April 10, 2021
At the bottom of the trendiest trends of cognitive science today is something very interesting indeed. A man named Francisco Varela and his efforts to model the structural dynamics of contemplative traditions.
At the bottom of the trendiest trends in cognitive science today is something very interesting indeed. A man named Francisco Varela and his efforts to model the structural dynamics of contemplative traditions.
Varela was, among other neuro-scientific things, a neurophenomenologist. Neurophenomenologists are interested in how the brain (neuro-) gives rise to consciousness (phenomenology, or the study of lived experience). Varela was particularly interested in how contemplative eastern spiritual traditions seemed to have implicitly captured the workings of the brain in their teachings and went on to found the Mind and Life Institute which seeks to unite contemplative traditions with the sciences.
His attempts, detailed in the book The Embodied Mind with colleagues Eleanor Rosch and Evan Thompson, make for a very interesting read. An attempt to build into the scientific method the core concern of consciousness researchers: just what, exactly, is the mind. This is a puzzle which has concerned almost every philosophic tradition in recorded history, largely shunned by modern sciences of the mind (likely because they are not quite explainable by scientific methods), and yet well handled by most mystical spiritual traditions.
This relatively groundbreaking work was well received, and bred in large part the modern 'pragmatic turn' in cognitive science, most notably the predictive coding accounts of the mind. All of this from an attempt to unite the sciences with the spiritual---specifically those practices from 'mindful' schools of Buddhism (something that doesn't always work out quite so well).
This particular foray is well worth its own article, but I'd like to address a lesser known side project of Varela's efforts. Alongside Natalie Depraz and Pierre Vermersch, Varela sketched out three curiously compelling gestures. These 'gestures' are the more direct product of Varela's attempts to model the structural dynamics of a common and powerful contemplative practice: 'becoming aware' of new ways of thinking, being, and seeing the world. The gestures of awareness: suspension, redirection, and letting go
On the surface, perhaps, it sounds somewhat trite. But we shouldn't forget that this work forms the foundation of cutting edge brain science today. Varela had a habit of getting to the core of things. He was, in some kind of way, creating a model of the process that leads from reflection to insight, or 'intuition'. From the mundane 'aha' moments that descend during a philosophy class, to the profound spiritual dissolution of the boundaries of the self and environment that has concerned the mystics throughout the centuries, Varela's gestures, like his embodied mind, provide a platform for understanding the hard questions of the human experience. In this case, the question of transcending the self.
This first gesture, in a way, 'initiates' the others. Suspension refers to a "phase of suspension of habitual thought and judgement." It is a "basic precondition for any possibility of change," because without the suspension of habitual patterns of thinking and behaviour, nothing new can emerge. Varela suggests that the call to 'suspend' can come from three sources:
- "an external or existential event" which "may trigger the suspending attitude. For example, confronting the death of others, or aesthetic surprise."
- "the mediation of others ... for example a direct injunction to accomplish the act, or a rather less directive attitude, as is the case when someone plays the role of a model"
- by practicing methods of suspension, redirection, and letting go, until these processes also become habitual.
At the individual level, such suspensions come regularly throughout the course of every day life. An experience of pain may cause one to suspend their actions to address the source of the pain. An experience of kindness may cause one to suspend and reflect on the generosity observed. Of course, such suspensions do not necessarily lead to deep reflection or redirection, nor are they all the commencement of a journey toward a deeper sense of awareness. Yet, without this crucial feature, from the trivial to the profound, a journey of awareness cannot begin.
Varela's concept of redirection refers to the redirection of our attention from the external world to the internal one---from the exterior to the interior. This is usually an effortful process that is directed by us:
"Habitually engaged in the perception of others, in the grasping of worldly content, in the pursuit of goals or of interests linked in an immanent way with our everyday activities, attention is naturally interested in the world. It hardly ever turns away from the world spontaneously" (emphasis mine).
