How to describe the lived-experience for research : Meditation, meditators, explicitation-interview ?

How to describe the lived-experience for research :

Meditation, meditators, explicitation-interview ?

By Pierre Vermersch

How to describe the lived-experience for research :

Meditation, meditators, explicitation-interview ?

Pierre Vermersch

Nowadays, there is no shortage of papers or books that advocate the preferred use of meditation to explore « really » subjective experience. Intuitively, the idea seems correct, as meditation is certainly the expert human activity which prepares best to pay attention to the events of the inner life and therefore to describe them in order to know about them and sustain a research program in the field of psycho-phenomenology (of neurophenomenology and even of experiencial philosophy…).

Numerous researchers who are interested in the description of the lived experience are themselves practionners of meditation, mostly from buddhist influence (Bitbol, Petitmengin, Varela, Depraz, Thomson and many others…). I have, myself, a long and continuous practice of meditation (non-buddhist). However, I find it essential to develop and pratice a tool like the explicitation interview to know about the lived-experience, as if meditation seemed to me insufficient or inadequate but also as if there was a confusion between meditator (expert) and meditation (practice) or between the informant and the researcher posture.

I try, in this small text, to organize some landmarks questioning the arguments for and against the use of meditation and / or the explicitation-interview to serve research on first and second person speech addressing and perhaps open the discussion.

1/ Defining minimum what I refer to when I speak of meditation.

What is meditation ? Of course I will not propose a complete definition, as if I was overhanging the subject ! But I will highlight the essential points which caracterize the activity to which I am referring. There are dozens of forms of meditation and meditative traditions, I do not pretend to know them all. I will focus on some points that I think are crucial :

– The practice meditation suppose to focus on a specific activity subject to a time of withdrawal, suspension, from usual activities, but also a time of stillness in a particular posture. (But already here, some will want to extend this activity to all meditation practices, as a way of practicing a profession, an art, a body activity. But I would stick to this basic idea : a withdrawal time, motionless, silent, and in a particular posture.)

-The fundamental characteristic of all meditation which I keep is the practice of the continued presence, which means to maintain, as much as possible, a living relationship to being present to oneself. As often, the positive definition is trivial, but it helps to stand out what is not the presence, the absence of one’s self, in other words it is opposed to being lost in thoughts or in dreams, be taken by one’s emotions or also to doze or fly away.

The learning of the continued presence is based on a simple set, easy to understand, offering to remain attentive to one’s body, its feelings, its posture, for others it will be more specifically linked to monitoring on the breathing. Following one’s body sensation from momentsto moments, the perception of the vertical, the relaxation, and / or track the movements of breathing, that’s simple, intelligible and immediately practical. The advantage of this set is that it allows immediate meditation, even if we need some additional indications on the seat, otherwise it is much more difficult; which means to be attentive to the vertical spine to support the sit bones, to get a little chin, relax the shoulders.

The beginning set is clear and simple, but the indirect pedagogical goal is to create the conditions leading to discover that we don’t succeed. The will to maintain this presence leads to discover its difficulty and as such, it allows to be conscient that we are absent in thoughts, in associations of ideas, emotions, boredom, drowsiness, pending the gong that never ceases to arrive … and many more forms of self-forgetfulness and lack of being present to one’s self.

So, it gets exciting, wanting simply to follow the sensation or breathing spontaneously leads to discover the ceaseless activity of the inner world, makes it sensitive and even, gradually makes expert to perceive the birth of distractions, non-presence and adverse effects of repression, and to discover the very soft interior gestures of the letting-go and the delicate return to the continuity of presence. The near impossibility in the beginnings to follow this type of simple instruction educates attention to the perception of the inner world. Not only the meditant tries to cultivate his own presence, but to do so, he becomes aware of all the movements of subjectivity that prevents it ! The beginning instructions can be seen as a clever way (indirect) to get to know, recognize his inner world. Thus, the meditant becomes an expert of subjectivity (in the framework of a contemplative activity because he has nothing to do, nothing to produce, « just » stay present).

Of course, one can think that the deep goal (s) of the meditation are not only the learning of this practice of being present, but also that this learning, for example, is the only way to reach other goals which will be discovered later, and paradoxically would be more difficult to achieve by the only fact of being named.

The learning of meditation therefore leads necessarily to be expert in the practice of one’s own subjectivity and develops discrimination of inner events and their comings. So it seems interesting to know what meditation can teach us about this subjectivity. But several limitations seem necessary which diminish interest of the meditation for research on subjectivity.

