Individual Transformation

The Phenomenology of the Self: Revealing the Universal Life Force at the Heart of Human Experience

There are times when we feel most fully alive, and we yearn to live like that all the time. There is a way to live a more authentic, awakened life by learning how to shift the modes of experience— feeling, perception, and knowing—from their passive to active expressions, and enter into full, joyous participation with all life. In this article, I invite you to explore the nature of your own self and the subtle qualities of experience, to reveal the universal life force at the heart of human experience. This article asks you to allow my words to help journey you there.

Deep Phenomenology

Deep Phenomenology1 is the term I give for the practice of noticing the root structures of experience by observing them directly as experience unfolds, moment to moment. In a trained meditative state, we can learn how to slow down and disentangle the complex knot of stimuli: emotions, memories, inner speech, discursive thought, and idiosyncratic neuroses that typically constitute our everyday experience. As we learn to relax and concentrate, we observe the contents of the constant stream of stimuli that operate ‘under the radar’ of ordinary experience. As we deepen our practice, we begin to discern the various structures of experience and the patterns they generate. As we cultivate deeper clarity and more refined sensitivity, we discover the generative sources of experience as a dynamic interplay of feeling, perception, and knowing. Deep phenomenology is a practice that enables us to see how these three ‘modes of experience’ arise, develop, persist, change, and perish. We observe that the modes of experience always arise in the same sequence, from feeling to perception to knowing; we notice them develop through mutual interactions into a compositional whole, which is the sense of the self. We learn how they persist as iterative structures, change through complex adaptive dynamics, and perish in the in-between of the moment-to-moment pulse of experience. Contemplative phenomenological practices and neuroscience both describe experience as a wave-like process that begins with a deep, affective inner core that rises from the somato-sensory channels2 and articulates ‘out’ to the world via the percepto-sensory pathways,3 and ultimately reflects back into the self as self-knowing in the form of mentation, speech, or gesture. This process is genetic and iterative, so that patterns are created that affect the possibility of the next experiential pulse arising in such a way as to conserve the sense of a holistic, enduring self.

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We can think of the flow of experience as a wave of energy that spontaneously emerges from the universal energy field, iterates within a pattern of unfoldment laid down by eons of evolution, forms the most subtle feeling of becoming shaped by perceptual participation into an episode of knowing, and completing as the experience of a self that is the center of the whole. The self then is something that the kosmos composes, moment to moment, by gathering energy into discrete constellations of phenomena. This is what the kosmos does—gathers energy into constellations—galaxies, star systems, and selves.4

We know that this generative sequence through the modes of experience follows the evolutionary emergence of life, from simple cells with primordial experiences that could qualify as protoselves, to simple animals with sensory receptors and a core self, to higher animals and humans with large cognitive capacity for storing, organizing, and retrieving knowledge with an extended self. We also know that this generative sequence is followed in human embryogenesis. There was never a time when we were not awash in the human affect stream because the human embryo is embedded in the mother’s circulation system. The affective (feeling) state of the mother has important epigenetic influences on how the baby’s neuroaffective body-brain develops. In a romantic and a literal sense, the child is conceived in feeling. We can think of embryogenesis of experience as laying down the ‘channels’ of feeling, the pathways of perception, and the storehouses of knowing. First, the neuroaffective channels develop, then the pathways and organs of the senses, beginning with touch and balance, then taste and smell, and finally hearing and vision. Even memory and learning, such as the familiar sounds of the mother’s voice, begin to function before the baby is born.

Deep phenomenological practice trains us to examine the processes of experiential flow and to discover the way the sense of self-ness is composed by them, as an experiential center of feeling, perceiving, and knowing in a continual process of becoming. It is a practice where we trace back through the developmental and evolutionary dimensions of our being, down to the origin of becoming. By training our powers of concentration, we can slow down the processes of experiential flow and bring them into our conscious awareness. We can practice ‘holding patterns’ where we retain only the most primordial and subtle feeling of being, and then in a disciplined and rigorous way, intentionally allow in or subtract out sensory modes of experience. In this way, we begin to understand the origin of experience as deep affective energy and the sculpting or shaping function of perception that creates an intersection between self and world. At this intersection of self and world, knowing, the third mode of experience, emerges in the constitution of image and idea.

Feeling

We can think of the affect streams as being structurally coupled with and arising from the world, much in the same way as the embryonic affect channels were coupled with (awash in) those of the mother. The affect streams are and have always been concerned with the prior, the given-ness of experience. The affect streams are sensitive to the conditions of being-in-the-world, and their response to these conditions primes the route of the flow of experience onto perception and knowing. The affect streams are the way we continually reach out to the world as we reach for(ward) the world, as each other living center reaches out and reaches toward us, a process the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called ‘prehension,’ revealing the deep continuity of all life coursing through the affect streams of sentient beings.