As with suspension, such redirections may occur quite frequently, though in proportion to those times in which we are not reflective, they are vanishingly small in number. More to the point, such redirections do not always lead to changes in perspective or in patterns of thinking and behaving. More often, they are simply interruptions---fleeting moments that come, are addressed, and are gone again with no lasting trace of their occurrence.
Redirections that lead to deep and lasting change are those that leave behind an insight or intuition---an 'aha' or eureka moment in which the world takes on a novel and gratifying shape. Such insights are the core promise of Varela's gestures and of any practice which seeks to engender transformative change. This feature of the process, insight, we will address shortly.
Letting go and letting come
The gesture of 'letting go' and its corollary, 'letting come' is also a kind of internal sensing. Unlike redirection however, it is not an effortful and directed kind of sensing. Rather, "it is a process of passing from the voluntary inward direction of attention to simple receptivity or an attitude of listening ... from [redirecting to letting go] we pass from a 'looking for' to a 'letting come,' a letting 'reveal itself'."
Essentially, we 'let go' of the goal-directed focusing of our attention so that we may 'let come' new ways of being or new possibilities. Bound up as our attention is in servicing our habitual thoughts and behaviours, we must resist the temptation to "take-up the immediate givens which are available and already available to consciousness" and instead allow those things that are not available to our consciousness to come to the fore.
This particular gesture is perhaps the most difficult if only because conceptually it is somewhat difficult to grasp. Indeed, the majority of the book quoted here is devoted to exploring this difficulty through the lens of various philosophers and contemplative traditions.
Fundamentally, it is something which must be experienced to be fully understood, and a useful analogy might be the 'magic eye' artworks one might have encountered as a child. Here, the effortful redirection of the focus of the eye seems fruitless until one quite literally 'lets go' of the muscular tension and the stereoscopic image emerges from the patterned surface. Here, as in 'letting go,' it is "less a matter of seeing than of learning to see."
To be sure, letting go is a difficult affair, and those contemplative practices that seek it emphasise the time it takes to achieve mastery. The more common experience is a 'glimpse' of this kind of passive observation of the internal self from time to time. Letting go is not necessary to achieve insight, and indeed many practices that engage in these gestures do not emphasise it at all. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, as an example, operates entirely within the gestures of suspension and redirection. Yet, those glimpses we do achieve are often those that lead to the most profound and unusual insights and provide the clearest vision into emerging futures.
Insight in the sciences
The key outcome of Varela's gestures, as mentioned, is something akin to 'insight.' The 'a-ha' or 'eureka' moment, in which a spontaneous and non-ordinary conclusion appears in the mind as if from nowhere. The process of redirecting and, where possible, letting-go delivers new knowledge as a product of our stepping out of our habitual behaviours and actions. Two excellent examples are used in the book Becoming Aware to illustrate the notion.
The first is that of the philosophy course (p. 60, full pdf here):
Each session lasts between one and two hours in the usual classroom, usually once a week or every two weeks. The sessions are not isolated moments, but are part of the on-going in-depth study of a theme or an author, stretching out for at least a semester or an academic year. We assume you are there for the duration of the course; this assures a certain constancy in the give-and-take and the going-into-depth.
The teacher gets things going by problematizing a question or a text. You listen and take notes. The teacher's proposal provokes a response in you, but it stays un-expressed at first: questions well up inside you but stay unanswered. You are in a state of uncertainty, instability, and openness. Rather than look for a way to answer the questions you always ask yourself when you're listening with a critical mind, you turn your attention to the way you ask yourself the questions, their logic.
You stop searching and an inner work of maturation or sedimenta- tion begins, letting you find the right way of asking the question. Sud- denly, a trigger is pulled, and you have got it, you have got the question that has been hiding from you! Carried away by a sense of urgency, you interrupt the teacher...
The second is, again, that of the 'magic eye' puzzle (pp. 46-47, full pdf here):
You don't necessarily need to have a teacher standing over you, as long as you are reassured that many people have succeeded in the past ... Almost always though you will be given these hints:
- Start by looking at the pair of pictures directly in front of you ... You will suspend your usual attitude when you are struck by the fact that you can't access the three-dimensional image. We call this "resistance by reality," by which we mean that your usual perception is not up to the task.