– Meditation is an exclusive activity. When I meditate, by definition I set apart from the world and I have no productive activity, neither a finalized one. So I can not practice and examine a finalized cognitive activity while I meditate. Meditation therefore directly opens only at the knowledge of the occurrence of thoughts or emotions, of the perception of the discrimination between self and non-self, and more, to the discovery of unusual states for advanced practitioners. It sounds interesting for large general questions about consciousness, but relatively little for the study of specific cognitive activities. But to build a science of subjectivity, we need to study these activities in terms of subjective experience.

– Meditation is unique in another sense. It is not compatible with the simultaneous verbalization of one’s lived experience. Of course, instructors know to hold the wire of their meditation while guiding meditators, but they do not really go into the details of what they are living, just verbalizing a thread, their presence superimposed on an educational speech. Anyway, we will meet the general problem of simultaneous verbalization (act and describe one’s action at the same time), which temporality is so much slower than that of the current experience, we have to change or stop the activity regularly to readjust on the experience itself. This changes the experience studied. In all cases it is hardly compatible with the characteristics of the meditation activity.

– Excluding the simultaneous verbalization in the present, it then falls to the inevitable choice of an a posteriori verbalization based on the remembrance of the lived experience as proposed by the explicitation interview. But this does not remove the limit of objects of study for contemplative activities.
The question that we can ask then is whether to consider any cognitive activity rather than trying to mobilize meditation, it would be wiser to build on these topics experts, these experts of the inner world that are meditators, but probably and more broadly, also take into account all practitioners oriented towards activities based on detailed monitoring internal activity.

 

2 / Instead of mobilizing meditation, why not use the experts: meditators, or others?

Again, we are faced with an idea that seems obvious. Since meditation makes expert in the realization of one’s internal events, since it leads to a sensitivity and a very fine discrimination, why not mobilize meditators to explore the subjective activity of any type of finalized activity?

The idea in principle is not new. From the early 20th century, it was thought to use trained subjects, experts, calibrated to participate in experiments in psychology of sensory and intellectual activities. But again, why stop at meditators? All persons engaged in practices seeking to develop a focus on internal activities are in the requirements to become experts in the subjective world, even if it is favoring one aspect or another of interiority: either focused in the « internal movement » proper to fasciatherapies or in listening and guiding the chi in some internal practices of Tai Chi; but also everyone who followed psychotherapeutic course, or simply people with many experiences of the explicitation interview as the interviewed. Whatever the technique, all have become experts in listening to oneself, discriminating the thoughts, associations, the birth of an emotion.

So we come to the simple and intuitive idea : it would be beneficial to involve « experts of the inner world » in all studies taking into account the description of introspective experience. Whether or not meditants, the criterion being rather to have developed a practice for paying attention to the inner life.

But at this point it seems to me necessary to distinguish at least two distinct competencies:

– Discriminative sensitive skills, one hand,

– Categorial skills on the other hand.

Basically, the argument is that it is not because I became sensitive that I know everything ; for the best, I appreciate what educated me and became familiar to me. In various forms, all practitioners of the inner world are encouraged to develop a discrimination of various internal events, and more, to become more and more sensitive to nuances, to what occurred, almost invisible. But at the same time, it mainly develops this sensitivity only in conjunction with their specific practical universe. In fact, not solely because the training of the sensitivity induces a potential transfer to any situation that will ask me to discriminate finely. But it is only an opportunity to embody, to update in a new situation. In fact, which must be learned !

 

An example has much impressed me. During the workshops of practical phenomenology, we explored the resolution of a small projective geometry problem from the book of Dennett « Consciousness Explained » in order to give the opportunity to describe a course of mental actions related to a spatial support. Francisco Varela was part of the workshop, along with others. He performed the task, in minutes he wrote a description of his actions and gave it me to read. And there I saw a very incomplete description, highly schematic, and I gave him an indication of the interest of fragmenting the steps by which he passed with an example from his text. He looked at me, speechless, and immediately replied « yes, of course » and he worked to expand his description. Francisco was an advanced meditant, we cannot doubt of his capacity to discriminate indoor events ! It was enough that I gave him a categorial indication, from which he immediately transferred his skills to another field of activity. What he lacked was therefore no sensitivity, but the categorial competence to describe a mental action in detail based on what I call « the universal structure of lived experiences. » He was trained as a biologist, and was not used to thinking about sequences of actions related to problem resolutions. He had not developed the expertise that demand fine description of sequences of completed actions.

 

I could give many examples of this type, where sensitivity was there, but not categorial competences, whether universal or specific, either about meditators or other categories of expert practitioners.

