Cassandra Vieten (IONS): Why We Need to Study Transformations of Consciousness

Via William Harryman
on Apr 18, 2010
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For those not embedded in the academia of consciousness studies, this last week was the annual Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference here in Tucson (held in Tucson every other year and in other international locations on the off-years). I attended as many sessions as I could, and I have been and will be posting summaries and commentaries on what I have learned at my blog, Integral Options Cafe.

However, one of the presentations I attended was less academic and, well, convoluted/esoteric, than the others (a lot of very esoteric philosophy, neuroscience, and consciousness research was presented, as usual). Cassandra Vieten of Institute of Noetic Sciences talked about what they have learned so far about how consciousness can be transformed, and why we need to keep studying this emerging field.

What follows is my understanding and commentary on her presentation.

* * * * *

From Plenary 7: Transformations of Consciousness

Cassandra Vieten details the transformative process of consciousness change and spiritual engagement.

Transformations in Consciousness through Spiritual Engagement. Cassandra Vieten, Marilyn Schlitz, Tina Amorok, Adam Cohen, John Astin (Institute Of Noetic Sciences, Petaluma, CA)

Spiritual and religious experiences and practices can result in transformations in consciousness – significant changes in people’s worldviews, motivations and priorities, perceptions of self and environment, cognitive/affective functioning, and behaviors. A series of studies including narrative analyses, focus groups, surveys, in-depth interviews, and longitudinal studies conducted by our research team has shed light on what aspects of spiritual experience and engagement predict health and well-being outcomes, as well as potential mechanisms of change. A model of the transformative process will be presented.

Vieten (who represents the Institute of Noetic Sciences) made a good argument for the study of transformations of consciousness, using a rather broad definition of consciousness: “The subjective internal reality and experience of the world, a perceptual view or worldview.”

Her working model for transformation begins with a catalyst, a novel experience that launches the person into seeking an explanation or model for an experience. The catalyst can be an experience of awe or some kind of spiritual state, but just as often it can be painful, traumatic, or frightening. Importantly, she detailed what can go wrong at each stage of the process, and at this stage the person can simply reject the experience or deny its validity or impact in a variety of ways.

If the catalyst is not rejected, the person is likely to have seen the experience as profound or dramatic. They are more likely to have an openness of mind, be open to direct experience, to have repeated the experience, and have their experience validated by another person (often an authority of some kind).

The catalyst then launches the person into seeking behavior, looking for an explanation or model that can explain their experience. The downside is that people can get stuck in seeking and end up hopping from model to model and never really settle into any form of consistent practice.

If the person finds a suitable model, they then enter into a practice. She defines most practices as possessing the following qualities:

intention – desire, focus
attention – training the mind
repetition – keep doing it
guidance – a teacher or guide
community – like-minded people doing the same practice
cosmology – a model that explains reality

She also suggests that there are two pathways of practice:

training – top down, learning new habits, new methods for living
insight/realization – bottom up, worldview or mind-space shift as a result of experience

Again, people tend to get stuck in practice as end in itself. Rather than transferring the practice into their daily lives (life as practice, which is the opposite of being stuck), they are the equivalent of Sunday Christians (those who go to church on Sunday, but do not carry over the lessons into their daily lives). Another version of this is those people who get stuck in personal growth as the meaning of life. The healthier side of this is the shift from me to we – becoming of service to the world as a part of one’s practice.

Finally, if all of these shifts are successful, the result is what she describes as living deeply. The problem in finding these people is that there is no adequate measure of this form of growth process. She would like to see the development of some diagnostic tools that can measure real depth of spiritual attainment (she and Jeff Martin, who was the next presenter, should talk).

In creating such a measure, she suggests the following qualities that might be included:

a more open stance toward experience
open/expanded sense of self
deeper sense of connectedness
shifts in temporal location
acting from attention/intention
values shift – worldcentric, cosmocentric
properties shift – context not content

Some mechanisms that might explain this shift include the following:

emotional regulation
meta-cognition shifts
subject/object shift
nondual experience
expanded compassion

Finally, she suggested that supporting transformational change in people is more about helping them live more deeply than it is about the change itself.