Perception

In the language of neuroaffective science, our core affect streams are responsible for the intentional-motivational state that poises the organism for the formative processes of perception. A fearful person is poised to see threats, a hungry predator is poised to see food, a playful person is poised to discover a new game. Perceptions, although primed by affect, are not guided by them. Rather, perceptions are guided by what we might call the ‘appetitive drive of the senses.’ The senses are not passive organs that function like windows opened up onto the world. The senses are more like open roads—they are designed to go somewhere. This is something that Goethe knew—our senses are not passive receptors but they are dynamic and creative actors that enact perception. The sequence from affect to perception, from feeling into the world to reaching toward the world is a process called ‘perceptogenesis.’

It is a process that can be described as having a tree-like architecture, where the roots represent the affect channels, which are immersed in and draw from the given-ness of the world, and the branches that reach toward the sky are the sensory organs. The affect channels provide the energy, the intentional-motivational state that vitalizes both the penetration into the world through the sympathetic drives of feeling, and the thrust out toward the world through the appetitive drive of the senses. The two movements prescribe an arc of transformation, where affect and perception objectify as image in the mind of a self.

Knowing

If affect is embedded in and emanates from the world and perception is embedded in affect and guided by the world and into the world, then at the intersection of affect and perception emerges the image—the imagined, ‘image-minded’ objects of knowing. Gradually, over a lifetime, the mind constructs mental models of the world from the representational images it has accumulated. As the affect and sensory channels recapitulate the evolution of sensory-perception systems passed down through deep evolutionary time, human cognitive development recapitulates the evolutionary stages of increasing capacity for storing, organizing, and retrieving information. Over our lifetime, the number and also the kinds of mental models we carry increase and complexify. The modern mind is a hybrid mind,5 which operates four different and quasi-independent cognitive systems: episodic, mimetic, oral/narrative, and theoretic. Each represents the evolution of cognitive capacity from the more primitive episodic system that we inherited from our mammalian ancestry: the mimetic, which we share with higher mammals, apes, and some avian species; oral/narrative, which is primarily a human capacity; and theoretic, which is exclusively human. Up the evolutionary ladder of our mind, each system is responsible for a representation of the world coded and internalized as knowledge about the world. Episodic memory organizes gestalts of events, stored as deep psycho-somatic memory, and expresses them through unconscious patterns of behaviors—what psychologists call ‘primary schemas.’ Mimetic memory organizes event sequences, stores them as automatic patterns of behavior, and expresses them through the kinds of pre-verbal but explicit gestures that make our general culture, personality, mood, and intention recognizable to others. Oral/narrative memories store oral and semantic stems and organize them into culturally shared stories that can be retrieved from the higher cognitive and linguistic systems of the human mind and that are expressed as implicit or explicit beliefs about how the world works, about ethical and normative concerns, and about our origins and destiny as a people. Theoretic memory stores abstract and conceptual objects and organizes them into systems of representations that complexify hierarchically. These conceptual models are stored through complex processes in the most recently evolved regions of the human mind. They are expressed implicitly as mental modes of reasoning, like mathematics and logic, and as the cognitive architecture of our knowledge systems.

Experience is Developmentally Situated

Feeling, perception, and knowing are enactive, formative processes that are developmentally situated. Enactive means that the modes of experience arise through dynamic interaction with the world. Formative means that the modes of experience form through function—you can only build capacity to experience more fully and deeply by experiencing more fully and deeply. Developmentally situated means that earlier experiences lack both the content and context of later experience. The child cannot foresee the adult, but neither can the adult retrieve the child. Given this nature of experience, the self itself is developmentally situated.

When we are babies, our feelings are concentrated toward primary impulse and survival, our sensory systems are not fully integrated, and the episodes we store in our memory reflect a babies’ vulnerability in the world. When we are young adults, we are situated by the modes of experience in a vastly different world. We learn to down-regulate our impulses, repress our emotions, sublimate our individuality, quiet our eclectic ways of thinking, put aside our natural curiosity and as a result we replace all that with a social persona that has been ‘ready-made’ for us by the demands from our social structures and institutional indoctrination. Repressed feelings fuel anxiety and anxiety feeds into narrative-laden emotions. Perception becomes flooded with projection. We internalize the status quo, the arguments, reasoning methods, and various beliefs of how the world works, why it works the way it does, and how we fit into this great systemic opera. This produces existential anxiety because we are born unique and free, and yet we develop dependent upon the conditioned structures that serve the collectivist interests of the social order, stratified along different levels from family, community, culture, class, religion, and nation-state. But the wave of experience, set in motion by formative process, is also the pulse of freedom, set in motion by existential anxiety that propels us toward a greater potential, toward awakening the modes of experience to their highest capacities.

