Jun 26, 2013

Samadhi, Assemblage Point and Gestalt Psychology

There is an interesting point of view that was published on the vKontakte page [a social network that is popular is CIS states – translator’s note] dedicated to Yoga Sutras that I mentioned in one of my winter posts, by the author of the said public who calls himself Igor Aleksandrovitch. I quote:

“Here is an interesting interpretation of the term "samādhi":

By the way, the most felicitous and accurate variant of translating the Yoga term samaadhi is by using Castaneda’s phrase “the assemblage point”, since Samadhi does mean the “assemblage” (this term in this very meaning can be found in texts dedicated to manufacture of chariots). From etymological point it looks the following way: the prefix sam- means “co-“, "jointly-", the prefix aa- means "to-", "at-" (i.e. it reveals the idea of attaching, fixing, bringing in correspondence), while the root dhaa- (with –i as a suffix) means "to put down”, “to place/make stand”. Thus “Samadhi” literally means putting together and attaching to each other some odd parts that were previously independent, uncoordinated or disharmonious.
Igor Aleksandrovitch”.

As one may easily see, the drawn clarification of the Samadhi term comes in perfect line with my explanation of Samadhi as the act of cognition (see here). Indeed, even in English there are such phrases as “I have FIXED the problem”,“I have PUT two and two TOGETHER” And they as if reflect that very experience of instantaneous comprehension of the problem that comes after long preliminary considerations (Dharana and Dhyana). However, the equivalence between the term Samadhi and Castaneda’s ‘assemblage point’ is not that obvious, despite the similarity between the words. Let us sort this issue out.

First of all let us quote Carlos himself. As usual, I will highlight in bold type the lines that I consider to be of major importance for further consideration:

“First of all, one must become aware that the world we perceive is the result of our assemblage points being located on a specific spot on the cocoon. Once that is understood, the assemblage point can move almost at will, as a consequence of new habits”.

“The next truth is that perception takes place because there is in each of us an agent called the assemblage point that selects internal and external emanations for alignment. The particular alignment that we perceive as the world is the product of the specific spot where our assemblage point is located on our cocoon”.

“The mystery is outside us. Inside us we have only emanations trying to break the cocoon. And this fact aberrates us, one way or another, whether we're average men or warriors. Only the new seers get around this. They struggle to see. And by means of the shifts of their assemblage points, they get to realize that the mystery is perceiving. Not so much what we perceive, but what makes us perceive.
The new seers believe that our senses are capable of detecting anything. They believe this because they see that the position of the assemblage point is what dictates what our senses perceive.
If the assemblage point aligns emanations inside the cocoon in a position different from its normal one, the human senses perceive in inconceivable ways”.

The origins of this category will become clear if we remember that but for being the “new seer”, Carlos Castaneda himself had also a university degree in anthropology and he was for sure aware of numerous actual scientific hypotheses that he put into the mouth of Don Juan [1] and applied for conceptualizing his mystic and psychedelic experience.
First of all, the concept of assemblage point resembles much the basic idea of Gestalt psychology [2] that contrary to the main formula of Wundt’s psychology:
has drawn up its own theory in which scope it was the perception that came as the basic element of cognition, while the sensations were “being selected” from endless multitudes of interactions between the sense organs and the environment in order to complete the “gestalt” – some holistic perception of the object under cognition. The part of sensations that goes beyond gestalt (its volume, by the way, being infinite) becomes the “background” that the man simply does not take notice of in scope of conscious level. For instance, within the process of our listening to the lecture the words of a lector come as the gestalt while the singing of birds outside is the background that we will fail to remember. But if we start listening to birds, distinguishing between their tunes, their singing shall turn into gestalt while the lecture shall become the background. By the way, the term “gestalt” has been introduced by Christian von Ehrenfels on the instance of recognizing the melody by a listener in scope of its transfer into various keys. According to Ehrenfels, but for the elements that make up the melody there is some quality of form that is added in there - the gestalt.
Such methodology shall inevitably entail a group of psychological techniques [3] related to attention management that can be used for research purposes – aimed at a more profound understanding of the “gestalt” core point, as well as employed with the purpose of obtaining applied and therapeutic results (as a matter of fact, this is what Fritz Perls actually started to do later on). The founders of gestalt psychology focused their main attention on investigating the phenomena of perception in scope of looking at ambiguous pictures, like those of optic illusions. For instance, let us take the well-known picture:
Even if we run our eyes over such picture we will see that depending upon our desire we “bring it together” in either a goblet or two faces, leaving the part of opposite color as the background. What is that ability of ours to put things together into different pictures? What is the core essence of this phenomenon? What is the nature of “gestalt”? Unfortunately, gestalt psychology has failed to answer these questions, while the scientific research activity of gestalt psychologists was almost finished by the middle of the XXth century. Considering the target of this article I shall not investigate the reasons of why such field that was initially promising has faded, but I shall tell my hypothesis that comes rather from the field of philosophy of science. So, to my opinion, the basic point here is that the issue of gestalt origin inevitably takes one beyond the scope of materialistic paradigm that they required from the psychology of those times. Upon developing the conclusions drawn by gestalt psychologists one must admit that gestalts are not originated by one’s conscious mind, it’s rather that they take precedence of this consciousness. And this is already not far from mysticism. Yes, it is – it’s very near. In fact, the gestalt psychologists have paved almost a royal bridge between mysticism and science, yet they feared to follow this path till its very end [4]. And it was C.C. who understood the advantages of these methods and incorporated them within his system. Let alone that due to research work fulfilled by transpersonal psychologists we’ve become well familiar with effects caused by some South-American psychedelic substances, in particular, the ability of “putting the world together” in various ways that C.C. definitely had to interpret.

