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.

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