Phenomenological Awakening

Awakening is first and foremost a state of arousal that signals change and transformation and, therefore, carries with it the taste of risk. The psycho-affective rhythm of transformation is between arousal at one end bearing risk, and at the other end, the feeling of recognition of a new emerging self that rises spontaneously from core affect-intensive energies that are vital, creative, and responsively attuned to the environment. The transition here is from socially conditioned repression of feeling, which produces defensive or aggressive emotions, to states of deeper sensitivity without emotional overload. At the far end of this transition in the feeling mode of experience, affect-intensive energy is so deeply attuned to what is that it becomes the instrument of intuition. We move away from the past and into the flux and flow of the present in-becoming. There is a seamless stream stretching affect between feeling for the past actuals and feeling for(ward)the future potential, and we become aware of the contemporal emergence of experiential flow, which is the liberation from the deterministic attitude of cause and effect into the realization of self as the ‘living center of emergent process.’

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that reality arises through a series of moments which feel into the past moment as they feel for(ward) the next moment. For Whitehead, the action in-between was nothing at all like the tight wire between the physicists’ cause and effect. Rather, Whitehead thought of this feeling-process—which he called ‘prehension’—as incredibly sensitive, provocative, and loving; and construed it as the long, long moment of possibility, freedom and choice, in the timeless space of becoming, before the actual occasion is concretized into being. If you situated yourself imaginatively inside Whitehead’s process reality, you would experience yourself as a living center of transformational process. Without a sense of separate self, nevertheless you would feel the act of cause-creating-effect-creating-cause… and in the a-temporal pulsations between cause and effect (actual and potential) you would discover vast promise and freedom. The more you prehended your neighbors and relations, the more extensive you would become, until you felt the in-becoming of one body through the simultaneous presence of many bodies. The more stabilized your prehension, over the long slow moment of feeling, the more expansive you would become, until you realized the in-becoming of one novel moment through the simultaneous presencing of many moments.6

The passive expressions of perception function primarily as projections of image-minded models stored in memory. These fixed schemas, symbolic representations, cultural narratives, and internalized social scripts run automatically and filter perception through them. Therefore, for the most part, we go about participating not so much with reality but with mental representations and narrative ‘loops’ inside our heads. Let me give an example.

A student in our summer SOLE program here at Alderlore was learning about the active and passive expressions of perception. One evening he went for a walk down the drive. A young rabbit hopped in front of him and froze into stillness. It was a lovely evening and the lush-green and blond grasses were backlit by delicate hues of an August sunset. The scene was exquisite and the student was, for a moment, transfixed. Then he realized that he was not actually participating with what was happening in the moment, but that there was a kind of gap, that he was participating in a Discovery Channel version of what was happening. His affect tone was sentimental, not sensitive. His perception was fuzzy, not clear—he would not be able to describe the details of the rabbit or his surroundings. He then experienced all that drop away and for a brief moment entered authentic participation with all that was arising, moment to moment. He could see the minutest detail of the rabbit’s whiskers, which heightened his own sense of smell. The texture of the grasses was palatable, the subtle play of light, gradient of warmth, the sweet whistle of the breeze—all of his senses came alive and came together to participate. He became aware of the powerful ‘appetitive drive of the senses,’ desire self-fulfilling in perception. It came to him as a moment of insight and clarity. Goethe said:

Each phenomenon in nature, rightly observed, wakens in us a new organ of inner understanding. As one learns to see more clearly, he or she also learns to see more deeply. One becomes more ‘at home’ with the phenomenon, understanding it with greater empathy, concern and respect.

It is this sense of ‘inner understanding and clarity’ that is a marker for awakening of perception. The insight that emerges from awakened perception arises as a core truth or trust.7 But in this case, we are not trusting of any thing, meaning, symbol, image, or dogma that has been handed down to us. Rather, we are trusting in the truth of perception based on transparent participation. To trust, to truth, is to behold. It is a consequence of beginner’s mind, which is based on ‘believing in nothing.’8 It is a state of dynamic stillness, of active preparedness to participate, authentically and fully, states of intense clarity that I call still hunting—a phrase that captures the alert, attentive, intentional, dynamic stillness that integrates sensitivity with clarity, awakened feeling with awakened perception. Diana Fosha9 refers to this as the ‘core state and truth sense:

Core state refers to an altered state of openness and contact wherein individuals are deeply in touch with essential aspects of their own experience. Experience is intense, deeply felt, unequivocal, and declarative; sensation is heightened, imagery is vivid, focus and concentration are effortless… The affective marker for core state is the truth sense. The truth sense is a vitality affect whose felt sense is an aesthetic experience of rightness, the rightness of one’s experience.

