version of:   May 9, 2004

Chapter 7: Methodology

Stepping into an experiment that can change your world is altogether different from considering the intellectual implications of such an experiment. It is like the difference between thinking about what it would be like to be wet and jumping into the water. Just as the natural science of objects can only be grounded in verifiable experimentation, an extension to a science of the subject can only be grounded in getting the subject wet, so to speak.

Experiment 1.1: A Single Object

Take a single object, preferably one that is at rest and that you can look at quietly for a while, without being disturbed. It can be anything, a cup, a chair, a tree or just a single leaf, whatever you feel comfortable with. Take a relaxed position, with the object in clear view. You can stand or sit down, or take any pose as your prefer.

First spend a few minutes watching at the object as you would do normally, when you would just gaze at something for a while, without any particular purpose, the way you would look at something while waiting for a bus, or sitting on a bench in a park. While doing so, notice the subject-object polarization that is continually operative in our daily life. Do not try to change anything, but like a good observer that does not introduce upon the scene studied, pay attention to the details of how the subject-object relation plays out, in the field of daily life.

Notice how you feel yourself to be at the center of your universe, as if you were contained in your bubble of consciousness that includes all that you are aware of. You play an active role in sizing things up, even if you do not use your muscles in any particularly active role; just watching something has an emotional overtone of reaching out, grasping the object of your attention. In contrast, the object just sits there, as the passive receptor of your attention.

After a few minutes, gently switch roles: instead of you looking at the object, let the object look at you. There is no need to force any other changes on the situation. The visual scene remains the same, only the emphasis is shifted, away from you playing the active subject role, and toward you playing a more passive object role. In a relaxed way, pay close attention to what it feels like being looked at by the object that is now playing more of a subject role.


There is no need to do this type of experiment for more than a few minutes, at least initially. And what is interesting about this experiment is that it works! When you read the description, it may seem simple and perhaps somewhat silly, dealing with objects the way children would do after reading a fairy tale. But as soon as you actually do the experiment, rather than consider doing it, chances are that you will be surprised. When you do it, there is actually something going on.

Something is changing, shifting. Some part of what you have been taking for granted, in everyday life, is put upside-down. You actually feel different, physically. It will not be hard to notice that your actual embodiment reflects the role you take on with respect to your experience: switch to the subject role and you'll find yourself a bit more tense; switch to the object role and you'll feel more relaxed, dropping a tension you probably hadn't been aware of before.

None of this is too surprising, once we think about it. Throughout the day our identifications are fluid and changing. We remember a pleasant situation and we feel happier; then the next moment something reminds us of a problematic situation and we feel our body tense up and our emotions being affected. And even a single word or gesture of praise or blame from someone near us immediately reflects itself in our feelings, the physical counterparts of which are easy to track with a bit of practice.

Since we are trained so well in identifying with a happy or sad self, a praised or blamed self, it is fairly easy to identify with a more receptive object-like self, letting the object become subject-like. What is remarkable about this experiment is not so much that it works, or that it works rather quickly, but the degree to which it can change our view of the world. With a little practice, it can easily change your outlook more than you could have imagined.


Different people experience different types of effects, when they first do this experiment. And the same person can have quite different experiences, doing this type of experiment with different objects, in different settings, at different times. Some people report feeling pleased to let themselves be seen by an object; others experience more a feeling of discomfort or unease.

It is important not to force anything here: if you're really not comfortable with the situation, it is probably better to drop the experiment, and come back to it later. What is important is to notice as many fine details of the situation as you can, and you will be better at doing that if you feel more relaxed.

Whatever your initial reactions may be, they are likely to change when you repeat this type of practice. It is good to do it a few times a day, for a number of days in a row, in different situations and with different objects, just to get a fair sampling of the different effects you can notice. It is also a good idea to keep a lab journal, so that you can later compare notes, and notice patterns and regularities that may not have been obvious during each individual session.

If you have the time, it is also interesting to take one particular object and to spend a longer time doing the subject-object reversal with that object. You can do it for a quarter of an hour, say, or whatever longer or shorter period you feel does not strain you. You can even spend a number of such sessions with that same object, on the same day or on different days. Each type of experimentation will give you different types of material to write down in your lab journal, and thus enrich your laboratory life.

Lab Journal

We are trying to follow the scientific example, where observations and experiments trigger a preliminary story, or proto-theory, which then gets tested in further observations and experiments. You may want to try to formulate some questions, suggestions, ideas, and comments in general, as part of your lab notes.

