987). Love of knowledge. Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing.

Tulku, T. (1990). Knowledge of time and space. Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing.

Tulku, T. (1993). Visions of knowledge: Liberation of the modern mind. Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing.

Tulku, T. (1994). Dynamics of time and space. Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing.



How does our experience–including stress– arise?  How do the various levels arise in experience?  Is there some natural , hidden dynamic that sets them up?   What shapes their content and generates the ‘realness’ and continuity of entities in our experience?   Does the creative dynamic follow any recognizable pattern or sequence?    Are there ‘points’ where we can feed back into the process and change our experience?   


Rather than a ‘faithful’ and direct reflection of what’s happening around us, our experience is normally fabricated unconsciously in a fraction of a second from our sense perceptions, complexes, past habitual tendencies, and complexes; seeing this apperceptive process in action enables us to free ourselves of the stressful effects that it produces.

Example of ‘reality constructing’

Have you ever awakened in the morning to see, first thing, a blank white space?  Lying in bed, gazing into space, and still in “slow motion,” was there no knowledge for a while of anything definite, like the fact that it was a ceiling, or the identification of which room it was, in which direction the body was oriented, what day or time it was?

Did you find that as you very gradually “got up to speed,” ordinary reality started to be pieced together?  Was there a recognition that the body was in a particular room, oriented in a certain direction, but still no knowledge of what day it was? Then a recognition of what day it was, and what time it was? Then against a background of flowing time, was there a familiar sense of being a self at the center of your life? Before long was there thinking about what the self needed to do this day, and a feeling of directedness or movement to get things done?

Years of meditation experience, as well as writings of psychologists and meditation masters, confirm that this process of ‘building up’ ordinary experiential structures doesn’t occur only when we wake up–it seems to occur, largely unknown to us, and much more rapidly, most of the time.  We can refer to this little-known developmental process as apperception*, or the stress development cycle (SDC), or the field communique.**

*footnote:  this is an extension of the common psychological meaning of the word apperception to additional levels of experience.

**footnote:  see, e.g., pp. 17-18, DTS

Psychologist Theodore Jasnos wrote that in our mental lives, “One thought, perception, or image leads to the next. The [nearly instantaneous] process is self-perpetuating and ordinarily goes unexamined.” (Jasnos, 1975, p. 101) . . . “Cognitive awareness normally illuminates . . . [an] object of awareness but not the intrinsic process by which consciousness of the object develops.” (Jasnos, 1975, p. 103)  Furthermore, we’re usually not aware of how the self–considered to be an independent agent ‘having’ perceptions and thoughts–is also a product of the developmental process–“the ‘self’ that we ordinarily try to improve is a generalization of many instantaneous presentings of ‘time’. (Tulku, 1977, p. 178)

We don’t usually see the apperceptive cycle in action

We are usually unaware of this repetitive cycle partly because it’s so quick.  We usually ‘miss’ the early stages of the cycle, only becoming aware of its output ‘product’, our ‘normal’ sense of existing and acting in the world.  Here’s a short description of the almost instantaneous cycle:   “. . . within the fact of uncommittedness there emerge tendencies which develop into feelings and images. These feelings and images introduce the possibility of associations and interpretations. This gives rise to a consolidating thrust that results in the complete pattern of an ‘individual person encountering a world’ or an ’embodied subject knowing physical objects’.” (Tulku, 1977, pp. 32-3)  In just a fraction of a second, subtle habitual tendencies arise and lead to feelings which can be registered as positive or negative , and then ‘owned’ by a sense of self.  Once the self is involved, we may turn further away from the feeling, changing it to what we usually label as stress.

