The PhenoTank: A Mind & Life Think Tank on the Microphenomenology of Contemplative Experience

What happens when an experience is described?  Does the very effort to find words deepen practice, sharpen awareness, clarify an experience? Imagining a lens through which to deepen access to contemplative experience, these were among the questions that drove the conversation at Mind & Life’s first funded Think Tank, the “PhenoTank,” held at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris this past January 23rd and 24th, 2017.

The Think Tank gathered a small cohort to further refine practices that accurately and reliably describe contemplative experience by advancing methods that are being developed by Claire Petitmengin’s microphenomenological interview technique. The group was multinational, including participants from Denmark, Switzerland, the United States and France; and it was also multidisciplinary, including experts in cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, contemplative practice, anthropology and religious studies.

This project set out to address a primary riddle of the contemplative sciences: while the scientific paradigm insists on procedures of objectification to derive its data findings, the raw data content of one’s contemplative experience is personal and utterly subjective. Employing methods of microphenomenology, this project is refining how self-report descriptions of contemplation can be more accurately collected and made reliable. Such reports are meant to generate fine-grain, first-person data that is replicable, reproducible and stable.

Evoking the lineage of European phenomenological philosophers Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), Martin Heideggar (1889-1976) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), the project seeks to develop a tool that would invite persons to explore their own mind. In so doing, there is an understanding that in its most radical form, the very experimental protocols of science would be challenged. This theme runs parallel to Husserl’s project to find a sound foundation for the natural sciences and mathematics, remembering that as he propelled his inquiry and sought to find invariants in mathematics, he discovered that he was deconstructing the foundations of science. Husserl realized that the most important aspect of phenomenology is being willing to transform oneself; a project that started in science and ended in contemplation.

 

History of the Project

The PhenoTank was the most recent work in an ongoing project being explored collaboratively by Martijn van Beek, Michel Bitbol, Claire Petitmengin and Andreas Roepstorff. An earlier phase was researched in the framework of the “PhenoPilot,” partly funded by Mind & Life, in which they conducted a series of in-depth interviews with experienced meditators. Their analysis highlighted the critical importance of micro-gestures in the process of enabling contemplatives to come into close contact with their experience of being embodied. The purpose of the PhenoTank in Paris was to develop a modest, empirically grounded, and explicitly intersubjective phenomenology to aid in the study of processes and states associated with learning and engaging in contemplative practice.

Through their earlier research, the microphenomenological interview method was found to be exemplary of how language can impact and transform embodiment and even further a depth analysis of certain contemplative modes. One of the chief findings of this earlier work was that many meditators reported that their experience participating in microphenomenological interviews — both as a subject and an interviewer — had meaningful resonances with contemplative experience. In particular, meditators reported that participating in the microphenomenological interview afforded an experiential space that was situated between the intra- and intersubjective; a space that was remarkably similar to contemplation. This finding suggested that the interview method may introduce novel ways to explore and describe contemplative experience.

 

Language and Experience

This finding raises all kinds of interesting questions about the nature of language and intersubjectivity in contemplative experience. For instance, many contemplative traditions regard language to be an obstacle to meditative progress while others view descriptions of experience to be inconsequential since contemplative experience is ineffable. In other contexts, some contemplative traditions regard language to be imperative for analytical reflection, diagnostic reporting, evocative or poetic expression of experience as well as for dialogical exchanges with mentors and fellow adept contemplatives.

Microphenomenological interviews are an experiment in the use of descriptive language to capture the experiences of contemplation. The interview method probes the depths of pre-reflective experience with a precision that elicits meaningful descriptions that re-discover and re-enact an experience. The intent is to walk the interviewee through the unfolding of previously unrecognized layers so that it becomes apparent what was not recognized. During this process, there is a dialectic of interpretation that emerges, so that meaning is made of an experience by the interviewee. And yet while this process is guided by the performative power of questions during the interview, the processes of probing and navigating are not meant to make meaning. In this way, the experiential is engaged deliberately, and words are used to anchor precise meaning in an experience.