My questions:
1) What impact does the spiritual line of development have on other developmental lines? Is there any interdependency between developmental lines in spiritual development?

2) How does someone stabilize the “state experience” (which is temporary) into a “stage attainment” (which is more lasting)? For example, do we need higher cognitive development, or intrapersonal/emotional development, or interpersonal development, or some combination of these or others to stabilize the experience?

3) How does one cope with the disruption to life that a transformative experience might bring? (As a side-note and self-promotional plug, I address this idea in my eBook on coping with change.)

This was one the many excellent presentations I was lucky to attend. For those who are William James fans, this year was the centennial celebration of his death, which was acknowledged in a plenary session on the opening day of the conference.


About William Harryman

I am a writer/editor, fitness trainer, integral coach, and a graduate counseling psychology student. I blog at Integral Options Cafe and The Masculine Heart. I am an occasional contributor to Elephant Journal.


11 Responses to “Cassandra Vieten (IONS): Why We Need to Study Transformations of Consciousness”

  1. Brilliant and fascinating. How appropriate that your article appears on the very day I'm kicking off "Gita Talk", an online book discussion about the Bhagavad Gita. If Vieten is about the latest research into transformation of consciousness, the Gita is the first.

    The mind-blowing thing is that they are absolutely consistent in their conclusions and recommendations. As I read through your article I kept saying to myself "check, check, check–that's exactly what the ancient Yoga Sages said, even to the extent of recognizing that there are many different paths to higher consciousness.

    Bob Weisenberg

  2. Greg says:

    Nice synopsis. The conference in Tucson has been a semi-fertile ground of speculation for many years.

    While the focus has been on the biological model (a la Hammeroff, the fellow who launched the conference) there have been attendees, few in number, that take the view of consciousness being a transcendent property.

    It seems, however, that in the end the neuroscience focus has prevented significant forward progress. While one can verify consciousness is not exclusively tied to biology, the majority of attendees at the conference are so wedded to the a priori assumption that c/s must be an epiphenomenon of neurochemicals that basic research to answer the primary question — biological epiphenomenon or transcendent state ? —is avoided.

    The idea that one can transform consciousness begs the question — what is one is transforming? The nature of the transformation possible then speaks to the nature of the underlying phenomenon. Thus, the work cited in the post above backs very nicely into the primary question the conference was formed to address.

    Perhaps those who address transformation will eventually be forced to move away from the Tucson event and focus on the wonderful work done by the Mind & LIfe Institute in Boulder, which arose from conferences the Dalai Lama convened.

    Nice article, William.

  3. Hey Bob,

    Yeah, there is an amazing amount of similarity, especially in a meta-perspective like the one she presented. They are looking for commonalities, rather than differences, in order to understand HOW and WHY people transform – fascinating stuff.


  4. Hi Greg, Thanks for the kind remarks.

    I agree about the bias of the conference – I've been attending these for years.

    However, Marilyn Schlitz is now one of the conference organizers, as is Uriah Kriegel, who is a philosopher specializing in subjective experience. I think there is a shift underway, but YES, the big name at the conference this year was the neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio. Still, there are always some "fringe" perspectives. They even had a Tibetan Buddhist monk this year, Za Choje Rinpoche, from the Phoenix area.

    Two years ago, the last time the conference was in Tucson, Rupert Sheldrake was here – and looking around the room, I was pretty sure that a lot of the neuroscientists were struggling to suppress their scorn and/or laughter. So clearly the change will be slow in coming.

    As a side note, they actually had a philosopher (Galen Strawson) give a plenary talk on panpsychism ( – never thought I'd see that happen. He was quite good in his presentation, but he did not answer questions very well. Still, his talk inspired me to go back to my texts to better understand that aspect of philosophy.


  5. don says:

    Great post. I prefer to take the inner outer approach to the collective. But it's all good.

  6. Hi, BJ. Makes sense to me.

  7. BJ,

    That approach is outside my knowledge base, but it looks good to me – it has all the major elements the IONS folks have been looking at in a transformative system. I'll have to learn more.

    Thanks for sharing.


  8. Thanks Don – I like both approaches, depending on my mood. 🙂


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