It may be a good idea to have separate entries for each session, no matter how short. One entry could be labeled "setup": there you record what you are planning to do, and perhaps a few words about your mood and feelings before starting the experiment, so that you can see better what relative changes occur during the experiment.

Another entry could be "results", where you try to limit yourself to a purely descriptive report of what you have noticed during the experiment. And a separate entry could be "comments". Anything that you think about, in reaction to the experiment, any connection with other thoughts or ideas or experiments could be written here, together with any tentative conclusions, new working hypotheses, and the like.

Later you can divide some of these sections into more detailed subsections. For setup you can make a distinction between a description of the environment and your own psychological state or concerns and the plan you have for what to do exactly in the experiment; you can devise names for each of those three, or more, subsections. In a similar way, you can refine the other two sections.


The one and only ingredient needed at this stage is patience. Rome was not built in one day, and neither did science take off in one day, nor in a few years for that matter. In order to participate actively as an amateur scientist studying the role of the subject, you will need a certain amount of training. Just as when you would like to play the violin, or learn to speak Italian, or ride a unicycle, you can't expect to get very far without real training.

This is not to say that you can't get a quick taste. In fact it is essential to have to fun early on, or otherwise you're likely to get discouraged. Speaking only a few words of Italian is already very helpful when you visit an Italian store or restaurant. Just wobbling ahead a few feet on a unicycle before you crash again will give you at least a sense that it can actually be done, balancing yourself on that unlikely type of vehicle. One problem with a violin is that it takes a long time before you can produce your first good note -- but what a sense of accomplishment when you finally do so!

The aim of the current book is mainly to provide a primer, to allow you to get started. The first few experiments offered here and in subsequent chapters will play the role of teasers, to get you into the game, and to experience for yourself some of the width and the breadth of the enormous landscape you're about to enter.

At the same time, a patient and diligent repetition of a seemingly simple experiment can get you very deep into a mature exploration. A master calligrapher may have spent weeks drawing and redrawing a single character, discovering depths of style and possibility that a beginning calligraphy student could not even have dreamed of.


At this point, when you read this for the first time, you may or may not have given the subject-object reversal a try yet. And whether or not you have put a toe in the water, you may wonder what other people have experienced, doing these experiments, and what they had to report. And then, after you have done this experiment several times, in different circumstances, when you have noticed some of the richess that are awaiting discovery, you may become even more eager to know how your own experience compares with that of others.

In order to provide some comparison material, I have made a web site available that contains brief reports from a number of amateur scientists that have done this and other experiments. None of these reports are meant to be representative with respect to any details of what is described; they only provide a sample of reactions, to give you an idea of the range of possible experiences. The real range is of course far larger than what I have been able to provide so far: the more people that try these experiments, from different angles and with different backgrounds, the richer the set of reactions will be.

This does not mean that there are no simple underlying patterns to be discerned. We know that the law of gravity for falling objects is very simple, yet there is an extraordinary diversity in the way pebbles and leaves and twigs and sand can fall, because of additional complexities of air friction and other factors. Since we don't yet know which factors are essential, the initially most important thing is to make an inventory of what presents itself.

Only Once

Toward the end of this book, at the end of chapter 24, I list the address of the web site containing the samples. I'm not giving it here, to avoid the temptation to click on it right away, if you're reading this on the web, or to rush to your computer, if you read this on paper.

As they say, you have only one chance to make a first impression on someone. And you yourself only once have a chance to get a first impression; from a person, a city, an activity. You will short-change yourself if you don't give yourself the chance to experience the subject-object reversal firsthand for yourself, before reading what other people report about.No matter how curious you may be, you can always do that later, to your heart's content.

What is more, I would encourage you to actually write down a few lines about your first experience, before turning to the samples web site. Better still, perform a few different experimental sessions, so that you get a firsthand sense of the spectrum of differences, before you start looking at others' reports.

Like photographs or videos from your childhood, your very first lab notes as an amateur scientist studying the role of the subject will be yours to treasure. Consider the next few minutes in your life, while you're starting to do these experiments, like a wild life sanctuary: don't disturb native life here.

Note: when I wrote this, in 2004, I only had some vague plans about making available the type of material I mentioned above. Meanwhile, in 2005, we have started the web site, where you will be able to find a growing amount of material along these lines. I came across the particular experiment I am describing here in the book `Time, Space, and Knowledge' by Tarthang Tulku [1977, Dharma Press]. This is one example of a large number of similar types of experiments that can be found in the Tibetan dzogchen tradition.

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