One-on-one microphenomenological interviews are designed to delicately elicit and “unfold” an experience so that the meditator becomes increasingly more aware of what they are actually doing while performing a specific practice. For instance, on day one of the Think Tank, we experimented by listening for several minutes to one of the participants, Kiku Day, play the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. We subsequently self-organized into dyads to experiment with interview. The interviewer in each dyad was familiar with the elicit-interview technique. I was paired with Michel Bitbol who led me through an interview about the flute listening experiment. Here is a snippet of what I remember from the interview:

There is a mountain. A large mountain in a bright green lush valley, a valley with a deep ravine. I can feel the height and depth. With the blow of the flute, music blows melodically up and down the mountain like a volcano spurting through its spout and being slurped back down to its base. Rise and fall of the tones. Rise and fall of the breath. Rise and fall of the shakuhachi sound. Rise and fall of the volcano. Rise and fall of red and green.

With each question, my experience increasingly unfolded further layers of interpretation and reflection on the images and feelings that emerged while the flute sound played and resonated in that classroom in Paris. This unfolding brought awareness to the micro-acts and micro-gestures that were prioritized. In so doing, the interview technique is devised to make explicit what is most revealing about the agency of recovering an experience, as opposed to deliberating about specific pre-fixed states or preconceptions.

 

On the Horizon

At the conclusion of the PhenoTank, as at the beginning, there were many questions. What is the criteria for microphenomenological interview data generation? Must there be some kind of intersubjective consensus or mutual validation? Is this technique purely a mode of inquiry rather than a method for data collection? Might it be possible or worthwhile to customize a multi-functional vocabulary to describe particular contemplative practices? Understanding that the way in which we inquire generates a particular type of data, as an emergent process, what is revealed by the practitioner via the microphenomenological interview is front and center. This is the real value of the project: to unfold and identify first-person descriptions of contemplative experience.
Why this is so important to the broader field of the contemplative sciences is that with the many neuroscientific studies on brain functions of meditators, we have very little data about what these practitioners are actually doing. Because contemplation is private, and because we do not have an adequate language to share the variables of contemplative experience, we remain too often in the dark about interiority. A hope is that such phenomenological methods will contribute to shedding light on first-person reports and that this will have applications across therapeutic, teaching and research.

 

Suggested Readings

Depraz, N., Varela, F. and Vermersch, P. 2003. On Becoming Aware: A Pragmatics of Experiencing. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Petitmengin, C. 2006. “Describing One’s Subjective Experience in the Second Person: An Interview Method for the Science of Consciousness.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 5, 229-269.

Petitmengin, C. and Bitbol, M. 2009. “The Validity of First-Person Descriptions as Authenticity and Coherence.” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16, 363-404.

Petitmengin et al. 2017. “What is It Like to Meditate? Methods and Issues for a Microphenomenological Description of Meditative Experience.” Journal of Consciousness Studies, Spring.

 

Think Tank Participants

Michel Bitbol, Archives Husserl, École Normale Supérieure, Paris. Philosophy.

Kiku Day, Vaekstcenteret, Nørre Snede, and Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University. Shakuhachi player and teacher, Ethnomusicology.

Anne C. Klein, Rice University and Dawn Mountain, Houston, TX. Buddhist studies.

Jean-Philippe Lachaux, Brain Dynamics and Cognition Team, Neuroscience Research Center, INSERM/CNRS, Lyon, France. Cognitive neuroscience.

Antoine Lutz, Université de Lyon, France. Cognitive neuroscience.

Soizic Michelot, Association pour le développement de la mindfulness, Paris. MBSR/MBCT teacher.

Claire Petitmengin, Archives Husserl, École Normale Supérieure, Paris. Philosophy.

Donata Schoeller, Center for Advanced Studies, University of Zurich. Philosophy.

Michael Sheehy, Director of Programs, Mind & Life Institute, Charlottesville, VA. Buddhist studies.

Andreas Roepstorff, Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University. Cognitive science and anthropology.

Martijn van Beek, Department of Anthropology and Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University. Anthropology.

An in-depth look at a Mind & Life Think Tank on Abrahamic traditions.

