Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Mai 2006

9.2. Buddhist Psychology: A Transcultural Bridge to Innovation and Reproduction
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Maurits G.T. Kwee (Buenos Aires)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The Use of Video in Facilitating Transpersonal Experience

Donald Rothenberg (European School Network, Vienna Bilingual Schooling, Austria)



The purpose of this investigation is to explore the use of video in eliciting transpersonal experience. For this investigation, transpersonal experience is defined as entailing three critical related cognitive phenomena: a detachedness of perspective connected to the ability to view oneself from the point of view of others, as if outside oneself; a holistic orientation; and an alteration in the perception of time and space. These phenomena are taken to be connected and to be important variables in the development and perpetuation of transpersonal experience. If video can be used to produce particular transpersonal effects, then it has great potential as a tool in personal development, for psychology in general, and in particular, in this study, for Transpersonal Psychology and Integral Psychology. There are also implications as well to the relatively new psychological discipline of Clinical Meditation. Seventeen people, and the author, who work with video, in various professional, creative and artistic capacities, were interviewed on video to explore the personal experience of videographers and search for signs of transpersonal phenomena connected directly to their use of video. These transpersonal experiences could raise consciousness and perhaps, thereby, lead to more stable and higher transpersonal realms of a post-conventional nature (psychic, subtle, causal, and non-dual) (Wilber, 2000).


Transpersonal Experience

Transpersonal experience might be regarded as consequent to a stage of personal development connected to self actualization (Maslow, 1967). It involves the development of self beyond the narrow confines of a social personality that is highly connected to a particular social niche and constrained by the weight of internalized conventions. Such internalized conventions include, in particular, some of the ways in which we view ourselves and how we view others and the world about us that are determined particularly by processes of socialization. The growth of self, connected to transpersonal experience, involves a movement of these conventional orientations and involves what has been called a transformation of consciousness (Wilber, 1986); so that we learn to construct our notions of, and relate to the world and ourselves in a distinctively different manner. A consequence of this transformation of consciousness might be a transpersonal experience. There are at least three critical components of a transpersonal experience; witness consciousness, or the ability to perceive oneself as if from some detached exteriorized perspective; an altered sense of time and space; and a holistic orientation (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980b; Boucouvalis, 1980).


Holistic Orientation

The transformation of consciousness supportive of transpersonal experience involves an extension of cognitive awareness outside of its typical mode of operation, which we might characterize as being verbal, rational, differentiating, and interpretive (e.g. Ornstein, 1977; Tart, 1975). In its place is developed a preference for cognition to be effected within an alternate mode which is connected with the visual and the senses of the body. This alternate mode of consciousness is described as connected with intuition, that is, awareness is connected directly through the senses to the world about us, which is then experienced more directly and integratively, as opposed to indirectly relating to the world through analytic interpretation, rationalistically (Ornstein, 1977).

This holistic orientation we might connect with an attempt to extend consciousness, both internally, in an exploration of the normally unconscious and the operations of the body, and externally, into a more sensitive awareness of the world about us, including the world of nature, the social world, and spiritual realms. Connected with this expansion of what it is that we are conscious of, is the desire to become one with those things that are around us; without which the self would feel somehow incomplete. It is this motivation to become complete or whole, what has alternately been referred to as moving "beyond the ego" (Walsh & Vaughan, l980a); this ego, or what I am referring to as the social personality, is now viewed as restrictive and limiting, if not actually distorted by our conceptions of self and reality. Walsh and Vaughan (1980a) for example, describe an altered state of consciousness as a state in which there is a heightened sense of clarity and understanding, a state in which a person has an appreciation of a holistic, or unitized and integrated view of the universe, and a state where a positive and intense sense of the perfection of the universe is experienced.