By the way, the teaching of Castaneda contains some other scientific concepts that he has put into the mouth of shamans. For instance, the “map is not the territory” principle (Bateson, Korzybski), the contemplations on capturing the world picture by means of the internal dialogue resemble the ideas of psycho-semantics that was popular at that time, and so on. To my mind this is what makes Castaneda a great person, and even a unique one, putting him on a par with the world’s greatest Mystics. There were many practicing persons throughout the history of mankind who used to have some mystic experience, but only the most daring of them tried to conceptualize this experience using the language of science contemporary to them. Of course one cannot clearly express the mystic experience in its entirety, but the advance of the mankind, and first of all the scientific progress, provides for more and more complicated languages that enable one to convey even more and more subtle hues of such experience. And C.C. was among those few of the XXth century who dared to try it.

But let us come back to Samadhi. In scope of methodology that I have explicated it becomes clear that the conceptual (semantic) fields of the categories “Samadhi” and Castanedas’s world “assemblage” do intercross, but they are not identical. Following gestalt psychologists, Castaneda considered “putting together” to be the function of attention allocation, while Patanjali’s Samadhi is associated to comprehending the essence of the things (and the whole Chapter 3 confirms the point). In fact Samadhi is a creative breakthrough related to gaining a conceptually knew knowledge, sometimes even a new language of description. The worlds of C.C. still bear the visionists’ character, while comprehension of the basic point is the process of working with abstract categories and consistent patterns. And though while speaking we say “yes, now I see [the consistent pattern]”, we know that this is just a metaphor, and what we do with this pattern is we comprehend, understand it. However, it was yet in times of gestalt psychology when they made attempts of shifting the concept of gestalt from psychology of attention onto psychology of cognition [5], but they did not much succeed in this sphere.

Once we have already mentioned Castaneda I cannot keep from collating another of his fundamental categories with Patanjali’s teaching. I mean here the already mentioned “internal talk”:
“We talk to ourselves incessantly about our world. In fact we maintain our world with our internal talk. And whenever we finish talking to ourselves about ourselves and our world, the world is always as it should be. We renew it, we rekindle it with life, we uphold it with our internal talk. Not only that, but we also choose our paths as we talk to ourselves”. Carlos Castaneda. The Wheel of Time / A Separate Reality.

“The internal dialogue is what grounds people in the daily world. The world is such and such or so and so, only because we talk to ourselves about it being such and such or so and so”. Carlos Castaneda. Tales of Power

So, the internal talk bears a cyclically-iterative character, it is associated with preset outlook and it limits the person. That is, it totally corresponds to all characteristics that Patanjali attributes to the category of Vritti. And indeed, one of the meanings of the word Vritti is a cycle or a whirlwind [6], i.e. something that has the function of looping, recirculation. The person “looped” in his emotion or emotional experience proceeds to come back to it, sometimes voicing this recurrence by means of words that actually make the noticeable part of the internal dialogue. For instance, a person who’s been offended starts mental conversation with his offender or defender, asking thousand times a day: “how could they do this to me?..”. A person who has “maintained himself” within some world outlook is constantly searching for some facts that confirm it, and so on.

On the other hand, according to C.C. it is this very internal talk that determines the mode of one’s outlook, and it makes it related to “cognitive” Vrittis: Pramana, Viparyaya and Vikalpa ( see here and here). As we can see from the first quotation, its cessation enables one to see the world as it is, i.e., if we speak in the language of Patanjali:
1.3 At that time (in the state of Chitta-Vritti-Nirodha) the Drashtar abides in his own state.
1.4. Otherwise he is identified with Vritti.

And finally, the internal dialogue, just like the Vrittis of klesha-kind, limits the person and “grounds him”.

So, despite the difference in traditions and description systems we once again face the principle that we have already formulated in our previous posts: many systems, though seem to be different, are grounded upon similar mystic experience that is described and conceptualized in different ways.

[1] It’s more than once that I’ve been asked about whether I believe Don Juan to be a real person. The reply shall be – yes, I do. Interesting people always grow up under the influence of other interesting people. However I can admit Don Juan’s ability to think by using the categories attributed to him only in case he also had several university degrees, them been in the field of philosophy and psychology. Probably, the major elements of the very “Don Juan Teaching” laid the basis of the first two books of C.C. and it was at that time that he gained the major “boost” of his mystic experience, while the reasoning, conceptualization and broadening of this experience, together with further advance that was based upon it (see “Religious Psychopractices in the History of Culture”) required the engagement of some complicated intellectual base.

[2] Don’t mix it up with F. Perls’ gestalt-therapy :).

[3] As we remember, Carlos also paid much attention to the concept of “attention”.

[4] To be fair, let us also say that it was not the only bridge paved. Those others are the idea of collective unconsciousness and transpersonal methodology. Yet, both Jung and Groff are too of “liberal arts” and in scope of their approach there was no place for purely scientific (i.e. related to mathematics and measuring) research work. While gestalt did make it possible.

[5] See Schultz D., Schultz S. A History of Modern Psychology, Ch.12.

[6] It is possible that the word derived from the Vedic root that means “rotation, spinning” as it is given in the book of T. Ya. Elizarenkova “ Language and Style of the Vedic Rsis” .

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