Trungpa describes the cycle this way:  “There seems to be a very rapid buildup and then, poof, the process goes away. And then it starts again. . . . there is a buildup and then this whole building-up process turns to dust. There is a gap, a space. And then either you build up again or you do not. . . . Automatically the process builds up; but before and after that, there is some space.” (Trungpa, 1975, p. 70)

Though it may operate unconsciously for years, if we can learn to see this process in action, its quality gradually changes and the process becomes ‘controllable’.   When awareness, or knowledge, illuminates the  process, it gradually changes.  Depending on the depth of our awareness and the pattern and consistency of how we relate to what has just appeared, we influence what gets projected in later cycles.    “Time’s ‘flow’ is arranged in an orderly way corresponding to what has been experienced or presupposed—and what has been repressed or avoided—regarding the founding dimensions of reality.” (p. 126, TSK)

We can learn to shorten the process and lessen the rigidity of its ‘read-out’–its ‘product’ or ‘output’ experience and world-view.  With continued practice, observing this process in action is probably the most direct and effective way of handling stress, allowing us to transform it earlier and earlier in its originating cycle.   Rather than being an unchangeable or persistent thing that we can only ‘manage’ or adapt to, stress is just a tenuous form of energy that we can learn to change immediately as it arises.

Stages and Sequence of the Stress Development Cycle (SDC)

Jasnos describes the cycle as a creative development of experience:  “[This process can be described by] a developmental model . . . [that shows how] . . . earlier stages in the . . . process are considered to support later stages which occur successively. . . . This sequence is a process of “origination” which escapes recognition by the untrained mind. (Jasnos, 1975, p. 106) . . . Knowledge of the apperceptive process is gained through a very subtle practice . . . .” (Jasnos, 1975, p. 106)

Trungpa summarizes the sequence of stages: [The process] “takes place in a fraction of a second of consciousness . . . .“ “Now the very, very first blank . . . is the . . . experience of the primordial ground. Then the next instant there is a question—you do not know who and what and where you are.” Then “you have an impression of something. It is blank, nothing definite. Then you try to relate to it as something and all the names that you have been taught come back to you and you put a label on that thing. You brand it with that label and then you know your relationship to it. You like it or you dislike it, depending on your association of it with the past. . . . This whole process happens very quickly. It just flashes into place. (Trungpa, 1975, pp. 18-19)

With continued practice [by means of some TSK practices, DTS #4, e.g.], the following levels of the apperceptive process can be distinguished. (Jasnos, 1975, p. 107) These stages or “guideposts” are not intended as an abstract or theoretical system, but as a set of recognizable yet momentary experiential ‘events’ that together constitute the stress development process/cycle. (Jasnos, 1975, p. 107) Note that, in general, the intensity of stress worsens as the cycle progresses from stage 1 to stage 5, with the perception of something as ‘negative’ occurring at stage 4.

  1. “ . . . a precognitive substratum or ground; developmentally the substratum of imagery, dreaming, thought, perception, and feeling . . . out of this substratum emerges differentiation; it is possible to know . . . , but not in the sense that we usually identify an object; by the time the experience evolves into the state where we recognize it as an “experience” it is no longer . . . [level 1].” (Jasnos, 1975, p. 108)
  1. “. . . in this field [stage 1] there is a very fine activity . . . ; the first part . . . before you think; the initial occurrence of activity and movement in the field, . . . the initial activity in a nearly instantaneous process, culminating in grasping, attachment, and abstract thought but is not yet any of these; the basis for a subject-object distinction is only beginning; evasive glimmer of activity; . . . not yet perception, not yet thought. (Jasnos, 1975, p. 110)
  1. “. . . perception, but not yet discrimination and grasping; a totally sharp, located perception; the perception coming into being; the sensing of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste is made into the perception in an action that arises out of a faint glimmer [stage 2]. (Jasnos, 1975, p. 111)
  1. “. . . just previous to this stage [4], there was perception [stage 3] but no preference; at . . . [this] level the positive or negative bias that infuses the grasping mind is established; movement toward or away from the object of perception is inescapable at this point; we experience a movement toward, away from, or become indifferent to objects in our experience (Jasnos, 1975, p. 117); clear separation and a sense of position; the barest recognition of . . . a center . . . experienced as belonging to me; if . . . [this stage] did not function we would “have no place;” experience of belonging someplace (Jasnos, 1975, p. 112).
  1. [Self-image and ego:] from here on we are in territory more familiar to Western psychology; not only what a person might consciously identify in reference to himself but also unconscious and preconscious processes; beginning with an “I” which experiences; becomes imbued with thoughts such as “I am inadequate . . . lonely . . . or guilty;” when self-image starts, then ego is already there; ego is . . . a more “separate entity like a wall or an object;” ego. . . [implies] an element of proudness (Jasnos, 1975, p. 112-13); the SDC produces “the complete pattern of an ‘individual person encountering a world’ or an ’embodied subject knowing physical objects’.” (Tulku, 1977, p. 34)