I want to emphasize this idea : it is not enough to be very sensitive to know how to describe the whole of one’s internal activity, we must also know what types of events we want to capture, the types of properties that differentiate them. This is what I call: categorial skills.

 

Categorial skills are of two kinds:

– The first kind concerns what I have called the universal structure of all lived experiences, and is the permanent tracking grid to know (structure) how to describe what it takes to account for cognitive acts, but also to perceive what is missing in the description.

 

– The second kind concerns the specific categories to a type of work or activity, and assumes that a research has already been accomplished on the field to have been updated, and if not, it is the job description and analysis of data that will allow to discover, invent the specific categories to a type of activity.

 

The practice of explicitation interview has allowed good progress on the first point, and the practice of the universal structure of lived experience takes part of the basic training sessions. However, whenever we wanted to describe a new activity (the act of evocation, my attentional movements, perlocutionary effects …), we had to discover / invent what was to describe to make account of this activity.

 

Differentiate the skills of discrimination and the categorial skills also leads to pay attention to the distribution of these skills among the informant and in the researcher.
Particularly wether we are on a self-explicitation situation or on an explicitation interview.

 

The self-explicitation requests to master the two skill sets: sensitivity and categorization, because it is necessarily the researcher who described his own experience, because if it is not the researcher, he will miss categorial competence to the one who describes (and skills to conduct research). The explicitation interview distributes skills, the informant being interviewed may be chosen because he is particularly expert in internal discrimination, and the researcher who is the interviewer is an expert in description of lived experiences because he masters the categorization.

 

This is what makes the specific interest of the explicitation interview that can guide non-inductively the informant in access, fine description, the reflection of his past lived experience without either the interviewed be necessarily an expert on categorization of the inner world. And all the better if he is particularly sensitive and discriminating, but it is not a necessary condition.

 

Through my text, thus, another theme follows: the types of research questions that we ask. Often researchers referring to meditation aim for themes such as the nature of consciousness, the elementary events of thoughts appearances, discrimination between self and non-self in experience. For my part, I am more mobilized by knowing the cognitive acts involved in the various forms of remembrance, by the possible effects of view change as the subject moves his place of consciousness with different intentions, by the fine transitions which operate in a course of an engaged action etc …

How to articulate the types of research questions with the methodology of data collection in the first and second person address ? To be continued ….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How to describe the lived-experience for research :

Meditation, meditators, explicitation-interview ?

By Pierre Vermersch

How to describe the lived-experience for research :

Meditation, meditators, explicitation-interview ?

Pierre Vermersch

Nowadays, there is no shortage of papers or books that advocate the preferred use of meditation to explore « really » subjective experience. Intuitively, the idea seems correct, as meditation is certainly the expert human activity which prepares best to pay attention to the events of the inner life and therefore to describe them in order to know about them and sustain a research program in the field of psycho-phenomenology (of neurophenomenology and even of experiencial philosophy…).

Numerous researchers who are interested in the description of the lived experience are themselves practionners of meditation, mostly from buddhist influence (Bitbol, Petitmengin, Varela, Depraz, Thomson and many others…). I have, myself, a long and continuous practice of meditation (non-buddhist). However, I find it essential to develop and pratice a tool like the explicitation interview to know about the lived-experience, as if meditation seemed to me insufficient or inadequate but also as if there was a confusion between meditator (expert) and meditation (practice) or between the informant and the researcher posture.

I try, in this small text, to organize some landmarks questioning the arguments for and against the use of meditation and / or the explicitation-interview to serve research on first and second person speech addressing and perhaps open the discussion.

1/ Defining minimum what I refer to when I speak of meditation.

What is meditation ? Of course I will not propose a complete definition, as if I was overhanging the subject ! But I will highlight the essential points which caracterize the activity to which I am referring. There are dozens of forms of meditation and meditative traditions, I do not pretend to know them all. I will focus on some points that I think are crucial :

– The practice meditation suppose to focus on a specific activity subject to a time of withdrawal, suspension, from usual activities, but also a time of stillness in a particular posture. (But already here, some will want to extend this activity to all meditation practices, as a way of practicing a profession, an art, a body activity. But I would stick to this basic idea : a withdrawal time, motionless, silent, and in a particular posture.)

-The fundamental characteristic of all meditation which I keep is the practice of the continued presence, which means to maintain, as much as possible, a living relationship to being present to oneself. As often, the positive definition is trivial, but it helps to stand out what is not the presence, the absence of one’s self, in other words it is opposed to being lost in thoughts or in dreams, be taken by one’s emotions or also to doze or fly away.