The holistic perspective is connected to a movement towards an extended interaction and appreciation for one’s unconscious and the functioning and use of the body as a tool of experience. Externally, the targets of this expansion move from the material object world and can be referred to as an "ecological consciousness" (Ferguson, 1980; Spretnak & Capra, 1986), to the social where there is frequently the rediscovery of a sense of community with others, which is referred to as "planetary consciousness" (Russell, 1983), to the psychic and then the spiritual, and the desire for mystical transcendence, to the cosmic order, which we might here describe as a "cosmic consciousness" (Bucke, 1923; Wilber, 2004). Each of these terms, ecological, planetary and cosmic consciousness, is evident in the common language shared by people in the transpersonal field. At the transpersonal levels, there is a broader consciousness, a more awake state of being, as in Buddha nature (Mikulas, 1996). They all denote an expansion of awareness, combined with an effort at a reintegration of self into some larger order or system: an effort that also most frequently necessitates an alteration in the nature of the construction of self. Consequent to this expansion of awareness, the self then needs to be redefined in a way that allows it to have a place in these larger realms. This requires an act of creativeness. The perspective is described in relation to video.

[In using video for self exploration and therapy], what happens is that the person, that is the subject of whatever is going on, begins to move into a place where they get beyond their own person or personality and get into what is, again, a transpersonal space. They begin to see them- selves at a much higher level (Tom Taussig/Video therapist, 1984).

I am working on the premise that there is a strong connection between the development of this holistic orientation and the phenomenon of witness consciousness, and also to alterations in the perception of time and space. Together these seem to me to be descriptive of some of the main components of the transformation of consciousness associated with the transpersonal experience.

In considering planetary consciousness we see that the holistic perspective has a strong manifestation in an orientation to others and the well-being of society generally. A person living on such a plateau typically has a sense of social responsibility and desire to contribute to society and to serve others (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980a). Harman (1980) calls this the principle of "ecologicial ethics."


Witness Consciousness

As awareness is extended and the form of cognition shifts from analytical modes of cognition, into modes that are characterized as being more holistic and allow the processing of greater amounts of information at greater speeds (Tart, 1975; Friedes, 1974), new complexities in the perception of self are possible. In part these complexities develop from new elements that are added to the notion of self, and in part due to the developing ability to construct an alternative awareness that allows the individual to imagine and explore himself as if he were viewing from some exteriorized perspective. To describe these phenomena, I choose to borrow the term "witness consciousness" from Fadiman (1980). The term "witness consciousness" is used to describe the ability of an individual to examine their own self processes as if they were observing themselves from the outside; noting their personal idiosyncrasies of thought, emotion, habit and self presentation somewhat as others might observe them. Wilber (1977, 2004) alludes to these phenomena when he discusses the "transpersonal witness", and elsewhere, within traditional fields of psychology. This ability is probably evident in the writings of George Herbert Mead (1934), in his discussion of "taking the role of the other", Du Val and Wicklund’s "objective self-awareness" (1972), and Cohen and Farley’s notion of "decentering" (1973). Witness consciousness enables one to move beyond habitual behavior patterns and belief systems, which are limiting, so that these can be changed, and new possibilities for the self and one’s perception of and interaction with the larger environment is allowed. Other references to witness consciousness are; the pure Witness, witnessing, Witness awareness, the timeless Witness, the real Self, the formless I-I, which is Original Face, pure Seer, or soul (Wilber 2004).

In the process of personal development, we reach a state where we can begin to move away from a limited ego-centric or self-centered point of view in our characterization of ourselves, the world and our place within it, and begin to regard ourselves from an alternative point of view. This other point of view has been described in terms of looking at ourselves as if from the outside, as some other "witness" of our selves. From such a perspective we can reexamine our feelings and emotions, the state of our ordinary awareness, our beliefs and sentiment, and such a reexamination may lead to their reconsideration or transformation. This process of witness consciousness would seem to be, from my perspective, an integral part of the holistic orientation; critical in the transformation of consciousness connected to transpersonal experience.