Everything that needs to be done is already happening

Sufficient experience exploring the apperceptive process should lead to insight that the self and all of ‘its’ desirable and troublesome conditions  are convincingly real, but momentary and fleeting fabrications that don’t need correcting or changing.  As Trungpa said, “There seems to be a very rapid buildup and then, poof, the process goes away. And then it starts again. . . . there is a buildup and then this whole building-up process turns to dust.” (Trungpa, 1975, p. 70)  Seen in this light, the scenarios clearly have no absolute or fixed, unchangeable nature—unpleasant experiences seem ‘real’ only because of the method of projection, as we discuss in the following section.  We can let the process go, without ‘freezing’ it and then trying to fix what was frozen.

In general, psychological approaches to change start after the apperceptive process has formed a sense of self that ‘has’ a troubling ‘condition’.  The self is seen as independent, stably existent, and rather capable.  “Since we consider ourselves to be separate objects in time, continuous in a changing world, we try to hold the ‘self’ and other familiar objects down, treating them as being relatively stable and fixed.” (p. 23, Interview with Tarthang Tulku)  Then presuming that the self is an effective and stable change agent, we attempt to alter troublesome psychological conditions. But since “the ‘self’ that we ordinarily try to improve is a generalization of many instantaneous presentings of ‘time'” (Tulku, 1977, p. 178), using a psychological approach is very similar to trying to change what happens to a particular character on the screen during a movie, not realizing that the movie itself is a bewildering fabrication.

Fabricating continuity of time and self from discrete momentary experiences

But can a series of discrete mini-events (micro-code) within this apperceptive process generate our apparently authentic  feeling of ordinary existence and reality?

Consider a first-level scenario:  We believe we are the independently capable selves felt at the center of our lives, the selves that apparently are responsible, do the thinking, make the decisions, and sometimes have problematic conditions.  We are identified with the self complex. But just as the convincing reality while watching a movie depends on the speed with which it’s projected, the perceived reality of our selves and all the objects and events within our stories may depend on a rapid sequencing of apperceptive cycles.  Just as a movie is actually a series of still images, “the experience of oneself  relating to other things is actually a momentary discrimination, a fleeting thought.  If we generate these fleeting thoughts fast enough, we can create the illusion of continuity and solidity. It is like watching a movie, the individual film frames are played so quickly that they generate the illusion of continual movement. So we build up an idea, a preconception, that self and other are solid and continuous.” (Trungpa,  The Myth of Freedom, p. 13)

So the apparently continuous movie of life, with the convincingly ‘real’ self at center stage, may be a fabrication of individual mini-events that occur and are ‘assembled’ very rapidly.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks also suggests a cinematographic model to understand the continuity of things and events:  “One level of brain activity*** may be working automatically, while another, the conscious level, is fashioning a perception of time, a perception which is elastic, and can be compressed or expanded. . . . There is much to suggest that conscious perception (at least, visual perception) is not continuous but consists of discrete moments, like the frames of a movie, which are then blended to give an appearance of continuity.” (p. 64)