The learning of the continued presence is based on a simple set, easy to understand, offering to remain attentive to one’s body, its feelings, its posture, for others it will be more specifically linked to monitoring on the breathing. Following one’s body sensation from momentsto moments, the perception of the vertical, the relaxation, and / or track the movements of breathing, that’s simple, intelligible and immediately practical. The advantage of this set is that it allows immediate meditation, even if we need some additional indications on the seat, otherwise it is much more difficult; which means to be attentive to the vertical spine to support the sit bones, to get a little chin, relax the shoulders.

The beginning set is clear and simple, but the indirect pedagogical goal is to create the conditions leading to discover that we don’t succeed. The will to maintain this presence leads to discover its difficulty and as such, it allows to be conscient that we are absent in thoughts, in associations of ideas, emotions, boredom, drowsiness, pending the gong that never ceases to arrive … and many more forms of self-forgetfulness and lack of being present to one’s self.

So, it gets exciting, wanting simply to follow the sensation or breathing spontaneously leads to discover the ceaseless activity of the inner world, makes it sensitive and even, gradually makes expert to perceive the birth of distractions, non-presence and adverse effects of repression, and to discover the very soft interior gestures of the letting-go and the delicate return to the continuity of presence. The near impossibility in the beginnings to follow this type of simple instruction educates attention to the perception of the inner world. Not only the meditant tries to cultivate his own presence, but to do so, he becomes aware of all the movements of subjectivity that prevents it ! The beginning instructions can be seen as a clever way (indirect) to get to know, recognize his inner world. Thus, the meditant becomes an expert of subjectivity (in the framework of a contemplative activity because he has nothing to do, nothing to produce, « just » stay present).

Of course, one can think that the deep goal (s) of the meditation are not only the learning of this practice of being present, but also that this learning, for example, is the only way to reach other goals which will be discovered later, and paradoxically would be more difficult to achieve by the only fact of being named.

The learning of meditation therefore leads necessarily to be expert in the practice of one’s own subjectivity and develops discrimination of inner events and their comings. So it seems interesting to know what meditation can teach us about this subjectivity. But several limitations seem necessary which diminish interest of the meditation for research on subjectivity.

– Meditation is an exclusive activity. When I meditate, by definition I set apart from the world and I have no productive activity, neither a finalized one. So I can not practice and examine a finalized cognitive activity while I meditate. Meditation therefore directly opens only at the knowledge of the occurrence of thoughts or emotions, of the perception of the discrimination between self and non-self, and more, to the discovery of unusual states for advanced practitioners. It sounds interesting for large general questions about consciousness, but relatively little for the study of specific cognitive activities. But to build a science of subjectivity, we need to study these activities in terms of subjective experience.

– Meditation is unique in another sense. It is not compatible with the simultaneous verbalization of one’s lived experience. Of course, instructors know to hold the wire of their meditation while guiding meditators, but they do not really go into the details of what they are living, just verbalizing a thread, their presence superimposed on an educational speech. Anyway, we will meet the general problem of simultaneous verbalization (act and describe one’s action at the same time), which temporality is so much slower than that of the current experience, we have to change or stop the activity regularly to readjust on the experience itself. This changes the experience studied. In all cases it is hardly compatible with the characteristics of the meditation activity.

– Excluding the simultaneous verbalization in the present, it then falls to the inevitable choice of an a posteriori verbalization based on the remembrance of the lived experience as proposed by the explicitation interview. But this does not remove the limit of objects of study for contemplative activities.
The question that we can ask then is whether to consider any cognitive activity rather than trying to mobilize meditation, it would be wiser to build on these topics experts, these experts of the inner world that are meditators, but probably and more broadly, also take into account all practitioners oriented towards activities based on detailed monitoring internal activity.

 

2 / Instead of mobilizing meditation, why not use the experts: meditators, or others?

Again, we are faced with an idea that seems obvious. Since meditation makes expert in the realization of one’s internal events, since it leads to a sensitivity and a very fine discrimination, why not mobilize meditators to explore the subjective activity of any type of finalized activity?

The idea in principle is not new. From the early 20th century, it was thought to use trained subjects, experts, calibrated to participate in experiments in psychology of sensory and intellectual activities. But again, why stop at meditators? All persons engaged in practices seeking to develop a focus on internal activities are in the requirements to become experts in the subjective world, even if it is favoring one aspect or another of interiority: either focused in the « internal movement » proper to fasciatherapies or in listening and guiding the chi in some internal practices of Tai Chi; but also everyone who followed psychotherapeutic course, or simply people with many experiences of the explicitation interview as the interviewed. Whatever the technique, all have become experts in listening to oneself, discriminating the thoughts, associations, the birth of an emotion.

