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How Experience Shapes Up


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)