Second Workshop: Initiative for Contemplative Phenomenology

© Prisca Bauer, MD, Ph.D.

Below is a short account of the 5-day workshop on contemplative phenomenology (May 13-17, 2019), organised by Mind & Life Europe’s Initiative for Contemplative Phenomenology (ICP).

Day 1: Getting to Know Each Other and the Epoché

What happens when forty-two people from different walks of life (including a documentary maker) spend a week together in an idyllic French farmhouse? It sounds like a reality TV show, but luckily it is not. What we all have in common is an interest in meditation and/or philosophy and we have put our lives on hold for a week to uncover the mystery of the “Epoché”. The Epoché is central to a philosophical school called phenomenology, which is the study of the lived, first-person experience. The theory of phenomenology is hotly debated among philosophers, but it becomes even more complicated when non-philosophers start to have an interest in this school.

Like me, many neuroscientists, psychologists and educators have an interest in phenomenology, not as a theory, but as a method to collect information that we otherwise cannot access. We’ve come here to investigate together how to understand and better use this method.

About a third of us have a background in philosophy, many in cognitive neuroscience, and some in other fields. We all study processes that are difficult to capture using conventional methods, such as brain scans. Some of us do research on meditation, others on the nature of thoughts and where they come from, the experience of daydreaming, hypnosis, what happens when we meet someone for the first time, how we learn new things… to name just a few. If we want to capture such processes, we need to develop new methods and tools, and phenomenology may be such a tool. Intuitively, there seems to be some overlap with contemplative practices, but where exactly this overlap happens is unclear.

But first we have to get to grips with the terminology and the theory.
This first day is dedicated to getting to know each other, and some first presentations on “the Epoché” by Jim Morley and Natalie Depraz. Epoché is tentatively described as “bracketing” or “suspending judgement”. Jim Morley makes a convincing case showing a bridge with “non-judgmental awareness” that is common to contemplative practices, and calls phenomenology a remaining contemplative practice in the West. Natalie Depraz traces its history back to ancient Greece. Aside from the theoretical debate, there is one big question: how does one “suspend judgement”?

Day 2: First Epoché Encounters

Since phenomenology has some contemplative roots, we start the day in silence with 3 hours of meditation. No talking is allowed until lunch. The sound of the birds contrasts with the animated debates and discussions of the day before. Even the territorial cuckoo sounds peaceful. The dust settles.

After lunch, it is time for the first experiment. We are going to explore what happens when we suspend judgement, using a phenomenological microscope, the micro-phenomenological interview. We hear a bell three times.

The first time, we are instructed to just listen to the sound. The second time, we are asked to make as many judgements about the sound as we can. The third time, we get the instruction to “suspend judgement”. Working in groups of four, we interview one person, trying to go in as much detail as possible of what happened when we suspended judgement on the sound. At first, it seems like such an impossible task. How can we really know what happened?

But the micro-phenomenological interview consists of very precise questions that help the interviewee go back to the experience and notice details that they hadn’t noticed before. Taking philosophy out of its dusty library corners, we sit outside in the field, surrounded by birdsong. In the course of the hour-long interview, we gradually uncover more and more details of this little event that probably lasted a couple of seconds. Comparing our discussions with other groups, we find that there are surprisingly overlapping descriptions. Words like “tension” and “dropping” seem to occur quite often, but it is hard to really find a clear description of what could be called an Epoché. The discussions continue over dinner, in the sun, supported by excellent homecooked food and local wine.

After dinner, Michel Bitbol shows the different understandings of Epoché in the Western Philosophy of the last century. Following the philosophical discussion, musical instruments come out for an impromptu jamming session on piano, guitar, viola and percussion. It is a welcome break from the intellectual activities.

Day 3: Collaborative Effort

After the quiet morning of meditation, we have another excellent lunch, lovingly prepared by Marie-Pierre from the retreat center. Then we continue the analysis of the interviews of the day before. How can we find a common structure? It is not easy to find a general pattern and experience of Epoché. Was the experiment too artificial? Is it too restrictive to talk about “suspending judgement” as the Epoché? How can we study it if we don’t even know what we are looking for? These questions get extensively debated, in small groups, and later with all participants together.