- Cross your eyes by looking intently at the tip of your nose, while keeping your attention fixed on the [puzzle] ... You'll probably then look for help "about how I'm doing this," and then do some trial-and-error work with variables like distance, location, and the use of reflections.
- Let your vision find its point of focus over the images, and relax the grip of the eye-crossing effort. Your suspension is imposed and maintained by the failure of the 3D image to show itself. You'll then find yourself reflecting on the perceptive act by being "worn out," by exhausting all the easy solutions, and by constant repetition. You will keep at it due to all this glaringly obvious and maddeningly uncompromising failure. Here you will find a great example of "empty time": even the experts can't instantly access the 3D image, which will take several seconds to appear.
- Let the 3D effect click into place all by itself. At the beginning it will be unstable and fleeting. But then you will notice a progressive fulfillment (relative to perceived content); you will see the surface begin to change and notice the unstable character of first successes, but also the simple character of what is intended (it is always just an image!)
In these examples, the authors illustrate the appearance of what they call an 'intuition.' The emerging something that comes spontaneously from this process of stepping out beyond our ordinary patterns. These examples, used alongside many others from research and clinical practice, as well as spiritual traditions, highlight the utility of Varela's model: a model of the structual dynamics of becoming aware. As Varela notes in a most interesting interview with Otto Scharmer, different traditions emphasise aspects of the process differentially.
Zen Buddhism, for example, emphasises letting go. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy emphasises redirection. All however, emphasise insight. As such, is is well worth exploring the approaches to insight that have emerged in the scientific literature. Doing so allows us to add a great number of heuristics for generating insight among individuals, and facilitating the transfer of those insights from the individual to a collective vision.
I will not discuss the methods and theory of those contemplative practices Varela and his colleagues were attempting to model here, as I haven't had the time yet to explore them. But they are well worth exploring. Rather, I guide you to On Becoming Aware and the Embodied Mind, because it would be hard to do it better than Varela and his colleagues already did. Therapy emphasises redirection. All however, emphasise insight.
Two curiosities of the model poke their little heads out, on close examination. Each of which have some fairly striking intimations for our own journeys toward insight.
The first is that this model has no particular start. There can be no redirection without suspension, because to redirect is to do something that we "hardly ever" do---we "hardly ever [turn] away from the world spontaneously". But of course, in order to desire to suspend, we must have redirected. We must have already decided that something about our typical behaviour was worth examining further. The meaning, then, is quite clear. There is no start, and no end. To engage in the process is merely to catch one of any number of these cycles of awareness. What better gesture to begin with than the very first you notice? This helps us understand those painful early stages of meditation---the endless noticing of the content of our minds or the patterns of our breath. The trivial can be a gateway to the profound.
The second is that redirection and letting go are somewhat interchangeable when it comes to the production of insight. We might be led to believe that redirection is the key to transformational change if we were to undergo some secular version of the gestures---CBT or some such therapeutic or betterment process. We might be led to believe that the elusive 'letting go' is the only way to achieve it in more spiritual approaches. For Varela, it seems, each has it's place, and each can be a stepping stone to insight. Perhaps letting go leads more reliably to those more profound, but it is equally the solution to the trivial (recall the magic eye). The same, it would seem for redirection.
The striking feature of Varela's gestures is how broadly applicable they are. His own work shifts from the philosophy class to the heartprayer. The depths of cognitivist perspectives on the brain to the teaching of emptiness (sunyata) of Mahayana Buddhism. His gestures sweep even more broadly, to touch the core of modern therapeutic practices and even corporate change management practice.
For us, Varela's gestures act as a bridge. A way of understanding how the mundane insights that dawn on us in the classroom or a conversation over drinks can lead us to the profound insights that have occupied the core of every mystical and pre-religious spiritual tradition. From 500-year-old theological scholarship to the current state of the science of insight. A bridge to those "desires nothing in this world can satisfy" and something bigger than just us.