We can think of the cycle of an awakened experience from affect through perception as completing and repeating an ‘arc of transformation,’ as composing and recomposing the transformational self. Fosha writes:

The emotion-based transformational process, unfolding through the directional thrust of emotion, moment to moment kept on a progressive track by vitality affects signaling the operation of recognition processes, describes an arc: A psychoevolutionary perspective at one end is organically linked with aesthetics, spirituality, and the quest for personal truth at the other. The experiential processing of emotions shaped by eons of evolution, naturally culminates in experiences of aliveness, hope, faith, clarity, agency, simplicity, compassion, coherence, and both truth and beauty.

The transformational self no longer relies on a storehouse of old memories and social programming and is no longer interested in the symbolic representation of reality. The transformational self is not a social being and has no interest in either collectivist or theistic attitudes. The transformational self is a fully individuated self, capable of authentic participation with the world. The transformational self is an inter-being, in a participatory ecology with other transforming agents, including non-human beings. The transformational self activates imagination to co-create new possibilities in the participatory field. These possibilities emerge from the adaptive landscape of all participating agents, from microbe and molecule to planet and quasar. This is something that Carl Gustav Jung only began to understand late in his life; he had relegated the liminal processes of the imagination to the passive expressions of knowing, to collectively shared symbols, archetypes, and myths, and the collective unconscious material of humanity’s deep evolutionary past. Then towards the end of his life, Jung discovered that in the fully individuated self, imagination becomes an instrument of enacting entirely new futures by envisioning new possibilities—a process I have come to know as ‘dreaming one’s self awake’ and have experienced as ‘falling in love with the future.’

Mode Passive Expression Active Expression Buddhist Vehicle Vehicle Fruition Transformational
Self Principle
Feeling Repression/Aggression Sensitivity Mahayana Compassion/Equanimity Intuition
Perception Projection Clarity Hinayana Sunyata/Emptiness Insight
Knowing Assimilation/Memory Active Imagination Vajrayana Visualization Intellect

Active Imagination

It is of this secret strength that mountain and earth, stars and sea, the most elemental things of nature, sing. Yet the secret is told only to the imagination, capable, as it is, of celebrating what goes nonetheless unseen and unheard. Indeed the secret will always have been entrusted to those imaginings that can fill with song even those things that, like earth itself, remain silent and solitary.
~ John Sallis, Force of Imagination

Deep phenomenology allows us to identify the conditioned aspects of memory, thought, and mind, and enables us to dis-identify from all the symbolic representations of reality stored in our heads. This process of clearing out the structural artifacts of the conditioned mind reveals the active imagination at the heart of all experience. We discover that the activity of the imagination is what binds the myriad phenomena by ‘minding’ them into a centered whole, in the same manner that the dream self is imagined into existence while we sleep. We realize the self as the terminal bud unfolding at the end of the waveform of moment-to-moment experience. First feeling, then perceiving. In the end a self is image-mind(ed) into existence. Then, right at the moment when the wave of experience crests and the moment dissolves into the traces of its past, the self, a reflection through the looking glass of imagination, turns around to catch a glimpse… but the moment has passed and the phenomena have disappeared. The self is left only with its apparition… and it too is not there.

Coda

Deep phenomenology is a praxis that realizes the transformational self by shifting the modes of experience from passive to active expressions, from feeling, perception, and knowing, to intuition, insight, and intellect through the practices designed to cultivate sensitivity, clarity, and active imagination. This praxis integrates modern process philosophy, cognitive neuroscience, and meta-therapeutic methods while preserving the essence of Dzogchen and its Mahamudra path.

Footnotes

1 Deep Phenomenology is a praxis based on Western process philosophy and Dzogchen process methodologies designed by Bonnitta Roy for the Alderlore Insight Center.
2 These are the neurochemical-electric systems that monitor and regulate the internal states of the body through afferent and efferent pathways involving the fascia, viscera, and internal organs, including the polyvagal system and the neuroaffective streams that are responsible for the primary intentional-motivational affective tone of the experience. Together, they constitute what is known as introception.
3 This includes the sense organs and higher-brain coordination of extroception.
4 The architect Christopher Alexander recognized that the nature of order depended upon living centers.
5 The term hybrid mind and the description that follows are based on the writings of Merlin Donald.
6 Excerpted from my paper: The Magellan Courses: An experiment in self-organizing, co-creative transformative education. Presented at the 2013 Integral Theory Conference; retrieved from https://alderloreinsightcenter.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/roy_presenter-paper-itc-2013.pdf
7 The etymological root of truth and trust is ‘trost.’
8 In Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Shunryu Suzuki talks about believing in
nothing.
9 Diana Fosha: Emotion and Recognition at Work. Retrieved from http://www.aedpinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/2009_Fosha_Neuropsychoth.pdf (2-20-15)