 

To date, the traditions and techniques that have been most substantively researched in the field of contemplative science have largely derived from Buddhism and Buddhist-inspired movements. While there have been tremendous advances and developments due to this collaboration—indeed there would be no field without it—a natural consequence of this specific alliance is that insights from other traditions have not yet been fully investigated and integrated into the field. This Mind & Life Think Tank was therefore dedicated to exploring such potential contributions of the contemplative streams found within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (collectively called the “Abrahamic” traditions) toward the dual aims of alleviating suffering and promoting human flourishing in accord with the Mind & Life Institute’s primary mission. Read More

How personal experience as a racial minority led to a career studying compassion meditation in diverse populations.

An Interview with Mind & Life Fellow, Helen Weng, PhD.

Helen Y. Weng, PhD is a Mind & Life Fellow and a postdoctoral scholar at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Helen is interested in how contemplative practices can improve communication within and between individuals, and how this in turn improves psychological and physical health. Her postdoctoral work is focused on developing a novel fMRI task to measure mindful breath awareness, using community-engaged approaches to adapt fMRI study procedures to underrepresented populations from diverse contemplative communities, and understanding how mindfulness-based interventions impact body awareness and psychophysiological variables. Read More

An interview with Eric Garland, Ph.D.

Mind & Life Fellow, Eric L. Garland, Ph.D., LCSW, is a clinical researcher and practicing, licensed psychotherapist.
Mind & Life Fellow, Eric L. Garland, Ph.D., LCSW, is a clinical researcher and practicing, licensed psychotherapist.

As a Mind & Life Fellow who received the Francisco J. Varela Research Grant in 2007 and the Mind & Life 1440 grant in 2013, Dr. Eric Garland has gone on to become the developer of an innovative, multimodal mindfulness-based intervention founded on insights derived from cognitive, affective and neurobiological science, called Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE). He has received more than $20 million in research grants from a variety of prestigious entities including the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense to conduct translational research on biopsychosocial mechanisms implicated in stress and health, including randomized controlled trials of MORE as a treatment for prescription opioid misuse and chronic pain conditions. Read More

ISCS 2016 marks coming of age for Mind & Life

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For those who recently attended Mind & Life’s International Symposium for Contemplative Studies (ISCS)  in San Diego, the experience provided an unusually intimate and affirming sense of connection and possibility — amid 1200 attendees. Read More

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Consider the amazing life of Catherine Kerr, who began her career as an historian, was retrained as a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, and went on to present scientific research on neurophysiology to the Dalai Lama. For those who knew Cathy, this capacity for transformation through focused purpose was just one of her remarkable qualities. It was also the foundation of her pioneering research on the mind’s attention to the sense of touch and inner experience as a way to understand disease and improve human health.

In the days following Cathy’s death on Saturday, November 12, the Mind & Life Institute received an outpouring of affectionate memories of her strength and grace, along with moving stories of her personal importance in the lives of her colleagues and her role as a gifted and valued mentor to her students, and reminders of her monumental contributions to the field of contemplative sciences.

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I admit I was somewhat surprised. Hadn’t this group of educators — many of whom had traveled from across the country to attend this workshop — signed up for this program because they were interested in learning how better to foster more caring, more successful and more connected students and school communities? What made it difficult for the group to see or speak about the connection between compassion — or lack thereof — and equity?

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The Mind & Life Institute continues the tradition of hosting its signature program, the annual Mind and Life Summer Research Institute (MLSRI) at the Garrison Institute every year in mid-June. Over the course of a week, a community coalesces. In a rich and intimate retreat-like setting, together we dive deeply into a theme related to contemplative studies. With a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds, seasoned scholars, scientists, practitioners, and professionals involved in applied fields join those who are in formative stages of their training and careers. We share and listen, explore different paradigms, challenge our assumptions, and stretch our perspectives. We engage in contemplative practices firsthand: meditation, yoga, and T’ai Chi are woven into each day, and we engage in a full silent day of contemplative immersion midway through the program. Overlooking the Hudson River, the beautiful grounds and grand stone dwelling of the Garrison Institute provide the perfect setting to foster both conversation and quiet reflection. At the end of the week, we go forward with new ways of thinking and being, and with new connections and collaborations to inspire and transform our work in the academy and in the world.

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