One of the main things that I was looking for, in the interviews, was some evidence that people had found themselves having such an experience, and secondly were using video intentionally as a tool to facilitate some form of witness consciousness. For example we might consider the following statements from different interviewees:

It’s amazing that the reason - the thing that fascinated me the most about video in the very beginning - was this feedback situation. The process of seeing yourself and observing yourself (Dorothy Fadiman/ Video Artist, Producer, 1984).

What happens in a ‘real time’ feedback situation, such as you get with computer technology and with video, is that the medium really becomes a mirror to yourself. You can look inward by your interaction with the tools that you use (David Em/Computer Graphics Artist, Painter, l984).

Normally we see ourselves in the way people respond to us. But when one can see oneself through another medium, then you can achieve, I think, understanding of oneself and be challenged to grow in a way that would otherwise be impossible to us...It’s an extension of ourselves and the ability to see ourselves as others see us, certainly in a way in which we’ve never been able to see ourselves before, according to the brother of Marshall McLuhan (Maurice McLuhan/Media Arts Teacher, 1984).

Having the video there was having the observing ego {sic}, so that it really allowed the process to deepen. It wasn’t just having another person there. The video seemed to be a reflection of me. It was like having my other self there, the part of me that’s going to be there and watching, so that I can go as deep as I want to go and know that I can come back and still have that relationship with that other part of me (Nancy Zenoff/Dance Movement Therapist).


Altered Sense of Time and Space

The transformation of consciousness touches more than simply the way that we view ourselves and the environment about us. It also affects our orientation to that of time and space. An altered sense of time and space occurs when consciousness is freed from the limitations imposed by the normal sense of time (Goldstein, 1976; Bentov, 1977). In this normal sense of time, memories are called the past, and planning and imagining are called the future. As a consequence, all there is, is in the present, because the past and the future are happening now (Ram Das, 1971; Sartre 1968, Merton 1968).

There are varying degrees to which one’s perception of time and space might be altered. I am working on the premise that our constructions of self and environment, our image of reality, tends to be tied into a fairly rigid and linear sense of time and space which is, nonetheless, in a localized sense bound by our experience (Sartre 1968; Casteneda, 1971; Ornstein 1977). Time and space, I am speculating, are taken for granted, as being the basic foundation of our sense of what is materially real and of that world within which we have defined ourselves as a part. As the sense of time and space are manipulated, and in the case of video sometimes deliberately shattered, I propose that the constructions of self and environment are destabilized; a state which I believe is conducive to the construction of alternative perceptions of that which is real, and the development of transpersonal experience.

From a therapeutic point of view, by manipulating the perception of time and space, one might facilitate the growth process by helping to transform the perception of self by momentarily dislocating it, and perhaps facilitating witness consciousness. Various interviewees made reference to the effect of video on perception.

I think both the person behind the camera and the person in front of the camera have an awareness that there is something that is being created in the interaction within the moment that is transcendental that is beyond space, beyond time, because that is what capturing images and words for future transmission is about. It expands the moment and makes it much more than this moment. In that sense it in and of itself is a transpersonal communication (David Smith/Video and Film Producer, 1984).

A somewhat different perspective on the influence of the possible alteration of the senses of time and space was presented by an interviewee, who observed that:

When we talk about a person staying in touch with what they are experiencing about themselves visually, it is exactly now. As soon as I respond to what I am seeing now, then I am now responding to my response to what I am seeing, and it keeps me moving in time (Kit Galloway/Video Artist, 1984).

We can imagine that certain of our actions may have consequences that we will confront in the future. The main difference here seems to be that the video session does make the perception of the connectedness of some future event (viewing the playback) and the present more compelling. This may be because the consequences are going to have a more directly personal relevance for us, and also because it captures in a very graphic fashion some iconic slice of time which can be assessed later on, and that this perception feeds back into the present and alters the subject’s perception of the current event.


