ITP has had a profound effect on both me and my research. In 2018, I collaborated with a team of researchers including Tanya Luhrmann at Stanford and Michael Lifshitz at McGill, engaging in nine months of immersive participant observation with ITP. We joined ITP conference calls, in-person evening seminars, and weekend workshops. We also conducted extended multi-hour “phenomenological” interviews with community leaders and longstanding participants to get a close look at what ITP practice feels like. Our exploration comprised a dozen Zoom seminars, six evening seminars, and four three-day weekend workshops and twenty-five hours interviewing folks. Our resulting paper “The Understudied Side of Contemplation: Words, Images, and Intentions in a Syncretic Spiritual Practice” made the argument that ITP practice expands the predominant focus of contemplative science beyond the ascetic modernist vision of Buddhism, which has been tailored for Western consumption.
Put simply, in the process of translating Buddhism into the Western mindfulness movement, brilliant individuals like Jon Kabat-Zinn omitted certain components of Buddhist practice such as visualizations, emotional releases, and saint-like figures—elements that were difficult to frame as scientific. While the emphasis on mindful attention to breath and tranquility proved impactful, it neglected the broader spectrum of Buddhist practice. In this context, our observations of ITP practitioners revealed that the use of affirmations as a cognitive intervention, facilitated by the extended induction of the Kata, differed markedly from quiet mindfulness. The story of Buddhist modernism allowed us to explain how the integral core of ITP, and especially the use of imagination through affirmations, could expand the scope of contemplative science. It was an argument that I felt good about.
Nonetheless, these academic debates failed to encapsulate the depth of my personal experience during our research.
In the months that followed our interviews, I found myself engaged in conversations with friends and colleagues, often returning to a seemingly eccentric topic: the eyes of ITP practitioners. I know this sounds a bit wonky, and certainly on the far experiential side of science. But after 25 hours of interviewing a group of people, you get a strong sense of who you are talking with. I had walked away with the distinct impression that experienced ITP practitioners perceive the world through a uniquely clear and powerful lens, inviting a serene and yet invigorating energy into the space around them. It was as if their gaze paints us all with a calm yet vibrant wash—and all this emerging from the eyes, a solid sphere with a twinkle at the core. It wasn’t something I had previously experienced, and not something I have encountered since. I imagined that what I observed externally was reflected internally, and it motivated me.
I thought that I would very much like to develop eyes that beheld the world in such a manner, or perhaps construct a self that radiated similar wellbeing and vitality. In response, I rekindled my nearly forgotten Neigong practice, integrating it with weight training and mindfulness. I built a micro ITP to practice with. I also set out to study how practice can remodel our emotional and cognitive frameworks. So, in a word, thanks for the inspiration.