And it is here that it becomes clear how vital it is to put people with widely different backgrounds together. These are not questions that can be solved by philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists or phenomenologists alone.

We need all the different approaches, different ways of questioning, different theoretical frameworks. The most striking feature is the respectful and open atmosphere of the debate. Every point gets listened to attentively, and there is a real wish to understand each other, even if we all use different terminologies and have different ways of interpretation and thinking. Maybe the Epoché is helping us to suspend judgement on each other and each other’s fields as well?

We share another lovely dinner in the sun, in a relaxed atmosphere. Conversations become more personal, and collegiality shapes into friendships.

Jim Morley gives a pragmatic talk on the use of the Epoché. He explains the suspending of judgements as the gateway that allows us to see more clearly, a process called “reduction” by phenomenologists. Again, there seems to be quite some overlap with contemplative traditions, where the suspending of judgement is a way to see “things the way they are”.

We finish the evening with music. While playing, I notice more clearly than ever how much easier it is to just follow music intuitively. It’s the first time I’ve improvised, and when I am trying too hard, it doesn’t flow, but when I drop this effort, something natural emerges, almost like a trance. Completely being with what is happening—the sound, the rhythm—my fingers just following, creating their own melody. Afterwards, I can’t help but wonder, is this… maybe… an experience of the elusive and mysterious Epoché?

Day 4: Epoché Experience?

After the morning meditation, it is time for a second round of data collection on Epoché experiences. This time, we are asked to pick a moment that occurred during the morning, in which we felt a clear transition. Talking about meditative experiences is sensitive, and it is emphasized that we don’t have to share if we don’t want to.  We are asked to especially look for moments that manifest in a sudden sense of calmness and different awareness.

For me it is not hard to remember such a moment from that morning’s meditation: towards the end, after two hours of sitting separated by a walking meditation, I was in pain. My legs were painful, my hips were begging for a chair, my bum was numb, and I felt tension everywhere.

I want to move, change position, go outside, do something else. At that moment, I told myself to stop struggling. Everything changed. I found myself in a much more peaceful place, and remained there until the end of the meditation session.

When the bell rang to signal the end, I felt a sense of regret. So now I volunteer to be interviewed about this experience, even if I am not certain how many details I will be able to recall. Helped by the interviewer, a lot of details do come back, and to my amazement we can zoom in on ever smaller details. How did I tell myself to stop struggling? Where did those words come from? What did it feel like? And how did I actually stop? All this unfolds in front of my minds’ eye, in high definition. The event must have lasted at most a couple of seconds, and it takes a good hour of interviewing to get a refined description of it.

At the end of the interview I feel at the same time drained, surprised and disappointed. Drained because of the process of constantly going back to the event and trying to find words to accurately describe it. Surprised by the amount of details that can be remembered and disappointed because it feels like many more details are hiding under the surface of the experience and will never be uncovered. I’m clearly getting into the game of this whole micro-phenomenology and Epoché thingy. After lunch, we try to summarize the interviews and describe our experiences to the whole group. Again, it is fascinating to hear how many features my experience had in common with the experiences of others, even if the contexts were all different. Some clear patterns are starting to emerge.

Following the last after-dinner talk, there’s more music, trying out different styles and different ways of playing. It’s a shame that this is already the last evening, especially now that we’re getting attuned to each other. Our colleagues tolerate our noisiness, and joyfully join in with clapping and improvised percussion on tables, glasses and bottles. After all the talking, there seems to be a need for a different way of communicating with each other.

Day 5: Looking Back and Looking Forward

After the shorter morning meditation, it is time for some reflection. What have we learnt and what do we take with us? How do we continue from here?

There is an overwhelming sense of gratitude and satisfaction. Most of us feel like the week has flown by, and that what we did in the four days was only the groundwork.

Many express the wish for more, more time together, more collaborations, more investigation. Our host and kitchen angel, Marie-Pierre, gives a heartfelt goodbye speech, which reflects the atmosphere of the week. She mentions the warmth and companionship that she felt part of during the week, and we couldn’t have said it better ourselves. The goodbyes are avoided, and transformed into “see you soon” and “keep in touch”.

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