***footnote:   Trungpa’s ‘fleeting thoughts’?

Similarly, but in a more detailed account of what’s actually happening in our experience, Dr. Charalampos Mainemelis, a professor at the London Business School, suggests that we “draw a distinction between direct–or immediate–and ordinary experience.  Direct  experience  is the  experience  of the immediate  present  moment and consists of fleeting apprehended  instants,  which in and  of themselves  are atemporal:  they are instantaneous  impressions  of an external  reality characterized  by heterogeneity  and nonlinear  patterns  of change. . . . as the instants  of direct experience  are processed . . . they are linked  to one another  and  experienced  as an inner duration . . . as states  . . . lasting  for a moment  and  then  fading  away,  but  which  are also  infinite  because  they permeate  each  other, living and  disappearing   within  each  other  as a continuous  and  holistic  flow of events.  As inner duration  is  generated   by instants  that  contain one another,  the  self  is made  up by states  that generate  each  other . . . .

“[Philosopher Henri] Bergson saw  this process  as  a kind of cinematographic  operation:  consciousness  takes several snapshots  of reality; it keeps a record of them by means  of inner  duration;  it arranges   them  successively   side  by  side  to  form  a  reel;  and  it projects  the reel back  to space  “in high  speed,” creating  the  illusion  of a uniform  linear  movement  that  progresses   through  an  invisible  homogeneous  medium of  “time.” . . .  Time,  however, exists  only in the apparatus.

“Without  inner duration  there  would be no becoming–only  instantaneous  experience.   Without the notion  of time, the self would  be a heterogeneous  multiplicity  of impressions   varying infinitely  across  different  moments  in terms  of qualities,  evolution.  and  acts. By inventing  time,  consciousness   is, in fact, creating an abstract homogeneous  medium,  in which the self can change, age, and  evolve while paradoxically always  enduring.  In other words, by projecting  inner  duration  to the external  world, consciousness temporalizes external change into “before and  after” –into    past,  present, and future states–and ascribes  to the self and other objects  a  lasting   ontological   quality   that  endures  through  change  and  goes beyond  the experiential  moment of recognition.

“Ordinary   experience,   then,  is the  experience of the  present   moment  as  integrated  in  a  sequence  of other moments  and  events–as  a tiny link attached  to an infinite  chain  of experiences and  instants.  Ordinary  experience  presupposes the notion of time, but direct experience is timeless.” (Mainemelis, pp. 549-550)

What does the cultural and personal conditioning through our years of development enable us to do?  What layers of conditioning are there?  How does our conditioning operate and limit us?  What is our ‘normal’ Western worldview?   Can it be summarized?  What is possible for us as human beings?    When we try to open up to new possibilities, what typically happens?  When new experiences do happen, does our previous conditioning still tend to filter things?  

What’s possible for us as humans? 

As we ‘grow up’, our native cultures teach us how to function in certain common, practical ways as individuals and as ‘normal’ members of our particular society.  We learn, try, and come to embody a particular conventional reality–how people in our society usually perceive and interpret the incredible variety of situations and circumstances in life.  The study of these patterns is the subject of developmental psychology, linguistics, and anthropology, among other fields.

This enculturation is quite useful, to say the least. But once we are interested in discovering our full potential–not just what’s normal in our culture–we are likely to find that our conditioning has become confining and limiting.  Just about everything we do is filtered and shaped by it.

To ‘see through’ our conditioning, or even dismantle it, it seems essential to get very clear on exactly how we’ve been conditioned, and then to actually see our the habitual patterns in operation.  The next section will briefly examine the process of conditioning we’ve all undergone, no matter what culture we ‘grew up’ in.

A brief account of complex development

Who am I?   How did I get this way?  As newborns we seem to have little or no conditioning. As we grow up we learn: (1) language, (2) skills, and (3) habits, conditioning, and complexes–systems of interrelated, emotion-charged ideas, feelings, memories, and impulses*.