Transpersonal Aspects of Video

Throughout his writing, Marshall McLuhan described the electronic media as extensions of the human central nervous system, simulating consciousness and creating new environments. Electricity itself, he asserted (1964) is information that illuminates all it touches, and the new electronic environments affect our senses and create new perceptions beyond our immediate space (McLuhan & Fiore, 1968). In this electronic age, we are able to translate ourselves into forms of expressions- - the electronic- - and video in particular- - are capable of altering our sense of time and space and of transforming and elevating our consciousness both of ourselves and of the universe at large (Schramm, 1972;Toffler, 1980; Schwartz, 1981).

This transformation occurs on a physiological, and a philosophical/spiritual level, stimulated by certain unique physical aspects of video presentation. The video screen emits alpha waves, which occur at a rate of 8 to 13 per second, considerably slower than the 15-per second rate of ordinary Beta-wave consciousness (Roberts, 1980). This, perhaps, helps to explain why the brain wave pattern is slowed down when one watches a video screen. Such a lower frequency is correlated with deep meditational states, which suggests that video itself and in uses described here, may have some contribution to make in preparing one to be receptive to altered states of consciousness.

Video has been used in viewing and documenting different types of meditation states, during meditation, showing theta and delta brain-wave patterns with the EEG (Wilber, 2000).

It has also been more recently shown, using MRI scans during Zen meditation, in particular, in certain parts of the brain, brain activity is decreased. The resulting state of mind could have resemblances to time and space limits disappearing, resulting in greater feelings of love and unity (Ritskes, Ritskes-Hoitinga, Stodkilde-Jorgensen, Baerentsen, Hartman, 2003). These meditational states are cross cultural and have universal applications (Wilber, 2000), according to Buddhist, Hindu and Christian sources.

With its unique ability to provide instant feedback, video is preeminently a medium of the present moment (Flusser, 1977; Davis, 1977; Graham, 1979). Nevertheless, even with a slowed-down brain and an intense focus on the present, not every viewer will proceed directly to a transpersonal experience. If we make use of video in order to stimulate transpersonal experiences, we have entered the world of artistic and /or therapeutic intention. Video can be another form of biofeedback. It promotes a form of witness consciousness, by which the individuals can view aspects of themselves from some exteriorized point of view, by providing immediate confirmation of particular deliberate techniques of body control (Green & Green, 1977) and that are also akin to various meditative self control techniques. These techniques can be looked at as a form of psychotherapy; involving cognitive, behavioral and multimodal changes (Kwee, 1990). In the case of video equipment, witness consciousness derives from a number of factors. To begin with, the camera does not see what the eye sees. As a two-dimensional medium operating in a three-dimensional universe, what it sees is less real than the real world (Summerfield, 1983). But this is precisely what contributes to the sense of detachment, which allows the client to see himself or herself "objectively".

According to my and others experiences as videographers, witness consciousness can be enhanced by altering the image or distorting colors electronically. The two-dimensionality of the image and these other perceptual distortions place a greater burden on the viewer to be creative, in either filling in the gaps, or creating a new construction of a temporary reality to house these images in coherent patterns. A consequence of this exercise, in imagining alternatives to what is real, is a challenge to the traditional construction of what is real. This challenge to traditional perspectives can be accomplished in a sophisticated way- - for example, with video synthesizers- - or simply by using a black- and- white instead of a color camera. Another technique, to separate the client from his or her everyday orientation to reality, is to dress him or her in different costumes in order to shatter their habits of the ways in which they picture themselves. Witness consciousness can also be heightened by taping the person as he or she watches himself/herself on the video screen and then playing the tape back later (Sharp, l982). Within video psychotherapy, if the tape, or portions of it, are played over and over, the client’s attitudes, mannerisms, and neuroses can emerge, enabling the client to see the discrepancy between his or her self-image and the image projected to others (Berger, 1979;Graham, 1979).

Playing the image back without sound can also help the client to concentrate on the large amount of visual information obtained from observing the body, that may contradict what is said verbally. This has the effect of disenfranchising the verbal-rational modality and shifts the means of understanding oneself through visual and associated body senses. As idiosyncratic characteristics are observed, the client begins to get an accurate picture of his or her actions and relations with others, and can begin to learn to have more self-esteem and to be more objective. Progress can be mirrored and the client’s insights into behavior can provide motivation for change (Fleshman & Fryrear, 1981).