So we come to the simple and intuitive idea : it would be beneficial to involve « experts of the inner world » in all studies taking into account the description of introspective experience. Whether or not meditants, the criterion being rather to have developed a practice for paying attention to the inner life.

But at this point it seems to me necessary to distinguish at least two distinct competencies:

– Discriminative sensitive skills, one hand,

– Categorial skills on the other hand.

Basically, the argument is that it is not because I became sensitive that I know everything ; for the best, I appreciate what educated me and became familiar to me. In various forms, all practitioners of the inner world are encouraged to develop a discrimination of various internal events, and more, to become more and more sensitive to nuances, to what occurred, almost invisible. But at the same time, it mainly develops this sensitivity only in conjunction with their specific practical universe. In fact, not solely because the training of the sensitivity induces a potential transfer to any situation that will ask me to discriminate finely. But it is only an opportunity to embody, to update in a new situation. In fact, which must be learned !

 

An example has much impressed me. During the workshops of practical phenomenology, we explored the resolution of a small projective geometry problem from the book of Dennett « Consciousness Explained » in order to give the opportunity to describe a course of mental actions related to a spatial support. Francisco Varela was part of the workshop, along with others. He performed the task, in minutes he wrote a description of his actions and gave it me to read. And there I saw a very incomplete description, highly schematic, and I gave him an indication of the interest of fragmenting the steps by which he passed with an example from his text. He looked at me, speechless, and immediately replied « yes, of course » and he worked to expand his description. Francisco was an advanced meditant, we cannot doubt of his capacity to discriminate indoor events ! It was enough that I gave him a categorial indication, from which he immediately transferred his skills to another field of activity. What he lacked was therefore no sensitivity, but the categorial competence to describe a mental action in detail based on what I call « the universal structure of lived experiences. » He was trained as a biologist, and was not used to thinking about sequences of actions related to problem resolutions. He had not developed the expertise that demand fine description of sequences of completed actions.

 

I could give many examples of this type, where sensitivity was there, but not categorial competences, whether universal or specific, either about meditators or other categories of expert practitioners.

I want to emphasize this idea : it is not enough to be very sensitive to know how to describe the whole of one’s internal activity, we must also know what types of events we want to capture, the types of properties that differentiate them. This is what I call: categorial skills.

 

Categorial skills are of two kinds:

– The first kind concerns what I have called the universal structure of all lived experiences, and is the permanent tracking grid to know (structure) how to describe what it takes to account for cognitive acts, but also to perceive what is missing in the description.

 

– The second kind concerns the specific categories to a type of work or activity, and assumes that a research has already been accomplished on the field to have been updated, and if not, it is the job description and analysis of data that will allow to discover, invent the specific categories to a type of activity.

 

The practice of explicitation interview has allowed good progress on the first point, and the practice of the universal structure of lived experience takes part of the basic training sessions. However, whenever we wanted to describe a new activity (the act of evocation, my attentional movements, perlocutionary effects …), we had to discover / invent what was to describe to make account of this activity.

 

Differentiate the skills of discrimination and the categorial skills also leads to pay attention to the distribution of these skills among the informant and in the researcher.
Particularly wether we are on a self-explicitation situation or on an explicitation interview.

 

The self-explicitation requests to master the two skill sets: sensitivity and categorization, because it is necessarily the researcher who described his own experience, because if it is not the researcher, he will miss categorial competence to the one who describes (and skills to conduct research). The explicitation interview distributes skills, the informant being interviewed may be chosen because he is particularly expert in internal discrimination, and the researcher who is the interviewer is an expert in description of lived experiences because he masters the categorization.

 

This is what makes the specific interest of the explicitation interview that can guide non-inductively the informant in access, fine description, the reflection of his past lived experience without either the interviewed be necessarily an expert on categorization of the inner world. And all the better if he is particularly sensitive and discriminating, but it is not a necessary condition.

 

Through my text, thus, another theme follows: the types of research questions that we ask. Often researchers referring to meditation aim for themes such as the nature of consciousness, the elementary events of thoughts appearances, discrimination between self and non-self in experience. For my part, I am more mobilized by knowing the cognitive acts involved in the various forms of remembrance, by the possible effects of view change as the subject moves his place of consciousness with different intentions, by the fine transitions which operate in a course of an engaged action etc …

How to articulate the types of research questions with the methodology of data collection in the first and second person address ? To be continued ….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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