*footnote – my definition of complex is more liberal than that of most psychologists.

Conditioning is similar to programming the operating system software necessary to use a computer, after which it operates largely out of our awareness to enable the accomplishment of various tasks.  Over years we are conditioned  by our cultures in many complicated ways.

Very gradually we learn that objects persist at particular locations–they ‘occupy’ a particular area for a while.   We eventually learn that objects seem separate from each other.  We become very familiar with one special object ‘here’, as contrasted with other objects ‘there’.  And around the same time, probably by avoidance of displeasure and pain, we develop a simple sense of ‘inside’ contrasted with ‘outside’.*  By elaborating the simple sense of ‘inside’ and ‘here’, a complex sense of ourselves as a persistent observer is developed.  Eventually we distinguish ‘before’ from ‘after’.   Then a sense of how long something lasts, duration, becomes possible.

*footnote:   Inside-outside, here-there, and before-after are examples of what can be called strictures—-somewhat stable structural features of experience.  Some strictures may also be complexes–systems of interrelated, emotion-charged ideas, feelings, and memories.


So when we are still quite young, our conditioning includes at least a sense of inside vs. outside, here vs. there, a sense of occupying space, a perceiver and observer separate from the perceived and observed, a sense of duration, and before vs. after.  It has taken psychologists more than a century to understand how this ‘inner’ development takes place, and we may still not understand it thoroughly, yet it proceeds  very naturally within most cultures. Later, as adults, we even take these primitive, underlying strictures and complexes such as linear time and ‘container space’ for granted, as ‘real’ aspects of the physical world.  But they are actually the results of our conditioning.

The observer vs. observed stricture is elaborated into a sense of an independently existing self.  The self includes a ‘normal’ sense of having a personal space and mind that are separate from others, and a sense of being a willful and independent agent existing continuously across the flow of linear time.  Self is further developed into a particular type of personality–which is probably just a complex of habitual responses to events and circumstances of various kinds.

After these common foundational strictures have been firmed up, cultural differences come into play.  For example, in some cultures a sense of before vs. after, combined with a sense of occupation, is elaborated into  linear time–a persistent sense of time flowing from past to present to future.  Instead of linear time, other cultures seem to develop a less complicated perception of serial time.  And there are surely many other cultural differences.

The resulting restricted state

After years of complex inner development, our ordinary Western conditioning is complete.  As Tarthang Tulku wrote in Time, Space, and Knowledge, “the events and facts which we know—the tremendous weight of our past and of our cultural conditioning—have seemed to establish a vastly complex world within which our present positions gain their meaning.” (p. 212, TSK)  The resulting state can be summarized in terms of time, space, and knowledge:

Time is divided into moments and seems to flow linearly and out of our control, from past to future, at a constant rate. Within this flow we are limited to occupying a kind of ‘moving spot’ that we call ‘the present’. We seem to ‘have’ time, yet sometimes feel like we’re running out of time, and can’t stop the relentless flow that causes us anxiety, friction, overwhelm, and pressure.

Space is seen as an indefinitely extended ‘nothing’, with distance felt between things within space. We and things feel substantial, independent, and persistent, ‘occupy’ different locations in space, have size, volume, edges, and an ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.  We have a kind of private mental, or personal space, but this seems less ‘real’ than physical space.  Personal space seems independent of others and other things, and yet seems to change somewhat, depending on our feelings and connections with others.  Our experience of space can feel restrictive, confining, and pressured, rather than open and free.

Our knowing or ‘seeing’ is limited to a particular ‘thinker’ position or ‘point of view’, with a felt separation or ‘distance’ from what is known.  Knowing and knowledge usually seem to be located primarily inside our heads and minds.   An act of knowing takes some time, and involves directing knowing from its source ‘here’  toward distant objects and events.  We collect experience and information by these acts of knowing, and build up models, systems, and theories.  Very often our knowing and perceiving is inaccurate and biased, depending on our unresolved emotional difficulties (conditioning) and current desires and fears.