Other techniques that can be used to facilitate the witness perspective, include the use of mirrors in conjunction with one or more video cameras, so that the client can see himself or herself in ways that he or she normally does not (again making use of perceptual distortions to challenge traditional constructions of reality); focusing in on details, such as the eyes or mouth or hands or the breathing rhythm of the chest; and playing back the tape at a slow speed-- even one frame at a time- - to focus in on previously unattended details. There is also the possibility of the personal use of video, such as with a video journal. The use of a video journal lends an objective viewpoint, in the present moment, which can lead to an intentional restructuring of one’s image of oneself; which can result in repeated alterations of consciousness that could be of a transpersonal nature. This process may be effective in promoting a dynamic self-enhancement. One could use the journal feedback process as a tool for perceptual training.

In these ways, video feedback can make one a witness of oneself in a way that is analogous to the witness consciousness of transpersonal experience. Furthermore, the immediacy of live video feedback, which is unique to this medium, intensifies one’s focus on the present, and some have argued that the more one is in the present, the easier it is to have a transpersonal experience (Ram Dass, 1971; Vaughan, 1980). For these reasons, the therapeutic use of video has been linked to an alchemical process: it "separates and then re-fuses the self back together with a new awareness of being" (Nash, 1983, p. 27).

The creative, artistic and transpersonal connections to certain intentional consciousness raising ways of using video, be they by video artists, videographers or therapists, as well as those normally using video, has been described in this empirical research study. Those using video feedback as recipients in a therapeutic process, as a self journal process, creatively or otherwise, are also subject to these same possibilities of transpersonal elevation. The following comments are illustrative of this:

Looking back on it, I would say that an altered state is produced, in which one has a transpersonal experience. I don’t have more to tell about that experience, but it fits part of my definition of feeling the universal connection ( Wendy Oser, Video Therapist, 1984).

I think of what we are doing with video as art, in a sense, if the person who is sitting in front of the camera can have simultaneously the experience of being the creator and the creation, both the artist and the work of art ( Wendy Oser & Tom Taussig, Video Therapists, 1984).

The purpose of truly transcendental art is to express something you are not yet, but that you can become... It calls us beyond ourselves, it takes us beyond ourselves, to a transpersonal land where Spirit is real, where God is alive, where Buddha smiles and the Tao sings, where our own original face shines with a glory that time forgot and space cannot recall. (Wilber, 2004,p. 219).


Limitations in the Use of Video in Psychotherapy

As for the limitations of video itself in a therapeutic context, there is, first of all, the caution that the therapists not use the medium to enhance their own personal power. Also, even if power is not at issue, there is always the possibility that videotape can be used to undermine rather than enhance the truth. Renne, Dowrick, and Wasek (1983), for example, point out that watching selected segments out of context, can distort reality in a negative way. They also note that there are serious ethical issues having to do with possible violations of privacy and confidentiality, such as who views the tapes and how they are stored. Furthermore, the video equipment itself should not be allowed to distract from the work of a therapeutic session. Berger (1978) perhaps summarized the argument best when he stated that video equipment must not intervene between therapist and client nor dictate therapeutic strategy.

On the other hand, I believe that Herzogenrath (1977) was unwittingly pointing out a therapeutic advantage, if still a technical limitation, of video when he asserted that the playback mode is not authentic since it presents a two-dimensional simulation of reality in artificial color, for it is precisely these features that assist the viewer/client to detach from the self-image and view it with some objectivity. This can be enhanced, as we have seen, by the use of such theatrical accoutrements as costumes.

© Donald Rothenberg (European School Network, Vienna Bilingual Schooling, Austria)


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9.2. Buddhist Psychology: A Transcultural Bridge to Innovation and Reproduction

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