Does this description of normal Western conditioning fit for you?  Does it seem accurate?  Is anything wrong, left out?

Though normal, this conditioned state is also inflexible. “Ordinarily, we have an unfortunate tendency to locate or orient ourselves in a very fixed way. Of course, we do not see this tendency as being a problem, but rather a way of keeping ourselves, our self-images, properly defined and grounded. But this self-centeredness obscures the vastness of space and time available by consolidating against it.”  (p. 44, DOT I)

Attempts to escape our condition may further condition us

In this way, over years of development, our lives are structured layer after layer, complex interwoven with complex, until our personality has been ‘formed’.  Again, all this conditioning is similar to the many layers of a computer’s operating system software. And just as we may pick up viruses on our computers, as humans we may develop various troublesome conditions that disturb our normal functioning and well-being:   confusion, doubt, rigidity, obsessiveness, loneliness, isolation, a sense of confinement (or even claustrophobia), pressure, discontent, anxiety, self-centeredness (or even narcissism), prejudice, hysteria, neediness (even emptiness), and so on.

Then we usually find methods to change or get rid of the troubling conditions. But these methods are likely to be further elaborations of our conditioning.  Like fish unaware of water, we don’t know how limited we are to our habits, even when we try to break them.

Krishnamurti said, “I am the result of all the social and the spiritual compulsions, persuasions, and all the conditioning based on acquisitiveness–my thinking is based on that. To be free from that conditioning, from that acquisitiveness, I say to myself, ‘I must not be acquisitive; I must practice nonacquisitiveness.’ But . . . what is important is to understand that the mind which is trying to get away from one state to another is still functioning within the field of time [which implies conditioning is still in effect], and therefore there is no revolution, there is no change.” – Collected Works, Vol. VIII,163, Choiceless Awareness

Our typical approaches to resolving troubling conditions and issues are completely oblivious of a crucial fact, which is that all these conditions as well as the self structure to which they seem to ‘belong’ are simply (convincingly real) instant-by-instant fabrications* that don’t need solving.    We can let the process go, without ‘freezing’ it and then trying to fix what was frozen.  If we can “go beyond this typical lower time orientation of ‘someone’s doing something’. . . . then our difficulties in living can be solved very easily, naturally.”  (pp. xxxiii-xxxvi, DOT I)

Breaking down the structure

Using patterns we’ve learned to break down other patterns we’ve learned can be self-defeating.  But eventually something often happens to break the logjam of patterns, if only briefly.   We might have a sudden opening or inspiration, spontaneously putting us in a very liberating state.   We might gradually learn to meditate and start to dissolve the holding power of a lifetime of habits.  Or we might somehow become exhausted, realize that all our attempts at change are futile, and find that we can give them up.  Perhaps our personal architecture becomes so complex and stressed that further complication just cannot be supported without a collapse of some kind.

After a breakthrough, we try to understand what happened.  Often we don’t know what to think about the experience itself, and how it arose, but we’ll still decide what to do about it based on past conditioning.  What else do we have to go on?   We might maintain most of our old structuring for a while, but as time goes on it may become more and more difficult to hold things together.  The edifice of our conditioning may continue to crumble.

Eventually we see that our personal edifice is no longer edifying or otherwise worth trying to maintain. At some point it may even seem that the primary way to progress is to foster, rather than resist, the dissolution of the complexes that constitute layers and layer of habits and filters.

Since this breakdown of structuring usually occurs over such a long period, and since it still tends to be interpreted in terms of our past limiting conditioning, it can be very difficult to see clearly what is happening.  We may find it helpful to get some idea of what others have experienced during breakthroughs, and to clarify how these essential or peak experiences differ from the layers of cultural and personal conditioning we and others have taken on and embodied.